Were Later Versions of Christianity Radically Different than Earlier Ones? Reflecting on Recent Scholarly Claims

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

March 30, 2023

I think it’s fair to say that the last decade has witnessed a bit of a resurgence of academic interest in early Christianity.

By “early Christianity,” I don’t mean the Christianity represented by the major figures in the fourth and fifth centuries when the church had risen to power—e.g., Athanasius, Constantine, Augustine. Rather, I am referring to the time period immediately after the apostles, mainly the second and third centuries, when Christianity was still in its infancy, struggling to find its way in a hostile Roman world.

Recent books covering this critical time period (and sometimes more periods) include Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (2011), Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (2016), my own Christianity at the Crossroads (2017), Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity (2018), and James Edwards, From Christ to Christianity (2021).

So, why all the interest? I think scholars are realizing afresh something that we have always known, namely that the validity of the later (and fuller) version of Christianity is dependent, at least somewhat, upon whether its core features can be traced back to the earlier stages of Christianity.

And if this cannot be done, if it can be shown that there is a radical gap between the two, then we might conclude that the Christianity that arose to dominance is not the “real” Christianity after all. Rather, it is just a man-made construction—born of politics or power or just random chance—that is out of sync with the earlier (and more authentic) version.

Then we might conclude that this earlier (more authentic) version of the faith has been suppressed and forgotten for all these generations. And then we might wish there were scholars brave enough to recover that lost version of the faith for us, restoring it to its proper place.

Well, if someone has such a wish, it can be realized in the latest volume, After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements (HarperOne, 2021). It is authored by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig—all writing on behalf of the Westar Institute (effectively the umbrella organization for the well-known Jesus Seminar).

A Bold Thesis

If the foreword by Sue Monk Kidd is any indication, the thesis of this volume certainly does not lack in boldness:

“You are about to read a book that possesses the potential to rewrite history, namely, the long-held ‘master-narrative’ of how Christianity came to be” (xi). And what is this “master narrative” the book intends to rewrite? It’s the belief that “‘Christianity’ acted as a unified, continuous early tradition in unbroken line representing a single truth” (3).

In other words, the book aims to show that there is a radical gap between the later version of Christianity and its earlier iterations. While the later version might look stable and unified, the early stage of Christianity was a diverse, vibrant “kaleidoscope” of different views—a mosaic of “many-shaped tiles”—that defy neat categorizations and traditional labels (3).

The authors put it bluntly, “In the first two centuries, what we think of as ‘Christianity’ did not exist” (4).

Walter Bauer Revisited

Of course, anyone familiar with 20th century scholarship on early Christianity will quickly recognize that this overall thesis is not new. Walter Bauer’s 1934 volume, Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, essentially made these same claims about radical diversity in the earliest centuries, and how “orthodoxy” was merely the result of the stabilization of the church in the 4th/5th century. Indeed, much of modern critical scholarship on early Christianity has been built on the Bauer paradigm (in some form or another).

Now, while Bauer’s thesis has been roundly (and some would say decisively) critiqued, he did get some things right. For one, it is fair to say that these earliest centuries of the Christian faith had a lot more theological-doctrinal diversity than we typically recognize.

And the same is true of the present volume. At a number of points, it rightly recognizes that these early centuries were quite different than the later centuries, and we need to understand those differences better. At other points, however, this volume seems committed to pushing a radical discontinuity between the early and later versions of Christianity—a radical discontinuity that I don’t think the evidence can sustain.

So, according to this new volume, in what ways were the earliest versions of Christianity radically different than later ones?  We cannot offer an exhaustive analysis in such a short review, but here are four prominent differences:

Gender Bending

A number of the chapters in the book focus upon family, identity, and gender. In particular, the authors highlight how women played a more prominent role in the ministry of the church in these earliest centuries. Special attention is played to the apocryphal Gospel of Mary where Mary is “granted special, superior authority” even over the apostles (104).

What of the books of the New Testament that might take a different view of women’s roles? Well, in the case of 1 Timothy (and also Ephesians and Colossians), these are regarded as letters not really penned by Paul anyway. Likewise, passages like 1 Cor 11:2-11 and 14:33-36—which also differ greatly from the Gospel of Mary—are regarded as later interpolations into the text. Instead, we are told to focus on passages like Gal 3:28 where we read there is “neither male nor female.”

Of course, the authors’ analysis of each of these texts could be, and has been, challenged (though there is not space to revisit those discussions here). Moreover, there are serious questions about whether the Gospel of Mary has the kind of historical credibility that should outweigh these other writings.

That said, if the authors were simply trying to show how early Christianity valued women, this sort of historical-textual gerrymandering is not even necessary. Texts like Romans 16 already show that women played a very important role in the earliest centuries, and various patristic evidence backs this up (as I have spoken about here). Rehabilitating the Gospel of Mary is not needed to make this point.

Inventing Orthodoxy

Not surprisingly, a core tenet of the book—and fitting with the influence of Bauer—is that the whole concept of heresy is a “creation of later centuries” (203) designed to prop up the church’s own power and squash dissenters. The authors state: “The strong negative sense of ‘heresy’ becomes evident only in the late second century” (201).  Before this time, there was no heresy or orthodoxy, rather there was just different “schools” of thought.

Again, there’s not space for a full-scale rebuttal of such claims (I have written about it extensively in The Heresy of Orthodoxy). But it should be noted that much of the book’s argumentation centers on the term “heresy” itself (hairesis), and how it wasn’t used in the New Testament negatively.

This approach, however, confuses word and concept. Sure, the word “heresy” might not have been used that way in the New Testament writings, but the concept is surely there. The New Testament authors attest to many types of false and unacceptable teachings: vain philosophies and myths (Col 2:8; 1 Tim 1:4, 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16); pagan mysticism (Col 2:18; Jude 8); various forms of asceticism (Col 2:18; 1 Tim 2:15, 4:1-5; Titus 1:15); over-realized eschatology (2 Tim 2:17-18; Matt 24:25/Mark 13:21/Luke 21:8); eschatological skepticism (1 Cor 15:12; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Peter 3:4); false Christologies (Matt 16:13-14; John 1:14; 1 John 2:22-23, 4:2-3; 2 John 7; 1 Tim 3:16); and general antinomianism (Titus 1:16, 2:14; James 2:14-26; 2 Pet 2:1-20; Jude 8-16; Rev 2:14-16; Matt 5:17-18); and of course the “Judaizers” (Gal 2:15-16, 3:19-24; 1 Tim 1:7; cf. Acts 15:1).

So, why don’t the authors regard such passages as evidence for real distinctions between heresy and orthodoxy in the earliest centuries?  Well, because many of these passages come from Paul. And Paul, in their minds, was not that significant. Indeed, chapter fifteen is devoted to explaining why Paul was not that important to the early Christian movement.

Of course, if Paul is not so important, then this undermines some of the authors’ earlier arguments.  For instance, if Paul is of no consequence, then why should we care so much about Galatians 3:28?

No New Testament

No volume in the spirit of Walter Bauer would be complete without making this final point. One of the major differences between the earliest phases of the church and the later phases of the church is that “no New Testament existed in the first two centuries” (304). Indeed, the authors call this realization “one of the biggest surprises of this whole volume” (303).

I am not exactly sure why this is a “surprise” since many scholars over the last century, including Bauer himself, have basically made the same claim. It is almost a mantra now to say that the earliest Christians did not have a Bible.

Now, there’s a certain sense in which the above claim can be regarded as true. If by the term “New Testament” one means a complete, final, closed collection of 27 books, then it is true that we don’t have that until about the fourth century (though I’ve argued we have complete lists even in the third century).

But, overlooked in such an analysis is that there was a “core” canon of New Testament books—approximately 22 out of the 27—functioning as Scripture by the middle of the second century. Even though the boundaries may have been a little fuzzy, surely we are overstating our case to say that “no New Testament existed.”

Conclusion

For those interested in the formation of the earliest Christian movement, After Jesus Before Christianity will be a fascinating read. It offers a number of provocative claims that will surely elicit reflection and curiosity in the reader. And it does make some helpful points that need to be made: e.g., early Christianity was more diverse than we typically think; women were valued in the early Christian movement.

However, time and again, the authors seem to push well beyond what the evidence can bear. For a volume that claims to be working “with an open mind” and “not assuming anything” (1), it seems to reach a remarkably predictable conclusion that just happens to fit with the pre-existing paradigm of Walter Bauer that has been in place for nearly 100 years.

The volume claimed that it had the potential to “rewrite history.” Well, in a sense it has done that. It has rewritten the history of early Christianity. The question, however, is whether that new version is more accurate history than the one we had before.

[Note: a version of this article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition]

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