Early Christian Diversity
Everyone working in early Christianity knows that there was much diversity, and were sharp conflicts in some instances. A commenter on a previous posting emphasized this, implying that I was guilty of presupposing a “fixed” and uniform early Christianity (which I don’t). Some scholars have even taken to referring to “early Christianities” (which I consider just a bit precious myself). Today there are at least as many and as major divisions among those whom modern historians classify as “Christians,” but we don’t have references to “modern Christianities” (to my knowledge). And I also note that Roman/Ancient historians tend to refer confidently to “early/ancient Christianity,” fully aware that the term designates an impressive diversity of forms.
But let’s not get hung up over terms. “Christianity” or “Christianities,” whatever you prefer. Let’s talk substance (I frequently tire of fellow scholars spending a lot of time over terminology and neglecting the data.) Although some modern scholars have difficulty finding “Christians” or “Christianity” before perhaps the late second or third century (or even later), it’s interesting that ancient observers seem confident that there were contemporary Christians/Christianity to criticize, and Roman officials seem well able to lay their hands on Christians when they wished to do so (e.g., reports of Nero’s pogrom in 64 CE; Pliny’s letter to Trajan ca. 112 CE; Celsus’ critique of Christianity; etc.). And when you look at their descriptions and critiques, they seem to know Christianity fairly closely to what we see in familiar early Christian texts.
I repeat: There was considerable diversity in early Christianity. No question. Often today, scholars credit our awareness of this to the now-classic book by Walter Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (1934), English translation: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity Edited by Robert Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). But, actually, Bauer’s main thesis wasn’t that early Christianity was diverse, but instead that what was later “heresy” was in several geographical areas the earlier form of Christianity, and was then replaced by a form regarded as “orthodox”. But several subsequent studies have shown rather persuasively that Bauer was incorrect, in this claim. (E.g., Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988); Michel Desjardins, “Bauer and Beyond: On Recent Scholarly Discussions of Hairesis in the Early Christian Era,” The Second Century 8 (1991): 65-82.) So, pretty much what is left to credit him with now is the simple observation that early Christianity was diverse.
But it isn’t as though we didn’t know that before Bauer wrote. From our earliest Christian texts (e.g., Paul’s letters and other writings) we have candid references to diversity in the young Jesus-movement, even sharp conflicts and mutual condemnation. Maybe Eusebius could convince himself that everything was sweet agreement initially and that diversity and division only came later, but that’s not what the earliest sources actually show.
This early Christian diversity, however, was not a number of totally separate communities or forms (hence, my dissatisfaction with “early Christianities”). As I contend in a recent article, the diverse expressions of early Christianity seem to have been in vibrant contact with one another, sometimes conflicting, at other times seeming to agree to overlook differences, at other times seeking to persuade others of their own views/emphases: Larry W. Hurtado, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62. (The pre-publication version available here.)
Nevertheless, in that swirling diversity we also see from a very early point strong efforts to establish trans-local and trans-ethnic commonality. That’s an obvious major aim reflected in Paul’s Gentile Mission, reflected, for example, in his extended effort in the collection for Jerusalem. And note Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, that Jerusalem leaders and he proclaim a broadly shared message focused on Jesus. Of course, Paul also refers to “false brethren,” “false apostles,” etc., indicative of the real diversity and division as well. But the effort to try to form a broadly connected and cooperative trans-local religious movement didn’t start with Eusebius or Constantine. The impulse was there from very early (however it may have fared from time to time).
True, of the widely varying forms of early Christianity, some fell by the wayside. Some, such as Marcionite Christianity, seem to have been rather successful for a while. Others seem to have never been more than a “niche” form of Christian “spirituality” (e.g., some of the so-called “gnostic” forms). By and large, those that were “lost” subsequently seem to have been considerably less successful in commending themselves to adequate numbers of people, in comparison to what became the emergent “proto-orthodox” forms (NB: not uniform but itself varied). I recall again the quip of the American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld: “Sometimes, the road less taken is less taken for a reason!”