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Early Christian Diversity

October 8, 2015

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!”

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  1. Greg Hill permalink

    Larry, a question for further reading: would you today recommend Bauer or Dunn’s “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament” to a student, or is there a different text that you would suggest for up to date coverage of this topic.

    • The books pursue quite different lines of argument. Dunn’s book is probably better for students (more readable, and more broadly concerned simply to emphasize diversity).

  2. Professor Hurtado,

    That was a really interesting piece. Perhaps such diversity is a sign of vigour? Topically, Justin Welby has summoned all the 38 leaders of the national churches of the Anglican communion to a meeting in Canterbury next January, where he will propose that the communion be reorganised as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other. Perhaps such is more a continuation of early Christianity rather than a sign of its decline.
    I note that within my own Church (not Anglican though I was once Anglican) we have had priests from Ireland, Nigeria and Poland, all with varying approaches and styles and possibly with rather different views on certain matters. Perhaps if certain core values are shared there has to be room to accommodate local cultural variations?Certainly it is interesting and very pleasing to see the variety of cultural backgrounds and range of ethnic diversity in the congregation of my own local church (including a baptism in Polish which even we non-Poles were entranced by).
    There are areas of the world close to Europe which are, sadly, currently illustrating what may happen when religions fail to accommodate diversity? Perhaps Justin Welby will need to have the skills of James the Just?

  3. This post reminded me – by which I do not mean to suggest that your and his perspectives are the same in every respect – of an interesting claim that Gerd Theissen makes in relation to Gnosis/the Gnostics in Erleben und Verhalten der Ersten Christen (p. 569, my rough translation): “Gnosis/Gnosticism corresponded to the historical situation of Christianity in the second century. However, their views were eliminated as heretical, namely on the basis of a consensus achieved without compulsion. For in these early times there were no institutions that could have established binding decisions, no Pope, no synods, and certainly no Emperor who was interested in the unity of Christianity. Gnosis/Gnosticism was eliminated because it contested two fundamental convictions of primitive Christianity—the unity of God and the reality of the incarnation. It assumed alongside the true God a bungling demiurge, who was responsible for this evil world, and it could not accept that the Redeemer had really become a human being. The transcendent deity could connect himself only superficially with corporeality and death. The Gnostics did not have to be repressed with such theses. They had no chance because they signaled to the other Christians that they were as foolish and limited as the God whom they worshipped. One cannot speak of the repression of writings when the groups who reject them are strongly devalued in these writings.”

  4. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr H.,
    It is obvious, at least to me, that the New Testament documents themselves reveal diversity within Christianity itself from the beginning of our record. Again, these documents display knowledge of other competing groups. These hostile groups however are not viewed by Paul, John or the other writers of the NT as variant forms of Christianity but as you acknowledge false teachers and false prophets.

    Your proposal for interactive diversity certainly seems to better reflect the historic record.


    • To speak historically, of course, those condemned by Paul, for example, may well have seen him as a false teacher!

      • Tim Reichmuth permalink

        Dr. H.,
        Yep, this seems evident from the NT documents as well.


  5. Brian Lopez permalink

    Thank you Larry, a very lucid reasoning. Jerry Seinfeld!

  6. Eldad Keynan permalink

    Thanks, James; early Christianity was indeed a diversity. When we read the rabbinical sayings regarding the minim (heretics in Hebrew) and compare them with what the church fathers wrote on heressies (from Irenaeus to St. Epiphanius at least), the conclusion is that are not refering to a monolitic group.

    • Griffin G permalink

      I’m seeing proto-Christian beliefs as early as167-100 BC. In the seven dying and resurrecting sons of God, in 2 Mac. 6-7. This would suggest a much longer development period for the main ideas of Christianity. And even more diversity in Christian origins.

      What is the current view of the contribution to Christianity , if any, of pre-Jesus apocrypha? This might complement and even help explain the diversity you might see c. 30 AD ff.. If many Jews were already prepared for diverse views, by the apocrypha.

      • There is no question that belief in a resurrection of the “righteous” was circulating in Jewish tradition from the 2nd century BCE (or perhaps earlier). That isn’t, however, “proto-Christian beliefs.” I’ve shown the remarkable “mutation” in Jewish tradition represented by earliest Christian convictions and devotional practices for over 35 years. See my book, God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd edition, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).

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