In a previous post I pointed out that for over the past century modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity has been unusually focused on knowing the “objective” truths that can be “proved” about Christianity.  In recent times, some have argued evangelical Christianity has become far more focused on social and cultural issues than theological doctrines (when someone says that this is not the evangelical Christianity your grandfather knew, they are apparently talking about me….).  And I think that’s true.  But even so, apologetics is still BIG in that tradition, and it is almost always based on objective evaluation of the truth.

One could argue that this evangelical obsession with religious truth was matched by the commitment to truth in the earliest years of Christianity.  Historically, this is one of the features of Christianity that made it distinctive among the religions of antiquity.

Most people today don’t realize that ancient religions were almost never interested in “true beliefs.”  Pagan religions – by which I mean the polytheistic religions of the vast majority of people in the ancient world, who were neither Jewish nor Christian – did not have

Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!

Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week about the New Testament and early Christianity. It costs as little as $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!

Learn More!
creeds that had to be recited, beliefs that had to be affirmed, or Scriptures that had to be accepted as conveying divine truth.  Truth was of interest to philosophers, but not to practitioners of religion (unless they were also interested in philosophy).  As strange as this may seem to us today, ancient religions didn’t require you to believe one thing or another.  Religion was all about the proper practices: sacrifices to the gods, for example, and set prayers.  Moreover, because religion was not particularly concerned with what you believed about the gods, and because all of these religions allowed, and encouraged, the worship of many gods, there was very little sense that if one of the religions was right the others were wrong.   They could all be right!  There are many gods, and many ways to worship the gods, not a single path to the divine.

This view – the dominant view of antiquity — stands completely at odds with how most of us think about religion today, of course.  In our view, if the Free-will Baptists are right, the Roman Catholics are wrong; if the Jews are right the Buddhists are wrong; if the Muslims are right, the Christians are wrong; and so on.  But not in the ancient world.  The worship of Zeus was no more “right” than the worship of Athena, or of Apollo, or of your city gods, or of your family gods.

Another key difference between religions today and in antiquity is that these ancient polytheistic religions were not overly concerned about the afterlife.  They were concerned about the present life, how to survive in a hard and capricious world, and how to live well: how to make sure the rain came and the crops grew; how to survive illness or combat; how to get enough to eat and drink; how to lead productive and fruitful lives; how to make the boy or girl next door fall madly in love with you.

Among the many things that made Christianity different from the other religions of the Roman Empire, with the partial exception of Judaism, is that Christians insisted that it did matter what you believed, that believing the correct things could make you “right” and that believing the incorrect things made you “wrong,” and that if you were wrong, you would be punished eternally in the fires of hell.  Christianity, unlike the other religions, was exclusivistic.  It insisted that it held the Truth, and that every other religion was in Error.  Moreover, this truth involved claims about God (there is only one, for example, and he created the world), about Christ (he was both divine and human), about salvation (it comes only by faith in Christ), about eternal life (everyone will be blessed or tormented for eternity), and so on.[1]

And so, the Christian religion came to be firmly rooted in truth claims, which were eventually embedded in highly ritualized formulations, such as the Nicene Creed.  As a result, Christians from the very beginning needed to appeal to authorities for what they believed.  Do you believe that this view is true instead of that one?  What is your authority for saying so?  The ultimate authority was God, of course.  But the majority of Christians came to think that God did not speak the truth about what to believe directly to individuals.  If he did, there would be enormous problems, as one person could claim divine authority for what he taught and someone else could claim divine authority for the completely opposite teaching.  Thus most Christians did not stress personal revelation to living individuals.  Instead they insisted that God had revealed his truth in earlier times through Christ to his apostles.  The apostles at the beginning of the church were authorities that could be trusted.  But when the apostles died out, where was one to go for an authority?

One could claim – and many in fact did – that the leaders of the churches who were appointed by the apostles could pass along their teachings, so that the leader of your church is an authority equal with God himself.  God sent Jesus, who chose his apostles, who instructed their successors, who pass along the sacred teachings to you, the humble Christian.[2]   Several problems with this view arose, however.  For one thing, as churches multiplied, each of them could no longer claim to have as its leader someone who had known an apostle or even someone who knew someone who once knew an apostle.  An even bigger problem was the fact that different leaders of churches, not to mention different Christians in their congregation could claim they taught the apostolic truths.  But these “truths” stood at odds with what other leaders and teachers said were the teachings of the apostles.

How was one to get around these problems?  The obvious answer presented itself early on in the Christian movement.  One could know what the apostles taught because they left writings behind.  These authoritative authors produced authoritative teachings.  And so, the authoritative truth could be found in the apostolic writings.[3]


[1] I am outlining here just the “orthodox” views that ended up winning the early Christian battles over what to believe.  There were lots of Christians who held other views, as we will see later in the book.  For further reflections, see my book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Thus for example the late second century church father Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 3, 2-4; 4, 26; see also Tertullian, Prescription against Heresies.

[3] This is why there is such a close connection in Christian antiquity between the content of a writing and its claim to authorship, as we will see.  It was widely thought that if a writing promoted “false teachings” then it certainly could not have been produced by an established authority.  In other words, the decision about who authored a work (an apostle?) was often made on the basis of whether the teachings in the work were acceptable.  See the discussion of the Gospel of Peter on pp. xxx.