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Doesn’t the New Testament Show that Christianity Was Originally Unified?

In my discussions so far of orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity I have been talking about Walter Bauer and his classic work, which argued that as far back as we can trace the Christian movement in numerous regions of Christendom, we find forms of the Christian faith that were later deemed heretical.   “Heresy” is not necessarily, therefore, a later corruption of the orthodox truth.  In some places it was the “original” form of the religion.

Some readers have objected that it doesn’t make sense to start with the second century evidence in order to say what Christianity was originally like, since Christianity originated long before all that, in the first century.

I think that’s absolutely right.   And so the question is what the first century evidence – that is, the writings of the New Testament – can tell us.

Let me stress a point I have already made, that …

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Taming the Diversity of the New Testament
How Diverse Was Early Christianity?

20

Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  July 7, 2015

    Sort of like the way somebody putting together a collection of early American political writing for school children might include Jefferson, Adams (John and/or Samuel), Paine, Franklin, Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Patrick Henry–maybe some Edmund Burke, for the British side–and by putting them all in the same collection, creating the illusion they all agreed with each other, all patriots of the same stripe, all very much on the same page. Which was absolutely not the case. We know this for a fact. They had wildly different ideas about what America should become, and there were many others besides. And they had to work out any number of compromises, and nobody was ever completely happy with those compromises. But the illusion of unity, a shared purpose, was needed if the new country was to survive.

    The odds of Christianity surviving were a lot worse, I’d say.

  2. Avatar
    Scott  July 7, 2015

    I don’t remember where I read it first (Jesus Interrupted?) but this second point completely changed how I read the New Testament. I have even tried to come up with a way to introduce this idea to my Sunday School but I am afraid they are to heavily invested in the old way.

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  July 7, 2015

    For anyone interested Walter Bauer’s book “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity” can be found online here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rak/publics/new/BAUER00.htm.

  4. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  July 7, 2015

    This is a fascinating topic. I am wondering when we talk about a unified Christian church, where does the Jesus movement end and Christianity begin? Very early on there was already a controversy and a fracture between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles and you’ve written, Bart, if I understand correctly, the apostles understood the nature of Jesus differently from Paul, who understood it differently from later Christians. I wonder how much divergence there was in Jesus’ movement while he lived.

    I was once Mormon and have read a fair amount of Mormon history and from the beginning there were innovations and split-offs from the original movement, with claims and counterclaims about which group represents the “original.” Well, *none* of them do because they all change, but the largest, most powerful group gets the most attention and rewrites its history. It was an interesting experience to have been part of a relatively new group and see how the thing evolves.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2015

      I have no trouble calling anyone who believed that Jesus’ was a divine being whose death and resurrection made a person right with God a “Christian” — even if they came to think of this just two weeks after his death.

  5. Avatar
    Jim  July 7, 2015

    How many of the NT books, in the form that we have them, would you consider as being 2nd century works? (I suppose that some of the NT books may straddle the centuries, i.e. proto-Luke and Luke, Acts and longer Acts, etc).

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  July 8, 2015

    Oh, Lord Jesus, no, look at this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3147298/ISIS-sledgehammer-civilization-Islamist-group-capture-activists-trying-smuggle-ancient-statues-safety-force-destroy-lashing-baying-crowd.html .

    New Testament scholars probably do not just study manuscripts, they are somewhat indebted to archeologists, too!

    I hope you can provide some leadership here, Dr. Ehrman. Let us know the New Testament community outcry over this. What websites should we go to?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2015

      It’s awful. I’m not aware of any NT websited devoted to it. But our outrage will make zero difference to those doing such things.

  7. Avatar
    SteveWalach  July 8, 2015

    Combining all the books of the NT into one so as to render one grand — if, in places, contradictory — story was certainly a stroke of genius by the power behind the pulpits, essentially allowing Jesus to be all things to all people but still a figure who embraced/reflected all aspects of the orthodox belief system.

    Retaining the Latin Vulgate version as the sole text for the better part of 1500 years eliminated the common person from reading the NT in his own language. Then there was the threat of death for “heretics” who dared raise questions about the text or even merely translate the text into the vernacular.

    Once bible study began to edge its way out of seminaries/divinity schools in the late 1800’s (I believe) and into the university proper, scholarship became much less conditioned by an orthodox mindset and more likely to employ authentic literary/historical criticism to a book that had been entirely beyond reproach since the 2nd Century, when Irenaeus ranted against anyone and everyone whose reading of the NT or practice of Christianity did not embrace/reflect an orthodox point of view.

    Going forward the next step, as I imagine it, is the application of serious textual criticism to the text by departments of literature, comparative literature and/or history — and not necessarily within departments of religious studies.

    Have you ever invited literature professors to team-teach an NT course? Do you think this is a feasible experiment? You are quite clear that the NT — and the bible in general — is the most influential written work in the world today, even as large swathes of the globe become more secular.

    What if a grad seminar of English or comp lit. majors were to read and critique the gospels or Paul’s letters? Are there profs in those depts. at UNC who would/could take on the challenge? Does the heightened emotion/politics still swirling around the book(s) or old fashioned academic territorialism make the venture too unnerving/impossible?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2015

      Yes, “Bible as Literature” courses are and long have been popular in English and Literature departments across teh country, taught not by biblical scholars but by literary.

      • Avatar
        SteveWalach  July 8, 2015

        Yes, those courses exist, but the findings of literary scholars seldom seem to have much of an impact on scholarly biblical work or on popular notions/misconceptions about the bible — OT and NT. But a critical analysis of Paul’s letters/essays? Those are few and almost entirely within religious studies depts.

        As you noted, it takes a full semester before your students are convinced that the way the NT was organized “served to tame the diversity within its pages.” It seems to me that any one of the critical approaches generally applied by literary scholars to works of literature would have revealed decades ago as much to the public at large and certainly to students having fulfilled pre-requisites for university enrollment. But this is seldom the case.

        In most literary circles I’m aware of, OT and NT study is either pooh-poohed, dismissed altogether, occasionally ridiculed or, more often than not, handled like a hot potato — still too likely to evoke a severe dogmatic response from the religiously invested at which point all communication ceases.

        You and a few others in the religious studies field are respectfully and responsibly probing this set of highly influential books and their history — a very worthwhile endeavor. The public and the college bound are mostly unaware of the basics even though most works of English or American literature are loaded with biblical allusions. Bringing readers of those books up-to-speed then becomes every lit. teacher’s challenge.

  8. Avatar
    Kevin  July 8, 2015

    I get what you’re saying here about the bible/NT being seen as a false unity but isn’t this a modern problem with how these books are now printed and distributed? Wouldn’t the huge expense of collating these books when rhey were manuscripts mean that early Christians wouldn’t have a chance to have this illusion? Weren’t the big codexes of the 4th century like Vaticanus and Siniaticus hugely expensive and rare?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2015

      Ancient people (close readers, at least) did know about the differences between the Gospels. But htey explained them away. All one needed was access to the written texts, which most literate poeople would have had.

  9. Rick
    Rick  July 8, 2015

    Dr. Ehrmann, any thoughts on how or if Constantine’s 50 ” fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures,…..in a convenient, portable form” worked within your thesis?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2015

      Ah, it’s a much debated passage: hard to know if this is referring to Gospels or … something else. But it seems unlikely that it is referring to our set canon of Scripture, since there’s no evidence (for another 50 years) that anyone had our 27 books and no others as part of their canon (certainly not Eusebius himself)

  10. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 11, 2015

    There is a reliance on the fact that most people don’t know the history of the Bible and its creation, so they read it as a unified whole, and cannot know the differences in each books individual creation for a given purpose. Aren’t the letters of Paul a strong indication of the diversity of Christianity in the late first century? Was he not trying to remind the followers of their purpose and the “rules” they needed to follow?

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  July 12, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman:
    And so the New Testament by its very nature would not be and cannot be the best place to turn in order to see the early diversity of Christianity.

    Steefen (playwright, essayist, and YouTube PowerPoint Video Producer on the subject of the historical accuracy of the Bible):

    I’m sorry but it is beyond me why you do not put forth in this post the two Christianities in the New Testament: the Christianity of Jesus, the disciples, and the 70 (what, 35 sets of two) and the Christianity of Paul and the Gentiles. One could even say there was a third Christianity, the Christianity of the Hellenists.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      It’s because I think the situation was far more complicated than that. It was not simply Jewish Christianity (Peter) against Gentile Christianity (Paul). There were *far* more differences … and different groups.

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