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Mapping the Diversity of Earliest Christianity

Here is a question I received recently.



One of my favourite pieces on the blog is your post from 13 July 2015 titled ‘Earliest Christian Diversity’ on the work of Destro and Pesce. I find it fascinating and thought-provoking whenever I re-read it. It’s like new information hidden in plain sight..  Did you ever do any follow-up research or expansion on this topic? (Sorry if you did and I missed it.)



I have to admit, I had forgotten all about this post, and had to look it up.  I agree!  It’s unusually interesting.  Not because of anything I say, but because of an intriguing theory proposed by others.  Really fascinating.  And no, I haven’t followed it up (having even forgotten about it.)  But it’s definitely worth posting again.  Here it is!


In keeping with the current topic of the diversity of early Christianity, I thought I could say something about a book that I just read that I found to be unusually interesting and enlightening.   It is by two Italian scholars, married to each other, who teach at the Università di Bologna, Adriana Destro, an anthropologist, and Mauro Pesce, a New Testament specialist whose teaching position is in the History of Christianity.

Their book is called Il racconto e la scrittura: Introduzione alla lettura dei vangeli.  It is about all the things I am currently interested in:  the life of Jesus as recounted by his earliest followers, the oral traditions of Jesus, and the Gospels as founded on these oral traditions.  In it they develop a theory that I had never thought of before.   I’m not sure all the evidence is completely compelling, but the overall view is very interesting and very much worth thinking about.   As an anthropologist Prof Destro looks at things in ways differently from most of us who are text-people; and she and Prof. Pesce together apply these thoughts to our early Christian writings.

The aspect of their book of particular relevance to this thread on the diversity of early Christianity has to do with the evidence found in our Gospels themselves that different followers of Jesus from the very beginning – the VERY beginning – may have had different perspectives on who he was, what he taught, what he meant, and why he was important.

What the two of them do is focus on…


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What Is the Apocrypha (of the Old Testament)?
What’s the Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man All About?



  1. Avatar
    godspell  October 12, 2018

    However, none of these people could claim the same status as those who actually had traveled with Jesus, given up everything to follow him (though I guess you could argue that aspect of his teaching was emphasized to give more status to the disciples).

    Their influence would have only been strong locally. Much like the people in Cranbury NJ who are experts on Washington’s encampment there are not going to wield much influence outside Middlesex County. (Whereas, of course, my home county of Monmouth had one of the most influential battles of the Revolutionary War, as all the world knows. And the Molly Pitcher Well as well!)

    But the underlying point–that people in different places would have different stories–obviously true. There would still be a weeding out process over the decades. Paul’s story that hundreds of people saw Jesus risen didn’t make the cut, appears only in one of his letters. The story of Mary Magdalene and other women learning of the resurrection caught on. (Possibly because it was widely known to be true, even if the details varied from telling to telling.)

    I would personally think Jesus would travel as widely as he could, for the simple reason that he believed the Kingdom was near, and he wanted to reach as many as possible, cast as large a net as he could. Not because he believed anyone who didn’t hear him personally would be lost, but because it was his duty to God, and his fellow humans, to do everything he could to spread the good news.

    Did people make up stories about Jesus having visited their locale, after they became devoted to his memory? Or did they become devoted to his memory because he visited their locale?

    “And did those feet in ancient time–”


    It will eventually become known that Jesus visited Monmouth County. But not perfidious Middlesex.


  2. Avatar
    ddecker54  October 12, 2018

    Most interesting and, in my view, entirely plausible. In those times communication was very much limited to and among people in very close proximity to one another. I can certainly understand how stories among people on one side of the Sea of Galilee would differ from those of the people on the other side. I’ll have to find an English translation of Destro and Pesce. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      I’m’ not sure it ever *was* translated — but I don’t know for a fact either way.

      • Rick
        Rick  October 15, 2018

        I recall being disappointed I could not find a translation to the extent of (very briefly) wondering if over 50 year old high school Latin might get me through it…. A very bad idea quickly given up!

        I still would love to see the maps!

  3. Avatar
    Hormiga  October 12, 2018

    >as different followers of Jesus in different places had different understandings of what he said, what he did, and what he meant

    Isn’t that quite similar to what we see in Paul’s letters? Paul went on travels establishing groups of Christians in various places and those groups promptly developed divergent understandings and practices.

    Which, of course, distressed Paul and prompted him to write admonitory epistles. I suspect that if, somehow, Jesus had survived he too would have attempted to straighten out the various groups of followers. Of course, his version of “Christianity” would have been utterly unlike Paul’s.

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  October 12, 2018

      >Of course, his version of “Christianity” would have been utterly unlike Paul’s.

      This might be an interesting exercise in alt-History. Suppose that Pilate, instead of sending Jesus to the cross, had been content with having him scourged, beaten and kicked out of Jerusalem. What then would Jesus have done, what messages — if any — would he have preached? Perhaps the answer is “Who knows?”, but a bit of speculation couldn’t hurt.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      Yup, very similar

  4. Avatar
    Nichrob  October 12, 2018

    How did all these groups get established so quickly? How could there be groups all over the Roman Empire so quickly (Paul’s efforts and letters). How could there be “Christians” in Rome in 65 to start a fire? My hypothesis is simple. John the Baptist’s movement was developed over a longer period of time; years if not decades. When Paul discusses the 500 Apostles that witnessed Christ’s resurrection, I argue this group was first John the Baptist’s followers. There were people / groups / communities / in Palestine and in the (Diaspora) Roman Empire that “knew of” and were “part of” the Baptist movement. Destro and Pesce did something simple. They attacked the Gospels geographically. But I believe we should add a variable: a timeline. My conclusion is: there is no way a “Big Bang” explanation works. Nothing grows that quickly out of thin air. So the simple alternative answer is: the groups already existed. The foundation already existed. First the “Baptist movement”. Then the “follow up” message”. (The kingdom message was very similar to the apocalyptic message….) After Christ, the new members: Paul, Peter and James, contacted the “same” or “established” groups throughout Palestine and the Diaspora that already existed. If this were a mathematical equation (analyzing the timeline) it would be 1) here is the equation 2) then a Big Bang miracle happened?? 3 ) Paul writes a letter to a Christian church in Rome)

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 12, 2018

    Very interesting indeed! Thanks for sharing this one again. I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities,” one of my favorites of his books.

  6. Avatar
    tlafleur  October 12, 2018

    This is a fascinating interpretation which may indeed hold a lot of truth. It would definitely explain why the four gospels are different from each other in various ways.

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    fishician  October 12, 2018

    I’ve always imagined someone like Paul preaching his view of salvation by faith, and someone in the crowd standing up and saying, “Hey! Jesus came to my town and said we would be in the Kingdom if we followed the spirit of the Law, not just its letter. What’s this nonsense about faith?!” Question: in the earliest days what was required to be a “Christian?” Belief that Jesus was the literal son of God? That he was bodily resurrected? That you were baptized in his name? Or is this question too big and vague?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      My guess is that it completely depended on which “Christian” at the time you would have asked.

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  October 14, 2018

        Just like today – 2018!

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  October 12, 2018

    I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprise to hear, Dr. Ehrman, that I draw a different conclusion from this data. Namely, the conclusion I would draw is that these stories could have come from later Christians who, yes, came originally from these disparate regions (Galilee, Samaria, Phoenicia, etc.) but they did not necessary ever hear or see Jesus themselves. Indeed, I would be surprised if they even knew what Jesus looked like.

    I would speculate that these 2nd generation Christians set their stories about Jesus within their home territories because they wanted to make it *appear* that they were original followers of Jesus. That it made their apostleship somehow more legitimate because, “Hey, I have a Jesus story, too!” For instance, the story of Jesus and the girl at the well from John may have come from someone who came from Samaria, and who claimed to have heard of a girl who spoke to Jesus at a well.

    This is how rumors and legends often begin. Someone says they heard from someone who heard from someone…and so on. For example, the story about the two Christians who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion may have come from somebody who heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody in or around Emmaus.

  9. Robert
    Robert  October 12, 2018

    “And there is absolutely no reason to think that these various groups would have thought the same things about Jesus, remembered the same things about him, recalled the same teachings from him, or interpreted these teachings in the same way.”

    Even within a single group of listeners to Jesus at the same time and place, one should expect various interpretations. Imagine how differently students of Beit Shammai might interpret Jesus’ teachings from students of Beit Hillel. Blessed are the cheese-makers? Matthew seems to be trying to accommodate different ideas of how to interpret Jesus’ approach to the Jewish Law.

  10. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 12, 2018

    Did they look at the theologies that came about in each of these unique areas? Are there any parables or stories that give clues to the differences in their view of Jesus that can be teased out or has later editing smoothed it out so that it can not be discerned now?

  11. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  October 12, 2018

    Off topic but considering the discussion of the significance of numbers in Revelation got me wondering if the number 3 has any significance in the emergence of the concept of the trinity in later Christian thought and decree.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      Theologians certainly made a lot of the number, but it’s not clear that the number for the godhead emerged *because* of teh significance of the number itself.

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    AlbertHodges  October 12, 2018

    This, in my limited view, is EXACTLY what happened. What tied them all together was the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Each group developed that belief within their own experiences of Him and this development was largely influenced by their own cultural/sect within Judaism upbringings and lifestyle. It is what those collected around the James group (Essenes/Zadokites, Enochian?) were very different than those that developed within the Pauline group…which was Herodian/Pharisaical. Or so it seems to me.

    For me, what the final question becomes, did Jesus give HIS OWN AUTHORITY to the Peter and the 12 and those they appointed when their very-close-at-hand Second Coming didn’t materialize that was to determine such matters and did He give them the Holy Spirit the He promised to lead them to Truth? As a Catholic, I think that the answer is yes and explains the emergency of the proto-orthodox Church at the end of the first century and during the second and third centuries.

    It also explains WHY those communities of Christians (Protestants) who elevate the Bible above all things and do not recognize apostolic succession are always going to end up with analysis that fails in the end. The more fundamentalist someone is, the more likely that the smart ones will abandon their faith. There is NO reconciliation between SCRIPTURE ALONE and Christianity 2000 years ago not today in ANY church.

    In my opinion.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 14, 2018

      It explains why fundamentalist religion–which is a recent development–has taken the form of a rebellion against modernity. Because the texts refuse to change, and you can only stretch the interpretation of them so far.

      They were modern, radical, at the time of their writing, and there are things about them (I don’t only mean Judaeo-Christian texts) that are timeless, containing wisdom and insights that can never be surpassed. But they also contain outdated perceptions of the universe and ourselves.

      And for many, it’s hard to reconcile them with everything we’ve learned since. So the urge rises up to smash all the new understandings like false idols, to preserve that connection to the past, to God. It’s a delusion. We can never go back. And if we ever did, we’d probably end up pagans again. And not the civilized Roman kind.

  13. Avatar
    ajohns  October 12, 2018

    Interesting theory, but isn’t it more likely that the Gospel authors put Jesus in certain places to fit theological purposes rather than followers telling stories about him? I remember reading that after Jesus’s death, there were only a handful of followers in one location, rather than his followers being spread around in different areas, and as the oral traditions spread his followers grew and became more diverse, but it seems like this theory proposes that Jesus had followers from different locations spreading stories about him even before the Crucifixion? Sounds very plausible, but I also think it’s equally likely that people just put Jesus in different locations to fit their stories, it’s hard to know one way or the other.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      It’s hard to see what the thological significance of one of these places over the other might have been, although for over a century NT scholars have proposed theological significance in different writings for various places (GAlilee for Mark; Jerusalem for Luke; etc.)

      • Avatar
        Nexus  December 8, 2018

        I think you glossed over a good point ajohns made about a handful of followers. Let me say that for many years I did not believe Jesus existed because of mythicist arguments, and now from your blog I’m in the unsure camp. From your blog I’m trying to see a consistent model of first century Christianity (sorry! I haven’t read any of your books). I have two questions which I hope you would answer. .

        1) In your post How Christianity Grew and Grew, I believe you’ve said before that there were only about twenty followers who believed in the resurrection story. Now from this post we have all these people who heard Jesus speak. Do you think these are the people that Paul was prosecuting for three years before his conversion? For example, did the apostles quickly return to all the places of Jesus’ ministry and boom! they were now hundreds of followers?

        2) Assuming the slower growth in How Christianity Grew and Grew, if there are 7000-10000 Christians around the time Josephus wrote the Antiquities of Jews or about 1500 when he was captured, can you see a reason why he mentions the numbers of adult males in the sects of Jews (wikipedia: “4,000 Essenes and “a few” Sadducees”) but doesn’t mention the size of people in this related religion? I think he must’ve had a good estimate to the number of followers of Jesus. He was once the governor of Galilee and likely his army included or would’ve tried to recruit any followers of the book.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 9, 2018

          1. The “twenty” refers to people right off the bat, the first to believe, some days/weeks after JEsus’ death. They convinced others who convinced others. We don’t know who these “others” were, unfortunately; 2. Josephus is talking about the established groups within traditional Judaism, not what he would consider to be fringe groups that were not legitimate interpretations (in his view) of the Jewish faith.

  14. Avatar
    bmay  October 12, 2018

    This is fascinating. If the original followers of Jesus were Jewish Christians living in Palestine and we have virtually no record of what they really believed about Jesus, (because they were largely illiterate), what clues do we have for piecing that puzzle togeather? I know from your book, How Jesus Became God, the theology evolved over time. Do you think that the early Jewish Christians living in Palestine between, say 30AD and 70AD had a significantly different view of Jesus compared to Paul and if so what is your best guess about how it may have differed?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      Yes, in broad terms I would say so. Many Palestinian Jewish followers of Jesus appear to have thoguht that since Jesus was a messiah of the Jews he required his followers also to be Jewish. Paul was dead set against that view.

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  October 12, 2018

    What does this mean for the chronology of Jesus’ ministry? It would have taken time to establish diverse groups of followers who would have remained faithful after Jesus’ death. Doesn’t this imply that perhaps John’s longer timeline for Jesus’ career might be more historically accurate than the Synoptics?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      I”m not sure. THe idea is that the stories circulating in one area about jesus would be different from those in another, but I’m not sure what the deeper theological differences would have been.

  16. Avatar
    gwayersdds  October 13, 2018

    This is, to me, a very interesting idea of geographical gospels/Christianity. Is there an English translation of the Italian book? My Italian is a little rusty.

  17. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 13, 2018

    When looking at where Jesus traveled through out his ministry is it possible to determine the length of his ministry from his travels? What is your position on the length of his ministry, do favor a one year ministry or three year ministry or something else?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      It’s very difficult. In mark the ministry appears to last only a few months; in John it is over two years. My guess is that Mark is the earliest view.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 14, 2018

      After several years now of trying to piece this puzzle back together, I think I can confidently express that I think Jesus’s entire ministry lasted all of four months. And not only that, but I think I can even offer exact dates — December 21st, 29 CE to April 7th, 30 CE. Or about 105 days.

      Where do I get those dates? Well, the full explanation is quite long — too long to be given here — but I give a very detailed account in my Jesus novel, in which almost the entirety of John the Baptist’s mission is given in almost day-to-day micro-detail, right up until he is arrested and taken to Machaerus. And I officially start Jesus’s ministry from that point.

      In short, I start John the Baptist’s mission right after November 24, of the year 29, when a total solar eclipse passed right over the the Jordanian desert (it would have appeared around 93% total from Galilee and Judea). There was also a partial lunar eclipse just two weeks later on December 9. These two celestial events probably stirred up apocalyptic fever in Judea and Galilee.

      Herod would have wanted to arrest John as soon as John crossed the Jordan into Perea, which was part of Herod’s tetrarchy. John would probably have crossed the Jordan when he felt the time auspicious, and that would probably have been after the lunar eclipse, i.e. after December 9. Then Herod’s men sent to arrest John had to wait for the best time to arrest John, and that would probably have been when John had the fewest people around him. And that time would probably have been when many of the people with him would have gone to Jerusalem or home to celebrate Hanukkah, which started, in the year 29, on December 17. It was during that period of Hanukkah, when John was relatively isolated on the Perean side of the Jordan that he was arrested. Assuming Jesus was one of the people still with John when he was arrested, and assuming Jesus chose to head back to Galilee right after that, and assuming it would have taken Jesus 3 or 4 days to walk back to Galilee, Jesus’s ministry would have started right around December 21 of the year 29.

      The first day of Passover in the following year 30 CE was on April 7.

  18. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  October 13, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, can you tell me if the translation below is accurate :

    It definitely says they were afraid. “They went out quickly and fled [ephugon] from the tomb for they were tromos kai ekstatsis. Tromos means “trembling” and ekstasis means something knocked out of its normal state, displaced or cast down. More figuratively it means knocked outside of one’s normal state of mind, i.e. “amazed.” “gobsmacked.” It can also mean”trance.” Ekstasis is the word we get “ecstasy” and “ecstatic” from, although it did not have the same meaning of bliss that it has in English, it’s more like “not oneself.” “Knocked for a loop.”

    It says “they did not say anything to anybody” and ends with that. I don’t think that sentence or ending would make any sense at all if Mark really meant the reader to understand that they told people at all, much less that they ran straight to the disciples and told them.


    strange and frightening.

    can we say that the women had a frightening experience at the tomb and darted like crazy ?

  19. Avatar
    Silver  October 13, 2018

    In your blog posts you have said that some NT texts have been deliberately manipulated to promote or counter a particular theological position. Is there any evidence as to whether this was undertaken by ‘rogue’ copyists who took it upon themselves to alter the wording or whether there were grand conspiracies by people in high positions who ordered such actions?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      I tried to find evidence of orchestrated control from governing authorities, but couldn’t find it. I think it was a matter of individual copyists making changes here and there.

  20. Avatar
    Silver  October 14, 2018

    Do Destro and Pesce speculate as to why and how the different gospel authors had access to a specific store of memories of Jesus? If, as I understand, it is thought that the gospels were not written in Palestine how would the evangelists have encountered these stories peculiar to a region and its largely peasant population?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      Presumably stories from one region were circulated in different circles fromt hose in a different region.

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