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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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  1. Avatar
    Silver  October 14, 2018

    When such interesting work as Destro’s and Pesce’s thesis is published or encountered is it traditional for you and fellow experts to contact them and congratulate them on their insights?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      Yes indeed. I know them a bit and wrote Pesce congratulating him on the book.

  2. Avatar
    randal  October 14, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman: I have a question not related to this post but have been thinking about for a while. In the gospels, Jesus refers to the “kingdom of heaven” in places and the” kingdom of God” in places. I understand Jesus to believe in the coming kingdom of God here on earth and that the kingdom of heaven to be a later Christian development. Did christian scribes change “kingdom of God’ in Jesus’ words to ‘kingdom of heaven” so it would meet their theological thinking? Can you clarify for me?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 14, 2018

      Yes, the idea is that “heaven” is a reverent circumlocution for “God”

  3. Avatar
    chrispope  October 15, 2018

    Thank you for reposting this.

    It emphasises (to me at least) the questions about the claims made by differing fundamentalist sects that they are the only ones who preach ‘the original Christianity’. Extending that back to the Protestant -v- RC Church, and further to the Orthodox -v- RC Church in the Great Schism (1,000 years ago) indicates the historical differences.

    I had occasion to read (parts of) an English translation of the Cypriot Orthodox Bible. What was fascinating was the lengthy ‘explanation’ of the Great Schism and thus why RCC was wrong and CGO was right.

    Posts/research like this, and especially looking at the context in which stuff/beliefs were written is illuminating (especially to me as an interested layman).

    My heritage is from the Welsh mining valleys. My grandfather, with some fellow believers, built a ‘Gospel Hall’ (locally known as ‘The Tin Tabernacle’) because he believed that the established chapels had ‘dangerously veered away from the truth of Christianity’s original message’. He was a hard man, a miner all his life, and in his younger days an inter-valley bare knuckle boxing champion. Intellectual discussion of the history of the bible was not his thing. He was not keen on the Welsh Male Voice Choirs because he felt that the Baptist and other sects had veered dangerously towards ‘The World’.

    Just goes to show, I suppose, that there never was an original Christian belief or message. It was what it was.

    I am glad to live in a time and a place where we can discuss these things, where academics like Bart can promulgate the results of historical research, and we can form our our own opinions based on informed research.

    I have respect for my grandfather, who was a product of his time, who read the Bible (with some difficulty – English was not his first language) and did his best. I can see how thoughts and beliefs percolated down throught the ages.

  4. Avatar
    J.J.  October 15, 2018

    Interesting thesis and study. Glad you mentioned it. Do they address the problem of geographical issues in the Gospels, say in Mark, where there are a number of geographical problems? Seems like that might work against such a thesis. (That’s not a formal criticism, since I haven’t read their work, just a question that came up in my mind.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      I don’t recall that they do — they were trying to accomplish something else in their study.

  5. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 23, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    This Italian study is a fascinating one – if only just for the visualization of the data on a regional map.

    Few hopefully quick questions:
    – You haven’t seen an English translation of this work (or the major sections of it), have you? I cannot seem to find one on the interwebs…
    – Given your recent tracing of Paul’s footsteps, have you seen any *good* (i.e., scholarly) visualizations / annotated maps of Paul’s timeline?
    – I know you’ve talked about this before (in pieces), but I cannot find it via search: If one were looking for the best scholarly stats on the very very early Christian populations (by milestone years over time in the early growth, by “denomination”/type and/or by geography), what would those be? The end-product amalgam I’m kinda envisioning is something like the best statistical representation of the (corrected/updated) Bauer hypothesis as Christian populations sprang up and grew…

    Many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      No, there’s no English translation. By “maps” do you mean actual maps, showing where he was when? No, I don’t know of anything like that, but it would be interesting. Maybe others do know? (Any such map would be based on scholarly opinion and judgment, of course, since we are not well informed about numerous aspects of Paul’s christology. And no, we also don’t have data for growth by type and geography. See my book Triumph for growth rates over time; for regional growth, the best study is dated but authoritative for its time, Adolph von Harnack’s Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. But it can be tough sledding at times.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  June 24, 2019

        Thanks a ton.

        Regarding growth rates, thanks for the reminder on Triumph – I had the rough ~3.5% CAGR in my head but couldn’t remember which of your works my memory sourced it from. Thank you.

        Re: von Harnack’s work, before I try to plow into it, aside from it’s overall datedness, do you mean it’s also dated wrt the “growth data”? I can take tough sledding as long as there’s a payoff…

        • Bart
          Bart  June 24, 2019

          Yes, it’s still worth reading. He doesn’t chart a rate of growth, but says what we know about the extent of Christianity region by region in differnt periods.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  June 24, 2019

            Awesome, thanks!

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