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Taming the Diversity of the New Testament

In my previous post I started to show why it is difficult to use the New Testament itself as evidence that Christianity started out as an original unity, only to come to be fragmented with the passage of time into the second and third Christian centuries.

It is true that the NT is the earliest set of Christian writings that we have, and that most of the books can probably be dated to the first Christian century.  We don’t have any other books (well, virtually any other books) this early (I don’t think the Gospel of Thomas can date to the first century; the one exception to the rule would probably be 1 Clement, which is usually dated to the mid 90s CE, and which is, indeed, a proto-orthodox writing).

The two problems I’ve isolated with using the NT to demonstrate early Christian unity are that:  1) The reason we have these books and no others from the time is that these are the books that later orthodox church fathers deemed scripture and worked to preserve (so that all other books – whatever they were, whomever they were written by, whatever they said) have been lost to history and 2) The formation of these 27 books into one book itself tamed the diversity found among the books.

I would like to elaborate that latter point before moving, in my next post, to an equally important, and closely related, issue.

Since the Reformation, but especially since the 19th century, scholars of the Bible have noted….


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Orthodoxy and Heresy in the New Testament Itself
Doesn’t the New Testament Show that Christianity Was Originally Unified?



  1. John4
    John4  July 8, 2015

    Those interested, Bart, can find a translation of Luther’s introductions to Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation here:


    Many thanks! 🙂

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    Judith  July 8, 2015

    Brilliantly clear to me, Dr. Ehrman. Thank you.

    Count on me to remain a blogger forever just to have access to such posts as this. They are a treasure trove of essential information for those of us who want to base our beliefs more realistically. There must be hundreds of thousands like me who are ready to learn what is beyond the traditional view of Christianity. How to reach them? Oprah loves the Bible and might be a source for informing the general population. Could we find out if there is someone here among your bloggers who knows her and would offer a subscription?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2015

      If someone reading this comment knows, tell us!

      • Avatar
        Judith  July 9, 2015

        Allowing this distinguished blog to be linked with all the hoopla that is Oprah proves your great humility, Dr. Ehrman.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 11, 2015

          Ah, I wish I *had* more humility… But thanks for the sentiment!

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    godspell  July 8, 2015

    These are not mere theological differences, the debate between faith and works–we should remember this was a debate impacted by the fact that openly professing your faith, and displaying it in public could lead to your death–and not just in the early days.

    Example: Lucien Bunel, the French Carmelite who became known as Pere Jacques de Jesus, sheltered Jewish boys in France during the Holocaust, attempting to pass them off as Catholics boarding at the school he ran. He was found out, and taken to a concentration camp, where he died shortly before the war ended–he refused to leave until the last French prisoner had been released.

    Before this happened, he had written “We are Carmelites only for this: to love, to love of course, but to do so giving proof of that love.”

    To him, it would seem the difference between faith and works was academic. Jesus would have felt the same way, I’d bet.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 8, 2015

      Nit-picking my own post, I reviewed the sources more carefully, and Pere Jacques died a week after being liberated from the Mathausen camp in Austria by U.S. Troops–of exhaustion, from having tirelessly worked to help other prisoners. It doesn’t change the point I was making, but you should try to get your facts straight whenever possible.

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    qaelith2112  July 8, 2015

    My experience has been that even pointing out differences will often not allow a person to see those differences. That’s when you’re misunderstanding one passage or the other, and the correct understanding will undoubtedly resolve that discrepancy. Though I suppose someone who had never been made aware of discrepancies and thus had not already absorbed and accepted the “reconciliation” might find it surprising.

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    jhague  July 8, 2015

    I know this isn’t your main point today but with the obvious contradictions between Paul and Jesus’ followers (not following Torah and faith only), there must be a reason for Paul, who claims to be a Jew, changing his beliefs so radically. I know he claims to have had a vision of the Christ, but I don’t believe that story. Have you ever heard of a different motivation for Paul’s change in his beliefs?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2015

      There’s a huge literature on this question. You might read Alan Segal’s book Paul the Convert, or more recently Bert Harrill’s book on Paul the Apostle.

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        Arlyn  July 10, 2015

        So much to read – so little time. I started a read today written by another Phd NT historian and ex evangelical/believer who wrote about academic freedom but one of the books listed above has special interest to me, thanks for pointing to them, one will be my next read.

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      godspell  July 9, 2015

      Are you saying you don’t believe Jesus actually manifested himself as a blinding light and an admonishing voice to Paul, or that Paul himself did not believe that?

      I think it’s pretty obvious Paul was attracted to aspects of Jesus’ teaching, and was trying to deny that, because it conflicted with his very strict interpretation of Judaism, which had been the core of his identity up to that time. This inner conflict finally manifested itself in what seemed to be an external revelation.

      There was probably a lot of this going around. We know a lot of people thought they had seen Jesus after his death. Probably many more instances than are mentioned in the gospels.

      There’s nothing hard to believe about people having visions, hearing voices. It happens all the time, for a wide variety of reasons, not all of which involve mental illness.

      You ever see Shaw’s St. Joan?

      Joan: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.

      Robert: They come from your imagination.

      Joan: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.

      There really is no answer to that.


      • Bart
        Bart  July 11, 2015

        I don’t think we know exactly what happened at Paul’s conversion, but I don’t think the Acts narrative about being blinded by the light is probably historical.

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          RGM-ills  July 13, 2015

          When you stare at the sun, you do become blinded. Saul attempted to see how long he could stare at the sun. Only crazy people that hear voices do that. Every thing that Paul wrote after this event is written as milk for the uninitiated.

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      Adam0685  July 10, 2015

      One book I found interesting myself is “Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World” by Terence Donaldson. He argues that “Paul as a believer in Jesus Christ did not abandon his Jewish frame of reference but reconfigured it, especially by the stimulus of his mission to the Gentiles.”

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    Wilusa  July 8, 2015

    Isn’t it true that the actual “earliest form of Christianity” was whatever Jesus’s still-loyal disciples were talking about, and telling others, in the first weeks after his death? We can’t, of course, know what that was – but given their backgrounds, it probably didn’t include elaborate, murky theology. (The word “Christ” is, of course, just a translation of “Messiah”; and expectations about the Messiah had never included the “salvation brought about by his death” idea.)

    If we look at it that way, *any* divergence from those earliest beliefs could be called “heretical,” whether or not it was the first form of the religion to appear in a given region.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2015

      YEs, but one question is whether all of them were saying the same sorts of things.

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    OperaGhost  July 8, 2015

    Great blog. You mentioned : “It is true that the NT is the earliest set of Christian writings that we have, and that most of the books can probably be dated to the first Christian century. ” I have two questions. I have read your blog posts on the dating of gospels, and I have also read some rather unconvincing apologetic material. While the Destruction of Temple argument put Mark later than 70 CE, the Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, Poly Carp, Muratorian Fragments can be used to suggest New Testament (mainly the four gospels really) can be dated as early as to like 70-170 CE as they are said to have “quoted” the Acts and the Gospels. Yet, we know earliest relatively complete and NT-comparable copies of the Gospels (i have Codex Vaticanus Graecus and Codex Sinaiticus in Alexandrian text-type in mind) are dated to like the 300-400 CE. Hundreds of years had passed since the alleged 70-170 CE composition period. So my first question is, how do we know the Gospels that are said to be quoted by material like the Didache and the books in Alexandrian text-type we see today were actually (mostly) alike? I have watched your debates on the Loss of NT Original . It seems to me your answer is we dont know really. The inevitable second question is, if we dont have the original, when we say the Mark of NT can be dated to first century, isn’t that misleading? how do we know, say, Codex Vaticanus Graecus and Codex Sinaiticus were not merely copies of some very much Roman-Catholic/Proto-Orthodox-modified copies of the original gospel? May I be so bold to claim ” the New Testament we have today, as in the aforementioned Codex, may well be modified by the orthodox to a state that the 27books are not too at odd with the Orthodox/Catholic doctrine and teaching” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2015

      The short answer is that history is always a matter of probabilities, not certainties. Quotations of Jesus’ words in early sources are *pretty* much like what we get in the NT Gospels; and our earliest Gospel fragments from the second century are *pretty* much like the later great codexes. So there appears to be *basic* continuity of textual transmission before our first complete copies appear.

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    SteveWalach  July 8, 2015

    “They don’t expect to find any differences. And so they don’t find any differences. Everything is made to reconcile with everything else. That’s why people still today do not see obvious discrepancies that are staring them in the face unless someone points them out to them. It happens all the time.” Amen.

    But even when discrepancies are pointed out, that’s when cognitive dissonance can kick in — we can’t believe what we see.

    But it’s not only discrepancies that have gone unnoticed. There are nuggets of wisdom and perhaps clues to a fulfilling existence that also go by the boards — and have so for millennia.

  9. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  July 8, 2015

    When I first read the Bible in 1981, I had a terrible time reconciling what everyone had been saying Genesis 2-3 said with the words in front of me. It’s a sad state of affairs for biblical literalists that, if you read Genesis 2-3 as literally as you can, you’ll hardly find anything they claim that it says. It never says Adam and Eve were created immortal and lost their immortality….never says they walked with God in the Garden, never says that Satan was in the Garden of Eden, never says he deceived them (he was right, after all), never says they sinned (unless you equate disobedience–by the two most naive people in human history–with sin), never says they were expelled as a direct result of eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It never says there was a Fall.

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    Matt7  July 9, 2015

    It seems that there are basically two different approaches to figuring out what’s true. Either you start with a conclusion and look for evidence to support it, or you start with the evidence and follow it wherever it leads. Everyone knows which approach works best, so why would anyone start with the conclusion that God wrote a book?

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    RonaldTaska  July 9, 2015

    Good series. Keep going!

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    Lance  July 11, 2015

    Am just finishing up “From Jesus to Christ” by Paula Fredriksen. Fascinating book that explores a lot of the diversity of early Christianity, later theological developments, and the de-apocalypticizing of Jesus’ message from his historical context.. Thank you so much, Professor Ehrman, for introducing me to her and many other great scholars.

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