How Diverse Was Early Christianity? Clearing Up a Few Misconceptions

According to these critics, in the second and third centuries there really was no such thing as “Christianity.”

In the end, not everyone who claims to be a follower of Christianity ought to be considered a follower of Christianity. If that basic principle were applied to our study of the second century in a balanced and fair way, I think much (though not all) of the rhetoric about radical diversity would have to be modified.

 

For some critical scholars, the most important fact about early Christianity was its radical theological diversity. Christians couldn’t agree on much of anything, we are told. All we have in the early centuries were a variety of Christian factions all claiming to be original and all claiming to be apostolic.

Sure, one particular group–the group we now know as “orthodox” Christianity–won those theological wars.  But why (the argument goes) should we think this group is any more valid than the groups that lost? What if another group (say the Gnostic Christians) had won?  If they had, then what we call “Christianity” would look radically different.

Thus, according to these critics, in the second and third centuries there really was no such thing as “Christianity.”  Rather there were “Christiantities” (plural), all of which were locked in a battle for theological supremacy.

This entire line of thinking, of course, goes back to Walter Bauer’s 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. But, its most ardent supporter today is Bart Ehrman.  Ehrman describes precisely this view of early Christianity:

The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all by the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others that insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365 (Lost Christianities, 2).

Ehrman then proceeds to provide a laundry list of many of the conflicting beliefs held by early Christians–a list that no doubt would (and was certainly designed to) overwhelm and shock the average reader.

So, what can be said in response to such claims?  Was early Christianity really as diverse as Ehrman claims?  Was there no credible standard by which Christians in the second century could tell the difference between true and false beliefs?

There is much to be said in answer to these questions. I have already addressed some of them in a prior blog post (here) and, of course, in my book The Heresy of Orthodoxy.

But, in this short post, I simply want to observe (and respond to) something noteworthy about Ehrman’s methodology. Notice that as he described groups that believed in 2 or 30 or 365 gods, that he refers to these groups as “Christians.”

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