Were Later Versions of Christianity Radically Different than Earlier Ones? Reflecting on Recent Scholarly Claims

Were Later Versions of Christianity Radically Different than Earlier Ones? Reflecting on Recent Scholarly Claims

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Friday, April 7, 2023

For those interested in the formation of the earliest Christian movement, After Jesus Before Christianity will be a fascinating read. It offers a number of provocative claims that will surely elicit reflection and curiosity in the reader. And it does make some helpful points that need to be made: e.g., early Christianity was more diverse than we typically think; women were valued in the early Christian movement. However, time and again, the authors seem to push well beyond what the evidence can bear. 

I think it’s fair to say that the last decade has witnessed a bit of a resurgence of academic interest in early Christianity.

By “early Christianity,” I don’t mean the Christianity represented by the major figures in the fourth and fifth centuries when the church had risen to power—e.g., Athanasius, Constantine, Augustine. Rather, I am referring to the time period immediately after the apostles, mainly the second and third centuries, when Christianity was still in its infancy, struggling to find its way in a hostile Roman world.

Recent books covering this critical time period (and sometimes more periods) include Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (2011), Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (2016), my own Christianity at the Crossroads (2017), Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity (2018), and James Edwards, From Christ to Christianity (2021).

So, why all the interest? I think scholars are realizing afresh something that we have always known, namely that the validity of the later (and fuller) version of Christianity is dependent, at least somewhat, upon whether its core features can be traced back to the earlier stages of Christianity.

And if this cannot be done, if it can be shown that there is a radical gap between the two, then we might conclude that the Christianity that arose to dominance is not the “real” Christianity after all. Rather, it is just a man-made construction—born of politics or power or just random chance—that is out of sync with the earlier (and more authentic) version.

Then we might conclude that this earlier (more authentic) version of the faith has been suppressed and forgotten for all these generations. And then we might wish there were scholars brave enough to recover that lost version of the faith for us, restoring it to its proper place.

Well, if someone has such a wish, it can be realized in the latest volume, After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements (HarperOne, 2021). It is authored by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig—all writing on behalf of the Westar Institute (effectively the umbrella organization for the well-known Jesus Seminar).

A Bold Thesis

If the foreword by Sue Monk Kidd is any indication, the thesis of this volume certainly does not lack in boldness: “You are about to read a book that possesses the potential to rewrite history, namely, the long-held ‘master-narrative’ of how Christianity came to be” (xi). And what is this “master narrative” the book intends to rewrite? It’s the belief that “‘Christianity’ acted as a unified, continuous early tradition in unbroken line representing a single truth” (3).

In other words, the book aims to show that there is a radical gap between the later version of Christianity and its earlier iterations. While the later version might look stable and unified, the early stage of Christianity was a diverse, vibrant “kaleidoscope” of different views—a mosaic of “many-shaped tiles”—that defy neat categorizations and traditional labels (3).

The authors put it bluntly, “In the first two centuries, what we think of as ‘Christianity’ did not exist” (4).

Walter Bauer Revisited

Of course, anyone familiar with 20th century scholarship on early Christianity will quickly recognize that this overall thesis is not new. Walter Bauer’s 1934 volume, Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, essentially made these same claims about radical diversity in the earliest centuries, and how “orthodoxy” was merely the result of the stabilization of the church in the 4th/5th century. Indeed, much of modern critical scholarship on early Christianity has been built on the Bauer paradigm (in some form or another).

Now, while Bauer’s thesis has been roundly (and some would say decisively) critiqued, he did get some things right. For one, it is fair to say that these earliest centuries of the Christian faith had a lot more theological-doctrinal diversity than we typically recognize.

And the same is true of the present volume. At a number of points, it rightly recognizes that these early centuries were quite different than the later centuries, and we need to understand those differences better.

Read More

Scroll to top