Early Christianity and the Gospel of Diversity

Rummaging through books at a local thrift shop in town I discovered one with the catchy title: The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus by the archaeologists Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear.  The book is a novel that presents an “alternate life of Jesus,” a life which was supposedly well documented in antiquity but has since been extinguished by the dogmatic, power-hungry authorities of the early Church.

In the back there is an interview with the authors.  Question #3 goes like this: “So there was a lot of dissension in the early years of Christianity, a lot of disagreements about who Jesus was, and what he taught?”

They respond:

Oh, yes.  In the first few decades after his death…there was a great disagreement about the facts of Jesus’ life, and what his teachings were.  New Testament readers are familiar with part of this battle from Galatians, where Paul writes that Galatian Christians were listening to “those who would pervert the Gospel of Christ (1:7) and believing in a “different gospel” (1:6).

The New Orthodoxy

This argument is just one example of what Michael Kruger and Andreas Kostenberger call “The new orthodoxy.”  The new orthodoxy claims that the very notion of orthodoxy itself is a later fabrication and does not accurately represent the convictions of Jesus or the first century Christians themselves.  According to this view, there was no such thing as “Christianity” (singular), but only Christianities (plural).

Another recent example that has turned many heads is the business card sized Wife of Jesus Fragment written in ancient Coptic which has the words “My wife” on the lips of Jesus.  Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School wrote in a journal article that was stopped prior to publication that the fragment itself provided no evidence that Jesus was married only that some early Christians may have thought so.

According to this new logic, Christianity was much more “open” and diverse than we have ever imagined; new evidence suggests that the original Christianity knew nothing of “orthodoxy” (orthodoxy refers to some kind of authoritative or authorized belief system).

The “gospel” of Christian diversity was mainly started by German scholar Walter Bauer (1877-1960), but his arguments have been carried on and developed by popular modern authors like Bart Ehrman, professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But was early Christianity really as diverse as some scholars wish to assert?

There is little evidence to suggest that it was.  First of all, the fact that there were disagreements about the gospel, as the Gear’s mention in their quotation of Galatians above, hardly implies that Christianity itself was divided.  A part of what Paul was doing in that letter was helping to clarify exactly what Christianity was and was not. Paul’s whole point in that letter is that these new beliefs represented a departure from Christianity.  The Gear’s suggest in their answer to the question in the Appendix of The Betrayalthat this disagreement happened within the boundaries of Christianity, but that is a gross error.  Paul clearly states in that same verse: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel.”  Maybe it could be argued that there were different beliefs about what truth was, but to claim that the apostles, like Paul or the others, believed in various versions of Christianity is more than a stretch.

Secondly, Bauer’s original thesis (which is carried on by Ehrman and the Gear’s) is mainly based upon conclusions that result directly from an almost complete disregard for the New Testament documents.  Bauer himself used almost exclusively extrabiblical (“outside” the Bible) material from the second-century.  But if the whole goal of his thesis was supposedly to determine what early Christianity was really like, shouldn’t we go back to its founders?  If we want to know what Christianity is or was shouldn’t we look mainly to Jesus and to those whom he spent his time with and taught, namely, the apostles?  Kruger and Kostenberger write:

Bauer’s wholesale dismissal of the primary source for our knowledge of earliest Christianity–the New Testament–is problematic…because it unduly eliminates from consideration the central figure in all of Christianity, Jesus, as well as the apostles he appointed. 1

A host of other problems with the gospel of diversity could be presented here, but these two alone provide ample reasons to be skeptical about it’s claims.

  1. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 69.
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