I read an article recently on Patheos Evangelical Channel which I fancied posting a short response to. The author (Michael J. Svigel) argues against the idea that there were ‘separate clusters of squabbling devotees with wildly divergent ideas of what it means to be Christian’ in the 1st century CE. He believes that:
Both the New Testament and the teachings of the early church demonstrate that even the earliest Christians had a pretty solid picture of what it meant to self-identify as “Christian.” Repeatedly, early Jesus-followers told the same basic story of who Jesus was and what he did.
The majority of secular academics do not agree with Svigel, and neither do I. I wish to outline briefly two main objections: (1) even if the New Testament (NT) and ‘teachings of the early Church’ were in complete unity, it wouldn’t effectively disarm the view that ‘the earliest decades after Jesus were characterized by many Christs and many Christianities’; and (2) actually, the New Testament texts reveal a variety of incompatible views on ‘who Jesus was and what he did’.
Thus, I aim to show that what we might call the “Ancient Christian Diversity Claim” (ACDC?!) is a not only a valid position but the most valid one. It is important to note that Svigel somewhat arbitrarily defines ‘early Christian’ as 1st century CE, yet for the sake of this post, I’ll concede his definition.
1. How Should We Approach the Absence of Evidence?
It is frequently quoted by Christian apologists that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.1 This generalisation is demonstrably false, as argued here. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence in the cases where a hypothesis predicts that evidence should exist.
The question, then, is whether or not we should expect evidence of diversity. If we should expect evidence (and haven’t found any), we accept Svigel’s argument and reject the ACDC. If it is unreasonable to expect much evidence of diversity, then it becomes plausible, yet not necessarily convincing. You are epistemologically entitled to believe either in a unified or diverse early Christianity; either would make sense. Strictly speaking, you should neither accept nor reject ACDC, remaining agnostic. (Don’t knock it – it’s an important first step!)
Naturally, victors write history, not losers. Every historian knows that. Early Christians approved of “book burning” (e.g. Acts 19:19)2 and the banning of texts (e.g. Serapion with the Gospel of Peter, discussed here). How can we possibly claim to know that early Christianity (1st century CE) was harmonious merely due to an absence of sources? This method is even more flawed if you a priori rule out the possibility of major divisions because the text as a whole is inspired by God and therefore inerrant.
Other instances of literature destruction or prohibition are less relevant, yet deserve mention. Regarding someone’s prophecy as false or libellous was enough to merit incineration, as happened to Jeremiah‘s damning prophetic scroll, reportedly read to King Jehoiakim of Judah in 608 BCE.3
Sure, Jehoiakim is remembered as an “evil” king, yet this is history again written by “the victors”. Was it the destruction of a scroll specifically that irked Yahweh, or more that it was a scroll proclaiming what is perceived as “incontrovertibly true prophecy” by one side in a power struggle? It is implicitly okay, then, to destroy false religious texts and objects, yet not okay to destroy ‘true’ ones.
Moreover, the Law of Moses demanded that you kill even your own children if they choose to worship other gods: ‘you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them’.4 You are to ‘stone them to death’ and ‘show them no pity or compassion’ for ‘trying to turn you away from the Lord your God’. If you believed Jesus was divine in some way and someone suggested to you that he was not, what should you do? Early Christians were not united on whether the Torah still applied to them. Mark‘s presentation of Jesus strongly suggests that he actually upholds the above view on the killing of disobedient children under the Law.
In 2 Corinthians 11:26, Paul ‘dares to boast’ that he has been in frequent ‘danger from false brothers’. Earlier, in 11:13, he warned his readers that people were ‘disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’. This further supports my claim here about early Christian forgeries and counter-forgeries, which were typically penned in the name of an apostle so that they had authority and authenticity. Why would Paul be in danger if most members of the early Christian movement believed in the core tenants of ‘who Jesus was and what he did’?
On the other chronological side of our extrapolation, burnings specifically targeted those heretical works with non-Trinitarian views. Edicts for literary obliteration were issued by major Christian authorities in 325 (Constantine), 367 (Athanasius), 435 (Cyril of Alexandria) and 587 CE (Reccared, 1st Catholic King of Spain). Read the text of Constantine’s proclamation here:
In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offense, he shall be submitted for capital punishment.
In the total absence of evidence, it is best to rely on the scientific principle of parsimony: ‘the most acceptable explanation of an occurrence, phenomenon, or event is the simplest, involving the fewest entities, assumptions, or changes’. ACDC is a simple two-way extrapolative model; it assumes the confused socio-religious environment of beliefs about ‘the person and work of Jesus Christ’ which evidently existed during his earthly ministry – and in the centuries after – also was the norm in the 1st century CE Christian communities.
That said, the idea of ‘early Jesus-followers as a hodgepodge of competing Christianities’ has plenty of evidence going for it.
2. Evidence of the Absence (of Unity)
According to the data which I gathered for my posts on early Christian forgery (here and here), there are 20 Christian texts which have a mid-range dating within the 1st century CE, of which 16 are from the 27 canonical NT texts. If interested in the question, closely read each author for themselves without trying to harmonise the texts, and note down differences you find. I believe that, by doing so, you will see a diverse Christianity.
Two caveats are required. Half of these texts were written by one towering figure in the early Church – the Apostle Paul. It should be emphasised that these represent the later authoritative collection of early Christian writings for ‘proto-orthodox’ believers, not all groups of ancient folk who would have sincerely claimed to follow Christ.
The second caveat is that we can see conflict in the early apostolic years being ‘whitewashed’ in the late NT texts. It is this way in many new religious sects, especially those that attempt to convert people because unity helps to sell a more compelling narrative. This is the clash between Peter and Paul over circumcision during and after the Council of Jerusalem (c. 48 CE). Paul tells us in Galatians (c. 53 CE) that he ‘opposed [Peter] to his face because he stood self-condemned’, whereas Luke recounts no such event in Acts (c. 105 CE) and instead has the Apostles issue a unanimous decree.5
Two further points can be made from Acts 15: (a) we have no other record of Peter and Paul ever meeting again, so the dispute was serious; and (b) just after this Council, Paul and Barnabus had a disagreement which ‘became so sharp that they parted company’ over the simple matter of which friend was to travel with them. If apostles could fall out over travelling companions and over the relationship of new converts to the Torah, why couldn’t they also fall out over ‘who Jesus was and what he did’?
I am somewhat flummoxed how Svigel can miss the 22 explicit NT mentions of false apostles, messiahs, teachers, prophets and believers.6 These mentions are found in 14 books, representing over half of the entire NT. 1st century CE apocryphal texts are equally concerned. For example, a quarter of the chapters of the Didache (c. 50 – 125 CE) relates to false teachers and prophets. Preaching “unsound” doctrines regarding the personhood and achievement of Jesus certainly seems enough to merit the label ‘false teacher’. It is interesting to note, by comparison, that teachings either way on the relationship between Christians and the Law do not merit the status of ‘false teaching’ anywhere in the NT.
Since I will undoubtedly cover many examples in future posts, consider the implied presence of Adoptionism in the NT. Adoptionists, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that Jesus was adopted as the ‘Son of God’ at his baptism. The earliest and best manuscripts omit ‘the Son of God’ from Mark 1:1, as indicated in an NRSV footnote. As Bart Ehrman notes, this would then place the first occurrence of the title ‘Son of God’ at Jesus’s baptism.7
At this baptism, Matthew, Mark and Luke quote God as saying: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ This would immediately evoke King David for any Jew, whose name means ‘Beloved’. The words bring to mind Psalm 2:7, which reads: ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’ The unknown author of Hebrews quotes this twice to make the case that the Son is superior to angels. In Hebrew 1:5, the sentence is connected to another, which reads: ‘I will be his Father, and he will be my Son’. Notice the tense here – it is future and not the present. God promised Jesus that he will be the Son at some moment of time. Whereas, the tense of Psalm 2:7 is present – he has become the son today. The other event at which some Adoptionists believe Jesus became ‘the Son’ is the resurrection. There is a plausible promotion of this idea in Acts 13:32-34, where Luke has Paul proclaim:
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.”
As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“I will give you the holy promises made to David.”
What is the context of Psalm 2‘s statement? The song is a Davidic proclamation that Yahweh will violently suppress Israel’s surrounding national neighbours by way of his ‘anointed’ (‘Messiah’). After his baptism, Jesus begins his proclamation that ‘the Kingdom of God is near’.
I do not wish to get into a quagmire by extensively trying to defend my position on the presence of Adoptionism in the NT here. The key argument I am making here is that there is certainly ambiguity over who Jesus was and – although far less so – also over what he came to do. This is amplified further if one is no longer pre-committed to perfectly harmonising the voices of the NT authors via the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which I discuss here.
Just as there is a huge diversity now regarding these questions, there was also a lack of agreement back in the earliest days of Christianity. I have made two key claims: (1) even if the New Testament (NT) and ‘teachings of the early Church’ were in complete unity, it wouldn’t disprove the notion that there were ‘the earliest decades after Jesus were characterized by many Christs and many Christianities’; and (2) actually, the New Testament texts reveal a variety of incompatible views on ‘who Jesus was and what he did’.
Perhaps Svigel has been led astray by an understandable desire to show that God’s clear life-or-death message to humanity was not so quickly corrupted at an early stage?8 Lecturers at his evangelical institution, Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), are almost certainly required to sign doctrinal statements. Their jobs are at risk if their research happens to produce a result that contradicts biblical inerrancy. Look at Mike Licona, a popular apologist who lost his job for questioning the historicity of Matthew 27:51-53. That simply doesn’t happen in a secular academic institution.
Contrary to the spirit of DTS, I encourage you, as my beloved readers, to make your own mind up on this issue.
- Examples of the claim ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ include doubtlessfaith.com (here), apologetics.net (here) and christianapologeticstraining.com (here). William Lane Craig really loves this principle, often resulting in ‘arguments from ignorance’ from its misapplication. ↩
- I concede that Acts 19 concerns new converts who voluntarily burn their old sorcery scrolls, and so is not direct evidence of the marginalisation and destruction of the works of alternative Christianities. Combined with the other direct evidence from the same religious traditions, however, it builds up a cumulative argument. ↩
- Jeremiah 36. ↩
- Deuteronomy 13. The entirety of this chapter focuses on the murder of children and even whole towns for not worshipping Yahweh. See my article here outlining how Mark presents Jesus as being in favour of retaining both the Law and its punishments. ↩
- Acts 15 and Galatians 2. ↩
- This figure (22 verses) is a poor relevance indicator of the importance of avoiding false doctrine since the words ‘false apostle / messiah / teacher / prophet / believer’ often do not occur in passages which are warning about such things. The 22 verses referred to are found in: Matthew (7:15; 24:11, 24), Mark (13:22), Luke (6:26), Acts (13:6), 2 Corinthians (11:1, 13, 26), Galatians (2:4), Colossians (2:20), 1 Timothy (1:3; 4:1; 6:20), 2 Peter (2:1), 1 John (4:1), 3 John (10), Jude (5) and Revelation (2:2; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). ↩
- Ehrman, Bart (1996). The Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 74–75. ↩
- Whilst I acknowledge the original Patheos article was not written to make a full case, but rather to promote the author’s new book, which may advance some perfectly reasonable arguments, the post contained nothing but a theologically orthodox quote from Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110 CE) as if that settled the whole affair. This fails to give me any hope that I would learn as much from investing precious time in the 488 pages as I would genuinely like to. For his full argument, see Svigel, M. J. (2016). The Center and the Source: Second Century Incarnational Christology and Early Catholic Christianity. (Link) ↩