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 call “orthodox Christians”—won those theological wars. But why, the argument goes, should we think this group is any more valid than the groups who lost? What if another group, say Gnostic Christians, had won? Then what we call Christianity would look radically different.
According to these critics, then, in the second and third centuries there really was no such thing as “Christianity.” Rather, there were “Christianities” plural, all of which were locked in a battle for theological supremacy.
This line of thinking 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 30. Others claimed there were 365.
Ehrman then offers a laundry list of many of the conflicting beliefs held by early Christians—a list that no doubt would (and is certainly designed to) shock and overwhelm 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 distinguish between true and false beliefs?
But in this short article I simply want to observe and respond to something noteworthy about Ehrman’s methodology. Notice, as he describes groups who believed in two or 30 or 365 gods, he refers to these groups as “Christians.”
And why? Because these people “understood themselves to be followers of Jesus.” But the use of this terminology is a bit misleading. Sure, these people claimed the name of Jesus. That’s not in doubt. But it strains credibility to think “Christian” is a title that accurately and fairly describes their theology.
Early Christians Were Monotheists
The fact of the matter is that Christians did not believe in two or 30 or 365 gods. Christians were committed not only to the Old Testament, but also to a monotheistic system. The historical evidence for this point is overwhelming.
The groups who believed in, say, 365 gods were in fact Gnostics. In particular, Ehrman is probably referring to Basilides here—and they weren’t really “gods” in the way we think of it, but more like creator-angels.
And the theology of the Gnostics was so out of bounds it couldn’t be given the label “Christianity” with any historical or theological credibility.
Yet it’s not difficult to see why scholars insist on using labels like “Christianity” to describe such groups. They do so because it creates the impression that there was greater diversity than there really was.
The more the label “Christianity” can be tossed around indiscriminately, the more it appears Christians could believe just about anything, and did. Meanwhile, the word is stripped of all its meaning.
Semantic Sleight of Hand
What you have in Ehrman’s statement, then, is a semantic slight of hand. Yes, it’s defensible under the heading “these people thought they were Christians and who am I to say otherwise?” But at the same time, it remains substantially misleading and, in the end, unhelpful.
To use a modern example, consider the UFO religious group “Heaven’s Gate” led by Marshall Applewhite. This group believed they would be transported, upon death, to an alien ship following the Hale-Bopp comet—a belief that led 39 of them to commit mass suicide in 1997. They also claimed to follow Jesus and to be fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation.
What if a newspaper reporter tracking these events went on the evening news and declared, “Christians believe in UFOs and also believe they should commit suicide to join an alien spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet”?
When challenged about such a statement, the reporter could say, “Well, this group claims to be Christian!” But I think we all know that defense would be inadequate. No one with journalist integrity would speak in such a misleading way when he knows that, historically speaking, this does not represent the Christian faith in any recognizable way.
In the end, not everyone who claims to be a follower of Christianity ought to be considered a follower of Christianity. If this basic principle were applied to our study of the second century in a balanced and fair way, I think much of the rhetoric about radical theological diversity would have to be modified.
Editors’ note: This article appeared at Canon Fodder.