Scholars generally acknowledge that the Christianity — as we know it today — was simply one among the many varying and competing sectarian beliefs amongst the early Christians in the first three centuries. This form of Christianity was, in fact, a minority faction in many localities and only much later did it attain dominance. In fact, the term “Christian” was in fact first used at Antioch1 and as such, Jesus(P) during his ministry would not have known it and would not have identified himself with it. Thus, in the first three centuries of Christianity, we are faced with a variety of competing beliefs and sects, with no one dominant or “orthodox” form of Christianity.
The prominent New Testament scholar, Prof. Bart Ehrman, explains:
Christianity in the second and third centuries was in a remarkable state of flux. To be sure, at no point in its history has the religion constituted a monolith. But the diverse manifestations of its first three hundred years – whether in terms of social structures, religious practices, or ideologies – have never been replicated.2
He continues further with:
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the realm of theology. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in only one God; others, however, claimed that there were two Gods; yet others subscribed to 30, or 365, or more. Some Christians accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as a revelation of the one true God, the sacred possession of all believers; others claimed that the scriptures had been inspired by an evil deity. Some Christians believed that God had created the world and was soon going to redeem it; others said that God neither had created the world nor had ever had any dealings with it. Some Christians believed that Christ was somehow both a man and God; others said that he was a man, but not God; others claimed that he was God but not a man; others insisted that he was a man who had been temporarily inhabited by God. Some Christians believed that Christ’s death had brought about the salvation of the world; others claimed that his death had no bearing on salvation; yet others alleged that he had never even died.3
In a later work, Ehrman further expands on this by saying as follows.
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Similarly, Prof. Dunn — who is no radical in New Testament studies — concludes:
We must conclude that there was no single normative form of Christianity in the first century. When we ask about the Christianity of the New Testament we are not asking about any one entity: rather, we encounter different types of Christianity, each of which viewed the others as too extreme in one respect or another — too conservatively Jewish or too influenced by antinomian or gnostic thought and practice, too enthusiastic or tending towards too much institutionalization. Not only so, but each type of Christianity was itself not monochrome and homogeneous, more like a spectrum. Even when we looked at individual churches the picture was the same – of diversity in expression of faith and life-style, the tension between conservative and liberal, old and new, past and present, individual and community.4
This “diversity” among the early Christians is most prominent from a comparative study of the New Testament writings. In the New Testament books, we are faced with a variety of diverse theological beliefs and images of Jesus(P).
- Acts 11:26
- Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture: The Effect Of Early Christological Controversies On The Text Of The New Testament, 1993, Oxford University Press: London & New York, p. 3
- James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1977, SCM Press and Westminister Press, p. 373