This chapter assumes you have little or no knowledge of early Christianity, especially the time period of the second and third centuries. Here, I introduce the three periods of early Christianity, noting the Jewish origins from which Christianity arose—the apostolic period, the period of the apostolic fathers and the rise of alternative texts, and the period of the apologists and more alternatives.
The starting point for early Christianity was as a Jewish movement that appealed to the promise of God in the Scripture of Israel. In the beginning, there were Jesus and the apostles, claiming Jesus Christ fulfilled God’s promise.
All the writings we have from the works of the first century to the work of the apologists show an intense concern, whether positive or negative, with issues raised by the Scripture of the Jews (Mitros 1968, 448–50). The apologists were defenders of Christianity against Greco-Roman religion, Judaism, and threatening movements that also claimed the name of Christ. Their work emerged in the mid-second century, but it also continued to discuss how Jesus fulfilled the original Jewish promise.
Scholars debate when the promise was first uttered. Was it found in Genesis 3:15 when God said the seed of man would crush the head of the serpent? Was it in Genesis 12:1–3, in His promise that the seed of Abraham would be a source of blessing to all the world? Was it in texts like Isaiah 9, where a messianic-delivering figure is described? Was it in Daniel 7:13–14, where the Son of man rides the clouds with divine authority? Was it in a composite of all of these? In the first century, was there one unified expectation or a promise described in diverse ways with diverse forms of expectation in Judaism?
For us, the key fact is that in the first century, most Jews had some form of hope that one day God would send a deliverer for His people and for the world, even though these Jews saw the fulfillment of that promise in differing detail or highlighted different texts. That large parts of Israel’s faith were driven by such a promise in the first century is one of the few things about which virtually all scholars agree. This root in scriptural hope is the seed of Christian faith. God would send a deliverer one day according to the promise of the Hebrew Scripture.
Much Christianity of the first two centuries claims that Jesus was and is the fulfillment of that promise. This root in the Scripture of Israel, its promise, and its portrait of God are parts of what became a source of contention when Marcion in the mid-second century rejected the God of Israel as identified with the God that Christians worship. It also became a point of contention when others calling themselves Christians—but whom many scholars today call Gnostics—suggested that the God who created the Earth and the true transcendent God were not the same figure. But we are jumping ahead in our story.
As we shall see in the next chapter, some today argue that the roots of Christianity are not found in this promise of deliverance because Jesus merely was about wisdom and pointing to a way of life pleasing to God. It was the later church, some say—not Jesus—that transformed this wise teacher into a figure of worship, promise, and divinity. Strangely enough, in many ways, the core of the modern debate about Christianity is about how connected the earliest Christianity was to the theology of Judaism, God’s promise, and Israel’s portrait of God. We shall keep an eye on this connection since it is a central piece to our puzzle.
These periods are standard in early church history, but the new school claims these categories obscure the real, early diversity of the earliest forms of Christianity. The claim is, if you make the rules and define the categories the way you want, you get to win the game before it starts. Because the issue of the roots of Christianity is in question, you should note that the descriptions presented here are not claims that these divisions reflect the full picture of what was taking place in the first two centuries of Christianity. These descriptions can obscure the diversity that was at work in the early centuries of Christianity. The divisions used here merely provide a time structure for these less well-known figures and movements of the early Christian history, showing where and when people fit in our historical tour.
This first period covers roughly the last seventy years of the first century. It is generally acknowledged that Jesus ministered in the late twenties or early thirties of the first century. Those who were closest to Him, the apostles, ministered throughout the first century. That period is called the apostolic era. Although scholars debate the exact dates of the composition of the four Gospels and those of the newly discovered gospels, there is widespread acceptance that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fit into this period with John, written in the nineties, being the last of the four.
We have little explicit evidence for alternative groups from this early period. We lack materials directly from these groups, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, but we have hints of opposition and dissent from the traditional materials of the first century. To reconstruct the dissent, let’s look at a few brief remarks in those traditional texts.
One leader of an alternative movement from this period is Simon Magus. The church fathers I shall mention shortly tend to lay the entire blame at his feet for the movements that they contest. Simon Magus is noted in Acts 8, where he is described as a magician. Acts has no remarks about him founding a heretical movement. The source of this claim is unknown, and the credibility of the claim that heresy originated with Simon is very problematic (Yamauchi 1983, 60). Beyschlag’s detailed study (1974, 218) places the rise of this tradition about Simon as the father of heresy in the first half of the second century.
Another set of opponents surfaces in 1 Timothy 1:20. Here Hymenaeus and Alexander “shipwrecked” their faith. In 1 Timothy 1:3–7, they are included in a discussion of people teaching a different doctrine that includes myths and endless genealogies that promote speculation rather than faith. First Timothy 4:1–3 warns of those in the last days who will teach against marriage. Some later Gnostic movements did teach against marriage, but so did some traditional movements, reflecting a concern by some with spiritual interests about sexuality. In 2 Timothy 2:17–18, Hymenaeus is mentioned again with Philetus as teaching that the decisive resurrection of believers has already occurred. What these epistles describe as a different doctrine many regard as potentially similar to things that appear in even more detail in some of the newly discovered works that have been called Gnostic. This is all we can say from the earliest material, which is not very much (Hengel 1997, 190–92). In other words, these remarks do not evidence the presence of Gnosticism, but the presence of elements that showed up later in Gnosticism. At best they reflect what has been called incipient Gnosticism.
What do appear in our earliest sources are ideas that the writers of the Epistles challenged rather than named. For example, 1 Corinthians 15 (written mid-50s) indicates that some denied a resurrection from the dead for the body. Scholars debate whether the views Paul challenged were a reflection of some type of Gnostic denial of the resurrection of the flesh or simply a reflection of the general Greco-Roman belief that denied a physical life after death. First John (written early 90s) shows that some did not believe Jesus came in the flesh. People who divided between a sent Christ and a physical Jesus are called Docetists because they believed that Jesus only “appeared” to be in the flesh.
Passages like these let us know that there was diversity in early belief. The questions they raise include, how was this diversity perceived? Did diversity reflect competing orthodoxies, mere alternatives, or the naming of the presence of a heretical view? And on what basis was such a judgment to be made? Was it on politically competing points of view where one side simply won? Or were there appeals to teaching that could credibly claim to have association with Jesus or the apostles? These questions will drive our tour.
Where the newly discovered gospels fit. Dating is one key issue tied to the newly discovered gospels. Most of the gospels we have recently discovered are dated in the second or third century (see suggested dates in the following: Rebell 1992; Ehrman 2003; Klauck 2003; Lapham 2003; White 2004). But a few, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are sometimes placed earlier, in the apostolic period or with roots that may go back to that period. This is why some have talked about the importance of this gospel. For example, White (2004, 304) argues that the earliest layers of Thomas date from 60–70 with roots in some material that goes back to Jesus, while later layers are from the late first or early second century. Ehrman (2003, xii) places it in the early second century but with parts that may go back to Jesus. On the other hand, Klauck (2003, 108) dates the work outside this period, between 120 and 140. Snodgrass (1989–90) argues that there is much evidence of dependence of Thomas on Luke and the synoptic tradition, for several of Thomas’s sayings appeal to rarely used words and editorial tendencies in these other works (sayings 10, 16, 31, 33, 39, 47, 53, 65–66, 72, 76b ,79, 104). Perrin (2002) sees a relationship between Tatian’s Diatessaron from circa AD 170 and Thomas. This suggests the gospel has roots in a late tradition, not an early one. Hedrick (1989–90) has shown it is likely that some material for Thomas comes from sources other than the synoptic gospels, so the material has to be assessed one saying at a time. In sum, it is possible that a portion of the material in Thomas reflects tradition circulating among the churches that could belong to this early period, but these must be examined on a saying-by-saying basis (so Klauck 2003, 108). Nevertheless, the gospel itself is likely later rather than earlier.
The sayings that parallel those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke help us see the later date for Thomas. Klauck (2003, 108) notes that roughly 50 percent of Thomas has no contact with anything expressed in the New Testament. In his view, the other half is split between texts that resemble things in Matthew, Mark, and Luke and independent sayings that claim to be revelatory and have a “more strongly gnostic character” (Klauck 2003, 108). The debate about Thomas includes what and how much of this material go back to Jesus and how much of it is a reflection of later Gnostic concerns. Most of Thomas does not go back to Jesus, but a few pieces could.
The debate has a few other keys. So we cover the age of Gnosticism in Chapter 3. Thomas and the Jesus tradition receive attention in Chapter 4. Making headway on these topics requires treating another issue, historical method and judgment, also considered in Chapter 4.
A review of the newly discovered material, including the missing gospels, indicates that the bulk of it comes from the second and third centuries. On this, almost all scholars are agreed. Three corollaries tied to this fact are important:
1. Many of these works reflect the period in which they were written because they do not have any coherent links to the period to which their title points. The issues these works discuss appear later in the history of the church and not in the earliest period. This is one way we can see that these works are later than the earliest period. For example, the Gospel of Peter is not from Peter nor does it give teaching preserved by those familiar with his teaching; it is simply a name given to lend authority to a work written much later. Almost every scholar agrees with this view of this gospel. This situation stands in contrast to Mark or Luke in that neither writer of these gospels was an apostle, yet many accept that Mark and Luke had access to the apostles and were aware of what they taught. For Mark, the contact point was Peter (Taylor 1966, 1–8, 26), while Luke likely had contact with several of the apostles and traveled with Paul (Fitzmyer 1981, 40). Roots of portions of other gospels, like Thomas, are more debated and difficult to assess. A question exists whether Thomas has early roots.
Newly discovered but late works still have value for us as historical documents. They describe what some people associating themselves with Christianity believed at the time these documents circulated, even though these texts have little value in illuminating the earliest Christianity. Nag Hammadi is an important find, even if it contains documents whose dates of composition are post–first century. We learn what was going on in this later period from people who held these alternative views. Diversity of views existed among groups associating themselves with Christianity in the apostolic period, as the disputes already noted in 1 and 2 Timothy show. The debates are about what those views were, how widespread they were, and whether these alternatives were regarded as orthodox or not.
2. We possess only a portion of the writings that existed in the first century. The nature of all historical records is that the surviving collection is partial, and this is especially true of ancient history. The problem is what to make of this lack of evidence. This gap creates room for debate and contributes to the existence of various modern views on the question.
3. This leads to the subtlety of a third corollary sometimes offered for the late nature of these materials in the extant manuscript record—the claims that these texts were suppressed and/or destroyed. We lack such texts because the other side removed them from the scene long ago. The claim is that the evidence we have does not really reflect what was. Now we know such suppression and destruction took place in the third century and beyond. We also know it happened with all kinds of Christian texts in the persecutions of Christians in the earliest centuries. Nevertheless, this position is really an argument from silence. The claim is that if we had a full record of materials, surely early or more materials like these alternative gospels would exist. There is no way to evaluate such a hypothetical claim. Proponents of this scenario hold that it is remarkable anything like Thomas has survived while they also acknowledge it is unlikely that this work comes from the apostle Thomas.
But what about a couple of other options? Might we lack such materials because they were simply lost, as most ancient works are, rather than suppressed? Or might we have no clear early record of such movements because they did not yet exist? The problem is that any of these three scenarios (loss by suppression, simple loss, or absence because such movements did not yet exist) can explain the evidence we have. The presence of various potentially plausible options also leads to the debate. An overview of the issues surrounding the missing gospels is necessary before looking at the gospels themselves so we can understand where they fit and why there is controversy about them.
This period covers a few generations after the apostles. The apostolic fathers were men who had contact with the apostles or fit in the period just after them. Generally speaking, these works belong in the first half of the second century (Holmes 1999). They include the Letter of Clement of Rome, known as1 Clement, written at the end of the first century; 2 Clement (a sermon, not by the same Clement but by an unknown preacher); the seven letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria (Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrneans, and To Polycarp); one letter from Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, to the Philippians; the Martyrdom of Polycarp; an ethical tract known as Didache; the letter of Barnabas (but not the apostle of the New Testament; also called Pseudo Barnabas); the Shepherd of Hermas, a collection of parables and visions; the Epistle of Diogenes; and the Fragments of Papias, mostly preserved for us by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius. We will pay careful attention to these works because they tell us what many Christians believed in the early second century.
Alongside the works of the fathers come other works. Many reflect alternative views. At the latest possible dating, Thomas belongs in the early to mid-second century. Among the most widespread alternative forms of Christianity belonging to the explicit textual evidence from this period is what modern scholars have called Gnosticism. It took on a variety of forms, as we shall see in Chapter 3. Here belong names like Carpocrates (appears ca. 120), Saturninus (ca. 120), Basilides (ca. 120), and Valentinus (ca. 140). Other alternatives also existed, such as the movement founded by Marcion (ca. 140), who died in 160. His movement was distinct from those seen as Gnostic. Key sources of this period include Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Nazareans, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and Papyrus Egerton 2 (Ehrman 2003, xi–xii). Chapters 6 to 14 will give us a glimpse of what such sources teach and where they fit in more detail.
This period moves beyond the time frame our tour shall consider. It covers from the mid-second century into the period of the formation of the church creeds like Nicea in 325 and beyond. It has been adequately covered in works for a long time, with a classic study being that of Hilgenfeld on the history of heresy in early Christianity. Hilgenfeld traces the evidence we have from the church fathers, especially from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus with his contemporaries, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria (Hilgenfeld 1884). We stop with the mention of Epiphanius in the fourth century because he wrote an encyclopedic work on heresy, known as the Medicine Chest (Panarion). However one key figure predates Irenaeus and sits at the edge between periods two and three. He is Justin Martyr, who was the first early church writer to take up explicitly a comprehensive defense of the faith. We place him here because his work came in this period. Justin wrote what is called his 1 Apology circa 155. It was one of two apologies (or defenses of the faith) he wrote. He also debated Judaism in the work Against Trypho.
A work of defense in Greek is called an apology. One who writes such a defense is an apologist. This explains part of the name of this grouping. (It does not mean the writers are sorry or apologizing for anything as the word apology in English can suggest.) Apologists spent their time making the case that Christianity was superior to paganism, Judaism, or Greek philosophy. However, they also challenged the claims of some associating themselves with Christianity to be genuine or orthodox Christians. The new school often calls this group of writers heresiologists because they sought to identify and refute heresy.
The presence of alternatives already clearly emerging in the period of the apostolic fathers concerned the apologists. Yet other movements existed during this period: Ebionites (a Jewish Christian movement), Encratites (an ascetic movement that advocated chastity and no marriage), and Montanists (a group claiming to have access to new revelation).
This proliferation of alternatives caused the apologists to write detailed assessments of these movements, showing that the name heresiologist reflects the thrust of their work. These writings developed full arguments that formed what became the details of orthodox faith. Other famous apologists followed Justin. Among the most prominent are Irenaeus (writing in the second half of the second century) and Tertullian (late second and early third centuries), followed in importance by the group of Clement of Alexandria (last third of the second century), Origen (early third century), and Hippolytus (very late second and early third centuries). Later apologists of significance include Eusebius (third and fourth centuries) and Epiphanius (fourth century). The issue here is whether “orthodoxy” emerged in these later writings or was already present in root form earlier. Was it Irenaeus and those like him who produced orthodoxy, as the new school claims, or was it orthodoxy that produced Ireneaus and the apologists?
The ancient players and movements fit into three basic periods. The scorecard, summarized in the charts provided here, includes likely geographical regions where we know them (for a similar chart of the last two periods, see Smith 2004, 124). Geography will become important later in our tour. The scorecard includes dates for the apologists.
This overview shows that some significant claims of the new school do reflect history. They include (1) evidence for a diversity of views claiming the name Christian in the early centuries, (2) the fact that our sources reflect only partially what was available from the early period, and (3) the suggestion that the new discoveries have helped us be more careful about how we view this history.
But are their most important claims historical? Several ancient factors contribute to the modern debate: (1) the difference between when a work is written and the age of the views that work reflects (Could it incorporate older tradition, and if so, where did that come from?), (2) the significance of the incomplete nature of our collection of sources, as well as (3) the nature of the content of the works themselves and what they teach, including the range of what they taught. Most important, what evidence is there for the connection of the teaching in any of these works to the earliest era?
Before we leave this orientation to the ancient context, we must discuss the major alternative present in so many of our new sources, namely, Gnosticism.