Early Jesus-followers as a Hodgepodge of Competing Christianities: Rethinking a Popular Thesis

Fyodor Bronnikov / Wikimedia Commons
Fyodor Bronnikov / Wikimedia Commons

If you could travel back in time to the year 100 to visit several of the small Christian communities scattered across the Mediterranean world, what would you find?

Separate clusters of squabbling devotees with wildly divergent ideas of what it means to be Christian? A loose network of communities with a lot of love for each other but only fuzzy ideas about Jesus? Or perhaps tight-knit churches with standardized rites and a strong sense of belonging to the Catholic Church?

A perspective common in the public square today is that the on-the-ground reality throughout the Greco-Roman world was constituted by radical diversity and even rabid conflict among many groups, all claiming to be the true Christians. In fact, some say it’s more accurate to picture multiple “Christianities” rather than a single “Christianity.” In this view, Christians in Egypt embraced a very different kind of Jesus than Christians in Judea, or Syria, or Greece, or Rome.

As the story goes, in some places Jesus was a divine being sent from heaven. In other places, he was a merely a human teacher whose radical message got him killed. Among some communities, he was a holy man chosen by God to be a divine agent in judgment. Some thought God raised him from the dead. Others believed he lived on metaphorically through the memory of his teachings.

In this account of history, early Jesus-followers constituted a hodgepodge of competing Christianities with only a vague sense of identity, each vying for converts to their own spin on Jesus. This history usually ends with the Holy Catholic Church emerging from the fog of diversity and conflict, forcing their narrow view of Jesus on everybody else, and enforcing a uniform brand of Christianity.

This quasi-tyrannical Christendom, then, continued to the modern era, when objective critical scholars finally swooped in, cleared the fog, and proved that the earliest decades after Jesus were characterized by many Christs and many Christianities.

At least, this is the version that has become fashionable in some academic circles, many popular publications, and numerous media outlets.

The problem is, even the most nuanced versions of this history are gross exaggerations.

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.

Around the year A.D. 110, the influential Syrian church leader, Ignatius of Antioch, summed up the universal belief about Jesus when he wrote to his fellow Christians in Ephesus of modern-day Turkey: “There is one healer, flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first suffering then without suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Ignatius, Ephesians 7.2).

Ignatius wasn’t alone. Churches established by the first generation of believers in Jesus shared the same view of their savior. Certainly, diversity of teachers, texts, and traditions prevailed from church to church, but this didn’t diminish the general unity of what Ignatius of Antioch called the “catholic church”—the worldwide church thought of as a whole, centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. This was the source of their common Christian identity.

So, if you could travel back in time to the year 100 and visit several of the small Christian communities scattered across the Mediterranean world, here’s what you’d actually find: Numerous Christian communities, each with its own corporate personality but all sharing a common sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Each church viewed itself as a sort of nuclear family that belonged to an extended family of fellow Christian communities from places as far away as Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome.

Despite some real diversity, they held the most important things in common: their self-conscious identity as “Christians” centered on what we might call the “incarnational narrative.” That is, they shared a unique faith in the divine Son of God who came to earth as a real human through a virgin birth, lived a sinless life, died to save sinners, rose again bodily, ascended into heaven, and sent his Spirit to dwell with his followers until he returned to earth as judge and king.

The situation wasn’t all that different from the vastly diverse denominations of Christians around the world today. Despite what’s become popular to parrot in the public square, the earliest Christians, like far-flung Christians today, anchored their common identity on the person and work of the same Jesus. This shared faith was so early, widespread, and foundational to their beliefs and practices that we can reasonably conclude that the worldwide Christian communities received this one Christianity from the previous generation—from the original apostles and prophets themselves.

Michael J. Svigel, PhD, is chair and professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He details and defends the unity and diversity of early Christianity in his book, The Center and the Source: Second Century Incarnational Christianity and Early Catholic Christianity (Gorgias Press, 2016).

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