What is Christianity? More on Judas, Gnosticism and the Historical Jesus

In some recent discussions both on this blog and elsewhere, the question of whether someone like me, who is far from being a fundamentalist, is a ‘Christian’. This leads naturally to the question ‘What is Christianity?’ The problem is that, while fundamentalists make the most noise, and thus can seem to be speaking for Christianity in general, there is plenty of evidence to show that fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity, and not something that existed prior to the modern era.

Yet even scholars can work under the impression that there is one thing that can be clearly defined as ‘Christianity’, with the result that anything that does not fit that definition is not. For instance, on his blog Ben Witherington wrote (in response to the April DeConick op-ed piece):

As many of us have been saying for some time, the author or authors of this document were not Christians at all. They were anti-Christians, and they had a very serious ax to grind against orthodox Christians and their faith, including having a major problem with the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of the world…If one is ‘Christian’ the other is not, or else the law of non-contradiction must be deemed to have ceased to function in the discussion of earliest Christianity.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this is simply not true, and certainly not as obviously the case as Witherington seems to suppose. If the New Testament documents take us back to the earliest period for which we have written sources, as Witherington himself states (and I would concur), then a careful examination of the sources indicate the diversity of views that existed in the earliest church. The sources themselves are significantly diverse, and they also through their polemic indicate the existence of others within the Christian movement whose writings did not get included.

I sympathize with Witherington. There is so much controversy and so much poor information around (for instance, CBS recently claimed that there have been Christians in Iraq “since the time of Jesus“) that it can lead a scholar to dismay (and religion journalists to quit). But trying to oversimplify in the direction of the scholarly consensus doesn’t seem to be more helpful.

No one examines the evidence in a vacuum. Just as for some, the idea that there has always been an obvious (probably conservative) Christianity, departures from which were clearly heresy and/or apostasy, can be comforting, for others the idea that their dissatisfaction with a particular form of Christianity, even if it happens to be mainstream Christianity, is nothing new and not necessarily a departure from Christianity itself, can also be helpful.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood – I have, since my first encounter with Witherington’s scholarship, been a big fan and found it helpful, balanced and sensible. Perhaps when scholars move into the blogosphere there is a danger as well as numerous positive aspects – perhaps in this instance he has expressed himself less precisely than he might tend to in a book for publication in traditional print format. Be that as it may, it seems clear that there is significant diversity in the early Christian movement. How early that diversity included something like Gnosticism is not an easy question to answer, but neither should this difficulty lead us to assume some particular default position or other, whether that of an early Gnosticism or a late one. Some things that Jesus himself seems to have said, such as his statement that Moses gave the divorce law but it didn’t express God’s will for humankind, are radical and difficult, and could seem to fit much more naturally with those early Jewish Christian movements that regarded some parts of the Torah as non-divine interpolations, than with modern fundamentalist Christianity which claims to regard it all as equally inerrant (while of course ignoring any parts that are inconvenient or felt to be uninteresting).

On the one hand, full-blown Gnosticism seems most likely to be a later development than the forms of Christianity evidenced by the New Testament writings. On the other hand, very early developments such as the interpretation of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, seem to most scholars to be much earlier but nonetheless post-Easter interpretations of events with the benefit of hindsight. So in the end, the question becomes why one would seek to get back to the earliest church and stop there. If we are going to try to connect contemporary Christianity to a genuinely historical Jesus, why should we stop at the level of the earliest Christian interpretations of Jesus, as opposed to being open to the possibility that, like his followers today, even some of the earliest followers may have misunderstood him? Indeed, the earliest followers of Jesus about whom we have evidence seem to have accused one another or precisely that.

I suspect the reason for seeking ‘original Christianity’ rather than the ‘historical Jesus’ is that the former is far easier to confirm using the tools of historical inquiry, and thus relieves us of far more responsibility for making up our own minds than the quest for the historical Jesus does. And that is very comforting – but the fact that something is comforting does not mean it is necessarily correct, healthy, or the best approach. That is what needs to be discussed more frequently than it currently tends to be.

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  • Good post. That is a good summary of my own approach to the question of the historical Jesus. If I’m to be a follower of Jesus, I want to know what Jesus believed and taught and claimed, and make that my starting point (if not necessarily my destination).The biggest problem for me is that I have a hard time discovering a divine Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. Instead, I see a Jesus who pointed to God as someone other than himself!I am perfectly comfortable with that, but it certainly puts me offside with the Church. And I don’t mean just the conservatives. A lot of liberal theologians also build their Christian system around the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, after all, the most distinctively Christian doctrine.I stop just short of denying Jesus’ deity. For me, it’s still something of an unresolved issue, largely because I know I shouldn’t presume to know better than the rest of the Christian church. But if someone asks for my personal opinion, I lean toward a negative answer.

  • I’m no scholar, but it seems apparent even to a lay person like me that, Ben Witherington’s claims notwithstanding, there was always diversity within Christianity from the very beginning, as you point out. When one side wins a dispute over ideology or theology and defines itself as the standard against which all competing ideas are measured, then of course it claims to be the only inheritor of the tradition that goes back to the beginning.Not only did the Gospels portray the apostles as often missing the point of Jesus’s teachings, as you point out, but we know that after Jesus died the early Jesus movement was divided on important theological questions–consider the Jerusalem council as a biblical example of this. Antioch and Jerusalem represented opposing points of view–regardless of Witherington’s supposed law of non-contradiction–and I can’t help but think that the disputes between them were only settled thanks to the Romans who destroyed Jerusalem. And that was just the start.The “law of non-contradiction” is particularly meaningless in matters like these. Diverse movements like early Christianity could easily contain theologies that contradicted one another, and to somehow assume that this is impossible is just not true. As I argued< some time ago in my blog, religions can be like Wittgenstein's rope, an intertwined series of belief systems that bear family resemblances but that cannot be easily reduced to a simple, all-encompassing definition that includes all of their varieties and that cleanly excludes others who don't belong.Thus when someone tries to claim that certain of the forms of Christianity weren’t really Christian at all, not only are they engaging in a time honored discrediting tactic that ecclesiastical authority has always used to decide who was “in” and who was “out”, but I would argue that this attempt to reduce “Christianity” to a single wall of separation is not so simple as some claim. Religions are fuzzy around the edges. Their boundaries aren’t as cleanly defined as some would like.Movements tend to take on a momentum of their own once the founder passes on. That is inevitable. Would the Buddha recognize all the forms of Buddhism that emerged after he died? Would George Fox recognize all the forms of modern Quakerism? Politics, personalities, power struggles–it is all part of the game. The winners get to write history and claim that they are the only true inheritors of the founder’s vision. That is all the more reason why it makes sense to try to go back to the founder him- or herself rather than only rely on the interpretive lens of even the earliest followers.

  • David Scott Lewis

    “… while of course ignoring any parts that are inconvenient or felt to be uninteresting.”I’d love to see you elaborate on this in a separate post.BTW, I’ve forwarded some of your posts to various Christian friends and they think that you’re either not a Christian or that you’re a nominal Christian at best (think Leftist Episcopalian or Unitarian). Of course, they may think the same thing about me, too!! 😉