Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Unity of the Earliest Christians

In a previous article, I recommended getting a copy of a debate that was held last year between Richard Carrier and Michael Licona on the subject of Jesus' resurrection. David Wood recently posted a review of that debate at the Answering Infidels web site, and I recommend reading that review.

As Wood explains, one of the arguments put forward by Carrier during the debate was that Paul held a different view of the resurrection than we see presented in the gospels of Luke and John and other early Christian literature. Wood effectively shows that Carrier is wrong about Paul, and I won't be getting into the details of that issue in this article. Rather, what I want to address here is the larger issue of the popular critical claim that there was widespread disunity among the earliest Christians.

A lot of the modern criticism of Christianity involves splitting the early Christians up into conflicting parties based on the slenderest threads of evidence. Paul is said to have contradicted Jesus. James is set against Paul. Without evidence, and in contradiction of evidence that does exist, documents such as the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of John are attributed to schools or communities rather than individuals, and those schools and communities are pitted against each other. Martin Hengel, one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world today, has rightly called elements of this sort of thinking "romantic superstition", and he criticizes modern scholarship for having "all too easily forgotten" the significance of passages like 1 Corinthians 15:11 (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 81, 156).

Nobody denies that there were some disagreements among the early Christians, as we see in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and elsewhere. But there also was much agreement, particularly on more foundational issues, far more agreement than critics often suggest. Paul repeatedly refers to his close relations and doctrinal agreement with the other apostles and Jesus' brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5, 15:11, Galatians 1:18-19, 2:9-10). Clement of Rome, Papias, Polycarp, and other early post-apostolic sources refer to the unity of the apostles and refer to them sharing the same doctrines.

Craig Keener mentions some other indications of early Christian unity. Though he's commenting primarily on the gospel of John, much of what he says is applicable to other early Christians and other early documents:

“Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius’ letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John’s Gospel and the ‘postapostolic’ period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel ‘communities.’...John’s emphasis on the indwelling of Christ and the Spirit for moral and relational empowerment finds far more parallels in Paul than in other extant early Jewish and first-century Christian sources. Granted, John does not use Paul’s language for salvation or justification; but this is at some points more a stylistic matter than one of substance. Different writers emphasized different points, but when viewed from the broad spectrum of early Judaism and Christianity, John had a great deal in common with Paul.” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 41-42, 233)