Perhaps no book in the history of the world has received as much scrutiny and criticism as the Bible. For generations, scholars have picked apart every aspect of this book: its history, its transmission, its veracity, its theology, its morality, etc. It has been criticized, ridiculed, mocked and condemned.
Those who are in the academic world—college students, grad students—feel this tension acutely. In fact, this is why I wrote my most recent book, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (Crossway, 2021).
However, in their haste to heap criticism on the Bible, occasionally critics offer arguments that actually prove to be inconsistent with one another. They make accusations against the Scripture that are mutually exclusive—they cannot all be true. Of course, such inconsistencies are rarely noticed. If a scholar is intent to find contradictions in the Bible, he will rarely find contradictions in his own arguments.
When it comes to the New Testament, there are two criticisms that have been used for years, and often at the same time. The problem, however, is that upon closer examination they prove to be largely incompatible with one another. Let us examine each in turn.
1. “The New Testament is filled with competing theologies that contradict one another.”
Ernst Käsemann, in his famous essay “The New Testament Canon and the Unity of the Church,” argued that, “This variability [of doctrine] is already so wide in the New Testament that we are compelled to admit the existence not merely of significant tensions, but, not infrequently, of irreconcilable theological contradictions.”
Käsemann was simply building on the claims of F.C. Baur (and others) that the New Testament was filled with disparate theologies and that each New Testament book was constructed as a “party document” and motivated by a particular theological agenda, or Tendenz. Some books were Jewish-Christian (Matthew, James), some were Gentile-Christian (Pauline epistles), and some were a synthesis (Acts, Hebrews, John). Put simply, the New Testament is filled with theological diversity. Robinson and Koester refer to this phenomenon as “trajectories” within the New Testament.
2. “The New Testament canon was formed by the ‘winners’ of the theological battles within early Christianity and therefore is filled with their preferred books.”
Walter Bauer’s book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity made the argument that the canon as we know it cannot be trusted because it is simply the canon of one particular group—the proto-Orthodox. This group was just one theological faction among many in early Christianity and happened to be the one faction that prevailed in the theological battles and thus was able to determine the content of the canon.
But, asks Bauer, why should we take this particular group of books as normative? The books (or “canons”) of other theological groups should be given equal weight. In fact, Ehrman raises the provocative question, “What if some other form of Christianity had become dominant, instead of the one that did?” The answer is that we would likely have “an entirely different set of books.” Our current canon therefore represents a loss of “the great diversity of the early centuries of Christianity.” Put simply, our current canon consists of the books of just the theological group that won.
These two criticisms of the New Testament—that of F.C. Baur and that of Walter Bauer—are widespread and often held together. But, this is where the problem lies. Both of these criticisms cannot both be true. If F.C. Baur is correct and the New Testament representing competing and contradictory theologies, then how can Walter Bauer be correct when he argues that the New Testament represents the preferred books of the theological victors?
In other words, how can the New Testament be representative of great theological diversity (Baur), and then, at the same time, be representative of a great loss of diversity (Bauer)? Which one is it?
Now I suppose one could respond by arguing that even a collection of books representing a single theological camp could still contradict themselves at a minor level. But, such a response is shifting the terms of the debate. F.C. Baur, and most modern critics, are not arguing that the New Testament just possesses some minor theological variations here and there, but instead are arguing that it possesses entirely different theological systems that fundamentally contradict one another.
Indeed, it is the existence of these different systems within the NT that is regularly used as evidence that early Christianity was so diverse (cf. Dunn). Thus, one would still have to abandon F.C. Baur’s main thesis (at least in any recognizable form) if one wants to hold Walter Bauer’s main thesis.
In the end, I think this an example of scholars wanting to have their critical cake and eat it too. Critiques of the New Testament are so easily and so frequently offered that no one really is too concerned about whether the critiques themselves are compatible with one another.
Of course, even if some critics were willing to throw F.C. Baur overboard and argue that the New Testament is theologically unified, this does not thereby prove Walter Bauer’s theory. There is another explanation for the canon’s theological unity that does not entail appeals to early church conspiracies, namely that the early Christian movement had a more cohesive theology than perhaps originally thought. But, it is unlikely that some modern scholars will let that idea on the table.
Note: For more on Walter Bauer’s thesis, see The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Our Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (co-authored with Andreas Köstenberger; Crossway, 2010), and Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP Academic, 2018).
 Ernst Käsemann, “The Canon of the New Testament and the Unity of the Church,” in Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1964), 100. See also Ernst Käsemann, “The Problem of a New Testament Theology,” NTS 19 (1973): 235-245.
 Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 5.
 Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 6.
 Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 4.