I think it’s fair to say that the last decade has witnessed a bit of a resurgence of academic interest in early Christianity.
By “early Christianity,” I don’t mean the Christianity represented by the major figures in the fourth and fifth centuries when the church had risen to power—e.g., Athanasius, Constantine, Augustine. Rather, I am referring to the time period immediately after the apostles, mainly the second and third centuries, when Christianity was still in its infancy, struggling to find its way in a hostile Roman world.
Recent books covering this critical time period (and sometimes more periods) include Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (2011), Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (2016), my own Christianity at the Crossroads (2017), Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity (2018), and James Edwards, From Christ to Christianity (2021).
So, why all the interest? I think scholars are realizing afresh something that we have always known, namely that the validity of the later (and fuller) version of Christianity is dependent, at least somewhat, upon whether its core features can be traced back to the earlier stages of Christianity.
And if this cannot be done, if it can be shown that there is a radical gap between the two, then we might conclude that the Christianity that arose to dominance is not the “real” Christianity after all. Rather, it is just a man-made construction—born of politics or power or just random chance—that is out of sync with the earlier (and more authentic) version.
Then we might conclude that this earlier (more authentic) version of the faith has been suppressed and forgotten for all these generations. And then we might wish there were scholars brave enough to recover that lost version of the faith for us, restoring it to its proper place.
Well, if someone has such a wish, it can be realized in the latest volume, After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements (HarperOne, 2021). It is authored by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig—all writing on behalf of the Westar Institute (effectively the umbrella organization for the well-known Jesus Seminar).
A Bold Thesis
If the foreword by Sue Monk Kidd is any indication, the thesis of this volume certainly does not lack in boldness: [Read more…]