[Continuing my thoughts from last night, about the historical reliability of early Christian testimonies, in particular the biblical texts, and the argument that the “orthodoxy” we see today only stemmed from this faction being the victor among many competing early sects. This is Part 2, and it nearly doubled in size from what I started with tonight.]
My friend challenges that the New Testament texts themselves reveal fault lines and factions within early Christianity. Does this argument have merit?
It is true that Paul describes his conflicts with the Judaizers, early Christians who insisted that Jewish Christians should continue to observe the Mosaic Law, in effect, according to Paul, nullifying Christ’s atoning sacrifice by the argument that salvation was only possible through the works of the Law. (See especially Galatians and Romans.) 1 John 4:2–3 seems to reject the doctrines of the Docetists, who argued that Jesus never truly came in the flesh but was instead a kind of divine phantasm. 1 Timothy 6:20 may mark an rejection of early Gnostic thought, which argued that some secret and esoteric knowledge (γνῶσις or gnosis) was necessary for salvation. So yes, there is evidence of some early disagreement; this is not a great surprise, given human free will.
But what was the nature of these disagreements? How widespread were they, and what following did these alternate viewpoints have? We don’t have that information, since these mentions in the New Testament itself are the only sources we have even attesting to their existence at this early date, just as the New Testament documents are the only testimonies we have to the first-century Christian Church.
Even more important: how early were these disputes? The first epistle of John (1 John) is believed to be one of the latest documents of the New Testament, written as late as the final decade of the first century. By that time, those who had personal experiences of Jesus had nearly all passed away. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy) is generally believed to have been written toward the end of Paul’s ministry and life, between A.D. 62 and 67, also nearly a generation after Christ. A setting in which the firsthand witnesses to Jesus’s life and ministry were passing from the scene would have been ripe for the rise of new interpretations and viewpoints.
But of course, the rigorous skeptic would ask, how do we know which is the original viewpoint, and which are the alternative ones? In addition to examining the dating of the extant documents — the oldest texts, especially those written mere decades after Christ’s ministry, having at least the greatest authoritative claim — we should examine the authors of these texts, and question their claims to authority. In a similar way, in judging the reliability of ancient historians, we consider who they were and how they would have obtained their information. Thucydides, for example, is generally accepted as a reliable authority on his subject, he being a contemporary and firsthand participant in the Peloponnesian War.
To begin, let us consider Paul, the largest target, he being the author of the greater part of the New Testament. It is reasonable to accept that there was in fact a Christian leader named Paul who wrote a series of letters in the first century. It is also reasonable to accept that at least some of the letters we ascribe to Paul were in fact written by Paul. If this weren’t the case, we would have to ask why this Paul character had such authority if he never wrote anything authoritative. It is reasonable to accept, from the fact that his letters were accepted as authoritative, that Paul’s teaching and influence covered a fairly wide geographic area for the time, with Pauline letters being addressed to Christians in places as diverse as Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. We have no reason to question that Paul actually visited these places and taught those Christians in person: otherwise, no one would have accepted his letters as authoritative. These letters, if authentic, can be reasonably dated to the A.D. 50s and 60s, based on internal evidence.
Of course, it is conceivable that “Paul” himself could have been an elaborate hoax perpetrated by someone writing in the second or third century, planting and disseminating Pauline letters around the Christian world (by that time vast). Perhaps Paul never existed at all, let alone visited any of the places he is supposed to have visited, and the supposed recipients of his letters never received them at all. ― But this line of reasoning presses “rigorous skepticism” to the point of the ridiculous.
We know with reasonable certainty that Paul did exist; we know that his letters were disseminated among Christian communities fairly rapidly. Nearly all of the canonical Pauline letters were in circulation and were accepted by Christians by the end of the first century — by the testimony of Ignatius of Antioch, who quoted most of them explicitly in the letters he wrote to Christian communities around Syria and Asia Minor and to Rome. We can draw from Ignatius’s quotations both that he had access to the many New Testament documents he quotes — and probably knew them by memory, since it seems unlikely he would be traveling to his death carrying a full library — and also that the communities to which he was writing would have understood his allusions and their context also, having access to the same documents themselves. Also tellingly, he did not quote or allude to any other documents that were later rejected from the New Testament canon.
So it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul was widely accorded authority by at least some Christians as early as the A.D. 50s and 60s. These Christians were spread over a wide area, to nearly every corner of the world that the Christian message had then advanced — since, at least according to “orthodox” accounts, Paul was the one advancing it. The fact that he was accepted by Christian groups in many places and not by isolated sects is an argument in favor of his authority and reliability as an historical source. Organized, dissenting sects would have had identifiable leaders — just as we know the names of the major proponents of nearly all of the later “heresies.” Here there is no evidence at all of such organized sects during Paul’s lifetime — neither through literature of their own, nor through rigorous opposition that would have been evident in the surviving “orthodox” documents.
[There’s more where that came from! Stay tuned!]