Gospel of John Fragment, Papyrus 52 (ca. 125 CE), John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK
“History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill famously observed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Christian church. In the early fourth century as Christianity triumphed under Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, Eusebius wrote his authoritative Ecclesiastical History, which created the image of Christianity as an orthodoxy community under the leadership of a continuous succession of theologically orthodox bishops. That narrative went largely unchallenged until the twentieth century.
Seventy-five years ago a German theologian named Walter Bauer published his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, which replaced Eusebius’s triumphalist vision with a more realistic picture of Christian origins. Like abstract art Bauer’s image of the Christian past was a lot messier than earlier ones. Christianity was initially more diverse and less dogmatic than previously assumed. In recent years North Carolina Professor Bart D. Ehrman has popularized Bauer’s thesis in the English-speaking world.
If the church was more diverse in its infancy than previously thought, how can we be sure that it picked the right sacred texts? Protestants insist on the primacy of biblical over institutional authority, but ask Protestant pastors or theologians why the 27 books of the New Testament are the correct ones and they’ll sing a Catholic tune. They’ll quote church councils and church fathers like Athenasius’s Festal Letter of 367 CE, which was a product of the pivotal fourth century, as was the Nicene Creed.
In 1945 Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi discovered an earthenware jar with a dozen ancient books made of papyrus. These books contained fifty-some Gnostic texts, used by an early sect of Christianity. Among these was the famous Gospel of Thomas, which contains “the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded,” according to its opening words.
Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton, has made a career of studying the Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic texts. She is the author of Beyond Belief, a thoughtful book in which she compares the Gospel of Thomas with the canonical Gospel of John and finds the former more to her liking. Pagels rejects the church of Eusebius and his heirs with its dogmatic creeds and exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. She finds more comfort in a non-creedal, pluralistic faith—one that is more in line with Thomas’s Gospel than John’s.
Part of the problem with any reconstruction of early Christian history is the limited number of sources outside the New Testament. We just don’t know exactly how widespread Gnosticism and other sectarian movements were. The scholarship of Bauer, Ehrman, Pagels, and others provides a healthy corrective to the monolithic view of Christianity during the first three centuries. So much so that we would be better off talking about “Christianities” rather than a singular unified movement when referring to the earliest period of church history. Then as now, diversity is both a strength and weakness of Christian religion.
As a Baptist I don’t believe anything simply because a church council or bishop decreed it. On the other hand I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m not ready to take a cut-and-paste approach to the biblical canon. Just because the victors wrote the history books, that doesn’t mean the vanquished are right.