Were early Christians largely unified on Jesus-biography (e.g. prior to AD 100)?

  • Our question

    While some have suggested that AD 30-40 Christianity was a general rule was diverse (the Bauer thesis), were Christians in fact mostly unified? Were they quite able to successfully regulate what was taught and successfully conform to apostolic teaching concerning Jesus's life and deeds? Rather than there being many diverse, discontinuous, and competing Christian positions on the historical biographical matters of Jesus and his teachings, was there a harmonious unified view of him?

  • What historians say:

    • Michael Bird: “Overall, I remain remarkably impressed about the consistency of the tradition across its various forms, in different locations, even when separated by some decades.” [The Gospel of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014), 48.]
    • Günther Bornkamm: “The Easter faith of the first disciples ... was not the peculiar experience of a few enthusiasts or a peculiar theological opinion of a few apostles, who in the course of time had the luck to prevail. No, they were all one in the belief and the confession to the Risen One.” [Jesus von Nazareth, 8th ed. (Stuttgart, 1968), 159.]
“Yes, after all…
  • There are complex examples of Christian agreement on Jesus-bio

    We can see clear instances where diverse Christians agreed on what they were teaching about Jesus's miracles, teachings, and other biographical information.

    Consider these:

    • The Eucharist's details (crucifixion etc.)
    • The Eucharist's—exact complex verbiage shared by Paul and Luke1
    • Agreement on Jesus's first appearing to Peter (shared by Paul and Luke).
    • E.g. Gospels oft separately report the same event (see below).
    • More examples forthcoming.

    This helps because examples are one of the most straightforward ways to establish the point. At the same time, we do not see clear counter-examples to the thesis that Christians largely agreed on Jesus-biography.

    1. Luke and Paul say almost verbatum the same thing (1 Cor 11:23-25 and Luke 22:19-20). This is surprising unless early Christians utilized oral tradition. Recall that Paul nor Luke was familiar with the other's work. (Paul predates Luke and yet “seems to expect his hearers to knοw the memorized oral text.”)
  • In general, Christian-beliefs mutually agreed

    In general, Christian churches in AD 30-70 were basically unified; they agreeed with respect to who their leaders were, what their doctrine was, and what the history (with Jesus) looked like.

    See this page to explore six arguments:

    • They were an hierarchically organized.
    • The church fathers say and presuppose it.
    • The book of Acts says and presupposes it.
    • Paul's letters say and presuppose it.
    • The author 1 Peter 2:17 suggests it.
    • Early Christians saw the apostolic/Jerusalem church as the authoritative nexus.

    This is relevant because if they were unified in general, then we can expect them to be unified on the basic teachings regarding what Jesus did and taught.

  • The Gospels do not spew contradictions

    The four Gospels regularly report on the same basic incidents (e.g. Jesus's crucifixion), and yet despite an abundance of opportunities the Gospels seem to never (or virtually never) yield actual contradictions. This is what we would expect of Christians if they were largely unified on what they said about Jesus, but it is quite surprising if Christians were not unified.

  • E.g. Gospels oft separately report the same event

    We see that Gospel traditions (stories) independently attest to much of the same Jesus-biography.

    A full page at /gospel-stories/spew/independently-attested-events will discuss these arguments:

    • We see unity even when including secular attestations on Gospel traditions.
    • Gospel traditions oft puzzle-piece connect by accident.
    • Christians passed down Jesus-bio faithfully.
    • The Gospels themselves mutually agree on Jesus-bio (note: consider how the synoptics super-share pericopes, verses, and even verbiage, as well as how they and the Gospel of John agree in interlocking ways on details.

    This is relevant because it would be the central test and example when looking to see if Christians were in fact unified or not on what they were saying about the historical Jesus's life and deeds. If we looked and saw diversity among the historical traditions then the thesis of unity would be falsified, and there were many opportunities to see this. Instead, this constitutes a strong confirmation of the opposite: they were unified indeed.

  • Early Christians widely knew Jesus-biography

    Christians were quite learned when it came to the details of Jesus's ministry, life, teachings, sayings, and deeds.

    A page will discuss these arguments:

    • Examples abound.
    • Gospels: “Jesus said they knew it.”
    • Didache 11, 13: “teachers teach what you already know.”
    • They learned/rehearsed it every Sunday.
    • Their tension with Jews was facilitated by it.
    • Jesus-bio teachers were the primary oral transmitters.
    • Witness-based Jesus-bio thrived (so they would know it).

    This helps show that Christians were largely unified because knowledge is factive (i.e. accurate), and if they all have accurate beliefs concerning the outlines and details of Jesus's life and ministry, then they would all believe the same basic things.