It has been popular for 100 years for liberal scholars to claim there was no Christian orthodoxy from the beginning of the church.  Rather, they claim, there existed a bunch of disparate community-based theological movements loosely centered on a historical—but mythologized Jesus—each vying with the other to become the orthodox version of the Christian religion.

According to these theorists, the Jesus tradition spread rapidly to different geographical regions.  Each local community would re-tell the Jesus story, but the re-telling of the tradition was wild and uncontrolled, so that the Jesus of history quickly became swallowed up by the various and competing Jesuses constructed by each community.  With no way of knowing (and perhaps little concern for) which version of Jesus was accurate—if any—the battle for orthodoxy in the first 300 years of the church became more of a political battle than a theological and historical quest.  Recent and popular proponents of this view include Bart Ehrman, Marvin Meyer, and Elaine Pagels.

In the way of critique, this thesis has an extremely weak historical and logical foundation.  It is based largely on the fact that early in its history, there were various factions of Christians, each of whom held to a different view of Jesus, and each of whom had their own holy writings defining the Christian faith.  This much is true.  Indeed, we witness this even in the NT epistles themselves.  Paul and John spoke against false teachers who arose within various Christian communities, who denied or perverted essential Christian doctrines, apparently forming schismatic movements within the church (Acts 20:28-31; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; 2 Peter 2:1-3).  The Ebionites, a Jewish group of Christians who denied the deity of Christ, emerged in the late first century.  In the second century we saw the rise of the Montanists and Gnostics.

The existence of such factions, however, does not count against the existence of a Christian orthodoxy that persisted from the resurrection of Jesus onward.  It no more follows from the presence of multiple “Christian” theologies that none of them are true to history, than it if follows that since students give multiple answers to a single math question, none of them has the right answer.  While the early church recognized the existence of aberrant theologies and small schismatic movements, it acknowledged only one true version of Christianity—the one rooted in the historical life and teachings of Christ—which they took great care to preserve (Luke 1:1-4; Rom 15:6; Gal 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; Titus 1:14; 2 Peter 1:1, 16-18; Jude 1:3).

The truth of the proposed thesis rests on the idea that a long period of wild, uncontrolled oral tradition was characteristic of the post-resurrection, pre-gospels church.  But why think there ever was such a period?  I think we have good reasons to believe it never existed.  From a practical perspective, we would expect the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life to propagate, and in some sense control the Jesus tradition as it passed from community to community.  Given the ease at which travel was possible in the Roman-controlled Asia Minor, we might even expect the eyewitnesses—particularly Jesus’ inner core of disciples—to travel throughout the region to spread their master’s teachings, passing on their eyewitness accounts to faithful men in the process—men who would pass those accounts to others, and guard the community’s Jesus tradition from corruption (1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3-9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Timothy 2:2; Tit 1:5, 9).  Indeed, it seems the only way the Jesus story could have ever endured a period of wild, uncontrolled proliferation was if the eyewitnesses were raptured immediately after Jesus’ resurrection!  So long as they remained, they were available to spread the Jesus story, guard it from corruption, and to be consulted by others to confirm the accuracy of the traditions they received from individuals other than the eyewitnesses themselves.

When we look at the NT data, what we would expect to find is exactly what we do find.  In obedience to Jesus’ command to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, the apostles and other disciples took the story of Jesus’ teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection to the four corners of the Roman empire (Acts 8:14-15; Gal 1:18-19[1]; 2:11).  Not only were they directly responsible for passing on the Jesus story in many and varied geographical locations and diverse communities, but they also served as the tradents of the oral tradition until their death (Acts 2:14-36, 42; 3:12-26; 4:10-12; 5:28-32, 42; 6:1-4; 15:30-41; 2 Peter 1:12-18; 3:1-2).  Indeed, some have argued—rightfully in my opinion—that it is not even legitimate to characterize the post-resurrection, pre-gospel period as a period of “oral tradition,” but rather a period of “oral history,” given the continued presence and activity of the eyewitnesses.  And given their continued presence into the late first century, we have every reason to believe the canonical gospels accurately record the oral history as told by the eyewitnesses themselves (and in the case of Matthew and John, by the eyewitnesses themselves).  Indeed, Luke, who wrote in the early 60s, tells us that many before him had written accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, so the canonical Gospels were not the first written sources about Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).  The period of strictly oral transmission, then, probably wasn’t more than a decade or two.  That is too little time for the stories of Jesus to spread and evolve in a wild, uncontrolled manner, particularly given the continued presence and involvement of the eyewitnesses.

It is also clear from the NT that there was an authority structure in the early church that served as the repository of the Jesus story, and was recognized by the various Christian communities as such (Acts 14:21-28; 15:1-29, 30-41; 16:4-5; 20:17-21; 21:17-26; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Galatians 2:1-2, 9; Ephesians 2:20-22; 3:5; 4:11-16; 2 Peter 3:2; 3 John 8-10).  The apostles and elders in Jerusalem were viewed as the theological authority of the collective church.  When a theological rift manifested itself concerning the applicability of the Mosaic Law to Gentile converts, the church looked to the eyewitnesses and disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem to settle the matter (Acts 15).  Even Paul felt it necessary to consult with Jesus’ disciples to make sure the Gospel he had been preaching was consistent with the Gospel they preached (Galatians 2:1-2).

While it is so obvious that it may be missed, the NT epistles themselves serve as further evidence of a centralized, apostolic authority that served to guard the Jesus story.  The epistles of Paul, Peter, and John served as correctives to aberrant theologies that evolved in various Christian communities.  The apostles saw it as their right and duty to monitor and correct if necessary, the theology and practices of developing Christian communities.  And based on the contents and tone of the letters, we also have good reason to believe the recipients recognized the authority under which the apostles wrote.

I think a reasonable assessment of the evidence then, is decisively opposed to the thesis that the Jesus of history has forever been lost to us, and “orthodoxy” is just a fable as told by the political winners.  The Jesus of the Gospels is not a mythologized Jesus, but recollections of eyewitnesses who had first-hand accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds.

[1]According to Paul, he did not return to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion.  He stayed for 15 days, and of all the apostles, he only spoke to Peter and James.  Why?  Given the length of his stay, surely he would have had a chance to meet all the apostles.  Indeed, surely they would want to meet the great persecutor of the church who came to share their faith.  The most reasonable explanation for why he only met with Peter and James is that they were the only two apostles in Jerusalem at the time.  The other apostles were evangelizing in other parts of the world.