We are struck by the great diversity of forms, in which Christianity is expressed nowadays. Many of us think that if we went back right to the beginning of Christian times we would escape this diversity and discover one pure form. This is unfortunately an illusion. Laurence Freeman in Jesus the Teacher Within mentions that: “The idea that there once existed only a single, monolithic Christian orthodoxy, which was later fragmented or diluted is not supported by the richness and diversity of the perspectives found in the gospels.” (p.76)
Jesus was a charismatic teacher, who shared his wisdom orally, and trying to capture the true spirit of His teaching was very difficult. The early Christians heard what fitted into their worldview, what resonated with them. Therefore his words were filtered through their cultural, mental, psychological, emotional framework. The result was that there were various differing interpretations and accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, each of them having an individual bias – hence the inconsistencies. “St Luke remarks at the opening of his gospel that there were many other accounts in circulation in the first century after the resurrection ‘following the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the gospel.” (p.75).
Laurence Freeman continues: “We can never know for sure, ‘in fact’, who wrote the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John…. Jesus communicated his message orally…It is a living teaching of ‘one who taught with authority.…. As texts they grew within both oral and written traditions but were further refined by personal prayer and communal discussion.” (p.71/72) We have to remember as well that these four canonical gospels “were written for people living outside Palestine two or three generations after the events they describe….The gospels are different windows looking into the same reality. (p.76)
The evidence for this early diversity can be found in the scriptures that have come down to us. Paul chides the Corinthians for “contentions”, because “each of you is saying, ‘I am Paul’s man’, or ‘I am for Appolos’; ‘I follow Cephas’, or ‘I am Christ’s’.” We read in ‘Acts’ and ‘Galatians’ of difference of opinion even between Peter and Paul, Paul and James, and John and Thomas. These divisions were unhelpful, especially because they occurred during a time of dreadful persecutions and martyrdom.
Moreover, in these early centuries there was actually no recognizable institution called the Church. There were very few bishops, there were no creeds and there was no agreed canon of scripture. Apart from Alexandria, where there were dedicated buildings, as it was protected, being the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, people met for safety reasons on the whole in separate scattered house groups – very similar to our present meditation groups around the world.
To deal with this diversity Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (130-202 CE), one of the few existing bishops, decided to recognise only four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the letters of St Paul as ‘orthodox’ i.e. ‘right thinking’, which would form the ‘canon’, the guideline, with the aim of achieving some unity in the early Church. He chose the Gospel of John rather than the Gospel of Thomas – although the latter was very popular – purely out of a personal choice: his teacher Polycarp had been a disciple of John. Irenaeus could therefore claim the all-important apostolic succession. Every other gospel – and the groups who used them – were considered ‘heretic’, which means literally ‘someone who chooses’. Some of these also had an apostolic pedigree, but Irenaeus felt the line had to be drawn somewhere.