Many seem to think that what we today regard as Christianity is exactly what Jesus intended it to be while he lived, and that after his death it continued to be exactly that, while resolutely defending itself against all attempts at revision or reappraisal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If we look at Christianity in our own day, it’s a ragbag of different groups with different ideas. Not only is there the major division between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, but within these there’s an abundance of wide-ranging options on offer, from high church to happy-clappy, each making its own claim to be ‘the genuine article’.
It’s surely no surprise that the same has been the case from the very beginning. The earliest ‘Christians’ weren’t ! They were Jews who believed Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah. It took time, and the increasing conversion of non-Jews, for a distinctive, and finally separate, ‘Christian’ movement to appear. In the course of yet further time, there were Adoptionist, Apollinarian, Arian, Docetic, Donatist, Ebionite, Gnostic, Marcionite, Montanist, Pelagian and Sabellian Christians etc. etc.
Many of these groups had gospels, letters and apocalypses of their own, claiming to have been written by Andrew, Barnabas, James, John, Paul, Peter, Philip, Thomas, Timothy etc., with no love lost amongst them. The Apostle Paul called those with different views, “savage wolves .. liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons , slaves of depravity.. unreasoning animals born only to be caught and destroyed”.
The group that eventually came out on top, having reached a mutually satisfactory deal with the Emperor Constantine, became the ‘orthodox’ one. Winners rewrite history, and so we’re told that theirs had always been the ‘orthodox’ group. The others had always been ‘heresies’, rather than equally genuine attempts, also with significant levels of popular support, to best formulate the Christian message.
So what happened to these other gospels, letters and apocalypses? Since winners take all, they were destroyed. Some, however, were buried out of reach before the wreckers could arrive. A number of these have at last been dug up, notably in Egypt at Oxyrhynchus and Nag Hammadi, one such ‘buried treasure’ being the fascinating ‘Gospel of Thomas’.
So my answer to the question, ‘what is Christianity’, doesn’t focus on ‘orthodox’ creeds and confessions, doctrines and dogmas, but on a way of living which attempts to be in keeping with the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus the Jew, understood in relation to his own time and place, taking into account all the widely varied sources now available to us.
It seems to me that the ‘right’ way to be a Christian, is to explore all the evidence, and to be honest with ourselves about what most makes sense and feels good to us, while respecting the views of others, and being mindful that none of us will ever possess ‘the truth’. Tolerance and open-mindedness should be high in the list of our cherished values. An ‘outbreak’ of these would be a ‘plague’ worth having.