Early Christianity: The Various Followers of Jesus

From the Lecture Series: The Triumph of Christianity

By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

With different groups of followers emerging, there were struggles over what to believe and how to practice Christianity. So, before the triumph of the standard and orthodox view of Christianity, there were three kinds of groups of Jesus followers at the time. Let’s take a look.

Hands with palms open on copies of the Bible. Illustrating a group studying the Bible
Diverse beliefs and practices of Christianity led to multiple groups of Jesus followers. (Image: Kruraphoto/Shutterstock)

The Jewish Christians

First, there is a range of groups at the time that can be called Jewish Christian who went by different names. Some were called Ebionites, some are called Nazarian, and some are called Hebrews. There were differences among these groups, but what unified them was a commitment to the ongoing importance of the practice of Judaism for the believers of Jesus.

In this view, the law of Moses was given by God and was never revoked. God had not changed his mind about how he wanted people to live and worship him. Moreover, the covenant God made with his own people was an eternal covenant, as the Bible itself says, it’s an eternal covenant, not to be circumvented. For that reason, anyone who wanted to belong to his people had to do what he required.

Gentile men who believed in Jesus had to be circumcised. That’s the rule for the people of God. Both men and women had to follow the other laws of Judaism, kosher, sabbath, etc.

Belief in Monotheism

Some of these groups stressed their Jewish monotheism to the point that they said, Christ himself was not truly God. We are monotheists, Christ cannot be God otherwise we have two gods. And so, some of these groups denied, for example, the virgin birth.

One of these groups appears to have had the Gospel of Matthew as its main source of scriptural authority. Many of these groups maintained that Paul was an arch heretic because he rejected the importance of the Jewish law for salvation. So obviously they didn’t have the New Testament and not even Paul.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Marcionites

Another very important early Christian group called the Marcionites, took what was in many ways just the opposite view from the Jewish Christian groups. This group is named after its founder, Marcion, a 2nd century theologian and teacher.

In contrast to the Jewish Christian groups, Marcion’s hero in the faith was Paul, whom he saw as the ultimate authority for what it meant to be Christian. In Paul’s writings, he differentiates between the law and the gospel. The law is given to Jews in the scriptures, Christ’s gospel, Christ’s good news brings salvation apart from the law. People don’t have to follow the law to be right with God if they believe in Jesus.

For Marcion, the God of the Jews who gave the law to Moses, for was a different god from the God of Jesus. The God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New. The material world was created by the wrathful God of the Old Testament, who gave his law and then condemned everyone for not keeping it. The God of Jesus was a God of love and mercy, who came into the world to deliver people from this judgmental creator God of the Jews.

Scripture of the Marcionites

Marcion based his understanding and argued for it from his sacred collection of scripture. This may well have been the first attempt to establish a set of Christian scriptures.

The scriptures comprised of the 10 letters of Paul that he knew, which were the 13 letters of Paul we have today, except he did not have First and Second Timothy and Titus, and a form of the Gospel of Luke.

Both sets of his scripture, both the letters of Paul and his Gospel, were edited to remove all references to the true God as the God of the Old Testament.

The Gnostics

The final group to mention are the Gnostics. This term, gnostic, is a term that scholars have conventionally used to describe a wide range of groups that had numerous differences among themselves.

All of the gnostic groups held to an extensive divine realm with numerous divine beings inhabiting it. They told extensive myths, to explain where these divine beings came from, and how they related to one another.

Statue of Christ the Redeemer
The Gnostics were staunch believers of the teachings delivered by Jesus. (Image: Tenenbaum/Shutterstock)

These myths typically explained as well, how the material world came into being, as a result of a cosmic catastrophe, in which one of the many divine beings in the divine realm, came to be separated from the rest falling from the divine realm. This material world came into being as a result of this cosmic disaster.

Christ Belonged to the Divine Realm

This world was seen as an awful realm of pain and suffering. Humans were trapped in this material world because of their material bodies. Our bodies are prisons for our immortal souls. To escape their bodily entrapment, souls needed to learn the secret knowledge that can bring salvation.

They taught that Christ was a divine being, who came from the divine realm above, in order to reveal the secret knowledge that can bring salvation to entrapped spirits. It was not his death and resurrection that ultimately mattered. It was the secret teachings that Jesus delivered.

These teachings are often conveyed in the myths themselves. Some of which we now have in writings that have been discovered in modern times. These books were lost because Gnostics, like the Jewish Christians and the Marcionites, and all the other competing groups, were squashed by their opposition.

Common Questions about the Different Groups of Jesus Followers

Q: Did all the Jesus followers have uniformity in their beliefs?

All the different groups of Jesus followers were strikingly different in their beliefs and practices.

Q: What were the groups of Jesus followers called?

There were many groups of Jesus followers. Some were Jewish Christians who were further divided into groups like Ebionites, Nazarian and so on. Then, there were groups called Marcionites and Gnostics.

Q: What did Marcion believe in?

Marcion based his understanding on his sacred collection of scripture. The scriptures comprised of the 10 letters of Paul that he knew.

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