When materials purporting to be Christian in authorship or content are recovered from the past, one is faced with the difficulty of determining whether they formed an authentic part of early Christianity or were deviations from it. The resulting judgments concerning the value of such discoveries may be quite different to traditional Christians and members of the restored Church.
Before evaluating the impact that recent discoveries have had on modern Christianity, one must understand how the traditional model of Christianity came about. For many who have thought that the early Church Fathers were the protectors of the faith against outside influences and external persecutions, it may come as a surprise to learn that the earliest manifestations of Christianity were in fact much broader in doctrine and richer in ordinance activity than was the case in later centuries, when the Fathers had trimmed away all that was unacceptable to them. Only within the last century and a half has much of the material from the early period of Christian history become available, permitting us to see what existed before the Fathers made their censorious decisions. The post-apostolic period of Christianity was comprised of many attempts to define the parameters of the faith, primarily focusing on the questions of who had the authority to speak on behalf of the church and what writings were to be accepted as normative for the religion. Nevertheless, one notes that the boundaries prescribing the limits of orthodoxy and heresy were not so well established by the end of the second century as Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, writing around 185, would have his readers believe.