Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-n4bck Total loading time: 0.225 Render date: 2022-08-09T18:27:44.039Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Shades of faith: the phenomenon of doubt in early Christianity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 April 2022

Benjamin Schliesser*
Theologische Fakultät der Universität Bern, Institut für Neues Testament, Länggassstrasse 51, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland


‘Faith’ (pistis) is a key term in early Christianity. It not only describes the self-understanding of an individual Christ-follower, but also operates as the social marker of the Christ-groups. Rather than adding to the renaissance of studies on faith in recent years, this article seeks to illuminate what faith is by focusing on the phenomenon of doubt, broadly understood. After some linguistic reflections, the article identifies six basic types of doubt in early Christian writings and then compiles eighteen coping strategies and patterns of resilience reflected in the most prominent texts. The article is not an attempt at systematizing early Christian reflections on doubt but is rather a cornucopia of insights into how the first Christian theologians talked about doubt, dealt with it, and tried to overcome it.

Original Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Atkins, JD (2019) The Doubt of the Apostles and the Resurrection Faith of the Early Church: The Post-Resurrection Appearance Stories of the Gospels in Ancient Reception and Modern Debate. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Attridge, HW (1989) The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Philadelphia: Fortress.Google Scholar
Backhaus, K (2009) Der Hebräerbrief (RNT). Regensburg: Pustet.Google Scholar
Barth, G (1975) Glaube und Zweifel in den synoptischen Evangelien. Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 72, 269292.Google Scholar
Bauckham, RJ (2012) Eldad and Modad: a new translation and introduction. In Bauckham, RJ, Davila, JR and Panayotov, A (eds), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 244254.Google Scholar
Bauer, DR (1992) The major characters of Matthew's story: their function and significance. Interpretation 46, 357367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Berger, P and Zijderveld, A (2009) In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic. New York: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
Bousset, W (1970) Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus, trans. Steely, JE. Nashville: Abingdon.Google Scholar
Cosgrove, CH (1988) The Cross and the Spirit: A Study in the Argument and Theology of Galatians. Macon: Mercer University Press.Google Scholar
Deissmann, A (1912) St. Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History. London: Hodder & Stoughton.Google Scholar
Ebeling, G (1959) Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.Google Scholar
Ebeling, G (1969) Gewißheit und Zweifel: Die Situation des Glaubens im Zeitalter nach Luther und Descartes. In Wort und Glaube,, vol. 2: Beiträge zur Fundamentaltheologie und zur Lehre von Gott. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 138183.Google Scholar
Frankemölle, H (1985) Gespalten oder ganz: Zur Pragmatik der theologischen Anthropologie des Jakobusbriefes. In von Brachel, H-U and Mette, N (eds), Kommunikation und Solidarität. Freiburg: Herder, pp. 160178.Google Scholar
Frey, J (2018) Johannine dualism: reflections on its background and function. In The Glory of the Crucified One: Christology and Theology in the Gospel of John, trans. Coppins W and Heilig C. Waco: Baylor, pp. 101167.Google Scholar
Grässer, E (1997) An die Hebräer, vol. 3. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag.Google Scholar
Hartin, PJ (1999) A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action in the Letter of James. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.Google Scholar
Hengel, M (2002) Der Jakobusbrief als antipaulinische Polemik. In Kleine Schriften, vol. 3: Paulus und Jakobus. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 520548.Google Scholar
Hooker, MD (1990) Πίστις Χριστοῦ: From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 165186.Google Scholar
Howard-Snyder, D (2013) Propositional faith: what it is and what it is not. American Philosophical Quarterly 50, 357372.Google Scholar
Hübner, K (2004) Glaube und Denken: Dimensionen der Wirklichkeit. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.Google Scholar
Hylen, SE (2009) Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.Google Scholar
Käsemann, E (1939) Das wandernde Gottesvolk: Eine Untersuchung zum Hebräerbrief. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Google Scholar
Klein, G (1970) Der zweite Petrusbrief und der neutestamentliche Kanon. In Ärgernisse: Konfrontationen mit dem Neuen Testament. Munich: Kaiser, pp. 109114.Google Scholar
List, N (2021) Δίψυχος: moving beyond intertextuality. New Testament Studies 67, 85104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Luz, U (2005) Matthew, vol. 3. Minneapolis: Fortress.Google Scholar
Marcus, J (2009) Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 2. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
McKaughan, D (2018) Faith through the dark of night: what perseverance amidst doubt can teach us about the nature and value of religious faith. Faith and Philosophy 35, 195218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morgan, T (2015) Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and the Early Churches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Most, GW (2005) Doubting Thomas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nicklas, T (2020) Skepsis und Christusglaube: Funktionen, Räume und Impulse des Zweifels bei Paulus. In Edelmann-Singer, B, Nicklas, T, Spittler, JE and Walt, L (eds), Sceptic and Believer in Ancient Mediterranean Religions. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 165183.Google Scholar
Nietzsche, F (1997) Daybreak. Thoughts on the Prejudice of Morality. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pelkmans, ME (2013) Outline for an ethnography of doubt. In Pelkmans, ME (ed.), Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies. London: Tauris, pp. 142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Robinson, DC (2010) The problem of Διψυχία in the Shepherd of Hermas. Studia Patristica 45, 303308.Google Scholar
Rüpke, J (2005) Der Hirte des Hermas: Plausibilisierungs- und Legitimierungsstrategien im Übergang von Antike und Christentum. Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 8, 276298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schleiermacher, FDE (1998) Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, trans. and ed. Bowie, A. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Schliesser, B (2012) Abraham did not ‘doubt’ in unbelief (Rom. 4:20): faith, doubt, and dispute in Paul's Letter to the Romans. Journal of Theological Studies 63, 492522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schliesser, B (2017a) Faith in early Christianity: an encyclopedic and bibliographical outline. In Frey, J, Schliesser, B and Ueberschaer, N (eds), Glaube: Das Verständnis des Glaubens im frühen Christentum und in seiner jüdischen und hellenistisch-römischen Umwelt. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 350.Google Scholar
Schliesser, B (2017b) To touch or not to touch: doubting and touching in John 20:24–29. Early Christianity 8, 6993.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schliesser, B (2021) Konfliktmanagement in der stadtrömischen Christenheit: eine neue Sicht auf die ‘Starken’ und ‘Schwachen’ in Rom. In Eisen, UE and Mader, H (eds), Talking God in Society: Multidisciplinary (Re)constructions of Ancient (Con)texts (Festschrift Peter Lampe). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 83104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schliesser, B (2022) Zweifel: Phänomene des Zweifels und der Zweiseeligkeit im frühen Christentum. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.Google Scholar
Söding, T (1991) Zuversicht und Geduld im Schauen auf Jesus: Zum Glaubensbegriff des Hebräerbriefes. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 82, 214241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spitaler, P (2007) Διακρίνεσθαι in Mt. 21:21, Mk. 11:23, Acts 10:20, Rom. 4:20, 14:23, Jas. 1:6, and Jude 22 – the ‘semantic shift’ that went unnoticed by patristic authors. Novum Testamentum 49, 139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tajfel, H (1978) Differentiation between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. London: London Academic Press.Google Scholar
Taylor, C (2007) A Secular Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Weiss, H-F (1991) Der Brief an die Hebräer (KEK 15). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zahn, T (1868) Der Hirt des Hermas. Gotha: Perthes.Google Scholar

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Shades of faith: the phenomenon of doubt in early Christianity
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Shades of faith: the phenomenon of doubt in early Christianity
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Shades of faith: the phenomenon of doubt in early Christianity
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *