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Orthodoxy and Proto-Orthodoxy

The current thread on the diversity of early Christianity actually began as a response to a question raised by a reader, which was the following:

Dr. Ehrman, I do not know if others would find this interesting, but I would love to know how you developed the idea for The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. How did you go about researching it? How long did it take? Is it a once in a lifetime work?

My initial thought was that I would be able to answer the question in roughly five or six posts.   But here it is, two weeks later, and I haven’t even started to answer it because it has taken this long to describe what I mean by the term “orthodox.”   And I haven’t finished doing even that!  But I hope to do so with this post.

To this point I have tried to explain why so many scholars for the past 80 years or so have been convinced that we cannot understand the relationship of early Christian “orthodoxy” and “heresy” either by what they these terms literally mean (based on their etymologies) or, relatedly, by how they have been understood over the centuries by Christian scholars.   The terms literally refer to the “right belief” and to “false belief,” and historically scholars have thought that orthodoxy represented the beliefs taught by Jesus to his disciples (for example, that he is both fully human and fully divine, but just one person, not two persons) and that heresies were corruptions of that original belief by willful and demon-inspired false teachers.

I’ve shown the problems with that view by discussing the landmark work of Walter Bauer, and do not need to go over all that ground again here.  But I do need to deal with one final issue before turning to the question I wanted to address in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

My book deals with how Christian scribes who stood within the “orthodox” tradition in the second and third Christian centuries altered the texts of the sacred books they were copying (the books that were considered to be Scripture) in order to make them say what they, the scribes, wanted them to say.  (As we will see, they did not do this rigorously, consistently, or thoroughly, but sporadically and occasionally.)   But if that is the topic of interest, we have a chronological and terminological problem on our hands.

If, as Bauer would have argued…

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What Is Textual Criticism?
Earliest Christian Diversity



  1. shakespeare66  July 14, 2015

    So it took at least 300 years after the life of Christ for the orthodox view to emerge. However, these competing views did not die out because the dominant view emerged, but went underground, so to speak, to continue to exercise their adopted views e.g. Marcionites. The irony I suppose is that these divergent views would lead Christianity to ONE view—the Roman Catholic view—until Luther and Calvin. I assume that there were divergent views being practiced despite the overall Roman Catholic view. I suppose the Greek Orthodox are an example of this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2015

      There continued to be enormous splits after the Council of Nicea; they tended to be over more and more refined and nuanced issues, but they were excessively heated nonetheless.

  2. Scott  July 14, 2015

    I really LIKE the way you take the long way around to answering these questions. I invariably end up encountering so much new insight from the background material that I am almost sorry when you reach the answer to the original question!

    I think of it as being like when I read an article and want to Google a side topic but dread picking through the search results. With your blog, Dr Ehrman, I don’t have to worry about it.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2015

      Yes, this approach allows me to go into depth on something. And it solves part of the problem of having to come up with something new to say every day for years!

  3. Jason  July 14, 2015

    Is the word “orthodox” just another example of so many people misusing a word in the same way that its meaning changes (think the modern slip of the word “literally” to mean something more like “intensely”?) I’ve only read two or three other scholars on the subject at or near your level but I don’t think any of them ever differentiates or seems to want to differentiate between orthodoxy and proto-orthodoxy or the implications of using one or another term.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2015

      I think most critical scholars are pretty consistent in their use of the terminology these days, although you’re right, not everyone is!

  4. dlw297  July 15, 2015

    Good stuff but are we too quickly passing over the obvious? Is not Pauline theology proto-orthodox at least for the ‘Hellenistic wing?’ Is that not the main stream? Bauer could well be right but since the Epistles, genuine and deutero, are first century; is it not a tall mtn to climb?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2015

      The Gnostics claimed that Paul supported Gnostic views; and the Marcionites claimed he supported Marcionite views; and the proto-orthodox that he supported proto-orthodox views. And so on!

  5. qaelith2112  July 15, 2015

    Unrelated question, but I’ll use this space anyway. I’ve tried going back through “How Jesus Became God” as well as prior entries on this blog to find where you’ve talked about it, and I’m sure you have, but I’m failing to turn it up. The question: Some conservative-leaning people cite Mark 14:62 where Jesus answers the question, “I am, and you will see…” as evidence of an incarnational Christology existing in the Gospel of Mark — i.e., that even Mark had a view of Jesus as Yahweh himself. I’m not inclined to necessarily assume that every spoken instance of “I am” is a self-identification of God, though I’m looking for a brief analysis of this passage (and I could certainly be wrong). Could you either give me a quick thought on it or remind me where you may have discussed it before so that I can go refresh myself on what you had to say about it? I have (and have read) most (or many at least) of your books, so wherever it has been discussed, I probably have the book on my shelf (no, I have not read your dissertation 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2015

      I don’t think anyone claims that Jesus thought he was Yahweh himself. Otherwise, to whom was he praying when he prayed? But yes, some people do take this verse to mean that Jesus was claiming to be equal with God. I think that’s a bit of a stretch. When he says “I am,” that is simply a way of saying “yes” (others in the NT say “I am” EGO EIMI, but that doesn’t mean they’re claiming to be God.) But yes, in Mark’s view Jesus is the divine son of man who is coming back in judgment, and so in his view, Jesus’ exalted claims were judged blasphemous.

  6. RonaldTaska  July 16, 2015

    “The term “proto-orthodox” seems like a good and helpful term to me.

  7. jwaf  January 3, 2017

    When do we say that a sensibly defined (?) orthodoxy was arrived at in Christianity? My understanding of well into the early church & papacy is that things were wild and disorderly for quite an extended time. Presumably some sort of at least implicit general consensus was finally arrived at on the ‘lion’s share’ of the seemingly never-ending contentious issues and an “infallible” modus operandi for dealing with remaining concerns (prior to the reformation and figuring in the east-west division).

    One wonders when a sure enough orthodoxy occurred amidst all the mutual papal excommunications & etc., say nothing of riots in the streets, even over what would be the nuanced post-Nicean controversies. (Seems to me one can only vaguely imagine the ‘rest of the story’ of proto-orthodox.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      I’m not sure what you mean by a sensibly defined orthodoxy. There never was a complete uniformity of belief and practice in the Christian tradition, but always very large differences from one group to another.

  8. jwaf  January 9, 2017

    Since becoming acquainted with the absorbing details and history of Christian theological orthodoxy and proto-orthodoxy in your work and as you mention above, I am very curious whether or not there was a similar phenomenon in strictly Jewish tradition. My impression is that historical Judaism tended to parse ethical or behavioral issues much more than theological matters for perhaps interesting reasons.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      Not so much in the Jewish tradition, at least in the same sense, since doctrinal purity was a relatively minor part of the religion (in contrast to emerging Christianity)

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