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A Radically Different View of Orthodoxy and Heresy

In my last post I started discussing the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” pointing out that their traditional/etymological meanings are not very helpful for historians.   “Orthodoxy” literally means the “right belief” about God, Christ, the world and so.   That means it is a theological term about religious truth.   But historians are not theologians who can tell you what is theologically true; they are scholars who try to establish what happened in the past.  And so how can a historian, acting as a historian, say that one group of believers is right and that another is wrong?

The problem with the two terms came to particular expression in a book written in 1934 by a German scholar named Walter Bauer.  The book was auf Deutsch, but its English title is Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   For my money, this was the most important book on early Christianity written in the 20th century.   It completely revolutionized how we are to understand the theological controversies that were wracking the Christian church in its early years.

If you recall, the church historian Eusebius had argued (and popularized the view) that by definition, “orthodoxy” always preceded heresy, that it was and always had been the majority view among Christians, that it had been taught by Jesus to his disciples and passed on by them to their successors.   This orthodoxy entailed the theological beliefs that Eusebius and his Christian cohort themselves subscribed to:  there is one God, who created all things; Christ his son is both completely human and divine; salvation comes only by his atoning sacrifice; and so on.

Bauer’s book was meant to turn that view on its head.   Bauer looked at our earliest evidence of Christian belief in several key locations of the empire — Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Rome – and he showed that ….

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Evaluating the Views of Walter Bauer
What Are Orthodoxy and Heresy?



  1. Avatar
    Mohit Kalburge  July 3, 2015

    good !

  2. Avatar
    saavoss  July 3, 2015

    Loved this article… Thank you for sharing.
    From your research and that of Bauer, which of the “heretical” factions were the closest to Jesus’ original teachings? How was that determined?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      The later Jewish Christians were probably fairly close to what Jesus held to, based on an analysis of his teachings in the NT.

  3. Avatar
    Colin P  July 3, 2015

    To what extent are Bauer’s ideas held amongst scholars today? I seem to remember that some of the evidence he put forward has been overturned.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 3, 2015

    Here’s something I find puzzling. When I was growing up (in upstate New York), the religion in which I was raised was called merely the Catholic Church. In later years, people began calling it *Roman* Catholic. And I’m sure I remember reading or hearing *complaints* about that – as if Catholics had somehow let themselves be persuaded to call themselves something *non*-Catholics chose to call them! (Maybe it was really just one of those *regional* things?)

    And it also still puzzles me that growing up, I was never really taught that stuff about Jesus’s death atoning for others’ sins. I did hear something about it, maybe in high school, but I didn’t really grasp it. I think most Catholics in that time and place believed merely that Jesus had died, very publicly, so he could *rise* from the dead and thereby prove he was God.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      Yes, that is strange. It’s a central doctrine of the Catholic Church.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 4, 2015

        I think I heard about it in high school. But as something people were arguing about in a long-ago century – no stress on our supposedly having to believe it! Maybe it was assumed we’d been taught that in elementary school?

        The idea I (and, I think, most lay people) had was that when you died, you went to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell, depending solely on how you’d lived your life. But…for a Catholic, that involved a lot of burdensome obligations that had nothing to do with morality. If you did additional, non-required things like reading the Bible, you could earn “indulgences,” which would shorten the time you’d have to spend in Purgatory.

        We were taught that non-Catholics – anyone, even atheists! – could go to Heaven if they led good lives. But there seemed to be a “catch”: that they *didn’t know* the “truths” that had been revealed to the Church. I don’t remember its ever having been made clear whether that meant they’d never heard Catholic teachings, or could mean that they’d heard them and didn’t believe them.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 3, 2015

    And it *really* puzzles me that Christians can think it’s necessary to believe that stuff about Jesus’s death atoning for others’ sins when – as people have pointed out here – none of the Gospels have Jesus himself teaching any such thing!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      Well, there are passages like Mark 10:45.

    • Avatar
      Arlyn  July 5, 2015

      I’m somewhat perplexed as well, not really understanding why the system in place, repentance for the remission of sins, needed to be reinvented to human or god sacrifice atonement, something the Jews probably couldn’t grasp.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  July 7, 2015

        From the Jewish (or should that be Jewish Christian, ie. the earliest Christians?) perspective it wasn’t really reinvented so much as reimagined or reinterpreted. Jews used animal sacrifice to God to atone for their sins. Mere “repentance” wasn’t enough (someone correct me if I’m wrong though). Jesus was, at some early point, seen as the Lamb of God, the literal and figurative sacrifice to God through the act of his crucifixion which would for eternity provide the atonement that Christians said they needed. From that point on repentance was enough.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 3, 2015

    Is Bauer’s book something that can be understood by a lay reader or should lay readers just stick with your “Lost Christianities” book?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      It’s pretty tough going. But you don’t know till you try!

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 3, 2015

    P.S. I understand that Bauer’s book was written in German. How readable is the English translation?

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 3, 2015

    I assume you’ll get to this in a subsequent post. But now that I’m thinking about these things, I can’t help wondering *why*, if the Scripture copyists whose views later came to be accepted as “orthodox” were willing to make some changes, they didn’t “edit out” the most irreconcilable *contradictions* among Gospels? They surely couldn’t have failed to see them!

  9. Avatar
    mrdavidkeller  July 3, 2015

    From a faith based perspective one would argue Orthodox theology or Roman Catholic Christianity won the battle because the good lord desired it so, still why the good lord required those who promoted the right theology to use bribery, deception, murder and all types of secular evil is a puzzlement to be sure, after all the lord spent his entire time preaching how wrong the temple based jews of his day were for doing exactly that, still its a wonder that in a time when Israel is again a Nation, we are also discovering the unvarnished history of christian faith, of course those who do not believe in God will argue rank coincidence while those who embrace the spiritual are delighted.

  10. Avatar
    Wilderness  July 3, 2015

    This process of deciding orthodoxy is one that has played out many times in various arenas and is, in fact, playing out once more in the world as a certain powerful and well-funded group seeks to dominate the masses and define reality, typically for their own advantage.

    Bart Ehrman’s “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” saved my sanity a few years ago as I was fighting the fundamentalist (orthodox) straightjacket. Since then, I have walked away from a career, many relationships, and the church as I came to realize that acceptance of and submission to wrong is the worst form of slavery of all. This issue of orthodoxy is as relevant today as it ever was as it continues to impact lives and demonstrate the fact that truth without sacrifice is not possible. Thank you Dr. Erhman for giving me a light in the wilderness.

  11. Avatar
    rivercrowman  July 3, 2015

    I’m currently working steadily through Elaine Pagels’ book “Revelations.” … Bart, she’s my second favorite writer. A close second.

  12. Avatar
    toejam  July 4, 2015

    I’d love to hear a follow up on whether you think (or to what extent) Bauer’s views can still be held today. I know a lot of fundamentalists who sneer at Bauer. Is there sneering justified? Like all historians, Bauer was no doubt a product of his time and circumstance and cannot be totally objective. But do you think his work still holds?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      I think they sneer because they are afraid of the implications. But I’ll be dealing with that issue, today and in subsequent posts.

  13. Avatar
    Antisthenes  July 4, 2015

    Is Bauer’s book still considered the definitive authority on the subject or has scholarship since 1934 brought about any revision or update to his ideas? In short, would you recommend any more comprehnsive or modern works?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      See today’s post! I’ll be tallking more about it all anon.

  14. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  July 4, 2015

    Nice morning read. Thanks Dr Ehrman.

  15. Avatar
    nichael  July 4, 2015

    First, thank you for this series of articles (still trying to finish Bauer’s book…)

    Since we’re discussing orthodoxy and its evolution here’s a tangentially related question:

    Do you have any comments/thoughts/etc on Philip (N.B. *NOT* “Jerry”) Jenkins’ book _The Jesus Wars_?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2015

      I read it when if first came out and remember not agreeing with much of it, but it’s been too long for me to make any helpful comments. He’s a terrifically productive fellow.

  16. Avatar
    Gerald Smith  July 6, 2015

    Considering Origen was initially considered a key Christian Father, but later many of his teachings were rejected as heresy, Bauer may have a point in case. Interesting that Eusebius (IIRC) was a follower of Origen’s teachings (like the subordination of Christ to the Father), but would then teach that orthodoxy was pure from the very beginning – which would have included the concept of the Trinity, which rejected Origen’s heresy.

  17. gmatthews
    gmatthews  July 7, 2015

    Has there been any attempt to deconstruct the various early “heresies” to see what the common roots (earliest common beliefs) of those heresies were?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2015

      It’s usually thought that some have roots in common, but others are completely different from one another. But yes, they have all been studied at length and with incredible intensity.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  July 8, 2015

        I didn’t make my question clear, sorry. Evolutionary biologists have their “tree of life” tracing each Kingdom back to a common ancient ancestral life form. Linguistics experts use a tree model to show proposed clades of common language groups traced back to three macro families of proto-languages. I don’t think any heresy was created out of whole cloth without any influence whatsoever from something previous (going back to Jesus and in the case of Gnosticism maybe even further back than that) so has there been an attempt to create a tree model of heresies tracing each one back to the source (Jesus or beyond)?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 9, 2015

          I don’t think cladistics have been applied to what we know about heresies, but I may be wrong The problem is that our knowledge about them is so incredibly limited.

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