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Evaluating the Views of Walter Bauer

In my last two posts I talked about the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.   The standard view, held for many many centuries, goes back to the Church History  of the fourth-century church father Eusebius, who argued that orthodoxy represented the original views of Jesus and his disciples, and heresies were corruptions of that truth by willful, mean-spirited, wicked, and demon inspired teachers who wanted to lead others astray.

In 1934 Walter Bauer challenged that view in his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   Bauer argued that in many regions of the church, the earliest known form of Christianity was one that later came to be declared a heresy.   Heresies were not, therefore, necessarily later corruptions of an original truth.  In many instances they were the oldest known kind of Christianity, in one place or another.   The form of Christianity that became dominant by the end of the third century or so was the only known particularly in Rome.   Once this Roman form of Christianity had more or less swept aside its opponents, it then rewrote the history of the engagement, so that later Christians all came to think that it had always been the majority view among Christians, going back to the days of Jesus himself.

There has been a veritable ton of research done in this field in the eighty years since Bauer published his book, and  n some circles there is still controversy over the matter.   As a rule, conservative Christian scholars….


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How Diverse Was Early Christianity?
A Radically Different View of Orthodoxy and Heresy



  1. Avatar
    RGM-ills  July 4, 2015

    Professor, could you comment briefly on the difference between orthodoxy an canon? For instance, did the gnostic regional views later classified as heretical always involve additional manuscripts such as the gnostic texts or were the views strictly variant interpretations of the same canon. An early example would be the declaration of the trinity concept and a later example might be say, instrumental music or the definition of baptism. And also is the purpose of including this as part of a name, such as Greek Orthodox Church or Orthodox Judaism, simply to emphasize superior rightness?

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 4, 2015

    Keep going. As usual, you have a knack for explaining stuff in a way that I can get it..

  3. Avatar
    saavoss  July 4, 2015

    The more I read your blog, the more I want to learn. Thank you for feeding and nurturing my curiosity.

  4. Avatar
    paul c  July 4, 2015

    “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984

    The thrust of this thread makes me even most suspicious that considerable editing might have be done after MMLJ emerged from the oral tradition.
    Would acknowledgement of diverse geographic origins of MMLJ been a challenge to the early – soon to be orthodox- leaders?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2015

      No, they appear not to have been concerned with geography.

  5. Avatar
    nichael  July 4, 2015

    (Excellent article. As always, thank you.)

    A footnote here might be that, in the broad, none of this is particularly special to traditionalist Christianity. That is, the “winners” virtually always rewrite history to demonstrate that 1] their view is the right one, and 2] that it has been right since the very beginning.

    A notable (non-Christian) example is the view that has been expressed by some in traditional Rabbinic Judaism that echoes Eusebius’s accounts of early Christianity; namely that this it is the purest form of Judaism, that it has always so, and that other sects (e.g. the Essenes, etc) were, without exception, later and explicitly heretical offshoots.

    Two particular examples I recall are 1] the legend that the “oral Torah”, underlying the Mishnah/Talmud, was given to Moses on Mt Sinai alongside the Tablets. And 2] the modern “Square” Hebrew script –most importantly, the script in which the Mishnah was written– was what was actually used on Mt Sinai (that is, the paleo-Hebrew script was a “later” abberation which was used “temporarily” until the texts were converted back into the “real” Hebrew script, still in use today).

  6. Avatar
    Colin P  July 4, 2015

    I am intrigued with the last of the problems you list regarding Bauer’s analysis. If we were to included the New Testament writings in the analysis, how would that affect things as to whether orthodoxy was the original form of Christianity or not?

  7. Avatar
    SteveWalach  July 5, 2015

    What I know of Bauer comes mostly from what you’ve reported about him in your Teaching Company CD’s and your book Lost Christianities. It’s no surprise to me that both he and you have been either attacked or, worse, ignored by Christianity’s orthodox school of the present day.

    However, it’s easy to see, no matter where one’s biases lie, that Paul’s rantings in 2 Cor. 11 – 15 are a clear indication that — in Paul’s eyes, at least — there existed a competing Christian faction, but only if one reads Paul with a marginally critical eye.

    Paul snidely refers to his competitors as “super apostles” and then “false apostles,” whom he viciously accuses of “practicing deceit in their disguise as angels of light … For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”

    You — or perhaps Bauer — suggests in LC, p. 175, that Paul was referring to the forerunners of the Gnostics. I would argue that Paul’s vituperative tirade is aimed at “James people,” whom Paul has many reasons to dislike, namely his having to come to them hat in hand to ask for permission to continue his mission and then having to submit himself to a haircut — literally, and also figuratively in the sense that it is James who handily wins that particular power struggle.

    Am I being naive in my view that Cor 2: 11 -15 is obvious evidence the existence of “other Christianities” dating as far back as Paul’s era, circa 50 CE?

    As you point out on p. 177, there are many other indications in Paul’s letters that his was not the sole Christianity in Asia Minor, even though it was his version of orthodoxy that presently stands head and shoulders above all others.

    My larger question, though, is why did it take until 1934 for someone like Bauer to point out what seems to me to be perfectly obvious: that there were competing versions of Christianity since way back when?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2015

      Good points. I’ll be getting to some of all that in tomrrow’s post!

  8. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  July 5, 2015

    Might I suggest a third model? It seems reasonable to me that the earliest Christians were a small group of like-minded believers. As Christianity spread, it would hardly be surprising for differences in belief to grow. The faith could take all sorts of different directions. Plenty of groups have shown that dynamic in well-documented fashion.

    On the other hand, it seems plausible that NONE of the resulting subgroups would have the very same beliefs and practices as the earliest Christians. More likely, everything evolved over time in every subgroup. Maybe the theological issues that caused such division simply hadn’t arisen yet in earlier times. It’s hard for me to imagine that Paul had any definite opinion about homoousios versus homoiousios, for example. As far as I can tell, the earliest Christians were too preoccupied with practical issues to try to develop their theology in any theoretically systematic way.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2015

      Yes, that’s a driving question. Right after Jesus’ death, were there fundamentally different views of him already?

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  July 8, 2015

        “Right after Jesus’ death, were there fundamentally different views of him already?”

        Doesn’t this question answer itself? For any person, alive or dead, there is a whole range of fundamentally differing views. Take yourself for example. When you die (40-50 years from now) will there be fundamentally differing views immediately or will there be one correct view that is later corrupted by heresy?

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    dragonfly  July 5, 2015

    What Paul was preaching was pretty close to orthodox. And he covered a lot of miles, all before the first gospels were written. His views may not have been dominant in all those regions, but I think it’s safe to say they were widespread.

  10. Avatar
    Matt7  July 5, 2015

    What is considered to be the orthodox view of how a person is saved? Is it by repentance and baptism as the Church of Christ teaches (per Peter), or is it by confessing Jesus as Lord and believing God raised him from the dead, as taught by the Baptists (from Paul in Rom.10:9&10).? Peter came first but Paul’s views seem to dominate the NT, so how did Eusibius choose between the two of them?

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  July 7, 2015

    Bart: A problem with Bauer’s work: Bauer does not actually speak about earliest Christianity because he brackets the writings of the New Testament and begins his analysis with later second century texts. But if the question is whether orthodoxy is original or not, surely we should look at our oldest documents.

    Steefen: Dr. Ehrman, are you the scholar that has plugged this hole? I would think by now, someone could have studied this and published.

    The findings would be interesting!

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