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Orthodoxy and Heresy in the New Testament Itself

I am now getting back to the question of early Christian diversity – all in the context of setting up the answer to the question I got about what I had in mind when I decided to write my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.   I have been discussing the views of Walter Bauer, in his classic work, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, who maintained that from the earliest of times, so far as we can tell from our surviving records, Christianity was not a single unitary thing with one set of doctrines that everyone believed (orthodoxy), except for occasional groups that sprang up as followers of false teachers who corrupted that truth they had inherited (heresies).  Instead, as far back as we can trace the history of theology, Christianity was always a widely disparate collection of various beliefs (and practices).  In the struggle for converts, one form of the Christian faith ended up becoming dominant.  When it did so, it declared itself orthodox and all other forms of the faith heretical; and then it rewrote the history of the engagement, claiming that it had always been the principal form of Christianity, starting with Jesus himself and the disciples.

I have also explained why Bauer did not start with the New Testament documents but only with second century materials.   His decision actually makes very good sense, as I have shown.  But it does open him up to the obvious objection that the fragmentation within the Christian tradition that we find starting in the second century may have *originated* from a completely unitary form of the faith from earlier times, the times of Jesus’ apostles.

Scholars since Bauer have rigorously pursued that question, as you might imagine.   I am not going to give a complete history of scholarship here (for which you can all be grateful).   But I do want to explain, in two posts, why I think the New Testament *itself* shows that as early as we have any evidence at all Christianity was fragmented and variegated.

The first thing to emphasize is that….

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Earliest Christian Diversity
Taming the Diversity of the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 12, 2015

    As usual, a very convincing “Ehrman” argument supported by evidence. Thanks.

  2. Avatar
    Judith  July 12, 2015

    How can it possibly be any clearer than this? You nailed it once and for all for me. Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    Karol Dziwior  July 12, 2015

    Thank you for this post, dr Ehrman.

    I was wondering what is your view of the so called Council of Jerusalem. It is clearly seen in the epistles of Paul that he is struggling with opponents of faith, opponents of doctrines other than his own. You’ve mentioned Epistle to Galatians and the problem of law in the life of Christians and pagan-Christians. What’s your opinion on this Council of Jerusalem. The narrative in Acts seems to support Paul’s point of view. Even James agrees that it is not necessary for pagans to be circumsized and observe the Law. So it seems to me that this narrative supports some kind of unity of Christian belief in Paul’s days, at least between apostles – James, Peter, Paul. In Galatians Paul says that when he went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James, and when he described the Gospel he preaches – they added nothing to him.

    I’m sure that there will be many people who will go to these fragments and say that this is the proof of the unity – at least in the apostolic mainstream. How would you respond to that? Maybe that might be even your next point in this orthodoxy-heresy discussion?

    And just one more question – are there any meaningful textual variants in the aformentioned fragments? One could argue that the “they added nothing to me’ and whole Council of Jerusalem narrative in Acts seem to be very convenient for Paul’s own interest. Do you think it is possible that these fragments are touched with some kind of propaganda?

    Karol from Poland

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      Yes the book of Acts very much wants to stress that there was completely unity at this “conference.” That’s the agenda of Acts. When you read Paul’s report in Galatians, it’s clear he did not see it this way — he had to persuade the others that his mission was legitimate. (There are no textual variants of any importance in the passage related to the question)

      • Avatar
        jhague  July 13, 2015

        I know we can only guess but with Paul stating that he went to Arabia and Damascus for three years and did not meet with the apostles in Jerusalem during that time, why did he bother to get acquainted with Peter for 15 days and see James? Paul had such a radical change from Judaism, he had to know that he no longer shared their beliefs. It would seem that the 15 days would have been very awkward.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2015

          My sense is that they were trying to establish common ground to help out each others’ mission.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 16, 2015

            It always feels like we’re missing some information regarding Paul. Since he did not really have a cosmic experience with the Christ, who in Damascus had such an influence on him to cause him to radically change his beliefs? Or did Paul ever really have a deep faith/belief in Judaism? Why was he in Damascus? It was certainly not for the reasons stated in Acts. Why go to Arabia after his change in beliefs? Was there a group in Arabia that helped him develop his thoughts and beliefs? With the diversity in Christianity at the time, Paul obviously accepted the form that favored the Gentiles. Since he visited Peter after his three year training, did he think that his claim of a cosmic visit from Christ and his superior education and training would sway Peter and Jesus’ original followers to his way of thinking?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 18, 2015

            I think he did have a visionary experience of Jesus. But we don’t know why he then chose to go to Arabia and then Damascus before going to Jerusalem.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 21, 2015

            I tend to separate the man Jesus from the cosmic vision of Christ. Paul mainly mentions Christ and seems to have attached the man Jesus to his Christ vision. My reluctance to think that Paul actually had a vision comes from his obvious great desire to be considered an apostle. He knew that a requirement to be an apostle was that he had to have been with (or in his case seen) Jesus. It seems very convenient that when he decided to join/start his mission, he has a vision so that he is qualified. From his own writings, many people in the first century did not believe him. I think about it like I would today. If someone today said he had a vision of Jesus/Christ and was given religious instructions and he was to share with everyone and they needed to believe and obey what he said, I would think this person is a nut.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 23, 2015

            Do you believe that Paul’s vision and claim that he then received a message to authoritatively proclaim a message from God that all are required believe and obey is different than someone in modern times claiming the same thing?
            (I am honestly interested in this. I find it amazing that some people can make a claim of receiving a message from God and people believe them and others make the same claim and people ignore them.)

          • Bart
            Bart  July 24, 2015

            I don’t think it’s inherently much different, apart from the massive shift in cultural context.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 24, 2015

            Yes. I agree. Are Paul’s words the only information that we have to rely on to say that Paul actually had a vision rather than he made the story up of a vision so that he could claim that he saw the Christ and is now an apostle?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 25, 2015

            When it comes to visions, there really can’t be any other evidence, apart from what a person says she or he saw.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 28, 2015

            I agree. What reason then do we have for believing that Paul had an actual vision rather than fabricating the story in order to give himself the creditials to call himself an apostle?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 28, 2015

            I suppose you have to base it on whether he strikes you as the sort of person who would flat-out lie about something to allow him to be considered an apostle. One argument against that view is that he was constantly being persecuted, beat up, and punished physically for being an apostle. Maybe he was a glutton for punishment? Seems unlikely to me, but it’s a judgment call.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 28, 2015

            I agree that it’s a judgement call. It’s also a judgement call to decide if he was really constantly being persecuted, beat up, and punished physically. Maybe he made these statements up because he thought that claiming to be abused for his beliefs would help his cause.
            It always feels like something is missing from the information regarding Paul. Even the people he encountered seemed to not believe his message and his claim of a cosmic vision. And in his letters, it appears that he makes up his responses to the different communities as he goes.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 29, 2015

            Yes, the question is always whether there is evidence or not.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 29, 2015

            I am now reading Paul the Apostle by Albert Harrill as you suggested. He believes that Paul’s death resulted from taking his contribution from Gentiles to the temple and taking it and maybe a Gentile or two into the inner courts. Maybe Paul was a glutton for punishment as he had to have known this was not allowed.
            Also, it appears to me that many ministers today will deliberately preach a message that they know is not true in order to collect a paycheck. I understand that most of them learn the truth about the Bible, etc. then go out and get a job to preach the traditional message. It does not seem too far fetched that Paul was motivated to fabricate and embellish his qualifications in order to spread his message.
            I know if sounds like I am extremely hard on Paul. But the more I read and learn, the more his story does not make sense to me.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 30, 2015

            As there needing to be supporting evidence, the best evidence we have is Paul’s own words. So then its a judgement call as to whether to believe what Paul states. I think your thought is that we believe Paul was sincere and stated what he believed to be true. In your opinion, do you think this is always the case with Paul? Or do you think he occasionally took advantage of a situation to promote his personal agenda?

            (I think the confusing part that is missing for me is what actually happened with Paul during his three years in Damascus/Arabia. He must have spent that time adjusting his beliefs of Judaism and concluding that his religion had made a change which he had to promote since the apocalypse was coming soon, according to what he understood.)

          • Bart
            Bart  July 31, 2015

            Yes, I think Paul was always sincere. He could be self-centered, self-important, and self-promoting, but I don’t think he was an intentional liar. My view is that we’ll never know exactly what he was doing during those first three years. Wish we did!

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 3, 2015

            I know the historian needs evidence. But with Paul, the only evidence are his words and the words of others who supported him. Most evidence against Paul, if it ever existed, is gone or was written after Paul’s death by those who did not know him. (Is this basically correct?)
            It seems that through out history, there have been people who have claimed to had a special relationship with a deity and gained special knowledge or an important message that is to be shared and accepted by all people.
            Some of these people in history have had ulterior motives such as some sort of power over others and/or money.
            In the writings of Paul, he seems to be sincere but I imagine that anyone writing for them self would appear sincere. And Paul had the advantage of anything possibly written to expose him not surviving.
            As an example, was Paul’s desire to collect money for the poor in Jerusalem just to make his church plants think that he had a good relationship with Peter, James and John? I know we cannot answer this question but it seems strange to me that Paul preaches a message different from those that actually lived with Jesus, Paul wants everyone to know that he did not get his message from Peter, James and John, and yet he tells his church plants that he wants to collect money for the poor in Jerusalem. Another thought, was this just a plan of Paul’s to make a “statement” in the temple by bringing money from Gentiles and bringing Gentiles into the inner courts?
            I try to think how Paul would be received today. My guess is that he would be mostly ignored. Although there are many who are able to successfully build up cults in our current history.

  4. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 12, 2015

    Surely the disagreements and diversity found in the NT including Paul’s letters are not as radical as those found between groups later labelled orthodox groups and the heretical groups (e.g. Marcionites, gnostics)? It seems to me that the important issue regarding character of the early church, is whether the beliefs and practices of the proto-orthodox churches or whether those of the 2nd & 3rd century “heretical” groups are closer – in relative terms – to the matrix of beliefs and practices found at the time of the 1st generation of Christians. Can the historian make an informed assessment on this issue?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      N, they don’t seem to be as radical. And yes, historians can certainly make that judgment, based –it must always be stressed — on the limited evidence that survives.

  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 12, 2015

    While Paul’s opponents attacked in Epistle to the Galatians could be seen as precursors to the 2nd century Ebionites, it is hard to see evidence alluded in the NT writings of existence of groups anything like Marcionites and Gnostics.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      Ah, they would heartily disagree with you!! (E.g., the Gospel of John; the Gospel of Luke; Paul’s writings; etc.)

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  July 13, 2015

        Is there any evidence there were precursors to the gnostics and Marcionites as early as the 1st century?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2015

          Sure: the writings of the NT and the people who held to them were their precursors.

  6. Avatar
    SteveWalach  July 12, 2015

    Your analysis of Paul’s epistles is consistently clear and extremely helpful for anyone trying to sort out the early history of Christianity — not only its calendar of events but also the variations in its adherents’ core beliefs and practices. And thank you for your scrupulous reading of Paul. Yes, Paul is perhaps the most influential essayist of the last two millennia but also the most unpleasant — not in terms of style, which even in (of because of) translation is logically consistent and readable, but because reading Paul is like getting hammered on the head by a windy, true-blue authoritarian. No wonder the orthodox approach finds his work so compatible.

    Differences between Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem — including James — are not only a matter of substance but also diverge in temperament and organizational structure. Paul and his church members initially relied on charisma as the organizing principal — which set off a stampede of religious individualism, causing Paul to intervene on “occasion” to institute some sanity. (Your TC course on early Christianity does a superb job of analyzing the problems Paul has to mend in his our churches.)

    Whereas in Jerusalem, James’s leadership seems to have motored along effectively after Jesus’s death and without tumult (Paul being the lone known provocateur), until Ananus murders James in 62 CE. James’s authority is heeded in practice if not in spirit even by Paul, and so loyal were his congregants that after James’s death they rose up against Ananus and hid him removed as high priest.

    Key features of James’s accepted authority are crystal clear in Luke Acts. Are there other sources of early church writers you hold credible in their comments about James, a figure as much — or perhaps more — forgotten than Paul is remembered and revered?

  7. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 13, 2015

    Well said, and verification of the diversity that existed even in the earliest of times of Christianity. So, there was an evolution of sorts and one that is difficult to trace, but is it worthy of your time to show this history of the evolution of the diversity and how it came to be the orthodox view, or am I asking a stupid question since you have already done that in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture ( which I have not read)?

  8. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 13, 2015

    I just ordered the book, and wondered why I had not seen it before. Hmmm…

  9. gmatthews
    gmatthews  July 13, 2015

    In Jason BeDuhn’s recent book on Marcion’s canon he says that the church in Rome, being closely tied to their Jewish roots, marginalized Paul to some extent and that some of the earliest church fathers from Rome, such as Hermas and Justin, do not directly quote Paul or even mention him. There were others of course outside of Rome, but it seems concerted there (from what I understand at any rate) perhaps due to the Roman church’s ties to their Jewish roots. BeDuhn says this indifference to Paul may have been due to Marcion’s high regard for Paul as his primary apostle. Is this the standard scholarly view? I’m sure there are many nuances to this view.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      There seem to be two explanations here: Roman Christainity had strong Jewish roots (interesting view: hard to show, but usefully explains the data) and Marcion was being hotly opposed there (the view I’ve usually held). These may, of course, be related to each other. The latter is a common explanation.

  10. Avatar
    Arlyn  July 13, 2015

    Why wasn’t the Didache canonized? Was there a diversity or orthodox issue with it?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      Because it wasn’t thought to be written by an apostle and was not thought to be an early apostolic productoin.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 13, 2015

    Do you think that your blogs might be publishable in a series of “Christianity in Antiquity” books, maybe one book for each year of the website? I think many bloggers have formed books from their blogs. It would be like an editorial writer publishing a series of his/her columns in book form.

  12. Avatar
    rich-ilm  July 13, 2015

    “Scholars since Bauer have rigorously pursued that question, as you might imagine. I am not going to give a complete history of scholarship here (for which you can all be grateful). But I do want to explain, in two posts, why I think the New Testament *itself* shows that as early as we have any evidence at all Christianity was fragmented and variegated.”

    I think you’ve shown beyond reasonable doubt in these posts and others that the NT examples provide basically all the evidence that this issue demands. Would love to see a post or two on some of the history of the scholarship about non-scriptural evidence that traces the second century / Ebionite / Marcionite fragmentation back to the first century.

    Thanks again for such a fantastic blog…it’s always been great, but the posts have been especially good recently! Am very much looking forward to the upcoming memory book.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2015

      Yes, I’m afraid our only first-century sources are in the NT (except for 1 Clement, which doesn’t address this question.)

  13. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  July 14, 2015

    hello bart

    since you have talked about Paul I want you to help me to understand this quote from Paul

    Romans 3:7 “If the truth of God has been spread by my lie, then why am I judged a sinner.”

    did he admit he was liar

    thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2015

      He may well have done, but in this verse he is only giving a hypothetical situation.

  14. Avatar
    WimV  July 14, 2015

    When Paul defends his views against other views, or when arguments for other views are mentioned by him, to what extent do he and his opponents use arguments like: “Well, our founder Jesus, said such and such, so that settles the matter.” Has anyone ever done a study on the types of arguments that are actually used and looked at what the likelihood would be of a “Jesus-said-this”-style argument being used in their stead (as a clearly stronger one), if the conservative view were right and Christianity started out as being based on a unified teaching of Jesus that was faithfully and accurately transmitted and ultimately recorded in the Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2015

      Yes, there are studies of “The Sayings of Jesus in the Writings of Paul,” and such things. But I agree it is striking that Paul does not appeal to Jesus’ own authority (a lot) more than he does — just, really, in three places in the book of 1 Corinthians.

      • Avatar
        Mark  July 20, 2015

        If Paul does not usually appeal to Jesus’ own authority, then on what does Paul base his beliefs?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 21, 2015

          His revelation from God (in the resurrected person of Jesus), the Jewish Bible, his insights from God, earlier Christian tradition, and so on.

  15. Avatar
    Adam Beaven  July 15, 2015

    Doctor ehrman

    How come John is the only gospel which has his jesus say that the only way to the father is through bloody violent crucifixion/jesus? Is this an indication that John is facing Christians who say there are other ways to the father?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2015

      It’s usually thought that the target is not other Christians but possibly non-Christian Jews, who are being told that they have no access to God apart from Jesus.

  16. Avatar
    Slydog1227  July 18, 2015

    Excellent excellent thread Dr. Herman! Thank you!
    It’s amazing that any scholar could disagree with Bauer’s theories on early diversity considering the proof provided by the Epistles of Paul himself!?!? How could they possibly respond when that is considered? Do they usually just stare blankly and shrug? Has this ever been a topic any of your debates? How do they respond?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2015

      Oh yes, it’s hotly debated. They never stare blankly and shrug! They insist that Paul’s views were the dominant ones in early Christianity.

  17. Avatar
    deaster  August 31, 2019

    I’m sorry for this random question, but could you list a few views modern day Christians would consider orthodox that originate from Alexandria?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2019

      I’m not sure we have any way of knowing which views originated in one place or another — we only know were some views were hotly discussed and where they are first attested (not the same thing). E.g., the idea that in the Trinity the father and son are completely equal in substance and equally powerful and equally eternal arose out of a debate between two leaders in Alexandria (Arius and Alexander); but they are building on earlier views.

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