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Why Did “Orthodox” Christianity Win?

QUESTION:

What I have been wondering lately is “why” did Christianity win out. There seemed to be much competition in the ancient world between the pagan polytheisms and monotheistic religions. Competition not only between the Jewish religion and Christian religion but within Christianity.

I would be interested in why you think the current version of Christianity won out. Was it purely a matter of cultural evolution and this form of Christianity seemed to benefit people the most, easiest to adhere to, most flexible.

RESPONSE:

In my previous post I tried to deal (briefly!) with the first part of this question: why did Christianity succeed in the first place, so that it eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.  In this post I will deal (briefly again!) with the second question: why did a certain form of Christianity – widely labeled “orthodox” – end up triumphing within Christianity, when there were so many other forms of Christianity that were competing for dominance?

This too is not at all an easy question, and I have dealt with it at greater length in one of my earlier books, Lost Christianities.  Among other things, in that book I talk about the problems we have with terms and their definitions.   When we talk about “orthodoxy” and “heresy” – what do we mean?

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Why Did “Orthodox” Christianity Win: Part 2
The Growth of Early Christianity: A Clarification

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    hwl  June 23, 2012

    Bart,
    I find Bauer’s thesis quite plausible, namely different forms of Christianity were the oldest and original forms in different parts of the Roman Empire. However, as to which group most faithfully represented the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, it seems to me that you broadly agree with the Eusebian view: in your studies on the historical Jesus, you refer almost exclusively to the canonical gospels, to the exclusion of the Gnostic writings and Marcionite beliefs. Both of these non-orthodox Christian groups lacked the Jewishness that must have been central to the historical Jesus who grew up and taught in Jewish Palestine.
    Can you clarify?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2012

      It’s not because I agree with Eusebius, but because the canonical Gospels are the earliest we have, and appear from a historical point of view to contain (far) more historically reliable material.

      • Avatar
        hwl  June 24, 2012

        Given that to a large extent, the proto-orthodox position was underpinned by the accounts in the canonical gospels and many heterodox early christianities were based on much later documents often deeply influenced by hellenistic religious ideas, surely it is correct to say the proto-orthodox view of Jesus was closer to the historical Jesus? The canonical gospels have stories, teachings and christology originating from the post-Easter church, yet also have retained ample materials originating from the historical Jesus sufficient to reconstruct a somewhat reliable picture of the historical Jesus. The same cannot be said of the Gnostic writings. It seems to me Eusebius is partially right: the proto-orthodox Christians have preserved Jesus’ teachings to a good extent. Correct?

      • Avatar
        davy_cko  June 7, 2015

        Dear Prof. Ehrman,

        The earliest manuscript we have pointed to orthodox view or heretical view?

  2. Avatar
    Jim Joyner  June 23, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Are you sure you said what you meant about Eusebius’ ideas on orthodoxy? Your summary makes his orthodoxy sound so uncomplicated … was it really? And your view on his awkward explanation of the decision at Nicaea?

    Ever since I heard your Teaching Company presentation with the comment about Rome’s strong arm to force doctrine onto others I have tried to pay careful attention to Rome’s role in (historical) orthodoxy. Rome had few notable theologians of its own, most are living in or imported from other places (e.g., North Africa). Rome was not the largest cluster of churches when compared to Ephesus or Alexandria. Then a substantial power base moves away to Constantinople.

    John’s (the Baptizer) Jewish message was to repent and turn back to justice (if we can believe Luke). Isn’t it fair to observe that the disciples of Greek philosophers influenced Christians with their approach of debating how to be faithful to a thought (I.e., belief) system?

    Really, is Rome even half the story of (historical) orthodoxy coming into the 4th century?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2012

      Yes, orthodoxy was much more complicated than can be explained in a 1000 word blog posting!!

      Why do you think the churches of Ephesus and Alexandria were larger and more influential than Rome in the second and third centuries?

      I do think the Greek philosophical traditions/schools had some impact on Christianity (if nothing else, on how it was perceived), but I do not think that it made that impact quite so early. Nothing suggests that there was any knowledge of the schools in rural Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples were from..

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  June 23, 2012

        I absolutely agree the Lower Galilee was not significantly influenced by Greek philosophy. The 1st century synagogue in Migdal makes that clear. Galilean archaeologist Motti Aviam proposes the images on the Torah table found at Migdal are carvings of views of the Temple and articles from the Temple … Greek philosophy does not fit there. But that’s 1st century and not Christian.

        I’ll bet you can find space to say that it isn’t really clear that Eusebius was “orthodox” (aren’t we really talking about Christology at this stage?) yet his historical account favors (historical) orthodoxy. You seem to be presenting Eusebius as a revisionist historian revising things to his orthodox view, yet he was questioned and challenged by others doubting his orthodoxy. This seems very important if you’re going to re-create this ancient period as dominated by orthodoxists who strong arm everyone. Power was a tenuous thing then., as you know. According to Fergus Millar, even the emperor relied on persuasion because power was never absolute. In Eusebius we may have someone who was not fully “orthodox” yet to our modern minds he seems to view everything through orthodox-colored glasses. I just have trouble believing it was so simple as the orthodoxists successfully stamped out all other views and re-wrote everything … yes, I know at times they tried.

        It appears some faithful and bright people from the 2nd through 4th centuries believed sincerely there was a core of genuine apostolic tradition. Could they be correct in some important ways? Yet I’m not willing to surrender all we’ve learned about diversity in the late 1st through 4th centuries (and later).

        Several years ago I heard you say in Atlanta (2006?) that some people see how things are similar everywhere they look, and you see differences everywhere you look. Are you looking closely at differences among those who we label orthodox? If there were differences among the orthodoxists any use they made of enforcement gives only a fragile hold on others; loss of power is only one mob away. On the ineffective use of Roman power and its inconsistent effectiveness I am influenced when I look at the Donatist controversy; how could the Roman church accomplish more in enfircement than Constantine did with orthodoxy?

        I think my memory of the larger size of Ephesus’ Christian community comes from Ramsey MacMullen … he comments on these counts in Voting and in the Second Church … but I’ll verify my memory. Also, some have suggested Marcion’s church was larger than any other network … if even partially correct, when did Rome overcome that? I’ll check my source on Antioch’s size also.

        By the way, thank you for taking time to respond … you really are quite generous. I really do understand the busy life of a scholar. I am not one, but have been very close to one. Thanks, sincerely.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 24, 2012

          This is all a bit much to reply to in a brief comment! Generally: yes, I am greatly simplifying things by labeling Eusebius “orthodox,” as there were very big distinctions being made in his time. But orthodoxy is always a matter of one’s reference point! My reference point for this discussion is the wide diversity of Christian heterodoxy in the second and third centuries, with Marcionites, Ebionites, Valentinians, Thomasines, Gnostics, etc. etc. And, well, the proto-orthodox. Eusebius stood against the other gropus and for the proto-orthodox. And by his time, the other groups had been marginalized quite severely. But *within* the group that affirmed the “rule of faith” as they called it there were harsh and bitter battles over what might seem to us to be the nuances, but to them seemed to be matters of life and death; and Eusebius was not always on the winning side in those debates.

          • Avatar
            Jim Joyner  June 24, 2012

            Understood about the limitations, and thank you for responding anyway to my bloated post(s). More to the point: if Eusebius is fairly classified as “orthodox” I just don’t see how the success of “orthodoxy” can be characterized fairly as an imagined connection to an apostolic core of beliefs and then propose it was muscled successfully onto everyone else during the late 4th century, solely by strength of muscle. The view that attracts my attention: the closet dissenters, widely dispersed across the Roman map, were more important for understanding early Christianity than more distinct “groups” like Gnostics, who never had much in common with Donatists, Montanists, the church founders and followers at Dura Europas, Syrian and Judean churches, etc. Among these was a core unity, calling it “apostolic” is optional. I have had my say so I will be quiet and listen … thanks.

  3. Avatar
    haoleboy26  June 23, 2012

    This is a very interesting series of posts and I’m looking forward to the next installment. Given the importance of the Roman version of Christianity in determining the subsequent progression of Christianity, and the traditions within this strain of Christianity, I am wondering, “To what extent there is evidence for against the belief that Peter traveled to and resided much of his later life in Rome?”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2012

      Good question. Rather than answer it here, I think I’ll extract it and make a post on it, later down the line. If you just can’t wait, you might want to check out my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, where I discuss the issue at greater length.

      • Avatar
        haoleboy26  June 24, 2012

        Thanks for the reply. I’m currently one chapter away from completing Forged, and God’s Problem is next on my list. So Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene will have to wait ’till later this summer. So we’ll see which of us get’s to the issue first.

  4. Avatar
    Mikail78  June 23, 2012

    Bart, this isn’t a very scholarly comment (I’m not a scholar), but more of an observation. Even among what is considered to be the “orthodox” denominations and groups of today, such as The Roman Catholic Church, The Eastern Orthodox Church, and various protestant denominations such as Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians and more, there is not always agreement on what is considered essential, “orthodox” Christian doctrine. These groups and plenty of more that I haven’t listed don’t always even agree even on just what one must do or believe in order to be “saved.” Yet these groups all claim to follow “the word of God”.

    If the Bible is the God-ordained book that is not the work of mere men, is it unreasonable to expect it to be clear and beyond question? If the Bible is as flawless and perspicuous as many theologically conservative Christians make it out to be, why can’t theologically conservative Christians of various “orthodox” denominations even agree on what it truly says and means?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 28, 2012

      Most of these mainline denominations do not have a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture as flawless, in the way you’re expressing it. The theologians in these various denominations are very sophisticated! But your objection would be true of the various fundamentalist and conservative evangelical groups, I should think.

  5. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 27, 2012

    I would suggest that the early Christians were “adoptionists” if they had been taught by Paul, who, if I read Romans correctly, believed that God adopted Jesus as his son by raising him from the dead. Certainly Paul had no concept of the preexistence of Jesus, which did not come about until the Gospel of John, decades later.

  6. Avatar
    Marko071291  September 10, 2018

    Hi Bart. Quick question:
    Where do we find for the first time term Orthodoxy in a early Christian context described above (as a right believe)? Is it in Irenaeus? Could you cite first known example of that? Thank’s!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      It’s hard to pin it down in terms of date and person. Already in the NT there are passages that affirm the importance of believing precisely the right thing, even though the term “orthodoxy” doesn’t get used that early.

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