The work of the renown German theologian and lexicographer, Walter Bauer, in his Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im Ältesten Christentum—Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity—has enjoyed a long life and legacy in New Testament studies and early Patristic studies since its initial publication in 1934 in German, and especially since its translation into English by Paul J. Achtemeier under the auspices of Fortress press in 1971. This work essentially sought to question the “classical theory” of early Christian orthodoxy that “truth preceded error,” and that this truth and was known everywhere in every church. Bauer’s question mark in this regard seems indelible, and his mantle has been variously taken up by scholars of a later generation who see an essential value in the project and have carried it on with reference to newly discovered ancient documents.
There is a history of interpretation—both of Bauer and the primary sources—wherein two broad and more nuanced streams have emerged: one from both Bauer’s followers, and one from his critics.
My intention in this post is to share some thoughts in favour of a nuanced version of the traditional perspective, considering some simple observations (made by Bauer, and from the primary sources) as a starting point, and reasoning in a general way about what may plausibly be said about early orthodoxy.
Consider, as a starting point, the oft-repeated statement by Irenaeus, that the church held to the same faith in every place (see Against Heresies 1:10.3; 3:12.7; 3:24.1; 4:35.4; 5:20.1.).
It is probably worth noting that the declaration is falsifiable. Since the stakes were relatively high in conflicts between the “proto-orthodox” writers and their adversaries, it is a curious silence that the ubiquity of the orthodox position as expressed by Irenaeus is not expressly called into question. This is not to say that every group of Christians were orthodox (not even the early-orthodox writers believed that: they still admitted that “heretical” groups went by the name “Christian” [see Justin Martyr, First Apology], but it is to say that ubiquity was apparently acknowledged; this may constitute a strong argumentum ex silentio (yes, arguments from silence can be strong).
Yet the statement by Irenaeus opens the door to a more compelling series of observations with respect to early orthodoxy, because it invites the consideration of early orthodoxy as a kind of consensus.
The Problem of Consensus
Consensus is a concept fraught with problems. The concept on its own is not a proxy for knowledge of any kind, it is simply a statement about what a group of people are convinced of; it may be trivial. Appeal to consensus may thus be a kind of informal fallacy of reasoning. However, this concerns unqualified consensuses. If a consensus is sufficiently qualified—it may still not be a proxy for knowledge (nor does it prove anything) but it may indicate a likely place to look for probable knowledge, or plausible hypotheses. How can such consensuses be qualified?
There are three qualities which a consensus should meet in order to suggest itself as a likely place to look for important information: a consensus should be heterogeneous—that is, members of the consensus should ideally be as diverse as possible (and thus non-colluding); it should be sufficiently large—this is not to say that only large groups of people can indicate probable knowledge (the phenomenon of the paradigm shift begins most often on the basis of an individual proposal—yet when that proposal is either diversely corroborated and acknowledge by a larger group, the shift is finally effected); and a consensus should be uncoerced (which should be self-explanatory).
If one were to take Irenaeus’s statement as a starting point, that some kind of orthodox consensus did exist, can it be qualified as a diverse, sufficiently large, and uncoerced consensus? I think it can and will make the case below.
[Note: This does not prove the classical theory right (in its simple formulation above, it must be modified); this does not prove the early orthodox writers to be reliable wherever they write, or infallible, or what have you. This simply makes the traditional hypothesis generally plausible, and more plausible than the systems which essentially question it.]
Orthodoxy: The Diverse, Large, and Uncoerced Consensus of Earliest Christianity
First, early orthodoxy was diversely expressed: in diverse places, by diverse ethnic and social groups, diverse expressions of the same essential orthodoxy emerged.
This is my claim, but Bauer advanced two fundamental theses as the major thrust of his work which either directly or indirectly question this claim: “1) In most areas of the Mediterranean basin—particularly Edessa, Egypt, Asia Minor, Antioch, Macedonia, and Crete—heresy was either earlier than and/or stronger than orthodoxy. 2) From the beginning of the second century the Roman community was singularly the dominant influence in the formation of orthodoxy.” Bauer claimed that Edessa was Marcionite prior to becoming Orthodox at the turn of the fourth century; Egypt as well as Asia Minor were Gnostic, the former being so well into the third century, and only Rome was the true source of later orthodoxy.
If this is true, how can I claim that the orthodox consensus was diverse? Each place—Edessa, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Rome—needs to be considered in turn. I’ll do that by considering the evidence proposed by Bauer, and then respond to the evidence in a way that at least suggests that Bauer’s proposals do not question the diversity of the orthodox consensus.
Evidence: for Edessa, the “one case where Bauer’s claim might hold,” there is the Edessene Chronicle (a sixth-century Syriac text) which mentions (in a gloss) that the Marcionites were called Christians at Edessa (and mentions other heretics there); there is a passage in Justin (1 Apol. 26) where Justin indicates that Marcionites and other heretics are called Christians (in the same way disagreeing philosophers share the common name of philosopher).
Response: for the sake of argument, I will assume this is right (it probably is, given what we know about Marcion, and the treatment of a whole nexus of issues surrounding him [which I will discuss in a future post]).
Evidence: for Asia Minor, the major evidence is the book of Revelation (especially the letters to the seven churches), and the Ignatian letters (Bauer also embraced the Tübingen thesis of Pauline-Petrine conflict centred in Antioch, and saw apparent discussion of heresy in the pastoral epistles as relevant for seeing “heresy” as reality in Asia Minor). Notably in this regard, the lack of evidence was telling for Bauer: those places to which John or Ignatius did not write were likely centres of theological disagreement.
Response: Bauer’s proposals about Asia minor depend on a weak form of argumentum ex silentio (yes, many are weak), namely, that the cities notwritten to in the opening of Revelation or by Ignatius were not written to because they must not have agreed with the orthodoxy of those authors: “John and Ignatius avoided these communities because they knew they could gain no support there.” For example, we know of a church established in Colossae from Paul’s letters, but John for example did not write there because that community did not agree with him theologically. But not all arguments from silence are equal, and to be valid, silence is only compelling where we would expect, in a certain context, there to be something said.
In other words, for this argument (and others like it that Bauer made) to hold, we would have to have a high expectation that John would have written to, Colossae, for example, but curiously did not. Only then do alternatives emerge to explain the silence, and even then, alternative explanations must be compared.
Furthermore, simpler theories which do not depend on complex hypotheses about silence may be on offer, like those offered by Ramsay and Hemer regarding the seven churches in Revelation.
Evidence: for Egypt, Bauer considered the Epistle of Barnabas (which probably originated in Alexandria in Egypt) to be Gnostic rather than Orthodox; a late second-century Egyptian text known as the Teachings of Silvanus was also supposed by Bauer to be Gnostic, and the Gospel of Thomas (an Egyptian papyrus Gospel) was supposed by Bauer to be Gnostic in character.
Response: Bauer contended that it was only with the arrival of Demetrius as Bishop in the fourth century that orthodoxy came into Egypt. Barnabas for example, was seen to be Gnostic, and other texts (Silvanus, Thomas) were seen as Gnostic and representative of early Christianity in Egypt. Yet, while Barnabas speaks often of gnosis (the word is used throughout orthodox and gnostic texts) the status of the work as a “good early example of what became the dominant method of interpreting the Bible in the early and medieval church”—allegorical exegesis of the Jewish scriptures—is clear.
The Teaching of Silvanus and the Gospel of Thomas have both been questioned as to whether they really are Gnostic, but even if it is deemed that they are, examination of the earliest Christian literary papyri from the region may well have decisively overturned Bauer’s thesis for Egypt and its Alexandrian centre: Thomas, for example, stands among only thirteen other Christian texts from the second and third centuries in the region, none of which are Gnostic.
Evidence: Rome played a major role in Bauer’s argument, and the critical piece of evidence used to support his view that Rome exported orthodoxy with some coercive force into other areas was 1 Clement.
Response: One of the major theses of Bauer is that Rome controlled and exported orthodoxy and is the critical location for tracing the development of orthodoxy into the third and fourth centuries. While a number of supported propositions have been offered against Bauer in multiple authors, all that need to be shown to call this thesis into question is that 1) Rome was not the only location of early orthodoxy and 2) Rome was not the only location with a strong early leadership. If other locations—regardless of their embattlement—show strong early leadership and orthodoxy—then Bauer’s Rome thesis can begin to be questioned. The first point is clear from the above; the second is detailed by F. W. Norris who validates the importance of the leadership of figures like Ignatius and Polycarp, non-Roman bishops in Antioch and Smyrna, respectively. If the very scant evidence from a place like Edessa is taken seriously for Bauer’s thesis, then the much more extensive literary evidence of influential (for example, making contributions to orthodoxy) orthodox leaders in the early second century outside of Rome must be taken seriously on its own merits.
Additionally, Norris lists five contributions “which would most likely appear in a detailed definition of ‘orthodoxy’” which came from outside of Rome (from Asia Minor and Antioch): (1) “monepiscopacy may have originated in Jerusalem where it developed through hereditary succession” [here he cites Hegesippius in Eusebius (4.22.4) who notices the familial relationship]”; monepiscopacy is not evidenced in Rome at the beginning of the second century; (2) “the theological justification of the lace of the bishop in the life of the church is firs visible in Ignatius, rather than a Roman author”; (3) “the distinctions between ‘heresy’ and ‘orthodoxy’ which Ignatius used are beginnings which could later be pressed toward separation if opponents remained rebellious. These early distinctions are not clearly marked in the Roman literature of the period [he notes some potential corroboration on the point from Bauer himself here]”; (4) “canonical developments can be seen [first in these regions]” Marcion is apparently the first creator of a canon, and Asia Minor may have a prior claim to the recognition of the four Gospels, and (5) the earliest liturgical texts appear to come from Syria—like the Didache—which Bauer did not discuss.
The critical observation for early orthodoxy as the diverse consensus is that it is clear that major components of any robust definition of orthodoxy come from outside of Rome, early, and in no apparent direct relation to Rome. It is not questionable that orthodoxy was widely held, and when it is thus seen that diverse social and ethnic groups of Christians concurred on orthodoxy but did so in somewhat independent and diverse ways, this raises the value of orthodoxy as an early consensus.
It is not really questioned that orthodoxy was sufficiently large. It is not merely one small group among a number of equally-sized and equally positioned groups of divergent Christianities. The orthodox conviction was held not only in Rome, but in regions in Asia Minor, and in Egypt, and elsewhere. This of course does not make it right—majority does not make right any more than “might makes right”—but if that large number is diverse, then it is a much more interesting phenomenon from a historical perspective.
Finally, if that large number can be plausibly believed to be uncoerced its value raises even more: it becomes highly suggestive for probable knowledge about what was passed down from the early days in the apostolic teaching. But here, given brief the survey above, it is suggested that Rome was not a coercive force in creating orthodoxy where there was none. This is not to say that individuals did not seek to maintain orthodoxy via potentially coercive actions (like book burning—though this has been called into question with respect to Ignatius, for example; see Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? 58–61), but it is to say that there is not clear argument that orthodoxy came about by way of coercion. If it did, how so? Where is the evidence that shows orthodoxy was generated by the coercive force of a singular group? We may question the rhetoric and tactics of overcoming opponents.
These observations raise the early orthodox consensus as a likely hypothesis for what was actually passed down in the teaching of the apostles. Yet, what if orthodoxy were generated by coercion in some places? After all, we may realize that the Christianity of some “heretics” who were called “Christians” was early and normative in some areas, like Edessa. This is a complicated consideration which I will treat in another post, but here it is important to nuance the simplicity of the “classical theory” of early orthodoxy:
It is not enough to say “truth preceded error.” What should rather be considered is orthodox priority. This may ultimately be a temporal consideration (the general sensibility of orthodoxy was the general thrust of the apostolic teaching), but it is—perhaps because of that—a hierarchical one: orthodoxy had priority over other systems because it was, in general, the deposit of the apostolic teaching (this even means that it has priority over initial divergent understandings; the analogy would be how any modern, sufficiently qualified consensus may help to adjudicate a novel and independent divergence).
A Problem for Orthodox Priority?
There is, however, a problem with all of this. While I think that what I have surveyed is generally compelling, the lines between heresy and orthodoxy are not always so clear in the earliest centuries. Marcion apparently did have some Pauline precedent, and some early defenders were later deemed heretics for other reasons. It is a time in history fraught with real social problems: problems of identity, problems of persecution. I don’t think this denigrates what I have surveyed here, nor do I think it makes any historical considerations null and void for social pressures—but it does make a person a little queasy when we encounter very simplistic notions of one view or another.
Bauer, Walter. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Translated by Paul J. Achtemeier. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1971.
Behr, John. The Way to Nicaea. Formation of Christian Theology 1. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.
Bingham, Jeffrey. “Development and Diversity in Early Christianity.” JETS 49.1 (2006) 45 – 66.
Bock, Darrell L. The Missing Gospels. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.
Crossan, John Dominic. Four Other Gospels: Shadows on the Contour of Canon. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Hemer, Colin J. The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting. JSNTSS 11. Sheffield: JSOT, 1986.
Hill, C. E. Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Holmes, Michael W. ed.The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.
Hultgren, Arland J. The Rise of Normative Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
Köstenberger, Andreas J and Michael J. Kruger. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped out Understanding of Early Christianity. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.
Kruger, Michael J. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2018.
McGrew, Timothy J. “The Argument from Silence.” Acta Analytica 29 (2014) 215–28.
Norris, F. W. “Ignatius, Polycarp, and I Clement: Walter Bauer Reconsidered.” Vigiliae Christianae 30.1 (1976) 23–44.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. London: Orion, 2013.
Payton Jr., James R. Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011.
Pearson, Birger A., and James E. Goehring, eds. The Roots of Egyptian Christianity. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
Ramsay, W. M. The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia and their Place in the Plan of the Apocalypse. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1904.
Trebilco, Paul. “Christian Communities in Western Asia Minor into the Early Second Century: Ignatius and Others as Witnesses Against Bauer.” JETS 49.1 (2006) 17–44.
Tucker, Aviezer. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Turner, H. E. W. The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study in the Relations between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.
 A paraphrase of an oft-repeated sentiment of Irenaeus; see Payton, Irenaeus, 14 and n. 47.
 The most popular is likely Ehrman, Lost Christianities; others in a stream which is dubious of clean or pristine “orthodox” renderings of the canon and the early history are, for example, Crossan, Other Gospels; Pagels, Gnostic Gospels. Cf, those who essentially affirm a traditional view, yet nonetheless write on the subject in dialogue with Bauer and those in his tradition and with varying critique affirm their contributions: Kruger, Early Christianity; Kruger and Köstenberger, Heresy; Hill, Gospels. The claim that Bauer’s thesis is “the prevailing paradigm with regard to the nature of early Christianity in popular American culture today,” is likely an overstatement, and also likely unverifiable (Köstenberger and Kruger, Heresy, 23). See Köstenberger and Kruger for a survey of a representative and influential class of followers of Bauer in the biblical studies guild: Rudolf Bultmann made Bauer’s thesis the backbone of his New Testament theology; Arnold Ehrhardt applied Bauer’s thesis to a study of the Apostle’s Creed finding it at odds with the NT creeds; Helmut Koester and James Robinson influentially applied the concept of “trajectories” to early Christian thought through the lens of Bauer; James Dunn, while upholding a view of Jesus as a unifying theme post-hoc, accepted the Bauer hypothesis as essentially true.
 Payton, Irenaeus, 14 n. 47 lists multiple locations in Irenaeus where the sentiment is expressed: see Against Heresies 1:10.3; 3:12.7; 3:24.1; 4:35.4; 5:20.1.
 In his First Apology Justin calls Marcion and others Christians (cf. ch. XXVI), but it is clear that there is a problem with the name “Christian” because like the name “philosopher,” anyone can claim it (cf ch. IV).
 For an extensive theoretical and methodological treatment of consensus, describing each of these qualities, see Tucker, Knowledge, 23–45.
 Norris, “Reconsidered,” 23.
 Bauer, Orthodoxy, 33.
 Bauer, Orthodoxy, 44–76.
 An excellent review of Bauer which came out shortly after the ET of his monograph is Norris, F. W. “Ignatius, Polycarp, and I Clement: Walter Bauer Reconsidered.” Vigiliae Christianae 30.1 (1976) 23–44.
 Bock, Gospels, 53.
 Turner, Pattern, 41–43.
 Trebilco, “Christian Communities,” 17–19.
 Revelation was written to churches in seven locations; and the Ignatian letters were written to six places, both Ephesus and Smyrna received Revelation and a letter from Igantius; Trebilco, “Ignatius,” 24.
 See McGrew, “The Argument from Silence” 215–28.
 Trebilco, “Ignatius,” 24–26 makes a much more elegant case for the passing over of Colossae.
 These, while hypothetical, are compelling for their simplicity: the seven churches of Revelation existed along a postal route; see Ramsay, Seven Churches, 185–196, cf. Hemer, Letters, 14–15.
 Pearson, Gnosticism, 89.
 Köstenberger and Kruger, Heresy,47.
 Bauer, Orthodoxy, 44–60; cf. Köstenberger and Kruger, 45.
 Holmes, Fathers, 372; it has thus been contended that “the exegetical and halakhic gnosis or Barnabas bears no relationship at all to the gnosis of Gnosticism. Rather, it can be seen as a precursor to the ‘Gnostic’ teaching of clement and as implicitly anti-Gnostic.” Pearson, Gnosticism and Christianity, 90; cited in Köstenberger and Kruger 45–46.
 On Thomas, see Pearson, “Earliest Christianity in Egypt”; cf. Davies, Gospel of Thomas; on Silvanus, see Bock, Missing Gospels, 53.
 Pearson, “Earliest” 132.
 Pearson, “Earliest” 133; there are seven Old Testament texts, three New Testament, and four non-biblical (Hermas, the “Egerton Gospel,” Thomas, and Against Heresies). It must be admitted that the early evidence is scant overall, but it is almost non-existent with respect to Gnosticism.
 Norris, “Ignatius,” deals extensively with this argument and it considered below.
 See, for example, Bock, Missing, 50–52. Köstenberger and Kruger, Heresy, 50–52.
 See Norris, “Ignatius,” 38–39 for an exposition of five contributions made to orthodoxy from these regions.
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