Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934)

Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Original 1934; English translation 1971).

Thesis: “Perhaps—I repeat, perhaps—certain manifestations of the Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as ‘heresies’ originally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there, were the only form of the new religion—that is, for those regions they were simply ‘Christianity’” (xxii).

Introduction: Here Bauer sets forth his methodology and presuppositions. He explicitly takes a non-faith-based approach to studying the development of Christianity. For him, the historian plays the role of the judge—adjudicating fairly between two sides, “instead of simply submitting to the mental agility and firmness, the sagacity and loquacity” (xxi) of the dominant party, here orthodoxy’s view of Christian origins.

Ch. 1, “Edessa”: This chapter argues that the earliest Christians in Edessa were heretics—namely Marcionites, Manichaeans, and Bardaisanites—with orthodox (Palutian) Christianity only appearing afterward and as the minority, and ecclesiastical Christianity not arriving until the beginning of the fourth century. Marcionism first came to Syria by 150, and for a long time, it was the most prevalent form of Christianity there; even in the sixth century “Marcionites designated themselves as the Christians—much to the offence of the orthodox, who must be content with misleading alternatives such as ‘Messiah-worshippers’” (24). Orthodoxy did later become dominant in Syria, but only by forcibly converting heretical Christians.

Ch. 2, “Egypt”: Bauer argues that, in Egypt, the earliest form of Christianity was Gnosticism, as evidenced by the lack of non-Gnostic Christian literature in Egypt before the late second century. Bauer postulates two contemporaneous Gnostic groups there: one comprising Gentile Christians and the other Jewish Christians. He acknowledges that Orthodox Christians were certainly present in Egypt before the end of the second century, but says they were the minority. In addition, he argues, even into the third century, Egyptian Christians did not draw sharp distinctions between orthodox and heretics.

Ch. 3, “Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna; Macedonia and Crete”: In the late second century, orthodox Christians were the minority in Antioch (Gnostic Christians were the majority), leading, Bauer writes, to Ignatius’ struggle for episcopal authority: “orthodoxy in Antioch, deprived of its champion Ignatius, was in danger of being driven back, if not routed from the field, by heresy” (65). In Polycarp’s Smyrna, different types of Christians (orthodox, Marcionite, Gnostic) coexisted, albeit not very peacefully, and it is possible that two bishops—one orthodox and one Gnostic—competed for dominance there. Heretical Christianity also predominated in Crete and post-Pauline Macedonia, while orthodoxy was dominant in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia —all in Asia Minor.

Ch. 4, “Asia Minor Prior to Ignatius”: Here Bauer correlates Ignatius’ letters and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. He writes that the churches that “fare best in the Apocalypse [viz. Smyrna and Philadelphia], appear also to be especially free of heresy” (79) in Ignatius. Likewise, Ignatius does not write to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, or Laodicea, while Revelation has them full of its doctrinal enemies, making it likely that heretical Christianity had control there. In addition, 1 Peter does not mention churches in SE Asia Minor, leading Bauer to the conclusion that orthodox Christianity had not gained a foothold there; instead, “a gnosticizing Jewish Christianity” (88) held the majority position, though heretical and orthodox Christians associated with one another, as Jude and 1-3 John attest. Moreover, a significant number of Marcionites and Montanists were martyred in Asia Minor, along with orthodox Christians.

Ch. 5, “Rome and Christianity Outside of Rome”: Bauer argues that early Roman Christians sought to establish dominance over the Christians in other cities, as shown by 1 Clement, which brought the Corinthian Christians in line with the Romans’ doctrinal positions (though the Roman influence did not spread to the rest of Greece). The Roman Christians wanted to expand their influence to the major cities of the Empire, like Corinth, Alexandria, and Antioch; this drive was the source of orthodox missions to heretical areas.

Ch. 6, “Rome’s Persuasive and Polemical Tactics”: The Roman Christians relied on Peter and Paul—who were connected to Rome through their martyrdom there—to legitimate their strategies of expansion, including 1) emphasizing a single, authoritative bishop at the head of each city’s church, 2) requiring the apostolic succession of the episcopate, and 3) rejecting heresy. They also gave money (gathered from donations by rich Christians) to poorer churches, in an effort to win hearts and minds.

Ch. 7, “The Confrontation Between Orthodoxy and Heresy: General Characteristics and Operating Procedures”: This chapter mostly deals with the confrontation between orthodoxy and Montanism. Bauer argues that the orthodox polemics against Montanism dealt largely in unfair caricatures of the Montanists, because orthodoxy was the minority in places like Phrygia—where Montanism flourished—and needed to make itself seem superior to the heretical majority.

Ch. 8, “The Use of Literature in the Conflict”: Bauer argues, contra Eusebius, that anti-heretical writings were not widely produced and disseminated during the second and third centuries, and that Christian groups—both orthodox and heretical—produced many forgeries, deceptively edited texts, and relied on epistolary networks in order to further their own interests. Polemical texts from both sides took the form of divine revelations and biblical exegesis; the opponents’ revelations were couched as demonic possession and falsifications of the true Word.

Ch. 9, “The Old Testament, the Lord, and the Apostles”: Bauer shows how, from its beginnings, orthodox Christianity accepted the Old Testament alongside Christian writings (interpreting the OT in light of Christian scriptures), while heretical Christians rejected the Old Testament. In addition, different Christian groups used different gospels (both canonical and non-canonical) as their source of Jesus’ teachings. The proliferation of gospels was a major source of intra-Christian polemics. Finally, the apostles (especially Paul and, in Rome, Peter) were the “third authority of Christianity” (212) among both orthodox and heretical Christians.

Ch. 10, “The Beginnings”: This chapter summarizes the rest of the book. Bauer also argues here that Rome was the earliest center of orthodoxy, which ultimately beat out other forms of Christianity because it was the most organized group and because it was the one that was able to spread most efficiently.

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