Tag Archives: Early Christianity

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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Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice (2009)

Guy G. Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (trans. Susan Emanuel; 2009).

Thesis: The religious landscape of Late Antiquity represented a radical change from the eras prior to it.

Chapter 1, “A New Care of the Self,” argues that the anthropological shifts in Late Antiquity had their basis in religious practices. The main religious change of Late Antiquity, of course, was the high status that Christianity attained. However, “it is with Jewish weapons”—like communal asceticism, conversion as repentance (metanoia) rather than a returning (epistrophe), and the prophet as the ideal person—“that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire” (11). Late Antique Judaism adapted the prophetic ideal into the figure of the sage, who occupies him/herself with studying Torah, while Christianity turned the prophet into the saint, the holy man who confronts the bishop from the margins of society, the same way that the biblical prophets confronted the priests. Moreover, Christianity made holiness, achieved through ascesis, available to everyone (unlike in pagan culture, where spiritual greatness was reserved for philosophers and other “intellectual elites” [25]).

Chapter 2, “The Rise of the Religions of the Book,” tracks how Late Antique religions developed their understandings of sacred texts. Stroumsa begins with Judaism, which developed a rich textual tradition during the Second-Temple period, but by Late Antiquity held the Torah as the only truly sacred book (supplemented by oral traditions). Next, he discusses the Quranic category of “people of the book” (ahl al-kitāb), noting that, in Quranic usage, the “Book” (kitāb) is an oral text related to heavenly revelation, independent of the codex (musḥaf). This concept was also already present in Manichaeism, which contained a strong theology of the book. Early Christians also were deeply devoted to sacred texts, almost all of which were codices (rather than scrolls, the dominant form of the book when Christianity developed). Codices were inexpensive and portable—qualities which allowed Christians to disseminate information quickly. The early Christians used Jewish sacred texts (i.e., the Septuagint), and they readily acknowledged the Jewishness of those scriptures (to the point of sparing Jewish books whenever they razed synagogues). Christians, of course, also developed their own canon (the New Testament), the core of which was finalized in the 180s, around the same time that the Mishnah was completed. Early Christianity, like Second-Temple Judaism, saw a proliferation of sacred texts. By Late Antiquity, however, Christianity—again like its contemporary Judaism—devoted itself to the study of a small selection of sacred literature (canonized, by that point, as the Bible).

Chapter 3, “Transformations of Ritual,” shows how Late Antiquity marked a turning point in religious practices. Before the second century (where Stroumsa idiosyncratically places the beginning of Late Antiquity), Mediterranean religious practice centered on blood sacrifice. With the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, Jewish worship became spiritualized and democratized, focusing on prayer and Torah study—which could be done anywhere, not just Jerusalem. By the rabbinic period, (elite) Jewish practice revolved around halakha, much in the same way contemporaneous elite Christian practice focused on askēsis. In contrast to post-70 Judaism, early Christianity defined itself as a sacrificial religion; however, it emphasized that only one sacrifice (Jesus’) was necessary to appease God, and that sacrifice was re-enacted in the Eucharist and in martyrdom. At the end of the chapter, Stroumsa includes two interesting asides: 1) the Docetic crucifixion story, where Christ laughs from Heaven while his stand-in is crucified, can be seen as a Christian reworking of the Akedah, and 2) Philo—a contemporary of Paul’s—argues that Isaac (the Jewish sacrificial hero par excellence, like Jesus was for the Christians) was the son of God, who miraculously made Sarah a virgin before she conceived Isaac.

Chapter 4, “From Civic Religion to Community Religion”: Before Late Antiquity, religion resided in the public domain; it required correct performance of rituals but did not require adherence to a certain set of beliefs, and the rituals were performed in public by all the residents of a city, or at least their representatives. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, and the subsequent interiorization of religion, it moved out of the public sphere and into the realm of individual groups. At the same time, religious groups began to require orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy. Stroumsa also treats inter-religious violence in this chapter, focusing on Christian anti-paganism and anti-Semitism (which developed out of a purely theological anti-Judaism in the fourth century), showing that the end of religious (pagan) pluralism led to these polemics.

Chapter 5, “From Wisdom Teacher to Spiritual Master,” compares pagan philosophy with Christian spirituality (which Stroumsa himself acknowledges as an artificial distinction). Stroumsa argues that Greek and Roman priests were not spiritual leaders, whereas Christian priests, like their Jewish predecessors, played such a role. Christian spiritual formation thus represents a “rupture with the past” (116). Pagan philosophical instruction took place among elites, who had the leisure to contemplate the good life, which Christian spiritual leaders evangelized members of all levels of society. By Late Antiquity, “the spiritual director is less a sage than a saint” (125)—that is, the spiritual master’s teachings do not bring wisdom, but abolish independent thought, thereby saving the disciple.

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1 Peter 3:18-20 and Gospel of Peter 38-42

I’ve been pondering a lot lately the remarkable similarities between 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6, and Gospel of Peter 38-42. Here are these three passages, for comparison’s sake:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

1 Peter 3:18-20

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.

1 Peter 4:6

And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, “Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?” And an obeisance was heard from the cross, “Yes.”

Gospel of Peter 38-42

These passages in 1 Peter have been devilishly hard for interpreters. At face value, they seem to say that Jesus, after he was crucified, traveled to a heavenly prison where God kept the souls of the sinners who died in the Noahic flood, converted them, and then was resurrected. It is now virtually scholarly consensus, however, that, following 1 Enoch, the “spirits in prison” are fallen angels. Moreover, according to consensus, ἐκήρυξεν (ekēruxen, “preached”) in 1 Peter 3:19 does not mean that Jesus preached to these fallen angels in order to convert them; instead, it means that he proclaimed to them his victory. This text thus has no direct relation to 4:6; “the spirits in prison” of 3:19 are not “the dead” of 4:6.

It seems to me, though, that Gospel of Peter 38-42 functions as a sort of narrative commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6. That is, it seems entirely plausible to me that a later community, having a copy of 1 Peter, read 3:18-4:6 at face value and inserted them into the resurrection narrative: Jesus quite literally preached to the dead between the time he was crucified and the time he was resurrected.

Another option, though somewhat less likely, is that 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6 are interpolations into the text of the epistle, based on the sequence of events that found its way into the Gospel of Peter. For instance, here is the latter part of 1 Peter 3 both with and without verses 19-20. (For the sake of space, I won’t show the same comparison with 1 Peter 4; 1 Peter 3 represents them both well enough.)

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. . . . Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Notice that the second paragraph still makes perfect sense; baptism here doesn’t correspond to the Noahic flood, it corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection (much like it does in Paul, in Romans 6). The “in which…” phrase could thus be an interpolation of a note, written in the margin by a member of the Petrine community or somesuch, but copied into the body of the letter by a later scribe (like we have in 2 Corinthians).

Unfortunately, while interesting the think about, the latter option is pure speculation, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I do find the first idea compelling, though, and would thus argue that in the Gospel of Peter we have an early commentary on 1 Peter 3 and 4. (From this conclusion, we may conclude two other things: 1) since 1 Peter and the Gospel of Peter have such similar ideas about what happened to Jesus between his death and his resurrection, they came from the same community, which was probably self-consciously Petrine; 2) this Petrine Christianity seems much more mystical than Pauline Christianity or that of the Evangelists.)


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