A New Book on Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity

A review of Paul Hartog's 'Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis'

Eighty years ago, Walter Bauer promulgated a bold and provocative thesis about early Christianity. He argued that many forms of Christianity started the race, but one competitor pushed aside the others, until this powerful ”orthodox” version won the day. The victors re-wrote history, marginalizing all other perspectives and silencing their voices, even though the alternatives possessed equal right to the title of normative Christianity. Bauer’s influence still casts a long shadow on early Christian scholarship.

1934 was a big year for Germany.  It was the year that Adolf Hitler became the Führer and complete head of the German nation and the Nazi party.  And, as we all know, it wasn’t long after that time, that Germany invaded Poland and began World War II.

But 1934 was a significant year for another reason.  Very quietly, behind the scenes, a book was published that would change the landscape of early Christian studies for years to come.  Walter Bauer published his now famous monograph, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   Compared to Hitler’s rise, this was not very newsworthy.  And Bauer’s book did not have much of an impact at first.  But, in 1971 it was translated into English and since that time things have radically changed in the academy of the English speaking world.

As is well known now, Bauer’s main thesis was that early Christianity was a bit of a mess.  It was a theological quagmire.  No one could get along; no one could agree.  There was in-fighting and competition between various competing factions, all warring it out about what really constituted “Christianity.”  Thus, for Bauer, there was no such thing as Christianity (singular) during this time, but only Christianities (plural).   And each of these Christianities, argues Bauer, had its own set of books.   Each had its own writings that it valued and thought were Scripture.   After the dust settled, one particular group, and their books, won the theological war.  But, why should we think these are the right books?   These are just the books of the theological winners.

Bauer’s thesis has seen a strong resurgence in recent years, particularly in the writings of scholars like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Helmut Koester.  And it is the basis for a very common misconception about the NT Canon, namely that there was very little agreement over the books that made it into the canon until the fourth or fifth century.  Before that, we are told, early Christianity was somewhat of a literary free for all.  No one could agree on much of anything.

Although Bauer’s thesis still dominates the academic landscape, scholars have begun to respond.

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