Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity

· Christianity

This is a very useful book by Walter Bauer originally written in German and translated in English in 1970s. It clarifies the Catholic Church’s propaganda about the early history of Christianity.

Some reviews
The Reception of Walter Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity” during the Last Decade

Daniel J. Harrington
The Harvard Theological Review
Vol. 73, No. 1/2, Dedicated to the Centennial of the Society of Biblical Literature (Jan. – Apr., 1980), pp. 289-298
(article consists of 10 pages)
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity School
Bart Ehrman’s book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew may be considered a sister or a similar book.
Here is the start of the review article by Daniel J Harrington, S.J. of this book:
First published in 1934, Walter Bauer’s book warned against simply equating the words ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ with the notions of majority and minority and with the process of deviation from correct belief to wrong belief. Bauer sought to show that in the first two Christian centuries orthodoxy and heresy did not stand in relation to one another as primary and secondary. He tried to prove that in many regions what came to be known in the ecclesiastical tradition as ‘heresy’ was in fact the original manifestation of Christianity. For example according to Bauer, the major figures in earliest Christianity at Edessa were the ‘heretics’ Marcion, Bar Daisan, and Mani. In Egypt a gnostic form of Christianity appears to have been dominant before 200, and in Asia Minor ‘orthodox’ leaders such as Ignatius and Polycarp waged only moderately successful battles against gnosticism and judaizing Christianity.
In Bauer’s reconstruction of early Christian history, orthodoxy or ecclesiastical Christianity represented the type supported by the majority of Christians in Rome at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century. The Roman Church then gradually extended the boundaries of its influence to Corinth (See J Clement) Antioch and other places. It did so through its traditional associations with Peter and Paul, its successful interventions in the affairs of other churches, timely financial donations, compassionate attitude toward repentant sinners and effective leadership and tight organization under a single bishop.”
Prof. Bart Ehrman nicely summarizes the situation that predated Bauer and his achievements in correcting the historical mistakes in the following words:
Older historians simply assumed that the orthodox view had always been the dominant one. Many historians have come to see, instead, that it was simply one view-the one that happened to win out. The older view of the relationship between heresy and orthodoxy is sometimes called the Eusebian view because it was first popularized by Eusebius, the father of church history.
One of the values of Eusebius’ work is that he often quotes sources that have not survived. The Eusebian view of church history holds that the truth was communicated through Jesus to his apostles, who communicated it to the bishops they appointed, who, in their turn, communicated it to their successors. Sometimes heretical offshoots would arise, such as Marcionism and Gnosticism. Orthodoxy goes back to Jesus; heresy is always a secondary corruption of orthodoxy, which is the view held by the majority.
The Eusebian model was exploded by Walter Bauer’s book of 1934 entitled Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. This book claims that Eusebius gave a slanted version of what really happened in early Christianity: what was later called heresy was the original form of Christian faith. According to Bauer, early Christianity is best understood as represented by pods of believers in different regions believing different things, as for example, Gnosticism in Egypt, and Marcionism in Asia Minor.
Christ, as far back as can be traced, is characterized by wide-ranging diversity. Eventually, one of these groups managed to assert its authority over other Christian groups and grew to become the majority view, claiming that it had always been the majority view. It is no accident that the form of Christianity that took over the world is the form that was prevalent in Rome in the 2nd century. Bauer hypothesized that the reason why the Roman Church was so intent on reinstating the original presbyters in Corinth was because the Roman Church believed the new Corinthian presbyters were heretics. The Roman Church was the largest of the Christian churches and wealthy. It began using its influence and wealth to ensure that other churches and individual converts followed its beliefs and practices. After the Roman emperor converted to the Christianity of the Roman Church, other churches were outlawed. Christians writing about church history then made it appear that the Roman Church had always been favored by the majority. Bauer’s understanding of early Christianity appears to be basically correct.[1]
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community believes that revelation is a mirror and guide for reason.  The Quranic description of Christianity is far closer to Bauer’s view than what had been propagated by Eusebius.  The Ahmadiyya understanding is covered in different books but one very readible book is Christianity: A Journey from Facts to Fiction:
About the author Walter Bauer
The following account is borrowed from wikipedia:

Walter Bauer (November 4, 1904, in Meresburg, Germany – December 23, 1976, in Toronto, Canada) was a biographer, novelist and poet.
Walter Bauer showed himself a promising poet in pre-Hitler Germany, but with the rise of the Nazis he found his poetry being banned. He became an elementary school teacher and after the war had high hopes for a literary life. However, in 1953, feeling the cynicism of the German Economic Miracle, he emigrated to Canada where, after a stint as a dishwasher, he became a professor in the German Department of the University of Toronto in 1954.
He wrote six novels, two collections of poetry and four biographies (including one on Van Gogh and another on Grey Owl). He also wrote plays and essays. He has published in numerous literary magazines, such as Muschelhaufen.
Few excerpts from the book
Relying on the above and supported by the conviction that Rome constituted the church founded in the world capital by the greatest apostles, Rome confidently extends itself eastward, tries to break down resistance and stretches a helping hand to those who are like-minded, drawing everything within reach into the well-knit structure of ecclesiastical organization. Heresy, with its different brands and peculiar configurations that scarcely even permitted it to be united in a loose association reflecting common purpose, had nothing corresponding to this by way of a similar offensive and de­fensive force with which to counter. Only a few heresiarchs such as Marcion were able to draw together their followers throughout the world into an ecclesiastical structure. But Marcion himself, the most dangerous of all, to a large measure paralyzed his own cause in­sofar as he excised with his own hand the source of natural increase for his community by his inexorable rejection of procreation.4 In the long run he simply had to drop out of the picture-all the more since the organization and the concept of church offices which he advo­cated also ultimately failed to produce the same tight and efficient structure as developed in the church.

A united front composed of Marcionites and Jewish Christians, Valentinians and Montanists, is inconceivable. Thus it was the destiny of the heresies, after they had lost their connection with the orthodox Christianity that remained, to stay divided and even to fight among themselves, and thus to be routed one after another by orthodoxy. The form of Christian belief and life which was successful was that supported by the strongest organization-the form which was the most uniform and best suited for mass consumption-in spite of the fact that, in my judgment, for a long time after the close of the post-­apostolic age the sum total of consciously orthodox and anti-heretical Christians was numerically inferior to that of the ‘heretics.’ It was only natural that the compact ecclesiastical outlook with its con­centrated energy would more and more draw to itself the great mass of those who at first, unclear and undecided, had stood in the middle resigned to a general sort of Christianity, and who under different circumstances could even have turned in the opposite direction. And it appears to be no less self-evident that the Roman government finally came to recognize that the Christianity ecclesiastically orga­nized from Rome was flesh of its flesh, came to unite with it, and thereby actually enabled it to achieve ultimate victory over unbelievers and heretics.[2]
Appendix 1: On the problem of Jewish Christianity by Georg Strecker
In the preceding investigation, Walter Bauer posed for himself the task of examining critically the widely held view that ‘for the period of Christian origins, ecclesiastical doctrine. . . already represents what is primary, while heresies, on the other hand, somehow are a deviation from the genuine.’ He concluded that this understanding of history which has dominated ecclesiastical histori­ography since Eusebius is not correct, but that for broad areas the heresies were ‘primary.’ It is surprising that he did not buttress this conclusion in extenso with reference to the problem of Jewish Christianity. This is especially remarkable because here the general­ization drawn by the ecclesiastically approved view of history would be most clearly open to refutation-Jewish Christianity, according to the witness of the New Testament, stands at the beginning of the development of church history, so that it is not the gentile Chris­tian “ecclesiastical doctrine” that represents what is primary, but rather a Jewish Christian theology.! This fact was forgotten quite early in the ecclesiastical heresiological tradition. The Jewish Chris­tians usually were classified as ‘Ebionites’ in the ecclesiastical cata­logues of sects or else, in a highly one-sided presentation, they were deprecated as an insignificant minority by comparison with the ‘great church.’[3]
Walter Bauer had established that the early opponents of heresy, from Clement to Dionysius of Corinth, stood in close relation to Rome (see above, 106 ff. ). It can now be added that this is also true with respect to the heresiological approach itself. The Roman character of Justin’s literary endeavors is well known, in spite of his Samaritan origin and his sojoum in Asia Minor. Even though it may be supposed that his source material comes partly from the East, it was given its ultimate shape in Rome. Bauer showed in detail the connections between Hegesippus and Rome (above, 103, 107). This Roman orien­tation is especially true of Irenaeus, the first ecclesiastical author of whose systematic heresiological activity we have knowledge. His ac­count of the heresies grew out of the ecclesiastical situation at Lyons­ out of his struggle with Valeritinian gnosticism. His journey to see Eleutherus of Rome (Eusebius EH 5.4) and his entry into the pass­ over controversy through his letter to Bishop Victor (EH 5.24.10 ff.) are sufficient evidence for recognizing the strong ties by which he and his community felt themselves bound to the Roman ecclesiastical position. And that Hippolytus represents Roman tradition does not need to be argued, in spite of his actual alienation from the official incumbent of the Roman episcopal chair and his corresponding enum­eration among the schismatics. Without any doubt, systematically practiced heresiology begins in Rome. The later penetration into the East of the heresiological attitude toward Jewish Christianity indi­cates that a Roman principle gained ‘ecumenical’ validity. In this respect, Bauer’s claims receive substantial confirmation.
The variations in configuration and success of the heresiological point of view corroborate the results gained from the direct and in­direct evidence for Jewish Christianity in Syria-namely, that the situation with regard to Jewish Christianity is complex, both in terms of its own theological frame of thought and also in its relationship to the ‘great church.’ This complexity contradicts the heresiological pattern. And to the extent that later Jewish Christianity can be un­covered, even greater variety is encountered there. The simplistic, dogmatically determined classification of Jewish Christianity as a heresy which confronts the ‘great church’ as a homogeneous unit does not do justice to the complex situation existing within legalistic Jewish Christianity. Walter Bauer’s opinion that ‘the Judaists soon became a heresy, rejected with conviction by the gentile Christians,’ and that the Jewish Christians were ‘repulsed’ by gentile Christianity (above, 236 f.) needs to be corrected. Not only is there ‘significant diversity’ within the gentile Christian situation, but the same holds true for Jewish Christianity. The fact that Jewish Christianity was a polymorphic entity and that a heresiological principle emanating from Rome could succeed against it only gradually provides not only a correcting supplement, but above all an additional substantiation of Bauer’s historical perspective.[4]
Additional sources
Another good source to learn the theme of this book is a Teaching Company course, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity:

In a world where Christianity has been, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, “the most powerful religious, political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual institution in the history of Western civilization,” most of us have grown up believing we know the answers to these questions:

  • Were the early Christians really hunted down and martyred, with repeated persecutions for an illegal religion forcing them to hide in the catacombs of Rome?
  • Did the ancient Jews of Jesus’ time always believe in a single, all-powerful God?
  • How did breaking away from their Jewish roots make Christians more vulnerable in the Roman world?
  • What were the origins of what we now consider the distinctively Christian liturgical practices of baptism and the Eucharist?

But do we know the answers? As this course shows, the answers are, in fact, quite surprising.

See How Today’s Christianity Emerged

The traditional form of Christianity we know today includes beliefs, practices, a canon of sacred scripture, and even its own stated history, but it emerged only after many years of transition and conflict—with Judaism and with what can now only be called the “lost Christianities.”

That term, of course, is familiar to anyone who has taken Professor Ehrman’s earlier course, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication.

And now Professor Ehrman, whose previous and popular efforts for The Teaching Company also include The Historical Jesus and The New Testament, has created a course that places those forgotten forms of the faith in an even broader context.

From the Religion of Jesus to a Religion about Jesus

These lectures take you back to Christianity’s first three centuries to explain its transition from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.

It introduces you to lost Christianities and their sacred writings. And it shows how many of those writings were originally proscribed or destroyed, only to be rediscovered in modern times.

You also learn how a single group from among many won the struggle for dominance, which allowed it to:

  • Establish the beliefs central to the faith
  • Rewrite the history of Christianity’s internal conflicts
  • Produce a canon of sacred texts—the New Testament—that supported its own views.


  1. Prof. Bart Ehrman. After the New Testament: the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Teaching Company Course Guidebook, 2005. Pages 104-106.
  2. Walter Bauer. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Sigler Press, 1996 edition. Pages 230-232.
  3. Walter Bauer. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Sigler Press, 1996 edition. Pages 241.
  4. Walter Bauer. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Sigler Press, 1996 edition. Pages 284-285.
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