Bart Ehrman’s Historical Revisionism. Part 2/3. Relegating Orthodoxy in Early Christianity

A. Bauer-Ehrman Revisionist History – “Heresy Preceded Orthodoxy”
Ehrman’s assertion that the early Christians took liberty with scripture flows from his contested claim that there was no defining leadership in the early church. According to Ehrman, there was no notion of orthodoxy in early Christianity. Instead, a variety of “christianities” like the Ebionites, the Marcionites, the Gnostics and “proto-orthodoxy” [Ehrman’s coins the term “proto-orthodoxy” as he refuses to acknowledge that there was orthodoxy in early Christianity] vied for power and influence. Ehrman argues that alternative forms of “christianities” and their sacred writings which include the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Peter should be regarded to be of equal authenticity (or in Ehrman’s real estimation, of equal inauthenticity) as the four canonical gospels. Indeed, he questions the special regard given the canonical gospels by orthodoxy since to him, the New Testament canon as it is, came to be only when the politically powerful “proto-orthodox” Christians in Rome unilaterally decided which book to be included in or excluded from Christian Scripture, and then applied ecclesiastical machinations and coercive policies to force other Christians to accept their decision. The other forms of “christianities” were then stigmatized  by the victorious “proto-orthodox” party to be heretical and their writings were erased from history until some of them were discovered in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Ehrman writes,

This one form of Christianity decided what was the “correct” Christian perspective; it decided who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice; and it determined what forms of Christianity would be marginalized, set aside, destroyed. It also decided which books to canonize into Scripture and which books to set aside as “heretical,” teaching false ideas.

And then, as a coup de grâce, this victorious party rewrote the history of the controversy, making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times, back to the time of Jesus and his apostles, that its perspective, in effect, had always been “orthodox” (i.e., the “right belief ”) and that its opponents in the conflict, with their other scriptural texts, had always represented small splinter groups invested in deceiving people into “heresy” (literally meaning “choice”; a heretic is someone who willfully chooses not to believe the right things) (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p. 4).

In effect, Ehrman is rejecting the standard historical narrative given by early church historians and theologians like Eusebius, Hippolytus of Rome and Irenaeus of Lyons who reported that orthodox Christianity represented by the “Rule of Faith” (c. 180 AD) was universally accepted throughout the early church. In rejecting the “Rule of Faith” Ehrman argues that the diverse forms of “christianities” which were deemed “heretical” were in fact legitimate forms of Christianity. Indeed, the so-called “heresies” actually preceded “orthodoxy.”

B. Critique of Bauer-Ehrman Revisionist History

Ehrman’s revisionist history is a rehash of Walter Bauer’s theory advocated in his book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934). Bauer argues that diverse forms of Christianity which existed in various geographical regions outside of Rome like Egypt, Asia Minor and Edessa from the second century should be regarded as equal and legitimate representations of Christianity. Bauer’s reconstruction of early Christianity has been examined and challenged on many grounds. Recent research by Thomas Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined (1988) and Arland Hultgren, The Rise of Normative Christianity (1994) conclude that the heretics were neither early nor strong in Asia Minor. Likewise, Birger Pearson, Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt (2004) judges Bauer’s “procedure is dubious” and that the prominence of Gnosticism in Egypt has been exaggerated. [For comprehensive critiques of Bauer, see the early work by H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Truth (1954) and the recent publications by Paul Hartog ed. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts (2015) and Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger,Heresy of Orthodoxy (2010)].

Ehrman concedes that subsequent studies have called into question Bauer’s thesis, but he insists that “in their essentials, Bauer’s intuitions were right”[Question: Is Ehrman suggesting that it is alright to accept intuitions without sound scholarship?].

Specific details of Bauer’s demonstration were immediately seen as problematic. Bauer was charged, for good reason, with attacking orthodox sources with inquisitorial zeal and exploiting to a nearly absurd extent the argument from silence. Moreover, in terms of his specific claims, each of the regions that he examined have been subjected to further scrutiny, not always to the advantage of his conclusions.
Probably most scholars today think that Bauer underestimated the extent of proto-orthodoxy throughout the empire and overestimated the influence of the Roman church on the course of the conflicts.” (Ehrman Lost Christianities, p. 176).

The fundamental premise of Bauer-Ehrman revisionist history is the claim that there was no defining leadership or normative centre and therefore no orthodoxy in the early church. This can be asserted only by disregarding the authority exercised by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Likewise, other attempts to pit Paul against the other apostles ignore the records given in the book of Acts and Galatians which confirm that the apostles in Jerusalem acknowledge that Paul was commissioned as an apostle by the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus.

Other scholars reject the Bauer-Ehrman hypothesis on grounds that it exaggerates the diversity in early Christianity. In truth, while there was some diversity even in the New Testament, such diversity reflects how the New Testament Christians were merely explaining the same phenomenon of faith from different perspectives. I.H. Marshall notes that the New Testament writers “often see quite clearly where the lines of what is compatible with the gospel and what is not compatible are to be drawn.” Such compatibility could be based on what Andreas Kostenberger identifies as three integrating motifs of apostolic Christianity (1) belief in the one God revealed in the Old Testament, Yahweh, (2) Jesus as the Christ and the exalted Lord and (3) the saving message of the gospel (Kostenberger & Kruger, p. 38). Finally, Arland Hultgren identifies six core beliefs of “normative tradition” which serve as “limiting factors” to the limit of acceptable diversity (Hultgren, p. 86) in doctrinal development after the apostles.

It is granted that there were sectarian groups among Christians in the second century which included a wide variety of conflicting Gnostic systems, each claiming to offer a secretive way to salvation to the elitist adherents of their sects. Irenaeus of Lyons in his massive tome, Against Heresies contrasts the secretive and contradictory teachings of the gnostic sects with orthodoxy which was transmitted faithfully in written form and also openly taught throughout the church universal. “Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him” (Ad. Ha. 3.5.2).

Ireneaus gloried in the fact that wherever one went in the entire inhabited earth, all the churches founded by the apostles held to the same faith. The Church believed the same faith, everywhere as confirmed by authoritative writers like Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen. That proclamation was summarized in “the Rule of Faith, regula fidei,” received and confessed at one’s baptism. This “Rule of Faith” is basically a summary of what the second century church believed to be authentic apostolic teaching passed to them and served to guide the Church in the proper interpretation of Scripture and to summarize what Christians should believe. Irenaeus summarized this Rule accordingly:

1. The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations6 of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. [Ad. Ha.1.10.1]

The rule of faith was initially transmitted in a fixed form in the Apostles’ Creed and gained it final form during the early Christological controversies, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The testimony of Irenaeus emphasizes that the Gnostic sects were decisively rejected by the early church not for political expediency, but because their teachings clearly contradicted the universal Rule of Faith of orthodox Christianity.

Kostenberger and Kruger rebut Ehrman’s claim that orthodoxy gained victory because it was backed by state power.

…prior to Constantine’s Edict of Milan (ad 313) that mandated religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire, adherents of orthodoxy had no official means or power to relegate heretics to a marginal role. Nearly concurrent with this Edict was the Arian controversy (ad 318). Interestingly, there is no significant mention of any Gnostic sect during this controversy. It seems that by that time Gnosticism was either forgotten or so insignificant as to hardly warrant any of the orthodox’s attention. This means that prior to Constantine’s mandated religious toleration, the orthodox were able decisively to refute these heretical movements. If the heretics were as numerous and pervasive as Ehrman contends and if orthodoxy was relatively insignificant prior to the fourth century, then historical probabilities suggest that it would have been unlikely that orthodoxy would have been able to overturn these heretical movements. Without an official governing body in place, the only way that the orthodox could have “won” prior to Constantine was through the force of sheer numbers. It is clear, then, that second- and third-century Gnosticism could not have been as pervasive and influential as second-century orthodoxy” (Kostenberger & Kruger, p. 61).

Ehrman can assert that diverse groups like Gnosticism are legitimate forms of Christianity only by ignoring its speculative and bizarre theology which bears no semblance to the teaching of the Bible. Consider the following examples.

Doctrine of God
First, Valentinus, one of the most prominent Gnostic teachers, describes God accordingly:

A certain perfect, pre-existent Aeon [spirit emanating from the One]…Primal-father, and Abyss…eternal and unbegotten…There existed along with him Thought, whom they also call Grace and Silence. At last this Abyss determined to send forth from himself the beginnings of all things, and deposited this production (which he had resolved to bring forth) in the co-existent Silence, even as seed is deposited in the womb. She then, having received this seed, and becoming pregnant, gave birth to Mind, who was both similar and equal to him who had produced him, and was alone capable of comprehending his father’s greatness. This Mind they call also Only-begotten, and Father, and the Beginning of all Things. Along with him was also produced Truth; and these four constituted the first and first-begotten Pythagorean Tetrad, which they also denominate the root of all things. For there are first Abyss and Silence, and then Mind and Truth. And Only-begotten, perceiving for what purpose he had been produced, also himself sent forth Word and Life, being the father of all those who were to come after him, and the beginning and fashioning of the entire Pleroma. [J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (1987), pp. 79-80]

[This was further elaborated with the production of thirty Aeons in all in groups of eight, ten, and twelve. The last pair were Design and Wisdom. These aeons complete the Pleroma, the truly divine world.]

Doctrine of Christ
Second, Basilides taught that Simon was transfigured into the likeness of Jesus and was then crucified in Jesus’ place.

But the Father without birth and without name…sent his own first-begotten Mind (he it is who is called Christ) to bestow deliverance on them that believe in him, from the power of those who made the world. He appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but a certain Simon of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; Simon was transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, and was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Mind of the unborn Father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all. Those, then, who know these things have been freed from the princes who formed the world; so that one must not confess him who was crucified, but him who came in the form of a man, and was thought to be crucified, and was called Jesus, and was sent by the Father, that by this dispensation he might destroy the works of the makers of the world. If any one, therefore, he declares, confesses the crucified, that man is still a slave, and under the power of those who formed our bodies; but he who denies him has been freed from these beings, and is acquainted with the dispensation of the unborn Father.[J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (1987), pp. 76-77]

Given the stark contradictions between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism, one could only marvel at Ehrman’s creative imagination which induces him to declare Gnosticism to be a form of “Christianity” [albeit, as a form of spiritual elitism which threatened the leadership of “proto-orthodox”] no less legitimate than Orthodox Christianity.

To conclude, the purported evidence of the Bauer-Ehrman hypothesis that “heresy preceded orthodoxy” has been decisively refuted by later research. Ehrman’s reading of early church history is demonstrably tendentious when he 1) ignores the centrality of apostolic tradition in shaping the Rule of Faith which was universally held by the early church, and 2) disregards the irreconcilable differences between Gnostic teachings and the Bible.

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