Saturday, January 9, 2010

Bauer via Ehrman on Early Christian Orthodoxy

This is from Bart D. Ehrman's book, "Jesus Interrupted". Ehrman is discussing how the Orthodox Christan scriptural canon came into being, and references Walter Bauer's 1934 book "Orthodox and Heresy in Earliest Christianity".
"Bauer looked at our earliest evidence for Christianity in a range of geographical regions throughout early Christendom - For example, in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor and Rome. He found that if the sources are studied in minute detail, they tell a very different story from the one told by Eusebius. In many places of early Christianity, forms of Christian belief that were later labeled heretical were the original form of Christianity, and in some parts of the church so-called heretics outnumbered those who agreed with the orthodox form of the faith. In some places Marcionite Christianity was dominant; in other places, one or another of the Gnostic systems prevailed.

Moreover, a number of Christian groups saw no sharp divisions between what would later be called heresy and what would be called orthodoxy. The clear theological distinctions of Eusebius's day were not original to the faith, but were created later when the battle lines were drawn up. Some people who were later considered heretics would have been seen, and were seen, as completely orthodox in their own day.

The way Bauer saw it, the church of the second and third centuries was not made up of one massive and dominant movement known as orthodoxy, with heretical groups at the fringes. Early on there were all sorts of groups with all sorts of views in lots of different places. Of course, all of these groups believed that their views were right, that their beliefs were orthodox.

But in the struggle to win converts, only one group eventually won out; this was the group that was particularly well represented in the city of Rome. The Roman Christians asserted their influence on other churches; as the church in Rome, the center of the empire, this community was larger, wealthier, and better organized than other Christian groups.

This Roman group acquired more converts than any of the others, eventually stamped out all of its competition, declared itself orthodox, argued that its views really were those of Jesus and the apostles, claimed that it had always been the majority view, and then - as a final coup de grace - rewrote the history of the conflict. What emerged was a Christianity characteristic of the Roman church. It was Roman Christianity - Roman catholic (meaning universal) Christianity.

Eusebius stands at the end of this process. It was his rewriting of history that made all later historians think that his group had always been the majority opinion. But it did not really happen that way."

1 comment:

  1. This is great! I wish more people paid attention to this part of history. The idea that any institution or belief could persist for 2000 years unchanged has always struck me as odd. Yet, that is exactly how evangelical leaders present their version of Christianity--as the version Jesus taught.