Thursday, June 01, 2017

Précis: The Bauer Thesis: An Overview (Rodney Decker) (p. 6-33)

The Bauer Thesis: An Overview (Rodney Decker) (p. 6-33)
A Précis of
Chapter 1 from
Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis. edited by Paul A. Hartog, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2015.


The current use and popularizing of the Bauer Thesis by Bart Ehrman in his scholarly and popularizing literature. A summary of Bauer’s Thesis and import from 1934 in Germany and Europe then in 1970 in America with the translation into English.

Decker’s summary:
“Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy argues that we cannot merely assume that orthodoxy came first and that heresy is a later deviation, for in doing so we ‘simply agree with the judgment of the anti-heretical fathers for the post-New Testament period’(xii). This is neither scientific nor fair since we are listening to only one voice-that of the winners; we do not allow the losers to speak for themselves. ‘Perhaps...certain manifestations of 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.” The possibility also exists that their adherents constituted the majority’(xxii)”(p. 11)

Decker highlights Bauers actual lack of objectivity, outlines Bauer’s logical arrangement of evidence and points out the neglect of evidence known during Bauer’s time. Bauer starts with a geographical survey: Edessa, then Alexandria, Antioch, and Asia Minor, turning finally to Rome. Then Bauer turns to look at rhetorical usage of terms. Traditional literature playing the Gospels off one another and contrasting very selective sections of Paul with them. Bauer’s thesis maintains that Rome’s position came to predominate as orthodoxy through political power and financial influence.
“The essence, then, of Bauer’s thesis is twofold: in the beginning there were many varieties of Christianity(i.e., not a single, unified set of beliefs that later became what we know as ‘orthodoxy’), and second, it was the victory of one party, the church of Rome, which established the official dogma, suppressing all other competing views” (p. 16-17)

Decker turns to what he views as the most significant responses to Bauer. I’m including abstracts of Decker’s summaries as an aid to choosing sources.

H.E.W. Turner’s 1954 The Pattern of Christian Truth: emphasizing Bauer’s neglect of evidence and misuse of argument from silence and his “tendency to over-simplify problems, combined with the ruthless treatment of such evidence as fails to support his case.” (p. 18)

H.D. Betz’s 1965 “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Primitive Christianity” agrees with Bauer’s approach but points out to major areas of error: 1) Mischaracterized Egyptian evidence, 2) ignoring New Testament evidence of Paul’s assertions of orthodoxy.

G.C. Chapman’s 1970 “Some Theological Reflections on Walter Bauer’s Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum: A Review Article.”
Published just before the release of the English translation “Chapman targets two major tactics: Bauer’s numerous arguments from silence…, and his ‘habitually coercing ambiguous pieces of evidence’ to fit a preconceived theory.”(p. 19) Rejecting Bauer’s view of the political influence from Rome he also points out that Bauer blurred together different theological categories in the arrangement of his argument.

J Flora’s 1972 “A Critical Analysis of Walter Bauer’s Theory of Early Christian Orthodoxy and Heresy” levels four main criticisms: 1) Bauer misrepresents Paul. 2) Bauer was inordinately selective in “evidence cited and in the areas of the early church to be discussed.”(p. 20) 3) Bauer oversimplified the picture of the development of orthodoxy ignoring inconvenient evidence. 4) Bauer’s picture of Rome as a unified church with political power in the second century is also oversimplified and contrary to available evidence.

A.I.C. Heron’s 1973 “The interpretation of I Clement in Walter Bauer’s Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum” focuses specifically on “Bauer’s use of I Clement,”(p. 21) Bauer makes this epistle the cornerstone of his argument about the character and influence of Rome. Heron’s analysis results in him asking “Is the plausibility and attractiveness of the whole theory based upon its coherence with the available evidence, or is it rather based upon the power of Bauser’s synthesizing imagination?”(p. 21) According to Heron’s analysis the answer is clearly that it was Bauer’s imagination.

F. Norris’ 1976 “Ignatius, Polycarp, and I Clement: Walter Bauer Reconsidered” agrees with Bauer’s “critique of the traditional, orthodox theory of the origin of heresy”(23) but rejects Bauer’s reconstruction of the history because the theory lacks real evidence and was argued too often from silence.

C.H. Roberts’ 1977 Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Egypt. As part of this work Roberts shows that not only did Bauer argue from lack of evidence (that is, since there are no 2nd century orthodox writings there was therefore no orthodoxy in Egypt in the 2nd century) but new evidence since Bauer’s day demonstrates his grave mischaracterization of the church in 2nd century Egypt.

J McCue’s 1979 “Orthodoxy and Heresy: Walter Bauer and the Valentinians” is critical of “Bauer’s handling of the Valentinian gnostic data,” on which, McCue states “Bauer is simply wrong” (24). Bauer misunderstood/misrepresented Valentinianism in three main ways. 1)their self-understanding, 2)they were a very small minority, and 3)they developed later than, not prior to orthodoxy.

T.A. Robinson’s 1988 The Bauer Thesis Examined is the most thorough look at Bauer. This volume surveys the theory and literature comprehensively up to its publication. Robinson examined Bauer’s geographical method finding it faulty and wanting. He considers evidence which was available to Bauer but left out of Bauer’s treatment: particularly of Asia Minor. He concludes “Bauer’s reconstruction of the history of the early church in western Asia Minor is faulty-not just in minor details-but at critical junctures.”(26) “The failure of the thesis in the only area where it can be adequately tested casts suspicion on the other areas of Bauer’s investigation. Extreme caution should be exercised in granting to the Bauer Thesis insight into those areas for which inventive theses appear credible only because evidence is either too scarce or too mute to put anything to the test.”(26-27)

M. Desjardins 1991 “Bauer and Beyond: On Recent Scholarly Discussions of Αἵρεσις in the Early Christian Era” examines and synthesizes previous studies on the issue. Desjardins redirects the focus on what right belief would mean for early Christians in the context of 2nd Temple period teaching “arising from the church’s Jewish heritage, reflecting similar categories as the rabbis.”(27).  “This has obvious implications in support of a more traditional view in which ‘orthodoxy’ is original and ‘heresy’ later and derivative.”(27)

B.A. Pearson’s 2004 Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt gives a detailed look into one of Bauer’s primary geographical areas on which his thesis is established. While Pearson accepts the presence of diversity, his examination of the evidence leads him to conclude that the evidence (like The Preaching of Peter) demonstrates that orthodoxy existed prior to what Bauer lists as heresy for this area.

I.J Davidson’s 2004 The Birth of the Church points out a variety of evidence ignored by Bauer with a particular focus on the Roman evidence and discussion the nature of a body of belief that was considered true teaching in the context of early Christianity.

P. Treblico’s 2006 “Christian Communities in Western Asia Minor into the Early Second Century: Ignatius and Others as Witnesses against Bauer” points out 4 areas about “Bauer’s use of the Ignatian evidence with regard to Asia Minor.”(p. 29) These are 1)  that the orthodox position is earlier, 2) that Bauer is wrong to assume that Colossae and Hierapolis were heretical simply because Ignatius and John didn’t write to them, 3) that disagreeing with bishops in Ignatius is not automatically an issue of heresy against orthodoxy, and 4) that western Asia Minor did, in fact, have a good memory of and understanding of Paul through the period at issue.

A Köstenberger and M Kruger’s 2010 The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. The first hundred pages examine the newer synthesis of what the authors call the “Bauer-Ehrman Thesis.” The authors examine the relationship between the current prevalence of postmodern attitudes and the popularity of Ehrman’s popularizing of Bauer. “The authors highlight the postmodern context, which praises subjective experience, diversity, pluralism, and an inclusivity that repudiates exclusive truth claims as ideological power ploys.”(p. 30) The authors point out that Bauer’s book presented the “earliest Christianity” by ignoring the actual evidence from the earliest Christians.

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