Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis: A Review

Hartog, Paul A., ed. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis. Pickwick Publications. 2015. 288 pages. $32, paperback.

[note: I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing a complimentary copy of this book for review.]

This collection of ten papers from various scholars addresses the Bauer thesis and seeks to reappraise it critically. The volume begins with a brief (5 page) introduction by Hartog which sets the stage for the volume. While the Bauer thesis has many strengths, it also has many weaknesses that do not hold up to scrutiny. Each contribution is briefly summarized below to indicate the general direction of the essays and as well as their conclusions.

1. The Bauer Thesis: An Overview (Decker)

The late Rod Decker (to whom the volume is dedicated) summarizes Bauer’s work and puts it in context. He then summarizes how Bauer has been critiqued, giving brief summaries of works by 14 other scholars (Turner, Betz, Chapman, Flora, Heron, Norris, Roberts, McCue, Robinson, Desjardins, Pearson, Davidson, Trebilco, Kostenberger and Kruger). The criticisms often revolve around the issues of arguments from silence, selective use of evidence, and being fundamentally wrong about Rome, Asia Minor, and gnosticism. The quick tour gives the reader several solid reasons to doubt the Bauer thesis. Decker concludes that the theory is widespread and influential, yet tragically flawed. It survives in spite of this, and largely on the level of paradigm/assumptions.

2. Walter Bauer and the Apostolic Fathers (Hartog)

Bauer’s assertion that heretics were numerous and widespread is shown by Hartog to be based on a combination of arguments from silence and a rather naive reading of the heresiologists. Bauer repeatedly uses the lack of letters to Thessalonica or Philippi to show that such cities were overrun by the heretics and that orthodoxy could find no footholds there. This is pure presumption on Bauer’s part, but Hartog doesn’t return the favor by asserting that such cities were orthodox. Instead he shows why such conclusions are too hasty and that they lack support. Hartog also suggests that Bauer should have read more on rhetoric. He took the heresiologists too seriously on the popularity of the heretics. Hartog concludes from his examination of  Polycarp, Clement, and Ignatius that the evidence contradicts the Bauer thesis.

3. Post-Bauer Scholarship on Gnosticism(s): The Current State of Our “Knowledge” (Smith)

Smith tells his readers that Bauer’s views on gnosticism are the most in need of correction today. Bauer did not have the original sources for “gnosticism” that we have today, and the very idea of gnosticism has been transformed since he wrote Orthodoxy and Heresy.

Was gnosticism persecuted? Smith points out that Valentinians were not excommunicated in Rome, and Valentinus was a candidate for bishopric of Rome. This hardly seems possible if Rome was such a dominant and controlling force for orthodoxy in the 2nd century. Smith goes on to look at the many questions in the field of gnostic studies that remain open, such as historical origins and how the “gnostic” groups/texts interacted with their orthodox counterparts. We have no gnostic texts prior to the 2nd century, and so Smith argues that one of Bauer’s failures was practically ignoring the New Testament evidence and going beyond what the evidence for gnosticism supports, inventing a myth of origins and interactions that we still have yet to find shown in the sources.

4. Bauer to Bauer and Beyond: Early Jewish Christianity and Modern Scholarship (Varner)

Varner begins his essay by pointing out that Bauer never really addressed Jewish Christianity. He then proceeds to give an overview of the scholarly appraisals of early Jewish Christianity, divided into 11 basic points (one can’t help but complain that there should have been an even dozen for symbolic significance). This is followed by a quick look at F.C. Bauer’s influence on the field.

Strecker’s contribution to Orthodoxy and Heresy is then given a treatment, and Varner points out that if Bauer’s thesis was indeed shown to be correct by the evidence from early Jewish Christianity (as Strecker contended), it is strange that Bauer never seemed to recognized this and did not address the subject in his work. Varner argues convincingly that a low Christology is often assumed or projected onto these “Jewish Christian” texts (Didiscalia Apostolorum and Kerygma Petrou) as well as an anti-Paul bias. While these elements can sometimes be discerned, as full documents they also express “orthodox” positions (very high Christology, Pauline elements). They too often have been cited out of context and in a prejudicial manner.

Various works are listed that have recently challenged the status quo in Jewish Christian studies, and the result has been a blurring of lines between early Jewish and Christian identities rather than reinforcing the “parting of the ways” model. The book Jewish Believers in Jesus is given as a positive example of the new approaches to the field.

Varner concludes that Bauer’s thesis cannot convincingly connect later Jewish Christian texts to a pre-70 Christianity. He then ends the essay with an excursus on Brown’s four categories of early Christians, adding that talking about “Jewish Christianity” is rather meaningless when we see such diversity within that given description. In this way both Bauer and the “traditionalist” schemes are shown to be inadequate.

5. “Orthodoxy,” “Heresy,” and Complexity: Montanism as a Case Study (Butler)

While the traditional view of Christian origins affirmed a pristine gospel that was  corrupted over time by later heretics, Bauer’s thesis seemed to posit that heresy preceded orthodoxy.

The uses of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” as descriptors are traced, with the former being popular only in the 4th c. while the latter is found already in the New Testament. “Heresy” took on a different meaning in the 2nd c., becoming a pejorative term. Rather than seeing this as evidence for heresy preceding orthodoxy, Butler points out that the depiction of heresy presupposes an orthodoxy. Heresy cannot logically precede orthodoxy.

The example of Montanism is brought up, and Butler stresses that the movement had harsh critics and ardent supporters, all within “orthodox” circles. Tertullian and the author/editor of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas were pro-Montanists who were also influential within orthodoxy. It seems that some Montanists never parted from “orthodoxy” formally. This shows that orthodoxy and heresy were not rigid and static categories. This strikes at the heart of Bauer’s contention that the heretics were ostracized by the orthodox, who dominated Christianity in spite of being the minority. None of this bears any resemblance to the evidence found in regard to Montanism in North Africa.

6. Apostolic Tradition and the Rule of Faith in Light of the Bauer Thesis (Litfin)

Litfin asserts that the normative teachings of Christianity found in the 2nd and 3rd centuries are in basic continuity with the records of the original apostolic preaching. This model of widespread orthodoxy rather than widespread heresy fits the evidence better. That is not to say that diversity did not exist, but that there was a core Christian preaching that defined Christianity in basic terms.

What Bauer neglected was a thorough examination into the earliest Christian movement. He took the evidence of heresies in the 2nd century and assumed that they were present from the beginning. Yet the earliest evidence points to a strong core of Christian teachings that most 2nd century heretics would oppose. Focusing on the work of Dunn, Litfin shows that the early proclamations about Jesus were varied but cohesive. There was not so much a unified orthodox Christology, but various confessions that shared a common core of ideas.

Liftin contends that “pre-gnosticism” may have been in the background of the New Testament writings, but that gnosticism proper was a later development, and one that fell outside of “acceptable diversity” in orthodox circles because of its divergent teaching on Jesus and the Rule of Faith. Gnosticism was at odds with the evidence for the earliest apostolic preaching.

7. Bauer’s Forgotten Region: North African Christianity (Alexander & Smither)

Alexander and Smither take up the challenge of examining the origins of Christianity in North Africa, asserting that it shows that the later orthodoxy of the area was not preceded by heresy. North Africa showed a resistance to Rome and a lack of heresy, which is at odds with  Bauer’s thesis. The evidence points to diversity and orthodoxy in North Africa, not to mention a successful resistance to Roman claims of authority.

The authors contend that Bauer’s depiction of Tertullian as a schismatic Montanist has been discredited by the scholarship of the last generation, and that the Montanism found in North Africa was moderate and orthodox. Tertullian was dedicated to upholding the Rule of Faith and should be considered orthodox rather than heretical by that basic standard. Bauer used Tertullian only when it was convenient to show heresy, while neglecting the largely orthodox content of Tertullian’s writings. North African Christianity can and would resist Rome while still being diverse and orthodox, which poses major difficulties for Bauer’s thesis.

8. Patristic Heresiology: The Difficulties of Reliability and Legitimacy (Shelton)

Shelton contends that the works of the heresiologists are worth critically examining rather than simply dismissing them as inaccurate polemical works. The discoveries at Nag Hammadi are in continuity with the depictions of the heresiologists, if not totally accurate. The very “black and white” presentation of heresiologists should not lead us to judge the works on those terms, but to keep in mind the rhetorical contexts and the aims of the work. They are neither entirely accurate nor entirely worthless. While they are exaggerated for rhetorical effect, their claims are valuable in showing the attitude towards gnostic claims in relation to the “orthodox” views on Christianity.

9. Bauer’s Early Christian Rome and the Development of “Orthodoxy” (Thompson)

Thompson shows that Bauer’s reconstruction of early Roman Christianity is based largely on conjecture and imagination rather than critical engagement with the evidence. Rome does not appear to be dominant early on, nor very well organized. It also was populated with various heretical teachers and had no strong organization. Yet Bauer contends that this Rome dominated Christianity through a common vision of stamping out heresy and influencing power over other Christian communities. No such leadership existed in Rome, and the theological status of 2nd c. Rome seemed to be largely the same as elsewhere: a mix of orthodox and heretical groups. The strong centralized hierarchy of later Roman Christianity is simply not found in the 2nd century.

10. From Völker to This Volume: A Trajectory of Critiques and a Final Reflection (Hartog)

Hartog ends the volume by tracing a trajectory of critiques of Bauer. Völker wrote a scathing review in 1935, yet Bauer’s theory gained acceptance. In spite of many flaws, it still dominates academia and poplar culture today. Hartog emphasizes the positive aspects of Bauer’s work, something that Völker did not recognize. He also notes that the contributors to his volume are primarily patristics scholars rather than New Testament scholars. Hartog offers the suggestion that the way forward is not an affirmation of plurality (which all agree on) or the assertion of precedence of heresy/orthodoxy (which would differ by locale) but one of a “focused normativity,” echoing the emphasis of many recent scholars examining Christian origins.

The Contributors

All of the authors are at pains to leave questions of Christian origins of orthodoxy and heresy relatively open. In dealing with Bauer’s thesis it becomes obvious that he had asserted more than the evidence could support and engaged in flights of fancy, yet the scholars of this volume do not make this same mistake. Rather than setting up alternative theories to Bauer’s thesis they tend to point out weaknesses in it and suggest corrections, while still leaving the questions open. The volume gives no alternative theory to the Bauer thesis, simply counter evidence.

With the exception of Decker and Varner, I was previously unfamiliar with the contributors to this volume. As it turns out, most of them are professors at what would appear to be fairly conservative Christian institutions. This raises the issues of bias and motivation, but in reading the articles I never got the impression that a conservative Christian agenda was being pursued. The articles tend to advocate for a more cautious approach to the issues than Bauer employed and consequently various confessional issues are never raised. None of the arguments presented depend on a particular view of Christian “truth,” but on historical evidence. So while I might differ from the contributors on various matters of “faith,” this has no relevance to the validity of their arguments. This is how critical scholarship works, of course.

This approach is exemplified in Varner giving a positive footnote to Robert Eisenman, a scholar with a very peculiar view of early Christian origins and beliefs. Varner writes “Although the ideas of Robert Eisenman have been largely ignored by the academic community, he deserves a better fate (Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus). Even though his views are eccentric, they are erudite and closely argued.” (p.100, note 36) Complimenting the scholarly acumen of a figure like Eisenman shows a willingness to give credit where credit is due, regardless of confessional commitments (“orthodoxy”). Good scholarship is good scholarship, and Varner (in my opinion) takes a bit of a risk in complimenting Eisenman’s scholarship. It indicates a focus on critical issues rather than apologetics. Robert Kraft mentions Varner’s important Ancient Jewish-Christian Dialogues (2005) in his volume Exploring the Scripturesque (2009), which is very impressive in my view. I look forward to reading Varner’s works on James (The Book of James a New Perspective: A Linguistic Commentary Applying Discourse Analysis, 2011) and the Didache (The Way of the Didache: The First Christian Handbook, 2007). Fortunately, the other contributors to this volume showed the same respect for a critical approach to the issues.


While I found myself concurring with the authors, I can’t help but wonder how their criticisms would be met by the likes of the respected scholars with whom they differ (Koester, Ehrman, Pagels). Ehrman in particular is cited a number of times in this volume admitting the weaknesses of Bauer’s thesis. Hartog deals with this briefly, but a more lengthy engagement with this issue would have been appreciated, given the repeated claim that Bauer’s thesis is so popular and dominant today in spite of its weaknesses. Rather than directly engaging Ehrman and the modern versions of the thesis, this volume primarily critiques Bauer’s own work.  Yet if the objections are so numerous and substantial, it is hard to believe that scholars such as Koester, Ehrman, and Pagels still hold to it for no good reason. Are Ehrman’s caveats enough to save the thesis, or is he bailing water on a sinking ship? It would be interesting to see a response from them on these issues, and the issue is relevant because of the influence of Ehrman, Pagels, and Koester both in the academy and in popular presentations of Christian origins.

Another issue which was not dealt with in depth was Marcion’s role in early Christianity. He is mentioned a number of times, but never treated in detail. For those interested in Marcion’s place in early Christianity it would have been helpful to see how the latest studies of Marcion tend to either confirm or discredit Bauer’s thesis. In my view, Marcion warrants a fuller treatment.

Also missing is a coherent alternative to the Bauer thesis. If all of the authors find various flaws in Bauer, what theory best explains the evidence? I found this omission to be noteworthy, in that the aim here is deconstruction rather than building a new edifice. This mitigates any suspicions of a particular apologetic aim to the volume. Although a more “traditional” viewpoint is advocated at times, this is reflective of critical scholarship as well.


A strength of this volume is that it is broad, while the ample footnotes and 27 page bibliography (although no index is included) point the reader to resources that investigate specific issues in greater depth and detail. This enables a wide range of evidence to be presented without getting bogged down in smaller details in the text of the article itself. It would have been nice if the aesthetics of the front cover had lived up to the high quality of the articles, but perhaps that is simply my personal taste. At any rate, this is a small complaint since this book is best when opened.


This volume is a product of the Bauer thesis in many ways. The insights gained by these scholars were spurred on by Bauer’s work, and  although their conclusions differ from his, the contributors show a palpable empathy for Bauer. All theories are open to revision, and they critique Bauer in a very professional way. Jut as Bauer challenged the status quo, these scholars are challenging the new “orthodoxy,” the Bauer thesis. The arguments are convincing and worth examining for all students of early Christian history.

While the authors at times go to great lengths to qualify their critiques with positive impacts of Bauer’s thesis on scholarship, their criticisms undercut the very foundations of his theory. At the end of this volume the reader will probably conclude that the thesis is not in need of revision, but wholesale abandonment. If we correct the many mistakes in the theory, there isn’t much left that can authentically be attributed to Bauer.

This volume is essential for those interested in the Bauer thesis. The fresh appraisal is both broad and in depth, and provides references to reader for a multitude of avenues to be explored. It is scholarly, but also very readable. The main value of this book is that the many objections to the Bauer thesis are collected and condensed into a single volume.

For advocates of Bauer’s thesis or the modern version, these arguments present a substantial challenge. For those already opposed to the thesis, this volume demonstrates where and why the thesis fails. For those who are undecided, very strong arguments are offered that suggest that Bauer’s thesis was fatally flawed from the beginning and does not offer a viable explanation of orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity.


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