I’ve noticed that Michael Bird has recently posted an article on heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity. From what I can tell (I can’t see the entire article because it’s behind the paywall), he is pushing back against the popular narrative, originally suggested by Walter Bauer in his 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, which insists that Christianity was wildly diverse in the earliest centuries and that the heretics outnumbered the orthodox. It was not until the 3rd and 4th centuries, according to Bauer, that the orthodox began to turn the tide.
But I think there’s an additional way to test Bauer’s theory. Let’s ask a simple question: who were the bishops in second-century Christianity? If heresy was as widespread as orthodoxy, we should expect to find a number of bishops that are openly Marcionite, Ebionite, Gnostic, and beyond.
The problem for Bauer’s thesis is that this is precisely what we don’t find.
When we examine bishops from the second century we find a litany that fit nicely within the orthodox camp: Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Papias, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Anecitus of Rome, Polycrates of Ephesus, Victor of Rome, Demetrius of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis, Theophilus of Caesarea, and Dionysius of Corinth.
While these leaders certainly did not agree on everything, it is evident from their writings, or from historical reports about them, that there are no reasons to identify them with heterodox groups like the Marcionites, Gnostics, or Ebionites.
What is particularly noteworthy about the above list is that they represent a wide geographical range: Lyons (Gaul), Smyrna, Antioch, Hierapolis, Rome, Sardis, Ephesus, and Corinth. In other words, these orthodox leaders were not cordoned off into some small outpost of early Christianity.
It might be objected that orthodox bishops were forced into these geographical locales by higher ecclesiastical powers bent on imposing their agenda on others. The problem with this suggestion is that there were no “higher ecclesiastical powers” during this time period. There was not an ecclesiastical structure that allowed churches in one city to dictate the leadership of churches in another city.
It should also not be forgotten that, in this earliest phase, it was common for leaders to be elected by their local congregations (e.g., Did. 15.1; 1 Clem. 44.3). Thus, we have every reason to think that these many bishops, and the beliefs that they held, are a reasonably accurate representation of the Christian constituencies they served.
When we turn to heterodox groups in the second century, there are certainly many examples of their leaders (e.g., Menander, Saturninus, Cerdo, Basilides, Cerinthus). But, what is lacking is evidence that they held the office of bishop in the various locales in which they were active.
There is no explicit mention, at least in the second century, of any identifiable Gnostic, Marcionite, or Ebionite holding the office of bishop. Or, at least, I haven’t found one (please let me know if I have missed an example).
We do have indications that Valentinus may have been considered for the office of bishop of Rome, but the legitimacy of this report is seriously questioned. Irenaeus rebukes the presbyter (not bishop) Florinus for embracing the “Valentinian error” (Hist. eccl. 5.20.1), but it is evident that this was a new development—Florinus actually started out as an orthodox disciple of Polycarp.
Or, perhaps we might think of Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome who barely crosses over into the second century (c.199-217), whom Hippolytus accused of modalism (Ref. 9.2). But, the modalism issue was much more narrow. Zephyrinus was certainly no Ebionite, Gnostic, or Marcionite. Regardless, even if we grant the instance of Zephyrinus, it is the exception that proves the rule.
When the dust settles on these sorts of discussions, the bare and (for Bauer) problematic reality remains: heretics didn’t seem very successful in winning over most congregations in the second century. Put differently, there is little evidence that they were in the majority.
Once again, despite all the buzz about diversity in early Christianity, we have no reason to doubt that the mainstream church during this time period was still one that could be generally identified as “orthodox.”
Anthony G Flood says
Dear Professor Kruger,
I love your works on the “Cinderella Century”; today’s post provoked me to try my luck again about something I wrote to you two years ago about. It’s about Arthur Penrhyn Stanley’s 1861 Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church. In it (I’m now cannibalizing my 2019 message) there’s a long (but hauntingly beautiful written) passage (pp. 15-16) in which he seems to “think out loud” about the (apparent) paucity of evidence connecting the Christian communities of the first centuries to those of the second. Here’s a taste of his Victorian prose:
How was the transition effected from the age of the Apostles to the age of the Fathers, from Christianity as we see it in the New Testament, to Christianity as we see it in the next century, and as, to a certain extent, we have seen it ever since? No other change equally momentous has ever since affected its fortunes, yet none has ever been so silent and secret. The stream, in that most critical moment of its passage from the everlasting hills to the plain below, is lost to our view at the very point where we are most anxious to watch it; we may hear its struggles under the overarching rocks; we may catch its spray on the boughs that overlap its course; but the torrent itself we see not, or see only by imperfect glimpses. It is not so much a period for Ecclesiastical History as for ecclesiastical controversy and conjecture. A fragment here, an allegory there; romances of unknown authorship; a handful of letters of which the genuineness of every portion is contested inch by inch; the summary examination of a Roman magistrate; the pleadings of two or three Christian apologists; customs and opinions in the very act of change; last but not least, the faded paintings, the broken sculptures, the rude epitaphs in the darkness of the catacombs, these are the scanty, though attractive, materials out of which the likeness of the early Church must be reproduced, as it was working its way, in the literal sense of the word, “underground,” under camp and palace, under senate and forum, as unknown, yet well known; as dying, and behold it lives. [End of citation]
Did Dean Stanley overstate things? Has he been discredited?) Does the evidence that’s been uncovered in the last century and a half put his musings to rest? Does a chronological overlap of canonical and non-canonical documents establish sociological continuity of community?
Thank you for your work and for any attention you may pay to my persistent query.
Yours for His Kingdom,
Deb W says
Well, the article and it reminded me of the reason why the Bishops were appointed in the first place, which was to provide oversight of the regional churches. Apparently, there actually were a lot of heretics running around, but one of the main responsibilities of the bishops was specifically to keep that stuff at bay.
B. Lamb says
I would appreciate your consideration of my comment, and correction where I have misunderstood.
I have no great knowledge or scholarship to give a learned foundation for my comment and request. Since retirement I have had time to begin to seek a better understanding of the history of the church. As I have read, it seems to me that both the Biblical and historical record of the early church reveal an astounding level of unity, preservation, and expansion in the face of those who tried to deceive, as well as the ongoing suspicion and repeated persecutions faced at various times and in various places. To me this indicates the purpose and strong influence of God. In trying to understand the genesis of the influx of error and disunity, I have come to a ponder a situation that I have never really heard raised as an issue. The early church appears to have been a close-knit believing family of those who confessed faith in Jesus. Then, suddenly, the whole of all the pagan cultures within the Roman Empire were required by Theodosius I to become Christian. This apparently well intended mandated influx of the masses of unbelieving people into the churches seems to have have turned out to promote a diabolical scheme to overwhelm and destroy the believing church, particularly in the crumbling western part of the Empire. Has anyone written about how those early churches coped and belief even managed to survive? There was tremendous potential for error and abuse of power, especially since most had no access to the scriptures for themselves. Yet God had preserved His remnant in every generation. There seem to be many parallels between the people of Old Testament, some people of the increasingly “organized” power structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the protestant churches from the reformation until now. (I have little knowledge of what transpired in the Orthodox churches, though it is my understanding that they made the scriptures available in the local languages of the people from an early time.) I would appreciate any resources to help understand these things properly.
David Madison says
The biggest heresy of the second century (and beyond) was Marcionism, according to which the God of the Old Testament was not the God of Jesus. If there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that this doctrine is false. However, it is perhaps not surprising that such a doctrine would arise in the first place. Christianity began as a sect within Judaism and then spread into the Gentile world. By the second century, Gentile believers were the dominant force. At that stage there was a temptation to sever Jesus from his Jewish roots. It is to the great credit of the Church that this was not allowed to happen. The canonical Gospels, which place Jesus very firmly in his Jewish setting, were preserved, and the various apocryphal gospels were rejected.
It is easy to imagine an alternative scenario. The canonical Gospels could have been lost and with it the portrait they give us of a man who fits very plausibly into a real historical setting. In place of this we could have the bizarre figure who is portrayed in the apocryphal gospels – the Jesus who spouts Gnostic “wisdom”. We would know that the Gnostic Jesus was not authentic. Such a figure would make no historical sense. But we would have no idea who the real Jesus was. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. I don’t think this is an accident. It seems that Providence has been at work at every stage in Christian history.
Fred Schumpert says
Not withstanding the context of the Apostle Paul’s instructions (warnings) to the church in Corinth, he says, “When you come together as a church, I hear there are divisions (‘schisma’) exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions (‘haireais’) among you, in order that those who are approved may become evident among you.” (1Cor. 11:18, 19) Sounds much like the OT church: “For both prophet and priest are polluted; even in My house I have found their wickedness”, declares the Lord (Jer. 23:11) ……..believe the trend has continued through the history of the church and today, I would suggest, is no exception.
Shawn Keating says
The problem is that the evidence may have been lost or suppressed. Why would later orthodox overseers preserve the writings and records of the heterodox? Their writings would simply not be copied. Only the orthodox would be preserved and precious little of even that survives. Except for those writings that were discovered buried we have very little heretical writings preserved at all.
Gary S Shogren says
This takes us further outside the question specifically of Gnostic bishops. But I believe Jerome and Epiphanius made reference to Montanist bishops, presbyters, and deacons.