Sundoulos - Spring 2007

Revising the Roots of Orthodoxy

by Alan Hultberg

Most Christians today, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, believe that the central doctrines of the Church—those embodied, for instance, in the Nicene Creed—can be traced backward through the apostles to Jesus. That is, while most are not naïve enough to suppose that Jesus and the apostles taught a full-blown Nicene Trinity or a finely nuanced doctrine of the hypostatic union, all would accept that the seeds of such doctrines are to be found in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles as found in the New Testament. This has been the opinion of Christians since the early days of the church. This, however, is not the opinion of a number of contemporary NT scholars.

The Revisionist Account of the Rise of “Orthodoxy”

These scholars propose that the view of Christianity presented in the NT and codified in the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries—what we would call orthodoxy—was only one of several competing forms of “Christianity” in the earliest church. They argue that virtually everything in the early church was up for grabs, whether monotheism, the deity of Christ, the authority of the OT, or the goodness of creation. Various sects, representing a spectrum of beliefs and all claiming apostolic support, contested for the supremacy of their views. What we take to be “orthodox” only became such because it “won” these rhetorical and political battles and so was able successfully to silence, suppress, and eventually extinguish the alternatives, which it branded “heresy.” These “proto-orthodox” winners wrote the histories and constructed the canon that legitimated their brand of Christianity alone.

Two scholars in particular have been instrumental in conveying this “revisionist” account to a popular audience. Elaine Pagels, currently Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, first brought these ideas to public attention in 1979 through her book The Gnostic Gospels,1 in which, among other things, she questioned the authority of the NT writings over against the Gnostic documents cherished by so-called heretics. Other writings, such as The Gnostic Paul,2 furthered her revision of the orthodox account and have culminated in Beyond Belief,3 which, besides propounding the revisionist thesis, offers a passionate appeal for religious tolerance and a virtual confession of Gnosticism. An even more determined popularizer than Pagels, however, has been Bart Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman shares a concern with Pagels to “relativize” orthodox Christianity in the interest of religious tolerance, and he has published several books with that concern in mind. Chief among these are The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and Misquoting Jesus,4 in which Ehrman attempts to undermine the orthodox appeal to Scripture by claiming to show how the proto-orthodox played fast and loose with Jesus tradition and “apostolic” texts in order to further their theological agenda, and Lost Christianities,5 in which he introduces the various sorts of “Christian” sects and sectarian “scriptures” vying for supremacy in the second and third centuries, and purports to give an account of the rhetorical tactics used by the proto-orthodox to become dominant.

What are we to make of the claims of the revisionists? Their work has received significant attention in the popular media and their books reach audiences far beyond the halls of academia—perhaps even to some in the pews of your church. Is it really true that Nicene orthodoxy has no more claim to represent the teaching of Jesus than the heterodox versions of Christianity? Is it really true that orthodoxy owes its success more to the skill at which its early proponents played “the Scripture wars” than to its continuity with the apostles? We will consider these questions in what follows, and to begin to do so, let us look more closely at the revisionist case.

Though not primarily concerned with presenting an argument for the revisionist account, in Lost Christianities Ehrman identifies three key questions upon which the revisionist case rests: (1) Did Jesus and the apostles teach a form of orthodoxy? (2) Does Acts give a reliable account of the early apostolic church as relatively unified around this core orthodoxy as it spread through the Roman world? (3) Does Eusebius (whose Ecclesiastical History, published ca. AD 325, is the oldest surviving history of the early church)6 give a reliable account of the sub-apostolic and ante-Nicene church as originally and in the majority orthodox in all locales, with heresies forming secondary and minority positions? Each question is answered in the negative, leading Ehrman to the conclusion that, since orthodoxy neither goes back to the apostles nor to Jesus, nor was it always and everywhere in the majority, it is therefore not the only valid form of Christianity. The only reason orthodoxy came to dominate all other forms of devotion to Jesus was that it slurred its opponents’ morals more effectively, criticized its opponents’ views more effectively, appealed to its own apostolicity more effectively, interpreted the OT more effectively, and forged and corrupted its supporting texts more effectively.

Response to the Revisionist Argument

Ehrman’s argument can be challenged at several points. To begin, let us consider his second and third questions together: Are the pictures in Acts and Eusebius of a consistent and widespread orthodoxy in the early church reliable?

Are Acts and Eusebius Reliable?

Part of the revisionist account rests on the demonstrable diversity of opinion regarding the person and significance of Jesus of Nazareth among early “Christian” groups. This diversity can be demonstrated even by a casual reading of the NT, in most books of which one encounters polemics against false teachers and doctrines, and by similar rhetoric in the Apostolic Fathers (the group of church leaders in the first post-apostolic generation whose writings we possess) and in the writings of those church leaders who followed them.7 This picture has been considerably supplemented by the numerous actual heterodox texts that have been discovered in the past century, particularly the fifty-two, primarily Gnostic tractates found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.8 It is supposed by the revisionists that this diversity tells a very different tale than that found in Acts and Eusebius. Contrary to the traditional view of an apostolic orthodoxy spreading from Jerusalem to all parts of the Roman Empire from which deviated various heretical groups, in actuality Christianity was characterized by numerous conflicting sects from the very beginning.

With regard to Acts, Ehrman agrees with the conclusions of research flowing from F.C. Baur (d.1860) and the Tübingen school that suggest the author of Acts sought to mask the vehement disagreement between Paul and at least some of the leadership of the Jerusalem church in favor of a myth of irenic apostolic unity in the first century. For example, when the “Paul” of Acts is compared to the Paul of the letters we find irreconcilable differences both in chronology and in theology. The “Paul” of Acts is said to be very deferential to the Jerusalem church and to Jewish customs, while the Paul of the letters disdains the Jerusalem leadership and Jewish customs. It becomes clear, then, in the revisionist thinking, that Acts is a falsified “history” attempting to privilege the proto-orthodox perspective. With regard to Eusebius, Ehrman relies on work that began with the investigations of Walter Bauer (d.1960) into second century Christianity. Bauer attempted to show through assessment of early sources related to the Church in various regions of the Roman Empire that orthodoxy was neither the earliest nor the majority view in every region. Rather, Bauer argues, it was only strong in Rome, where it used its money and power to coerce other churches to toe the proto-orthodox line. Eusebius’ idyllic picture of a primarily orthodox early church is thus, in his opinion, false.

We may begin a response by noting that a major element in the revisionist argument, that orthodoxy was not always and everywhere the majority opinion of early Christians, is largely irrelevant. That is, the revisionists want to assert not only that early Christianity was characterized by theological diversity, but especially that the orthodox claim to apostolicity is unwarranted, and it is generally assumed or implied that the two assertions are logically related. But whether or not Acts or Eusebius can be shown to have “sugarcoated” their accounts and made orthodoxy appear to have been stronger than it was in no way argues against the legitimacy of the claim of orthodoxy to be apostolic. Suppose, for example, the evidence indicates, as Bauer claims, that the churches in Edessa, Syria, or Alexandria, Egypt, were heterodox from their inception, and that the heterodox elements in these churches continued in the majority for a century or more. This says no more about the illegitimacy of orthodox claims to apostolicity than would an argument that the “church” in Utah was originally and continues in the main to be Mormon. So what? It neither makes Mormonism a more legitimate expression of apostolic Christianity nor the Protestant church a less legitimate expression. It just shows that Mormonism successfully entrenched itself geographically.

But more critically, the evidence upon which the revisionists make these assertions can be called into question. Thus, many of Bauer’s claims have been incisively challenged (see the sidebar), especially in the way in which he handles his evidence. For example, Bauer reads the letters of Ignatius, an early bishop of Antioch, who was martyred around 110, as evidencing a weak and struggling orthodoxy. Bauer notes that, though Ignatius writes to the church in Philadelphia, he does not write to the church in Thessalonika, suggesting that the orthodox Ignatius knew his views would have no reception there, that is, that Thessalonika was thoroughly heterodox. On the other hand, when Ignatius writes to Philadelphia, he much too strongly commends the bishop, suggesting that the majority of the church in Philadelphia is generally unwilling to submit to the bishop, that is, that they are heterodox, and that the bishop is in fact only a leader of the minority who happened to maneuver into a powerful position. In other words, silence for Bauer indicates at best very weak orthodoxy and volume indicates minority but possibly assertive orthodoxy. Seemingly, no evidence counts against his thesis! In never once seriously considering alternative, more benign explanations for these phenomena, Bauer merely begs the question, and his conclusions have thus rightfully been disputed.

The revisionist treatment of Acts and Paul is similarly ham-fisted. So, for example, Ehrman points to Gal 2:11-14 to demonstrate that Paul was “at loggerheads with the apostles in Jerusalem” while “Acts portrays the entire Christian [sic] in harmony from the beginning to the end of Paul’s mission,” referring the reader to Acts 15:1-24. But if Acts 15:1-24 shows anything, it shows that Luke is not reticent to record the factious nature of early Christianity (quite in line with Paul’s rebuke of Peter at Antioch). On the other hand, though Paul is not over-awed by the apostles in Jerusalem (Gal 1:16-17; 2:6), he certainly does not portray himself as at complete loggerheads with them either (Gal 1:18-2:10). As with Bauer’s evidence, a more nuanced reading of the differences between Acts and Paul than that given by the revisionists is required. In fact, many NT scholars have concluded, contra the revisionists, that Acts and Paul’s letters are compatible on their own terms and that Acts’ account of early Christianity is generally reliable. Furthermore, and more importantly, both Acts and Galatians (and other Pauline epistles) demonstrate that Paul and his churches—indeed all factions in the early church—had a stake in genuine apostolic endorsement, that is, that they believed the apostles taught a system of behavior and belief grounded in the teaching of the historical Jesus. And this brings us to Ehrman’s first question: did Jesus and the apostles teach orthodoxy?

Did Jesus and the Apostles Teach “Orthodoxy”?

Unfortunately, though this is really where the rubber meets the road, revisionists hardly deal with this question. In Lost Christianities, Ehrman is content to assert that when the Gospels are subjected to critical inquiry it becomes clear that Jesus did not teach orthodoxy or anything that might legitimately have developed into orthodoxy. In fact, he even makes the astonishing claim that orthodoxy is not to be found anywhere in the NT.

But this clearly overstates the case. First, though Ehrman is correct to assert that much critical scholarship calls into question the accuracy of the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus and his teachings, he is wrong to assume the case is closed. A number of NT scholars, employing many of the same critical criteria to determine the authenticity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels that Ehrman thinks undermine the reliability of those accounts, have argued for substantial continuity between the historical Jesus and his portrayal in the canonical Gospels.9 This assessment includes the authenticity of such “proto-orthodox” sayings as Mark 10:45, where Jesus interprets his death as a sin offering (in fulfillment of Isa 52:13-53:12), and Mark 14:62 where Jesus claims, with divine overtones, to be the heavenly Son of Man of Dan 7:13-14.  Second, orthodoxy is so obviously taught in the NT that most revisionists consider the NT an orthodox document. All primary orthodox doctrines are taught at least in nuce in its pages, including the humanity and divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the second coming in judgment, as well as deference to the authority of the OT Scriptures and its general theology. More importantly, the NT writings self-consciously relate their teachings to the apostolic witness far more credibly than do any heterodox documents known to us.

The Validity of Orthodox claims to Apostolicity

Revisionist scholars are fond of touting the numerous extra-canonical Gospels, Acts, letters, and apocalypses (e.g. the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Acts of John, the Letter of Peter to James, and the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter) as evidence of a diverse theological scene in early Christianity, with each sect appealing to apostolic roots for its validity.10 What these scholars do not often reveal is that the most ancient documents to do so are our NT books and the Apostolic Fathers, all orthodox texts.

The earliest Christian documents we possess are the letters of Paul, the first of which were written within thirty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus.11 Already in these we have evidence of proto-orthodox doctrines with connections or direct appeal to the authority of the twelve apostles. So, for instance, in 1 Cor 15:1-8, Paul summarizes the gospel “he had received” (parelabon, indicating instruction in an authoritative tradition), namely, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter] and then to the twelve.…” Or again, in 1 Cor 16:22, Paul closes his letter with the Aramaic prayer, “maranatha,” which means, “Our Lord, come!” Here is a prayer to Jesus from the earliest stage of the church (as indicated by its Aramaic form) that had become such a traditional part of early Christology it could be quoted with understanding to a Greek church (cf. Rev 22:20). Other instances of the use of pre-Pauline orthodox material in Paul’s letters include Gal 4:6/Rom 8:15 and perhaps Php 2:5-11. And recall that Paul in Galatians is concerned to indicate his continuity with the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-2). Thus in its earliest stratum, that is, in the first twenty or thirty years of the church, the NT evidences a core apostolic faith that is orthodox.

This trend continues in the rest of the NT, all of which was written before the end of the first century, and much of which was written within fifty years of the ministry of Jesus (and very probably by apostles or associates of apostles). The result is that, as the apostles were passing from the scene, the Pastorals and Jude can already exhort the next generation to guard the apostolic deposit “once for all committed to the saints.”

We see a similar appeal in the Apostolic Fathers, who wrote in the first half of the second century.12  The fathers are especially cognizant that the apostolic (i.e., orthodox) faith is guarded by the succession of bishops and elders that stems from the founding of the primary churches. So, for example, 1 Clement (written around AD 100) is a letter from the church in Rome13 to the church in Corinth in which the Corinthians are urged to reinstate certain deposed presbyters in favor of others who had usurped their authority. The letter’s argument includes an appeal to the fact that these men had been entrusted with the gospel by the apostles or their immediate successors with the approval of the church. As even Ehrman notes, the argument appears to have had its intended effect, since Dionysius, bishop of Corinth in 170, relates that 1 Clement was read as Scripture in the church there. But this is of great importance. The Corinthian church was founded by Paul around AD 50, at which time he presumably appointed elders. Fifty years later, that is, within the living memory of some of the older members of the church and within one or two generations of leadership from Paul himself, the church is urged by 1 Clement to reject a heterodox coup and return to orthodoxy by reinstating the rightful “Pauline” elders. And the Corinthians bought the argument! How could the argument from apostolic succession have been successful so soon after the founding of the church if it was not in fact valid? Revisionists reject the orthodox appeal to apostolic succession, noting that the heretics made similar appeals and that even some bishops in the orthodox line of succession became heretical. But this is to overlook the antiquity of the argument and of its successful employment. It also does not sufficiently consider that the later appeals to apostolic succession in the Ante-Nicene Fathers were not merely appeals to succession per se, but to a legitimate succession as tested by conformity of doctrine to the NT, to ancient summaries of catechetical instruction (the “rule of faith”), and to the ancient teaching of other apostolic churches (catholicity). Doubtless in later generations some bishops were or became heterodox and some people eventually became bishops for political reasons as well as spiritual, as the revisionists claim. Taken alone, such examples do mitigate the force of the argument from apostolic succession for a valid orthodoxy. But taken with other orthodox arguments of catholicity of doctrine, conformity to the rule of faith, and concordance with NT, the argument from apostolic succession has substance. Thus Irenaeus can submit that heretics check the historical teaching of all apostolic sees to find out what the apostles taught. He does not suggest that what any one bishop teaches is necessarily apostolic.

On the other hand, the doctrines of heterodox sects are demonstrably late and theologically far from the historical Jesus. No heterodox document is earlier than, or even comparably early as, the NT. The earliest possibilities are the Gospels of Peter and Thomas, which most scholars date no earlier than the first half of the second century, at best fifty years after the last of the canonical Gospels. Most others are even later. And though many heretical groups and writings lay claim to apostolic succession, the nature of their teachings render the claims highly suspect. It is historically implausible, for example, that the Jewish rabbi Jesus taught anything like Marcionism, which among other things rejected the God of the OT as an inferior deity to the Father of the Christ, and considered his creation of the world as an evil act. Such doctrines fit the Zeitgeist of popular Hellenistic philosophy much more comfortably than the historical background of Jesus in Palestinian Judaism. The various Gnostic systems are similarly doubtful. Indeed, the regular claim of heterodox sects to teach “secret” knowledge from Jesus represents an inherent admission that their gospels are outside the mainstream of early Christianity. It is telling that while few if any heterodox “Scriptures” seemed to have been used outside of particular sects, virtually all sects of early Christianity, orthodox and heterodox, cherished in whole or part one or more of the four canonical Gospels. In other words, it was only those Gospels whose apostolicity was undisputed.


The revisionist argument thus fails, and with it the move to “relativize” orthodoxy. Orthodoxy can validly claim to have its roots in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in a way that the heterodox sects of early Christianity cannot. Ehrman claims the proto-orthodox became “orthodox” only because they won the rhetorical battle with their opponents. But he never quite tells us why the proto-orthodox rhetoric was more convincing to a majority of Christians. The best answer seems to be, because it was true.


1 The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 1979)

2 The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (TPI, 1992)

3 Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003)

4 The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 1996); Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Harper San Francisco, 2005)

5 Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford, 2005).

6 An accessible translation of the Ecclesiastical History is Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G.A. Williamson (Augsburg, 1965).

7 Church leaders in the orthodox tradition who wrote prior to the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) are referred to generally as the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The earliest Ante-Nicene Fathers, those of the one or two generations that immediately followed the apostles, as well as other orthodox texts from this era, are called the Apostolic Fathers. Useful English translations include, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff, and Henry Wace (Hendrickson, 1994), and The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. Michael W. Holmes (Baker, 1992).

8 For a translation of the Nag Hammadi texts, see The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M. Robinson (Harper and Row, 1981).

9 See, for example, Graham Stanton’s The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford, 1989) or, more recently, James D. G. Dunn’s, Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003) and the series of articles in the Bulletin of Biblical Research, beginning in vol. 10 no. 2 (2000), by members of The Historical Jesus Study Group of the Institute for Biblical Research (of which Talbot’s Dr. Michael Wilkins is a participant).

10 The standard collection of these documents in English is New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Westminster, 1991, 1992).

11 Galatians was probably written around AD 48, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians around 50. The rest of the Pauline epistles, and the first of the Gospels, were penned between 55 and 68.

12 The earliest texts of the Apostolic Fathers are 1 Clement and the Didache, both written around AD 100. The other texts range from about 110 to 130.

13 Though the letter is anonymous and only mentions the senders as the church in Rome, early tradition associated it with Clement, the third bishop of Rome. The attribution is considered by many scholars as likely to be correct.

Alan Hultberg (M.Div., Talbot; Ph.D. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Assistant Professor of Bible Exposition and New Testament and Director of the M.A. program at Talbot. Alan and his wife Darcie have four children, and Alan very rarely wears shoes to class.

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