Bart Ehrman on the History of “Orthodoxy”

Bart Ehrman is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. I don’t necessarily agree with his personal views of Christian theology, but I do appreciate very much his ability to convey in an entertaining manner the complex issues surrounding ancient Christian history. As renowned scholar Elaine Pagels has said, “Bart Ehrman has the rare gift of communicating scholarship in writing that is lively, enjoyable, and accessible.”1

I’ve been reading Lost Christianities for a long time, picking it up and putting it down as other books come in and out of my hands. I would like to share a few of the things I have recently learned from chapter 8 of this fun book. There are so many fun facts and fascinating insights in this book (and specifically this chapter) that I wish to summarize here for your and my future use. Many portions will be direct quotes from Ehrman’s book, although quotations may not appear. Citations are given below.

Chapter 8

On the first page of this chapter Ehrman quotes the entire Nicene Creed2. Upon reading this I realized for the first time that while LDS are often accused of not being ‘Christian’ because of our refusal to accept the Trinity as described in this creed, certain sects of Evangelical Christians also do not follow this creed! The second to last sentence of the creed reads, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” That’s it, plain and simple. I commented on it here.

Ehrman explains that the classical view of orthodoxy vs. heresy has been undermined and in fact discarded by modern scholars. Traditionally, orthodoxy was believed to be the original, or chronologically first set of doctrines taught by Jesus and his apostles, while heresy are those sets of doctrines which are corruptions of the original, found only among a minority of people3. The historian Eusebius is responsible for this concept being the prevalent understanding for many centuries4. However, this view was discarded by the efforts of: 

  • H. Reimarus5 (who rejected the historicity of the NT gospels),
  • F.C. Bauer6(who suggested that early Christianity was characterized by a struggle between Jewish Christians [Peter] and Gentile Christians [Paul] and that the book of Acts is unreliable as a historical document) and
  • Walter Bauer7(“who argued that the early Christian Church did not consist of a single orthodoxy from which emerged a variety of competing heretical minorities. Instead, earliest Christianity, as far back as we can trace our sources, could be found in a number of divergent forms, none of which represented the clear and powerful majority of believers against all the others.”)

The basic picture that emerged from these scholars and continues today in a slightly refined way is that early Christianity from it’s birth contained many disagreements about what was right or wrong among it’s adherents. According to Ehrman, “Eventually one of these groups established itself as dominant, acquiring more converts than all the others, overpowering its opponents, and declaring itself the true faith.” Ehrman comments further:

But once we begin to suspect the historical accuracy of our Gospel sources, and find evidence that corroborates  our suspicions, where does that lead us? With regard to our questions about the nature of orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity, it leads us away from the classical notion that orthodoxy is rooted in the apostle’s teaching as accurately preserved in the New Testament Gospels and to the realization that the doctrines of orthodox Christianity must have developed at a time later than the historical Jesus and his apostles, later even than our earliest Christian writings. These views are generally held by scholars today, based on in-depth analyses of the Gospel traditions since the days of Reimarus.8  

Another notable quote from Ehrman:

As a result of this ongoing scholarship, it is widely thought today that proto-orthodoxy was simply one of many competing interpretations of Christianity in the early church. It was neither a self-evident interpretation nor an original apostolic view. The apostles, for example, did not teach the Nicene Creed or anything like it. Indeed, as far back as we can trace it, Christianity was remarkably varied in its theological expressions.9

Throughout the chapter Ehrman describes various problematic passages that the above mentioned scholars encountered. Here I summarize many of those:

  • Difference among Gospel accounts: did Jesus die the afternoon before Passover (John 19:14) or the afternoon after (Mark 14:12, 22; 15:25)? Did Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt after Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:13-23), or did they return to Nazareth as in Luke (2:39)? Was Jairus’s daughter sick and dying (Mark 6:23, 35) or was she already dead (Matt. 9:18)? After Jesus’ resurrection, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem until he ascended to heaven (Luke 24:1-52) or did they go straight to Galilee (Matt 28:1-20)? 10
  • Jewish-Christian & Gentile-Christian tensions: the book of Revelation is thoroughly Jewish-Christian in it’s apocalyptic and particularist orientation, while Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans are harshly anti-Jewish. However, Acts is a mediating force, showing Peter and Paul in essential agreement(Acts 10-11:15) on all major points (see Peter in Acts 2, and Paul in Acts 13). Peter and Paul sound almost exactly the same here, despite Paul’s own account of their intense disagreements (Gal. 2:11-14). Acts is thus not a historical account of what actually happened but an attempt to smooth over the acrimonious debates. This point, that Acts is driven by a theological agenda that sometimes affects its historical accuracy, is one that is widely recognized.11
  • Further evidence that Acts may not be historically reliable: Did Paul consult with the Apostles before going to the mission field (Acts 9:26) or not (Gal. 1:17)? Did Paul think that pagans who worship idols are guilty before God (Romans 1:18-32) or that they are innocent through ignorance (Acts 17:22-31)?12
  • Early proto-orthodox records reveal (perhaps unwittingly) that tensions were high and competition fierce among the early Christian sects: Paul’s intense anger with other Christians who are teaching things contrary to that which he has taught is evidence of their apparent success (Gal. 1:6-8, 3:1-5). Paul references a debate he held in Corinth which he may have lost, but plans to return and set things right (2 Cor. 2:5-11, 13:2). Paul tries to convince a church that he did not found in Rome to believe his message, and to support his travels to the west (Rom. 1:8-15, 15:22-24), but why does he need to convince them? Evidently because they suspected him of being a false apostle. Later letters written in Paul’s name (according to Ehrman) suggest that a “strange Jewish mysticism” was affecting the Christians in Collosae (Col. 2:8-23), a kind of fervent millenarianism in 2 Thess. (2 Thess. 2:1-12, 3:6-15), and some kind of proto-Gnosticism in 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3-7). 13
  • James strongly opposes those who interpret Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith to mean that good deeds are irrelevant for salvation. Revelation attacks lawless groups, and Jude and 2 Peter castigate false teachers who have infiltrated the churches. 14

Ehrman concludes this chapter by reminding us that all of these opposing groups considered themselves to hold the true Christian doctrines taught by Jesus and his apostles. They differed widely amongst themselves, yet they all sprang from the same tradition. He closes with a brief discussion of how the proto-orthodoxy sect eventually won the ferocious debates through a combination of factors which ultimately lead to the faith being more accessible for a greater number of converts, along with a hierarchal structure which provided organization and communication.15

I hope to soon do a summary of chapter 9. There are so many brilliant insights and useful facts to be learned from this book that I am happy to summarize it on my blog for both my and your future use.


1. Ehrman Bart D., Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew . Oxford University Press, New York, 2003. Back Cover. 
2. Ibid., pg 163
3. pg. 164
4. pg. 164
5. pg. 168
6. pg. 170
7. pg. 172
8. pg. 170
9. pg. 176
10. pg. 169-170
11. pg. 171-172
12. pg. 172




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4 comments on “Bart Ehrman on the History of “Orthodoxy”

  1. Hans says:

    This sounds like a good book. Have you found that it spends most of its time during the Apostolic age or does it go into much detail about the 2nd Century.

    I have actually come across a lot of the details that you mentioned about the rise of one orthodoxy amongst multiple tradition is Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which is pretty old. While he doesn’t draw any conclusions about who is right or wrong, when the facts are laid out, it is pretty obivous of the big battle going on between the Arians and Anastasius. I got the feeling that every new emperor/leader was up for grabs and who could get him on their side would win the victory. It seems that Anastasius’ side won more influence and crushed the Arians. This was all long after smaller groups had already been extinguished.

    I think I will check out this book and look forward to your review of Chapter 9.

  2. James says:

    This book is mainly about the various texts written by the various Christian sects of the first few centuries. In part 1 he describes some of the more important but little known texts. In part 2 he describes some of the more important but little known Christian sects of those centuries. Part 3 is all about the battles that they waged with each other (with pen and paper).

  3. Hans says:

    That sounds pretty good. I have really only read Clement and Ignatius so would like to learn more about subsequent battles within the early church. I look forward to hearing more.

  4. Jr says:

    I have been on critical to LDS sites and the critics refuse to consider anything from Bart Ehrman.

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