In the early 20th century German theologian Walter Bauer proposed that Christian orthodoxy is a historical fiction.  Heretics were not those who departed from the original teachings of Jesus and the apostles, but those on the losing side of a political battle for dominance by one group of Christians over another.  Orthodoxy represents the side who won, not the side of those who remained faithful to Jesus’ teachings.  There is no such thing as Christianity per se, but rather a collage of various Christianities.

While Bauer’s proposal was severely critiqued by other scholars and joined the ash-heap of theological history, as is the case with most bad ideas, someone comes along later, picks up the idea, brushes off the ashes, repackages it, and tries to sell it again.  Such is the case with the Bauer thesis.  Today it is being peddled by people such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.  Speaking to a postmodern generation that prizes diversity, detests absolute truth claims, and thinks truth claims are an attempt to gain power and exert control, they have found a receptive audience for their pluralistic view of Christian origins and history.  For them, the only true heresy is orthodoxy itself: the claim that there is one enduring truth, and one Christian faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.

In their book The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger lay to rest once again the resurrected Bauer thesis for a new generation, as well as the new ways in which those like Ehrman have applied it.  Specifically, Ehrman has extended the Bauer thesis by arguing that the political winners (“orthodox”) were able to force their own version of Christianity on others by strong-arming which books would be included in the Christian canon (only allowing books in that fit their persuasion), and by making intentional changes to the original form of their own canonical books to tailor them to their own evolving theological perspective.

Contra Bauer

The Heresy of Orthodoxy is divided into three sections.  The first section explains and critiques the Bauer thesis.  Through an examination of the historical and Biblical data, Kostenberger and Kruger demonstrate that while there were diverse theological perspectives in early Christianity, the orthodox outnumbered the heretics in number[1], and they existed before the heretics in the major urban centers.  The heretics were not unified in their theology, but they were unified in one aspect: most were parasitic on orthodoxy in one way or another.  Furthermore, the earliest post-apostolic fathers spanning a broad geographical spectrum spoke of a rule of faith that was handed down to them, and they in turn were handing down to others.[2]

The Biblical evidence is also clear (something Bauer ignored).  There were various false teachings that rose up in the church, but they came after the orthodox.  The presence of false teaching should not be surprising.  The diversity of theological perspectives does not mean there was no original theological perspective that the church taught, and passed down from generation to generation through an established infrastructure and reliable mechanisms.

While there is some theological diversity present among the Biblical writers themselves, writ large there is a high degree of theological unity.  The earliest followers of Jesus believed Jesus to be both God and man, and that Jesus came to provide an atonement for our sins.  Ehrman et al will point to this and say, “That’s because the books were written and chosen by the winners,” thus confirming his thesis that the orthodox became the Orthodox by a power grab.  This reveals the weakness of the Bauer thesis: all evidence is made to count for the theory.  If the Bible exhibits a high degree of theological disunity, it would be cited as proof of the thesis that there was no single version of Christianity in early Christian history.  If the bible exhibits a high degree of theological unity, it would be cited as proof that the winners of the battle for orthodoxy forced the canonization of only those books that reflected their own unique version of Christianity.  Heads or tails, Ehrman wins.  When both X and –X count for your theory, something is wrong with your theory.

NT Canon

The second section traces the development of the NT canon.  While many see the very concept of a NT canon as a later development in Christianity (mid second century), the evidence suggests otherwise.  Christianity emerged within the context of the Jewish faith.  Given the Mosaic Covenant and the concept of covenant prevalent at the time, the Jews understood that a covenant entailed terms and provisions that were to be written down.  If God provided written documents to accompany the Mosaic covenant, then the expectation would be that God would do the same for the New Covenant (Jer 31:31) so that the New Covenant could be testified to forever (Is 30:8).  So rather than the concept of canon being foreign to the early church, they would have been predisposed to the notion.

Additionally, there was a recognition of the apostles’ authority (Mk 3:14-15; Lk 10:16; Jn 20:21; Acts 10:41-42).  If the apostles were spiritual authorities, then their writings would be viewed as authoritative as well.  When you start with the presupposition that what the apostles teach carries divine authority with it, a developing canon is not far behind.  Indeed, it is the logical outgrowth of this presupposition.  And we have good reason to believe that the early church viewed the apostles’ writings as authoritative.  Some of our earliest manuscripts appear to have bound books together into various collections.  For example, papyrus 46 is dated to ~AD 200 and contains all of Paul’s epistles (including Hebrews, which many believed to be an epistle of Paul) except 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.  Papyrus 45, a 3rd century manuscript, contains the four gospels and Acts.  This kind of treatment makes sense if one believes these books are authoritative for the church, and part of a canon of documents for the new covenant.  We even have evidence of such collections in the first century.  For example, in 2 Peter 3:15-16 Peter writes, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”  Not only are Paul’s letters equated with Scripture, but they are referred to in the plural as if they are a collection of letters that Peter’s audience would be familiar with.

Then there is 1 Timothy 5:18 which reads, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”  The first quote is from Dt 25:4, while the latter is from Lk 10:7.  Paul is calling both “Scripture.”[3]  It will hardly work to think that Paul was appealing to the oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings rather than to Luke’s gospel since (1) Paul said appealed to a written source when he referred to “Scripture,” (2) and the Greek form in Paul is identical to that in Luke.  And it would make sense for Paul to cite Luke’s gospel since Luke was Paul’s travelling companion (the “we” passages in Acts, Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24).

Other evidence that the early church had a collection of at least some apostolic books that they saw as authoritative and contained provisions of the New Covenant includes allusions of a bi-covenantal canon in 2 Peter 3:1-2.  Peter wrote, “This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in [both] which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour.”  The testimony of the apostles is being placed alongside the testimony of the OT prophets as being equal in authority.  While it is possible that the commandment of Jesus given through the apostles refers to oral sources, there is no question that the testimony of the holy prophets refers to written texts.  One reason to think the reference to the “command of Jesus given through the apostles” refers to written texts is the fact that Peter goes on to speak of some of those sources, and he referred to written texts of the Apostle Paul (2 Pet 3:16).  Obviously at least some of what Peter had in mind involved written sources of information.  It should also be pointed out that if one did not know better, they might think Peter had oral sources in mind for the prophets since he uses oral language such as asking his readers to “recall” the words of the prophets “spoken” in the past.  If the use of such oral language does not undermine the obvious conclusion that Peter has written texts in mind in regards to the OT, then the ambiguity of his mention of the commandment of Jesus given by the apostles should not cause us to assume he must be referring to oral rather than literary sources.

We also have the testimony of Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century who writes:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (1 Apology 67.3)

The “memoirs of the apostles” is a reference to the Gospels, and these are read side-by-side with the OT prophets.  It was the persistent public reading of the NT books that virtually secured their place in the NT canon from the earliest of times.  Indeed, when Eusebius discussed the canon, he described the accepted book as those that “had been publicly read in all or most churches.” (His. Eccl. 3.31.6).  In AD 95 Clement appealed to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, saying it was sent “in the Spirt”—a likely allusion to its inspiration.  The Epistle of Barnabas (~130 AD) quotes Mt 22:14 in nearly identical Greek, and prefaces the quote by saying “It is written,” a phrase characteristically reserved for quoting sacred texts.  This would mean that the author and his audience viewed Matthew’s gospel as authoritative Scripture in the early 2nd century.

The Didache (~100 AD) also appealed to the “gospel” regarding lessons on prayer (Didache 8.2), and then goes on to quote Mt 6:9-13.  Clearly Matthew’s gospel was held as an authority on the life of Jesus.  Even more revealing is the teaching, “Do not abandon the commandment of the Lord, but guard what you have received, neither adding to them nor taking away.” (Didache 4.13) This is an application of the inscriptional curse of Deuteronomy 4:2 to the teachings of Jesus.  Just as the children of Israel were instructed not to add to or take away from the covenant documents, so too the church is being instructed not to add or take away from the teachings of Jesus.  This implies that Jesus’ teachings as preserved in written form had come to be viewed as the authoritative covenant documents of the church.

One final point of evidence in favor of the early development of the notion of canon was the early Christians preference for the codex over the scroll.  A scroll was created by stitching pages of papyrus together end-to-end, and rolling them up.  Only one side of the papyrus was written on, and a scroll could only contain a limited number of papyrus sheets.  This meant the amount of content you could include was limited (roughly enough to fit the Gospel of Luke).  In contrast, a codex was formed by binding papyrus sheets together at one edge like our modern books.  Not only did this allow for additional writing space on each papyrus sheet (since both sides could be utilized), but it also allowed for a greater number of papyrus sheets to be collected together, allowing for a greater amount of material to be presented under a single cover.  Christians adopted the codex in the early 2nd century—if not the 1st century—and used it much more than their non-Christian counterparts (who did not fully adopt the codex until the 4th century).  What can account for the Christians’ early adoption and prolific use of the codex over the scroll?  Arguably they did so because it allowed them to bind collections of sacred books together under one cover, such as the four gospels or the epistles of Paul.  Why would they want to do that unless they believed that these collections were authoritative for the church?  The use of the codex may indicate that the concept of a NT canon developed very early in the church, and that many of the 27 books that appear in the canonical lists of the 4th century were already canonized in practice much earlier.

Transmission of the NT Text

The third section of the book examines the transmission and accuracy of our NT manuscripts.  Bart Ehrman and a few others[4] argue that the theological diversity within early Christianity is reflected in our extant NT manuscripts.  He believes scribes changed the text to fit the evolving orthodoxy, or to better support “orthodoxy” against its competitors.  So in addition to challenging whether or not we have the right books in our Bible, we are also being challenged on whether or not we have the right text.  Ehrman also alleges that we should expect unintentional changes to be made because the early church did not have professional scribes copying their sacred writings[5], but lay people who would be prone to error.

Is it true that the earliest manuscripts were copied by laypeople rather than scribes?  The evidence demonstrates that there was a mix of professionals and non-professionals copying the earliest forms of the text.  There were two types of writing styles used in the day: bookhand (used for literary documents) and documentary hand (used for informal documents).  We would only expect for trained scribes to write in bookhand Greek, and yet our earliest manuscripts reveal a mix of both styles of handwriting.  This indicates that professional scribes were involved with the copying of NT texts even before the time of Constantine (by the 4th century, bookhand is the dominant form of handwriting in our extant manuscripts).

Another reason to think trained scribes were responsible for copying many Christian manuscripts is the early and ubiquitous practice of nomina sacra.  This was a uniquely Christian practice of abbreviating key words in the text such as God, Jesus, Christ, and Lord.  This does not appear to be done for space-saving reasons, but to show reverence.  The best way to explain how such a practice could come into being and predominate the textual tradition throughout the various regions of Christianity is manuscript copying was an organized process being carried out by trained scribes who intentionally came up with this convention and corroborated amongst themselves to deploy it in their copies of Christian Scriptures.

It is also clear from Romans 16:22 that Christians employed scribes to write their texts.  Yes, such scribes were expensive, and the early church consisted mostly of the poor and middle class, but we would expect for scribes who converted to Christianity to either donate their time to copying their own sacred Scriptures, or reduce their prices to help make their Scriptures more widely available.  Furthermore, well-to-do Christians who owned servants may have lent the services of their servants who were trained scribes.

We also have evidence that there was a vast network of copying and sharing of Christian texts in the early church.  In the Shepherd of Hermas, Hermas was instructed to “write two little books, sending one to Clement and one to Grapte.  Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission.  But, Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans.  And you will red yours in the city, with the presbyters who lead the church.” (Shepherd 2.4.3)  Here we see the practice of making copies of one’s work before sending it out (usually only one copy would need to be made).  Presumably the “commission” of Clement to send his letter to the foreign cities would require that he make additional copies of the copy he received from Hermes.  So we see here an established means of distributing Christian literature.

Further insight is gained by Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians.  Apparently the Philippians had written Polycarp in Smyrna, asking him to provide them with copies of Ignatius’ letters and to send another letter of theirs to Antioch.  Polycarp forwarded their letter to Antioch, and sent them a copy of Ignatius’ letters.  This is quite revealing.  In order to send them copies of Ignatius’ letters, Polycarp must have already possessed a corpus of Ignatius’ letters.  How did he obtain them?  He would have had to have received copies from the church in Antioch where Ignatius lived, and/or received copies from other churches that had received Ignatius’ correspondence.  And how could he have copied them so quickly in order to send them to the Philippians?  Either there was a group of Christian scribes in Smyrna who were regularly copying Christian literature and Polycarp just-so-happened to have copies on hand, or he had to employ scribes to copy them to-order.  Either way, it’s clear that early Christians used scribes to copy their texts, and there was an organized network between churches to share and distribute Christian literature.  Indeed, we even have a copy of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies that dates to within 20 years of his original composition.  That might not be so amazing except for the fact that Irenaeus wrote it in Gaul (France) and the manuscript was discovered in Egypt (P.Oxy. 405).  This is further confirmation that Christian texts were copied quickly and distributed widely.

As to the question of whether scribes fought theological battles by intentionally amending their Scriptures to bolster their view and discredit their opponents’, the answer is yes and no.  Yes, we have good reason to believe that some scribes did so in isolated cases[6], but we also have good reason to believe that this was the exception rather than the rule.  Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that such theological emendations of the text became fixed in the tradition.  They remain minor variants, and we are able to identify them and weed them out as such.  Indeed, the only reason we are able to identify a variant as an intentional change is because we are able to positively identify what the original was, and because we know enough about scribal practices to determine if a change from that original was intentional or not.  So the presence of intentional changes in some manuscripts is not reason to doubt whether we have the original text, but rather evidence that we do.

Is it possible that there were intentional changes made early on in the manuscript tradition that made their way into our Bibles?  This is doubtful for three reasons:

  1. Temporal proximity – Our earliest substantive manuscripts of the NT books come to us within ~200 years after the originals.  That is not enough time to substantially alter a textual tradition.  And compare this to most ancient literary sources in which our earliest manuscript copy is nearly 1000 years after the original.  No one doubts that those texts have come down to us in a generally reliable form, so there is even less reason to be skeptical of the NT text.
  2. Geographical distribution – All the evidence points to the fact that the NT books were being copied and distributed throughout the Roman Empire from the earliest days of the church.  It would be virtually impossible for an intentional change made in one group of manuscripts to be made in all other manuscripts throughout the other regions of the empire in the limited amount of time before our first extant manuscripts.  As such, even intentional changes made in the first century would not be able to eliminate the original reading from our manuscript tradition.
  3. Number of manuscripts – There are more copies of the NT than any other ancient manuscript, bar none.  There are approximately 25,000 partial or whole copies of the NT in various languages.  The sheer number of copies virtually guarantees that the original is to be found among the variants somewhere.  The problem NT textual critics have is not a lack of source information, but too much source information.  It’s not that we are missing pieces of the text, but that we have additional pieces that were added over time (most unintentionally) and need to be weeded out.

While orthodoxy may be the only remaining heresy in a postmodern world, the evidence does not support the notion that orthodoxy was a late development, that the NT canon was a late concept, that the NT text is unreliable, or that orthodoxy only became orthodoxy due to political maneuvering.  Instead, the evidence supports the notion that Christianity had a unified doctrinal system from the very beginning, it quickly formed the notion of canon and quickly began to canonize certain apostolic writings, and those writings have come down to us in a reliable form.

[1]One reason to think this is that Gnosticism, which was the largest competitor to orthodoxy, rose up in the 2nd century but it was already a non-issue by the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  The orthodox were able to stamp out (or at least relegate to non-significance) that heresy in less than 200 years without any exercise in political power (since none existed until Constantine rose to power).  That would be difficult to do if the Gnostics were a large force to be reckoned with.
E.g. Clement (AD 96) = 1 Clement 7.2, 42.1-3; Ignatius (AD 110) = Magn. 13.1, 6.1, Phld. 6.3. 
Some argue that “Scripture” only applies to the first quotation, but the conjunction kai should naturally be understood to make the designation “Scripture” to apply to both.  Indeed, it functions that way in other passages (Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10; Acts 1:20; 1 Pet 2:6; 2 Pet 2:22).
In days past Kirsopp Lake and J. Rendel Harris, and more recently Eldon J. Epp in The Theological Tendency of Codex Cantabrigiensis in Acts.
Ehrman bases his conclusions largely on the Shepherd of Hermas which portrays Hermas copying down the words in a book in a heavenly vision, and noting how he had to copy them down letter-by-letter because he did not understand the syllables (something we even see in Atticus, who mentions a scribe he used that copied syllable-by-syllable because he could not understand whole sentences – Atticus 13.25).  Ehrman takes this 2nd century document as indicative of how early Christians copied their texts, ignoring the unique situation involved, and ignoring the evidence presented by Haines-Eitzen in Guardians of Letters in which she concludes that the earliest copyists of Christian texts were trained professional scribes.
An example is in Lk 2:33 where the text reads “and his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him [by Simon].”  Some manuscripts (K X Delta Theta Pi Psi) substitute “Joseph” for “his father,” apparently to safeguard the doctrine of the virgin birth, lest anyone think that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father.  Or consider Jn 19:40 which reads “So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths.”  Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) changes “Jesus” to “God.”  This appears to be theologically motivated, perhaps to argue against the Docetists who reasoned that God could not have a body.