What Is the Bauer Thesis?
An Overview of the Bauer Thesis
This is the second part of our series on The Heresy of Orthodoxy with Dr. Michael Kruger. In this video, we delve into the Bauer Thesis in greater detail. You can find the first part of our conversation here.
How Diverse was Early Christianity?
MK: Andreas, our book was divided into three parts. The first was a rehearsal of unity and diversity in early Christianity—the beginnings of the Bauer thesis and its initial reception. Later in the book, we discuss things like canon and text. I want to focus on that first one for a moment. Of course, our book was pushback against Walter Bauer’s original thesis about unity and diversity in early Christianity, but we weren’t the first ones to do this. Let’s start by talking about the history of Bauer’s thesis. Broadly, how was it received and how is it received today?
AK: Well, I think what makes our book especially important is that we look at the work of not just one man, but the power of ideas—in this case, that early Christianity moved from diversity to later, coerced unity, if you will. In many ways, the book is a case study of how ideas matter and influence the direction of not only scholarship but popular belief and imagination. You and I care deeply about our culture, the media, and even popular spokespersons for Christianity. As you know, this is often the popular narrative that is presented—that there was no such thing as uniformity among early Christians. There’s also doubt that’s presented; that there was conflict and disagreements.
So, what we did was to look at the historical evidence that Bauer presented on his terms. The question is: Does history really bear out the validity of his thesis? So what Bauer did was to look at four major urban centers in early Christianity: Ephesus (Asia Minor), Rome (most importantly), Alexandria (Egypt), Odessa (modern-day Turkey, east of Jerusalem). What he claimed to have found in each of those urban centers is diversity of beliefs. So, what we’re doing in our book is building on previous critiques of Bauer, looking at the historical evidence one by one. If you take Ephesus, as an example—Ephesus is nice because there’s quite a bit of evidence right in our New Testament—you see that in the book of Revelation, heretics are being called out for needing to be removed from the believing community. You have other concerns—you think of when the church was first planted in Acts 19 and the book of Ephesians. What you see is that Paul did not tolerate dissent, and John did not [do so either], in Ephesus. So, there’s clearly already a concern for what you and I might call “heresy.”
Of course, the detractors of the fact that early Christianity was unified often point to the fact that the term “orthodoxy” is not used until later centuries. But I think the mistake is that even though the term was not present, the concept certainly was. So, when we look at the first century, clearly, we see this everywhere we look in the New Testament—we’ll come back to this later in our conversation. When it comes to Bauer, the stunning thing is that even though his book is called Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, he only looks at the second century! He doesn’t even look at the first century. And so, there’s this inexplicable bias against the New Testament writings as historical evidence that are worth being taken seriously, which is probably the greatest shortcoming of the Bauer thesis. And as I mentioned, secondarily, even taken on its own terms, the evidence that he looked at on those four major urban centers doesn’t bear out his fairly grandiose and sweeping thesis that early Christianity moved from initial diversity to later imposed unity.
MK: One of the things I’ve always been impressed by as I’ve looked at the Bauer thesis along with you and in my own scholarship is even though it’s repeated and used again and again, people don’t realize it’s been roundly refuted and challenged by prior generations of scholars even before our book where they’ve gone through those four geographical areas and said: “Look, it just isn’t working here.” And even the advocates of Bauer have sort of admitted that in the particulars the Bauer thesis doesn’t hold. But what I’ve been amazed by is that even though the particulars don’t hold, there’s still this commitment to this idea: “Even though Bauer was wrong in the specifics, diversity still ruled the day.” And so, there’s this idea that all we have left is diversity and that’s enough to prove our point. As if disagreements in early Christianity were enough to make it sound like there was no orthodoxy.
AK: Exactly, because what contemporary proponents of diversity need is some biblical, historical grounding. And so, the Bauer thesis is the perfect thesis for them to use to support this larger ideology that diversity ought to reign supreme.
MK: It trumps everything else. The idea is that if we can just show diversity, then that’s all we have to show for modern scholars.
AK: They’ve shown that it’s actually biblical. It’s almost outflanking conservatives by saying: “You’ve got it wrong. There’s no true Christianity, but only multiple Christianities.” There’s someone like Bart Ehrman who has been among the most influential of the recent proponents of the Bauer thesis—so much so that in our book we rebaptize the thesis and call it the “Bauer-Ehrman” thesis. In his book, Lost Christianities (notice the plural in the title), he actually makes the statement that Walter Bauer’s book is the most important book in the entire twentieth century on the origins of Christianity! That’s a big claim. In our book, we also quote people like Rudolf Bultmann, who is a towering figure in New Testament scholarship and speaks of the Bauer thesis in glowing terms. He has completely adopted it as his own paradigm, if you will, for how Christianity developed.