Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

Before approaching the study of the diversity of Christianity reflected in writings such as the early Christian Apocrypha, it is important to be familiar with some of the main historical theories that have been put forward regarding the nature and varieties of early Christianity (especially with respect to notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”). Historiography (the study of how history is written and what “spin” historians put on their materials) is very important. Here I have chosen to simplify the discussion by briefly outlining three historians’ viewpoints in terms of unity (Eusebius), duality (F.C. Baur), and diversity (Walter Bauer, with an “e”). For a proper understanding you will need to study these and other works for yourself, as well as the ancient documents that these historians use to build their theories.

  1. Eusebius and Unity (Ecclesiatical History, c. 311-323 CE): The traditional view of early Christianity emphasized the unity of early Christians and downplayed any tensions or struggles among them. Truth, unity and orthodoxy (right belief) came first and were strong; error or heresy came later and was always in the minority. The emphasis on unity can already be seen in the Acts of the Apostles’ history of the early church, but this came to expression in a more comprehensive historical theory with the first major church historian, Eusebius (who built upon what many anti-heresy writers had been saying for a while). This theory posits that from the beginning all Christians agreed and got along: the church was a “pure and uncorrupted virgin” (3.32.7-8; some relevant passages from Eusebius are now available here on this website). But, subsequently, through the work of the devil, errors or heresies were introduced (usually pictured as beginning in the second century). These errors were readily recognized as such and successfully battled by representatives of “the universal and only true church” (such as Hegesippus), who “held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all. . . the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching. . . [O]ur doctrine remained as the only one which had power among all” (see 4.7.1-14). Orthodoxy came first and was in the majority, heresies later and in the minority. Many, though not all, of the writings we call the New Testament Apocrypha would be considered heretical by Eusebius.
  2. F.C. Baur and Duality (mid-late-1800s): The theory of F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school is quite thorough-going, but its main contours can be simplified thus: Early Christianity was characterized by a fundamental conflict between a particularistic Jewish form (Peter) and a universalistic Gentile form (Paul). The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very important here. This thesis (Jewish-Petrine Christianity) and antithesis (Gentile-Pauline Christianity) finally settled into a synthesis (catholic Christianity) in the second and subsequent centuries (F.C. was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel). Most early Christian writings and Christian groups, including writings in the Apocrypha, can be understood and categorized based on this struggle. On the one hand, the Acts of the Apostles reflects an attempt to hide and smooth over the battle. On the other, a writing such as the Pseudo-Clementines (in the Apocrypha), which has Peter battling Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul), shows that the battle really continued beyond the time of the canonical Acts (which F.C. dated to the second century). Baur would tend to trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines over the canonical Acts of the Apostles (in terms of its reflection of historical reality). Although there is certainly truth in observing a tension between Pauline and other Jewish forms of Christianity (read Galatians!), most scholars now see a problem with this oversimplified picture of just two main camps in early Christianity, with just about everything fit into this dual framework.
  3. Walter Bauer and Diversity (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1932, translated into English in the 1970s): Walter Bauer wrote what can be considered among the most influential works in the study of early Christianity. Turning the traditional theory of Eusebius on its head, Walter argued that heresy came first, orthodoxy later. Not only that, but the various forms of Christianity often called “heresies” were, in fact, in the majority. When orthodoxy began to emerge in the second and subsequent centuries, it continued as the minority for some time until the church at Rome increased its hold on Christianity elsewhere. Walter continued to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” despite the fact that his own theory began to deconstruct these very notions. Most who study early Christianity now recognize that, although Walter’s theory clearly has its problems, Walter was at least correct in emphasizing that various forms of Christianity existed from early on, and that “orthodoxy” only developed later in an attempt to get the diversity under some control. He was also correct in deconstructing the Eusebian view of the orthodox, united church threatened by later heresies, which does not accurately reflect what actually went on in the first centuries of Christianity.

As I said, this is certainly a simplification of the matter, but a basic acknowledgement of the diversity of early Christianity will be essential as we discuss the Apocrypha further and as we attempt to see what specific Christians in particular places were thinking, doing, and writing about. Certainly we will observe some common denominators among followers of Jesus (at least they followed Jesus [as each understood that]!), but there were also important differences that we need to attend to in mapping out early Christianity.

One thought on “Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

  1. Phil Harland Post author


    Carole said…

    When I think of the word “heresy”, heterodoxy comes to mind. However, after our lecture of Sep 7, a shift is required. When we speak of “heresy” within Ancient and Early Christianity, we are refering to choices (from the Greek hairesis). Using this approach, Bauer (with an e) certain makes sense. So the elimination of “heresy” (choices) lead to or brought on orthodoxy.


    9:00 AM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Good point, Carole. We didn’t mention that alternative word, heterodoxy (literally other-belief), which has been a favourite of some scholars who want to avoid the negative connotations of “heresy”. There is a sense in which heterodoxy is still a little bit problematic in that it still imagines two options: orthodoxy (perhaps as main belief) and heterodoxy (other belief). But scholars who use it try to avoid this dualism nonetheless. If it is used, it is still imperative to recognize the huge variety of forms of Christianity that would fit under the singular term.

    9:17 AM

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