The Bauer Hypothesis of Christian Origins
[Introduction] [The Trajectories Paradigm] [The Legacy of Walter Bauer] [Essential Unity Behind the Diversity]

A fashionable stance today, especially in liberal theological circles, seeks to explain early Christianity in terms of s set of highly diverse movements, each with more or less equal validity. Robinson and Koester, two leading forces in this circle, write [Koes.Traj, 26, 34] that "the kerygma itself was subject to a plurality of understandings" and that the heresy in the Corinthian church attacked by Paul must be "acknowledged to be an interpretation of the kerygma."

Of course it would be naive to say that there was NO diversity in the early church; on the other hand, it is just as naive to accord each point of view equal validity. The point is not that there were or were not interpretations; the point is whether they are VALID interpretations.

Though Robinson and Koester may wish to impose upon us some view granting all interpretations of Jesus equal validity, the hard reality is that Jesus (and indeed any teacher) could not have taught all of the suggested views at the same time; and one cannot grant all views equal validity, since they are often contradictory - and therefore, either one side is right, or neither is.

The issue is not one where an auditorium full of people had different understandings of the same speaker; it is a matter where the larger part of the auditorium says that there was a speaker on ancient Greek history, with some saying that Sparta was the most important topic, others saying Athens, and others saying Socrates; and at the same time, a smaller part says that there was not a speaker, but that there was an elephant tap-dancing and juggling cannonballs. Even today we rightly reject some interpretations of Jesus without serious consideration: Those that depict Him, for example, as a Marxist revolutionary or as an Aryan racist [Burr.4GJ, 177].

Merely asserting a vision of Jesus does NOT give it even a semblance of validity - it must be accorded with the known facts and the hard truths of logic and reality.

The analogy used by Robinson and Koester - what they call the "trajectory" paradigm - is itself less than methodologically sound. T. Robinson notes that the trajectory paradigm "may misrepresent that way ideas develop or decay" [Rob.BTE, 140] and appeals to a paradigm that accounts for "explosive and original thought" rather than simply assuming straight lines. Sanders [Sand.PaulPal, 23], in a general criticism of the trajectories paradigm, observes that "A lot of things do not move in trajectories...and the trajectories paradigm may mislead one into attempting sequential development where none exists." It is naught but a categorizing scheme, and a rather simplistic one, at that.

But more to the point, the foundational work of the "trajectories" argument is itself severely at fault. It finds its roots in what is known as the "Bauer hypothesis." Bauer's work [Bauer.OxHer] appeals to the idea that what we term "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were equally early and strong in the church, and therefore should be given "equal time." Bauer himself showed where he was coming from early in his book, when he wrote (ibid., xxi):

When one side cannot, because of anxiety, confusion, or clumsiness, gain proper recognition, is it not the obligation of the judge - and, mutatis mutandis of the historian - to assist it, as best he can, to unfold its case instead of simply submitting to the mental agility and firmness, the sagacity and loquacity of the other?

Aside from Bauer's presumption to decide what historians are obliged to do, we may ask who applied Bauer defender of reputedly oppressed heretics. Note well that Bauer has avoided all idea of truth or falsity; rather, it is a matter of those (in his words) anxious, clumsy, confused heretics not getting their day in court, because they were outgunned by the mentally agile, firm, sagacious, and loquacious members of orthodoxy. Did not the heretics have some mentally agile/sagacious sorts on their side? (I am sure the Gnostics, Basilides, and Marcion would not appreciate being called anxious, confused, clumsy, etc....)

But Bauer's role as champion of the downtrodden aside - his work is deeply flawed, as even those who gave him rave reviews had to admit:

  1. Bauer ignored data from the New Testament. He regarded the NT as "both too unproductive and too much disputed to be able to serve as a point of departure" [ibid., xxv] -- which amounts to refusing to deal with the data.
  2. Bauer's work is full of arguments from silence. Bauer's book is full of might nots, perhapses, and could bes; even those who fully supported his point of view plainly admitted that silence was a primary source of his argumentation (ibid., 240). And finally, but most importantly:
  3. Bauer was just plain wrong. In praise of Bauer's work, we are told that his arguments are bold, exciting, entirely new, etc. - what about scholarly, well-thought-out, and above all, accurate? That adjective frankly cannot be used of Bauer's conclusions, because the data does not support his overall thesis - it never did, even in his time.

Glenn Miller has done a great deal of research in this area which we consider worthwhile to repeat in good measure. Here he has followed the lead of a major disassembling of the Bauer thesis by Thomas A. Robinson ([Rob.BTE] - for an older, shorter, but equally insightful critique, see [TurnHEW.PCT, 39-80]):

(T)he implication that heresy was both EARLY and STRONG is simply historically mistaken. Although in decades past, through the writings of Walter Bauer (1934) and Koester, this was a dominant presumption of much of liberal NT scholarship, many/most of the foundational supports for that position have either been abandoned due to the discovery of 'hard data' or considered to be forceless due to its character as argument from silence.
The original position of Bauer was that in most geographical areas of antiquity that which would be later called 'heresy' was actually the original manifestation of Christianity. The implication was that in many geographical areas, so-called heresy was prior to orthodoxy...
Holtgren summarizes the current state of thinking on Bauer's work (and its derivatives) [RNC:10]:
The work of Bauer is impressive in its detailed information, argument, and thesis. Nevertheless, it has received considerable criticism, and its flaws have become even more apparent with the passing of time. Too often Bauer argues from silence and, in other cases, pushes aside evidence that works against his thesis.

I would add here that the "current" state of thinking goes back as far as 1954, when Turner wrote [TurnHEW.PCT, 79]:

(Bauer's) fatal weakness appears to be a persistent tendency to over-simplify problems, combined with the ruthless treatment of such evidence as fails to support his case.

Miller, following T. Robinson, goes on to analyze each of the five geographical areas and show that Bauer's view of them was either incomplete or incorrect. He concludes:

Overall, the data demonstrates that the older view of Bauer (and that part of Koester's views that are dependent on him) are simply wrong. The early church showed a REMARKABLE degree of 'orthodoxy' even in the strange and chaotic and persecuted days of its early life.

And, elsewhere he adds:

...(Bauer's) hypothesis of 60 years ago IGNORED key elements of the data (BTE:129-161), and considerable data has come to light (in both literary and archeological arenas) documenting the "early and strong" appearance of orthodoxy (e.g. RNC:47ff; BTE:35-91). His position is called 'overly simplified' by even the editors of his 2nd edition (!), and yet his hypothesis is often assumed uncritically...
To illustrate how sometimes it is only the CRITICAL scholar that will 'step into the new world', let me cite the very non-traditional Robin Lane Fox, in his acclaimed Pagans and Christians (PAC:276):
In the West, in short, early Christianity has lost its history, but there is one general point on which we can be more confident. An older view that heretical types of Christianity arrived in many places before the orthodox faith has nothing in its favor, except perhaps in the one Syrian city of Edessa. In Lyons and North Africa, there is no evidence of this first heretical phase and the likelier origins are all against it. In Egypt, the argument has been decisively refuted from the evidence of the papyri. Details of practice and leadership did differ widely, but the later existence of so many heresies must not obscure the common core of history and basic teaching throughout the Christian world.
Notice that his view has assimilated the new archeological data (that tends to subdue rampant speculation) and that the author has gone 'beyond' Bauer, labeling it 'an older view'. Would that more contemporary scholars would review periodically the assumptions of their 'school' for current validity!

Another point is made by Hultgren [Hult.RNC, 11] that is worth consideration here: "The traditional view, that orthodoxy preceded heresy, does not require that orthodoxy existed in every conceivable place prior to heresy."

This means, in terms of Bauer's thesis, that even IF it were proven that heresy got somewhere firstest with the mostest, that does NOT mean that it emerged on equal terms with orthodoxy. Such a position would require us to believe that Mormonism was a religion equally dominant with general Christian beliefs in America from the start in 1776, since the Mormons were there "firstest with the mostest" in Utah.

And finally, regarding trajectories:

The "trajectories" interpretation ignores the basic unity of the first-century church. This is not to say that there was any sort of "monolithic" Christianity in the early church - indeed, this is one of the few things that Bauer was right about. As T. Robinson notes, Bauer "provides an adequate basis for no conclusion other than that early Christianity was diverse" and that the monolithic view insinuated by Eusebius and other church fathers is wrong - but Bauer certainly does not prove that heresy should be put on equal ground with orthodoxy.

Despite this, his theories have been modified and expanded by the likes of Koester; but even modified they are of little value. A much more traditional view (albeit not a monolithic one) is supported by the evidence; and Koester and Robinson are simply making too much play of differences in the early church. Despite their assertions, a certain degree of harmonization between views IS possible. Or, as T. Robinson puts it [Rob.BTE, 29]:

Any theory that demands uniformity within a sphere of a credible orthodoxy cannot hope to offer a satisfactory reconstruction of the primitive Christian movement, for such a theory lacks sufficient sensitivity for the way in which diverse elements can be united into a noncontradictory unity.

Dunn accomplishes what Bauer and Koester do not in this regard (see [Dunn.EvJ, 79-100], for a popular-level argument; [Dunn.UDNT], in entirety, for a more detailed survey) by allowing for what T. Robinson calls a "pool of acceptable diversity" [Rob.BTE, 36]. In his surveys, Dunn demonstrates that early Christianity consisted in the main of two parties: what he loosely terms Jewish and "Gentile" Christianity.

It was rather like our American political situation today, with two "major" parties and many smaller splinter groups; some were acceptable in their practice, others were not - an inevitable product of the human tendency towards syncretism. The mistake here is in giving as much credence to the splinters as one would to the primary groups.

In spite of the differing emphases, Dunn finds three unifying points throughout the NT [Dunn.UDNT, 29-30]:

  1. Proclamation of the risen, exalted Jesus.
  2. Call for faith.
  3. The holding out of a promise (salvation, life, forgiveness).

The differing emphases upon this unifying core arose as a result of the inevitable need to make the Gospel clear to all. Take, for example, the four titles ascribed to Jesus: Son of Man, Messiah/Christ, Son of God, Lord. The first two are understandable in a Jewish context, but might cause some head-scratching among Gentiles that had never seen the OT. The second pair are much more suitable for Gentiles, although they do not match in precise terms the concepts expressed through the first pair. Even today, as we have noted, missionaries must attune their presentation of the Gospel according to the culture that they are in.

Within Jewish Christianity, here is the range of belief that Dunn describes:

  1. John
  2. Hebrews
  3. Matthew
  4. Lukan psalms
  5. James
  6. Paul's Galatian opponents
  7. Ebionites

At level 6, Dunn puts a shaded area (what Turner would call a "fringe or penumbra between orthodoxy and heresy" - [TurnHEW.PCT, 79]) to indicate the bounds at which diversity is stretched too far and risks being unacceptable, with level 7 being totally unacceptable. Of course, in the complicated world of human thought, people in the penumbra MIGHT hold some small belief, or some twist upon their belief, that definitively sets them in one camp or another - it is simply a matter of examining their belief closely and finding out where it is. (This sort of level might be seen today in Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses, for example.)

Here is the level set for what Dunn terms "Gentile" (or Hellenistic) Christianity:

  1. Paul, John, and Q
  2. Paul's opponents in 1 Cor., Phil., Colossians, Pastorals; Revelation, Jude
  3. miracle man christologies
  4. opponents of John
  5. Gnosticism

Here the shaded area reaches into level 2 and covers level 3, with levels 4 and 5 being unacceptable. It is not possible here, of course, to do justice to Dunn's extensive survey. We may recognize from it, however, that the New Testament "debates from a single platform, but from different corners of it." [Moul.BNT, 220] There IS a unifying core beneath the diversity that can NOT be diverged from if one wishes to be termed a Christian. Hultgren [Hult.RNC, 86], incidentally, discerns a much larger normative core in the NT:

  1. The God of Israel can be loved and trusted as Creator of all.
  2. Jesus is the one sent by God, to reveal God and redeem humanity.
  3. In spite of human failure, trust in God's redemptive work through Christ is the way to salvation, a redemptive process begin in this life and completed in the life beyond.
  4. A person who has salvation is expected to love others and care about them, and follow the ethical standards laid down by Jesus.
  5. The body of believers is an extended fellowship.

Miller touches upon the major "Christianized" variation from Christianity, Gnosticism:

...There WERE various 'forms' of the faith, but these 'forms' were all WITHIN orthodoxy....
A modern day example would be that Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists are 'forms' of the faith; whereas Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, and New Age would NOT be considered 'forms' of the basic Christian Faith.
...the suggestion that all of the these movements had an 'equal claim' to 'legitimacy' is VERY puzzling. The early church appealed to a revealed faith from the first--Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations, and teach them to obey all things He 'had commanded them'. The charter was clear---'pass the message on'. The central issue was the continuity of the apostolic and post-apostolic message with that of Jesus and the OT.
Gnosticism departed from this continuity of the commonly-transmitted message by ADDING vast amounts of additional content (i.e. secret messages and doctrines which often undermined passages in the traditional scriptures--e.g. the real physical body of Christ) and additional 'gospels'. Montanism broke from this uniformity by 'new prophecies' that did NOT FOLLOW the pattern of the OT prophets (i.e. Montanists were 'ecstatic prophets'; the OT prophets were 'lucid prophets'). Marcion broke from this uniformity by rigidly imposing a theological principle upon the revelation in such a Procrustean way as to dismember it (in a manner emulated by countless modern theologians of the 20th century--!). Thus, these movements departed from the centrality of the faith 'delivered once for all to the saints'--Jude.

Giving credence to all of the splinters, then, is NOT a result of examining the evidence, but of imposing some naive view of political correctness on the early church. Determined levels of acceptable practice are eminently sensible: In any group, there are rules and there are acceptable interpretations of the rules. It is up to the judges of the community, the authorities in the matter, to determine what is acceptable; in this case, the judges (Apostles) ruled that the Galatian opponents and others were "on the line" and had better watch out; and forms of Gnosticism were "out of bounds."

And if this does not happen, what is the point in having rules? In a political party, what is the point of having a platform unless you ask members to accept it, or else be willing to take their lumps on parts that they cannot stomach? But in no case can you welcome someone who disagrees with the platform so substantially that their identity with your group is impossible; and it would be extremely presumptuous for such a person to demand that your party accept their viewpoint as an "interpretation" of the platform. Similarly, it is the height of presumption to accord all of the so-called "trajectories" equal weight, as Bauer tried to.



  1. Bauer.OxHer Bauer, Walter. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.
  2. Burr.4GJ Burridge, Richard. Four Gospels, One Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
  3. Dunn.EvJ Dunn, James D. G. The Evidence for Jesus. Louisville: Westminster, 1985.
  4. Dunn.UDNT Dunn, James D. G. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977.
  5. Hult.RNC Hultgren, Arland. The Rise of Normative Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
  6. Moul.BNT Moule, C.F.D. The Birth of the New Testament. Cambridge: Harper and Row, 1982.
  7. Koes.Traj Robinson, James M. and Helmut Koester. Trajectories through Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.
  8. Rob.BTE Robinson, Thomas A. The Bauer Thesis Examined. Lewiston: Edwin Mellon, 1988.
  9. Sand.PaulPal Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. London: SCM, 1977.
  10. TurnHEW.PCT Turner, H. E. W. The Pattern of Christian Truth. London: A. R. Mowbrey, 1954.