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How can I trust my Bible? How do I know the right books made it into the canon of Scripture? How do I know my English Bible accurately reflects the words in the original manuscripts? Maybe you have asked yourself questions like this before. The good news is there are answers. The book The Heresy of Orthodoxy was written to help provide these answers.
There are many people who have sown doubt about the trustworthiness of Scripture. In the academic world, Walter Bauer changed the shape of New Testament scholarship with the publication of Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity in 1934. You may not have heard of Bauer, but you perhaps have heard of Bart Ehrman, who has spent much of his scholarly career popularizing ideas that originated from Bauer. But as convincing as they may sound, neither Bauer nor Ehrman has given definitive arguments for their positions. In fact, if it were not for the current postmodern love of diversity, the Bauer-Ehrman thesis probably would have lost its luster a long time ago. It is this overarching issue that The Heresy of Orthodoxy seeks to address: “We believe it is that diversity, the ‘gospel’ of our culture, has now assumed the mantle of compelling truth—and this ‘truth’ must not be bothered by the pesky, obstreperous details of patient, painstaking research, because in the end, the debate is not about the details but about the larger paradigm—diversity” (18).
Part 1 of the book devotes specific attention to the Bauer thesis itself and compares it with data that Bauer neglects to examine: The New Testament itself. Part 2 addresses the concept of canon and provides evidence for God’s sovereign guidance in the process of the church’s recognition of the canon of Scripture. Part 3 looks at the reliability of the manuscripts and transmission of the biblical texts. We hope that this material will help undergird your faith in the Scriptures and allow you to engage the world with the hope of the gospel.
Andreas J. Köstenberger (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the senior research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is a prolific author, distinguished evangelical scholar, and editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is the founder of Biblical Foundations, a ministry devoted to restoring the biblical foundations of the home and the church. Köstenberger and his wife have four children.
Michael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kruger is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and also serves as the pastor of teaching at Uptown PCA in Charlotte. He blogs regularly at MichaelJKruger.com and tweets at @michaeljkruger.
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Introduction
We can hear it being celebrated in the mainstream media by critical scholars and echoed in popular venues and on university campuses: “Truth has been slain, long live diversity!” This belief constitutes the banner over much of contemporary Western culture, yet it should not go unchallenged. The specific purpose of this book is to challenge this assertion as it pertains to early Christianity.
Walter Bauer famously stated that there was no “orthodoxy” or “heresy” in early expressions of Christianity; at the beginning, there was rather diversity of belief. Bart Ehrman popularized the “Bauer thesis” in his statement that there was no such thing as “Christianity” (in the singular) but rather Christianities (in the plural). If careful readers examine Bauer’s thesis in detail, it will not be long before they will see its flaws.
So why is Bauer’s thesis still accepted in many circles today? Ultimately, it appears as if Bauer’s work has caught new wind in its sails by finding a home in the contemporary celebration of diversity in all areas of life. Other works have examined Bauer’s thesis; this book seeks to examine the underlying premise that has kept Bauer, Ehrman, and others afloat: the belief that diversity precedes unity as it pertains to early Christianity.
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, chapters 1–2
Popular American culture looks to the Bauer-Ehrman thesis as the prevailing paradigm for early Christianity. But the cultural relevance of Ehrman’s thesis does not ultimately matter; what matters is the validity of Ehrman’s foundation, namely Bauer’s thesis itself.
In his Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Bauer famously stated that heresy preceded orthodoxy. His method focused on the history of early Christianity and the beliefs attested to the four major expressions of Christianity in the early centuries: Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa, and Rome. For Bauer, though orthodoxy eventually won out in the fourth century, heresy preceded orthodoxy in each of these four centers. Notable scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann, Arnold Ehrhardt, and James D. G. Dunn picked up on Bauer’s thesis and produced further developments in the 20th century. It is from here that Ehrman moved this message into the mainstream. His work has been featured in Time, The New Yorker, Dateline NBC, BBC, NPR, and other noteworthy media outlets.
The Bauer-Ehrman thesis has received a considerable amount of criticism. These critiques can be summarized under four major headings. First, Bauer’s conclusions were unduly conjectural. Second, Bauer neglected evidence from the New Testament and therefore used second-century documents as evidence of “earliest Christianity.” Third, when Bauer does talk about the first century, his data is grossly oversimplified. Fourth, Bauer did not interact with the theological standards that already existed in the early church (33).
In sum, while Bauer “believed he could detect a movement from diversity to unity within the early church, the first Christians rather developed from unity to diversity” (38). This unity can be understood through three main points: (1) monotheism, or the belief in the one God, Yahweh of the Old Testament, (2) Jesus, the Messiah and exalted Lord, and (3) the saving message of the gospel (38).
This chapter examines the four main second-century urban centers: Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa, and Rome. For Asia Minor, the two main sources are the book of Revelation and the early church father Ignatius. Bauer gives four reasons why heresy preceded orthodoxy in Asia Minor:
These four claims can be challenged in the following way:
Bauer makes similar contentions for the other three urban centers, and these arguments can be diffused in similar fashion. But if the Bauer-Ehrman thesis is incorrect and there was a pervasive orthodoxy in early Christianity, what did it look like? Primarily, it was grounded in the “Rule of Faith.”
The Rule of Faith is a “concise statement of early Christian public preaching and communal belief” or a “summary of the main points of Christian teaching” (55). First Clement 7.2 is perhaps the first mention of the Rule of Faith, but it is developed in almost every orthodox work in the patristic era, most notably by Irenaeus and Tertullian. The ubiquity of the discussion of the Rule shows that the early church fathers saw themselves as bringing the gospel to the nations and safeguarding the message of the gospel from heresy. As this gospel tradition was passed on to subsequent generations, it then became formalized in the shape of the creeds: “Creedal third- and fourth- century orthodoxy, then, is not in opposition to the orthodoxy purported in the New Testament and propagated by the Fathers. It is … an organic continuation of what the New Testament writers began without any transmutation of the DNA of the New Testament gospel message, which, in turn, is rooted in the Old Testament” (57).
In sum, Ehrman significantly downplays the presence of orthodoxy in the early centuries. The converse is also true about the presence of heresy: Ehrman overestimates the power of heresy during these same centuries. For example, though Gnosticism was the primary heresy of the early centuries, it never emerged as a connected movement. Ehrman, leaning on Bauer, states that orthodoxy finally “won out” over heresy in the fourth century. Yet this point does not line up with historical evidence because orthodox Christianity only had official power to relegate heretics after the Edict of Milan in AD 313. The heretical movements of the early centuries were just not as strong as Ehrman makes them out to be.
Finally, the following timeline should help add clarity:
See especially chapters 4 and 5, which deal extensively with the Bauer thesis.
See especially chapters 4 and 5, which deal extensively with the Bauer thesis.
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, chapter 3
The Bauer-Ehrman thesis does not look to the New Testament for evidence of the existence of orthodoxy in early Christianity; instead, it defines “orthodoxy” from a fourth-century perspective, saying that orthodoxy only came after Constantine and some of the ecumenical councils. But this definition of orthodoxy leans on circular reasoning and unnecessarily obscures some of the most important primary texts, especially the New Testament. A better definition of orthodoxy is as follows: “correct teaching regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ, including the way of salvation, in contrast to teaching regarding Jesus that deviates from standard norms of Christian doctrine” (71).
But are the Gospels a reliable source for early Christianity? The importance of eyewitness testimony in the Gospels provides key evidence to the affirmative. The apostles were either the authors or the sources for the four canonical Gospels, and they also served as “quality control” during the first century when these traditions were first being transmitted. Another question raised by Ehrman is that scholars should not trust documents written by the “winners.” While historians should always be aware of this caution, it should also be noted that every author has a bias, even Ehrman himself. What is necessary, then, is a closer look at the literature itself.
First, the Gospels themselves include significant Christological confessions such as Peter’s famous statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Regardless of what Ehrman thinks about the Gospels themselves, he should at least take these confessions as widespread belief in the first century that Jesus was the Messiah. Second, Paul’s letters contain similar recognition of apostolic tradition that must be passed on to others (1 Cor 15:1–5) and that it is in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures (Rom 1:1–3). There is also evidence in the New Testament that churches had already developed liturgical material prior to the writing of the New Testament. In sum, the New Testament provides significant evidence for a fundamental unity in the first century.
But that is not the end of the story. Christians should not shy away from the fact that there is a measure of diversity in early Christianity, even diversity in the New Testament. The Bible is unlike any other book, but it was still composed by people. Therefore in the New Testament we find “a certain degree of latitude with regard to individual vantage points and perspectives” (82). Though there were many different perspectives, these vantage points had appropriate boundaries that were governed by the Rule of Faith.
There are four alleged “conflicts” in the New Testament that are often used as examples of contradictory material: (1) Jesus and Paul; (2) John and the Synoptics; (3) the Paul of Acts and Paul’s letters; and (4) developments in Paul’s theology. A closer look at each of these “problems” reveals that there is not uniformity, but there is certainly continuity. Readers of the New Testament should allow for a legitimate amount of diversity between authors and even between different works from the same author. Each author and each literary work of the New Testament had a specific purpose and addressed specific concern. There should be a generous allowance for diversity within a larger understanding of conformity to the central themes of the gospel.
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, chapter 4
The Bauer thesis shaped many areas of New Testament studies, but it especially shaped the understanding of the canon. Over the years, many scholars such as James Barr, Lee McDonald, and Harry Gamble have further developed Bauer’s thesis. At the outset, it is important to clarify that at this point the critical question about canon is not which books should be in the canon but rather whether the concept of a canon should be viewed as legitimate at all. The main point of this chapter is that “the idea of a ‘canon’ was not an after-the-fact development with roots solely in church history but rather a natural, early, and inevitable development with roots in redemptive history” (108). This point will be supported by looking at three related concepts: canon and covenant, canon and redemptive history, and canon and community.
A covenant can be defined as “an arrangement or contract between two parties that includes the terms of their relationship, covenant obligations (stipulations), and blessings and curses” (109). Since the biblical covenants are essentially the backdrop or framework of all of redemption history, the New Testament canon then should be regarded as a covenantal document, indeed, the inevitable result of covenant (112).
In terms of the canon and redemptive history, both the Sinaitic covenant and the new covenant were established in written form after God’s redemptive work was brought about: “If Israel received written covenant documents to attest to their deliverance from Egypt, how much more would the church expect to receive written covenant documents to attest to their deliverance through Christ” (114). Therefore, the concept of canon belongs more in redemptive history than in church history.
Finally, this concept of canon should also shape our understanding of the early Christian community. It is important to remember that the early church fathers spoke of “recognizing” or “receiving” the books of the New Testament, not creating them or picking them from a lineup of qualified applicants. Perhaps our perspective on canon needs to change: instead of starting with the recognition of the canon and moving backward to the documents themselves, we should begin with the covenant documents of the canon and see how these very documents shaped the communities that recognized them as Scripture.
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, chapters 5–6
This chapter seeks to provide historical evidence for the claim made in the previous chapter. The source material for this historical investigation will come from the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers. Second Peter 3:16 provides a compelling case for an early collection of canonical books. In this verse, Peter refers to “all [Paul’s] letters,” showing that a corpus of Paul’s letters had already been collected and begun to circulate. We can see three implications from this verse: (1) Peter makes this point quite casually. If the idea of a canon were foreign to Peter’s readership, he probably would have felt the need to further support his point. (2) Peter calls Paul’s letters “Scripture” and gives no indication that Paul would have rejected such a major claim. (3) If some of Paul’s writings were already considered “Scripture,” there is robust evidence that other groups of letters or writings could also be seen as Scripture, including Peter’s own letters, since he, too, introduces himself as apostle (2 Peter 1:1).
First Timothy 5:18 provides another significant example: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” The introductory formula tells us that Paul sees both quotations as Scripture. The first citation is from Deuteronomy 25:4, and the second is from Luke 10:7. While some have disputed this latter reference as coming from Luke, their argumentation is circular and reveals an uncompromising commitment to the Bauer thesis. Therefore, this verse also points toward an early recognition of the canonization of New Testament books. In addition, 2 Peter 3:2 indicates a twofold canonical authority in both the prophets and the apostles (135).
There is also compelling evidence for the concept of canon in the Apostolic Fathers. The epistle of 1 Clement provides support in the following statement: “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul. What did he write to you at first, at the beginning of his proclamation of the gospel? To be sure he sent you a letter in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos” (1 Clem 47:1–3). There are three points to note: (1) Clement was a key leader in Rome, and he calls Paul the “blessed apostle”; (2) Clement clearly references 1 Corinthians here; (3) Clement calls 1 Corinthians a “letter in the Spirit,” which acknowledges the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for this letter.
Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians is similar: “Paul, who was sanctified, who gained a good report, who was right blessed, in whose footsteps may I be found when I shall attaint to God, who in every epistle makes mention of you in Christ Jesus” (Ign. Eph 12:2; quoted on p. 141). It is significant that Ignatius mentions multiple letters of Paul, especially since Ignatius often refers to the unparalleled authority of the apostles (141). In addition, Ignatius elsewhere references other apostles and alludes to several of the canonical Gospels. Many other examples could be given from writings such as The Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas and from early Fathers such as Polycarp and Papias.
The previous two chapters have addressed the concept of canon as a whole. This chapter seeks to address the boundaries of the canon, specifically “whether the diversity of apocryphal literature threatens the integrity of the twenty-seven-book canon as we know it” (152). This question is especially relevant because people such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels continue to publish books that, although denying the particulars of Bauer’s thesis, essentially still uphold his general point—that diversity preceded orthodoxy in the early centuries of the church. Indeed, the claim that diversity trumps unity and exclusivity has become “a modern-day truism” (154).
The problem with scholars such as Ehrman and Pagels is that they have lodged two major unsubstantiated assumptions. First, they assume that the books of the New Testament and the books of the Apocrypha are indistinguishable in terms of their historical merits. Second, they assume that God has given no means by which to establish a canon of recognizable authoritative works (154). These points overlook some key evidence that none of the apocryphal gospels was ever seriously considered for the New Testament canon. Moreover, while there were some books that were disputed such as 2 Peter and Jude, a core of the New Testament canon was recognized by either the early or the mid-second century.
What’s more, Ehrman does not readily reveal what amount of diversity is too much and what amount is reasonable. There are three factors that should be considered to bring much-needed clarity to the issue. First, Jesus of Nazareth was a controversial figure and virtually everyone who encountered him formed a strong opinion about him. Naturally, this situation would require time for a consensus to develop. Second, since God did not drop the New Testament books straight from heaven, we would expect that there would be general disagreements and questions about certain books in various geographical locations. Third, we should be quick to remember that there are also spiritual forces that oppose the church and will likely add to the confusion.
The fact of the matter is that Ehrman and others simply want every early Christian document to be equally treated, regardless of the content of the document itself. Even a brief look at apocryphal epistles (e.g. Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora, The Epistle of Barnabas) or apocryphal gospels (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Nicodemus) shows that they do not share the same historical credentials as the canonical books. Therefore, Ehrman’s demand that every document be treated equally “is not driven by historical considerations at all but rather by a prior commitment to the Bauer model and a quest to make sure every view is equally ‘right’” (169).
Finally, it is important to understand what a “closed” canon actually means. Most people think of the ecclesiastical decisions of the fourth century when they refer to the closing of the canon. The evidence, however, points to an earlier date. For example, the Muratorian Fragment, a second-century document, rejects canonical status for the Shepherd of Hermas, saying that it was written “very recently, in our own times” (cited on p. 170). Therefore, this document, as well as many others, indicates that the canon should be viewed as closed much earlier than Bauer will allow.
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, chapters 7–8
So far, this critique of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis has focused on the question of canon and of individual books in the canon. But we need to go one step further, to the question of the text itself. Were the ancient scribes who copied the biblical manuscripts reliable?
The scribes who copied Christian writings in the earliest centuries appear to have given significant attention to the texts they copied. There were two main styles of writing in the ancient world: bookhand, which was a formal, elegant kind of writing used for literary works, and documentary hand, which was a rapidly written script that was used for informal documents such as letters and bills of sale. The earliest Christian papyri show a style roughly in the middle of these two common styles. This “no-frills hand” suggests care and diligence in copying with a focus on the content of the text rather than its appearance (187).
The early use of the codex provides more evidence for the reliability of scribes and the existence of a canon for the early church. The primary form for Greco-Roman documents was the scroll. But many Christian documents appeared not on a scroll but in the form of a codex. A codex looked much more like a modern book and allowed for multiple documents to be stored and read together. The fact that Christian documents appeared in codices much earlier than other Greco-Roman documents is another historical datum pointing to the existence of the New Testament canon: Christians wanted to read certain documents together. The codex allowed all four Gospels to be bound in one volume; the same is true for the Pauline epistles.
“But we don’t have access to any of the original manuscripts of the Bible!” This is one of the main seeds of doubt that Ehrman likes to plant in the soil of young, fertile minds. The statement is true, but does it necessarily lead to a general distrust of the integrity of the Bible? The point of this chapter is to show that Christians can have sufficient certainty and confidence that we possess the actual teachings of Jesus and of the apostles in the New Testament. This claim is supported by four theses.
Thesis 1: The Wealth of Extant Manuscripts: We have good reason to think the original text is preserved in the overall textual tradition. There is an amazing amount of manuscripts of the New Testament: the current number is over 5,500. Compare this to the number of manuscripts for the Jewish historian Josephus’s Jewish War (50) or the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s Institutes (3), and the number is even more staggering. There is no other ancient document that even comes close to the same number of manuscripts. In addition, some of these manuscripts date all the way back to the second, third, or fourth century.
Thesis 2: The Extent of Textual Variation: Most scribal changes are minor and insignificant. While there are many variations of the biblical manuscripts, the vast majority of them are insignificant. There are five examples of insignificant text changes: (1) Spelling differences: the ancient world lacked the same rigorous spelling standards as we have today, and ancient manuscripts reflect an expected amount of variation in spelling. (2) Nonsense readings: Sometimes scribes made mistakes such as skipping a line. These mistakes render a passage nonsensical and can easily be recognized. (3) Singular Readings: At times only one manuscript contains a different word or variant reading and therefore is easily recognized. (4) Meaningless word order changes: At times, a scribe will change the word order in a sentence. Since word order does not affect meaning in Greek, these changes do not hinder meaning. (5) Articles with proper nouns: Greek often includes articles for proper nouns that are not present in English. Sometimes scribes will omit an article or add an extra article without changing the meaning of the text, yet this addition or omission is still considered and counted as a “variant.”
Thesis 3: The Reliability of the Text Critical Method: Of the small portion of variations that are significant, our text-critical methodology can determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text. While we can rest assured that the vast majority of the textual variants are insignificant, there are a few significant variants that require further discussion. For example, one common example comes from 1 John 5:7–8, where some manuscripts read: “For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” This variant, known as the Comma Johanneum, occurs in only eight manuscripts out of hundreds, and the earliest of these manuscripts is dated to the tenth century. What’s more, this reading is not received by any of the Greek Fathers. The only reason why this variant is significant is because it was included in the Textus Receptus, which led to its inclusion in the King James Version of the Bible. Our understanding of the Trinity is in no way dependent on this verse, and we can be quite certain that this variant is a later addition and not part of the original text.
Another significant variant comes from Mark 16:9–20, the “longer ending of Mark.” This variant is significant in that it is long (twelve verses) and that it includes subject matter such as the handling of snakes and the drinking of poison. Although some may feel as if part of their Bible is being taken away if this passage is omitted, most scholars agree that the long ending is not part of the original text. It does not appear in the two earliest manuscripts of Mark, it was not mentioned by key Greek Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and it includes non-Markan vocabulary. These examples help us understand that while there may be significant variants, it is still relatively easy to discern the accuracy of the original manuscripts.
Thesis 4: The Impact of Unresolved Variants: The remaining number of truly inconclusive variants is very few and does not materially affect the story/teaching of the New Testament. There are a few verses where it is actually quite difficult to discern which manuscript is closest to the original. However, none of these variants includes pertains to theological points, and Christian orthodoxy in no way rests on any of the readings from these verses: “We can have reliable manuscripts without having perfect manuscripts. But it is precisely this distinction that Ehrman’s ‘all or nothing’ methodology does not allow him to make” (229).
In the end, Ehrman’s thesis falls flat because he significantly overstates his case: for Ehrman, orthodox manuscripts have to be perfect, or they cannot be orthodox at all. This all-or-nothing methodology highlights the great flaw of Ehrman’s thesis. Ehrman’s bold claim for the “heresy” of orthodoxy cannot stand up to scrutiny.
So, what should we do in response? First, we should continue to preach the gospel faithfully, trusting in the truth of God’s word. Second, we should confront false gospels, including the “gospel” of diversity. Finally, we should recognize that our struggle ultimately is not against other scholars, but against dark and evil spiritual forces. In the final analysis, all rational arguments presented in this book depend on the faithfulness of God himself. We can trust him fully both in his mode of redemption and his mode of revelation.