Notes on Walter Bauer, “Orthodoxy and heresy” – part 1

A little while ago I was encouraged to read Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy.  Last weekend the book (in English translation) arrived by ILL, and last night I started to read it.

At the moment I have no overall verdict on the book, but a couple of passages struck me, and are worthy of comment for themselves.  That I have not discussed other parts of the same chapter does not mean, of course, that I do not have a problem there also; merely that they did not stick in my head in the same way.

First a couple of methodological items.

From the introduction:

In our day and age, there is no longer any debate that in terms of a scientific approach to history, the New Testament writings cannot be understood properly if one now looks back on them … as sacred books, and prizes them as constituent parts of the celestial charter of salvation, with all the attendant characteristics.

It’s good to know that there is “no longer any debate” among some bunch of deadheads that the New Testament cannot be understood “properly” other than on the basis that it is not scripture.  Quite why a scholarly approach requires a formal creedal statement of unbelief is not explained.  In the next paragraph he utters the following:

We can determine adequately the significance the “heretics” possessed … only when we … without hesitation cast all our preconceived ideas aside. We must remain open to all possibilities.

But only, apparently, those possibilities which exclude the idea that the Christian religion might be true? 

Methodologically this is very bad stuff.  But something must be allowed for the fact that we’re reading a translation of an author writing in German, and evidently not very critically minded.  If he had said something like the following, few would have objected:

In order to study the early history of the church, we must be wary of allowing later perspectives from a more fully developed orthodox position to be back-projected onto the period.  It seems unlikely that the first possessors of the New Testament documents recognised them as scripture in the way that they did the Old Testament; and our analysis cannot presuppose that they did.

This, probably, is what Bauer would like his readers to suppose is being said here, and it’s all testably true.  There is, however, a measurable distance between this and what Bauer actually says.  And Bauer exploits this fact to slip in points that are not discussed or evidenced.

In chapter 1 there was a positive gem:

When we ask how and when Christianity gained influence in this region, it is unnecessary to begin with a survey of the sources – - which are in Syriac, Greek, and a few in Latin. Instead, for the sake of convenience, we will combine the information concerning the sources with the evaluation of them and with the collection of discernible data made possible thereby.

Convenience?  Whose convenience is it, one wonders?  The reader will usually not have all the relevant data in his head.  Any reasonable analysis of the data must start with tabulating it.

There is only one situation in which people try not to allow the data to speak for itself; when they are engaged in trying to debunk it to peddle some theory of their own.  This I always think of as the Von Daniken approach, after the Swiss hotel-keeper whose efforts brightened my teenage years and for whom I retain some affection even now.  I regret that I feel no such affection, however, for such manipulation in scholarly works.

Now for something substantive, and much more interesting!

Bauer is trying to debunk all evidence of Christianity in Edessa, presumably — I haven’t reached that part of the book yet — in order to argue from an absence of evidence, which he is manufacturing here, that this is evidence of absence.  It’s a charmless process that does nothing to gain the reader’s respect.   But it includes this argument, which caused me to scratch my head:

 … the existence of ecclesiastically organized Christianity in Edessa at this time cannot be asserted with any confidence … Eusebius …

d) EH 5.23.4: At the time of the Roman bishop Victor (189-99), gatherings of bishops took place everywhere on the matter of the Easter controversy, and Eusebius still knows of letters in which the church leaders have set down their opinion. In this connection, the following localities are enumerated: Palestine, Rome, Pontus, Gaul, and then the “Osroëne and the cities there.”

The phrase “and the cities there” is as unusual as it is superfluous. Where else are the Osroëne bishops supposed to have been situated except in the “cities there”?

But what speaks even more decisively against these words than this sort of observation is the fact that the earliest witness for the text of Eusebius, the Latin translation of Rufinus, does not contain the words “as well as from those in the Osroëne and the cities there.” This cannot be due to tampering with the text by the Italian translator, for whom eastern matters are of no great concern.

In those books with which he has supplemented Eusebius’ History, Rufinus mentions Mesopotamia and Edessa several times (11.5 and 8 at the end; see below, n.24).

Thus the only remaining possibility is that in his copy of EH 5.23.4 he found no reference to the Osroëne, but that we are dealing here with a grammatically awkward interpolation by a later person who noted the omission of Edessa and its environs.

Over paragraphing is mine.  We should note the absence of discussion of the Syriac and Armenian versions, which I likewise am not equipped to examine.

Let’s put that argument into a systematic form, with one or two additions from my own knowledge:

  1. Eusebius refers to “church officials” in Osroene and its cities.
  2. The earliest extant Greek texts of Eusebius’s Church History are 9th century.
  3. Rufinus translated/condensed the 10 books of Eusebius into 9, and then added 2 books of his own.
  4. The earliest extant copies of the Latin translation by Rufinus are earlier than the Greek of the original.
  5. Therefore we can presume that what Rufinus omitted was not part of the text of Eusebius, but was interpolated later.

On the face of it, that is a weird, weird argument.  Why on earth would we argue from the absence of text in an epitome?  But is Rufinus an epitome?  I learn[1] that in fact it is largely a translation: in his preface, given at the link below, he states that he omitted most of book 10 of Eusebius, added what was left to book 9, and then composed 2 additional books. 

I can’t say that I have ever compared the Latin of Rufinus with the Greek text — Schwartz’ GCS edition prints both on facing pages.   However in the Schwartz edition, there seems to be a lot of commonality.  I learn from a web search that somewhere there is an article on the differences, by Schwartz himself, but not the bibliographic reference.

It would be interesting to know better what the differences are. 

Is the argument sound?  I’d be very sceptical about arguing from a versio like this, and likewise from the argument that the existence of earlier mss is proof of better preservation necessarily.  It’s possible.  It’s just a bit weak.

  1. [1] Rosamund McKitterick, History and memory in the Carolingian world, p.228 f., in Google Books preview here.

3 Responses to “Notes on Walter Bauer, “Orthodoxy and heresy” – part 1”


  1. Maureen

    Osrhoene was a kingdom. It was also the capital city in the kingdom. So by saying “Osrhoene and the cities there,” the author was saying something similar to “New York, and the cities there” — ie, that Christians had a bishop not just in New York City, but had many in cities throughout New York State, including Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, etc.

  2. Maureen

    Oh, darn. I meant to X out the second sentence, because Edessa was the capital and I don’t find any evidence to back my vague memory of it being sometimes called Osrhoene. (Although the kingdom was sometimes called Edessa after the city.)

  3. Roger Pearse

    I admit that I found Bauer’s “problem” a contrived one, invented purely to rubbish the historical record. But the book is all like that, as far as I have read.



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