I have been looking at Walter Bauer’s 1934 book, Orthodoxy and Heresy, in a series of posts. My previous post consisted of taking his chapter on the earliest Christianity in Edessa, in Northern Syria — the home of the Syriac language — and summarising what he had to say. Bauer’s argument is made in a really rather diffuse manner, and it is usually sound practice with such theses to reduce them to a series of propositions and assess the evidence either way.
Bauer’s thesis in chapter 1 is straightforward. The earliest Christianity in Edessa was Marcionite. Later came Bardaisan. Normal Christianity came at least third, around 300 A.D.
It is entirely possible that, in a remote region, separated by political and linguistic barriers, that the first mention of the name of Christ may come from people who are heretical. The conversion of the Goths to Arian Christianity shows that this can happen. Whether Edessa is that remote, that separate, may reasonably be doubted. Geographically it was close to Palestine. The language was a dialect of Aramaic, understood in Palestine, probably spoken by Jesus himself, and certainly used for a translation of the Old Testament at a very early date, probably made by Jews.. Certainly in the 4th century material written in Caesarea by its bishop Eusebius was translated into Syriac almost within the lifetime of the author. But who knows? Maybe it is so.
Rather than arguing from probability, let us try to marshall evidence for and against the thesis.
First we must ask what sort of data will be evidence for or against the thesis? We should also ask, critically, what will that data be evidence of?
One approach would be to examine all the references in the surviving ancient literature to Christianity in Edessa. If we have a clear statement of the proposition in one of these, that would be evidence for the thesis. If we have a clear statement to the contrary, that would be evidence.
If the proposition is not explicitly discussed, then we can examine references to Christianity in Edessa for doctrinal statements. Then we can draw up a table of date and doctrine, and see what appears first.
But this raises a question. Will this be evidence? If we find that all the earliest references are to Marcionites, will that show that Marcionites were first? Or will it merely show us what the chances of survival — for not more than 1% of the material composed has reached us – have preserved? It is one thing to say, “The first mention is Marcionite”, if such is the case. It is another to infer from such a discovery that whatever is mentioned first in the surviving data did indeed come first, and that the absence of any mention of normal Christianity shows that it did not exist.
It is notoriously difficult to prove a negative. A positive statement of non-existence is evidence. Is failure to mention something evidence of non-existence?
Likewise, if normal Christianity is not mentioned, are we justified in presuming that it existed anyway? In this case I would say not; for Bauer’s thesis seems to be testing this presumption, region by region.
Let us defer that question, however, until we have seen what the evidence is. Then we can argue what it means. If WordPress will permit, I shall try to put it in tabular form.
-  S. Brock’s introduction to Syriac Literature, SEERI, refers to the early date of the OT Syriac translation. ↩
-  The earliest known Syriac literary manuscript, BL. Add. 12150, dates to 411 AD and contains Eusebius, Theophania. His Church History was translated into Syriac in the 4th century at least. ↩
-  So Pietro Bembo, referenced by N.G.Wilson on the Archimedes Palimpsest website. ↩