Notes on Walter Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy” – part 5. Afterthoughts

It is now a year since I wrote four posts examining the first chapter of Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy, and others on points of detail.   All the posts may be found here.

I had intended to write a further post, summing up what I had found.  But in the end I never did.  Because by that point I had already lost confidence in Bauer; and the labour involved in dealing with his book was greater than a blogger like myself can spare from real life.

Rather than let the series dribble out, I would like to summarise the lasting impression that this chapter of his book left upon me.

Bauer constructed a weird picture of events in which the Marcionites were the original Christians in the Syriac-speaking region centred on Edessa, and remained so until the 4th century.

The ancient sources do not say this, so he debunked sources selectively – not without ad hominem arguments.  One particularly unpleasing element was that he started with the Abgar literature, accepted by all as unreliable, in order to cast doubt by association upon the accepted sequence of events.  At the same time he stated his aversion to actually collecting the data at all.   While casting doubt upon every source that told the standard story, he expressed no such doubts about any element within them that could be used for his novel narrative.

Now this is bad scholarship, but of course may merely indicate incompetence.  We should never presume that a writer is dishonest, merely because he talks nonsense.  It is tedious when people do this, isn’t it?

Bauer’s thesis is contradicted by a list of bishops preserved in Eusebius’ Church History (5.23.4) indicating explicitly the presence of a bishop in Edessa – Osrhoene – in the 200’s.  Bauer points out that the Latin translation of Eusebius omits this bishop, and suggests that because the Greek manuscripts are later, then the Latin is more reliable.  How much later he does not say.

This is the key nexus for understanding Bauer’s work.

How did Bauer know what the Latin and Greek said?  Undoubtedly as a German scholar he consulted the standard GCS text by Schwartz, the Berlin series, which contains both.  We can do the same, and more readily in these days of the internet.  It is rather misleading not to tell the reader that the Latin manuscripts are 7-8th, and the Greek a mere 9-10th.  That is not a great gap.  The text implies a considerable gap.

But what Bauer does not tell us is that the GCS edition records the existence of a very ancient Syriac translation.  Copies of it must have existed in whatever library Bauer used.  Syriac scholars are legion in Germany.  So how could Bauer not have looked at this?  It requires almost no effort to discover that the manuscripts of this are 5th century; or that it, like the Greek, contains the name of the bishop in question.  How could Bauer have honestly not looked at this?   Had it too supported his claim, this would have been damning indeed.  But, as it does not, this ends the whole argument there and then.

For, if we use Bauer’s own argument, in his own terms, the Syriac translation disproves his claim that Eusebius is interpolated; if Eusebius is not interpolated then there was a Christian bishop at Edessa in communion with Christians elsewhere in the 200’s; and his best evidence for Marcionites is a century later.  The argument is over.  Bauer is wrong.

So … how could Bauer not know this?  How could he not mention it?

Many will remember Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, a novel that turns upon the disgrace and death of an academic for concealing evidence when writing his PhD thesis – evidence that he knew disproved it.  Sayers’ novel is not that remote in time from Bauer.

It was this discovery that sickened me of Bauer.  I can find little joy in reading work by an author whom I know that I can’t trust to be honest with me.  Does anyone?

Other points, not themselves final, then crowded in.  The manipulative-seeming presentation of the data takes on a sinister status after this.

Worse yet, Bauer wrote in 1934.  He was employed by the Third Reich.  The state church was eagerly subservient to the contemptuous Nazis.  Promoting the Marcionites as the original Christians was very congenial to the fetid attempts in the period to rewrite history, produce an Aryan Jesus, get rid of the Old Testament and remake the church subservient to the swastika.

I have not picked up Bauer since.  It isn’t worth my time.  Nor yours.

4 Responses to “Notes on Walter Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy” – part 5. Afterthoughts”


  1. zimriel

    1934 was early in das Dritte Reich – but late enough that some Evangelicals were already sounding the alarm. The “state church” was effectively riven in two by that point.

    As for Walter Bauer, he was *not* employed by the state in 1934. According to the Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, Bauer was already a well-respected professor at Goettingen long before the Nazis took power.

    I do not find evidence that the so-called “German Christians”, or the anti-Nazi Christians, even paid attention to Bauer’s work at the time. (PDF.) The Nazis made minimal, if any, use of Bauer’s work.

    Your critiques of Bauer’s scholarship are valid. I do not believe it is fair to call him a Nazi stooge without more evidence brought.

  2. dianabuja

    He would have been right in the historical middle of the eugenics movement in Germany, and as Zimriel says, more data are needed to flesh this out. Though I can say that ancient history of the Middle East, Egyptology, Anthropology and a few other fields were deeply influenced by the eugenics movement – and thus some of the scholars in these fields. The great Father of middle east Archaeology – Flinders Petrie – was a devout follower of Galton, sending him skull measurements and skulls (to LSE) and believed that ancient Egypt was invaded by a race from the east that was responsible for the early Egyptian state. Now, I will go back to see your other links.

  3. Roger Pearse

    A clarification on one point you raise: is there much practical difference between saying, “he was employed by the Nazis” and “he held a post at a university funded by the Reich, and his career prospects and salary depended upon the policies of the most notorious totalitarian state of our times”?

    I don’t have a view on the reception of Bauer’s book. My concern was rather, once it is determined that it is a piece of propaganda, to work out in whose interests the propaganda was being made. We need waste no time searching for a scholarly basis for a strange theory, once we can determine that the author of it was suppressing evidence, and that he wrote statements which could only appeal to the government of his day.

    Thank you for the links. I think I read Koester’s paper at some point during all this, but of course it is in his interests to play down the race politics of the book in view of its admitted importance to him and those around him. It’s worth remembering, also, that the slavish abasement of the German Christians was in vain; the Nazis had no respect for them. I recall that William Shirer, who was a US correspondent in Berlin, noted contemptuous remarks that Hitler made for the protestants – “a tiny minority in his native Austria” – as part of his report on the Nazification of the churches. But all of this is incidental, I think.

    I did write another post about the Nazis and the church here. I’m still rather proud of the “hippies going seig heil” joke, btw.

  4. David Wilmshurst

    As an avid collector of ancient bishops, I was interested in your mention of an early bishop of Edessa whose existence Bauer denies.

    As it happens, we know far more about the diocese of Edessa than of most other dioceses in Osrhoene, from evidence in both Greek and Syriac sources. I don’t have Eusebius with me, but I would be interested to know whether the bishop in question features in the tentative list below (mine, but drawing heavily on the work of other scholars):

    Aggai, Palut, Abshlama, Barsamia, Tiridates, Buzni, Shalula, an anonymous, Gurya, an anonymous, Yazni, Hystaspes, Aqai, Yona, Shautha (c.313–324), Aitallaha (324–c.341), Abraham (346–61), Barses (361–78), Eulogius (379–86), Cyrus (387–96), Sylvanus (396–98), Paqida (398–409), Diogenes (409–11), Rabbula (412–35), Ibas (436–49), Nonnus (449–51), Ibas iterum (451–57), Nonnus iterum (457–71), Cyrus (472–98), Peter (498–510), Paul (510–22), Asclepius (522–25), Paul iterum (526), Andreas (527–32), Addai (533–41), Yaqob Baradaeus (541–78), Amazonius (553), Epiphanius, Severus, Theodosius, Cyrus, and Tiberius (c.660).



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