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.