Proto-orthodox Christianity

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Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Patriarch of Antioch, a student of John the Apostle. En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which exemplify very early Christian theology, dealing with such topics as modification of the sabbath, promotion of the bishop, and critique of so-called "Judaizers". Ignatius of Antioch 2.jpg
Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Patriarch of Antioch, a student of John the Apostle. En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which exemplify very early Christian theology, dealing with such topics as modification of the sabbath, promotion of the bishop, and critique of so-called "Judaizers".

The term proto-orthodox Christianity or proto-orthodoxy was coined by New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman and describes the Early Christian movement which was the precursor of Christian orthodoxy. Ehrman argues that this group from the moment it became prominent by the end of the third century, "stifled its opposition, it claimed that its views had always been the majority position and that its rivals were, and always had been, 'heretics', who willfully 'chose' to reject the 'true belief'." [2] In contrast, Larry W. Hurtado argues that proto-orthodox Christianity is rooted in first century Christianity.

New Testament Second division of the Christian biblical canon

The New Testament is the second part of the Christian biblical canon, the first being the Old Testament. The New Testament discusses the teachings and person of Jesus, as well as events in first-century Christianity. Christians regard both the Old and New Testaments together as sacred scripture.

Bart D. Ehrman American academic

Bart Denton Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar focusing on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the origins and development of early Christianity. He has written and edited 30 books, including three college textbooks. He has also authored six New York Times bestsellers. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Orthodoxy adherence to accepted norms, more specifically to creeds, especially in religion

Orthodoxy is adherence to correct or accepted creeds, especially in religion. In the Christian sense the term means "conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early Church." The first seven ecumenical councils were held between the years of 325 and 787 with the aim of formalizing accepted doctrines.


Proto-orthodoxy versus other Christianities

According to Ehrman, "'Proto-orthodoxy' refers to the set of [Christian] beliefs that was going to become dominant in the 4th century, held by people before the 4th century." [3] (7:57)

Ehrman expands on the thesis of German New Testament scholar Walter Bauer (1877–1960), laid out in his primary work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934). Bauer hypothesised that the Church Fathers, most notably Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History , "had not given an objective account of the relationship of early Christian groups." Instead, Eusebius would have "rewritten the history of early Christian conflicts, so as to validate the victory of the orthodox party that he himself represented." [4] (11:42) Eusebius claimed that orthodoxy derived directly from the teachings of Jesus and his earliest followers, and had always been the majority view; by contrast, all other Christian views were branded as "heresies", that is to say, willful corruptions of the truth, held by small numbers of minorities. [note 1]

Walter Bauer German theologian

Walter Bauer was a German theologian, lexicographer of New Testament Greek, and scholar of the development of Early Christianity.

Eusebius Greek church historian

Eusebius of Caesarea, also known as Eusebius Pamphili, was a historian of Christianity, exegete, and Christian polemicist. He became the bishop of Caesarea Maritima about 314 AD. Together with Pamphilus, he was a scholar of the Biblical canon and is regarded as an extremely learned Christian of his time. He wrote Demonstrations of the Gospel, Preparations for the Gospel, and On Discrepancies between the Gospels, studies of the Biblical text. As "Father of Church History", he produced the Ecclesiastical History, On the Life of Pamphilus, the Chronicle and On the Martyrs. He also produced a biographical work on the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, who ruled between 306 and 337 AD.

<i>Church History</i> (Eusebius) work of Eusebius

The Church History of Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea was a 4th-century pioneer work giving a chronological account of the development of Early Christianity from the 1st century to the 4th century. It was written in Koine Greek, and survives also in Latin, Syriac and Armenian manuscripts.

However, in modern times, many non-orthodox early Christian writings were discovered by scholars, gradually challenging the traditional Eusebian narrative. Bauer was the first to suggest that what later became known as "orthodoxy" was originally just one out of many early Christian sects (such as the Ebionites, Gnostics and Marcionists), that however was able to eliminate all major opposition by the end of the 3rd century, and managed to establish itself as orthodoxy at the First Council of Nicaea (325) and subsequent ecumenical councils. According to Bauer, the early Egyptian churches were largely Gnostic, the 2nd-century churches in Asia Minor were largely Marcionist, and so on. But because the church in the city of Rome was "proto-orthodox" (in Ehrman's terms), Bauer contended they had strategic advantages over all other sects because of their proximity to the Roman Empire's centre of power. [4] (13:43) As the Roman political and cultural elite converted to the locally held form of Christianity, they started exercising their authority and resources to influence the theology of other communities throughout the Empire, sometimes by force. Bauer cites the First Epistle of Clement as an early example of the bishop of Rome interfering with the church of Corinth to impose its own proto-orthodox doctrine of apostolic succession, and to favour a certain group of local church leaders over another. [4] (15:48)

Ebionites Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era

Ebionites is a patristic term referring to a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and his virgin birth and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. They used only one of the Jewish–Christian gospels, the Hebrew Book of Matthew starting at chapter three; revered James, the brother of Jesus ; and rejected Paul the Apostle as an apostate from the Law. Their name suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty. Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect at Qumran who sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple. Many believe that the Qumran sectarians were Essenes.

Gnosticism is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious ideas and systems, originating in Hellenistic Judaism and the Jewish Christian milieux in the first and second century AD. Many of these systems believed that the material world is created by an emanation or 'works' of a lower god (demiurge), trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by gnosis, spiritual knowledge acquired through direct experience. Gnosticism is not a single system, and the emphasis on direct experience allows for a wide variety of teachings, which may include but are not limited to the following:

  1. All matter is evil, and the non-material, spirit-realm is good.
  2. There is an unknowable God, who gave rise to many lesser spirit beings called Aeons.
  3. The creator of the (material) universe is not the supreme god, but an inferior spirit.
  4. Gnosticism does not deal with "sin", only ignorance.
  5. To achieve salvation, one needs gnosis (knowledge).

Marcionism was an Early Christian dualist belief system that originated in the teachings of Marcion of Sinope in Rome around the year 144.


According to Ehrman, proto-orthodox Christianity bequeathed to subsequent generations "four Gospels to tell us virtually everything we know about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus" and "handed down to us the entire New Testament, twenty-seven books". [5] Similar to later Chalcedonian views about Jesus, the proto-orthodox believed that Christ was both divine as well as a human being, not two halves joined together. Likewise they regarded God as three persons; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; but only one God. [6]

Chalcedonian Christianity refers to the Christian denominations adhering to the christological definitions and ecclesiological resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in 451. Chalcedonian Christians follow the Definition of Chalcedon, a religious doctrine concerning the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The great majority of Christian communions and confessions in the 21st century are Chalcedonian, but from the 5th to the 8th centuries the ascendancy of Chalcedonian Christology was not always certain.

Martyrdom played a major role in proto-orthodox Christianity, as exemplified by Ignatius of Antioch in the beginning of the second century. Imperial authorities arrested him "evidently for Christian activities" and condemned him as fodder for wild beasts. [7] He expressed eagerness to die, expecting thus to "attain to God". [8] Following Ignatius, many proto-orthodox theorists saw it as a privilege to die for faith. In fact martyrdom became a way to tell the true believers from the heretics. If someone wasn't willing to die for what they believed, they were seen as not dedicated to the faith. [9]

Ignatius of Antioch Early Christian writer, Patriarch of Antioch and martyr saint

Ignatius of Antioch, also known as Ignatius Theophorus or Ignatius Nurono, was an early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch. En route to Rome, where he met his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote a series of letters. This correspondence now forms a central part of the later collection known as the Apostolic Fathers, of which he is considered one of the three chief ones together with Pope Clement I and Polycarp. His letters also serve as an example of early Christian theology. Important topics they address include ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role of bishops.

Another facet of the faith was the structure of the church. It was common – as it is today – for a church to have a leader. Ignatius wrote several letters to several churches instructing them to let the leaders (usually the bishops) handle all the problems within the church. He exhorted Church members to listen to the bishops as they were the leaders: "Be subject to the Bishop as to the commandment…We are clearly obligated to look upon the bishop as the Lord himself ... You should do nothing apart from the bishop." [10] The role of the bishop paved the way for hierarchies in churches that we often see today.

Another important aspect about proto-orthodox Christianity involves its views on Jews and Jewish practices. An important book for them was the Epistle of Barnabas, which taught that the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament was improperly literal, while the Epistle offered metaphorical interpretations as the truth, such as on laws concerning diet, fasting, and the Sabbath, moreover, that the Old Testament was specifically written to presage the coming of Jesus, and that not only did Christ's covenant supersede the Mosaic covenant, but that "the Jews had always adhered to a false religion". [11]

Development of orthodox canon and Christology

Ehrman's schematic model of four early Christian sects, including the proto-Orthodox. Ehrman comparison Ebionites Gnostics Marcionites proto-Orthodox EN.png
Ehrman's schematic model of four early Christian sects, including the proto-Orthodox.

In order to form a New Testament canon of uniquely Christian works, proto-orthodox Christians went through a process that was complete in the West by the beginning of the 5th century. [12] Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, in his Easter letter of 367, [13] listed the same twenty-seven New Testament books as found in the Canon of Trent. The first council that accepted the present canon of the New Testament may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393); the acts of this council, however, are lost. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Council of Carthage (397) and the Council of Carthage (419). [14]

To Ehrman, "Proto-orthodox Christians argued that Jesus Christ was both divine and human, that he was one being instead of two, and that he had taught his disciples the truth." [2] This view that he is "a unity of both divine and human" (the Hypostatic union) is opposed to both Adoptionism (that Jesus was only human and "adopted" by God, as the Ebionites believed), and Docetism (that Christ was only divine and merely seemed to be human, as the Marcionists believed), as well as Separationism (that an aeon had entered Jesus' body, which separated again from him during his death on the cross, as most Gnostics believed). [4] (0:21)

For Ehrman, in the canonical gospels, Jesus is characterized as a Jewish faith healer who ministered to the most despised people of the local culture. Reports of miracle working were not uncommon during an era "in the ancient world [where] most people believed in miracles, or at least in their possibility." [15]


The traditional Christian view is that orthodoxy emerged to codify and defend the traditions inherited from the Apostles themselves. Hurtado argues that Ehrman's "proto-orthodox" Christianity was rooted into first-century Christianity: a remarkable extent early-second-century protoorthodox devotion to Jesus represents a concern to preserve, respect, promote, and develop what were by then becoming traditional expressions of belief and reverence, and that had originated in earlier years of the Christian movement. That is, proto-orthodox faith tended to affirm and develop devotional and confessional tradition [...] Arland Hultgren [16] has shown that the roots of this appreciation of traditions of faith actually go back deeply and widely into first-century Christianity. [17]

See also


  1. "Heresy, in Eusebius' understanding, is always necessarily by definition "a late, derivative, corrupt, minority view", while "orthodoxy is the original truth, that was held by the majority of churches at all times." [4] (9:48)

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  1. O'Connor 1913.
  2. 1 2 Ehrman 2015, p. 7.
  3. Bart D. Ehrman (2002). "2: Christians who would be Jews". Lost Christianities. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 13 July 2018. One other term I need to define for our period, is made necessary by the circumstance that what I'm calling 'orthodoxy' is the point of view that became dominant in early Christianity, when I'm talking about Christianity before that view became dominant. In other words, calling somebody 'orthodox' in the 4th century makes sense, because by that time, Christians had decided what the dominant form of belief would be. But what do you call people who held that point of view, who held that belief, before it became dominant? I'm gonna use a term that scholars have come up with, which is simply 'proto-orthodoxy'. 'Proto-orthodoxy' refers to the set of beliefs that was going to become dominant in the 4th century, held by people before the 4th century.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Bart D. Ehrman (2002). "19: The Rise Of Early Christian Orthodoxy". Lost Christianities. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  5. Ehrman 2003, p. 136: "But only one form of Christianity, this group we have been calling proto-orthodox, emerged as victorious, and it is to this victory that we owe the most familiar features of what we think of today as Christianity. This victory bequeathed to us four Gospels to tell us virtually everything we know about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it handed down to us the entire New Testament, twenty-seven books, the only books produced by Christians accepted as Scripture".
  6. Ehrman 2003 , p. 136: "In addition, the proto-orthodox victory conferred to Christian history a set... beliefs [that] include doctrines familiar to anyone conversant with Christianity: Christ as both divine and human, fully God and fully man. And the sacred Trinity, the three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons, but only one God, the mystery at the heart of traditional Christian faith".
  7. Ehrman 2003, p. 137: "Bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century, Ignatius had been arrested, evidently for Christian activities, and sent to Rome for execution in the arena, where he was to be thrown to the wild beasts
  8. Ehrman 2003 , p. 137: "One of his letters is addressed to the Christians of Rome, in which he urges them not to intervene in the proceedings, because he is eager to be devoured by the wild beasts: By suffering that kind of death he will 'attain to God'.".
  9. Ehrman 2003, p. 138: "Proto-orthodox authors considered this willingness to die for the faith one of the hallmarks of their religion, and in fact used it as a boundary marker, separating true believers (i.e., those who agreed with their theological perspectives) from the false 'heretics' they were so concerned about. Some of their opponents agreed that this was a distinctive boundary marker: One of the Gnostic tractates from Nag Hammadi, for example, The Testimony of Truth, takes just the opposite position, maintaining that martyrdom for the faith was ignorant and foolish. From this Gnostic perspective, a God who required a human sacrifice for himself would be completely vain (Test. Truth 31–37)."
  10. Ehrman 2003, p. 141: "Ignatius was an avid and outspoken advocate of the monepiscopacy (single bishop). Each Christian community had a bishop, and this bishop's word was law. The bishop was to be followed as if he were God himself.
  11. Ehrman 2003, p. 145.
  12. Reid 1913: "So at the close of the first decade of the fifth century the entire Western Church was in possession of the full Canon of the New Testament. In the East, where, with the exception of the Edessene Syrian Church, approximate completeness had long obtained without the aid of formal enactments, opinions were still somewhat divided on the Apocalypse. But for the Catholic Church as a whole the content of the New Testament was definitely fixed, and the discussion closed".
  13. From Letter XXXIX
  14. McDonald & Sanders 2001, Appendix D-2, note 19: "Revelation was added later in 419 at the subsequent synod of Carthage".
  15. Sanders 1996.
  16. The rise of normative Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.
  17. Hurtado 2005, p. 495.