Christian Communities in Western Asia Minor into the Early Second Century: Ignatius and Others as Witnesses against Bauer

Article excerpt


Walter Bauer's book Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum was published in 1934. The English translation, entitled Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity and published in 1971,1 gave the book a new lease on life. This book has had a significant impact on scholarship on the NT and the early Church. It is to this work and its legacy that I will devote this paper.

Bauer summarized his argument in this way: "Perhaps-I repeat, perhaps-certain manifestations of Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as 'heresies' originally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there, were the only form of the new religion-that is, for those regions they were simply 'Christianity.' The possibility also exists that their adherents constituted the majority, and that they looked down with hatred and scorn on the orthodox, who for them were the false believers."2 Both chronological and numerical dimensions were important in Bauer's argument. He thought that what would later be called heresy was often "primary" and hence the original form of Christianity, and that in some places and at some times, heresy had a numerical advantage and outnumbered what came to be called orthodoxy.3

Bauer did not use the phrases "lost Christianities" or "lost Scriptures," but they are clearly implicit in his work. If heresy was the earliest form in some places, then it has a certain primacy, which suggests it should not have been suppressed, nor its writings lost. And if what became "orthodoxy" was a minority in some places, with heresy actually being dominant, then some would argue that the decisions in favor of "orthodoxy" can be seen as very political decisions, which may involve power and politics more than a claim that this particular form of Christianity was a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Thus the claim that what became orthodox Christianity involved the triumph simply of "the winners" gains much support from Bauer. But Bauer's thesis also raises the issue of the extent and nature of diversity in earliest Christianity and asks us to examine what might hold the movement together and hence allow us to speak of any sort of unity.

Bauer's work has been very influential in the ongoing discussion of these matters.4 Writing in 1971, Jaroslav Pelikan could say that "Bauer's thesis has shaped an entire generation of scholars since its first appearance in 1934."5 In 1981, Robert Wilken aptly said that Bauer had created "a new paradigm."6 Helmet Koester explicitly follows Bauer's approach in a number of his works,7 and scholars such as Gerd Lüdemann and Bart Ehrman also indicate their support for Bauer.8 Bauer's influence continues to be alive and well.9

How did Bauer argue his case? Bauer started with a geographical approach and investigated Christian communities in Edessa, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Rome. He discussed Ignatius in relation to Antioch and Polycarp in relation to Smyrna and then turned to themes such as the influence of Roman Christianity, the use of literature in various conflicts, the role of the OT, and traditions about Jesus and the apostles.

In this paper I will focus particularly on what Bauer says about Western Asia Minor. This is an area for which we have some good sources and so it provides a useful testing ground for Bauer's thesis. Can Bauer's thesis be sustained for Western Asia Minor? If it does not hold here, questions are raised about whether it holds elsewhere. Here I will draw on Revelation and particularly on Ignatius, and then more broadly on literature from Western Asia Minor.


Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria (Ign Rom. 2.2), where he was arrested and sent to Rome under armed guard (Ign Rom. 5.1).10 He probably traveled by ship from Antioch to a port on the southern coast of Asia Minor, although he could have gone by land.11 Ignatius passed through Philadelphia, where he met Christians from that community (Ign. …