The Victory of Orthodoxy

A typical tale on some accounts of Christian origins goes like this: In the beginning the church was gloriously diverse, there was no normative Christianity, various trajectories road the ever evolving waves of the Jesus tradition wherever it took them, and it led to a beautifully pluralistic array of Christianities … until the blessed diversity of the early churches was quashed by a bunch of arrogant and cantankerous bishops in the second and third centuries who sought to impose their own narrow vision of the faith on everyone and to silence all other voices and visionaries.

To be honest, I think the real reason why these lost Christianities lost out is because they just weren’t that attractive to the ordinary Christian men and women of the Graeco-Roman world. For many, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas was not as inspiring as the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew. Who would want to face persecution for faith in Jesus the dispenser of esoteric wisdom or run the gauntlet of imprisonment for owning a copy of the Gospel of Philip? To be honest, the best way describe the victory of orthodoxy is not through a top-down power-game, but more like some annoying git getting voted off the island. The majority rules.

In fact, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Peter Lampe’s superb book From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries and I like how he puts it:

Behind ‘orthodoxy’ stands the mass of uneducated Christian folk. The orthodox Christian does not need a perfect secular education to grasp the truths of his or her faith, as is often attested (Lactatius, Inst. Div. 6.21; Clement, Strom. 1.99.1; Tertullian, Praescr. 7.9-13; Origen, Contra Cel. 3.44. ‘Any Christian manual laborer can find God!’ (Tertullian, Apol. 46.9). The victory of orthodoxy was thus also a ‘majority decisions’: the followers of the heretics were numerically outnumbered; orthodoxy, easily comprehended by the masses, constituted the ‘Great Church’ (Origen, Contra Cel. 5.59: megalē ekklēsia; the term was coined by Celsus). Whoever has this ‘Great Church behind him succeeds. It is a simple law of gravity. (p. 383-84).

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  • Brad Green


    F.F. Bruce, I believe in his book on the NT Canon, says that such groups lost out because they deserved to lose. He was thinking of gnosticism in particular, if I recall correctly. Carry on!

    Brad Green

  • Rick Brannan

    Agreed, Lampe is superb. Thanks for the reminder to re-read it.

  • stan

    “various trajectories road the ever evolving waves of the Jesus tradition wherever it took them, ”

    rode, not road