The Missing Gospels by Darrell Bock (Review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 18, 2009 in Bible,Reviews

Since Eusebius wrote his Church History in 324, the dominant picture of Christianity’s origins has been that the doctrines of orthodox Christianity were passed from Jesus to the apostles and the early bishops of the Catholic church. Heretical forms of Christianity (Gnosticism, Ebionism, Donatism, Marcionism, and later: Eastern Christianity, Protestantism, Anabaptism, Mormonism, Christian atheism, and Postmodern Christianity) were thought to be distortions of the original, true teachings of Jesus.

Things changed in 1934, when Walter Bauer published Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.1 Bauer argued that earliest Christianity showed a diverse range of “Christianities,” many of them more popular in certain places than orthodox Christianity was at first. Bauer thought that all these Christianities competed for 250 years, until the wealthiest and most powerful church – the one in Rome – smothered the other forms of Christianity, destroyed their books, and invented Apostolic Succession to “prove” that Roman Christianity was the one, true faith with a direct line back to Jesus. As always, the winners wrote the history.

Since then, scholars have debated the merits of Bauer’s evidence and arguments.2 Meanwhile, archaeologists have dug up alternate gospels and other ancient Christian writings that reveal early forms of Christianity of which even Bauer was unaware. More popularly, the 60-million-selling Da Vinci Code alleged that the Catholic Church has been covering up evidence that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene.

To be sure, our picture of early Christianity has been redrawn. But what picture do we see today? Scholars disagree. Not surprisingly, liberal scholars like Ehrman, Pagels, and Kraft are mostly approving of Bauer’s work, and conservative scholars like Wright, Blomberg, and McKnight are mostly critical. Ben Witherington approaches hysteria: he thinks the liberal scholars “are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness,”3 and sees The Da Vinci Code as a fulfillment of 2 Tim 4:34. (“For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine…”), and intends his anti-Da Vinci Code book to be a “wake-up call to those who have not been noticing the signs of the times.”4

Bock’s summary of Christian diversity

Acknowledgment of early Christian diversity is nothing new. As early as 180, orthodox apologist Irenaeus wrote an entire book against alternative Christianities. Moreover, the New Testament itself warns against false prophets and “other gospels” (Gal. 1:6). But recent discoveries have revealed forms of Christianity we hadn’t previously known.

Bock begins The Missing Gospels by showing that, indeed, Christianity has harbored many competing forms in every period of its history. Here is his summary of early Christian diversity:5

  • 30-100: Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, James, Q, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, Simon Magus, Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus, 1 Clement, Docetists, Gnostics, Encratites.
  • 100-150: Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, Epistle of Barnabus, Sheperd of Hermas, Diognetus, Papias, Gospel of Thomas, Carpocrates, Saturninus, Basilides, Marcion, Valentinus, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Nazareans, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Egerton Papyrus, Gnostics, Encratites.
  • 150-400: Justin Martyr, Iraneus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of the Savior, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Letter to Rheginos, Tripartite Tractate, Pistis Sophia, Sophia of Jesus Christ, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Bartholomew, Apocryphon of John, Apocryphon of James, Interpretation of Knowledge, Apocalypse of Peter, Dialogue of the Savior, Hypostasis of the Archons, Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Teachings of Silvanus, Gnostics, Theodotus, Ebionites, Encratites, Montanists.

Chapters 6-13 of The Missing Gospels outline the theological differences between orthodox Christianity and alternative forms. Here’s my oversimplification:

God and creation. The alternate Christianities have a singular God (Thomas) or many Creators (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons), but the creation is usually evil or flawed. The orthodox materials of the New Testament proclaim a single Creator God and a good creation, ideas inherited from Judaism.

Jesus: divine or human? Many alternate Christianities proclaim a non-physical Jesus, but orthodox materials affirm an equally human and divine Jesus.

Humanity’s redemption: spiritual or physical? In alternate Christianities, redemption is about realizing one’s spiritual origin and ascending back into the perfect, non-material world. The orthodox texts speak both of spiritual redemption and a physical resurrection, a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Jesus’ work. For the alternate Christianities, Jesus’ work was to awaken us to saving knowledge and union with the revealer. This is shared by orthodox Christianity, which also emphasises doctrines about redempmtion by Jesus’ crucifixion and the worship of Jesus as God.

What, then, of Bauer’s claim?

Bock summarizes Bauer’s thesis into two points (p 49):

  1. Originally, there were many “Christianities” – not a single orthodoxy with occasional minor heresies branching out from it. From the very beginning, heresies were dominant in some regions.
  2. Orthodoxy developed only because Rome used its power to squash the other Christianities.

First, do these alternate Christianities go back as far as orthodoxy? No, Bock says. All of Bauer’s claims for dominant heresies in the first century have been debunked by modern scholars,6 and none of the recently discovered heretical Christian texts are as old as Paul’s letters and the Synoptic Gospels, which contain orthodox traditions.

Now, let me add to Bock’s case against Bauer: The alternate Christianites also display more theological development away from Christianity’s roots: Judaism. We may never know for sure what the 1st-century Jewish Galilean ascetic prophet named Yeshua7 preached, but it is almost inconceivable that any such person would preach anything like Gnosticism or Marcionism.

Second, did Rome create the orthodox church? No, Bock says again. Early orthodox Christianity can also be found in Jerusalem and especially Syria, from which our earliest known orthodox bishops and liturgies come. Moreover, Bauer’s main piece of evidence for Roman control – the letter of 1 Clement from a bishop of Rome to the church in Corinth – is flimsy. The letter is not a “ruling” but a persuasive letter, like the letters of Paul.8

As Bock notes, both Bauer’s work and the newly discovered gospels do make important contributions to our understanding of early Christianity. But the two central claims of Bauer and the “new school” of Christian origins – that the earliest heresies had just as much claim to legitimacy as the orthodox tradition, and that Rome created orthodoxy by crushing the alternate forms – are either false or totally lacking in evidence.

What do I think?

I agree with Bock. Bauer’s thesis mostly fails on both points. Nearly all the earliest surviving evidence is for orthodox Christianity, and in many places besides Rome. (As for The Da Vinci Code, well, it’s fiction.)

But I doubt orthodox Christianity was the “first” form of Christianity. Jesus’ own “Christianity” was, probably, most similar to Jewish Christianity, which eventually lost out to Pauline Christianity. As usual, we don’t have enough surviving evidence to say with much certainty what really happened 2,000 years ago.

Bock’s book is pretty decent, though he spends most of his time on the theology of various early Christian writings, not on the evidence for and against Bauer’s thesis.

  1. Read it online, here. []
  2. A short history of the debate over Bauer’s thesis (albeit, heavily biased against it) is available in Rodney Decker’s Rehabilitation of Heresy. []
  3. The Gospel Code, p 174. []
  4. The Gospel Code, p 12. []
  5. I’ve reformatted and simplified the list from Bock’s tables on pages 12-13. []
  6. Except perhaps for Bauer’s work on earliest Christianity in Edessa, but our evidence is scarce there and supports no conclusion either way. And, as Bock writes on page 54, “Edessa hardly represents the center or hub of Christian development.” []
  7. Yeshua is Jesus’ name in Anglicised Aramaic. Jesus spoke Aramaic. []
  8. It is true that Bauer’s case for Roman control falls flat, but Rome did exert tremendous power a bit later, once Emperor Constantine converted. After that, alternate Christianities had little chance against the wealthy, powerful, well-organized form of Christianity in Rome. But that was after orthodox Christianity had mostly proved its dominance. []

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

DW February 19, 2009 at 9:06 am

I think it’s a shame that the average christian is oblivious to the current debate about the dubious beginnings of their religion. I’ve found that if you ask most Christians who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they think that is was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I think Bock is probably right about Bauer’s views. Kind of a shame, though-that ‘survival of the fittest’ christianity view has a certain Darwinian charm. Thanks for the review. this website kicks ass!


Danny March 5, 2009 at 9:30 pm

How does Bock’s thesis fare against the more recent scholarship of Pagels, Ehrman, and Kraft? While these scholars may have been receptive to Bauer’s thesis, I’m sure they’ve expanded upon it and added newly discovered archaeological finds. Bock’s work strikes me as being too “apologetic”.


lukeprog March 6, 2009 at 2:40 pm


For a quick overview of the history of scholarly reaction to Bauer’s thesis, including recent work, I recommend Decker’s “Rehabilitation of Heresy”, which I linked to in the notes.

Bock is obviously apolgetic, but he provides a fair counterpoint to the atheistic apologetics of, say, Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities.”


woofboy May 31, 2010 at 3:49 am

Hi Danny,

I think Bock is aware of Pagels and Ehrman in ‘Missing Gospels’ (he references them throughout the book). His thesis is designed to counter their claims as well as Bauer’s.


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