Map of second century Christianities

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by Neil Godfrey

The following comparative overview of the extents of the “orthodox” and “nonorthodox” forms of Christianity from the time of the fall of Jerusalem through the second century is taken from chapter 8 of Walter Bauer‘s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. His information is inferred from the surviving literature from this period, and later references to literature no longer surviving.

No doubt there are studies since Bauer that would alter the overview and map below.

It is easy to imagine that the Christian religion we know grew steadily from Palestine and expanded gradually outwards, firstly through Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, until it gradually blanketed the whole Mediterranean world and Middle East.

But if that was the way it happened then how can the following extent of “nonorthodox” forms of Christianity be explained?

(click on map to enlarge it)

Blue = “non-orthodox” (e.g. Marcionites, Valentinians, and other such “gnostic” types)
Red = Roman-orthodox strongholds

Purple = contested areas; where “orthodoxy” was struggling, often in some form of “rear-guard” action, against the “non-orthodox”

Red stars = minority presence of “orthodoxy”
(Edessa is a special case: the “orthodox” were also described as “gnostics”)

“Orthodox” strongholds and outposts

At the turn of the century, around 100 c.e., there were evidently only two major bastions of what we might call the foundations of the orthodox Christianity that we would recognize today:

  • Rome, particularly,
  • and her eastern outpost, Corinth.

“Orthodox” Christianity was confined mainly to the western Mediterranean area. But even here it hardly had the monopoly. Around the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr (an “orthodox” Samaritan Christian based in Rome), wrote of the “heretic” Marcion:

And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. (First Apology, ch.26)

Justin wrote from Italy. Others of a similar mind who also wrote against Marcion’s “heresy” surrounding them and throughout “every nation” were likewise found based in the west.

In addition to Justin writing around 140 c.e. from Rome, there was, around the same time or slightly later, Dionysius of Corinth. He wrote against the Marcionites to a readership in Nicomedia. Nicomedia was adjacent to the Pontus home-base area of Marcionism. He also wrote to a Philip of Gortyna in Crete. So we can presume a number of “orthodox” Christians there, too.

We also have a letter claiming to be from a Clement of Rome, and prior to the time of either of these clerics, writing to a church at Corinth as a sister bastion of “truth”.

The Battleground

The areas of western Asia Minor appears to have been the main focus of ideological struggles for supremacy between the “orthodox” (pro-Roman) and the “nonorthodox” Christians. Indeed, given the extent of those Christianities that felt no attachment at all to the views of those in Rome, it is technically silly to talk of a “Roman orthodoxy”. But I use Bauer’s anachronistic terms because they make sense to most of us, even if they are only meaningful in hindsight.

It is in the cities of western Asia Minor that we are probably right to imagine “orthodoxy” struggling against “nonorthodoxy” — with orthodoxy holding the upper hand in only one or two cities here.

The prominent “orthodox” names influential in this region:

Thus the easternmost post of ecclesiastical opposition to Marcionism was Hierapolis (Papias‘s home) in Asia Minor.

“Orthodox” outposts beyond Asia Minor

Theophilus of Antioch, who was beleaguered by heretics and under the ecclesiastical influence of the West

At end of second century, Clement brings Alexandria into the fold for first time, although some of his writing makes it hard to classify him as a strict “proto-orthodox” Christian.

Later still, we find the Bardasanes attempting to break the monopoly of Marcionism in Edessa. Bardasanes’ “orthodox” credentials are dubious, however. The dividing line between the two could be quite blurred.


The main stronghold where Marcionism was completely untroubled by “Roman-led orthodoxy” was from around Hierapolis and eastward. It included the areas in Asia Minor said to have been originally evangelized by Paul, such as Galatia, Lycaonia, Cilicia.

From Hierapolis and westward, Marcionism was also prevalent. But in the west it was more immediately challenged by “the orthodox church”.


Valentinus had been active in Rome and Egypt. His following spread in various forms (sects) over the whole empire from the mid second century.

The Valentinian Marcosian sect advanced as far as Gaul and Italy in the second century. Its eastern branch was particularly active in Egypt, Syria and beyond. There was no effective “orthodox” opposition to Valentinians in the east. The only exceptions where we do have records of some orthodox “outposts”:

  • Antioch (a minority presence)
  • Alexandria (a minority presence)

The East generally

According to the evidence of Eusebius, “orthodoxy” made no inroads into the east till the third century.

The East generally was the terrain of “unorthodox” Christianity:

  • Asia Minor (except for the western coast)
  • Syria
  • Palestine
  • Mesopotamia

Given the areas of Paul‘s missionary activity (Lycaonia, Pisidia, Galatia) and letter of Pliny, the silence of Eusebius about ecclesiastical life in central and eastern Asia Minor is doubly surprising.

All the evidence cited by Eusebius is in the West, while on his own home territory in the East he s silent.

Given the evidence of Edessa and Egypt and other regions in the east, we can say that in the second century Christianity was nonorthodox.

The evidence of Eusebius

Eusebius manifests

  1. a tendency to move churchmen and their writings as close as possible to generation of apostles, while obscuring the chronology of the heretics so they appear to be the more recent.

  2. interest in displaying a very rich and universal anti-heretical literature already in the second century

  3. misuse of the superlative: countless, very many, all — re church, its size, its influence, its successes, its champions, its sacrifices etc

  • In connection with Psalm 18:5, EH 2.3.2 comments: “And truly in every city and village (‘of the whole word’ 2.3.1), like a filled threshing floor, arose communities with countless members and a huge multitude crowded together.”
  • The apostles endure “countless” (muria) mortal dangers in Judea (3.5.2),
  • Paul knows “countless” (muria) mysteries (3.24.4),
  • and he has “countless co-workers” (murioi synergoi, 3.4.4).
  • In the apostolic age the followers of Jesus consist of “twelve apostles, seventy disciples, and countless others as well” (dwdeka men apostoloi, hebdomhkonta de maqhtai, alloi te epi toutois murioi, 3.24.5).
  • Even in the postapostolic period “very many marvellous wonders” (pleistai paradoxoi dunameis) are occurring and close-packed hordes of unbelievers come over to Christianity on the first hearing of the gospel (3.37.3).
  • At the time of Basilides (around the year 130) “very many churchmen” (pleistoi ekklhsiastikoi andres) contend for the apostolic and ecclesiastical doctrine. But only “some” took pen in hand (4.7.5) — thus Eusebius restricts his treatment and thereby relegates the matter to an area no longer subject to verification. Then only a single one is named, Agrippa Castor (4.7.6). Hegesippus, who is associated with Agrippa Castor in 4.8.1 (a convenient arrangement for Eusebius’ purposes), has been borrowed from the succeeding generation.
  • This Hegesippus, so we hear, met with “very many bishops” (pleistoi episkopoi) on his trip to Rome, all of whom advocated the same teaching.
  • But besides Rome, specific mention is limited to Corinth (4.22.1 ff.). Thus in no way can we consider Hegesippus as providing evidence for the presence of a widespread orthodox church which flourished even in the East.
  • Dionysius of Corinth puts himself at the service of all the churches (4.23.1).
  • Polycarp is snatched away through very great persecutions (megistoi diwgmoi, 4.15.1), but according to 4.15.45 the total of those martyred from Smyrna and Philadelphia is twelve.
  • Myriads (myriades) of martyrs under Marcus Aurelius are mentioned in 5.preface.1. However this number is arrived at by treating the multitude of martyrs among one group (i.e. in Gaul) as though it represented a general average for the whole world (see also 5.2.1).

Thus we can ascertain by inference that Roman orthodoxy reached only to western Asia Minor, approx to Hierapolis, during 2nd century.

There was also an orthodox minority in Antioch.

In Western Asia Minor

  • Even in Hierapolis, orthodoxy is evidently a rear-guard movement
  • And note what the letters in Apocalypse to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Laodicea tell us about Christianity in those towns
  • Colossae may be even less favorable for orthodoxy
  • Smyrna appears to have been evenly balanced

Mixtures of orthodoxy and nonorthodoxy are also found in:

  • Magnesia
  • Tralles
  • Philadelphia
  • Ephesus

Orthodoxy also forced to take second place in:

  • Pauline Phrygia
  • Pauline Macedonia
  • Hierapolis
  • Philippi
  • Crete

Only Rome and Corinth

Only in Rome is it clear that orthodoxy held the upper hand

Also the distinctive character of Rome passed over to Corinth around 100 c.e., where it remained

The size of the matter

Churchmen often bewail the threats they face from heresy, but never attempt to adduce numerical evidence of their successes against them. They never say, “Only a couple of fools, beguiled by the devil, are in the opposition.”

The blurred dividing line

It is not always easy to classify writings between orthodoxy and heresy. Where do we classify the following?

Note also Bardasanes. Why is it, moreover, that even reputed “orthodox” churchmen such as Justin Martyr are known only by certain apologetic writings aimed at unbelievers, while their supposed works against “heresies” such as Marcionism are lost?

The greater abundance of literary works by heretics ?

We have volumes by Irenaeus, Tertullian and others against heresies. But there appears to have been an even greater volume of writings by the heretics themselves.

Hippolytus knows

  • innumerable books by Montanus and his prophetess

Epiphanius speaks of

  • countless writings produced by (“gnostics”)

Papias considered

  • most literature was suspicious, so turned to oral tradition

Hegessipus, Gaius, Irenaeus et al all complain of the fruitful literary activity of the heretics.

Harnack identifies 55 different writings from the Orphites (“gnostics”) alone.

Evidence of Harnack is that heretics produced far more literature than orthodox.

Eusebius provides evidence of very limited orthodox literature in second century, and though it was supposed to have been preserved from that time of most severe persecutions right up to fourth century, once Eusebius had cited the titles (rarely showing evidence he actually knew the contents of most of these), it was mostly lost. And even in cases of Justin, Theophilus and Tatian, it just so happens that the works they supposedly wrote against heretics were lost, but their works addressed to unbelievers survived.

One final point (Bauer’s final paragraph of chapter 8):

The reckless speed with which, from the very beginning, the doctrine and ideology of Marcion spread can only be explained if it had found the ground already prepared. Apparently a great number of the baptized, especially in the East, inclined toward this view of Christianity and joined Marcion without hesitation as soon as he appeared, finding in him the classic embodiment of their own belief. What had dwelt in their inner consciousness in a more or less undefined form until then, acquired through Marcion the definite form that satisfied head and heart. No one can call that a falling away from orthodoxy to heresy.

Can this state of affairs from around 100 to 200 c.e. be adequately explained through the generally accepted (“orthodox”) view of Christian origins?


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Map of second century Christianities”

  1. Possibly the most important observation is that Palestine is wholly ‘heretical’ and that’s where Jesus himself actually preached. Syria is also wholly heretical and Jesus had a huge following there during his lifetime as a man, per Matt 4:24 “his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people…and those which were possessed with devils…and he healed them.” Surely these Syrians that came into Palestine by the droves to be healed by Jesus would take back his authentic doctrine. Only Rome and Corinth, two places Jesus never went and two places from which we read about absolutely nobody coming from to be healed by Jesus, are the only wholly ‘orthodox’ bastions. If that doesn’t indicate that we’ve got our definitions of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ backwards, what will?

    1. You know I’m aware of the mythicist position. I did comment on the post about it, remember?

      But I don’t believe in the mythicist position. And I fail to see how that position would render my point invalid if that position were true. I don’t think you though about my point enough.

  2. Thanks for this interesting look at the flourishing diversity within Second Century Jesus movements and higlighting Walter Bauer’s very important study, though it is not without its critics (for a review of Baur & his critics http://ntresources.com/documents/EhrmanCritique_BFS_07.pdf – though this article itself is apologetics against Ehrman). I would question some of the data that leads the areas of Syia, Palestine and Egypt coloured all blue.

    First, it seems to depend too much on a view that Roman Christians were monolithic and possessed a political power that they really did not possess as a tiny persecuted sect to coerce other regions, and seems to exploit “arguments of silence” in making a case that regions did not have any orthodox presence (e.g. we do not know much about early Egyptian Christianity at all, though see Birger Pearson here).

    Second, by classifying blue areas as “Marcionite”, “Valentinian” or “gnostic types”, how does that include Torah observant Jewish Jesus groups such as the Ebionites or the more “orthodox” Nazarenes who continued to flourished in Syria Palestine (see Justin Martyr, Origen and Eusebius on different types of Christology among Jewish Christians and Epiphanius/Jerome on the Nazarenes specifically; cf. Ray Pritz “Nazarene Jewish Christianity”)?

    Or does Eusebius’ admittedly apologetic unbroken succession of bishops in Jerusalem (Gentile bishops after the city became Aelia Capitolina) which preserves some information from Hegessipus have no value whatsoever for “orthodoxy” in the region?

    How does the NT evidence fit into this, such as the Gospels of Mark and Matthew which many scholars place in Syria (despite later “orthodox” traditions of Mark as Peter’s Gospel in Rome)?

    Scholars tend to guess the provenance of the Epistle of Barnabas to be Alexandria (early attestation by Clement of Alexandria and use of allegory) or Syria-Palestine (knowledge of Jewish and rabbinic traditions), an extremely popular “orthodox” work dated either at the time of the emperor Nerva in the late first century or Hadrian in the second century. Though we have Ignatius letters to Asia Minor on his journey to Rome, he was originally bishop of Antioch and thus must have had some local support (bishops were elected to office and without any political power could hardly coerce a group to adopt their version of christianity).

    All this to say that I find the areas colored blue (rather than purple) to be slightly misleading, though the basic point that it some geographical areas “orthodoxy” predominated and in other areas “non-orthodox” forms predominated is a good one and that “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are really insider terms of different Jesus groups formulating their own boundaries in the Second Century (cf. Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: the Partition of Judaeo-Christianity).

    1. Thanks for the detailed comments, Mike. I agree with them, pretty much. (I have also taken the liberty of paragraphing your original post to make it easier reading.)

      My map was coloured to reflect Bauer’s article. And I am very aware their are many nuances and overlaps that could be added. Essentially the blue represents Bauer’s non-Roman-orthodoxy (including Ebionites and Nazarenes). It is a start. I would like the time to do something more granular along the lines of your suggestions.

      Maybe when I retire — or even if I have a bout of illness before then 🙂

  3. How strange.

    Paul says Christians were persecuted on the issue of circumcision.

    Acts has an alleged letter from a Roman. It says Paul was charged with
    nothing serious, apart from an internal Jewish dispute over Jewish

    I guess the Jews were just too dumb to think of telling the Romans
    that Paul was a follower of a criminal, who his followers claimed had
    cheated death and was still alive. If it had occurred to the Jews to
    have Paul charged with following a recently executed criminal, claimed
    to be still alive by his followers, then Paul’s defense that Jesus
    really had been killed would hardly have saved him.

    You can imagine the trial scene :-

    ‘You are charged with following a rebel who claimed to be king, and
    who you claim still leads your movement. How do you plead?’

    ‘Not guilty. Jesus was crucified and is now in Heaven.’

    ‘Pathetic. If this criminal is still alive and leading your movement,
    then he obviously can’t have been killed. Do you think we Romans
    believe in people returning from the dead?’

    But not even Acts claims Paul was ever charged with anything serious.

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