The term "proto-orthodox Christianity", coined by New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, describes the Early Christian movement which was the precursor of Christian orthodoxy. Ehrman argues that this group, which 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'." Critics such as Larry W. Hurtado argue for the traditional view that proto-orthodox Christianity arose directly from the immediate followers of Jesus.
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". 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.
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. He expressed eagerness to die, expecting thus to "attain to God". 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.
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." 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".
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. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, in his Easter letter of 367, 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 (AD 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 Council of Carthage (419).
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." 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 Docetism (that Christ was only divine).
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."
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 linked to, and reliant upon, the earliest Christian expression of the faith in the Apostolic Age:
...to 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 traditions... Arland Hultgren has shown that the roots of this appreciation of traditions of faith actually go back deeply and widely into first-century Christianity.
- Ante-Nicene Fathers
- Apostolic Fathers
- Chalcedonian Christianity
- Criticism of Christianity
- Diversity in early Christian theology
- Early Christianity
- Historical Jesus
- Miracles of Jesus
- Misquoting Jesus
- Orthodox Christianity
- Seven Ecumenical Councils
- State church of the Roman Empire
- O'Connor 1913.
- Ehrman 2015, p. 7.
- 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".
- 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".
- 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
- 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'.".
- 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)."
- 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.
- Ehrman 2003, p. 145.
- 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".
- McDonald & Sanders 2001, Appendix D-2, note 19: "Revelation was added later in 419 at the subsequent synod of Carthage".
- Sanders 1996.
- Hurtado 2005, p. 495.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (2003), Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-514183-0.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (2015), The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, Oxford University Press, ISBN 019020382X.
- Hurtado, Larry W. (2005), Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, William B Eerdmans
- McDonald, Lee Martin; Sanders, James A., eds. (2001), The Canon Debate, ISBN 1565635175
- O'Connor, John Bonaventure (1913). "St. Ignatius of Antioch". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Reid, George J. (1913). "Canon of the New Testament". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Sanders, E.P. (1996), The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin, ISBN 0140144994