It might be objected that orthodox bishops were forced into these geographical locales by higher ecclesiastical powers bent on imposing their agenda on others. The problem with this suggestion is that there were no “higher ecclesiastical powers” during this time period.
A number of my recent posts (e.g., see here) have been dealing with Walter Bauer’s 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity which insists that Christianity was wildly diverse in the earliest centuries and that the heretics outnumbered the orthodox. It was not until the 3rd and 4th centuries, it is argued, that the orthodox began to turn the tide.
But let’s test this theory by asking a simple question: who were the bishops in second-century Christianity? If heresy was as widespread as orthodoxy, we should expect to find a number of bishops that are openly Marcionite, Ebionite, Gnostic, and beyond.
The problem for Bauer’s thesis is that this is precisely what we don’t find.
When we examine bishops from the second century we find a litany that fit nicely within the orthodox camp: Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Papias, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Anecitus of Rome, Polycrates of Ephesus, Victor of Rome, Demetrius of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis, Theophilus of Caesarea, and Dionysius of Corinth.
While these leaders certainly did not agree on everything, it is evident from their writings, or from historical reports about them, that there are no reasons to identify them with heterodox groups like the Marcionites, Gnostics, or Ebionites.
What is particularly noteworthy about the above list is that they represent a wide geographical range: Lyons (Gaul), Smyrna, Antioch, Hierapolis, Rome, Sardis, Ephesus, and Corinth. In other words, these orthodox leaders were not cordoned off into some small outpost of early Christianity.
It might be objected that orthodox bishops were forced into these geographical locales by higher ecclesiastical powers bent on imposing their agenda on others. The problem with this suggestion is that there were no “higher ecclesiastical powers” during this time period. There was not an ecclesiastical structure that allowed churches in one city to dictate the leadership of churches in another city.
It should also not be forgotten that, in this earliest phase, it was common for leaders to be elected by their local congregations (e.g., Did. 15.1; 1 Clem. 44.3). Thus, we have every reason to think that these many bishops, and the beliefs that they held, are a reasonably accurate representation of the Christian constituencies they served.
When we turn to heterodox groups in the second century, there are certainly many examples of their leaders (e.g., Menander, Saturninus, Cerdo, Basilides, Cerinthus). But, what is lacking is evidence that they held the office of bishop in the various locales in which they were active.