Diversity and the Emergence of “Orthodoxy” in Early Christianity
I continue to see some scholars stating as unquestioned fact that “orthodoxy” and “heresy” really only emerged after Constantine, that only with the power of imperial coercion could these categories operate, and that in the pre-Constantinian period all we have is Christian diversity, with no recognizable direction or shape to it. In some cases, scholars will admit that with Irenaeus (late second century) and perhaps even Justin (mid-second century) we may see the early expressions of notions of “heresy.” But a recent study by Robert M. Royalty, Jr., The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), marshals effectively evidence and argument that should correct such views. The publisher’s online catalogue description is here.
Royalty essentially shows that, although the term “heresy” (Greek: hairesis) came to be used in the now-familiar pejorative sense sometime in the second century, the social and rhetorical dynamics reflected in this use of the term go back much, much earlier. Indeed, not only earlier Christian texts, but also pre-Christian Jewish texts (e.g., from Qumran) exhibit these dynamics, which involve labelling certain views and practices as unacceptably deviant. To cite Royalty, “I have shown here that Justin was part of a discursive tradition that developed in earlier Christian Gospels and post-Pauline literature. . . . The Christian notion of heresy and the rhetoric of heresiology [that emerged full-blown in the second century] draw on these earlier Christian and Second Temple Jewish discursive formations . . .” (172).
Actually, one of my PhD students, Troy Miller, reached and argued for essentially the same conclusions earlier in his 2002 thesis, “The Emergence of the Concept of Heresy in Early Christianity : The Context of Internal Social Conflict in First-Century Christianity and Late Second Temple Sectarianism.” The University of Edinburgh Library catalogue entry here. Indeed, as Miller, and now Royalty also, show, the critical engagement with diversity in belief and practice seems to have been there in earliest circles of the Jesus-movement, and reflected already in Paul’s own letters (e.g., Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians), because it was a feature of the Jewish tradition that was the matrix of the young Jesus-movement.
Moreover, careful study of the second and third centuries will show that, along with the now-familiar panoply of diverse forms of Christianity then, there was actually also an emerging early “mainstream” of Christian circles. They themselves included a certain diversity, but saw one another as sufficiently alike to recognize one another. This is reflected, for example, in the early stages of text-collections that later grew into our familiar New Testament: especially the formation of a four-fold Gospel collection (which itself represents a significant diversity), but also the inclusion of writings ascribed to Peter, James and John, as well as writings ascribed to Paul (contra the Marcionite stance). The second-century critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, also direct their fire against what seems a fairly recognizable form of Christianity.
In short, it’s high time for us to move on from earlier overly simplified notions and gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the early dynamics and developments in question.