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Diversity and the Emergence of “Orthodoxy” in Early Christianity

August 4, 2015

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.

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22 Comments
  1. If our earliest existing texts like our current Mark show signs of redaction, then there must have been some disagreement on the acceptability of the earlier, now lost text. When do you think the redaction – and with it, its implied judgement of acceptable orthodoxy – took place?

    • Er, I’m not sure what you mean by “signs of redaction” of Mark, nor what “earlier, now lost text” you imagine (and it does seem to be your imagination at work). You really need to get more thoroughly into the texts and scholarship.

      • Granted, the existence of the “longer ending” of Mark, and variant shorter ending, may be evidence of later redactions and editorializations, with their proto-“heresy” determinations; not very early ones. At the same time however, the writings of John say, hint at the argument that every gospel will necessarily be an editorialization or abbreviation/redaction of the acts of Jesus. Since as he says Jesus said and did too many things to be included in any books. Therefore perhaps we could speak of even the very earliest Mark, as a “redaction” or dogmatic determination so to speak, of the vaster material reality all around the original author (s)? As a judgment as to what was the best material, and what was irrelevant, or even “heretical.”

      • GG: Of course, each of the Gospels presents only a selection of early Jesus-tradition. And the multiple Gospels show that the choice both overlap and vary. And the success of these Gospels indicates that what they presented was widely affirmed and recognized. Bear in mind that in the early period “heresy” = a sect, exclusive in its stance toward other forms of faith. And “proto-orthodox” Christianity represents a more diverse and inclusive stance, as reflected in the affirmation of multiple Gospels.

  2. Thanks for this Larry. Does Royalty interact with Walter Bauer’s theory of early Christian heresy at all?

    • Yes, but essentially to note that Bauer didn’t really engage the earliest Christian texts (e.g., NT). So, for this and other reasons, Bauer’s work is hardly an adequate analysis of the origins of the matter. See, e.g., Michel Desjardins, “Bauer and Beyond: On Recent Scholarly Discussions of Hairesis in the Early Christian Era,” The Second Century 8 (1991): 65-82; Daniel J. Harrington, “The Reception of Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity During the Last Decade,” Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 289-98; and esp. Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988).

  3. Paul Stein permalink

    In view of this, what’s your opinion on Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities?

    • I reviewed it for Journal of Ecclesiastical History some time back. Quoting myself, “For readers with little or no previous acquaintance with the texts and developments in view here, this will provide an informed, genial, and readable introduction. I did, however, also note, “At various points, Ehrman somewhat wistfully laments the ‘intolerance’ that marked early Christianity in general (against Roman paganism) and against ‘heretical’ Christian views as well. It is, however, perhaps a bit too easy for us to disapprove of the efforts of people who thought that they were striving over matters of eternal consequence. . . . .” I further noted that I was reminded of the quip of the American comedian, David Seinfeld: “Sometimes the road less taken is less taken for a reason.”

  4. Gregory Chambers permalink

    Could the Didache be considered an early move toward orthodoxy?

    • Gregory: All things considered, I’d say that the Didache (at least as we have it) reflects one emphasis in the constellation of Christian circles that made up what I mean by “proto-orthodox” Christianity.

  5. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    Can you cite the articles/books by scholars who argue that heresy and orthodoxy only emerged after Constantine?

    • I didn’t claim that. I noted that it is a widespread view that “heresy” and “orthodoxy” only began to develop in the 2nd century.

      • Hon Wai Lai permalink

        Thanks for the clarification. Which scholars/articles/books do you have in mind in critiquing? I would like to examine the arguments on both sides of the debate.

      • If you read Royalty’s Introduction, he cites a number of varying views.

  6. Michael permalink

    The 2nd century Church Fathers label the Ebionites as heretics during their day.. was wondering whether the ‘Gospel’ traditions inherited by the Ebionite sect(s) originate/can be traced back to the young Jesus movement in the early first century? Or did the Ebionites just spontaneously emerge in the 2nd century?

    • Michael: It’s actually not clear what the “Ebionites” were or when they first appeared. See, e.g., Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, eds. Oskar Skarsaune & Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 419-62.

  7. Thanks for this notice, will certainly be keeping a eye out for it.

    Also, do you know if Troy Miller’s thesis is in the publication pipeline? I have had it on my research list since seeing the title in ‘Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children”

    Finally, does Royalty respond to Boyarin, who advances the hairesis angle from a Jewish perspective as being in reaction to Justin’s Apology?

    • I also note from David Capes’ site that they are having a book discussion on Orthodoxy and Heresy in Atlanta this year (Extent of Theological Diversity group) that involves Royalty, along with Paul Hartog’s book on the same topic.

    • CHris: Regrettably, Miller didn’t take his thesis to publication (and, so far as I know, has no plan now). Royalty engages Boyarin (Border Lines), Buell, and Judith Lieu briefly (pp. 14-17), with some incisive criticism esp. of Boyarin’s method.

      • Thanks Larry, much appreciated. Will have to see if i can get Miller’s thesis through Proquest.

      • Ferdie Mulder permalink

        Hi Larry,
        I always enjoy reading your blog. You wrote of Miller, one of your former PhD students at Edinburgh: “Regrettably, Miller didn’t take his thesis to publication (and, so far as I know, has no plan now).”
        Of course, no PhD supervisor has to assist his/her student/s in getting their work published.

        We all know scholars such as Bockmuehl, Watson and more recently Jongkind, who published their PhD’s some time after graduating. There are many legitimate reasons for this.

        What advice can you give (maybe in a blogpost at some point) to those who are about to finish their PhD’s in relation to getting it published? Thank you!

      • Ferdie: Perhaps a topic for a future blog posting, yes.

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