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Heresy and Orthodoxy

An Intriguing and Unusual Demonstration of Early Christian Differences…

Nine years ago when I was discussing on the blog the topic of the current thread -- the wide diversity of early Christianity -- I took the occasion to mention a book that I had just read and found to be unusually interesting and enlightening.   It is by two Italian scholars, married to each other, who teach at the Università di Bologna: Adriana Destro, an anthropologist, and Mauro Pesce, a New Testament specialist whose teaching position is in the History of Christianity. Their book is called Il racconto e la scrittura: Introduzione alla lettura dei vangeli.  It is about all the things I am currently interested in:  the life of Jesus as recounted by his earliest followers, the oral traditions of Jesus, and the Gospels as founded on these oral traditions.  In it they develop a theory that I had never thought of before.  I’m not sure all the evidence is completely compelling, but the overall view is very interesting and very much worth thinking about.  As an anthropologist, Prof Destro looks at things in [...]

2023-11-25T15:34:52-05:00November 25th, 2023|Book Discussions, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

How Paul’s Own Writings Show the Earliest Church Was Split Over “Orthodoxy” and “Heresy”

Are Christian "heresy" (that is, "false belief") and "orthodoxy" ("right belief") products of developments within Christianity after the New Testament? Or can they be detected in the New Testament itself? I'm not asking if the New Testament literally has false teachings. As per my definitions, I'm asking whether it contains views that disagree with one another, only some of which later came to be seen as acceptable. In getting to that answer I have been discussing the views of Walter Bauer, in his classic work, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, who maintained that from the earliest of times, so far as we can tell from our surviving records, Christianity was not a single unitary thing with one set of doctrines that everyone believed (orthodoxy), except for occasional groups that sprang up as followers of false teachers who corrupted the truth that they had inherited (heresies). Instead, as far back as we can trace the history of theology, Christianity was always a widely disparate collection of various beliefs (and practices). In the struggle for [...]

Wasn’t Early Christianity Basically Unified? Why Fret About Occasional Diversity?

I have spent three posts talking about the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” and why they are problematic; in doing so I have been explaining both the traditional view of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy (as found, for example, in the writings of Eusebius) and the view set forth, in opposition, by Walter Bauer.   So, where do we now stand on the issue, some 90 years after Bauer’s intervention? As I indicated in my last post, there are some problems with Bauer’s analysis, but also much positive to say about it.   Conservative scholars continue to hold to a more traditional view (e.g., conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical scholars); others find it *basically* convincing, even if they would write the details up very differently from Bauer. I am very much, and rather enthusiastically, in this latter camp.  It was when I was in graduate school, as a committed evangelical myself, but as one who was moving away from my conservativism based on my detailed research into the New Testament and the history of the early Christian [...]

The Most Significant Study of Christian “Heresy” in Modern Times

In my last post I started discussing the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” pointing out that their traditional/etymological meanings are not very helpful for historians.   “Orthodoxy” literally means the “right belief” about God, Christ, the world and so on.  That means it is a theological term about religious truth.  But historians are not theologians who can tell you what is theologically true; they are scholars who try to establish what happened in the past.  And so how can a historian, acting as a historian, say that one group of believers is right and that another is wrong? The problem with the two terms came to particular expression in a book written in 1934 by a German scholar named Walter Bauer.  The book was auf Deutsch, but its English title is Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   For my money, this was the most important book on early Christianity written in the 20th century.  It completely revolutionized how we are to understand the theological controversies that were wracking the Christian church in its early years. If you [...]

A Fundamental Issue: Heresy and Orthodoxy in Early Christianity

I have been talking about various forms of Gnosticism and that now has led me to move into a broader discussion about early Christian "heresy" in general.  I've talked a lot about non-canonical books, and various forms of Christian belief and practice, and so on over the years, but to my surprise it's been a very long time since I addressed one of the most fundamental questions of early Christian history, the relationship of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in early Christianity. The understanding of this relationship has long been much debated, and the debate begins with the terms themselves, which, as it turns out, are notoriously tricky. Part of the issue has to do with their literal or etymological meaning.  In terms of etymology, the word “orthodoxy” comes from two Greek terms that mean something like “correct opinion” or “right belief.”   The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word that means “choice.”   And so someone subscribes to orthodoxy if they hold to the right belief, but they hold to a heresy if they have “chosen” to [...]

2023-11-11T09:18:33-05:00November 15th, 2023|Heresy and Orthodoxy|

What Is the Gospel of Thomas All About? And Did the Author Use the New Testament Gospels?

What is the Gospel of Thomas trying to teach?  In my previous post I gave a basic overview of the book; here I go into some more depth (not a huge amount) about what it's all about, what it's trying to teach, and whether it depended on Matthew, Mark, and Luke for its sayings. ****************************** The Overarching Message of the Book.      The meanings of many of Thomas's sayings are in no way obvious. If they were, they would not be called secret! Even though the book contains nothing like the Sethian or Valentian myths, some of the sayings do seem to reflect roughly analogous understandings of the world and the human’s place in it (see earlier posts on Gnosticism). Within the hearer is an element of the divine—a soul—that had a heavenly origin (it originated “in the place where the light came into being”). This world we live in is inferior at best, and is more appropriately thought of as a cesspool of suffering, “a corpse.” A person’s inner being (the “light” [...]

Thomasine Gnostic Christians, and Sundry Others

In this thread of posts I have been reproducing my comments on Gnosticism from the 2nd edition of my anthology, After the New Testament. In addition to the Sethians and the Valentinians, scholars talk about the school of Thomas and about yet other Gnostic groups that are not easy to identify with any of the other three or to group together in any meaningful way. Gnosticism was a messy group of religions! Here is what I say in the Introductions to the Thomasines and the Other Gnostic groups in the book. ****************************** Thomasines A number of books from the early Christian tradition are connected with a figure known as Didymus Judas Thomas. The word “Didymus” means “twin” in Greek; so too the name “Thomas” means “twin” in Aramaic. And so this person is Judas, or Jude, the twin. But the twin of whom? In our earliest surviving Gospel, Jesus himself is said to have a brother who is named Jude (for example, Mark 6). And in later traditions, especially from Syria, this Jude was thought [...]

The Gospel of Philip: An Example of a Valentinian Gnostic Gospel

In my previous post discussing Valentinian Gnosticism I mentioned an intriguing Valentinian text, the Gospel of Philip. Now I'd like to explain what it is and give you a bit of the opening section in translation so you can get a taste of it yourself.   I've taken all this from the second edition of my book After the New Testament; the introduction is mine but the translation comes from Marvin Meyer, referenced below **************************** INTRODUCTION Even though the Gospel of Philip, also discovered at Nag Hammadi, is easily recognized as Valentinian, the book is notoriously difficult to understand in its details.  In part this is due to the form of its composition.   It is not a narrative Gospel of the type found in the New Testament or a group of self-contained sayings like the Gospel of Thomas (see Chapter 8).  It is instead a collection of mystical reflections that have evidently been excerpted from previously existing sermons, treatises, and theological meditations, brought together here under the name of Philip -- presumably Jesus' own disciple.  Since [...]

A Different Kind of Gnostic: The Valentinians

In my last several posts I've been talking about Sethian Gnostics, beginning with a description of what they believe and then discussing one Sethian text, the Gospel of Judas. Sethians weren't the only kind of Gnostic floating around in the second and third century; there may have been lots of other groups (since we only have a limited number of texts, it's impossible to say how many, or what each of them actually believed). But one that we know about reasonably well are called the Valentinians. Here is what I say about them in the second edition of my book After the New Testament (Oxford University Press). ****************************** Valentinians Unlike the Sethian Gnostics, the Valentinians were named after an actual person, Valentinus, the founder and original leader of the group. We know about the Valentinians from the writings of proto-orthodox heresiologists beginning with Irenaeus and by some of the writings discovered among the Nag Hammadi Library that almost certainly derive from Valentinian authors, including one book that may actually have been written by Valentinus [...]

2023-11-04T13:17:12-04:00November 2nd, 2023|Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Check Out This Gnostic Myth from the Gospel of Judas!

A lot of people over the years have told me they are drawn to the Gnostic way of looking at things, but it’s pretty clear they’ve never actually read any Gnostic texts.   Gnosticism is a lot easier to like in the abstract than in the on-the-ground (or out-of-this-world) reality. When scholars typically describe Gnosticism to general audiences (at least when I do), it usually sounds very weird, rather fascinating, and more-or-less sensible.   When people actually read the Gnostic texts, some of them are like that too (weird/fascinating/sensible) – but lots of the texts seem anything but sensible.  They are (or seem to be) completely incomprehensible. I thought I’d illustrate the point by giving one form of the Gnostic myth as found in a relatively small but rather dense portion of the Gospel of Judas. Some people find that if they have a basic explanation/sense of Gnostic thought (a weird, fascinating, but sensible one as I tried to several posts ago), it is often possible to get the gist of this kind of myth (although parts [...]

The Gospel of Judas: The Most Recently Discovered Sethian Gnostic Gospel

For anyone interested in Gnosticism, the most recent full Gnostic Gospel to appear, the Gospel of Judas, is a real treasure.  In my previous post I described the broad contours of Gnostic views and the more specific Sethian understanding of the divine realm, the world, humans, an salvation.  Different Sethians, of course, would have different views of things (think of all the Catholics, Episcopalians, or Baptists you know or know of!).  The Gospel of Judas presents a particularly intriguing form of the Sethian myth. I have said some things about the Gospel of Judas on the blog, but it's been a few years, so it's worth talking about again.  You can find a translation, done by my colleague Zlatko Pleŝe, in the volume we co-edited and translated: The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament.  We also give the following Introduction to the text; I will give the rest of the Introduction and a bibliography, and a bit of the translation itself, in the next post. ****************************** The Gospel of Judas is the [...]

Gnostic Views in General and the More Specific Views of One Known Group (The Sethians)

I can now describe as succinctly as possible the basic views that appear to have been widely shared among various of the Gnostic groups, before giving a bit more detailed information on one of our best known groups, the Sethians.  All this is taken from my textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press). ****************************** MAJOR VIEWS OF VARIOUS GNOSTIC GROUPS Despite the many differences among the various Gnostic groups, most of them appear to have subscribed to the following views: The divine realm is inhabited not only by one ultimate God, but also by a range of other divine beings, widely known as aeons. These aeons are, in a sense, personifications of the ultimate God’s mental capacities and/or powers (some of them were called such things as Reason, Will, Grace, and Wisdom). The physical world that we inhabit was not the creation of the ultimate God but of a lower, ignorant divine being who is often identified with the God of the Jewish Bible. Because [...]

2023-10-22T18:47:45-04:00October 28th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Some of the Difficulties in Understanding Gnosticism

Now that I've discussed the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, I can move into the kinds of religion found among these books, popularly known as the "Gnostic Gospels."  And that will involve laying out the views found among the various Christian groups of the second and third century (principally) that scholars call Gnostic.  Gnosticism is a fascinating topic, but it is also widely misunderstood, in no small part because scholarship on Gnosticism over the past twenty or thirty years ago has shown that the widely held views of earlier generations of scholars were based more on assumption than on evidence. There have long been heated debates over even how to define Gnosticism. Until about a hundred years ago, just about the only sources scholars used for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries.  The problem is, as we all know so well (think: American politics!) you can't really rely on what a group's enemies say if you want to know [...]

2023-10-17T11:33:26-04:00October 26th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Our Most Important Discovery of Ancient Christian Writings: The Nag Hammadi Library

The most significant discovery of Christian manuscripts (ever) was the Nag Hammadi Library, popularly (and a bit inaccurately) known as "the Gnostic Gospels." One of the intriguing features of the discovery is that no one is quite sure how it happened.  When I was in graduate school, everyone heard a standard tale that we then passed along with some glee to our students.  But now that story is in a bit of disrepute -- thanks in large part to that destroyer of New Testament Scholarship Orthodoxy, my friend and colleague, Duke professor, Mark Goodacre, as you will see in subsequent posts.. Just to be clear: the discovery itself was definitely made.  We have the books of the Nag Hammadi Library, readily available in English translations.  And I want to talk about a few of them.  But first I want to talk about what we know and don't know about the discovery itself. I'll start, in this post, by giving the popular tale that, until relatively recently, just about everybody knew.  This is how I laid [...]

About Those Ebionites and Their Peculiar Gospel

There are other interesting features of the Gospel of the Ebionites, known from the quotations of Epiphanius, the fourth-century heresiologist (= heresy-hunter). We wish we had the whole Gospel. We have only these eight fragments that Epiphanius quotes. We wish we knew who actually used the Gospel. We wish we knew how long it was, what it contained, and what its theological slant was. It is almost impossible to say from what remains. One big question is whether, since it was used by the Ebionites according to Epiphanius, it had a particular bias in its reporting of the words and deeds of Jesus. The term “Ebionite” was widely used in proto-orthodox and orthodox sources to refer to “Jewish-Christian” groups, or at least one group (it is likely that there were lots of these groups, and it may be that the church fathers assumed they were all the same group when in fact they had different views, different theologies, different practices, and so on). Some of the church fathers indicate that the name came from [...]

2023-09-05T17:49:55-04:00September 16th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

The Lost Gospel of Basilides

I sometimes get asked about "lost Gospels" -- Gospels that we know at one time did exist (because they are mentioned and sometimes even discussed by ancient authors)  but that, alas, exist no more.  I dealt with this question on the blog many moons ago, and I regret to say that in the interim, the books I'd love to show up have not.  And I don't expect them to.  But then again, life is full of surprises. One of the very early ones I'd *love* to get my hands on is the Gospel of Basilides. Basilides is one of the early Gnostic figures mentioned by the late-second century heresy-hunter Irenaeus.  Regrettably, we do not have any writings from Basilides or any of his followers, and so all we know about these people and their writings is what authors like Irenaeus tell us. That is somewhat like asking Mike Pence for a fair assessment of Bernie Sanders. You have to take the description with a pound of salt. We don’t know if Basilides actually had a [...]

The OTHER Apocalypse of Peter (Stranger still…)

In a previous post I discussed the Apocalypse of Peter that was considered by a number of early Christians to be an inspired book of Scripture.   There is another early Christian book with the same name, which is differentiated from the "proto-orthodox" one I've already discussed by being normally referred to as the "Coptic Apocalypse of Peter."   It is intriguing both because it has a view of Christ completely different from what became the orthodox view (here the man Jesus and the divine Christ are actually different beings who are temporarily united up to the point of Jesus' death), and because it claims those with a different view (e.g., the view that "Christ died for the sins of the world") are the heretics! Here is how I discuss it in my book Lost Christianities: ****************************** Among the gnostic attacks on the superficiality of proto-orthodox views, none is more riveting than the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter discovered at Nag Hammadi.  This is not to be confused with the proto-orthodox Apocalypse of Peter in which Peter is given a [...]

Did Heretics’ Texts Describe Their Incestuous Rituals?

In my previous post I talked about the church Father Epiphanius's attack on a heretical group of Gnostics called the Phibionites.  They allegedly based their practices on a now-no-longer-surviving book the Greater Questions of Mary (Magdalene).  Epiphanius indicates he knows the book.  Did he?  Did it actually exist.  Here I conclude the discussion, from my book Forgery and Counterforgery. ****************************** The prior question is whether Epiphanius’s description of the activities of the group is at all plausible.  Historians have long treated Epiphanius in general with a healthy dose of skepticism.[1]  No Patristic source is filled with more invective and distortion; Epiphanius frequently makes connections between historical events that we otherwise know are unrelated, and he expressly claims to write horrific accounts precisely in order to repulse his readers from the heresies he describes (Pan. Proem. I. 2).  His description of the Phibionites and their sex rituals, nonetheless, has been taken as historically grounded by a dismaying number of competent scholars.   For Stephen Gero, the fact that other heresiological sources down into the Middle Ages mention [...]

2022-04-04T10:46:50-04:00April 13th, 2022|Fourth-Century Christianity, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Fabrication, Forgery, and Accusations of (Heretical) Christian Licentious Rituals!

Two weeks ago I was asked to lead a PhD seminar on the use of literary forgery in early Christianity for the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures in the Department of Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern Cultures, at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.  Thank God for Zoom. In preparation I reread parts of my book Forgery and Counterforgery and came across a section that I thought might be of interest to (some) members of the blog, dealing with Christian authors who fabricate stories and forge books to attack their heretical opponents. This will take two posts.  TRIGGER WARNING: it involves rather scandalous sex acts (and worse) by an early Christian group.  Or so our source tells us.  And he indicates he has first-hand knowledge of it.  Whoa. Here’s part one. ****************************** As a further example of a forger who perpetrated a fraud, we might consider the work of the doughty defender of the apostolic faith, Epiphanius of Salamis (late fourth century).  Throughout his major work, the Panarion, an eighty-chapter refutation of all [...]

2022-04-04T10:30:58-04:00April 12th, 2022|Fourth-Century Christianity, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

The Massive Diversity of Early Christianity. My Book: Lost Christianities

In my previous post I mentioned my second trade book, Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003).  I just now looked at the beginning of the book; I hadn’t read it in years.  It made me want to read it again!  I do know there are things I would change if I did the book now: my understanding of Gnosticism and the Gospel of Thomas are different, for example.  But on the whole, I still rather like it. But books are like that.  They’re like your children.  Each one is near and dear to your heart. Here is how Lost Christianities starts.   Chapter One Recouping Our Losses It may be difficult to imagine a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity.  There are Roman Catholic missionaries in developing countries, who devote themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of others, and evangelical televangelists with twelve-step programs to assure financial success and prosperity.  There are New England Presbyterians and Appalachian snake handlers.  There are Greek orthodox priests committed to the liturgical service of God, replete with set prayers, [...]

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