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Heresy and Orthodoxy

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, [...]

Was Marcion a Gnostic?

A number of readers have asked the same question based on my posts on Marcion:  Was Marcion a Gnostic?   Here’s one reader’s way of asking it, and my response. QUESTION: Marcion’s “previously unknown God” of Jesus vs Israel’s creator sounds a bit like some of the gnostic beliefs, particularly Jesus coming from the realm of Barbelo in the gospel of Judas. Was Marion an early Christian Gnostic? RESPONSE: Marcion was sometimes considered a Gnostic by ancient heresiologists (“heresy-hunters”), such as Irenaeus; and in modern times scholars used to consider him a Gnostic, or at least Gnostic-like.  And one can see why.  Like Gnostics, Marcion had more than one God, the Creator was not good, and part of the goal of the religion was to escape his clutches.  But there are a lot more differences than similarities between them; the differences are so numerous and deep, that scholars simply don’t think of Marcion as a Gnostic these days. Was Marcion a Gnostic? I won’t review Marcion’s teachings at length here: for more information see these earlier [...]

2022-06-28T00:16:40-04:00April 13th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

The Earliest Views of the Trinity (Long after the New Testament)

In the previous post we saw how two important church fathers attacked the “modalist” view of the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, which claimed they were *one* person who relates to creation and humans in three different ways, with three modes of existence.  God is both the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father. Depending on how old you are, you may remember the song, “I’m My Own Grandpa.”  (If not, look it up; it’s a scream.)  As in the song, it gets confusing. This modalist view came to be rejected by the likes of Hippolytus of Rome and Tertullian of Carthage.  But what did they put in its place?  How did *they* understand the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit, if they wanted to insist that all three were God but there was only one God? Enter the doctrine of the Trinity.  These relatively early thinkers did not have the fully developed view of the Trinity that came later, as we will see.  But [...]

2021-03-24T17:59:38-04:00April 11th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

How Can the Father and the Son Be the SAME? Can Your Father Also Be Your Son?

In my previous post I summarized the view that God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit were actually one and the same – that they were three ways of God relating to the creation and the people who inhabit it – just as I am only one person but am both a father and a son and a brother, depending on whom I am relating to.  That view has been given various names among historians of theology; here I am calling it “modalist” – God is one person who has three different modes of existence and ways of relating. Here I continue by discussing how the view came to be attacked by others.  Again, this is based on the fuller discussion in my book How Jesus Became God. The attackers were fighting an uphill battle.  As we have seen that the view was widely accepted at the end of the second and beginning of the third, even though it came to be rejected as a heresy.  Two of the main opponents [...]

2021-03-24T17:54:27-04:00April 10th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Are God and Christ the SAME Person?

In this thread on where the Trinity came from, I have been focusing on early Christology – the understandings of who Christ was.  My reason for that is simple.  The issue of the Trinity arose only because Christians said more than one being was God but that there was only one God.  The “other” being at the outset, of course, was Christ.  After his death his followers called him God.  The Trinity doctrine, as I will now start to explain in greater detail, emerged by the problems that then arose: two beings who are God, but only one God. I will be getting to the Spirit later, but frankly there is not as much to say there. First I need to keep going on the idea of Jesus being God and God being God.  The question that naturally arose among the Christians was how that could be the case: how could *BOTH* of them be God?  In what sense? That’s an issue I dealt with in my book How Jesus Became God.  Here I’ll provide some of [...]

Were Jesus and Christ Two Different Beings?

As we have seen, the New Testament in places seems to indicate that of Christ was a human being who, in some sense, had been adopted by God and so made into the Son of God, a divine being.  There were groups of Christians who continued to believe that for centuries.  (Some still do!)  Others had an opposite view, that Christ was completely God, so much so that he was not actually ever a full flesh-and-blood human being.  There were lots of variations within these views, and there were other views as well, including one I call “separationism.” A separationist view is especially prominent among certain groups of early Christian Gnostics.  (For a basic introduction to what Gnostics were all about, check out the lecture in the previous post OR do a word search for “Gnosticism” on the blog).  Here is what I say about separationist Christologies view in my book How Jesus Became God, using as an example one of the most fascinating Gnostic writings to come down to us from antiquity, The Coptic [...]

What Is Gnosticism? A Video Introduction

I am in the midst of a thread describing different views of Christ found among early Christian groups of the second century: some Christians thought Jesus was human but not divine; others that he was divine but not human; others (the side that ended up winning the debates) that he was somehow both (that may seem common sense today, but it did not to many of Jesus' followers in the second century!). I haven't begun yet to describe how that final view came about, and before doing so I need to explain a view different from all of these, one that maintained that Jesus Christ was actually *two* beings: one  human and the other divine  -- distinct from one another, but temporarily united for Jesus' ministry.  It's unusual, and not a view you find in a lot of pews these days. To make sense of how the view worked and why people held it, I have to put it in a broader context.  There were a number of Christian groups who held the view, most [...]

2021-03-24T17:05:14-04:00March 30th, 2021|Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Modern Christians Who Follow Marcion (Unawares)

Before I move on from Marcion to talk about "Gnostic" understandings of Christ -- all in this long thread on where the Trinity came from -- I'd like to return to an issue I mentioned briefly in my first post on Marcion, that in many ways his views are alive and well among us.  As I have said on the blog before, I have known Christians over the years who in fact have views in many ways close to what Marcion taught.  These people would, of course, deny they have anything like the touch of the heretic about them.  But at the end of the day, their views are not so different.  Maybe they are not as extreme as he was, but they do seem to be dwelling on the fringes of his camp. First, I have known a lot of Christians who think that the Old Testament has a God of wrath and condemnation and the New Testament has a God of love and mercy.  Students say this to me with some regularity.  The [...]

A Phantom Jesus: The Teachings of the Second-Century Marcion

In the past couple of posts I have talked about early Christian “docetists,” those who were so convinced that Jesus was completely God that they denied he was a “flesh-and-blood” human being.  In the early Christian centuries, no one advanced that view more than the “arch-heretic” Marcion.   Marcion had a huge following.  In some parts of the Christian world at the end of the second century, there were apparently more Marcionites than other kinds of Christian.  One could argue he his views are still broadly popular today, even among Christians who have never heard of him and among those who, if they have, would say that he was a “heretic.”   Do you know Christians who think that there is a difference between the God of Wrath in the Old Testament and the God of Love in the New Testament, and who think that the Old Testament does not really apply anymore?  That is a weakened version of Marcion’s thought.  Or do you know people who say Christ was God and so he wasn’t [...]

2021-03-26T19:55:06-04:00March 20th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Was Christ Human But Not Divine? Another Early Christian View

In my previous post I talked about Jewish Christians of the early centuries who held to an “adoptionistic” view of Christ, the view that he was not by nature divine but was a human being who at some point came to be adopted to be God’s son.  This view was held by other groups as well (and still is); one that we know of from ancient sources comes not from Jewish but gentile circles.   This was a group known as the Theodotians, named after their founder,  a shoemaker who happened also to be an amateur theologian, named Theodotus.   Since they were centered in Rome, scholars sometimes refer to this group as the Roman Adoptionists. The followers of Theodotus did think that Christ was unlike other humans in that he was born of a virgin mother (and so they may have accepted either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke as Scripture).  But other than that, as the church father and heresy-hunter (i.e., "heresiologist") Hippolytus, tells us, for them “Jesus was a (mere) man” [...]

2021-03-01T18:06:24-05:00March 13th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Christ as “Not God” in the Second Century: Early Jewish Adoptionists

You might think – and many people do think – that as Christianity developed, every Christian more or less went along with the “standard” or “orthodox” Christian beliefs that emerged.  The term “orthodoxy” literally means “right beliefs” (or correct opinions); the word “heterodoxy” means “other opinions” (that is, other than the right ones!).  A term often used alternatively for the latter is “heresy,” which literally means “choice,” used for people who “choose” to believe the wrong things. (!)   As you might imagine, these are highly subjective terms  A view is “right” (that is, orthodox) for you depending on what you personally believe.  That’s because no one chooses to believe something they know is wrong.  If they think it’s wrong, they change their view to what is right.  But that means that everyone necessarily believes they are right, i.e. orthodox.  Or as one wag put it, “orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is your doxy.” That also means that it’s impossible to say that one group within early Christianity was absolutely right about everything (i.e. “orthodox”) [...]

2021-03-01T08:28:46-05:00March 10th, 2021|Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Is the Trinity in the Bible?

I recently did a webinar discussing the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s an issue that I am often asked about.  Where did the idea come from?  How does it work?  If God the Father is God, Christ is God, and the Spirit is God – how is it that Christians don’t have three Gods? And if they have three Gods, aren’t they polytheists?  On the other hand, if Christians want to insist there is only one God, and that they are monotheists, how can they say that Jesus and God are both God, let alone the Spirit?  If they are both, or all three, God, then there is not just one God!  So what’s going on with this Trinity business? It’s an involved question, and I’ve decided to make a series of posts on the question.  Let me start by making sure we are all on the same page when it comes to what the doctrine of the Trinity involves.  This is important because a lot of people assume that if they [...]

How Were the Gnostic Gospels Discovered?

This now is the fourth of  FIVE FAVORITES with which I'm beginning the new launch of our blog site, one from our fourth year of operation 2015.  I am trying to pick different kinds of posts and even though I am not saying these are my all-time favorites of all, they certainly are posts (from five from sequential years) that for one reason or another I very much like. I need to give a more extensive introduction to this one.  It is actually one of a series of posts connected with the discovery of the "Nag Hammadi Library" -- known more popularly as "the Gnostic Gospels."  These "heretical" books were discovered by accident in 1945, not by archaeologists looking for ancient books but by Egyptian fellahin in a wilderness area near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt.  Scholars have long told the story of their discovery -- I have done so roughly 4000 times; but my friend and colleague in NT studies at Duke, Mark Goodacre, has argued that the story itself is an unsubstantiated [...]

The Opening Section of the Gospel of Judas

Here is the first bit of the Gospel of Judas from the translation of my colleague Zlatko Pleše in our book The Other Gospels.  After this bit here, the Gospel gets very strange, at least to most modern readers.   But as you can see, it is really interesting. The first paragraph is the explanation of where we got the text from; then the translation of the opening scends, and after that I give the bibliography for further reading that we cite in our book.   ************************************** Our translation is based on the Coptic text of Rodolphe Kasser, and Gregor Wurst, eds. The Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition.  Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007.   New portions of the Gospel appeared in 2006, when the one-time owner of the manuscript declared bankruptcy and his remaining antiquities collection was turned over to a bank in Ohio; included in this collection were numerous small fragments of the Gopsel of Judas.   These have been photographed and they have begun to be studied; for our translation of the account here we have [...]

What is the Gospel of Judas About?

I have said some things about the Gospel of Judas in my previous posts, but not much, really, about what is actually in it.   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 most recently discovered Gospel to be published, and is arguably the most important and intriguing Christian text to appear since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945.  Details of the discovery and the mishandling of the manuscript by antiquities dealers are provided in the exhaustive account of Herb Krosney.  The manuscript containing the Gospel preserves three other gnostic works as well: the “Letter of Peter to Philip,” known in a slightly different version from the findings at Nag Hammadi; the [...]

2020-08-05T15:20:17-04:00August 5th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Sethian Gnostics and the Gospel of Judas

Soon after scholars had a chance to examine the Gospel of Judas it became clear that it embodied a form of early Christian Gnosticism known as "Sethian."   Most descriptions that you find of Gnosticism are simplistic and do not actually reflect the mind-boggling complexities of the texts that embody it, to the extent that even if you master the basic descriptions you find, it is very hard to make sense of any of the texts. That is certainly true of the Sethian writings! To say they are gloriously confusing is a serious understatement.  They involve myths filled with wierd names and intricacies of relationships and events that are hard to explain in the abstract. But hey, you gotta try!  And if you don't have much space to do so, well, you do the best you can.  Here is how I explain Sethian Gnosticism in my book After the New Testament , 2nd edition.  (The book is actually an anthology of early Christian texts writings all kinds, and I include selections from three key Sethian texts.) [...]

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