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Monthly Archives: July 2017

Constructing Boundaries between Orthodoxy and Heresy

As a reminder of the basic point made in the first post of this series, the language of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” is boundary-making discourse. None of the individuals that have been under consideration woke up one day and determined that they wanted to be a “heretic.” Instead, they may have seen themselves as reformers recovering what they perceived to be the original message, or passing along what they had been taught, or promoting new revelations that they thought they had received, or bringing Christian faith into dialogue with new intellectual or cultural currents in their own social contexts. Nevertheless, centrist (or proto-Orthodox) Christians responded by constructing more sharply formulated boundaries and placing other self-confessing Christians outside these boundaries:

  • They reiterated their points about the distinction of the eternal Creator God (including the Word and the Spirit) from the rest of creation that came into being, the goodness of the physical creation that fell into sin, the roots of the Christian revelation in the antiquity of the story of Israel, the dual nature of Jesus (fully divine and human), the salvation effected through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the guidelines for scriptural interpretation.
  • They made decisions about what Christian writings were authoritative alongside the Jewish Scriptures and, eventually, the Christian canon was closed. Note Irenaeus of Lyon’s assumption that each of the four Gospels were privileged by some faction – Matthew by the Ebionites, Mark by those who had a possessionist Christology (e.g. Carpocrates), Luke by Marcion, and John by the Valentinians – whereas the practice of the universal (Catholic) church is to read all four in harmony (Against Heresies 3.11.7-8). Moreover, Paul’s letters are read alongside the letters of other apostolic figureheads (Peter, John, James, Jude) and preceded by the narrative of Acts that stresses the unity of the church from Jerusalem to Rome.
  • They established a more organized, hierarchical ecclesiastical structure to protect the Christian laity from external threats (e.g. persecution) and internal threats (e.g. false teachers). In an monepiscopal system, the chief overseer or bishop governs a region and is assisted by local presbyters. The overseer was seen to be part of a chain of “apostolic succession” inasmuch as an apostle supposedly installed a bishop who installed the next successor in line.

The Enduring Influence of the Second-Century Christian Sects

Many of the ideas we have been reviewing over the last month may have seemed strange to some readers. We heard about complex cosmologies and an unknown god that transcends the ignorant or malevolent god who created the material universe. We encountered views about Jesus that fall short of the full understanding of the Incarnation, either by denying Jesus’ divinity by treating him as a human who was adopted at his baptism and exalted to his heavenly throne after Easter or by downplaying his humanity by arguing that Jesus’ body was temporarily inhabited by a spiritual being or that Jesus only “appeared” to have a physical body. We grappled with esoteric doctrines and diverse social or ritual practices. While some of these views have long been abandoned, other ideas may continue to find traction among modern Christians:

  • Contemporary Messianic Jewish congregations that combine acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah with a Jewish way of life marked by Torah observance is reminiscent of groups such as the Nazoraeans and the Ebionites. Just as the Nazoraeans held views about the deity of Christ that was aligned with the greater majority of Gentile believers and the Ebionites did not, a similar spectrum of belief may exist among Jewish Christians today.
  • The popular caricature that the “Old Testament God” is all about rules and wrath and the “New Testament God” is all about love and grace shows that Marcion’s thought endures. Whenever I teach my intro Bible course at my current theological institution, I make sure to balance this distortion with the numerous examples of grace in the Hebrew Bible and the warnings of divine judgment in the New Testament.
  • Apart from the contemporary congregations that explicitly identify themselves as “Gnostic” today, or April DeConick’s efforts to show Gnostic influence on “New Age” thought more generally in her book, there may be other popular conceptions among Christians that have affinities with the ancient “Gnostics.” For instance, some modern Christians equate the gospel with correct “knowledge” of certain dogmatic statements and salvation with the escape of souls to heaven to the exclusion of the resurrection of our human bodies and the full redemption of the physical cosmos.

What do you think: is this a fair list of some of the ways these theological ideas have endured? What would you take away or add?

RBL Review of my Book

I will interrupt my planned series to link to this recent review of my book The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century in the Review of Biblical Literature that is unfortunately behind a pay wall. I am thrilled about this review for several reasons, including that it is by the well-respected scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon who has contributed so much to the literary critical study of Mark’s Gospel, it provides an excellent and accurate summary of the contents of the book, and it offers positive and critical feedback that help to sharpen my own arguments. Two clarifications: I argued that 1 Peter’s circulation in Asia Minor influenced the “elders” there to develop the Mark/Peter connection that we learn from the Elder John and Acts 12:12 [another option not considered in the book is that all three multiply attest a local tradition] and I am not sure if the Carpocratians shared the asceticism of Secret Mark or appropriated the text toward their own ends. These are very minor points and I want to highlight a few of her comments that I greatly appreciate:

“Kok’s book… is a straightforwardly organized, clearly written, and meticulously detailed study of the patristic (second-century) reception of the Gospel of Mark based on the paradoxical situation that, although the “orthodox” claimed it as part of the fourfold gospel, they did not favor it or often cite or comment on it.”

“Kok’s last image of Mark’s Gospel in his conclusion is of the patristic writers rescuing this Gospel from the margins. Yet his book seems to me to present—in highly readable form — more how Mark’s Gospel was pushed to the margins. Thus, we end with the paradox with which we began: the presence and absence of the Gospel of Mark, claimed but distrusted by centrists. Kok is right that centrists did likely rescue Mark’s Gospel from oblivion, thus making it, I would add, continually available to be appreciated by subversives.”

“It was the title of Kok’s book that attracted me; however, it is the subtitle that reveals its content, and that content is well worth reading. In general, I am more skeptical than Kok about various ancient and modern traditions and theories: about Papias, about possible Pauline authorship of Colossians, about an early dating of 1 Peter, about the authenticity of Secret (or Mystic) Mark. But anyone preparing comments about authorship for a Markan commentary will have to study Kok’s book carefully, and anyone finding such already-existing comments too thin will greatly appreciate Kok’s thorough book.”

I am only aware of two other reviews that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, for Biblical Theology Bulletin and for Themelios, and I have benefited from their critical feedback as well. Finally, my gratitude goes out to the various bloggers who have also reviewed it online.

The Origins of the Term “Heresy”

Before we begin to discuss the portrayal of various “heretics” in ancient Christian literature, we need to clarify the language of “orthodoxy” and “heresy.” From a sociological perspective, this language is about creating social boundaries between insiders and outsiders around a certain set of beliefs and practices. From a theological perspective, for those who belong to a community of faith, it is about upholding truth and weeding out falsehood.

Robert M. Royalty’s piece “Heresy in Earliest Christianity” for the website Bible and Interpretation discusses the origins of the terminology we use. Basically, although different New Testament writers polemicized against teachings or practices that they regarded as false, the Greek word haeresis itself was a neutral term denoting an option or choice, like a school of thought advocated by an individual or group that one might choose to embrace. Eventually, it took on the more pejorative connotations of Christian sects that deviated from the normative “rule of faith” handed down from the Apostles (“sent ones”) of Jesus to the bishops or overseers guarding the “universal” (Catholic) church. The church fathers pictured different heretical philosophical schools – Simonians, Nicolaitans, Cerinthians, Basilideans, Carpocratians, Marcionites, Valentinians, and so on – headed by a particular false teacher (Simon, Nicolas, Cerinthus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Marcion, Valentinus). The Jewish Christian sect of the Ebionites even gets the fictional founder Ebion. However, while the professional heresiologists who saw it as their job to expose and overthrow false teachings drew clear boundaries between groups, the reality on the ground may have been far messier with diverse lay Christians continuing to meet together and influence one another without always recognizing where their theological beliefs and practices differed subtly or significantly.