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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?


Valentinus (ca. 100-165 CE) was a Christian scholar educated in Alexandria and founder of a school in Rome whose prominent pupils included Ptolemy, Theodotus, and Heracleon. Valentinus, or the school that developed his thought, is probably the most famous exemplar of what modern scholars have categorized as “Gnosticism.” We see the following elements of Valentinian thought:

  • there is an ineffable transcendent divinity whose self-revelation is through a series of emanations or Aeons
  • there is a total of 30 Aeons in male-female pairs that comprise the totality of the Godhead in the plērōma (fullness)
  • there was a primordial error in judgment committed by the youngest aeon Sophia (wisdom), resulting in the exclusion of Sophia Achamoth from the plērōma and the generation of the ignorant creator of the material world (“Demiurge”)
  • the pneumatic body of Jesus did not inherit the Virgin Mary’s humanity, for he passed through her like “water through a pipe,” and the divine Christ was distinguished from the man Jesus as the former possessed the latter at Jesus’s baptism
  • there is a division of humanity into the fleshly, the soulish or psychical (i.e. lay Christians), and the spiritual or pneumatic (i.e. Valentinians) based on their receptiveness to higher “knowledge” (gnosis) and the last group has the divine spark within them longing to return to their spiritual home
  • the goal of salvation was liberation from the material cosmos, pictured as the reunification of Sophia with her bridegroom the Saviour and the elect with their angelic counterparts  

Valentinian cosmology, Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, ethics, and exegesis is too complex a topic to summarize in a blog post. Thus, here are some links that will aid you for further study:


Carpocrates was a teacher in early 2nd century Alexandria. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.25; cf. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.22; Epiphanius, Panarion 27), he held that the world was created by inferior angels, that Jesus was an ordinary human whose soul remembered what it witnessed in the spiritual realm of the unknown Father, that a divine power descended on Jesus (at his baptism?) that taught him how to escape the clutches of the world creators, and that souls transmigrate from one human body to another until they too learn how to be liberated from the material world. The secret to gaining this freedom is to reject human-made moral distinctions and participate in every possible action or way of life.

Clement of Alexandria supplements this with excepts from On Righteousness [or Justice], a treatise written by Carpocrates’ son Epiphanes. It endorses the unity and equality between all creatures and the communal sharing of property and even spouses. Finally, the Letter to Theodore ascribed to Clement reviews an expanded, esoteric edition of Mark’s Gospel that elaborated on how the young man in the linen cloth (see Mark 14:51-52) had been resurrected by Jesus before he was initiated into the “mystery” of God’s kingdom. The letter goes on to accuse Carpocrates of illegitimately appropriating the text and adding controversial additions to it such as the line “naked man with naked man” (e.g. were the Carpocratians implying a physical relationship between teacher and pupil, was this some kind of ritual like a baptism, or was nakedness a metaphor for relinquishing material possessions or liberation from the mortal coil). However, there is much controversy over whether this last text was a piece of ancient correspondence or a modern forgery and I have compiled an extensive scholarly bibliography.

Although Carpocrates only had a small following that did not have a lasting influence, his reputation has become synonymous with moral and sexual libertinism. Did he really teach that one has to perform every sort of deed, even if it is conventionally judged as evil or impious, so that the soul will not be compelled to return to the body and will ascend to the divine realm? Or was this a distortion of what may have been the Carpocratians radical communitarian ethic that held all things in common (i.e. no private property or monogamous marriages). Thomas Whitley’s article “Who Was Carpocrates” for Ancient Jew Review argues for the latter approach and I would be very interested in reading his dissertation when it is published.


According to his ancient critics, Marcion of Sinope was a wealthy ship-owner who was excommunicated from the Roman churches when spreading his message in the capital during the reign of Antoninus Pius between 138-161 CE (see Tertullian, Contra Marcion 1.19) and went on to found a threateningly successful rival movement that lasted for centuries (all the more impressive since virginity was a requirement and his churches could not boost their membership through procreation!). As they portray him, Marcion sharply divided the just creator God (the “demiurge” or “craftsman”) of the Hebrew Scriptures from the gracious heavenly Father who sent Jesus into the world to offer salvation from the demiurge’s wrath. He accepted ten of Paul’s Letters and the Gospel of Luke when the alleged Judaizing additions interpolated into them were stripped away. Thus, while Marcion would have agreed with non-Christian Jews that Jesus was not foretold in the Jewish Scriptures and that the literal observance of the Torah cannot be allegorized away, he ultimately advocated for a total break of the brand new revelation brought by Jesus from the Jewish tradition altogether. Neither the Euangelion (Gospel)used by Marcion nor his work Antitheses have survived apart from select citations from Christian writers who opposed Marcion, so it is difficult to measure how accurate the Church Fathers’ perceptions were of him. For more recent reconstructions on Marcion from contemporary scholars, I want to offer the following online articles from the website Bible and Interpretation.

As for the recent scholarship on the relationship between Marcion’s Gospel and the New Testament Gospel of Luke, I have previously posted a bibliography and a post expressing some of my cautions about factoring Marcion’s Gospel into the Synoptic Problem.


Ebion never existed. He was the fictional founder of the Jewish Christians known as Ebionites, first created by Hippolytus (Refutation of All  Heresies 7.35) and Tertullian (Prescription against Heresies 33.3-5, 20). The Church Fathers who could read Hebrew knew that ’ebyônîm translates as “poor ones,” though they denigrated the Jewish Christians who bore this designation as characterized by the “poverty” of their views about Christ or literal Torah observance (Origen, On First Principles 4.3.8; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.1-2; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.17.1). However, this term was probably a popular self-designation among Jewish Christ followers in general in light of the biblical view that God would exalt the poor and lowly and may possibly be a claim to be in continuity with the materially poor in the Jerusalem Church (see Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-26; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.17.2). What else can we say about the Ebionites?

  • They denied the virgin birth of Jesus, arguing that he was the biological son of Joseph and an ordinary human elected to be the Messiah at his baptism due to his exemplary righteousness (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2, though I think his equation of the Ebionite’s Christology with that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates may be inaccurate). Indeed, anyone who lives a life of faithful obedience to God’s Law will be similarly exalted as “anointed ones” and “justified” (Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies 7.34; 10.22).
  • The Ebionites were Torah-observant and followed other extra-biblical Jewish practices such as prayer towards Jerusalem. They allegedly only accepted the Gospel of Matthew (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2), or the non-canonical Gospel according to the Hebrews (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.4), and despised the Apostle Paul as an apostate from the Law.
  • Some Church Fathers lump all of the diverse Jewish Christians together under the title “Ebionite,” even those who shared the wider Christian belief in the virgin birth (Origen, Contra Celsus 5.61; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.2-3). In fact, Epiphanius and Jerome report about Christians referred to as “Nazoraeans” in the fourth century whose views about Jesus’ divinity and appreciation of the Apostle Paul were completely aligned with the greater Catholic Church, though they continued to observe the Torah. Nazoraean was another primitive title in circulation among later Jewish Christians (Acts 24:5).
  • Although some scholars follow the more extensive portrait of the Ebionites in Epiphanius Panarion 30 (see Schoeps, Bauckham, Luomanen), most of Epiphanius’s information derives from a variety of texts (e.g., a source of the Pseudo-Clementine literature, the book of Elchasai, a harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, a Syriac Acts of the Apostles) that he may mistakenly associate with the Ebionites (see Skarsaune). Thus, his extra information about the Ebionites’ confused Christology (e.g. Jesus as an angel and the true prophet) and practices (e.g., vegetarianism, ritual washings) may be dubious.



In the earliest text about him, Cerinthus stands alongside Simon Magus as “false apostles” and enemies of Christ and the twelve apostles (the Epistula Apostolorum 1, 7). We also get an amusing anecdote from Polycarp, the teacher of Irenaeus of Lyon, about how the Apostle John once confronted the “enemy of the truth” Cerinthus in a public bathhouse in Asia Minor and fled for his life thinking that God would strike down the walls (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4). What was so bad about Cerinthus?

We have three different portraits about Cerinthus’s teachings. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.26.1), Cerinthus taught that the material universe was created by a lesser power rather than the highest God, that Jesus was a regular human born of Joseph and Mary who was exceedingly righteous and wise, that Jesus was possessed by a divine entity called “Christ” at his baptism which enabled him to teach about the unknown Father and perform miracles, and that the divine entity left Jesus before his crucifixion and resurrection. Later theologians who depended on Irenaeus specify that Cerinthus taught that the world was created by angels, or that the creator god was a chief angel, and that angels gave the Law.

The second portrait of Cerinthus is that he taught about the thousand year reign of Christ from Jerusalem and pictured it as a great wedding festival. This belief, known as chiliasm or millenarianism, is based on a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6. Gaius of Rome and Dionysius of Alexandria (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.28) exaggerated the physical, sensuous pleasures of Cerinthus’s millennial kingdom which involved feasting, marrying, and sacrifices. There was even the charge that Cerinthus forged the book of Revelation in the name of the Apostle John. Gaius accepted this charge due to his distaste for the book, while Dionysius allowed that some holy person named John who was not the Apostle wrote Revelation and that the book must be interpreted allegorically (7.25). Others charged Cerinthus with forging both the Apocalypse and the Gospel of John (cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 51.3.6; Dionysius bar Salibi, preface to his Commentary on the Apocalypse).

The final portrait is first found in writing in the fourth century writer Epiphanius of Salamis. Influenced by the link that Irenaeus draws between the beliefs about Jesus held by Cerinthus and another Jewish Christian sect (Against Heresies 1.26.2), he paints a picture of Cerinthus as a full-fledged Judaizer involved in every dispute about whether all Christ-followers are obligated to obey the Torah (including circumcision for males) in the New Testament (Panarion 28.2.3-5.3). He also associates Cerinthus with Paul’s opponents in Corinth who denied Christ’s resurrection before the general resurrection of everyone from the dead (28.6.1-3). Based on medieval Syriac evidence (cf. Dionysius bar Salibi), some scholars attribute this Judaizing portrait to Hippolytus of Rome in the third century. Christian writers after Epiphanius generally emphasized the “Judaizing” rather than “Gnostic” features of Cerinthus’s teachings.

So who was Cerinthus? Although older modern scholarship saw him as an exemplar of Jewish Gnosticism, there is no solid evidence that Cerinthus was Jewish and there is now a divide between scholarship that treats Cerinthus as a conventional gnostic (i.e. physical creation by an inferior “demiurge” or craftsman and an emissary from the spiritual world reveals saving knowledge about the unknown God and liberation from the material world) OR as simply the recipient of a more primitive Christology and eschatology (e.g. Jesus the Messiah reigns over a literal, future millennial kingdom). One of the more ingenious recent attempts to combine these two features is in C. E. Hill’s “Cerinthus, “Gnostic or Chiliast? A New Solution to an Old Problem” where the Demiurge would fulfill the promises in the Jewish Scriptures for a this-worldly messianic kingdom including the resumption of the temple system, but the gnostic Cerinthus set his sights higher on knowing the unknown Father and attaining the spiritual salvation revealed by Jesus. For a critique of Hill’s thesis, see the chapter on Cerinthus by Matti Myllykowski in A Companion to Second-Century Christian ‘Heretics’.


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.