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Early heresies in the East: heresy Part I.

Our "Heresy" comes from the Greek "Hairesis." In classical writers, it denotes any school or system of philosophical principles. Josephus (Jewish War 2.8.1--1st century AD) applies it to the Essenes. Three of its nine appearances in the New Testament (Acts 5.17, 15.5, 26.5) refer to Pharisees and Sadducees. The Jewish priest Ananias (Acts 24.5 & 14, 28.22) uses it of Christians themselves.

Other occurrences point to the nascent Church sense: "I hear there be divisions among you ... For there must also be heresies among you" (I Corinthians 11.18-19); a litany of lusts of the flesh and spirit (Galatians 5.20 ends with "Heresies: " "False teachers among you who privily shall bring in damnable heresies" (II Peter 8.1). The unique cognate noun "Heretic" ("Hairetikos") is introduced at Titus 3.10: "A man that is an heretic, after the first and abomination, reject."

Both these words were Latinised by Tertullian, who employs them frequently in (e.g.) his Against the Heretic. Against Hermogenes, and On Baptism. him, they became standard in Western Christian writers such as Lactantius (Divine Institutes 4.30.2, "plurimae sectae et haereses") and Sidonius Apollinaris (Letters 7.6, "Ariana haeresis").

Back in the New Testament, there is also the related verb "Heterodidaskein" ("To Teach Other Things"), twice in the same text: "I besought thee that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine" and "If any man teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the doctrine which is according to Godliness" (I Timothy 1.3 & 6.3).

Other passages in the New Testament reveal unorthodox ideas from the beginning, a quite understandable situation in the first generation of the new faith, its small bands of teachers and followers valiantly alone in a universally hostile world. The earliest identifiable heresy is Docetism, forerunner of Gnosticism, whose adherents regarded the humanity and earthly passion of Christ as more apparent than real; they are chastised in such passages as I John 4.1-3, II John 7, Colossians 2.8 ("Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ"), and were also a special target of Ignatius.

Basil (Letters 188.1) drew a triple distinction between heretics (those entirely divorced from the faith), schismatics (those unable to agree on particular solutions to particular ecclesiastical problems), and "parasynagogai" (assemblies of rebellious clerics and laymen). This last term, not in the New Testament, denotes the 4th-century Byzantine situation. The noun "Schisma" ("Schism") is used thrice in John (7.43, of the populace's reception of Christ; 9.16, of the Pharisees; 10.19, of the Jews). Likewise, it thrice designates inter-Christian factions (I Corinthians 1.10, 11.18, 12.25). The related verb is twice used metaphorically in the passive voice to describe Jews against Pharisees in Iconium and Pharisees against Sadducees in Jerusalem (Acts 14.4, 23.7).

"Heresy--a peculiarly Christian concept--flourished greatly in the second century" (A.R.Birley, Marcus Aurelius, Yale 1985, p.259). The second half of this sentence is truer than the first. Beyond the New Testament, Ignatius (Letter to Tralles 6, Letter to Ephesus 6) seems the first Father to use the term pejoratively. Alain Le Boulluec, in La notion d'herdsie dans la litterature grecque (IIe-IIIe siecle), Paris 1985, p.21, argues that Justin is the begetter of heresiology. Justin's own treatise Against the Heretics is lost, but remarks in his other writings plus the debt acknowledged by Irenaeus' ("the first great Catholic theologian") own contemporary tract on the subject supports this view.

Eusebius' Church History agonises over and fulminates against heretics and heresies--a handy list of them is furnished in G.A. Williamson's Penguin translation (Harmondsworth 1965, pp. 420-421). Ten groups and forty-seven individuals are named and shamed. Some, e.g. the extreme ascetic Encratites, said to have been founded by Tatian, might more fairly be considered issues of "life-style" rather than heresies proper.

A characteristic outburst (4.24) runs: "At that time heretics were as busy as ever spoiling like tares the pure seed of the Apostolic teaching; so the pastors of the churches everywhere, as though driving away savage beasts from Christ's sheep, strove to keep them at bay, now by warnings and admonitions to their congregations, now by more militant action, by subjecting the heretics to oral questions and confutation, and finally by written polemics in which they employed the most unanswerable proofs to demolish their erroneous ideas."

It will be noticed that the Church's preferred weapon was the pen rather than the sword. Eusebius' opening image was imitated in W.Bauer's still influential Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (English tr., Philadelphia 1971, p.xxiii): "The devil cannot resist sowing seeds in the divine wheatfield." Eusebius (2.1) traced heresies back to Simon Magus, the charlatan of Acts 8.9-24, whose "disgusting sect" still had adherents in the fourth century; Byzantine canons regularly condemn him and his works. Simon, remote theological ancestor of the Gnostics, duped many people into worshipping him as a god (Justin, Apology 1.26. 56.1-4), but the Apostles were not taken in. When he offered them money to participate in their laying-on of hands, Peter sent him packing: "Thy money perish with thee, because thou has thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money." After this crushing rejoinder--the incident gives us the word "Simony"--no more is heard of Simon Magus.

Though not strictly a heretic, the similar rogue Peregrinus Proteus merits a mention. After a lifetime of profitable deceptions, he sought immortality by burning himself alive at the Olympic Games of 165. According to the satirist Lucian, who provides his dossier, Peregrinus was for a time a great influence over the Christians in Palestine, of equal standing with their clergy, even "interpreting some of their sacred books and composing many of his own"--it is unclear what these latter were. When he was imprisoned for his Christianity, the local brethren flocked to his aid. Lucian, whose jokes on the faith earned him a place in the original Index of Forbidden Books, pays generous tribute to the courage and generosity of these early communities of the faithful.

"The need to rebut heresy has sometimes stimulated the formation of orthodox Christian doctrine"-Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Marcionism is a good early case of this. Marcion, called by Polycarp (as quoted by Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.3.4) "the first-born of the devil," was a wealthy paganly-educated ship owner before coming to Rome in 140, "sending before him a woman to seduce people in his favour" (Jerome, Letters 133.4). Further to ingratiate himself, Marcion gave a large sum of money (200.000 sesterces) to the

Roman Church which, to its credit, returned it to him upon his apostasy. Marcion, who is strongly criticised by (e.g.) Clement, Justin, Iraenaeus, Tertullian, and Eusebius, claimed in his writings (known to us only via hostile quotations) to be "purifying" the text of the Gospels and Pauline Letters. His Antitheses may have amounted to a commentary on the entire New Testament; he was strongly opposed to allegorical interpretations. Marcion valued only Paul and Luke, deducing (wrongly) from Galatians 1.8-9 that only one of the Gospels was genuine. He wholly rejected the Old Testament, Jehovah being too humanly violent, citing such passages as Isaiah 45.7, "I am the Lord who creates evil." The New Testament he regarded as an unalloyed gospel of love. Marcion's Christology was Docetist, with Christ defined as an emissary of the Father.

This approach inspired the equally fuzzy Gnostics of his time and Hippies of ours. He entirely misses the meaning and purpose of Christ's Mission and Passion. As the Catholic novelist Graham Greene puts it: "You cannot show the mercy of God by portraying only virtuous people; what good is mercy to the virtuous?" Still, Marcion was a serious opponent--some of his Pauline prologues actually got into orthodox Latin Bibles--and the Fathers took him so, being goaded by his Gospel rejections to differentiate genuine from spurious works and establish their own Canon, paving the way for future biblical scholarship in both Byzantium and the West. Cf. E.C. Blackman, Marcion and his Influence (London 1948); J.Knox, Marcion and the New Testament (Chicago 1942).

Valentinus, prime Gnostic theologian and founder of his own sect--never a mark of humility, was a different kettle offish, being in my opinion overrated both by his ancient critics (notably Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 4) and modern scholars such as Karen King (Encyclopedia of Early Christianity), "magnificent and eloquent ... the profundity of Valentinian's understanding of the human desire to escape the bonds of ignorance and attain mystical, saving knowledge of God"--again, shades of all too many modern cults. Born and educated in Egypt, Valentinus arrived at Rome around the same time as Marcion, leaving in 160 for Cyprus; further biography is impossible. His departure was partly due to the conflict his and Marcion's heretical notions had sparked, partly to the Romans' failure to elect him their bishop. Only fragments of his letters, sermons, psalms, and a pamphlet, On the Three Natures, remain. However, he is now generally credited as author of the Gospel of Truth discovered (in Coptic) in the trove of Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi (English versions, ed. J.M. Robinson, Leiden 1977). Despite Karen King, this is a mishmash of Christianity proper, Gnostic ramblings, and Platonic abstractions, almost impossible to summarise intelligibly, in itself a lethal criticism.

Valentinus dabbled in a divine world of "Fullness" ("Pleroma"), with a basic male-female duality of the Ineffable and Silence, producing more pairs down to the first Ogdoad, in turn spawning more down to the final thirty "Aeons of the Pleroma," the youngest and feeblest being Sophia (Wisdom) from whose frailty there emerged both creation and creator, with human souls clothed in flesh, divided into three classes until the heavenly Jesus sends down the earthly Christ to instruct them in real wisdom that they may return to their true celestial home. As Gibbon used to say on such matters, I dismiss this subject with impatience. Those wanting more may apply to F.M.M. Sagnard, La Gnose Valentinienne (Paris 1947).

Montanism arose in the late second century as the most prominent of competing millenaristic sects. It was the brain-child of a newly-baptised convert, Montanus, previously a pagan priest, who launched it in (probably) 156, his chief associates being the women Prisca and Maximilla. Our knowledge conveniently comes both from its orthodox critics (notably the 4th-century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius) and its most famous adherent, Tertullian.

Montanus promised the imminent descent of the Paraclete and the actual epiphany of the heavenly Jerusalem over the earthly one. At the mundane level, Montanism advocated extreme asceticism, disallowed second marriages, and forbade flight from persecution--a "hot issue" then, thanks to emperor Marcus Aurelius. Tertullian went so far as to proclaim himself and fellows as the "Pneumatics" ("Spirit-Filled"), superior to the Catholic "Psychici" ('Animal-Men"). Nowadays, they would be predicting the end of the world and/or watching for alien spaceships to heaven. Despite its manifest nonsenses, and swift condemnation by Pope Zephyrinus, scatterings of Montanists are attested down to the ninth century. Cf. C. Trevett, Montanism: Gender, Authority, and the New Prophecy (Cambridge 1996); T.D. Barnes, Tertullian (Oxford 1985).

On Basil's definition, Novatianism may serve as an example of schism. It arose during the savage persecution of Decius (249-251). Disappointed by his loss to Cornelius in the Papal election of 251, the Roman priest Novatian became head of the rigorist faction that condemned leniency to those who had evaded martyrdom, and was consecrated as the rival Bishop of Rome. These views were upheld by the Antioch Church, rejected by the Alexandrian.

Novatian himself was martyred during the next persecution, by Valerian (257-258). By and large. Novatian and his followers were doctrinally orthodox, though modern theologians disagree over certain passages of his chief work, On the Trinity (tr. R.J. Sincome, Rome 1970). Other writings extol chastity and allegorically explain unclean Old Testament foods as vices, while his proclamation that Christian and classical cultures were incompatible comes midway on this major issue between Tertullian and Basil/Jerome. In the light of some modern controversy over whether Humour is Un-Christian (surely not!), we may notice the Novatian bishop Sisinnius whose jests are collected by Socrates, Church History 6.22. They are not very rib-tickling, but the existence of such a repertoire is notable in itself as proving the case. Cf. A.d'Ales, S.J., Novatien (Paris 1924).

Finally, in the pre-Constantine period, a bridge between Gnosticism and such later movements as the Bogomils and Albigensians, there was Manicheanism, one of the last Eastern movements to permeate the West. Its founder, Manes (c.216-276), was a Persian-born apostate from Zoroastrianism, who fled to India, thence preaching widely before returning home, where he was flayed and crucified by order of King Bahram I. This similarity with the execution of Christ, plus a desire to appease the militarily threatening Persians, led emperor Diocletian (future joint-instigator of the Great Persecution) to condemn Manichaenism in an edict of May 1,295.

As with Valentinianism, with whose abstractions it has much in common, it is difficult to summarise its tenets. A basic credo was the notion of duality of Good-Evil/Light-Darkness, with Dark-Evil generally in the ascendant, this aspect functioning as an explanation for human sin and suffering.

At the physical level, it was another extreme ascetic movement, with vegetarianism ardently promoted. Like the Montanist, an arrogant distinction was drawn between its superior members (The Elect) and the Outsiders (The Hearers). Only fragments of Manes' writings survive, but a physically tiny 200-page Greek codex, Concerning the Origin of his Body, constituting a biography of their founder by his disciples (tr. R. Cameron & A. Dewey, Missoula 1970), is preserved at Cologne. The chief interest of Manichaeanism is that it attracted nine years devotion on the part of the young Augustine before his incipient dissatisfaction with Its intellectual limitations was consolidated by the sermons of Ambrose. Cf. S.N.C. Lieu, Manichaenism in Mesopotamia and the Roman East, and Manichaeanism in the later Roman Empire and China (Tubingen 1992, Leiden 1994).

FURTHER GENERAL READING: in addition to Bauer and Le Boulluec, see: H.O.J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City 1984); J. O'Grady, Heretical Truth or Orthodox Error? A Study of Early Christian Heresies (Longmead 1985); M. Desjardins, "Bauer and Beyond," The Second Century 8.2, 1991, pps. 65-82.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary.
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Date:Feb 1, 2006
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