Heresy in Earliest Christianity
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul faces disagreements on a wide range of issues such as factions over leadership according to who baptized whom, women’s leadership in prophecy and prayer, eating meat purchased from temples, the most important spiritual gifts, and the existence and meaning of the resurrection. The divisions in the community are most likely social, between wealthier and better educated members (the “strong”) and those with less education and social status (“the weak). Paul responds in this letter with appeals to unity (homonoia or concordia), often acknowledging differences in belief on these topics. But in Galatians, faced with the schism with Peter and others over circumcision and eating with Gentile believers, he demonizes difference, “a different gospel” (1:6) as part of the sinful sphere of the flesh (5:17–21). Then, in a later response to continuing divisions in Corinth, Paul goes on full heresiological attack against his rivals there, the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Whereas he had earlier sought homonoia or unity with these opponents (which meant in many ways that they should agree with him, 1 Cor 4:14–21, 15:1–8), here he attacks them as satanic, seducing the Corinthians just as the serpent led Eve astray (2 Cor 11:2–3, 13–15). While not using the word heresy, Paul demonizes his apostolic with two dominant tropes of Christian heresiology, satanic influence and sexual impurity, while building on ideologies of tradition, apostolic witness, and apocalyptic dualism.
See also: Robert M. Royalty, Jr. The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (Routledge, 2013; pb. 2015).
By Robert M. Royalty, Jr.
Heresy is a word that does not need explanation. Unlike more technical theological terms such as atonement, Christology, ecclesiology, or even apostasy, “heresy” and “heretical” are used widely in popular discourse for people and ideas that go against common wisdom, common sense, mainstream politics, or any other form of standard operating procedure. Two recent news stories used heresy to describe attitudes towards same-sex marriages in Kentucky and criticism of the army in Israel. There’s even a “heresy of the week” column in Conservative Home, a U.K. political website.
But heresy is a technical theological term forged in the political and ideological struggles of the early Christian communities. The rhetoric and genre of heresiology—that is, texts that define, delineate, and condemn heretics—are central to the project of Orthodox Christianity from the late second century well into the Middle Ages and, in some churches, to the present day. While the “invention” of heresy (the notion of heresy) has traditionally been placed in the second century CE, the origins of this Christian rhetoric are in the earliest texts of the first century.
Heresy in Christianity is defined as incorrect, deviant, and dangerous belief over against Christian orthodoxy (thus criticizing the army in Israel might be sacrilege or blasphemy, but it is not heresy). Orthodoxy (“correct thought”) is, in contrast, “true” religious belief. Heresiology is the rhetoric of religious deviance discursively constructed by orthodox polemicists, preachers, theologians, and church officials. All of these terms are contentious and constructed, as discussed below. Before delving into the origins and history of “heresy,” however, it is important to notice how intimate the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy, and thus the heretical and the orthodox Christian, really is. Heresy shares and overlaps beliefs and practices with orthodoxy; it is not paganism, unbelief, or apostasy. Heretics (heretics within Christianity, that is) think or believe something important about Jesus Christ and Christianity—but that belief is different from Orthodox views and therefore dangerously wrong. Christians over the ages labelled “Gnostics,” Monarchians, Arians, Pelagians and Lollards all centered their religious beliefs on Jesus Christ. Even Islam was considered a heresy rather than a different religion; the Qur’an includes many stories and statements about Jesus, who is considered the most significant prophet of God before Muhammad.
The word itself comes from the Greek hairesis which in turn comes from the verb haireō, to choose or make a choice. Before Christian “heresy,” hairesis described what we might call today a school of thought, political party, or even a denomination. Writers such as Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, use the term descriptively without negative connotations. Josephus uses hairesis as a label for the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and “Fourth Philosophy” in Jewish War 2.118–65. While Josephus favors the Pharisees, he strongly condemned the “Fourth Philosophy,” although the identities of these groups after the Roman war was in considerable flux. He uses philosophiai for the same groups in Antiquities of the Jews 18.11–25 and both haireseis and philosophiai in his Life 1.10–12. The word also described different schools of thought within Alexandrian medical literature. Even the author of Acts seems to use the word without negative connotations. But in fact by the second century, Christian authors such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were using the term pejoratively to describe the worst type of religious deviance—demonic deviance—within Christian communities.
Traditional views of the origin of heresy in Christian churches stem from the earliest church historian, Hegesippus. As recorded in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.22, Hegisippus called the earliest church of the apostles “virgin [parthenon], for it had not been corrupted by vain messages” (EH 4.22.4). The corruption happens after the death of James the Just, the brother of Jesus—in other words, after the death of the original apostles, who had presumably safeguarded the truth. Jealousy over losing the appointment as bishop to a cousin of Jesus named Symeon causes Theboutis to begin the corruption of the church with “the seven heresies.” Hegesippus, then, gets the credit for the idea that Christian orthodoxy preceded heresy, that truth came before error crept in. Christian history is usually told this way, with different moments highlighted as the beginning of error. Eusebius includes a second quotation from Hegesippus that seems to associate Christian heresy with “various opinions [gnōmai diaphorai] among the circumcision, among the children of Israel, against the tribe of Judah and the Messiah as follows: Essenes, Galileans, Hemerobaptists, Masbothei, Samaritans, Sadducees, and Pharisees” (EH 4.22.7). In other words, Christian heresy is related to diversity of thought within Judaism. This is more historically accurate than the first quotation suggesting truth, and unity, before error, or heresy. Christianity grew from the very diverse soil of Second Temple Judaism and never had the original unity claimed by orthodox historians or theologians. The earliest texts describe considerable diversity and disagreement among the people we now call the early Christians.
This leads us to the origin of heresy. Where does this idea that difference, diversity, and disagreement is demonic come from? Why and how would some early Christians decide that other Christians were under the control of Satan or the Antichrist because they had different ideas about Jesus? Historians have traditionally placed this development in the second century, after most of the texts included in the New Testament were written. One of the most important scholars of heresy in the 20th century, Walter Bauer, did not even use the New Testament in his seminal work, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. The word itself is used only a few times in the New Testament. Paul uses the word negatively in 1 Cor 11:19 and Gal 5:20, referring to divisions or factions among the communities. The word appears three times in Acts as well, to which we shall return, and in 2 Pet 2:1. Here, it is likely a technical reference to heresy rather than factions. But this is probably the latest book included in the New Testament (it contains all of Jude) and was written after the word’s technical meaning had changed.
While the word “heresy” does not appear frequently in the earliest Christian texts, the idea or notion of heresy is clearly expressed well before it becomes a technical term for non-orthodox religious deviance. The origins of the Christian notion, as with all of earliest Christianity, is Second Temple Judaism. (There were of course Greco-Roman influences but much of those traditions also came through the context of Second Temple Judaism.) The Jews of the first century BCE were highly diverse and there were considerable disagreements among them. But difference was tolerated, for the most part, with one exception. The “Covenanters” of Qumran, also know via Philo and Josephus as Essenes, who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls library, were virulently sectarian. They saw themselves as the “true Israel” and everyone else, other Jews such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Hasmonean rulers, and the Romans who followed the Hasmoneans as Satanic “sons of Belial.” The sectarian texts from Qumran such as the Damascus Document and the Community Rule include the rhetorical features of later Christian heresiology: a doxography (list of ideas) of their opponents’ positions; dualistic eschatology; a mechanism of excommunication based on doctrine or belief; apocalyptic condemnation of opponents; the rejection of alternative points of view; and the reconstitution of the community as the “true Israel.”
The apostle Paul moves along a spectrum of dealing with difference and diversity from accommodation and unification to vilification and demonization. As noted above, his use of haireisis in 1 Cor 11:19 and Gal 5:19–20 are negative if not technical uses of “heresy.” But his approaches to division in these letters are quite different. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul faces disagreements on a wide range of issues such as factions over leadership according to who baptized whom, women’s leadership in prophecy and prayer, eating meat purchased from temples, the most important spiritual gifts, and the existence and meaning of the resurrection. The divisions in the community are most likely social, between wealthier and better educated members (the “strong”) and those with less education and social status (“the weak). Paul responds in this letter with appeals to unity (homonoia or concordia), often acknowledging differences in belief on these topics. But in Galatians, faced with the schism with Peter and others over circumcision and eating with Gentile believers, he demonizes difference, “a different gospel” (1:6) as part of the sinful sphere of the flesh (5:17–21). Then, in a later response to continuing divisions in Corinth, Paul goes on full heresiological attack against his rivals there, the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). Whereas he had earlier sought homonoia or unity with these opponents (which meant in many ways that they should agree with him, 1 Cor 4:14–21, 15:1–8), here he attacks them as satanic, seducing the Corinthians just as the serpent led Eve astray (2 Cor 11:2–3, 13–15). While not using the word heresy, Paul demonizes his apostolic with two dominant tropes of Christian heresiology, satanic influence and sexual impurity, while building on ideologies of tradition, apostolic witness, and apocalyptic dualism.
The rhetoric of heresy, or heresiology, comes to full fruition in post-Pauline texts such as 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp. In most of these texts, valuing received tradition over innovation is central, along with appeals to scripture, apostolicity, and patriarchal authority. Difference is therefore construed as deviation from the truth. Since difference is error rather than inspiration, other important elements cited against opponents include the authority of ecclesial officers over prophets who might bring new revelations; the centrality of received dogma; and the demonization of difference. 1 John demonizes “antichrists” who have left the community, enumerates their doctrinal positions, and slanders them. The Apocalypse of John also demonizes opponents in the seven ekklēsiai, using both sexual and satanic slander and connecting disparate opponents in a unified, demonic opposition (Rev 2–3). The letters of Ignatius and Polycarp appropriate writings such as Paul and1 John as part of their appeal to tradition. They respond heresiologically to difference in the churches and brandish the ideology of traditional apostolic authority, now relocated to the bishop. Ignatius is the first of the “apostolic fathers” to use the words heresy and heterodox as technical terms (Eph. 6.2; Trall. 6.1; Magn. 8.1; Smyrn. 6.2). He also uses the words Christian and Christianity frequently. By “Christianity” he means one orthodox, universal church as opposed to other Christian teachers and beliefs. Christianity was, however, much more diverse at this time and Ignatius did not have the hegemony he claimed as bishop.
The Acts of the Apostles, as noted above, uses the Greek word hairesis three times (Acts 15:5, 24:5, 28:22). While usually considered non-technical, these instances show negative views towards sectarian positions. A major theme of Acts is the unity of the church of the apostles, who operate “with one mind” (homothumadon). Given the diversity of early Christianity from its origins through the second century and beyond, the portrayal of unity in Acts is in fact heresiological by means of silence—other Christian voices and ideas do not appear in the book.
The proto-orthodox writers Justin Martyr and Ignatius, then, receive a fully formed heresiological tradition within the Christian circles that claim orthodox theological hegemony. In both the First Apology and the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin employs the notion of heresy against other Christian teachers and against a construct of Judaism (1 Apol. 23; Dial. 35). Following Hegesippus, Justin also constructs genealogical relationships between the Christian teachers he opposes. Both Justin and Hegesippus commence their genealogy of heresy with Simon Magus, who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter according to Acts 8. The genealogies unite disparate teachers under demonic influence in opposition to the “right-thinking” Christians, when in fact these other teachers were either legendary (in the case of Simon Magus) or unrelated to each other (in the case of Menander and Marcion). Justin’s heresiology also includes slandering the teaching, deeds, and moral character of his Christian opponents. Irenaeus’ five-volume The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So-Called, commonly referred to as Adversus Haereses or “Against the Heresies,” is the first full-length orthodox Christian heresiology. Since some of these “gnostic” Christians were part of his churches, Irenaeus’ aim in part was to describe and categorize their beliefs in order to reject them. Irenaeus’ doxography is notably tendentious but also detailed enough to provide recognizable descriptions of different Christian groups that, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi and other early Christian texts, we can now study on their own terms rather than through the lens of Irenaeus. As the title of his work suggests, the now-technical use of “heresy” in this work does the heavy lifting against a diverse group of Christians labeled by heresiologists and early church scholars as “Gnostics.” The term “Gnostic” becomes almost synonymous with “heretic”; Karen King challenged the coupling of these terms, and the label of “Gnosticism,” as a theological project of modern orthodoxy rather than a socially descriptive term for the second century. The question of any unified Gnostic identity, and whether all Gnostics were also Christians, continues to be debated among scholars.
Heresiology becomes the primary discourse of difference within orthodox Christianity. The Latin writers Hippolytus and Tertullian compose heresiological works, as do later authors such as Epiphanius and Augustine. The discourse of heresy continues to be a potent political tool in the councils of the fourth century. The political concept of heresy was essential to Christianity in the Roman west from late antiquity through the middle ages. The struggle between orthodoxy and heresy is central to the historiography of Eusebius and Gregory of Tours. Difference and polemic between different Christian groups was a distinguishing characteristic of late antique Byzantine Christianity. Heresy trials continued through the Middle Ages and Reformation down to the present day. The importance of the idea brings us back to the opening of this essay—everyone knows what a heresy and a heretic are today, whether it’s in the religious, political, sports, or even culinary arena.
 “Same-Sex Marriage Still Heresy in Ky. County” Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal April 24, 2015 (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/24/gay-marriage-social-heresy-ky-magoffin-county/26290163/); “Israel’s Army is Sacred, and any Criticism is Heresy” Haaretz April 24, 2015 (http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.653389).
 See Robert M. Royalty, The Origin of Heresy : A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, (New York: Routledge, 2013); on the “notion of heresy,” see Alain Le Boulluec, La notion d'hérésie dans la littérature grecque IIe-IIIe siècles. Tome I, De Justin à Irénée, (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1985).
 Jonathan Z. Smith, "What a difference a difference makes," in To See Ourselves as Others See Us, ed. Jacob Neusner and Ernest S. Frerichs, (Chico, Calif: Scholars Press, 1985).
 Heinrich Von Staden, "Hairesis and Heresy: The Case of the `haireseis iatrikai'," in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition: Self-Definition in the Greco-Roman World, ed. B. F. Meyer and E. P Sanders, (London: SCM, 1982).
 Foundational works on this include Walter Bauer, Rechtglaubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum, (Tübingen: Mohr, 1934, 1961); Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, (Philadelphia: Fortress 1971); and the essays in James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, eds., One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels: Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), in particular Helmut Koester, "GNOMAI DIAPHORAI: The Origin and Nature of Diversification in the History of Early Christianity," 114–57.
 See Le Boulluec, La notion d'hérésie; Marcel Simon, "From Greek hairesis to Christian heresy," in Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition: In Honorem Robert M. Grant, ed. William R. Schoedel and Robert L. Wilken, (Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1979).
 See Robert M. Royalty, The Streets of Heaven: The Ideology of Wealth in the Apocalypse of John, (Macon, Ga:: Mercer University Press, 1998).
 Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).