Category Archives: Opponents and ‘heresies’

Diversity, part 2: Judean diversity fits with plurality of Jesus groups

One heads-up to mention for the coming week and for the rest of the course is something some of you may or may not know: Namely all forms of Jesus adherence in the first centuries are in some sense Judean or Jewish. In other words, the Jesus movements emerge as marginal movements within Judean culture. Take a step further back and realize that Judean culture (or “Judaism” as it’s often labelled as though it is merely a religion) itself was extremely diverse in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There were numerous different groups with different approaches to using Judean scriptures and to living generally and there were many many arguments and struggles within that context. If Judean culture was extremely diverse with many competing groups and approaches, then it’s no surprise that marginal movements within it (the Jesus groups) would be too. Furthermore, the whole question of how a movement that was now including non-Judeans was to make sense of the Judean roots was not straight-forward.

The situation lying behind Paul’s letter to people in Galatia embodies that conundrum quite well. So keep a sharp eye out for Paul’s OPPONENTS and try to see what their position was on certain aspects of Judean culture and what Paul’s position was in the debate about including non-Judeans (“Gentiles” = Greeks and Romans) in a Judean movement (“Christianity” as it later gets labelled),

Reflections from the Diversity of Early Christianity course, part 1: Invested sources

Without providing a lot of context, I thought I’d share here on the blog some of my reflections and comments to students in my Diversity of Early Christianity course (fourth year) as I go along.  This may perhaps resuscitate the blog in some limited way (do people even read blogs anymore?).  I may even reflect on the process of teaching remotely by zoom once in a while.

Here is the first installment that I posted in our course forum:

One of the things that stood out to me from our discussion and from student observations this past week is that the ancient sources we look at are written from very specific perspectives of particular people in particular places, people who are highly invested in the claims they make. For this reason, we as historians need to be careful not to identify with particular positions that we are studying. Instead we want to understand the various positions rather than taking sides and we need to pay attention to those being excluded in the rhetoric of ancient authors. And so a person like Eusebius (in the fourth century) or Hegesippus (in the second century) will freely characterize other followers of Jesus as “demonic” or as inspired by Satan while firmly asserting that they hold the true position, namely that they are the orthodox (people holding correct belief and, implied, practice) and others are the “heretics” (wrong-choosers). This itself is the process of formulating orthodoxy (us) and defining heresy (people who claim to be “us” or insiders but who are really “them” or outsiders). This process is the process whereby diversity is made to appear as unity by exclusion. There is a sense in which this (the “us” and “them” dynamics of self-identification) is really a more widely witnessed sociological phenomenon. I think it was Simon (our Simon, not the “heretic”) that compared some the identity dynamics with politics in the US.

Overall, I hope you all got the three different historiographical ways of looking at Christian origins, with the first claiming that orthodoxy or a movement united around “truth” was there first and that heresies (or diversity) came later (Acts, Eusebius); the second that there was a Peter (Jew) vs. Paul (Hellenistic Jew) battle from the outset (F.C. Baur); and the third that there was diversity from the get go and the process of formulating “orthodoxy” was a gradual process of exclusion (Walter Bauer, with an e).

Angel-loving association cancelled – A new reading of an often cited inscription from Asia Minor

The availability of the journal Epigraphica Anatolica online is already paying off!  There you will find a new article which has some notable repercussions not only for the study of associations in Asia Minor but also for the study of the opponents of Colossians: Hasan Malay, “ΦΙΛΑΝΠΙΛΟΙ in Phrygia and Lydia,” Epigraphica Anatolica 38 (2005) 42–44.

Back in 1980/81, A.R.R. Sheppard published a little inscription (from near Kotiaion) involving Holiness and Justice, two personifications that were commonly honoured in certain areas of Phrygia and Lydia (“Pagan Cults of Angels in Roman Asia Minor,” Talanta 12-13 [1980-81]: 77-101 = SEG 31 1130).  The more exciting element in the inscription was the apparent reference to non-Christians or non-Judeans who devoted themselves in some way to “angels”, which was based on Sheppard’s reading: ΦΙΛΑΝΓΕΛΩΝ (“Friends-of-angels”).  Sheppard’s translation of the inscription was as follows:

Aur(elius) … the Association of Friends of the Angels (made) a vow to Holiness and Justice”.

Sheppard suggested that this involved “pagans” who had some contact with the Jewish notion of angels.  Sheppard’s reading of the inscription was also discussed in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 6, number 31.

This idea that there were “pagans” devoted to divine messengers or “angels” then became background for some New Testament scholars who were sorting out the “philosophy” combated by the author of Colossians (2:8-23), particularly the reference to the “worship of angels” (2:18).  Clinton Arnold’s theory regarding the opponents of Colossians, for instance, drew attention to the importance of angels in Asia Minor not only among diaspora Judeans but also among pagans, such that we could speak of a common folk practice in this region.  He suggested that the opponents were practicing the (magical) invocation of angels for protection and that this reflected both the Judean and pagan devotion to angels in Asia Minor specifically (see Clinton Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996]).

However, Malay’s recent study of this particular inscription has shown that Sheppard likely misread a key letter here (what a difference one letter can make).  What Sheppard read as a “gamma”, Malay now says is surely a “pi”, which leaves us with ΦΙΛΑΝΠΙΛΟΙ, “Friends-of-the-vine” or “Vine-lovers”, and no angels at all in this inscription.

Malay publishes another inscription which confirms the existence of associations devoted to the vine, in other words relating to wine production and/or consumption, in the same region (in this case from nearby Katakekaumene, now in the Manisa Museum, dating 161/2 CE):

“To the Good Fortune! In the year 192, on the fourth day of the month Peritios, New Lovers of Vine (φιλάνπιλοι) set this up as a vow to Mother Leto on account of their own salvation.

The meeting of the association of friend-of-angels is apparently canceled.

An early Christian schism over how to view Jesus’ flesh: Opponents of John the elder (Diversity 1.2)

Although philosophical debates about the nature of Jesus Christ in terms of his humanity and / or divinity were clearly a hallmark of the fourth century (as evidenced in the church councils and creeds), it is true that how one viewed Jesus’ fleshliness was a divisive factor among some followers of Jesus in the late first century and into the second. In fact, one of the earliest cases of schism within a specific community of Jesus-followers seems to relate to this factor.

The author of the tractate and epistles associated with John the elder (1-3 John) provides us with evidence of this earliest of schisms (probably in the late first century). More specifically, this elder attests to the fact that a group of people had left what was previously a relatively united community of followers, likely somewhere in western Asia Minor (usually labeled the “Johannine community” by scholars due to the community’s shared traditions associated with the Gospel of John).

The divide that had since developed between John the elder and his supporters, on the one hand, and those that had left, on the other, was considerable, with very little sign of reconciliation. So much so that the elder associates them with “the world” in a strongly negative sense and he does not hesitate to label them “deceivers” and “antichrists” — strong language indeed. The central factor in the disagreement relates to what the elder considers a failure to acknowledge Jesus’ coming in the flesh:

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7-8 [RSV]).

“For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3).

(For a discussion of the rhetorical use of “Satan”, “antichrist” and related labels, see my other post here.)

Elsewhere, the elder also claims that this had some implications regarding ethics or behaviour, regarding how these opponents were viewing “sin”, namely that “we have no sin” (1 John 1:5-10). It is hard to evaluate the truth in this accusation of false claims, if there is any, since the elder claims that he and his camp, in opposition to the “children of the devil”, know that “no one who abides in [Jesus] sins” (1 John 3:6). Both sides are claiming sinless status though disagreeing on the other’s precise understanding of that and of whether or not the other is “abiding” in Jesus.

Apparently the “flesh” factor also underlies the elder’s other accusations that the opponents supposedly deny “the Father and the Son” or deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). We need to take these generalizations with a grain of salt and interpret them in light of the “flesh” factor, since it is hard to imagine that these other followers of Jesus were indeed denying that Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus was sent by the Father. Instead, the elder seems to equate any downplaying of Jesus’ humanity as the equivalent of denying Jesus, the Son, and the Father altogether.

As scholars such as Raymond Brown point out, it seems that the elder and his opponents, who had belonged to the same community and had the same favourite writings, were both interpreting the gospel of John’s rather high Christology (Jesus as the preexisting “Word” or Utterance of the Father) in two very different ways. Both might agree that Jesus was preexistent and that Jesus was made flesh in some manner, but each interpreted such things differently and put more emphasis on one factor (divine preexistence) than another (flesh).

It is difficult to know precisely how these opponents relate to the opponents attacked by Ignatius of Antioch just about a decade later, also in Asia Minor. These opponents are accused of saying that Jesus “suffered in appearance only” (Letter to the Trallians 10). The downplaying of Jesus’ fleshliness is once again a factor here in what scholars often label “docetism” (from the Greek word dokein = to seem or appear to be). We’ll come back to docetism and Ignatius in a later post.

For more on the opponents in 1-3 John, see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 93-144.