Heretics Among Us

Jennifer Barry reviews Todd Berzon’s Classifying Christians

Todd Berzon. Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. University of California Press. 2016. pp. 285. $95.00
The current political climate in the United States attests to an increasingly potent form of social control through categorization, labeling, and attempts to pack neatly groups of people into one category or another. Fear mongers and political pundits attempt to do this by defining America against a negative, against what they claim it is not. These types of ethnographic divisions and cultural boundary markers are familiar, and they are increasingly divisive. Scholars of early Christianity are trained to keep an eye out for this type of politically expedient boundary-marking because early Christianity is precisely a movement that defined itself against what it is not, at least in the eyes of a few late ancient pundits. Heresiologists— early Christian writers who call attention to and sort out “heretics” who lead Christians astray through willful error — remain an integral part of an early Christian narrative. Texts produced by heresiologists have long functioned as a field guide for identifying, sorting, and excluding deviant forms of Christianity. In the process, these same men who try to preserve one form of Christianity have also served as gateways to understanding its alternate forms.

In his recent monograph, Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, Todd Berzon performs a clever ethnographic study of the making and enforcing of Christian orthodoxy through heresiological literature. In this book, he assembles a familiar cast of characters such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, and Augustine of Hippo – familiar but perhaps not exhausted sources for understanding new insights about the history of Christian orthodoxy. He also deepens his study by including figures such as Epiphanius of Salamis and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who are typically absent from Western, Latin-focused scholarship. If you are looking for an updated field guide for finding and identifying wily heretics of the past, you will not find it here. Berzon is not interested in presenting yet another re-classification. Instead, his primary objective is to “analyze how the heresiologists built a literary language that theorizes heresy as a whole—a developmental theory of heretical error—and specific heretics as parts within and yet apart from that whole.”

Berzon asks us to re-imagine heresiology by calling attention to the various practices that early Christian apologists used to produce and assemble. This approach places him in a line of contemporary scholars who resist reproducing exactly what these early heresiologists ask their readers to assume—namely, that we know a heretic when we see one. Instead, Berzon asks us to pause as he points out each heresiologist’s ethnographic project, providing a clear lens through which to read the late ancient sources. What we discover is a much more complicated, and at times, frightening picture than we saw in a generation of scholars whose projects aimed primarily to fill out the holes in late ancient sources with clarifying information. Instead, Berzon argues that for early heresiologists, “heretics proved an enigmatic, elusive, and altogether destructive object of inquiry.” The ancient authors, and as Berzon points out, many of their recent biographers, imagine a world overrun with heretics and their heretical ideas. What is even more terrifying, these heresiographers insist, is the express risk that both author and reader take in the very act of naming, arranging, and classifying the customs, habits, and doctrines of each heresy. Nevertheless, these (charmingly named) ‘armchair ethnographers’ bravely soldier on.

Berzon arranges his book thematically rather than chronologically in order to disrupt traditional scholarly frameworks and to help the reader to identify threads of a growing and popular discourse among his sources. In his first chapter, for example, Berzon explains that ethnography was a familiar mode of writing in antiquity. He argues that the exercise of sorting and categorizing the known world found its beginnings in the writings of such thinkers as Herodotus, Pliny, and Josephus, among others. However, Christian heresiologists used theories of earlier ethnographers to create a distinctly Christian vocabulary with which to identify heresy. To support this point, Berzon moves between macroscopic and microscopic analyses to show how ethnographic knowledge is produced. Grand paradigms and master narratives successfully trace the customs and habits of peoples to reinforce a Christian worldview, and in his examination of the second century writer Hippolytus of Rome, for instance, Berzon notes that the heresiologist enforces Christian hegemony through the creation of sacred history, through which he casts a wide narrative net, capturing all of human history within the purview of a Christian story. We learn that, according to Hippolytus, the heretics have been with us from the very beginning.

The book’s most compelling chapters are those that engage Epiphanius of Salamis, a figure who has very recently seen a revival in late ancient Christian studies. Berzon relies on Epiphanius to bear out many of his central arguments, and so joins a rich conversation already at play among other scholars such as Young Kim, Andrew Jacobs, Blossom Stefaniw, and Richard Flower. Epiphanius serves as a touchstone for what Berzon identifies as the summation of the genre of heresiology – the cataloguing of heretics and their (heretical) ideas. Epiphanius maps these heretics through what Berzon labels as a “genealogy of knowledge” that produces an ethnogenesis of heresy from the time of Adam to his own historical moment.

Berzon also finds a similar trend in Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s works. Here too we find an interest in beginnings, but unlike Epiphanius, Theodoret provides for his readers a taxonomic typology that produces a traceable demonic lineage. The very traceability of a demonic lineage, however, remains a consistent threat. This theme is then taken up in full force in Berzon’s final assessment of Epiphanius. We find in chapter 6 Epiphanius’ own explicit and implicit fears. In many ways, Epiphanius embraces the danger implicit in heresioraphy, and he appears to revel in it. Although it is never explicitly stated by Berzon, this danger leads the reader to wonder if this is one of the reasons why Epiphanius is later so easily dismissed — or, at the very least, tempered – by later Christian writers. It appears that Epiphanius was a little too devil-may-care and risked exposing himself as well as his readers to the poisonous ideas of the heretics.

This conclusion leads us to the final chapter, and to a more confident and familiar defender of the faith, Augustine of Hippo. Through Berzon’s analysis, it becomes clear that Augustine was not the confident and familiar defender of the faith that historians have often portrayed. Rather, the chapter calls attention to Augustine’s resistance in (the often overlooked) De Haresibus to a request by Quodvultdeus for an abridged version of a heresiological catalogue. Augustine explains, by way of reply, why it is that such a task is daunting and not for the faint at heart. Classifying a heretic is no easy task. Berzon’s analysis of Augustine’s treipidation highlights how ancient thinkers considered the process of categorizing heretics and their ideas to be dangerous, and that heresiographies often created more problems than they solved. The process of categorization itself only exaggerates the chaos described in and produced by heresiography, a “genre of known unknowns.”

Berzon concludes his monograph with a summation of what he convincingly argues throughout his work: heresiography is profitably understood as an ethnographic disposition, and one that took off in Late Antiquity. “Ethnographies of heresy function as theological imaginings of the world’s Christians while also casting the wider world a theological language defined by the ideas of truth and falsity.” I would like to draw attention to Berzon’s ideological critique of an ancient scholarly enterprise in this unstable contemporary moment: his is a necessary caution that extends beyond the boundaries of this book. Berzon is at his best when he simultaneously implicates fear mongers of the past with the persistent practices of the present. In so doing, we are reminded that these men attempted to unhinge our sense of reality as they neatly rearranged and spun histories of sedition and corruption to which only a few have access. The heresiographers assure us: “Let the (right) men handle it.” The very act of assembling and arranging heretics is a dangerous task for the uninitiated. This exercise is too easily adopted into our present characterizations of the past. In a particularly revealing statement, Berzon identifies the very dilemma of any heresiological performance: “Because the foundation on which heresiology rested was never secure, it unwittingly contained and created the seeds of its own obsolescence and destruction.”

 Jennifer Barry is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington. Her research interests include the discourse of exile, the making of orthodoxy and heresy, and gendered violence in late antiquity.