Posts Tagged ‘Orthodoxy’

On De-Reifying Traditional Boundaries: Christian vs. Greco-Roman

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Thomas J. Whitley

Last month I wrote about a group of early Christians that believed in the transmigration of souls (or, reincarnation). One of the factors that I suggested contributed to modern scholars not accepting the Carpocratians as Christians or transmigration as a “Christian” belief is the delineation between the categories “Greco-Roman” and “Christian.” Thus, when a person or a group looks less like the “orthodox” group that a scholar has set up as true Christianity, then they must be described in terms other than Christian. That is, a group that is found to accept transmigration must be removed from the “Christian” category and placed in another category, most often “Greco-Roman.”

Scholars have no problem admitting that many ancient Greco-Romans accepted transmigration, but often become much less accepting when one claims to be a Christian who accepts transmigration. In this case, they are moved out of the “Christian” category to the “Greco-Roman” category because they have “philosophized” or “Platonized” Christianity. In other words, they have perverted real Christianity by mixing it with Greco-Roman philosophy.

This tactic is not new with modern scholars, but is rather a continuation of the heresy/orthodoxy battles of late antique Christianity. The group that I study, for instance, the Carpocratians, are dismissed by other Christians as heretics for their belief in the transmigration of souls and are regularly connected with Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras pejoratively. Many modern scholars shirk their duty and belie their own acceptance of one form of Christianity as real when they uncritically accept the claims made about a group by that group’s opponents. Karen King laid out how modern scholars did this with the category “Gnostic” in her brilliant book What Is Gnosticism?. We as scholars of Christianity, though, should not stop our de-reification of categories and labels there, but rather should see where else we have blindly accepted the categories handed down to us.

Much work has been done to more accurately contextualize Jesus and his early followers within Second Temple Judaism and to not view them as completely and categorically different from their wider culture and the dominant social forces. But we as a field have been slow to do the same with late antique Christianity, allowing the division between “Christian” and “Greco-Roman” to remain unchallenged. When we examine the landscape without our preconceived notions of who and what counts as “Christian” and who and what counts as “Greco-Roman,” we see that ancient groups and individuals of many different stripes do not fit either category as they have been handed down neatly. Carpocrates is one such person, but so is Clement of Alexandria, a staunch opponent of Carpocrates who is deeply indebted to Plato and regularly praised philosophy, calling it “a gift granted to the Greeks by God” that served as a prefatory “guide to righteousness” (Stromateis;

We are not witnessing syncretism here, as earlier scholars have suggested. Rather, we are pushing against the very notion at the heart of syncretism by claiming that “Christianity” and “Greco-Roman” are not distinct, unrelated entities. For too long we have allowed those whom we study to determine the way we view the ancient world, accepting their classificatory schemes as truths as opposed to truth-claims. Yet, when we are able to divorce our work from the categories that have for so long guided the way we order the ancient world and simply examine the evidence as we have it, the dividing lines between many “Christians” and the world around them begins to fade.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Image courtesy HUP.

Heresiology As a Zero Sum Game

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Marcus Borg’s recent death has spurred many to speak out about his contributions to scholarship and to Christianity. Many celebrated Borg; some celebrated his passing. One reflection that caught my attention, though, was by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In speaking of Borg’s “progressive Christianity,”Mohler says that “when you’re looking at liberal Christianity and biblical Christianity, you’re not looking at two variants of one religion, but two very different religions.” Mohler’s understanding of “Christianity” does not—cannot—include Borg’s understanding of “Christianity.”

Al Mohler

Reading these comments from Mohler reminded me of a paper I’ve been working on for an upcoming presentation on the use of authority and authority claims in ancient heresiology. In it I suggest that while the heresy/orthodoxy dichotomy does not actually function as a zero sum game, it is approached as such by its participants. Bruce Lincoln has shown that one’s authority can corrode by a multitude of means. “[G]ossip, rumor, jokes, invective; curses, catcalls, nicknames, taunts; caricatures, graffiti, lampoon, satire; sarcasm, mockery, rude noises, [and] obscene gestures” are all sorts of speech that eat away at authority.”[i] The group that I study —the Carpocratians —are called “heretics,” rumors are spread about their sexual improprieties, and they are often mocked (Clement of Alexandria speaks of the “high-born Carpocratians”). Clement certainly hoped that as Carpocrates’authority eroded, his own authority and that of his “orthodoxy” would be built up. This is not necessarily the case, though. Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment where he could not name the third agency that he would dissolve were he president during a November 2011 Republican Presidential Primary Debate was quite successful in corroding his authority but it did not necessarily increase the authority of any of the other Republican hopefuls.

That this is the case, though, does not mean that the Carpocratians, Clement of Alexandria, and others viewed it this way. In fact, I think that it was perceived as a zero sum game by the players. Indeed, Al Mohler works tirelessly to wrench authority from “heretical”groups and give it to the “orthodox.” As he said of Borg, he may not have been an atheist, “but he was also in no sense an orthodox Christian.” Clement needs for Carpocrates and the hordes of other “heretics” to be delegitimated so that his project can be successful. Many are adamant about who can and cannot be called “Muslims” as the recent popularity of the hashtag #ISIS_are_NOT_Muslims shows.

If Pierre Bourdieu is right that “the fate of groups is bound up with the words that designate them,” then we can see this struggle over who should bear certain labels —“heretic,”“orthodox Christian,”“Muslim,”“killer”— as a struggle for a group’s very existence.[ii] The juxtaposition of “heresy” and “orthodoxy” as binary oppositions means that for those engaged in this authority struggle, their social hierarchy can only be “recoded,” to use Bruce Lincoln’s term, in a way they see fit by the expansion of their own authority as a direct result of the diminution of their opponent’s. In other words, “orthodoxy” only wins if “heresy” loses.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

[i] Bruce Lincoln, Authority: Construction and Corrosion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 78.

[ii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 481.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Traditions Lost…And Found

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

by Andrew Stern

Few people consider November 30th, the Feast of St. Andrew, to be a highpoint of the holiday season. Since the Middle Ages, however, the feast has had particular significance for people who share the saint’s name. In fact, for centuries every traditional name in Europe had a particular “nameday” corresponding to the feast day of the saint of that name (similar celebrations, known as “onomásticas” take place in many Latin American countries). Thus, on November 30th, “Andrews” would celebrate the feast of St. Andrew, while their friends and families would offer them good wishes and even gifts. Particularly in predominantly Catholic or Orthodox countries, namedays often became more important than birthdays, since everyone knew the feast day of an individual’s patron saint (in fact, in many European countries one can still purchase calendars with lists of namedays), while relatively few people knew the date of his/her birth.

The celebration of namedays has declined in prominence in recent decades, especially in Western Europe, yet it was an important practice at the peak of European immigration to the United States in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Therefore, it is surprising that there is so little evidence of nameday celebrations among immigrant communities in the U.S. Studies of immigrant religions in the U.S. chronicle the many traditions that survived the process of transplantation, but of course there are others that did not, and namedays seem to be a prime example. Why is it that this tradition failed to take root in the U.S.? Given the zeal with which American capitalism seizes on any religious tradition that can be commodified and marketed (witness the Our Lady of Guadalupe candles for sale in the Hispanic aisle of virtually every supermarket), why is there virtually no trace of nameday calendars, cards, or other merchandise produced in the U.S.? Feast day celebrations of saints important to entire nations survived, so were nameday celebrations too individualistic? Answers to these questions, and similar questions regarding other religious practices that vanished in the US, may provide valuable insights on the immigrant experience.

Nameday celebrations never really caught on in the U.S., but technology may provide a way to revive the tradition. The website, for example, allows one to view the namedays celebrated on any given day in eighteen different European countries. There is also a distinctly American nameday calendar, published since 1982 and available online at This calendar blends the religious roots of namedays with American civil religion. Thus, people named Paul can celebrate their nameday on the feast of St. Paul or on the anniversary of the birth of Paul Revere. Similarly, the calendar assigns the name “Irving” to May 11th, since that was the birthday of Irving Berlin, whom the calendar honors as the author of “God Bless America.” Although namedays are becoming more secular events even in those European countries where they are still widely celebrated, the addition of new “saints” to the calendar seems to be an American phenomenon. Perhaps in a few years the calendar will include namedays for “Barack” (August 4), “Beyoncé” (September 4), and “LeBron” (December 30).

Immigrant religions in the U.S. are nothing if not resourceful. The internet may provide a way to maintain traditional practices, but there are also low-tech solutions. This year on November 30th I will receive, as I have each year for as far back as I can remember, a Happy Birthday card from my Hungarian relatives with “Birthday” meticulously scratched out and “Nameday” written in its place.