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 184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11).
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.