- Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity by Geoffrey S. Smith
From the second century churchmen have found it necessary to draw up genealogies of heresy, in which each generation ramifies the errors of the last. The aim of this excellent book is to discover how the practice evolved and how the genealogies served their creators. As Smith demonstrates at length (pp. 11–21), there was no true pagan or Jewish antecedent, since the “doxographic” narratives in which one philosopher succeeds another were seldom compiled with polemical intent even when they are probably fictitious. Hairesis in classical Greek is a term denoting one of many contending schools or parties, each of which might be legitimately “chosen”; since Smith ascribes to St. Justin Martyr its first use as “pejorative designation” for a party or sect (p. 59), he seems to assume (correctly) that at Galatians 5:20 it means a tendency to schism. When the term comes to denote an aberrant teaching, no one calls himself a heretic, and one of the earliest catalogs is found in a Coptic text from Nag Hammadi, which perhaps (although Smith contests this) anticipates Epiphanius and Hippolytus in treating the Greek philosophies on all fours with Christian errors (pp. 108–21). On pages 89–94 Smith concludes that Jews were regarded as heretics by Hegesippus; the term hairesis, however, is used only by Eusebius (Church History 4.22), whose excerpts are all that remains of the second-century original; even had the term hairesis occurred in this, it would surely have signified only what it signifies in Josephus when he divides his co-religionists into “sects.” Justin Martyr’s assertion that Pharisees and Sadducees were heretics even to other Jews is plainly a tendentious innovation, as Smith perceives (pp. 103–08). He argues, more contentiously, that when Justin says, “We have to hand a syntagma, which we can pass on to you” (1Apology 26), he means only that such a document is in use among Christians, not that he is its author (pp. 55–66). Ancient readers understood him otherwise, and the question may after all be of little consequence, as Smith accepts the existence of the Syntagma and believes that it was a template for St. Irenaeus.
Comparing the use of the designation rational in ancient medical literature, Smith suggests that gnostic was widely employed as a term of self-description but was invidiously used by Irenaeus as a name for a heterogeneous collection of adversaries [End Page 902] who would not have acknowledged it as a self-designation (pp. 159–61). Against those who hold that gnostic in Irenaeus means what modern scholars mean by Sethian, Smith objects that the Valentinians also fall under this description in later portions of Adversus Haereses (p. 157). The passages in question are ambiguous, since 3.4.3 and 4.6.3 do not speak of Valentinians, whereas 4.35.1, which couples the Valentinians with reliquos falsi nominis Gnosticos, could be understood to mean either “Valentinians and other so-called Gnostics” or “Valentinians and others, falsely known as Gnostics.” Only the first entails that Valentinians are Gnostics; remembering that our text of Irenaeus (except in book 1) is a Latin translation from Greek by an author of questionable abilities, it is surely best to follow the rule that passages that admit of two constructions should be interpreted in the light of those that admit of only one. It will be clear, then, that this book does not contain the last word on the topics that it addresses; at the same time, few bring so much erudition and lateral thinking to the subject or exhibit such a capacity for picking up the most promising thread in a labyrinth that is littered with false trails.