Found Christianities: Remaking the World of the Second Century CE by M. David Litwa 2022
About the Author
Dr. Litwa has broad interests in the fields of early Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, ruler cult, classical mythology, and Greco-Roman religions. His career began with a monograph on deification (becoming god) as seen through the lens of the Pauline writings (We Are Being Transformed 2012). In 2013, he offered a general introduction to deification in Western culture from the Pharaohs to modern Transhumanists. Then in 2016, he focused on the politics and literature of self-deification (Desiring Divinity). He has twice engaged gospel literature as a witness to Jesus’s literary deification (Iesus Deus, 2014) and to a particular historiographical genre (How the Gospels Became History, 2019). A fascination with alternative Christian movements inspired him to edit and translate the anonymous Refutation of All Heresies (2016). After that came the annotated translation of important Hermetic testimonia and fragments (Hermetica II, 2018). Litwa has recently finished a project on angelification traditions in Hellenic and Christian literature (Posthuman Transformation, forthcoming 2021). He has just published history of alternative Christian movements in the second-century CE (Found Christianities). A full book on one of these movements, the Carpocratians, came out in 2022. Check it out for the first ever fully commentary on “Secret Mark.”
About the Book
M. David Litwa tells the stories of the early Christians whose religious identity was either challenged or outright denied. In the second century many different groups and sects claimed to be the only Orthodox or authentic version of Christianity, and Litwa shows how those groups and figures on the side of developing Christian Orthodoxy often dismissed other versions of Christianity by refusing to call them “Christian”. However, the writings and treatises against these groups contain fascinating hints of what they believed, and why they called themselves Christian.
Litwa outlines these different groups and the controversies that surrounded them, presenting readers with an overview of the vast tapestry of beliefs that made up second century Christianity. By moving beyond notions of “gnostic”, “heretical” and “orthodox” Litwa allows these “lost Christianities” to speak for themselves. He also questions the notion of some Christian identities “surviving” or “perishing”, arguing that all second century “Catholic” groups look very different to any form of modern Roman Catholicism.
Litwa shows that countless discourses, ideas, and practices are continually recycled and adapted throughout time in the building of Christian identities, and indeed that the influence of so-called “lost” Christianities can still be felt today.
Summary of Introduction
“What have heretics to do with Christians?”1 The context of the remark shows that Tertullian of Carthage (about 160–220 CE) knew very well that his oppo- nents called themselves Christians, but he considered their practice of self-labeling a mere outward profession, a thin cloak of fleece.2 Still, in the very same text in which Tertullian sought to de-Christianize his competitors, he showed that they engaged in Christian practices.
They invite other Christians into their churches, quickly promoting them to offices.3 No wonder they attracted “the most faithful and wisest and most experienced members of the church.”4 Tertullian aimed to exclude these competitors from the category of “Christian,” despite the fact that they worshiped Christ and – in a few notable cases – died for him.5 Tertullian was hardly alone in his rhetorical practice of exclusion.
attacked those who “bear the name [of Christ] with wicked deceit.”6 Justin Martyr (about 100–165 CE) wrote that his enemies called themselves Christians, confessing that Jesus, their Lord and Messiah, was crucified.7 Irenaeus 2 Found Christianities (about 130–202 CE) wrote that his opponents put forward the name of Christ Jesus and taught under his auspices.8 “Even today,” wrote Epiphanius (about 375 CE), “people call the heresies … by the common name of ‘Christians.’”9 All these writers, however, intentionally refused to call their opponents “Christians.” They preferred other, self-chosen names, such as “Marcians [sic],” “Valentinians,” “Basilideans,” and “Saturninians.”10 Anti-heresy writers were aware of the fact that if one labeled a Christian group by another name, it destabilized that group’s Christian identity.11 Lactantius (about 250–325 CE), for instance, wrote that by demonic fraud, opposing groups have care- lessly “lost the name and the worship of God.
In most cases, it was opponents – one of whom, Epiphanius (about 320–403 CE), admitted to making up a name for a group that probably never existed (the “Alogi”).13 The very fact that some Christians sought to undermine the Christian identity of certain others ironically ended up reinforcing that identity.
By the second century CE, Greek and Roman authors tended to use the general descriptor “Christian” for Christ-believers,14 whereas Christian insiders used a wide variety of differentiating labels to distinguish their movements from putatively false forms of the faith.
Eusebius had many aims, one of which was to define those whom he considered to be Christians – to relate their story, and to disqualify certain competitors as (again Acts 20:29) “savage wolves.”18 Some writers in the modern period supposed that the purity of “the” church was corrupted in the reign of Constantine (died 337 CE), the first Christian emperor of Rome.19 Eusebius – who praised Constantine to the skies – traced the corruption back to the reign of an earlier emperor, Hadrian (117–138 CE).20 Yet he had to admit that there were even earlier figures who – wrongly in his opinion – presented them- selves as Christians.
As a result, early Christianity has been redescribed as a pluralist movement, featuring several different kinds of Christians, bound together in fairly porous groups.
In this volume, I aim to tell the stories of Christians whom other Christians denied were Christian.
For instance, several early Christian groups who maintained Jewish rites and practices – so-called Jewish Christians – were hereticalized as “Ebionites” (among other designations).32 Members of the “New Prophecy” (later known as “Montanists”) were criticized for their ecstatic prophecy, fasts, and female leadership, though generally not for their false doctrines.
Scholars of the past century have wondered what to call the de-Christianized Christians of the second century, and it seems fair to say that no single globalizing term (like “gnostic,” “esoteric,” or even “alternative”) will allow us fully to escape heresiographical rhetoric.34 These people were “othered” in antiquity by the exclu- sionary discourse of their opponents, and scholars rightly refuse to reinscribe this discourse since it involves (often implicit) negative value judgments about supposed “winners” and “losers.”35 Consequently, I will class the figures studied here under the umbrella category of “Christians,” which I think is more faithful to their own practices of self-definition.
This was indeed a challenge, since early Christianity did not have an “essence.” Despite the prominence of the term “Christ” in “Christian,” few Christians agreed on the identity of Christ (was he God?
Socially speaking, however, there were various persons and groups who were devoted to Christ, who supported symbols, rites, stories, texts, and teachings in honor of Christ and his divine Father.37 In this book, I am prepared to call these people “Christians.” In many cases, they felt no need to claim the Christian name because their practices, assumptions, and contexts made such affirmations unnecessary.38 Many of them, however, did identify as Christian.
One group that we will study, the Naassenes (Chapter 25), claimed to be the only true Christians.39 Admittedly, some of the Christians discussed in this book were troubled by the Christian name.
First of all, categorizing the figures and groups studied here as Christian does not make them “an ancillary development” to “real” Christianity.43 This viewpoint seems to assume that a certain group (for instance, early catholics) had the power to define “real” Christianity in the first place.
Moreover, the fact that the figures studied here were Christian does not make them “innocuous” or remove their power to defy social or theological norms.44 The very reason why some Christians considered the figures discussed here to be dangerous (deviant, transgressive, and so on) is because they had a claim to Christian identity.
DeConick seems to presuppose that if we characterize the figures and groups studied here as Christian, we construct them as (Christian) “heretics.” In assuming this, however, DeConick herself makes a serious concession to heresiological discourse – as if heresiologists (still) have the power to define who is a “heretic.” The category “heretic,” as noted above, however, has no place as a category in academic historiography.
We must reckon with the phenomenon that all sorts of discourses, ideas, and practices are continually recycled and adapted, such that the influence of so-called lost Christianities can still be felt today.45 Indeed, what we call “Christianity” is a kind of mass conglomerate of discourses, dispositions, and practices, some of which – one could argue – go back to the Christians studied here.
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