Excerpt: Classifying Christians by Todd S. Berzon


A short excerpt from Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2016) by Todd S. Berzon.

With an introduction by the author.

It would seem that there are heretics everywhere these days. Political positions are described as heretical. Dissenting scientists are deemed heretics. Theocratic governments charge citizens with the crime of heresy.

For example, in a post on New York Magazine’s website, Jonathan Chait, a political commentator and analyst, described the Republican Presidential Debate in South Carolina with the following headline: “In Most Heretical Debate Yet, Trump Attacks George W. Bush on 9/11 and WMD.” What does Chait mean here by heretical?

Heresy’s unspoken counter-term is orthodoxy, derived from the Greek terms for “right belief or opinion.” Heresy, then, is a deviation from an accepted or expected opinion or idea. It is why, for instance, the New York Times called Freeman Dyson a heretic for his denial of climate change.

Whether or not there are any actual heretics is debatable, but accusations of heresy are definitely everywhere. And accusations are really what heresy is about.

Heresy in the contemporary vernacular—in science, politics, theology, culture, etc.— carries with it a distinctly Christian history. In Greek, the word hairesis designates a school of thought—a term that was used to describe philosophical movements such as Platonism or Cynicism. It was the early Christians who took this neutral, descriptive term and transformed it into a label of derision. Since at least the second century C.E., heresy has been an accusation. It was deployed to delegitimize groups and yet also organize them. Part of the Christian construction of an ideology of heresy worked to collect diverse groups and individuals under a single polemical catchall. To that end, students of antiquity, and early Christianity more specifically—have a familiarity with the term that can help illuminate some of the subtexts and threads that run through its current usage. We do not yet live in a post-heretic world.

Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity investigates late antique Christian heresiologies as ethnographies that catalogued and detailed the origins, rituals, doctrines, and customs of the heretics in explicitly polemical and theological terms. Oscillating between ancient ethnographic evidence and contemporary ethnographic writing, I argue that late antique heresiology shares an underlying logic with classical ethnography in the ancient Mediterranean world. By providing an account of heresiological writing from the second to fifth century, Classifying Christians embeds heresiology within the historical development of imperial forms of knowledge that have shaped western culture from antiquity to the present.


For those who study the ancient world, ethnography is an absorbing yet elusive subject. In contrast to the modern concept, which denotes both the practice of fieldwork and a genre of writing, there were no established methods or a fixed generic form in the ancient Mediterranean world. Few ancient authors undertook anything approximating modern fieldwork. Greeks and Romans—from Homer to Pliny, and Herodotus to Tacitus—did write profusely about foreign dress, myths, dietary habits, histories, cosmologies, and religious customs. But they “wrote peoples” (ethno-graphy) primarily as a counterpoint, both positive and negative, to their own cultural conventions.[1] Building upon the work of classicists, scholars of religion, anthropologists, and literary critics, this book posits that ancient ethnography, specifically Christian ethnography, attests a complex set of negotiations between attempts to understand the surrounding world by inventorying its people, explaining their history and origins, and by establishing a position within it.[2] Ethnography in the ancient world functioned descriptively, though tendentiously, through the chronicling, stylizing, and essentializing of human customs, communities, and institutions. It operated as a discursive 9780520284265activity in which people were created as textual objects with discrete and precise characteristics, origins, histories, and customs. While ethnographers moved to study the changing world—not only to orient themselves within their evolving social and cultural surroundings but also to articulate the terms of these changes from their own cultural perspective—they supplied a certain fixity and predictability to the diversity of people who inhabited and would come to inhabit it. They sought not just to report information but also to organize and theorize it, to try to understand the root causes and implications of their knowledge about the world’s peoples.[3] Ethnography constituted a process of analysis about the possibilities, implications, and limits of comprehending the surrounding world and its people.

The chapters that follow aim to assess the conceptual paradigms and epistemological implications of ethnography for the construction of Christianity in late antiquity. I investigate how Christians harnessed the vernacular of ethnography, the process of describing and classifying peoples, to advance theories of human difference and the boundaries of human knowledge: how, in other words, late antique writers depicted and organized the world and its peoples in distinctly Christian terms and thus constructed the contours of Christianity itself. I concentrate on one particular set of Christian ethnographers, the heresiologists, who wrote the heretics via their customs, habits, beliefs, and dispositions.[4]


My interest is not in the truthfulness or historical accuracy of the heresiologists’ descriptions of the heretics but rather in how these polemical texts articulate their understanding of Christian and human diversity both in macroscopic and in microscopic terms. I 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. As they scrutinized their world, the heresiologists translated the microscopic, the minutiae of the habits and customs of particular Christian peoples, into the macroscopic, broader extrapolations about human nature, human diversity, and human behavior. To that end, I focus on the paradigms and techniques that the late antique Christian heresiologists used to array, historicize, and characterize Christian ethnographic knowledge. The heretics were invaluable yet highly unstable theoretical playthings through which Christian authors navigated and systematized the diversity of the entire human world. The heresiologists used the heretics not only to define the borders of Christianity but also to create the Christian conditions for understanding the contents and diversity of the world. As the Christian ethnographic gaze contemplated the differences of the peoples of the world, the Christian turn toward ethnography signaled not just ethnography by Christians but also ethnography of Christians.[5] In so doing, this ethnographic discourse, at once aspirational and polemical, constructed the boundaries of late antique Christianity itself.


The expansive gaze of Christian authors and travelers infused their writings with ethnographical and geographical maps of piety and impiety, religion and irreligion: to travel in the world in texts was to construct Christianity, to deny expressions of Christianity, and to envision the potential for Christianity every- where.[6] The Christian narrative of sacred history encompassed the elaboration, both macroscopically and microscopically, of holy topographies and hallowed ethnographies. To watch the world become Christian—to see it materialize with respect to both place and people—was to watch the promise of scripture unfold. And to capture this transformation was to blend Christian missionary activity and ethnographic writing. Ethnography conveyed an ideology “employed by Christians to tell themselves a new story of religious Empire.”[7] Heresiological literature is thus deeply embedded in larger corpora of varying genres. In writing about the world they inhabited, their relationship to it, and their interpretation of it, Christian writers infused various genres of writing, including letters, sermons, commentaries, travelogues, monastic handbooks, and hagiographies, with an awareness of macroscopic paradigms and microscopic description. This study is, then, not meant to be exhaustive but rather aims to focus in on a particular textual endeavor, heresiology, that is simultaneously rhetorical, theological, geographic, ethnographic, and epistemological.


As the heresiologists investigated the diversity of Christian sectarianism across the Mediterranean, they produced a textual world and worldview driven by the comparison of theologies and dispositions. To the extent that heresiological writers functioned as ethnographers, whether armchair or fieldworker, they did more than simply regurgitate stereotypes, provide moral warnings, and convey imperial propaganda. My focus is on heresiology as an illustration of Christian classification and organization of knowledge. I explore how Christian authors framed their texts ethnographically by amassing data, marshaling their discoveries, fashioning explanatory models, and theologizing and negotiating their own authorial abilities. The process of organizing knowledge by writing people constructed categorical and discursive binaries.


I am not arguing that the heresiologists, by demonstrating their detailed knowledge of and ability to refute the heretics, amassed for themselves some vague notion of scholastic or ecclesiastical authority. Instead, I am claiming that the heresiologists’ stated understanding of the heretics cut in precisely the opposite direction. Heresiologies were not texts of control and totalization but catalogues marked by vulnerability, hazard, and fissure. Even as polemically constructed caricatures, the heretics proved an enigmatic, elusive, and altogether destructive object of inquiry. To think with and through ethnography is to invite a scrutiny not simply of another or even oneself but to contemplate openly about the representative capacity of writers, language, and their texts. Ethnography encapsulates the tension between totality and partiality, comprehension and ignorance, and the insurmountable gap between human nature and the natural world. Ethnographic data hold the potential to inspire as much as puzzle and to fracture as much as unify. As Irenaeus succinctly put it, “it is not possible to name the number of those who have fallen away from the truth in various ways.”[8] The overarching aim of this study, then, is to trace how the ethnographic impulse, embedded within certain strands of early Christian discourse, informed theorizations of religious diversity and the classification of religious knowledge.


In Tomoko Masuzawa’s narrative of The Invention of World Religions, Victorian anthropologists were one of two primary investigators and collectors of the customs of various non-Christian religions scattered beyond Europe.[9] Masuzawa lists a few of their myriad ethnographic interests: natural religion, myths, rituals, cosmologies, metaphysical systems, and doctrines. They sought, in turn, to trans- late these habits and rituals, religious particulars, into coherent religious systems governed by transhistorical principles, religious universals. Anthropologists and Orientalists, the other primary investigators of non-Western religions, became the academics most devoted to the study of non-European, nonmodern peoples, especially their religions or superstitions, or both, as a direct result of shifting European attitudes toward the notion of religious society.[10] As European society presented itself as guided by logic and rationalism, it perceived the rest of the world to be in the grip of supernatural forces. The social sciences—political science, economics, and sociology—had emerged in the early nineteenth century as the academic-scientific site for the study of the human and social structures of modern European society. [11]

In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Samuel Purchas, the traveler and Anglican cleric, published three massive volumes—known collectively as Purchas His Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered from the Creation unto This Present—in which he reconciled the experience of his travels and the biblical worldview of Christian truth.80 In one particularly famous passage, he justified his decision to describe various irreligious people—whose “absence of religion was an absence of Christian Truth”[12]—by appealing both to biblical precedent and to the writings of the heresiologists:[13]

Now if any man thinke, that it were better these rotten bones of the passed, and stinking bodies of the present Superstitions were buried, then thus raked out of their graves besides that which has been said I answere, That I have sufficient example in the Scriptures, which were written for our learning to the ends of the World, and yet depaint unto us the ugly face of Idolatry in so many Countries of the Heathens, with the Apostasies, Sects, and Heresies of the Jewes, as in our first and second booke is shewed: and the Ancient Fathers also, Justin, Tertullian, Clemens, Irenaeus, Origen, and more fully, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Augustine have gone before us in their large Catalogues of Heresies and false opinions.

Here, as both Masuzawa and Schott have emphasized, Purchas situates himself as an empowered collector precisely because he writes from the position of Christian truth.83 In that regard, both he and the heresiologists shared a theological ambition: to catalogue the world in the vernacular of Christian and biblical orthodoxy.


The heresiologists, like the comparative theologians and missionaries of later centuries, described customs and habits through the contrast between orthodox center and heretical periphery, even when the two were located in the same exact space. In short, they elaborated an ethnographic foundation for the comparative Christian worldview. Heresiologists took great pains to define the heretics in the most effective terms for their own polemical purposes. It was their prerogative to define true Christianity from a place of knowledge about false Christianity, a knowledge they sought to control through their very descriptions of it.


[1] See, for example, Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Greg Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); Joseph E. Skinner, The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); François Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, trans. Janet Lloyd (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988); and Christian Jacob, Géographie et ethnographie en Grèce ancienne (Paris: Armand Colin, 1991).

[2] As Burridge, Encountering Aborigines, argues, “The heirs of Herodotus, traveler and recorder, and of St. Paul, prototypical Christian missionary, have provided the materials for the growth” of anthropology (39). Anthropology, he contends, “derives from the Graeco-Christian synthesis” (ibid. 38), a sense that the world can be studied as an objective reality and that the world’s people are fundamentally united.

[3] Although ethnographers in the ancient world occasionally drew upon their own experiences to write people—via travel and social exchange—they tended, more often than not, to recapitulate earlier sources. But these acts of recapitulation often worked in different ways: writers used the same data, stereotypes, and tropes to make different arguments about cultural, dispositional, phenotypical, and religious diversity.

[4] There is as yet no exhaustive, diachronic study of heresiology in the late antique world. There is a tendency among scholars either to focus on a particular heretic (such as Arius, Priscillian, Mar- cion) or heresiologist (Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian) rather than trace themes and styles across the centuries of the genre’s development. Three recent treatments of heresiology—Geoffrey S. Smith, Guilt by Association (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Kendra Eshleman, The Social World of Intel- lectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Royalty, The Origin of Heresy—focus only on the earliest heresiologists, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Justin (none discusses the works of Epiphanius, Filastrius, Augustine, or Theodoret). Eshelman’s study puts heresiology in dialogue with the literature of the Second Sophistic in order to think about the social and intellectual formation of Christian identity (how belonging was negotiated, more or less). Smith sees the development of the heresy catalogue as tied explicitly to its polemical quality, locating its origins in the pseudo-Pauline corpus and the discourse of false teachers, whereas Royalty focuses on the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy in the New Testament (and, to a lesser extent, Second Temple Judaism).

[5] To say the heresiologists are ethnographers is not dependent upon their use of the term ethnos to identify the heretics; ethnography and ethnicity are not one and the same. Ethnography is neither the study of ethnicities nor an effort to identify their fundamental criteria; it is the study of how population groups of religious, political, military, and ethnic orientation were written and categorized. Josephus’s description of the Essenes in Book 2 of his Jewish War is ethnographic not because it concerns Jews (an ethnos) but because it treats the Essenes as a collectivity of people with particular customs, habits, rituals, doctrines, rules, etc. Ethnic groups are surely one type of people subject to ethnographic analysis, but if ethnography is a heuristic category—which I think it is—it encompasses much more than writing ethnicities. Ethnography represents the writing of customs, habits, and practices of groups (and even individuals) while its author ponders how these habits reflect broader theoretical and classificatory exigencies. Such writings often work to fashion coherence out of diffuse intellectual knowledge. In the very act of arraying knowledge by school of thought, doxographies, for instance, evoke a sense of intellectual groupism, however false or misleading. Descriptions of religious professionals, rituals, armies, symposia, travels, triumphs, gladiatorial games, etc., all contain ethnographic elements. Pace David M. Olster, “Classical Ethnography and Early Christianity,” in The Formulation of Christianity by Conflict through the Ages, ed. Katherine B. Free (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), 9–31; and Aaron P. Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] See Andrew S. Jacobs, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land Christian Empire in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 103–38.

[7] Jacobs, Remains of the Jews, 107. I share Keith Hopkins’s understanding of ideology in his “Christian Number and Its Implications,” JECS 6.2 (1998): 185–226, as “a system of ideas which seeks to justify the power and authority of a set of ethical prescriptions and metaphysical explanations, and also, of course, to justify the power and authority of a particular set of interpreters of these ideas” (217).

[8] Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 1.28 (SC 264:356–57). Throughout the chapters below, I have followed the translation, for Books 1–3 of Irenaeus’s Adversus haereses, of Dominic J. Unger et al., St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies, Books 1–3, 3 vols., ACW 55, 65, 64. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1992–2012). For Books 4 and 5, I have followed, with substantial modification, the translation in ANF 1:462–567.

[9] The pioneering figures include Max Müller, William Robertson Smith, James Frazer, Émile Durkheim, Edward Burnett Tylor, James Hunt, Thomas Huxley, and James Cowles Prichard. For an overview of Victorian anthropology, see Stocking, Victorian Anthropology, and his Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); see also James Buzard and Joseph Childers, eds., Victorian Ethnographies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998): special issue, Victorian Studies 41.3 (1998): 354–494; and Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Pa- rade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chi- cago Press, 2011).

[10] Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, 17–21.

[11] At the end of the eighteenth century, the academy was divided between the natural scienc- es on the one hand and arts and letters on the other. In the nineteenth century, however, a series of disciplines arose that existed between these two fonts of knowledge. History, the great ideograph- ic discipline, as Masuzawa calls it, adopted the language of the natural sciences even as it turned to “matters human and social, rather than natural phenomena” (ibid. 14–15). And as history became increasingly dominated by scientific language and claims, three additional nomothetic disciplines emerged: political science, economics, and sociology. These were fields devoted to the social and human structures of modern European society. At the same time, however, two other dis- ciplines emerged in which the object of study was nonmodern and non-European: anthropology and Orientalism.

[12] Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation unto This Present (London: William Stansby, 1617). On Purchas, see Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 203.

[13] The passage is from the preface, “To the Reader,” of the 1617 edition.


Todd S. Berzon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College. He is a specialist in the religions of late antiquity, the reception history of the Bible, and theory and method in the study of religion. His first book (excerpted below), Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, was published by the University of California Press in 2016. His essays have appeared in the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal of Early Christian Studies. He is also a regular contributor to the Marginalia Review of Books. He is currently working on a monograph entitled Holy Tongues: The Materiality of Language in the Religious World of Late Antiquity, which investigates how ancient Jews and Christians described and conceptualized language(s) in both material and bodily terms.   

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