Reviews of

Judith Lieu, “Heresy and Scripture”

In Durham, Heresy, Judith LIEU, Justin A. Mihoc, Scripture, Second century, SEMINAR REPORTS on December 27, 2010 at 5:30 am

This is a report on a paper presented by Professor Judith Lieu, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, at the New Testament Research Seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 13th of December 2010.

The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University will be found here.

In her paper, Prof Lieu examined the ideas of ‘heresy’ and ‘Scripture’ as reflected in the writings of the 2nd century Christian theologians Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian. The discussion on heresy is centered on the figure of Marcion and his ‘Gospel’ as a ‘falsification’ of Scripture.

The idea of (Christian) ‘Scripture’, and therefore canon, was coined surprisingly late, beginning with Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373) who mentions a list of books in his 39th Festal Letter. He also refers to a number of books not to be read, therefore giving a list of ‘heretic’ writings.

But until Athanasius, Justin (103–165) draws attention to ‘false Christians’ who undermine his apologetic demarches. In his First Apology, Justin compares these so-called Christians (those who held different views and/or opinions) with false philosophers: ‘All who stem from such, as we said, are called Christians, in the same way as those who share the same doctrines among the philosophers share the common predicated label of philosophy.’ (I Apol. 26.1, 5-8) He also introduces the term ‘αἱρεσέις’ which meant to hold an opinion, and became within Christianity a term to describe a different other. Justin claims to have written a list of all heresies: ‘We have a compilation put together against all heresies (αἱρεσέις) that have come into being, which we shall give if you wish to have it.’ In Dialogues with Trypho, Justin applies a different strategy and uses the term ‘Christians’ (‘us’) for all opposing Judaism. In his view, only the Christians understood the Scriptures (then, the Old Testament) and their messianic message, whereas the Jews did not. He also affirms that the Jews had cut out passages referring to Jesus from the Scriptures and, therefore, modified it: ‘You, indeed, appear not to have even heard of the Scriptures which I said they had cut out. But the many passages which I have already cited, together with those which you have preserved, and which are still to be quoted are more than enough to prove the points at issue.’ (Dial. 72-73) In the Dialogues, the author uses ‘us’ when referring to Christians, as opposing the ‘others’ who are not, raising the question of legitimacy of a common label as Christians.

In Irenaeus, to belong to αἱρεσέις (heresies) means to be outside the truth and, in this way, the concept of Heresy is born. He exposes all the then known heresies in order to defend the Christian ‘orthodoxy’: ‘On the outside they are indeed sheep since they seem like us on account of having the same vocabulary externally, but within they are wolves.’ (Adv.Haer. III.16.8) Irenaeus also creates a new knowledge of this concept of Heresy. Prof Lieu observes that Scripture is perverted by those who are heretics, emphasising the relationship between Heresy and the altered Scripture as its core. Irenaeus argues that Marcion, in his embryonic canon (a mixture of gospels and epistles), ‘mutilates (circumcido) the Gospel according to Luke, doing away (aufero) with everything that is written about the birth of the Lord, and removing (aufero) much about the teaching of the words of the Lord in which the Lord is described as openly acknowledging the builder of this universe as his own father; so he persuaded his disciples that he himself was more to be trusted than those apostles who handed down the Gospel, handing down himself not the Gospel but a piece of the Gospel. Similarly he cut away (abscido) at the letters of Paul the apostle, removing (aufero) whatever was explicitly said by the Apostle about that God who made the world, that he is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and whatever the Apostle taught making use of the prophetic announcements of the coming of the Lord… We shall prove him wrong, challenging him from his own writings, and we shall refute him from those sayings of the Lord and the Apostle which are preserved by him and which he himself uses.’ (Adv.Haer. I.27)

But in Irenaeus’ scrutiny, the heretics even invent other books in order to mutilate the Scripture. In his theology, the idea of a New Testament emerges as a continuation of the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament). Prof Lieu draws attention on Irenaeus’ vocabulary which recalls Justin’s in Greek. As Justin (against the Jews), Irenaeus (against Marcion) uses ‘cutting’ as the method of ‘mutilating’ the Scripture (Adv.Haer. III.11.9). Also, Irenaeus appeals to the same stories (e.g. the ‘Ptolemy story’) and promises the same as Justin, to defend ‘orthodoxy’ and challenge the ‘heresy’. Marcion is, therefore, excluded from the authors of Scripture (Adv.Haer. III.1.1-2), because he undermines it (by cutting) and, although he looks like an insider (like ‘sheep’), he is in fact an outsider (like the ‘wolves’).

As Irenaeus, Tertullian (c. 160-220) refutes Marcion by analysing the texts used by Marcion himself. Nevertheless, by using the Gospel of Luke, Marcion actually testifies to it. For Tertullian, Marcion’s Gospel is sufficient alike to confirm the Church’s Gospel, but yet insufficient to reflect the truth. He regards the Gospel of Marcion as being an exercise of falsifying the Gospel (adultero) and not of cutting it (2Cor 2:17).

Origen also acknowledges that some Christians altered the Gospel text and that heresy falsifies the Scripture as proved by the original writings still preserved (in his time). As there was a time (in the 2nd century) when similar versions of the Scripture existed, Origen claims that the true text of the Scripture may be still preserved by different Christian communities and, by confronting it, the various sectarian views (and Scripture versions) can be opposed.

In conclusion, Prof Lieu maintains that the ideas of Scripture and Heresy remain a conceptual question. In that period of the second century there was a tendency for editing and correcting activities of Scriptures (OT) and many Christian heresies and heretic teachings emerged from a corrupted Scripture version produced by various sectarian groups.

(Questions, remarks and suggestions were raised among others by Dr Stephen Barton, Dr Lutz Doering, Prof John Barclay and Prof Francis B. Watson.)

Justin A. Mihoc
Department of Theology and Religion
Durham University

  1. In a case like this where the defenders of the texts themselves admit that adulteration and mutilation is going on, we obviously cannot seriously believe (without being insane) that nearly 2000 years later we have the original text at all. Obviously the Marcions and Tatians believed also that adulteration and mutilation was going on, and that the Catholics like Ireneaus and Tertullian were the ones doing. Tertullian himself speaks of the “mutual incriminations” inherent in this controversy. Every claim of wrong doing is echoed by both sides. Looking at this mess that occured so long ago the best we can do is throw up our hands and admit that neither the hereticial nor orthodox text have come down to us with any accuracy, that both texts have been lost to time, to say nothing of the original. To say anything else would simply be dishonest, but pastors, priests, and theologians are all about being dishonest, about keeping the lie alive so they can keep their personal power alive and keep the coffers full and the cash flowing in.

  2. Hey Rey, thanks for commenting here. Just wanted to say I believe what you said does not follow at all from Prof. Lieu’s paper. If you don’t mind me saying, this is only natural, as she is speaking of different things altogether.

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