In the last year, I’ve been taken in by a fantasy trilogy, which is set on Earth but definitely not on our current Earth. It is unclear how things got the way they are, or when; it might be an Earth far in our future or far in our past. The events in the three books take place in the immediate aftermath of a dire ecological change, a sudden and quickly worsening equivalent of a nuclear winter—in the parlance of the books, this new reality is called a “season.” The trilogy opens near the onset of a season, and the characters we meet are responding to the new difficulties they face, holding fast and trying to survive on meager and dwindling resources. These books are familiar to many of you: they are N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, the last installment of which came out in August, just as I was re-reading Todd Berzon’s book, Classifying Christians, in preparation for this panel. Jemisin won the Hugo Award, annually given for the best science fiction or fantasy, twice, for the first two novels in the trilogy. I’d be mildly shocked if she didn’t win for the third book, too. The awards were given, I’m sure, as a result of the depth and exquisite texture of the books—Jemisin is a brilliant builder of worlds, and the trilogy is worth your time as a reader not just for the intrigues of the environment it explores directly as the narrative present in its scheme, but also for the geological-scale history of that environment, which is unfurled slowly over the course of the three novels. Jemisin, in the creation of this long past, observes quite keenly the habits of human historiography, the transmission of knowledge and its failures, and the changes that cultures enact in order to survive and thrive in new circumstances.
I want to raise one feature of the world Jemisin has created in this trilogy in order to talk about what is so distinctive about Todd’s work in Classifying Christians. The society we encounter in the trilogy is dealing with the incipient disaster; I’m not spoiling anything much when I say that very quickly after the start of the first book, the world is plunged into a Season. That means hard, hard living ahead: general scarcity and disorder, a lack of sunlight and thus agriculture, and years of tectonic disruption. That society only has a very few resources for meeting the challenge. Materially, what they have is already inadequate, and there is no means of replenishment.
They do have access to non-material resources for surviving, though, especially a genre of preserved and transmitted knowledge about how to thrive during a season. Collectively, that knowledge is known as “stonelore,” though, contrary to its name, it is not lore or narrative or story. It is, the novels slowly reveal, a gnomic, even meme-ish catalog of utterances that are brought up when difficult circumstances arise. Are you wandering the barren landscape of the Season, hungry, and wondering whether you should eat some unappealing and perhaps taboo foodstuff? Stonelore reminds you, “food is that which nourishes,” meaning, it if can nourish, if it has digestible calories, you need to eat it. Should you take a cache of warm clothing that you find, knowing that it obviously belongs to someone else? “Necessity is the only law,” says stonelore, and you need the clothes, so you take them. Stonelore then, is a preserved matrix of guiding principles for living through a season; as a genre, it is held and transmitted by people who may never need it. Seasons arrive unpredictably, and entire generations may live and die without experiencing a Season. But they do come, and stonelore is the preparation against a future disaster this society holds on to during times of plenty.
I raise the notion of stonelore from Jemisin’s work in part because of what is revealed about this genre of knowledge in the last book of the trilogy. As readers learn more and more about the primordial past of the society that is living through the season, it becomes clear that stonelore was once, in fact, lore—it had been once a repository of stories and records. Over along intervening period of time, millennia, the character of stonelore, both its content and its uses, changed. Based on how it is presented and used by the novel’s contemporary characters, we the readers and those characters themselves have imagined it to be a monitory set of rules to guide behavior and to ward off bad choices. That is not, however, the intellectual pattern stonelore had followed when it first emerged. And, indeed, new stonelore, narrative in form, is being recorded by the time we reach the end of the third book in the trilogy.
I will stop now with the details, so as not to give too much away, but what I have told you allows me to observe this: Jemisin’s fiction proffers a subtle critique of traditional or primordialist ways of knowing, those that claim in the present continuity with their beginnings. The purpose of such ways of knowing, institutionalized and standard as they are, or even the grasp of that purpose, has little to no necessary relation to how such knowing emerged as a productive activity, how it was patterned, and how it worked in prior times, even if, or especially if, that way of knowing bears the same name across epochs.
That critique is as true of the made-up genre “stonelore” as it is of the existing genre of knowledge that we study and that is under discussion today, namely, “heresiology.” I don’t imagine that Todd thought he would be aligning with the observations made in a popular dystopian fantasy trilogy, but the analysis of our historiographical mistakes, executed in fiction by Jemisin is, in fact, the same analysis brought forward by Classifying Christians. Todd’s work draws us to understand that the genre we call heresiology, for whatever it is now, began as a way of knowing the world. As a method, it started as something analogous to ethnography. We should be clear, this is not an “ethnography” that traces multiple “ethnoi,” or depends on the ancient category of “ethnos” at all. Instead, by “ethnography,” Berzon means the investigation of the habits and customs of others, the sorting of people via their inclinations and often but not always linking such inclinations to their geographic provenance or their genealogical pedigree. Such a method situates people, whether singly or in groups, as objects of knowledge; it also places them in time, in part so as to explain change and variance across human culture.
This approach to the world and to knowing it is a “disposition” as much as it is anything else, Berzon argues (36). Taking the ethnographic disposition as a starting point allows us to see how heresiologists acted in line with many other ancient writers, beyond or before Christianity, who also meant to know the world around them. In contrast to a very traditional parsing of the literature at the center of this book, Berzon calls us to understand that heresiology, though a centerpiece of Christian memories of tradition, did not spring from a Christian or even a more generally religious outlook. It was rooted in other ancient intellectual patterns.
Todd’s presentation of heresiology in this frame is so sensible and rational that it takes a moment of reflection after reading to recall how else the heresiologists have been read. Frequently, scholars have thought of the men in this group as the prime agents of a campaign that appears often in our accounts of the past: the campaign to make or maintain boundaries. Discussions of heresiology as a genre often attribute the intention of creating, keeping, or reinforcing boundaries to the texts, and to their authors. I will note here that “boundary-making” as a handy scholarly description of what heresiologists did, aligns quite neatly with how these writers have been classed in traditional ways, from a Christian perspective, as boundary-defenders.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a confluence that we should notice and wonder about, when it happens. In this particular case, the case of heresiology, it is instructive to ask about the project of such boundary-making: where is the ancient author to whom we attribute this intention marking the boundary he so vigorously defends? The approach that assumes boundary-making is an intention of such writing would answer, “why, between himself and the heretics he describes.” That is to say, the boundary created, sought after in this frame of thinking, is proximal, near to the author and his way of life, but between him and those whose practices or beliefs are unsuitable to him. On this side of the boundary are those who are familiar, who are orthodox; on the other side of the boundary are, well, the Others.
If you have already read Classifying Christians, you know how sharply Todd’s work indicts that way of thinking. In meticulously ramified prose, he demonstrates that heresiologists were in fact drawing lines around what was familiar to them, but the heresies and heretics they sought so keenly to know lay within those lines. With few exceptions, and with a little anxiety on the part of Epiphanius, heretics were known, in detail, their ways of life subject to examination and well-informed condemnation. The truly unknown, Todd argues, lay on the other side of the heresies that this literature so painstakingly catalogued. And, this is, to me the most important insight of Berzon’s book: viewing the heresiologists as they have been received in Christian tradition tells us that they were aimed at one purpose, boundary-making, but situating them in the intellectual and compositional fields most aligned with their work, namely ancient ethnography, reveals an entirely different picture of their purposes and their doubts. The eventual characteristics of a genre or domain of knowledge are not its originating characteristics, and it is worth the work to uncover as much as we can of those originating characteristics, especially because we are, together, students of that distant time, but are independent of the tradition that transmits its content to us. We need not take that pattern as the defining pattern of the genre of knowledge we study. Nor need we let the continuity of the name of a genre obscure the discontinuity across time of its design, purpose, and use.
The disconnect between the past and the tradition about the past as it is transmitted to us is, at the same time, the basis for my primary critique of the book. Classifying Christians treats as a group a collection of writers who, yes, shared a common disposition of knowing, but whose activity took place in decidedly variant circumstances—circumstances that should matter if we are to comprehend ancient ways of knowing and the knowledge so created. Within the history of early Christianity, there is an enormous shift in the material and political circumstances of Christians to be taken into account in one’s work. The fourth century is the time of that shift, during which Christianity was legitimized and all parts of Christian practice that we can access were infused with the authority and even the finances of imperial power. Its reality changes the way we can and should read the literature Christians produced. The anti-Jewish themes in the Gospel of John read differently, and more important, work differently, in second-century Palestine than they do in late-fourth-century Milan. The exclusion of certain people from the ritual celebration of the Lord’s supper reads differently, and more important, works differently in third-century Carthage than it does in fifth-century Carthage. The notion that Christians are, at essence, a people persecuted works differently in second-century Greece than it in fifth-century Alexandria (or the twenty-first century United States, for that matter).
What makes these things different is not solely the passage of time. It is the differential access to power that their authors, and Christians more generally, have. To use just one of my earlier examples, the Gospel of John’s statements about Jews and synagogues are similar to, but quite distinct from those of Ambrose of Milan, who has the ear of an emperor during a crisis for Jews and a synagogue, a crisis which Ambrose makes worse. Heresiology, for all its consistency across the span of early Christianity, is also one of these expressions—different in the mouth of, or from the pen of a Christian living in the fifth century than it is from one living in the third or the second.
Now, to be sure, Todd is quite explicit about the how knowledge is intertwined with the claiming and the exercise of power. His treatment of knowledge in a general sense is theoretically sophisticated, and specifically he argues that knowledge of heretical groups is pursued by these writers as a function of mastery and control. The trouble occurs, though, when in a minority of the passages in the book, members of the heresiological writers’ guild are discussed in quick succession, out of any chronological order or context. Two short examples: in the chapter that traces the continuity of the ethnographic disposition among these writers, Todd moves in the space of ten pages from Epiphanius to Irenaeus to the Theodosian Code (42-52). Elsewhere, a discussion of how heresiologists focus their attentions on a “way of life” exemplified by heretics visits Tertullian, Epiphanius, and Augustine over the course of about 1,000 words (66-68). Turning from one heresiologist to the next to the next is, of course, the way to demonstrate that they have common characteristics—the continuity of the ethnographic disposition in question.
The search for commonalities need not, in practice, walk so quickly by the contextual differences that distinguish these writers (or texts). To do so, even on the way to describing a continuity, is to leave unaddressed the question of the replication of the approach across time. One of the reason heresy writing has not gotten as much attention in scholarship as other genres of early Christian literature is because it is, on its surface, repetitive. Maybe even boring, because it is so repetitive. Writers draw on earlier iterations of the heretical world, and at times, whole pieces of an existing text are incorporated into a new or expanded text. But repetition is not a default intellectual setting; it does not happen by itself, and not all cultures revere the preservation of earlier writers’ work—especially when they are in an investigational mode, as the heresiologists were. Indeed, as conservative and preservationist as Christian tradition itself might seem, Christianity was founded around the prospect that ideas can be changed, that longstanding interpretations of the past might be rejected to make way for new ones.
So, even as Todd was outlining for us the continuity of the approaches that heresiologists took across the first five centuries, he could have also explicitly noted and discussed how that continuity of approach was in fact situated at different points across a matrix of authority and access to power that shifted significantly, from the time of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, to the time of Epiphanius and Augustine. That is, of course, a wish you can attribute to my being a historian (I have heard Todd say on at least one occasion that he is decidedly not a historian—we all have different ways of knowing). But I also think I am wishing for an extension of the kind of work Todd did to even contextualize heresiology as he has. It is me being ambitious on his behalf, asking for the kind of locally-situated depiction that brought us to understand heresiology as ethnography, but executed within the time frame of his study, to grasp the difference in this Christian ethnography, before and after empire.
Ellen Muehlberger is associate professor of Christianity in late antiquity in the departments of Middle East Studies and History at the University of Michigan. Her new book, Moment of Reckoning: Imagined Death and Its Consequences in Late Ancient Christianity, will be out from Oxford University Press in 2019.