Book Note | Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge

by David Maldonado Rivera in

Todd S. Berzon. Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge. University of California Press: Oakland, California, 2016.


Averil Cameron noted in her 2003 essay, “How to Read Heresiology,” that the study of heresiology—often characterized as the stale reifications of lesser intellectual endeavors— provides a privileged example of “performative texts” in which the possibilities of identity, organization of knowledge, social tensions, and the mapping of groups and cultures were rehearsed.[i] The past decades have witnessed a scholarly reappraisal of this textual endeavor making heresiology the core of various explorations in intellectual history—from the transformation of polemical language in late antiquity, to the shifting grounds of the social world of intellectuals in the Mediterranean, to explorations of the longue durée of problematic categories like “religion.” These lines of inquiry have rehabilitated what once was the “Cinderella” of late ancient literature through careful examinations of scholars like Alain Le Boulluec, J. Rebecca Lyman, Hervé Inglebert, Kendra Eshleman, Geoffrey Smith, Karen King, Daniel Boyarin, Robert Royalty, Richard Flower, Annette Reed, Andrew Jacobs, Young R. Kim, among others.

Todd S. Berzon’s Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity partakes of these rich conversations by offering a sustained and convincing reflection on the adaptations, innovations, and antinomies of heresy-writing in the late ancient period. In the first two chapters of this exploration, Berzon identifies one of the key guiding concepts of this study: the “ethnographic disposition,” a mode of writing at the intersections of theology, history, ethnography, and anthropology that enables “a discursive activity in which peoples were reified into textual units, assigned essential dispositions and distinctive practices and beliefs…an impulse for classifying peoples on the basis of how they behaved, where they came from, and how they came into existence” (p.37). For Berzon locating this disposition of the late ancient heresiologists (primarily Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Augustine, and Theodoret) within the coordinates of Greco-Roman travel writing (writers like Pausanias, Diodorus Siculus, and Pomponius Mela), early modern and contemporary practices of ethnography allow his intervention to explore a literary activity fraught with different modes of representation and polemic. Heresiology became marked with the imperatives to facilitate different knowledge effects that made heresy and the heretic identifiable, classifiable, refutable, and, paradoxically, curated to be both preserved and destroyed.

Because the understanding of heresies became the crafting of peoples, different heresiologists deployed various strategies of consolidating genealogies and boundaries between the soundness of orthodoxy and the deviance of heresy. Chapters three to five highlight how Irenaeus and Tertullian could confront the poisonous paragraphs and rituals of Valentinians, Gnostics, and others in order to imagine a dynamic in which “foreign” ways of thinking were trying to mix with the regula fidei and resulted in the innovations of heresy. In the cases of Hippolytus and Epiphanius, the world of deviance was broader, focusing in Greco-Roman schools of thought as points of departure of heresy for the former, while a “mother heresy” model (Barbarism, Scythianism, Hellenism, Judaism) could make sense of heresy in a pre-Christian way for the latter. For both these thinkers heresy became a way to enlarge what and who could be reckoned as part of Christian history. Theodoret, lastly, offered a synthetic mode of heresiological thinking in which the ethnographic disposition was harnessed by an identification of paradigmatic mistakes associated with misunderstandings of the Godhead or Christ’s divine and human natures. These strategies produced peoples that were meant to be morally evaluated and corrected, facilitating an ideology with imperial repercussions in late antiquity and beyond. These modes of heresiological inquiry, however, were accompanied by a variety of anxieties which are showcased in the latter parts of the book.

The antinomies of heresy-writing are emphasized in chapters six and seven in which the “Rumsfeldian” dialectic of “known knowns and known unknowns” is seen as a prevalent feature of heresiological aspirations. Under this framework, Berzon identifies in Epiphanius of Cyprus’s Panarion ("Medicine Chest"), a catalog of eighty heresies based on the number of concubines in the Song of Songs, the frustration caused by the ungraspable and fleeting exteriority of a world that refuses to be surveyed according to the designs that are meant to seize it. The consciousness of the heresiologist’s own limits is also experienced by Augustine of Hippo in his catalog On Heresies. In this short work, Augustine emerges as an uncertain corrector, a reader of previous heresy catalogs who doubts the very soundness of the endeavor he is undertaking, lamenting that to devise a more effective heresiology is basically impossible because the amount of knowledge and certainty required for such an endeavor exceeds human capacity.

One of Berzon’s constant reminders is that powerful ideologies and strategies of representation often strive to hide their own seams and points of tension, but that it is in the process of highlighting these very points of tension that they find themselves at their most reproducible but also at their most frail.  The late ancient heresiologists cultivated strong rhetorics of exceptionality and mastery—the heresy hunter excelled at making discoveries and at flaunting erudition—but also rehearsed a discourse of fear of contagion, vulnerability, and epistemic overload. Berzon reflects how this aspect of heresiology reproduced the inherent tensions of its subject of study thus:

 [p]recisely because the world of heresy was a diffuse and diverse body, its very expansiveness, liminality, and mutation confounded the ethnographic gaze. Heretics contested the fabric of Christian ecumenical culture by exposing its thoroughgoing ignorance of the world around it….The internal rhetoric of heresiological texts at best complicated and at worst subverted the triumphalist, expansive discourse of Christian orthodoxy. The heresies were not simply a disruption within sacred history; they challenged the very foundations of narration, comprehension, and human understanding of the world that they had permeated (p. 245).

 Heresiology, as this book emphatically proves, was one of many attempts to produce a “grammar of the multitude”—to borrow from Paolo Virno—whose aspirations were embedded in its limitations, where totality was always confronted with tentativeness, disavowal, and fragmentation.

[i] Cameron, Averil. “How to Read Heresiology.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.3 (2003): 471-492.


David Maldonado Rivera completed a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Indiana University and this fall will be Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College
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