Charges of demonic influence and slavery to desire, found throughout late-first- and early-second-century Christian literature, built upon the traditional association of illicit sex, idolatry, and apostasy; upon well-known categories of Greek invective; and upon moralistic writings that made sophrosyne and its opposites (akolastos, aselgeia, tryphe) the distinguishing characteristics of a "good" (agathos) or "bad" (kakia) person. These charges, directed at real or imagined opponents, could serve at least three functions simultaneously: to eliminate rivals who, if the charge stuck, would be viewed as anything but Christian; to persuade insiders to adopt and display a strict sexual virtue or face demonization and labeling as an "idolater," "gentile," or worse; and to suggest to an audience that the author embodies the in-Christ-ness that he has been promoting, lending legitimacy to his argument and granting him the authority to make it. Sexualized vituperation, therefore, can be read as a rhetorical tactic designed to enforce a sexualized Christian identity— Christians are sexually pure or they are not Christians at all—and to enhance the prestige of the authors who promoted this view. Therefore, when Justin and Irenaeus define, list, and categorize false Christians they call the "heretics," they adopt what was already a familiar strategy, associating their targets with sexual misbehavior and gender deviance. Justin describes Christian heretics as demon-inspired sex fiends (i Apol. 26; Dial. 35). Irenaeus defines the error of the heretics according to the two, equally reprehensible practices they purportedly recommended: either they promoted idolatrous slavery to desire or they perversely overcom-mitted themselves to enkrateia (i.e., self-mastery or self-restraint; Iren. Adv. Haer. 1.6.2, 1.13.2—7, 1.24.5, ^25.3—4, 1.26.3, 1.28.2, 2.32.2, 5.8.4, 1.24.2; 1.28.1). In both cases, Irenaeus claims, they advanced erroneous,
144 illicit sex, wicked desire, and the demonized heretic ungodly doctrines and exhibited blameworthy practices. False religion and illicit sexual habits were linked once again.
This chapter explores charges of sexual vice as they appear in the antiheretical writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons.1 Composing a work (lit., a oúvxagma) "against all the heresies," Justin Martyr began a trend that was imitated by Irenaeus approximately twenty-five years later. Though Justin's contribution is now lost, his procedure in identifying and classifying "heresies" (lit. "choices" or "schools of thought") can be detected in a series of asides found in his extant works.2 Listing the false teachings and the shocking sexual exploits of his rivals, Justin blames them for bringing negative attention to his movement. Since Justin's "true Christians" must always be chaste, self-disciplined models of sexual virtue, only false Christians could be capable of "the overturning of the lamp stand and promiscuous intercourse and devouring human flesh" (Justin i Apol. 26.7). These not-Christians, Justin asserts, teach ridiculous opinions, associate with prostitutes, and engage in the sort of wicked behavior of which all the Christians stand accused: that is, free intercourse under the cover of darkness after dining upon human flesh. If these imposters are guilty of such crimes, Justin contends, then they should be punished severely by the Romans (and by God) for their wicked behavior but not for their "Christianity." According to Justin's logic, they could not possibly be "Christian"; they forfeited any claim they had to the title by partaking in such practices.
Following Justin's lead, Irenaeus composed a comprehensive work against Christian "falsely so-called knowledge," listing each alleged heresy in turn and cataloging each group by founder, erroneous teaching, and illegitimate practice. According to Ireanaeus' system, the "Simonians" were the first heretics; all other heresies originated with them. As descendants of the Simonians, the heretics "naturally" followed the example of their "father," living licentious lives, practicing magic, worshipping statues, and teaching impious doctrines (Iren. Adv. Haer. 1.23.4). The Valentinians, Irenaeus' principle target, "are insatiably enslaved to the pleasures of the flesh" and "treacherously corrupt those women who are being taught this teaching by them" (Adv. Haer. 1.6.3).3 According to Irenaeus, the Valen-tinian Marcus seeks out women to seduce and tempts them with the hope that they might prophesy; then, after luring them in, he takes all they have, body and soul: "And she endeavors to repay him, not only by the gift of [her] possessions, by which he has amassed a great fortune, but also by intercourse of the body, being eager to unite in every way with him, in order that she might join together with him into one" (Adv. Haer. 1.13.3).4 The Carpocratians are similarly accused of performing "deeds which it is not only wrong for us to speak of and listen to, but which we may not even think or believe that such things are done among people who live in our cities" (Adv. Haer. 1.25.4).5 The Nicolaitans are charged with asserting that "there is no difference between committing fornication and eating food sacrificed to idols," both of which they were supposedly eager to do (Adv. Haer. 1.26.3).6 To this list, Irenaeus adds another heretical type: the radical renunciant. According to Irenaeus, the followers of Saturninus, Marcion, and the so-called Encratites declared that marriage is from Satan, displaying a despicable hatred of the flesh (Adv. Haer. 1.24.2, 1.28.1). So, for example, the disciples of Saturninus refrained from meat altogether, "misleading many by this pretense of enkrateia (Adv. Haer. 1.24.2).7 Still, when summarizing the alleged faults of the heretics, Irenaeus seems to have forgotten about the (heretical) renunciants, remembering only those who gave themselves up to every kind of reprehensible sexual and religious act (Adv. Haer. 5.8.2-4). To Justin and Irenaeus, promiscuous thinking— that is, thinking that they disagree with—inevitably results in promiscuous behavior.
These sorts of arguments are by now familiar; Justin and Irenaeus joined in the denunciations of "false prophets," this time by condemning illegitimate Christian "schools of thought." Recent interpreters have pointed to the formulaic character of heresiological representation, arguing that the antiheretical writings offer scant evidence of the actual beliefs or practices of the groups they purport to describe.8 According to this view, the heresiologies of Justin, Irenaeus, and later Christian authors are better understood as evidence of conflict, rhetorical grandstanding, Christian identity production, and the effort to deflect outsider criticism away from one Christian group and onto another; these writings do not provide evidence of antinomian heresies.9 As Elizabeth Clark has shown, late antique "church fathers" attempted to place charges of Christian hatred of the body—lodged by outsiders against Christians in general—squarely on the shoulders of alleged "heretics."10 By associating the "Simonians" with orgiastic love-feasts and anthropophagy, Justin makes a similar move, blaming them for rumors circulating about illicit Christian rituals. As le Boulluec has argued, heresiological writing was central to the contentious project of early Christian identity formation and formulation, a project that sought to create purity by exclusion.11 Heresiology, therefore, including that of Justin and Irenaeus, lists, names, describes, and constrains, defining what true Christianity is not; in the process, Christianity is elaborated, defended, and constructed.12 By representing the beliefs and practices of Christian "falsely so-called knowledge" and other (allegedly) false Christian positions, Justin and Irenaeus were engaged in powerful epistemological and cultural work that did not necessarily require "real" hedonistic heretics at all.
In addition to employing standard charges of sexualized invective to characterize their targets as corrupt, Justin and Irenaeus adopted another common vituperative practice: they contrast the legitimate origins of their group with the allegedly illegitimate lineage of their rivals. Justin refuses to grant Christian heretics the name "Christian," insisting that they ought to be labeled according to the founders of their groups; they were not the descendants of Christ, they were "Simonians," "Marcionites," "Valentin-ians," or "Basilidians" (Justin Dial. 35.6; 1 Apol. 26). Irenaeus juxtaposes the supposedly pure genealogy of the church with the suspect lineage of the heretics throughout his polemic against them, contending that they were all derived from Simon, their true "father," though they had since grown appallingly diverse, splintering into "Marcionites," "Valentinians," "Nicolaitans," "Carpocratians," "Basilidians," and other groups (Iren. Adv. Haer. 1.16.3, 3.3.2, 3.4.1-2, 5.20.2).13 The authors of Jude and 2 Peter also place false teachers in a disgraceful genealogical line; in their case, that line extends back to the biblical villains of old.14 In Justin's and Irenaeus' schemes, the heretics were "born" after Christ's ascension; hence, they traced their opponents' origins not to biblical villains but to demonically inspired pseudo-Christians.15
Asserting Christian difference on the basis of genealogical metaphors, Justin and Irenaeus circumscribe their group's borders while positing an elite, divine lineage for those who accept their authority and opinion.16 Heretics are removed from the genos (a group descended from common ancestors) of Christ and God, as are non-Christian Jews and gentiles.17 Christians were not "Jews," they argue, since the Judeans had largely rejected Christ and were therefore cut off from divine favor.18 Christians, though derived "from every genos," were a new genos that refused to worship or imitate the demon-gods honored by their ancestors (Justin 1 Apol. 25; Justin Dial. 138.2; Iren. Adv. Haer. 4.24.2, 4.33.1). In this system, true Christians—the not-Judeans, not-gentiles—become the only legitimate heirs of Christ and, therefore, of God. Justin explains: "For all the Gentiles [ta ethne] were desolate of the true God, serving the works of [their] hands; but Jews and Samaritans, having the word [logos] from God delivered to them through the prophets and constantly expecting the Christ, did not recognize him when he came" (i Apol. 53; compare Dial. 43.4-5, 67.5, 119.5, 120.5; Iren. Adv. Haer. 4.15.2-2).19 Therefore, "knowing the truth that is contained in his words and those of his prophets," the Christians are confident that they will "inherit the incorruptible things of eternity"(Justin Dial. 139.5; compare Iren. Adv. Haer. 4.33.1-9, 5.33.3).
Rhetorically assimilated into the category "idolatrous gentiles," members of illegitimate pseudo-Christian "schools" are promised a share in eternal punishment even as Christians are reminded of their share in eternal bliss. "Too gentile," they cannot inherit God's blessings, but, like unrepentant Jews, they will be condemned. Indeed, unlike the Jews, the heretics are never actually included by Justin and Irenaeus in the privileged genos at all; their demon-inspired origin precluded them from salvation. Damned they would remain, whatever they might choose to call themselves. Justin's and Irenaeus' accusations regarding illicit sex and illegitimate birth denies heretics a place in a noble Christian lineage that originated, ultimately, with God.20
Was this article helpful?