The False Teachers of the End Time

In the Book of Revelation, Rome is represented as a great whore "with whom the kings of the earth have fornicated"(Rev 17:2).1 At the end of times, the author of Revelation promised, Rome and the kings who copulated with her, together with the merchants who have grown rich from her luxury, will be destroyed. The kings and merchants will weep and mourn as they watch her and all her great wealth laid to waste, burned and burning for eternity following the true and just judgment of God (Rev 18:1—19:4; cf. Rev 14:18—11, 21:8). In this way, Revelation offered one of the more explicit Christian critiques of Rome and "her" coconspirators while declaring Christians to be the ultimate winners in a battle with cosmic and universal significance.2 "We"—the 144,000 sealed virgins (parthenoi) of the sons of Israel (Rev 7:1-8, 14:1-5),3 the great multitude from every nation who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb (i.e., Christ; Rev 7:9-17, 14:1-5), the "saints" (hagioi) who endure and keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, (Rev 14:12) refusing to worship "the beast or its image"(Rev 20:4-6)—will receive an eternal reward, worshipping God and the Lamb forever.

Revelation offers an early example of a Christian "apocalypse"—a written account describing the details of a final, divine, end-time judgment4— recording the vision of John of Patmos. John envisions an end in which Rome gets "her" due and "the saints" receive their just reward.5 But it is not only Rome that will burn, for evil men (kakoi), that is, men who call themselves apostles but are not, have crept in and tested the churches (Rev 2:2). Some who say they are Jews are not but are a "synagogue of Satan" and act as instruments of evil and revile the Christians; such persons will face "the second death"(Rev 2:9-11; cf. Rev 3:9). Another threat takes the form of a (Christian) prophetess, "Jezebel," who teaches fornication and

114 the false teachers of the end time apostasy. She and those who join themselves to her, learning "the deep things of Satan," will face terrible tribulations if they do not repent (Rev 2:20-24). According to the author of Revelation, therefore, dangerous delegates of evil threaten the church from within as well as without. The enemy within is a malignancy that may well destroy the "saints," tempting them away from the true path. Still, the author assures his readers, Rome the great whore will be punished by God; Jews who reject Christ will be punished with a "second death"; and insidious insiders like "Jezebel" with her false teachings, secret fornications, and adulterous liaisons will receive a just penalty.

This chapter considers charges of sexual licentiousness lodged by brothers and sisters in Christ against one another. As we have seen, Christian authors frequently defined themselves against outsiders in sexual terms: outsiders are sexually promiscuous; they have been handed over to "unnatural" lust; they follow the example of their incestuous and adulterous gods and listen to the corrupt teaching of their degenerate philosophers. These authors claimed sexual purity for themselves with sophrosyne and enkrateia described as uniquely Christian traits. Outsiders who rejected Christ were then represented as incapable of virtue, especially self-mastery. They lack the essential prerequisite: faith. Sexual immorality and faith in Christ were supposed to be utterly incompatible. Paraphrasing Paul, can a Christian be a Christian and fornicate? Never! (1 Cor 6:15). Christians put aside every kind of vice, but especially porneia (fornication/prostitution), moicheia (adultery), aselgeia (licentiousness), arseno-koites (lit. "bedding men"), and the like (see, for example, 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10; Poly. Phil. 5.3; 1 Clem 30.1, 35.2; Herm. Mand. 8.). "True" Christians can never and must never fornicate. Transformed by Christ, these "brothers and sisters" have finally attained the otherwise elusive goal of controlling their desires.

Similarly, when the followers of Christ sought to denounce one another they often did so in sexual terms. "False" brothers were identified as licentious corrupters of the true faith. Illegitimate teachers were said to chase after the things of the flesh: they loved pleasure more than God; they seduced weak women (e.g., Phil 4:18-19; Eph 5:6-18; 2 Tim 3:1-9; Heb 6:4-8; 2 Peter 1:4-9, 2:1-22, 3:3-4; 1 John 2:18-19, 4:1-6; Jude 3-18; Rev 2:14, 20; Ign. Eph. 7.1, 16.1; Ign. Trail. 6.1-7.1, 11.1; Ign. Phil. 2.2-3.1; Ign. Smyr. 4.1, 5.1, 6.2; Poly. Phil. 7.1-2; Justin 1 Apol. 26.). But these authors did not simply charge one another with sexual corruption and apostasy; as apostates and fornicators, false believers were said to be on the side of evil and evil's master, Satan.6 These authors warned their readers to be on their guard against false teachers, antichrists, children of Satan and the sons of darkness who sneak into the churches, seeking to seduce the faithful to faithlessness (e.g., 1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 7; Poly. Phil. 7.1; Did.. 16; Barn. 4.1-14; Apoc. Pet. 1-4 [Ethiopic]). Polycarp, for example, offers this denunciation of the Christians he opposed:

For anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist; and whoever does not confess the witness of the cross is from the devil, and whoever distorts the words of the Lord for his own passions [epithymiai_], saying that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—this one is the first born of Satan.

(Poly. Phil. 7.1; Ehrman's translation)7

The mistakes of these "anti-Christs," as Polycarp describes them, are doctrinal and practical. Such people have an improper understanding of the significance of Christ, he suggests, for they deny his resurrection and the coming judgment. They are inspired to present these false teachings by their uncontrolled desires. Therefore, true Christians ought to turn from their false teachings and return to the word (logos) that was given to them in the beginning (Poly. Phil. 7.2). Irenaeus remembered this passage fondly, attributing the "first-born of Satan" phrase to an interaction between Polycarp and Marcion, the "heretic": "And when Polycarp himself once met Marcion, who ran to him and said, 'Recognize us,' he answered, 'I do recognize you, firstborn of Satan' " (Iren. Adv. Haer. 3.3.4).8 To Polycarp and Irenaeus, Christians who offered a doctrine or teaching different from their own were properly understood as emissaries of Satan who are ruled by desire (epithymia) rather than God.9

The false brothers denounced by the "Paul" of 2 Timothy were also represented as sexually depraved, generally wicked, and signs of the coming judgment:

You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

These devious brothers—characterized by a whole host of traditional vices and allegedly dangerous to "weak" women10—are offered as an indication of the approaching final judgment.11 So, the author warns, Timothy must be vigilant. He must teach and preach the word to the faithful, for the time is soon coming when such teachers will find an audience among those who formerly listened to "the truth" (2 Tim 4:3-5).

Why was the vilification of Christians by other Christians for supposedly loving pleasure, seducing the faithful, and following after their base desires—often accompanied by apocalyptic warnings of doom—such a recurring theme in ancient Christian literature? By far the most enduring answer to this question has been to assert that some of the "heretical" Christian opponents of "orthodox" Christianity actually did encourage orgiastic or other unusual sexual behavior. In his now classic work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Walter Bauer argues that "heretical" forms of Christianity may have actually been more prevalent than those forms now associated with "orthodoxy."12 Region by region, he demonstrates that Christian "heresy" was early and widespread. Indeed, the "heresies" may not have been viewed as "heretical" at all during the earliest stages of Christianity. Rather, "at least here and there, [they] were the only form of the new religion—that is, for those regions they were simply 'Christianity.' "13 The alternate view—that "orthodoxy" preceded "heresy," since "heresy" involves a perversion of a preexisting, authentic, and apostolic tradition—is, he proposes, an artifact of later ecclesiastical argument rather than an accurate portrayal of the situation in most of the primitive churches.14 Still, Bauer suggests that Paul's opponents may well have indulged in the "unhesitating satisfaction of sexual desires" and, further, that this behavior was probably characteristic of the heretical Christians of Pergamum, of the followers of the "heretic" Basilides, and, possibly, of "the gnostics in general."15

Bauer's portrayal of the pneumatics in Corinth,16 the "heretics" addressed by the author of Revelation, the Basilidians, and the Gnostics repeats ancient charges made against them. Paul cautions the Corinthians not to tolerate incest or intercourse with prostitutes; Bauer assumes that Paul's rivals promoted such behavior. Revelation compared some in the church of Pergamum to Balaam—a villain who attempted to persuade Israel to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit porneia; Bauer assumes that Pergamum had been similarly influenced. Irenaeus suggests that the Basilidians promoted the indiscriminate indulgence of lust; Bauer accepts this assessment and, on the basis of evidence from Justin, extends Irenaeus' complaint to include Gnostics in general. Defining "orthodoxy" as "adhering to the teachings of the apostles" and "heresy" as "promoting a teaching other than that of the apostles," Bauer directly adopts criteria developed by second-century "church fathers" to differentiate the type of Christianity they promoted from that of the "heretics."17 Tertullian explains, "We have the example of the apostles of the Lord who chose not to introduce any doctrine on their own authority but faithfully dispensed to the world the body of doctrines received from Christ" (Praesc. haeret. 6.2-4). Heretics, Christian authors claim, pervert the authentic teaching given by Christ to the apostles and then preserved by the legitimate disciples of these apostles. "Heretics" are innovators, developing their doctrines independently.18

Such a stereotyped portrait of heresy and orthodoxy is no longer accepted, though Bauer's compelling hypothesis regarding the diversity of early Christianities remains justly influential. As Marcel Simon pointed out, the term hairesis can simply mean "choice," especially the choice to embrace a school of thought. The term developed in later Christian use, coming to mean "whatever diverges from the authentic position of the church," but this very definition suggests the contested nature of the term.19 As is now recognized, the authors of texts identified with the Gnostics saw themselves as Christians not as heretics, often claiming apostolic teaching as their own.20 The label "heretic" is, like other labels I have been exploring, a contested category that signals conflict between Christians, not a fixed or obvious category indicating "right" or "wrong" belief.21 Bauer, ever insightful, prefigured this problem in his analysis of Eusebius's portrayal of the Montanist "heresy." Eusebius, Bauer argues, offered nothing more than abusive caricatures of Montanists, attributing illegitimate motives to practices that, when promoted by Montanists, were said to have gluttony and perversion at their root. These same practices when performed "in the context of orthodoxy," however, earned the highest praise.22

Despite several persuasive studies that have called into question stereotypical reconstructions of heresy and the Gnostics,23 the opponents of the apostles are still portrayed as sensualist libertines on occasion, especially in the context of studies of the New Testament. So, for example, members of the Corinthian church, the opponents of the author of Jude and 2 Peter, and the false teachers excoriated in the Pastoral Epistles continue to be represented as licentious, antinomian, and libertine.24 From the accounts of second- and third-century heresiologists and from various New Testament books, "modern scholarship has inherited the stereotype of two types of 'gnostic' attitudes toward sex: libertinism and asceticism."25 The authors of Jude, 2 Peter, the Pastorals, and Revelation and the second-century authors Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, together with a few contemporary scholars, suggest that false believers were guilty of the sexual crimes that were attributed to Christians in general by their non-Christian critics.26

I will not attempt to decide whether Gnostics or other "false" believers actually did promote libertinism or incorporate ritualized sexual intercourse into their cultic practices, though I do call into question the historical reliability of such charges.27 My interest in accusations of sexual immorality lies elsewhere. As in the rest of this book, I am interested in the types of charges that are made, the definition of sexual propriety that these charges presuppose, and the power relationships they seek to establish or undermine. That is, I seek to understand how charges of sexual deviance promoted a particular view of what a Christian is while serving as a tool of legitimization or delegitimization of rival Christian perspectives. Having asserted that "the saints" are essentially (in every sense of the term) sexually pure, charges of sexual corruption were especially effective at maligning fellow believers. Since what a Christian possesses is faith (pistis) in Christ and since, from this faith, sexual virtue must follow, sexual vice among true Christians is logically impossible. No one can "be" Christian and also "be" a sexual deviant. Moreover, accusing believers of sexual licentiousness offered a counterpoint to positive arguments about what a true Christian is or should be. Christians are virtuous, self-controlled, holy members of God's army. They are not vice-ridden lovers of luxury ruled by their desires or by Satan. These are attributes of false Christians only. Defining "the other"—in this case "the other (false) Christian"—reinforces definitions of what the true Christian must be like. In the process, the boundaries between "us" (true Christians) and "them" (false Christians) are drawn in stark terms: We are the righteous of God. They are the emissaries of Satan. We are destined for eternal life. They are singled out for destruction. The true, blessed, holy brothers in Christ are distinguished from the false, seductive brothers in Christ who are actually enemies of God.

In the previous chapters, I observed that Christians' claims about their own sexual virtue can be read, in part, as a resistance strategy—Paul and Justin reconfigure ancient constructions of "the elite" and of "manliness"

in their favor, suggesting that they and their followers alone possess virtue, whatever imperial propaganda may have proclaimed about the emperor or the empire. Yet slander can also serve as a policing tactic, a way of controlling insiders and eliminating rivals. Charges of sexual vice could be effective in-group weapons in the ancient world. Rival elites employed accusations of incapacity, effeminacy, luxury, and licentiousness to undermine one another's political aspirations, all while defining "the elite" as "one who is virtuous." In the case of Christian polemics, charges of wicked desire and demonic influence can be read in a similar light.

I begin my analysis of Christian accusations against other Christians with a close reading of the epistle of Jude. This letter, though brief, is wholly focused on the character and significance of the "ungodly"—"false" teachers who, the author asserts, will attempt to corrupt the faithful during the end time. By means of biblical examples and prophetic oracle, the author of Jude portrays these Christians as destined for destruction and motivated by desire (epithymid); their existence is interpreted as a sign of the imminent end. This argument was reiterated by the author of 2 Peter.28 Like Jude, 2 Peter emphasizes the licentiousness of the false teachers, the swift punishment that awaits them, and the quick advance of the day of judgment. These two epistles illustrate the manner in which biblical arguments about the illicit desires of apostates were combined with traditional rhetorical commonplaces denouncing the licentiousness of an opponent to describe the typical false brother or sister in Christ. Next, I discuss the theory that "evil spirits" or the devil are the animating force behind false, licentious teachers by considering instructions on the testing of the spirits given to Hermas in the Shepherd.29 I explore the implications of the twin charges licentiousness and demonic influence, suggesting that, for Christians, these two charges came to constitute and define the model heretic.


The brief New Testament letter of Jude contains a sustained indictment of false teachers who enter the community secretly to "pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness." Jude is dominated by a carefully constructed series of denunciations grounded in biblical and pseudepigraphical traditions about the swift punishment that awaits those who would disobey God.30 Though biblical examples predominate, the author demonstrates a close familiarity with Greek rhetorical style,31 and the letter possesses one of the more complex vocabularies in the New Testament.32 Many exegetes suggest that Jude was written to respond to a group of treacherous troublemakers whose false teachings threatened a fledgling church. Still, the specific occasion, date, and circumstances surrounding the letter cannot easily be determined.33 Some suggest that Jude was written to oppose a group of Gnostics or proto-Gnostics who, spreading their licentiousness, "revile what they do not understand" (Jude 10a).34 Adopting a more cautious approach, others assert that the author sought to denounce a group of bold libertines, though they need not be Gnostic in type.35 The majority, however, believe that the targets of Jude's polemic taught antinomianism, rejected moral authority, and indulged in sexual misconduct.36

Whether or not the author of Jude's opponents were sexual deviants or simply alleged to be so, the false Christians he denounces are represented in a manner that remained popular among later polemicists. As far as this letter is concerned, all false Christians are licentious perverters of the truth who stand in a long line of biblical examples of disobedience, rebellion, and lust. Drawing boundaries between true and false Christians, Jude repeatedly contrasts "you" (U|£i~, the beloved, the saints) with "these" (outoi, the ungodly, the licentious ones). "You" must remain faithful and keep the love of God if you hope to avoid the punishment endured by past examples of men such as "these" ("these," Jude 7, 8, 10, 12, 16, 19; "you," Jude 3.17, 18, 20).37 "These" deny the Lord Jesus Christ, are unfaithful, commit porneia, are revilers and revelers, and will be harshly judged. Jude goes on to identify "these" with "those"—biblical characters from the past who were associated with crimes of varying types, but especially with fornication and lust. Alleged sexual depravity served as one of the most important indicators of a false teacher throughout this brief letter.

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