Here is a new book on my summer reading list:
Robert M. Royalty, Jr. The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Royalty will be part of a panel discussion on his book at SBL in Atlanta in November 2015. The session is sponsored by a program unit called The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity.
I’ll give a more thorough review later, but let me for now just lay out the thesis.
Although nearly every religion today has a notion of heresy, the roots of the idea of heresy go back to early Christianity. The Greek word “heresy” meant choice or school of thought. Gradually, it took on more the meaning of a party or sect (with political overtones). At first it didn’t have a pejorative connotation, but some Christian leaders in the second century and beyond gave it a negative cast. Royalty’s book is about the origin of heresy in early Christianity and particularly what he calls “the rhetoric of difference and disagreement.” The label “heresy” can be traced to the second century CE (especially Justin Martyr). But there was a reality of difference and disagreement evident, according to Royalty, in second temple Judaism and first century CE Christianity. In other words heresy existed before the word came into common usage. Royalty thinks the immediate followers of Jesus participated in this kind of rhetoric. He is concerned not only for the origin of heresy but also the demonizing of “wrong-thinking” people in the destructive political and religious discourses that go on today. Prior to being taken up into early Christianity the impulse toward branding certain schools of thought “heresy” can be situated in apocalyptic Jewish circles and contested ideas regarding “Israel.” Since early Christianity begins as a reform movement within second temple Judaism, it is no wonder that early Jesus-followers took up a similar kind of rhetoric to describe those who were “wrong-thinking.”
Royalty, along with other scholars and historians of the period, is committed to helping modern folk hear the suppressed voices of some of these other Christian groups. But the “orthodox” (or right thinking) Christians were not the only ones dealing in this type of rhetoric. Groups that later came to be identified as heretics–by the orthodox–were themselves adept at mocking their opponents and criticizing their teachings. The rhetoric of difference and disagreement had deep roots throughout the Mediterranean world in the first few centuries of the common era.
If you’re interested in Christian origins, this is a book you need to read. If you are in Atlanta for SBL in the November 2015, stop by our program and get a taste of what Royalty is up to.