Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium

Tony Burke

A cottage industry of books has emerged in the past few years responding to apparent "attacks" on the Christian faith by such perceived enemies as the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the discoverers of the so-called Jesus Tomb.[1] Targeted also in these books are the texts of the Christian Apocrypha (CA). The books are transparently apologetic with the aim of disparaging the CA and the Gnostics who (they say) wrote them so that their readers will cease being troubled by thei texts' claims. The problem with such books, at least from the perspective of those who value the CA, is that they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them. Proper research and sober argument take a back seat to the apologists' goal of buttressing the faith.

In many ways these books read much like the works of apologetic writers from antiquity, such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus. They too were concerned about the impact of non-canonical texts and heretical ideas on their readers and sought to reinforce the faith by denigrating and ridiculing their enemies. Then and now accuracy was sacrificed to the needs of apologetics. Yet, perhaps there is something that scholars of the CA can learn from the modern apologists, something not only about ourselves but also about those who were attacked by the heresy hunters of the past.

In a 1981 study, Gérard Vallée outlined the rhetorical strategies used by the earliest and most influential heresiologists: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius.[2] Their chief strategy is to refute by exposure, a strategy reflected in the full title of Irenaeus' work: "the exposure and overthrow of the falsely so-called Gnostics." This refutation is done with little or no argumentation; the views are presented in such a disparaging way that detailed argument is unnecessary. The heresiologists do, however, claim the heretics borrowed from pagan ideas, they juxtapose the heretics' views with the "truth" of the creeds, and they disparage their opponents for disagreeing among themselves. Another common strategy is to place their opponents in a chain of known heretics. Also, the leaders of the various groups are demonized—Irenaeus does so by associating the heresiarch with the false prophets of the end times; by the time of Epiphanius the heretics' efforts are said to be directed by the devil. On the whole, the heresy hunters spare no invective in their description of the heresies and tend to place emphasis on the most repugnant aspects (real or imagined) of their beliefs and practices.

The modern CA critics, like the heresy hunters, situate themselves within the "orthodox" church. The writers are primarily American evangelicals, including Ben Witherington III, Darrell Bock, Timothy Paul Jones, J. Ed Komoszewski, and Philip Jenkins; prominent also are Canadians Stanley Porter, Gordon L. Heath, and Craig Evans, and the English bishop N.T. Wright.[3] The authors contribute testimonials to one another's covers and introductory pages, and many of the books are published by conservative presses (IVP, Eerdmans, Baker). Also like the heresy hunters, the writers address their concerns to insiders, a closed group of believers who likely need little convincing that the Browns and Ehrmans of the world must be ignored. Outsiders to the group, those open to the content of non-canonical gospels, are criticized for their receptivity; for example, Wright says they suffer from a "free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality" or "flexodoxy."[4] The battle between these two groups is given apocalyptic urgency by Witherington, who sees Dan Brown's novel as the fulfillment of 2 Tim 4:34 ("For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine. . ."). His own anti-Da Vinci Code book "is intended as a wake-up call to those who have not been noticing the signs of the times."[5]

The first of the techniques of the heresiologists used by modern apologists is refutation by exposure. Quotations from the CA are necessary if constructing an argument about or against their contents. However, often the apologists excerpt the texts simply to highlight their differences from the canonical texts. Of course, only those sections of the CA texts that are particularly odd are provided and commented upon. The favorite targets appear to be the resurrection account from the Gospel of Peter,[6] the "absurd tales" of the various infancy gospels,[7] and certain logia from the Gospel of Thomas (Witherington, for example, considers 31 "pantheistic," 114 "misogynist," and 18 "is just being obscure for obscurity's sake!").[8] Such focus on the "bizarre" elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. There is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable but it would be unfair to characterize Acts simply on the basis of the cursing stories, or Luke on Jesus' disappearing act (4:30) or the sweating of blood (22:43-44), or John on its anti-Semitism. Large parts of the CA are quite "orthodox" but these sections are not discussed.

But the apologists make no effort to understand these texts sympathetically; their goal is to show their readers that the CA are not compatible with the canonical texts. Indeed, again and again Bock points out that, in antiquity and today, canonical and non-canonical portrayals of Jesus are not reconcilable: "Either the Gnostic texts reflect what Jesus was and is, or the four Gospels are the best witnesses to the movement that Jesus generated. One cannot have it both ways."[9] And Wright, taking issue with Elaine Pagels' view that one could read the canonical and gnostic gospels side-by-side, states "it could only be sustained by a systematic and sustained rereading and in fact radical misreading, of the canonical gospels themselves."[10] That may be so, but the fact remains that throughout history Christians have combined both accepted and censured texts in a variety of ways, including art and iconography, popular literature, and manuscript transmission. So, reading the canonical and non-canonical gospels side-by-side was not only possible, it actually happened.

The refutation by exposure is assisted, as with the ancient heresiologists, by explicit ridicule of the texts' contents. The principal targets of the anti-CA apologetic are the texts from Nag Hammadi that have been used to great effect in scholarship and in the popular media. The refutation of these texts necessitates a description of Gnosticism. For the most part, the apologists describe the system in a fairly neutral fashion (perhaps, again, assuming it will refute itself). Wright is the exception here, belittling the cosmogony of the Gospel of Judas by likening it to letters he receives from mentally ill people.[11] Several of the apologists go on to associate all non-canonical texts with Gnosticism—even the Gospel of Peter[12] and the infancy gospels[13]—either because of a lack of awareness of the complexities of defining Gnosticism, or because of a reliance on outdated scholarship on the texts, or simply because it suits their purposes to associate all non-orthodox forms of Christianity with oft-demonized Gnosticism. The connection with Gnosticism allows them also to date the texts late—it is simply assumed that a Gnostic text must have been composed in the late-second century, even if there is evidence that might suggest otherwise.[14] CA authors also are disparagingly labeled "forgers" because they have composed pseudonymous texts[15]; it seems to matter little that some of the apostolic attributions in these texts are late developments and that some of these texts are named for their contents (e.g., the Gospel of Judas) not for their authorship. And being conservative scholars, the apologists do not acknowledge the possibility of pseudonymity in canonical texts.[16]

The modern apologists' inadequate knowledge of the CA is due to the fact that they are not experts on the CA nor on Gnosticism. The apologists show their shortcomings in CA studies also in their reliance on collections of apocryphal texts or commentaries rather than recent and comprehensive scholarship on the texts. There is also an overall tendency to cite only those authors or studies that are useful for making their arguments—for example, Stephen Carlson's work on Secret Mark is said to have proven that the gospel is a forgery,[17] and Nichola Perrin's work on the Gospel of Thomas is taken as proof that the text postdates Tatian's Diatessaron.[18] There are numerous scholars who argue the contrary in both cases, but to a reader of the apologists, such scholarship appears not to exist.

Another strategy the apologists have in common with the ancient heresy hunters is the demonization of the heresiarchs, or in the modern context, the demonization of CA scholars. Bock's straw man is the "new school" of Harvard, also called Neo-Gnostics, led by James Robinson and Helmut Koester. Elaine Pagels is also associated with the new school. She is often singled out by the apologists and, it seems, misrepresented. According to Jenkins, "There were two rival streams within Christianity, and for Pagels, as for many other writers, the wrong side won."[19] But Pagels has never made such a claim; indeed, in her magnum opus, The Gnostic Gospels, she is quite conciliatory, stating, "I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed."[20] Not only Pagels, but the entire "new school" is said to be attempting to "dethrone the canonical authority of the New Testament, yet in a way that substitutes an alternative range of scriptural authorities,"[21] and they are accused of not treating the non-canonical texts with the same scholarly rigor as the canonical.[22] But the "new school" is not as monolithic as the apologists suggest. Bart Ehrman, for example, considers Secret Mark a forgery and Thomas and Peter early-second century developments of the canonical gospels,[23] positions that the apologists would find attractive. The new school is further maligned by associating them with fringe scholarship, including scholars like Michael Baigent, Barbara Thiering, Carsten Thiede, and John Allegro.[24]

The worst of the invective directed at the "new school" is leveled by Ben Witherington. Speculating about their Christian upbringing, he says, "Perhaps these scholars have been burned in one way or another by orthodox Christianity,"[25] and he impugns their motives: "It's almost as if they said to themselves, 'If the first-century documents don't suit my belief system, I'll find some other early materials and rewrite the history of the first century.'"[26] Witherington even thinks the "new school's" sensationalist theories are created because they tire of fundamentalist scholars getting all the attention and to "prove (to themselves and/or others) that they are good critical scholars by showing how much of the Jesus tradition or the New Testament in general they can discount, explain away, or discredit."[27] Confusing scholarly interest in a body of literature with religious belief, he is perplexed at why the "new school" scholars wish to study Gnostic texts at all. "None of them are actually ascetics like the original Gnostics," he writes, "nor have they withdrawn from the world and anathematized the goodness of things material. Frankly, the Old Gnostics would have repudiated the new ones."[28] And finally, Witherington may rival Epiphanius—the heresy hunter who "has no equal in the history of heresiology for the art of insulting"[29]—in his demonization of the new school when he writes, "these scholars, though bright and sincere, are not merely wrong; they are misled. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."[30]

The apologists use another technique of the heresy hunters in concluding their works with statements of orthodoxy. Typically these are presented as portraits of the "real Jesus" to counter the, presumably, false Jesus of the CA and those who study it.[31] Some of the apologists instead simply assert the superiority of the canonical texts over the non-canonical. Such declarations seem to be a necessary component of apologetics. It is not enough to defend the faith from its enemies; one also has to affirm one's own orthodoxy. The readers thus are reminded of the strengths of the orthodox perspective and any fleeting interest they may have in the vagaries of the popular media's current fascination with the apocryphal Jesus is checked, at least for a time.


The ancient heresy hunters were instrumental in the suppression of the Christian groups they found objectionable. It is not likely that the modern anti-CA apologists will have as dramatic an effect on their targets. But perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from the correlation between these two groups.

First, the modern apologists are motivated to write by a fear that orthodox Christians will be led astray by the ideas presented in the CA and popular treatments of these texts. Their works are aimed at those curious about the literature and/or those concerned about others who are curious about the literature. In either case, the books mainly appeal to those within a rather closed community of believers who, ultimately, are unlikely to leave the group over the claims of "radical, liberal" scholarship. The audiences of the heresy hunters were also the writers' fellow orthodox Christians; perhaps their fears of losing members of their group to heresy were also unwarranted. Perhaps we assume too readily, based on the passion of the refutations, that the heretics were a grave threat to ancient orthodoxy.

Second, the modern apologists and their rivals seem never to interact with one another. The apologists read and seek to refute the CA scholars' works, but otherwise have little substantial knowledge of the literature and ignore scholarship that does not support their interpretation of the evidence. Likewise, the CA scholars targeted by the apologists seem completely oblivious to the attacks and also appeal only to scholarship that is congenial to their approach to the material. Were the ancient heretics also unconcerned or unaware of the heresy hunters' efforts? Did this ignorance contribute to their downfall? Or did the heresy hunters actually have little impact on them?

Third, the modern apologists make no effort to understand or sympathize with the CA and their ancient supporters. Such antipathy is observable also in the works of the heresy hunters. Both groups simply want their respective "heresies" to disappear.

But perhaps we are not doomed to repeat the errors of the past. There is no good reason for either the apologists or the CA scholars not to pay closer attention to each others' works and their implications. Some CA scholars are indeed "radical" in the esteem they grant this literature and their idyllic portrayals of the groups that valued them. It would be wise of them to consider the responses of their critics. Likewise, the apologists would be served well to consult a broader range of scholarship in their assessment of the CA and in other aspects of their scholarship; such openness might lead them to reconsider their beliefs that the CA are all late, derivative, and ultimately deserving of censure. If the two groups can set aside their guiding assumptions, they may find they have more to discuss than they expect.

Tony Burke, York University


[1] This paper began as a presentation at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, California. My thanks to Pierluigi Piovanelli (University of Ottawa) for his response, suggestions, and encouragement.

[2] For other discussions of rhetorical strategies in the heresiologists see D. B. Reynders, "Le Polémique de Saint Irénée: Méthode et Principes," Recherches de théologie ancienne et mediévale 7 (1935): 5-27; Robert M. Grant, "Irenaeus and Hellenistic Culture," HTR 42 (1949): 41-51; William R. Schoedel, "Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Adversus Haereses of Irenaeus," Vigiliae Christianae 13 (1959): 23-32; Pheme Perkins, "Irenaeus and the Gnostics: Rhetoric and Composition in Adversus Haereses Book One," Vigiliae Christianae 30 (1976): 193-200; and Joseph C. Capodanno, A Rhetorical Examination of 'Adversus haereses' by Irenaeus of Lyons (Ph. D. diss, University of Louisville, 1993).

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone's Asking (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004); idem, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2006); Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007); Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007); J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2006); Stanley E. Porter and Gordon L. Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007); Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004); id., What Have They Done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006); N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Judas: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2006).

[4] Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, 17 quoting N. T. Wright, "A Return to Christian Origins (Again)," Bible Review, Dec 1999, 10.

[5] The Gospel Code, 12.

[6] Komoszewski et al., Reinventing Jesus, 163; Jones, Misquoting Truth, 127; Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Judas, 69-70.

[7] Komoszewski et al., Reinventing Jesus, 154-157.

[8] Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus?, 30; Komoszewski et al. (Reinventing Jesus, 162) looks also at sayings 74, 105, and 108. A few other texts are "exposed" in Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, 209-212; and Bock, Missing Gospels (throughout).

[9] Breaking the Da Vinci Code, 89 and 123.

[10] Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Judas, 81.

[11] Ibid., 59-60.

[12] Ibid., 69-70.

[13] Komoszewski et al., Reinventing Jesus, 154.

[14] For example, Witherington (The Gospel Code, 89-90) dates the Gospel of Mary to the second century because he considers it Gnostic, and Wright (Judas and the Gospel of Judas, 78) and Jenkins (Hidden Gospels, 70) do the same with the Gospel of Thomas.

[15] See particularly Komoszewski et al., Reinventing Jesus, who names one of his chapters "What did the ancient forgers think of Christ?"

[16] See, for example, Bock, Missing Gospels, 83.

[17] Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus?, 1; Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 95.

[18] Bock and Wallace, Dethroning Jesus, 112; Bock, Missing Gospels, 6; Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 73.

[19] Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, 110; see also Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, 88.

[20] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979; New York: Random House, 1989), 142.

[21] Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, 20; see also Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Judas, 60; Porter and Heath, Lost Gospel, 108.

[22] Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, 36; Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus?, 5.

[23] See the chart in Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), xi-xii.

[24] Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, 178-204 and Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus?, 7.

[25] The Gospel Code, 94; Wright (Judas and the Gospel of Judas, 122) makes a similar statement.

[26] The Gospel Code, 94-95, see also 172.

[27] What Have They Done With Jesus?, 4-5.

[28] Ibid., 47.

[29] Vallée, Anti-Gnostic Polemic, 73

[30] The Gospel Code, 174.

[31] Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, ch. 8; Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 222-235; Komoszewski et al., Reinventing Jesus, 259-262; Wright, What Have They Done With Jesus?, 146.

Citation: Tony Burke, " Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.