Classifying Christians

Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

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Todd S. Berzon
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Classifying Christians is a remarkable book. Todd Berzon offers an excellent monograph that deals with a series of hitherto inadequately discussed issues that exceed the narrow historical limits, theological predispositions, and superficial understanding of the early Christian world. Rather than dealing with heresiologists—that is, writers who addressed, in order to refute, the beliefs of Christian groups that had “deviated” from the “correct” dogma—as agents of the Christian truth, Berzon approaches their work as ethnography. In Berzon’s view, those writers were permeated by an “ethnographic disposition . . . an impulse for the collection, categorization, and theorization of knowledge” based on an urge to “describe, classify, and polemicize with systematic lists and etiologies of peoples, doctrines, belief systems, and the like” (158–59). Thus, instead of seeing heresiology as solely a theological endeavor, Berzon links this genre of Christian writing to ancient ethnography, with the latter functioning “within heresiological literature as a tool of organizing or disorganizing sects” (23).

Apart from the notions of heresiology and its ethnographic disposition, what also regulates Berzon’s approach and the structure of this fine volume are the two main aspects that preoccupy the heresiologists in their treatises: the macroscopic and microscopic worlds. The former refers to the “ethnographic paradigms such as genealogy and universal history” (99), whereas the latter deals with the “customs and way of life” (62). In this manner, as Berzon demonstrates, the heresiological writings, just like ethnographic studies, covered every aspect of the heretical life and worldview.

In seven very well written chapters, Berzon focuses on six heresiologists: Irenaeus of Lyon; Hippolytus of Rome; Tertullian of Carthage; Epiphanius of Salamis (undoubtedly, the core figure in the book); Augustine of Hippo; and Theodoret of Cyrrus. In chapter 1, “Heresiology as Ethnography: The Ethnographic Disposition,” Berzon lucidly illustrates how the two genres are linked. Christian authors used the heretics as “tools through which Christians told their own ethnographic history of diversity and difference as a history of error” (48). In this fashion, the heretics became the subject—or, in anthropological/ethnographical terms, “their indigenous people” (49)—through which the ethnographic disposition functioned in order to promote “the” Christian truth and obliterate “heretical” views.

In chapter 2, “Comparing Theologies and Comparing Peoples: The Customs, Doctrines, and Dispositions of the Heretics,” Berzon discusses how “heresiologists produced their ethnographies in microscopic terms” (60), basing his discussion on Epiphanius’s Panarion. The core difference between ancient ethnography and heresiology-as-ethnography here is the centrality of theology as the sorting mechanism that guides the heresiological approach. In his discussion, Berzon does not fail to see similarities and differences between Epiphanius’s work and nineteenth-century Euro- and Christian-centric ethnographical theories: “Epiphanius and the Polynesianists were both firmly interested in developing oppositional mentalities, for the former between orthodox and heterodox and for the latter between civilized and primitive” (89). This nicely demonstrates Berzon’s comparative outlook.

In the third chapter, “Contesting Ethnography: Heretical Models of Human and Cosmic Plurality,” Berzon turns his attention to the macroscopic aspect via Hippolytus and his work against astrology, genealogy, and creation. The fourth chapter, “Christianized Ethnography: Paradigms of Heresiological Knowledge,” addresses how theories of knowledge were formulated by heresiologists by concentrating mainly on Epiphanius and Theodoret. Similarly, chapter 5, “Knowledge Fair and Foul: The Rhetoric of Heresiological Inquiry,” expands on the issue of knowledge. For Berzon, the heresiologists, just like ethnographic theorists, “asked how one knows, when one knows, when one knows too much, and when one must cease to know” (161). The prominent figure in his discussion here is, once again, Epiphanius, but Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Irenaeus are also discussed extensively.

Both chapters 6 (“The Infinity of Continuity: Epiphanius of Salamis and the Limits of the Ethnographical Disposition”) and 7 (“From Ethnography to List: Transcribing and Traversing Heresy”) deal with the failure of the “ethnographic disposition.” Berzon effectively shows how modeling versus knowing heresy (187) constituted a serious problem for the heresiologists. Additionally, when turning to Augustine, Berzon indicates three major issues that the bishop of Hippo addresses: the editorial (i.e., what to collect, compare, and archive); conceptual (i.e., the fluid nature of the heresies, always proned to change and transform); and authorial (i.e., the position of the ethnographer as an outsider) (232–233). All three problems, as anthropologists and religious studies scholars are very well aware, constitute crucial issues in their research today, both methodologically and theoretically.

The book’s epilogue, “The Legacy of Heresiology,” is an excellent summary and illustration of the various issues that heresiology faced, as well as what they passed along to later generations. For Berzon, there is a strong continuity between those early Christian authors and the contemporary study of religion. As he puts it, “insofar as comparative theology was among the influential antecedents to the disciplines of anthropology generally, and anthropology of religion specifically, notions of heresy and sectarianism held enormous influence over the discourse of religion. As the necessary counter term to claims of Christian religiosity, the discourse of heresy became especially commonplace in and central to the writings of missionaries, early modern ethnographers, and comparative theologians” (254).

This last excerpt neatly summarizes Berzon’s outlook and motivation in writing this splendid book. Rather than producing a strictly historical/theological study, Berzon offers a volume that is not solely about heresiology but, more importantly, tackles the very history of the Western study of religion. Readers interested in such topics will find this book to be an excellent companion to their own researches. Berzon makes sure to keep a balanced structure and the reader will not be disappointed by the breadth of his knowledge, both of this historical period, and the field in toto. Meanwhile, up-to-date bibliographical references make this volume indispensable for those interested in issues such as classification, comparison, the ethnography of religion, and early Christian history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is Assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Vienna, Austria.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd S. Berzon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.



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