Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

by Todd S. Berzon

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Classifying Christians investigates late antique Christian heresiologies as ethnographies that catalogued and detailed the origins, rituals, doctrines, and customs of the heretics in explicitly polemical and theological terms. Oscillating between ancient ethnographic evidence and contemporary ethnographic writing, Todd S. Berzon argues that late antique heresiology shares an underlying logic with classical ethnography in the ancient Mediterranean world. By providing an account of heresiological writing from the second to fifth century, Classifying Christians embeds heresiology within the historical development of imperial forms of knowledge that have shaped western culture from antiquity to the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284265
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/23/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

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

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Classifying Christians

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

By Todd S. Berzon


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95988-0


Heresiology as Ethnography

The Ethnographic Disposition

Let us go on again to another to expose once more the obscure, savage, poisonous teachings of the members of the remaining sects who, to the world's harm, have gotten cracked by the bogus inspiration of the devil. After exposing the opinion of such people who yearn for the worst ... and crushing it by God's power because of its harmfulness, let us call on God for aid, sons of Christ, as we set our minds to the investigation of the others.


I handed out half-sticks of tobacco, then watched a few dances; then took pictures — but results very poor. Not enough light for snapshots; and they would not pose long enough for time exposures. — At moments, I was furious at them, particularly because after I gave them their portions of tobacco they all went away. On the whole my feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to "Exterminate the brutes."


This book seeks to enumerate the ways in which Christians articulated their ethnographic knowledge of the heretics — how they categorized it, described it, and constructed it. It also explores the theological categories and intellectual motivations that underlie heresiological ethnography. "Categories," as the sociologist Rogers Brubaker notes, "structure and order the world for us. We use categories to parse the flow of experience into discriminable and interpretable objects, attributes, and events. ... They thereby make the natural and social worlds intelligible, interpretable, communicable, and transformable." For the heresiologists, heresy was a way of imagining and categorizing the world in overtly theological terms: to understand how the world necessitated knowledge of heretical their own, how the heretics behaved, thought, and defined themselves and their own universality, how those behavioral and theological differences came to be. And because heresiological ethnography was an instrument of classification, it set the parameters not only for what constituted heresy but also for how to study it. As Brubaker explains:

When we make sense of our experience by seeing objects, persons, actions, or situations as instances of categories, this always involves more than mere sorting. It always carries with it expectations and "knowledge" ... about how members of those categories characteristically behave. Such beliefs and expectations are embodied in persons, encoded in myths, memories, narratives, and discourse, and embedded in institutions and organizational routines.

Heresiological literature did not simply describe and polemicize the customs, doctrines, and origins of the heretics; it also provided authoritative interpretations of their practices and theology. The heresiologists understood the truth of heresy in ways the heretics did not. They constructed and conveyed this knowledge to their readers as didactic ethnography.

In this chapter I wish to elaborate the contours of my usage of ancient and modern ethnographic evidence to illuminate the genre and practice of heresiology. I have necessarily been selective in my choice of ancient and modern examples with which to compare the Christian heresiologists. This is both an accession to the realities of limited space and an acknowledgment of the wide range of forms and styles that constitute both ethnographic writing and the analytical practice of comparison. Ethnography is neither singular nor systematic in either its ancient or its modern form. Rather, it comprises a variety of methods, discourses, interests, techniques, forms, and rhetorical tools. Comparison, as David Frankfurter rightly insists, "is the very foundation of generalization. ... Our use of 'religion,' 'science,' 'magic,' 'amulet,' 'canon' ... is not a simple 'emic' translation of some unambiguous Greek or Latin or Hebrew word but a second-order, heuristic category of classification that implies applicability to a particular spectrum of like data." I have juxtaposed Christian and non-Christian sources not to suggest dependency of the former upon the latter but rather to highlight the continuities and discontinuities between the two. I am not claiming that the ethnographic patterns that I identify in this book "exist apart from their heuristic function in making sense of religion in context or that they grasp in any way the totality of content or experience." Instead, I hope that comparing Christian and non-Christian sources enables us to make better sense of heresiology as a genre that produces, organizes, and even destroys ethnographic knowledge. My aim is to emphasize how Christians used techniques of writing peoples in ways both similar to and different from Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers. I am interested in how the heresiologists contemplated and modified well-attested ethnographic problems to elaborate their own perspectives and understanding of the world in Christian terms.

I begin this chapter with a discussion of ethnography in the ancient world — as both a heuristic category and a literary process — in order to lay the foundation for my discussion of how early Christian writers theologized the writing of peoples. With specific attention to the writings of Josephus, Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Tacitus, and others, I enumerate not only various ethnographic styles and contexts but also some of the fundamental interests and methods that informed the study of human diversity and difference in the ancient world. Comparison was always lurking over ethnographic writing to establish hierarchies of peoples both within and outside a given society, to create genealogical bonds, to defend traditions, and to justify slavery and conquest, among myriad other reasons. In that regard, Herodotus was quite right: "Custom is king of all" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Peoples were invariably presented as equivalent to their customs, behaviors, and traditions. The ethnographers of the ancient world compiled an astonishing amount of detail about the dietary practices, cultic rituals, dress, governments, economies, topographies, pedagogies, and so forth, of different categories of peoples. Ethnographic writing was often dominated by the comparative effort to create a disjuncture between a cultural center and a periphery organized around diverging habits and customs, behaviors and mentalities, and political structures and policies (among other factors). This binary, however, was part of a much larger ethnographic discourse that informed the study and classification of societies and their people, on the one hand, and the world and its peoples, on the other. Ethnographic mapping provided the intellectual space in which to theorize the causes and sources of human differences and similarities. And by blurring the distinction between individuals and the culture or nation to which they belonged, ethnographers denied a sense of individualism and independence of thought and behavior. Models of human difference depicted people as members of groups with readily identifiable and fixed dispositions.


In the most rudimentary or, indeed, purely etymological sense, ethnography is the writing of peoples ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], if we take it as a designation of peoplehood, community, or ethnicity). It names the literary activity by which peoples are rendered into the written word. While the idea of ethnography, facilitated by a certain curiosity, was a manifestly real preoccupation in the Greco-Roman world, the term "ethnography" as designating an academic discipline dates to the nineteenth century. As Tomoko Masuzawa has shown, anthropology was one of two disciplines — the other was Orientalism — formed in the nineteenth century to study non-European peoples, what she calls "the rest." Anthropologists were specifically interested in the tribes and supposed primitives of the world, those peoples and places not covered by economics, political science, sociology, and Orientalism. It is with the work of the classicist and philologist Felix Jacoby that discussions of ethnography as an ancient genre or category truly began. Writing in the early twentieth century, Jacoby undertook anew the task of collecting, arranging, editing, and commenting upon the abundant fragments from ancient prose works that were lost or incomplete. In contrast to Carl Müller's chronologically arranged Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum and Geographici Graeci Minores, Jacoby's project, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH), proposed to organize ancient prose writers by literary style and genre. To justify his arrangement, Jacoby elaborated an integrated theory of Greek prose writing in which genres emerged out of an ur-prose tradition. He contended that prose writing in its earliest stages was a composite endeavor, indistinguishable by genre. Genealogy, mythography, ethnography, and geography were all part and parcel of historiography. This model of historiography (vis-à-vis Müller's strict bifurcation of historical and geographical writing) posited historical writing as a capacious endeavor — which, Jacoby stressed, was the case throughout antiquity. Despite the differentiation and evolution of style and genre over time, Jacoby insisted that the various ancient genres remained essentially interdependent and forever interrelated.

In the decades since the publication of Jacoby's work, numerous scholars have offered incisive criticisms and augmentations of his underlying thesis. While it would be impossible to catalogue these abundant criticisms, it is nonetheless important to discuss how scholars have conceptualized ethnography as one of the "basic types of historical writing," a tradition of writing about foreign lands, and a hybridized form of various methodological and textual conventions. Ethnography entailed surveying, categorizing, and theorizing this manifold diversity, and, in turn, articulating a relational position to and even apart from it. Emma Dench, refining the work of Jacoby, situates ethnography in relation to history, as "a feature of ancient historical discourse," and frames the totality of ethnography as relating to matters both minute and grandiose:

When ancient historians engage in traditions of delineating the lands and customs of "other people," they are drawn into rhetoric and practices that came to be regarded in antiquity as quintessentially historical. These include the assertion of the authority of the writer and his text, claims of veracity and the superiority of the account to that of predecessors. They also include interest in historical change, causation, and explanation (not least of imperial rule), patterns of the rise and fall of individuals and powers, and broadly didactic concerns such as the provision of vicarious experience and case studies of exemplary behavior.

Underlying much ethnographic writing in antiquity was an expansive and reflective disposition, what Dench calls the "ethnographic gaze": "the characterization of 'other peoples' particularly with reference to their customs, practices, and the behavior that typifies them and/or their lands." The particularities of peoples not only vibrantly color historical narratives but also illustrate how minutiae shape the course of history, cosmology, geography, and religious systems. Ethnography functioned as an intellectual-feedback loop in which the instantiation of ideology shaped interpretive strategies, the collection of data, and the consequent analysis, even as new data and its collection shaped ethnographic values and those same interpretive strategies. Ethnography did not simply describe the world as it was; it created an imagined sense of where the world had been, where it was now, and where it would be through the language of custom, habit, origins, discovery, and exchange. Ethnography's capacity to explain the differences within the world, to foreshadow history, and to justify conquest and expansion was an immensely powerful ideological and textual tool. In other words, ethnography depicted various types of peoples with dispositions that created cultural, social, and intellectual hierarchies defining the proper parameters for interaction and exchange.

Following in the lineage of ancient historians who have disputed and altered Jacoby's historiographic thesis, James Rives outlines an ethnographic tradition through a discussion of the interplay between literary form and descriptive content. In the introduction to his translation and commentary on Tacitus's Germania, Rives contends that the ethnographic tradition originated with Hecataeus of Miletus's now lost Periegesis or Periodos Ges ("a leading around the world"), which presented the peoples and places of the Mediterranean world through the prism of an extended journey. Rives's demarcation of tradition does not, however, posit an explicitly evolutionary progression (i.e., stages) of the ethnographic tradition. It offers instead a descriptive account of the broad forms of classical ethnography. Ethnography was, in some instances, reflective of the practical needs of sea captains and explorers, aiming "to publish, at the least, a basic record of the ports along seas or river routes," whereas in other cases it served historiographical needs. As the historian Charles Fornara has noted: "Ethnographic tracts appear as digressions from the exposition of res gestae." The historical narrative "treat[ed] ethnography as an excursus within a longer historical composition." Herodotus's Histories discusses the Egyptians, Scythians, Libyans, and Persians at length; Caesar's Gallic War describes the Gauls and Germani; Diodorus Siculus's Library of History discusses Arabia, Greece, Egypt, India, Scythia, Ethiopia, and Mesopotamia; and Sallust's Jugurtha incorporates ethnographic details about the Numidians. In each case, these histories display and demonstrate the utility and the allure of ethnographic detail in service of the particularities of universal, political, military, and geographical historical narrative.

Precisely because most ethnographic material was routinely subsumed within larger narratives and textual forms, many scholars have been reluctant to identify a formally structured genre or independent tradition of ethnography in the ancient world. Even so-called ethnographic monographs — Hellanicus of Lesbos's Aigyptiaka and Persika, Xanthus the Lydian's Lydiaka, Manetho's Aigyptiaka, Berossus's Babyloniaka, and the lost texts described by Jacoby — were brimming with historical and geographical details. As Rives explains,

This tradition gained considerable momentum from the conquests of Alexander the Great, which brought Greeks into direct and regular contact with a huge range of peoples. As a result, there was a steady stream of ethnographic writers from the Ionian Megasthenes, who in the early third century BC composed a celebrated account of India (FGrH 715), down to the indefatigable Cornelius Alexander "Polyhistor", "the very learned", who in Rome during the last century BC composed works on Bithynia, Egypt, Libya, and India, among others (FGrH 273).

And whereas Rives concedes that the "larger historical component" of these texts "may even have overshadowed the ethnographic framework," I remain sympathetic to the general position that ethnographic writing was a real interest and preoccupation of ancient authors. Scholars will surely continue to disagree about how to describe the ancient impulse for writing peoples, but they would no doubt agree that it remained a pervasive interest across radically different textual genres. But however much the detail, form, and structure varied, these texts captured the seemingly endless depths of the world's diverse configurations of peoples and places. From historiographical and historical narratives to philosophical treatises, to accounts of war, to travelogues, to astrological texts, to dramas, to geographies, to national or religious histories, the diverse array of texts from the ancient world that display an ethnographic impulse demonstrates the difficulty of isolating an ethnographic tradition. The diversity of techniques that inform the writing of peoples signifies that ethnography was and remains a constellation of preoccupations, born of ancient and modern moments, respectively.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

List of Abbreviations xiii

Introduction: Writing People, Writing Religion 1

1 Heresiology as Ethnography: The Ethnographic Disposition 27

2 Comparing Theologies and Comparing Peoples: The Customs, Doctrines, and Dispositions of the Heretics 58

3 Contesting Ethnography: Heretical Models of Human and Cosmic Plurality 98

4 Christianized Ethnography: Paradigms of Heresiological Knowledge 127

5 Knowledge Fair and Foul: The Rhetoric of Heresiological Inquiry 156

6 The Infinity of Continuity: Epiphanius of Salamis and the Limits of the Ethnographic Disposition 186

7 From Ethnography to List: Transcribing and Traversing Heresy 218

Epilogue: The Legacy of Heresiology 247

Bibliography 259

Index 285

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