First Century Church Heresies

In the realm of Christianity, the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy hold profound significance. These terms delineate “correct belief, from deviation within the faith. Even so, the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy are often intertwined. The early Christian churches ‘ beliefs and practices were based on oral accounts of Christ delivered secondhand to the converted. Can heresy exist without a clearly defined orthodoxy, or vice versa?  How do these concepts shape Christian theology and practice? 

Christian orthodoxy is based on specific objective truths about the character of God, the person of Jesus and the nature of Salvation.  These truths are sanctified by scripture and tradition and repeated regularly in religious creeds. The word “orthodoxy” comes from the Greek words “orthos” (meaning “straight” or “correct”) and “doxa” (meaning “opinion” or “belief”). In a religious context, orthodoxy refers to the having a generally accepted and dominant set of beliefs.  Religious orthodoxy requires a doctrinal framework that aligns with the authoritative teachings, creeds, and scriptures of the faith. It serves as the standard against which other beliefs are measured and evaluated.

On the other hand, heresy stems from the Greek word “hairesis,” meaning choice or faction. Today, the word choice is associated with error and inaccuracy.  An objective truth is non-negotiable; it either is or is not.  Heresies are inaccurate choices in light of non-negotiable realities. Christians reject a theological smorgasbord for core tenets of the faith, a set of indisputable truths. Those who rejected these truths are called heretics because they embraced inaccurate choices.

The very concept of heresy presupposes the existence of a well-defined orthodoxy. Without a clear standard, it would be impossible to identify something as deviancy. Nevertheless, the lines between orthodoxy and heresy can be blurry, especially in the early stages of a religious tradition (First Century Christianity). Historian Elaine Pagels, in her book “The Gnostic Gospels, highlights this point: [Heretics] defined themselves – and were defined by their opponents – in relation to what was becoming Christian orthodoxy.”

Orthodoxy and heresy are not static concepts but exist in dynamic tension. As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan eloquently stated, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” This distinction highlights the evolving nature of orthodoxy, which remains grounded in the wisdom and insights of the past while adapting to contemporary contexts.

Throughout Christian history, numerous controversies and debates have centered on matters of orthodoxy and heresy. The First Century Church grappled with challenges posed by Judaizers and Docetists, and a torrent of others in later centuries. These conflicts spurred theological reflection, ecclesiastical councils, and doctrinal formulations aimed at preserving the integrity of the faith.  Religious understanding can evolve over time, and what was once considered heretical can eventually become part of the accepted tradition.  The need to address heretical ideas helps solidify orthodoxy.

Conflicts Over the Identification of Jesus

Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, presented a theological conundrum for the early Church. The Gospels depicted him as both fully human and divine, but how these aspects coexisted remained a point of intense debate for centuries. The core of the confusion stemmed from Jesus’ dual nature. The Gospels portray him as the Son of God, performing miracles and claiming authority equal to God. Yet, he also displays human emotions, experiences hunger and thirst, and ultimately undergoes a physical death. This paradox – divine and human existing in one being – challenged the early Jewish Christians, accustomed to a strict monotheism.

Several competing Christological theories emerged, each attempting to explain Jesus’ relationship with God the Father and His Nature: Hunan or Divine.  The early Church’s struggle to define Christ’s identity (Homoousios versus Homoiousios)   demonstrates the complexity of core Christian beliefs. These and other Christological debates raged for centuries.

While the debates may seem arcane today, they grappled with fundamental questions about God, humanity, and salvation. Through councils, dialogues, and theological treatises, the Church gradually arrived at what became known as “orthodox” Christianity. enshrined in creeds like the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition (451 AD), became the cornerstone of Christian belief about Jesus.  The resulting Christological framework continues to shape Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as the divine-human bridge between God and humanity.

First Century Christian Heretical Sects

In the first century, Christianity was still in its formative stages, and various sects, interpretations, and disagreements arose within the community. Some of these groups mentioned in early Christian writings or by ancient historians include:

  1. Judaizers: Those individuals or groups advocated for the adherence to Jewish laws and customs among non-Jewish converts to Christianity. Judaizers are often confused with Ebionites.
  2. Ebionites: The Ebionites were a Jewish Christian sect that emphasized the importance of Jewish law and traditions. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah but rejected his divinity. Like the Judaizers, they upheld strict adherence to Jewish laws, including circumcision and observance of the Sabbath.
  3. Gnosticism: Several Gnostic sects emerging in the first century. Gnostic believed that a hidden knowledge (gnosis) based upon d a complex cosmology was necessary for salvation. Christian Gnostics interpreted Jesus’ teachings through this lens, often emphasizing his role as a revealer of divine knowledge rather than focusing on his crucifixion and resurrection.
  4. Docetism: Docetism was a belief among certain early Christians that Jesus only appeared to be human, but in reality, he was purely divine. This view denied the true humanity of Jesus and his physical suffering during the crucifixion.
  5. Marcionism:  The sect founded by Marcion of Sinope in the second century had roots in the first century. Followers believed in a radical dualism between the harsh, vengeful God of the Old Testament (which they rejected entirely) and the loving, forgiving God of the New Testament. Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah but rather a savior sent by the true, previously unknown God.

As Christian doctrine emerged over the next several centuries, new cults and old heresies continue to surface. They continue to do so in modern times. Some end tragically, i.e., David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple Church.  The belief in a “Prosperity Gospel” – the Doctrine of Seed Faith and the New Thought Movement – draws large audiences anxious to receive financial prosperity, physical healing, or other forms of favor from God in return for supporting His work.