Community Boundary Definition, Part 3: Heretical “Christianity”

Last in the series of challenges for boundary definition of the early Christian community is the work that orthodox Christianity had to perform to define itself in relation to its various, heretical offshoots. Particularly, orthodox Christians faced a significant struggle with heretical groups over the problem of the old and the new, which includes, but is not limited to, the problem of the relationships between the Old and New Testaments. This issue grew especially large in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and it encompassed problems of sociology (the relationship between Israel and the church), Christology (Jesus’ messiahship), theology (Jesus’ divinity), and eschatology (understanding prophesies of Israel’s scripture in light of Jesus). Moreover, the church had to sort through tensions along canonical-hermeneutical lines by defining how the Old Testament constituted specifically Christian scripture and how Jesus should affect one’s interpretation of it.

The New Testament resolves the problem of the old and the new by placing Christ as the climactic culmination of the old. In Christ, there are both continuity and genuine newness. At first glance, the Old and New Testaments are in some kind of tension, but the early church saw this tension as being resolved in Christ. The New Testament’s gaze is centripetal, looking to Christ in the center of its interpretive framework. For the New Testament writers, Jesus shows that the Old Testament must be understood as part of a story that transcends (even within history) the Old Testament’s own hopes. This position of the church was unstable and hard to defend in the patristic period. In the church’s attempts to stand firm on this unstable ground, many people wrongly tried to resolve the problem of the old and the new. For instance, some people denied the newness of the new in a reactionary mode like Pseudo-Clement, who collapsed the new back into the old by saying that: (1) Jesus is essentially the messiah only of the Jews, according to Jewish expectation, and (2) Christians should live under the law, excepting a few specific commandments. Alternatively, other people emphasized the newness of the new so that it lost its continuity with the old and effectively became foundationless (e.g., Marcion).

Baur said heresy often preceded orthodoxy so as to make the definition for orthodoxy very vague. Yet, as one examines this picture of early Christianity, a definition for orthodoxy or an orthodox reading of the Old Testament is possible as that segment of Christian thought and practice in the patristic period, which continued wrestling with the problem between the old and new. Orthodoxy refused to take a simple solution to the problem of the old and the new by denying or overly emphasizing the newness of the new.

Community Boundary Definition, Part 2: Paganism

The early church also had to struggle to define itself in relation to Paganism. The church had to decide what degree of cultural syncretism was acceptable and how much its members had to form their own subculture. One example of this dimension of definition is the staunch, orthodox Christian refusal to participate in the Caesar cult, for which reason Polycarp was burned (Mart. Poly. 9:2). Moreover, Christian monotheism (albeit in Trinitarian form), in a pantheistic society, opened Christians to the charge of atheism (e.g., Pliny of Flavia Domitilla and her husband Flavius Clemens; see Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 25‒30). Thus, the central defining point for the church vis-à-vis Paganism, as in relation to Judaism, was Jesus, but Jesus in his identity as the κύριος (lord) who ruled over all, including Caesar (cf. Priene inscription).


In this post:

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes

Robert Wilken
Robert Wilken

Community Boundary Definition, Part 1: Judaism

Somewhat similar to the question of canonical development is the question of the boundaries of the Christian community. The orthodox early church had to work to define these boundaries over against Judaism, paganism, and heretical, “Christian” sects. Scholars have sometimes seen the struggle of Christianity to define itself in relation to Judaism as beginning in the mid-second century, but this effort had really already begun within the first century (cf. Acts 15; Galatians). It was crucial for the church to define itself correctly in relation to Judaism because, at the beginning, Christians did not want to say that they were a new religion. Instead, they preferred to view themselves and to be viewed by others (not least the Romans, who afforded the Jews special religious privileges) as the continuation of Judaism, which Israel’s God had planned. Moreover, Christians wanted to claim Jewish scripture as their own and borrow some of Judaism’s interpretive methods. Even the Christological method of interpretation, which the church developed, might be regarded as merely a Jesus-oriented application of other methods, which the Jews had already applied to their scriptures. Orthodox Christianity did not adopt all Jewish interpretive methods, but more than which methods the early church did or did not adopt, the central defining point for the church in relation to Judaism was really the church’s commitment Jesus’ messianic status. Therefore, Christian interpretations of scripture differed with Jewish ones at certain key points because of how the church’s a priori acceptance of Jesus as messiah impacted its hermeneutic.

Canonical Development*

In the second and third centuries, the church worked under several different hermeneutical constraints, including: canonical development, community boundary definition (vis-à-vis Judaism, Paganism, and heretical, “Christian” sects), and hermeneutical method. Although this period of biblical interpretation has long been closed, being aware of the natures of these respective constraints can help us understand the early church’s hermeneutical environment and gain better access to some of their thoughts about scripture.

Regarding canonical development, within the patristic period the text of the Jewish canon was essentially closed, but what has become known as the New Testament was not yet a distinct collection. In this period, the church sometimes used certain documents as scripture, although these documents like Shepherd of Hermas or 1 Clement were not eventually canonized, and the church sometimes refrained from using as scripture other documents like Hebrews and Revelation, which were eventually canonized. Additionally, the early church seems to have viewed the Old Testament as having a higher status than the Gospels [including the Diatessaron (ANF 9:43–130)] and Paul’s epistles, although a somewhat more egalitarian view was also feasible (cf. 2 Pet 3:15–16). For instance, when the Epistle of Barnabas cites the New Testament, the references seem to be mainly incidental to the main line of thought (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas 5:9; 4:14; 13:7), whereas the Old Testament seems to be used as though it held more weight for Barnabas’s author. In the earliest part of the patristic period, it was also possible for Papias to say that he preferred the “living voice” (of oral testimony) to what was written. By contrast, in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (ca. AD 165; ANF 2:194–270), Justin explicitly cites the New Testament as scripture (e.g., §43, 100). Justin’s use of the New Testament as scripture typified a growing trend out of which the Muratorian Canon list (ca. AD 200; see Westcott 557–64) came and which culminated in Athanasius’s Easter letter of AD 367 (NPNF2 4:551–52). In this letter, Athanasius demarcated what he saw to be the boundaries of the New Testament canon, which have remained until the present day.


  • This series of posts is heavily indebted to lecture notes taken from Stephen Taylor, Associate Professor of New Testament at Biblical Seminary, Hatfield, Penn.

In this post:

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace
Brooke Foss Westcott
Brooke Foss Westcott