Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Todd S. Berzon, Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 302. ISBN 9780520284265. $95.00.

Reviewed by Eduard Iricinschi, Ruhr University Bochum (

Version at BMCR home site


Classifying Christians is a detailed study of six heresiological texts, stretching from the second to the fifth century CE: Irenaeus of Lyon's Against the Heresies (written around 180 CE), Tertullian of Carthage's De praescriptione haereticorum (203 CE), the Refutation of All Heresies (225 CE), Epiphanius of Cyprus' Panarion (after 375), Augustine of Hippo's Heresies (De haeresibus ad Quodvultdeum, 428 CE), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus' Haereticarum fabularum compendium (452 or 453 CE). Treating the above texts as a literary collection, unified by thematic and stylistic features, Classifying Christians approaches them as illustrations of an ancient ethnography of theological expression. Its major innovation is to set up a four-dimensional critical method that brings together ancient heresiology, ancient ethnography, Victorian ethnography, and modern religious studies. In Berzon's approach, each set of normative surveys helps understanding the others. Instead of evaluating heresiology as a theological discourse of asserting and contesting power, Berzon stresses that early Christian heresiologists employed the language and concepts of ancient ethnographic authors to "depict and organize the world and its people in distinctly Christian terms" (p. 6). This ethnographic turn in the study of ancient heresiology enables the author to pursue a Foucauldian theoretical agenda.1 The major questions asked throughout the volume regard the Christian production of knowledge in heresiological ethnography, its limits, and its failure.

Chapter 1, "Heresiology as Ethnography: The Ethnographic Disposition," introduces the method and the conceptual tools of analysis. Berzon defines ethnographic disposition as the "process and effects of writing people and defining cultural systems" (p. 24). Faced with a wide array of sources, genres, and styles of ancient ethnographic texts, the author privileges fuzzier definitions for "writing peoples" in antiquity, such as "the ethnographic impulse," "ethnographic curiosity," and "ethnographic imagination" (p. 35). Microscopic ethnography ("descriptions of the customs and habits of peoples") and macroscopic ethnography ("the use of grand paradigms such as genealogy, typology, and astrology to explain habits, customs, phenotypes and behaviors"; p. 24) are two other major concepts that enable the author to envisage ancient heresiologists as ethnographers.

Chapter 2, "Comparing Theologies and Comparing Peoples: The Customs, Doctrines, and Dispositions of the Heretics," investigates how ancient heresiologists played the ethnographical game, by engaging in detailed descriptions of the heretics' ways of life. The author replaces the theological focus with the analysis of how heresiologists described the customs, rituals, commensality, texts, and habits of the heretics. He first places heresiological discussions about ways of life in the context of ancient debates on the ancient categories of religio and superstitio. Next, he connects these discussions with "Christian ethnographic idealism." Finally, he shows them as having direct connection with the literary process of presenting certain Christian groups as communities identifiable both by distinctive ways of life and by misguided heretical dispositions (p. 61). In the analysis of Epiphanius' description of the Messalians (Pan. 80), Berzon reads Epiphanius' double accusation of asceticism and libertinism as a blueprint for the construction of an object of inquiry ("the Messalians") through its defining features (p. 87).

Chapter 3, "Contesting Ethnography: Heretical Models of Human and Cosmic Plurality," delves more into the "contested ethnographic ground of heresiology" (p. 103) by reflecting on how the heresiological discourse of the third-century Refutation of All the Heresies takes on theories of "human diversification" postulated by astrological theories. It is not merely astral determinism that is at stake here, Berzon argues, but the organization of Christian fields of knowledge. Taking Ptolemy's astrological treatise Tetrabiblos into consideration, the author illustrates how the connections between astrology, ethnography, cosmology, and climatology become parts of a unified field of knowledge. These precise classificatory inflexibilities of astrology imperiled the development of a Christian theory about communicating with the divine.

Chapter 4, "Christianized Ethnography: Paradigms of Heresiological Knowledge," investigates Epiphanius' incorporation of previously local heresiological attempts into a history of the world, read as a history of heresy. Berzon complements Epiphanius' historical ambitions with Theodoret of Cyrrhus' adoption of doctrinal genealogy in his Compendium of Heretical Fables. Epiphanius' two-pronged attempt at mapping heresy while charting the world employs ethnographic models in a more salient way than previous heresiologists did, and allows Berzon to analyze "the heresiological periodization of ethnographic knowledge" (p. 129) and the transformation of the Christian heresies into the "new nations of the world" (p. 139).

Chapter 5, "Knowledge Fair and Foul: The Rhetoric of Heresiological Inquiry," focuses on Tertullian's Rules against the Heretics. It brings an unexpected twist to the plot of the book, with its analysis of the tension between epistemological humility and heretical curiosity, and with its meditation on the dangers and tensions of writing heresiology. Berzon reads Tertullian's geographical and cultural divide between Jerusalem and Athens as a rejection of Greek philosophical culture. In the latter case, the pursuit of knowledge, independent of gospels, not only falls under the heading of damaging curiosity; it also opens an endless and uncontrollable process of producing an unnecessary body of expertise (p. 165). Tertullian's fears and anxieties, in Berzon's reading of De praescriptione haereticorum, translate into efforts of limiting heretical curiosity. After Tertullian, the field of Christian knowledge was shaped by "epistemological humility" and "the rule of faith" (p. 168), while its overseers, the heresiologists, emerged as a "protective class of inquirers" (p. 170).

Chapter 6, "The Infinity of Continuity: Epiphanius of Salamis and the Limits of the Ethnographic Disposition," further probes the inevitable cracks that appear in the universalizing epistemological ambitions of ancient heresiology, or, in Berzon's precise formulation, "the tension between modeling heresy and knowing heresy" (p. 187). The author proposes a very fine shift of focus in these pages, one that opens the way for further elaborations, from reading early Christian heresiology "as a site of ecclesiastical or theological authority and imperial control" to evaluating it as a failed process of manufacturing "totalizing knowledge" about the new Christian world (p. 197). By comparing Pomponius Mela's first-century CE ethnographic Description of the World and Epiphanius' fourth-century Panarion, Berzon unravels the ways in which the "epistemological paradox" of ancient ethnography – the unlimited human variety ultimately renders the world untranslatable to the ethnographic gaze – drives the heresiological project into a dead-end. Previously, chapter 5 probed into the emotional and cognitive conflicts of the heresiologists, as they might have found themselves, not unlike later ethnographers, exposed to the hazards of going native and encountering "the dangers of intimacy, proximity, and understanding" (p. 180). Tensions increase further in Chapter 6, as Berzon describes the heresiologist Epiphanius toiling under the pains of creating a field of knowledge as a "repository of quantification," while discovering himself pulled into the emotional vortex of not being able to exhaust the "infinitude of heresy" (p. 210).

The final chapter, "From Ethnography to List: Transcribing and Traversing Heresy," turns to Augustine's De haeresibus, to explore the move from ethnical description and classification into mere creation of heretical lists. The turn to lists in heresiological discourse signals for Berzon both the peak of a "culture of classification" and the limits of heresiological ethnography to represent and translate heretical Christians (p. 225). By eliminating parts of the heresiological collection of topoi, privileged by previous writers of heresy, such as theological positions, ethnicity, and odd customs, the author argues that Augustine restructured the "taxonomy of identification" (p. 231). At the same time, the author brings to an end the story of growing ambitions and collapse of ancient heresiology, but notes that Augustine acknowledges the impossibility of ever knowing all heretical groups. Berzon calls this stage the heresiology's moment of self-reflection, one that denotes "not control and mastery but rather imperfection, fragility, and incompleteness" (p. 235).

There is much to welcome in Classifying Christians. In a polyphonic approach, the book surveys ancient ethnography and ancient heresiology as connected territories. Berzon is at his best in establishing connections and linking interpretive strategies across disciplines and fields of inquiry. As such, one of the major contributions of his volume is to forge a nuanced vocabulary for the study of ancient texts on heresy through its treatment of heresiology and ethnography as cognate fields for the production of knowledge about ancient peoples. This approach demotes theology from being the main measuring gauge of heresiology into a conceptual tool whose classificatory ambitions were similar to those of ethnography, historiography, and literature. Aligning two facets of ancient literary production of Greek and Latin expression, heresiology and ethnography, the author produces a wealth of new insights into the process of generating classificatory knowledge about peoples, and casts new light on the formation of ancient religious identities.

This might be the strength and the weakness of Classifying Christians, however. It produces its own jargon, yet it remains mired in it. In Berzon's analysis, ethnography becomes a cipher for understanding the production of ancient heresiological literature, its mutations from the second to the fourth centuries, and finally its metamorphoses into lists. Yet Berzon presents heresiology as a mere literary routine, and the purpose of his book is to unravel the rules of this exercise as it was codified through ethnographic description. As such, the reader might perceive Berzon's "heresiologists" as a literary coterie, a like-minded community with a clear agenda, opposed to the murky camp of the heretics. The focus on treating heresiology as a homogeneous field of literary production and the disregard for historical and contextual details lead, on occasion, to generalizing statements such as the following: "The heresiologists theorized with the heretics about the relationship between human difference, knowledge […] and the epistemological limits governing the textualization of an ever-diversifying world" (p. 53). Without historical, social, and political contextualization, the analysis of the ancient heresiological discourses risks presenting a dichotomous view of "heresiologists" versus "heretics."

There survived plenty of "heretical" positions, available in the Sethian and Valentinian Coptic texts uncovered at Nag Hammadi. This leads to what amounts to the major limitation of this monograph: the programmatic absence of the Nag Hammadi texts, most of which were produced, in their original Greek, at the same time as the first heresiologists were active, and circulated, in Coptic, around the time Epiphanius wrote his own heresiological treatise. One of the major Nag Hammadi texts, The Tripartite Tractate, even includes two heresy lists, whose analysis under the "ethnographic gaze" would have only enriched the present monograph.2

In spite of the clear Foucauldian methodological agenda of Classifying Christians, Berzon only refers to, but does not substantially engage with, two major French analyses of ancient heresiology, which also derive their methodological ground from Foucault's thinking: Alain Le Boulluec's two volumes of La notion d'hérésie dans la literature grecque IIe-IIIe siècles, and Hervé Inglebert's Interpretatio Christiana.3 One would have especially welcome a comparison between Berzon's discussion of ethnographic heresiology and Inglebert's parallel argument about the role of ancient heresiology in shaping Christian chronology and historiography and in the formation of specific Christian fields of knowledge.

Adopting the category of heresiological ethnography as its major context, Berzon's book offers a potent epistemological reflection on the production, organization, and limits of knowledge in late antiquity. While still battling the hazards of reifying the reifiers themselves, the heresiologists, the book transplants the conceptual and historical vocabulary of ethnography into debates on ancient heresiology. Classifying Christians remains a finely articulated meditation on the effects of theological and ethnographic ancient list-making. It theorizes not only the limits of heresiological knowledge in antiquity, but also the fragility of heresiology as a project that carries within itself the premises of its own demise.


1.   The author derives most of the theoretical mileage from Foucault's pre-1970 works: The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).
2.   TricTrac 108.13–114.30; see also Geoffrey S. Smith, Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 108–21.
3.   Alain Le Boulluec, La notion d'hérésie dans la literature grecque IIe-IIIe siècles, Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1985; Hervé Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana: Les mutations des saviors (cosmographie, géographie, ethnographie, histoire) dans l'Antiquité chrétienne, Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 2001. For Inglebert's discussion of ancient heresiology, see chapter 5, "L'histoire des heresies," pp. 393-461.

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