Did early heretics call themselves “Christians”

I was answering an email in great haste earlier today, which contained the assertion that heretics like Marcionites or Valentinians (there was no specific) referred to themselves as Christians.  I think that I sort of assented, or at any rate did not disagree, in the rush to disagree with other parts of the email.

But I found myself wondering.  Do we know that this is true?  Did they, in fact, using the word for themselves?

We are accustomed to different church groups all identifying themselves as Christians.  We are accustomed to modern heretics — liberal clergy who endorse unnatural vice and don’t believe in God — demanding indignantly to be referred to as Christians (to the amused cynicism of everyone else).  But … do we know that the same was true in antiquity?  For antiquity was a different world, and anachronism is always our enemy.

Modern heretics demand the Name, because the name of Christian has a residual positive image in the modern western world: what was once Christendom.  But in ancient times, was this the case?  After all, “christianus” was the name of an illegal cult: non licet esse vos, — you are not allowed to exist, the pagans jeer in the pages of Tertullian’s Apologeticum.

The heresies essentially were pop-pagan philosophical schools, which is, of course, why the early Christians referred to them by the word “haereses”, used, with no pejorative context, for those schools.  But every philosopher made his living by teaching pupils for pay.  And what he had to teach was his own special teachings.  If he was the disciple of some famous earlier philosopher, he would innovate, unless he inherited the school from his master, in order to attract pupils and distinguish himself from other pupils.  To such people, a fresh source of ideas, such as Christianity, was just grist to the mill.  It is telling that the same is true of gnostic groups.  The disciples of Valentinus, such as Apelles, did not teach classical Valentinianism, but their own flavour of it.

In each case, the members of the heresy were not a church in the way that a modern church is organised.  They were more like “hearers”.  The loose organisation of these groups is commented on by Tertullian in De praescriptione haereticorum, who in chapter 6 lists the old-time philosophies from which the new heretics draw their teaching, and towards the end remarks on this lack of structure and definition.

Someone following a school would usually take, I believe, the name of his master, or of the school.  Thus we have the cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and so forth.

Likewise in Corinth, Paul has to tell the Christians not to do the same.  “I follow Paul … I follow Apollos …” is perhaps the same tendency. 

So … do we know that heretical groups generally did not do the same? 

When I read Ephraim the Syrian’s Madrasha 22 against heresies, I do not find that the Marcionites are saying “We are the Christians”.  What they are saying to the Christians is, “You are the followers of Palut”, an early Bishop.  And Ephraim spends a lot of time telling the Christians of the 4th century NOT to name themselves after anyone but Christ.  Do other patristic writers witness to this sort of thing, I wonder?

Did the Valentinians generally call themselves “Valentinians”, perhaps?  Or the Marcionites “Marcionites”?  What is the data, I wonder?

Of course the heretical groups of this period mainly sought to influence Christians, to persuade them to sacrifice and to take on board pagan teachings of one sort of another.  So perhaps it is possible that they found it useful to claim the Name.  I don’t know.  What we need to see, as always, is evidence.

As ever, we need to be so wary of an unconscious anachronism.

UPDATE: See the comments for a couple of examples.  The most interesting is that in the Life of Persian Syriac saint, Mar Aba.

15 Responses to “Did early heretics call themselves “Christians””


  1. Maureen

    Roger — usually the weighted words were “Church” and “Catholic.” Hence the famous passage about how, if you go to a new town and ask where the church is, you might get all kinds of weird groups pointing you to their church, but if you ask where the Catholics are, the heretics are ashamed to claim that.

    This of course led directly to the Donatists insisting that they were the Catholics and regular Catholics were the heretics; but it worked fine till then.

    Lemme find the references for you. I remember all kinds of stories and comments, but not necessarily where I read ‘em and who said ‘em.

  2. Maureen

    “Christianus est” (and presumably the Greek equivalent) usually seems to show up when you’re getting put on trial for it. Possibly there’s some kind of linkage to the classic “Civis Romanus sum.” (Or however that’s spelled.)

    Anyway… I found my source. It’s St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lectures, 18, 26.

    “And if you ever are visiting in cities, do not inquire simply where ‘the house of the Lord’ is — for the others, sects of the impious, attempt to call their dens ‘houses of the Lord’ — nor ask merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the name peculiar to this holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.”

  3. Maureen

    Obviously some heretics did call themselves “Christians” during persecutions, because there’s usually a few who were martyrs, often from among Gnostics.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Thank you so much for these. Well done for the passage from Cyril of Jerusalem!

    You’re right about heretics being martyred, and I had forgotten this. My memory is that Marcionites were those involved; that gnostics like Valentinians tended to conform and find excuses to sacrifice (vide Tertullian, Scorpiace). Do you remember the Acts of the martyrs in which heretic prisoners are referenced?

  5. Jeremiah

    I seem to recall Eusebius mentioning in passing the martyrdom of some heretics.

  6. Roger Pearse

    Good thought; it’s somewhere like that. Can’t look at the moment.

  7. Jeremiah

    And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take their opinions from these men, are, as we before said, called Christians; just as also those who do not agree with the philosophers in their doctrines, have yet in common with them the name of philosophers given to them. Justin, Apol. 1.26

  8. Jeremiah

    I also remembered Bauer talking about this and found this passage,

    ‘Mar Aba, originally a fanatical pagan, during an attempt to cross the Tigris was brought to see the light through a miracle and an ensuing conversation with a Christian ascetic Joseph, whose surname was Moses. He was struck by the strangeness of Joseph’s clothing (the Syriac uses the Greek loan-word sxhma), and wishing to know whether Joseph might be an orthodox, a Marcionite or a Jew, he asked (chap. 3): “Are you a Jew?” The answer was “Yes.” Then comes a second question: “Are you a Christian?” To this comes also an affirmative response. Finally: “Do you worship the Messiah?” Again agreement is expressed. Then Mar Aba becomes enraged and says: “How can you be a Jew, a Christian, and a worshipper of the Messiah all at the same time?” Here the narrator inserts by way of explanation: “Following the local custom he used the word Christian to designate a Marcionite.” Joseph himself then gives his irate companion the following explanation: “I am a Jew secretly [cf. Rom. 2.29]; I still pray to the living God . . . and abhor the worship of idols. I am a Christian truly, not as the Marcionites, who falsely call themselves Christians. For Christian is a Greek word, which in Syriac means Messiah-worshipper. And if you ask me ‘Do you worship the Messiah?’, I worship him truly.” This story reveals that even at a relatively late date, Marcionites designated themselves as the Christians — much to the offence of the orthodox, who must be content with misleading alternatives such as “Messiah-worshippers.”‘ Orthodoxy and Heresy 29-30 (24-25)

  9. Roger Pearse

    Thank you!

    The stuff is from the Vita of Mar Aba, which it turns out was translated into German as part of the BKV series, and thus, no doubt, came to Bauer that way. The relevant part is here.

    Just to link related comment threads, I was talking about this Vita here earlier today.

  10. Roger Pearse

    Just to say that I have edited your comments, Jeremiah, to add a link to Bauer and added the word “Justin” before “Apol”.

  11. Roger Pearse

    Here’s the chapter from the BKV translation of the life of Mar Aba. Chapter 3:

    Als der Selige dessen Kleid (σχῆμα) ansah, das keusch und (nicht) bunt (?) war, kamen ihm Zweifel, er möchte vielleicht kein Bundessohn Christi, sondern ein Marcionit oder Jude sein und er fragte ihn: „Bist du ein Jude?” Er sprach: „Ja.” Wieder sprach er: „Bist du ein Christ?” [s 190]Er sprach: „Ja.” Wieder sprach er: „Verehrst du den Messias?” Er sprach: „Ja.” Über diese Antwort des Studenten wurde der Selige sehr zornig und sprach: „Wie bist du Jude, Christ und Messianer (meschîchâjâ) ?” Christ nannte er nämlich nach der dortigen Gewohnheit den Marcioniten. Der Student sprach: „Jude bin ich insgeheim. Ich bete den lebendigen Gott an und glaube an seinen Sohn, Jesus Christus, und an den Heiligen Geist. Ich fliehe den Götzendienst und alle Unreinheit. Christ bin ich in Wahrheit, nicht wie die Marcioniten irre führen und sich selbst Christen nennen. Denn Christ ist ein griechisches Wort, das auf syrisch Messianer bedeutet. Und wenn du mich fragtest: „Verehrst du den Messias”, so verehre ich ihn in Wahrheit und ich fliehe alles Böse um des wahren Lebens willen.”

    I.e. “For he said “Christian” according to the local custom for the Marcionites” and “…not like the Marcionites mislead and call themselves Christians.”

    That seems pretty definitive to me: the Marcionites in this area (where?) called themselves “Christians” and the locals called the real Christians “Messianics”.

    There are several questions to resolve: we need to be sure that the translation is right, and we need to learn something about this text, so as to be sure that we can rely on this text (about which I know nothing as yet). But I would hope that these are points of detail.

    The text is apparently included in this work by Paul Bedjan, Histoire de Mar Jabalaha…, 1895. (Google books). The text starts on p.206 (or p.240 of the PDF). Mar Aba the Great (d. 552).

  12. Jeremiah

    What a coincidence! That is funny.

  13. Roger Pearse

    I’m updating that comment of mine as I go: I’ve just found the text.

  14. Roger Pearse

    But … Stephan Huller’s comment in that other post links to a preview of a book on “Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China” by Samuel N. C. Lieu, and on p.52 he discusses this very passage.

    Struck by his distinctive dress, Mar Aba wondered if the holy man was a Jew or a Marcionite. At this point in the Syriac text of Mar Aba’s life, the biographer makes an interesting editorial comment: ‘for he [Mar Aba] called a Christian a Marcionite (mrqywn ….) following the local custom.’ [102] The numerical strength of the Marcionites in that region must have once been considerable for the title of their sect to be used coterminously with that of the orthodox (i.e. Nestorian) Christians.

    [102] Vita de Mar Aba, pp.211, l.14 – 214, l.9, esp. 213, 16-17. Ed. Bedjan … (syriac text) … For a more cautious interpretation of this reference, see Gero, ‘Encratite Orthodoxy’, pp. 298-91.

    Which is less positive than Bauer, of course, but does not avoid the evident point that the term “Christian” could refer to Marcionites in this region.

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