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Catherine Nixey, Heresy: Jesus Christ and the Other Sons of God (London: Picador, 2024)

Catherine Nixey, Heresy: Jesus Christ and the Other Sons of God (London: Picador, 2024)

Markus Bockmuehl reviews Catherine Nixey’s book Heresy. 09/04/2024

Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age (2017) was a prize–winning, swashbuckling takedown of Christianity as antiquity’s Taliban, single–handedly responsible for the destruction of classical civilization. Here was Edward Gibbon on steroids; reviewers who like that sort of thing found it little short of exhilarating. Others seemed irked by a “one–sided” and “sardonic” argument and a “hectoring” zeal disinclined to “nuance’” say in distinguishing between fringe extremists and majorities, or in bothering to tangle with scholarly views in contrast to one’s own.

Heresy (2024) re–applies that earlier thesis and approach to pluriform Christianity itself in a polished, page–turning sequel, written in graphic and engaging prose. Its twin theses echo long–contested ideas of Walter Bauer and his adherents: first, that Christian faith was always characterized by intrinsically contradictory and kaleidoscopic Jesuses, divergent from today’s Christian story in “almost every early Christian text”. Secondly, and in uneasy tension with the first, that Christianity invariably crushed dissent or “choice” (Nixey’s programmatic translation of “heresy”). From the first, nothing in Christianity coheres, nothing is agreed – and yet somehow, paradoxically, all difference is annihilated.

At one level much of that case is clear and unanswerable, if also hardly news to readers of early Christian literature. Nixey is quite right to stress the gaping contradiction between Jesus as the amoral and homicidal menace of the (marginal) Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the more popular but insufferably saccharine nonsense of the “mild, obedient, good” Victorian Christmas Jesus. And yes indeed, antiquity knew many other sons of God: even the Bible knows that (starting with Israel, its king, and believers in Jesus as God’s children). Magical papyri, apocryphal writings, or the Jesus–lite miracles of the third–century fictionalized Life of Apollonius of Tyana (defending him, like Jesus, against the charge of magic) all show the Roman empire full of many “saviours and gods”, magicians and messiahs, healers true and false. And the second century was indeed early Christianity’s “laboratory”, as the eminent Christoph Markschies puts it; ancient critics routinely poked fun at the bewildering jumble of Christian sects, claims, and counterclaims. What matters to Nixey is not whether the countless alternative views ever achieved identifiable consensus or longevity, merely that the unbelievable was once believed by someone, somewhere – while also being ruthlessly suppressed.

She is rightly impressed with ancient Christianity’s clever and well–informed critics like Celsus and Porphyry. A pity, then, that she almost never stops to hear the responses offered by their Christian interlocutors – whose habit of quoting extensively from their opponents shows them conspicuously more engaged with rival ways of looking at the evidence than is the case in most of Nixey’s own account. The likes of Origen knew well that any philosophy worth its salt will inevitably generate disagreements about the truth.

Underlying the colourful and entertaining presentation is that contradiction between the book’s two opposing theses: from the start, Christianity was (1) always and everywhere hopelessly divided in proliferating sects, with no centre to hold anything together, but also (2) determined to root out all plurality or “choice” in favour of “homogeneity” (“the ‘insatiable’ Catholic Church suppressed almost all rites but its own”). But which shall it be? To be sure, aspects of both concerns are already openly acknowledged by ancient believers and critics alike. And no–one could deny that there is a long and ugly history here, and plenty of self–contradiction, to be embarrassed and ashamed about. Yet in their totalizing form Nixey’s theses cannot both stand up at the same time: each subverts the other, and thereby exposes the shallowness of “nothing but” argumentation. 

She seems at times to be aware of this problem. Is the demise of marginal views because they are actively and efficiently “suppressed” (how? by whom, especially in the first four centuries?) or because they “start to fade away” (presumably lacking the oxygen of adherents or plausibility)? She concedes that perhaps “many” alternative books did after all retain a “profound influence”, indeed that anathemas “were to no avail” – which of course typically they were.

While Christian history clearly furnishes plenty of unpleasant evidence to resource her story, Nixey is an invariably entertaining but only intermittently reliable narrator of it. In the absence of patience with alternative critical points of view, facts must not get in the way of a good trope. The sweet reasonableness of elite Roman culture is contrasted with Christians’ “vicious and aggressive” authoritarianism. Conversely, the persecution of Christians disappears under the magical invisibility cloak of G.E.M. de Ste Croix and his (mostly US–based) latter–day disciples: persecution narratives are not just tendentious but overwhelmingly fictitious, and in any case pale in comparison to what was later meted out on non–Christians. Counter–cultural charity, care for widows and orphans, the founding of hospitals or the like may be despatched with the Emperor Julian’s comment that, “as with slavers”, such acts are clearly just impelled by contemptible motives thinly disguised.

The first Christians, we learn, had “no authoritative Bible” (tout court? news to Paul or Matthew, one suspects). For “the first centuries” (how many?) it was unclear which gospels would prevail; indeed, some apocryphal stories came close to being included in the Bible (perfectly discussable in theory, but which ones? what evidence?). For what it’s worth, 21st–century gospels scholarship has increasingly recognized amidst plenty of diversity the mid–second century emergence of a four–gospel core that was never replaced and surprisingly rarely rejected – even while it continued to spawn and co–exist with a rich plurality of other Jesus books.

Most apocryphal gospels were not in fact “believed and read” by “large numbers” of Christians “for centuries”. (Nor do “Thomas Christians” read the apocryphal Acts of Thomas or derive their belief in the Apostle’s mission to India from it, as is repeatedly claimed.) There are important exceptions, of course, but Nixey consistently fails to distinguish between shared and peripheral beliefs. Any splinter group is just as representative of “Christianity” as every other, whether read empire–wide in hundreds of copies and translations (like the Infancy Gospel of James) or attested on a single scrap of papyrus.

Nixey’s argument proceeds by positing rather than deliberating or investigating. Another case in point relates to Christianity’s aggressive intolerance manifested in book–burning, allegedly on an industrial scale. The truth, once again, is inconveniently more complex. Such symbolic episodes date back to the mid–1st century (Acts 19.19, at the hands of pagan converts) but remained exceedingly rare at least until enforced by later legislation on the pattern of pre–Christian imperial precedent. Since the 3rd century BC, Roman book–burning had been a recurrent if largely inefficient and symbolic tool in managing perceived danger to the public order. In 181 BC the Senate had Numa Pompilius’s books burnt as subversive, while in 12 BC Augustus as Pontifex Maximus burned 2,000 unauthorized prophetical books deemed not authentically Sibylline. Diocletian ordered the burning of Egyptian books of alchemy, Manichean sacred books (rescript of 31 March 302), and the books of the Christians (empire–wide edict of 303). Constantine’s burning of Arian works was governed more by inherited imperial realpolitik than by any specifically Christian convictions – which were, in this as in other respects, at best a thin veneer over received imperial realpolitik, as Nixey herself concedes elsewhere. It is plainly untrue that Christians were “far more thorough” in either book–burning or anathematizing, even by way of the fabled (but very different, if similarly counterproductive) Catholic Index of Prohibited Books. Many such works evidently enjoyed popular use and therefore survived and thrived – unlike those books of Numa Pompilius or non–Sibylline prophecies.

It is also untrue that Manicheism was “utterly wiped out” by Christians: long before any Byzantine Christian opposition, it suffered ruthless persecution under Diocletian but long survived in North Africa; Sasanian and eventually Abbasid Muslim persecution displaced it from its Persian heartland, while in China its gradual demise under the Ming dynasty (14th century) was not caused by Christians but rather coincided with the Church’s own decline in that country. 

Much of Nixey’s point–scoring claims the imagined intellectual high ground of doing “history, not theology”. Yet too often this is a case of grasshopper history, of jumping between sources from across distant centuries and regions in dizzying feats of anachronism. Dating appears irrelevant for an argument merrily juxtaposing the 4th– or 6th–century Ethiopian Book of the Cock, the fluid and volatile story cycle from the 2nd and subsequent centuries known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and late antiquity’s Mandaean literature of highly uncertain date and early modern textual attestation. All serve to illustrate essentially the same point about a Christianity that is all diversity and has no core. Second–century worries by Ignatius and Irenaeus about destructive “heretical” perversions of the apostolic teaching are introduced and juxtaposed – and more than implicitly equated – with the 13th–century slaughter of thousands of Albigensians in Béziers Cathedral. The (mostly ineffectual) anti–heretical strictures of the Theodosian Code are paralleled with the career difficulties experienced by Bertrand Russell. And so on, more nothing–buttery.

The ancient world was no less adept than ours at sprouting its own doomscrolling social media hell of TikTokers, trolls, and conspiracy theorists. Q–Anon’s Messiah Trump riding valiantly into battle against the Deep State and Hillary Clinton’s child ritual murder cabal at Comet Pizza (2016)? A Jewish “Nazi” president of Ukraine threatening the Russian world (2022)? Our fake news merchants have nothing on ancient paradoxographers! The weird and the wonderful equally proliferated, as did the basely grotesque alongside the noble–minded. Christianity grew up in that world of porous competition between history and myth, fact and gossip, learning and superstition, kitsch and culture. For centuries (as perhaps again today), Christians were indeed overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, as their enemies rightly noted. Doubtless many were easily conned.

Yet not all Christian writers were ignorant dunces, as one might discover if one took time to hear both sides of the conversation with Celsus, say. Insanity cannot falsify sanity, abuse does not nullify proper use, and the prevalence of exotic falsehood is irrelevant to the adjudication of even a single astonishing truth. Although an ever–present challenge, the swivel–eyed politics of Taliban–style zealots or Hippie–style flakes cannot usefully attest convictions that will stand the test of widespread reception, debate and consensus over time. That aesthetic retains its merit not just for understanding ancient Christianity, but for any engagement in society’s common good.

A few months after graduating in Classics from Cambridge, Catherine Nixey took to the pages of the Independent to ask, “What’s the point of a classics degree?” (20 May 2004). Answer: nothing much. However “jolly good fun” it was, Cambridge taught her little about thinking or writing, nor even – a matter on which she begins and ends – the ability to locate Athens on a map. Twenty years on, and after jobs as a classics teacher (sic) and writer for the Times and Economist, plus two best–selling books on antiquity, that question might today elicit additional self–knowledge.

Perhaps even about the point of locating a city correctly on a map? Visitors to the Museum of Oxford are shown a city map produced by Soviet military planners for the triumph of Real Existing Socialism in 1972. Oksford and other British cities reflect the world as it might become: Woodstock Road as Ulitsa Vudstok–Rod, that sort of thing. A perfectly consistent and attractive alternative universe, to be sure – it just happened to be incompatible with the ever–challenged but organically grown consensus of those who called the city home, both governed and governing. Might that hint at the benefit of knowing, in religious as in social geography, where and how a community comes to locate itself?

Markus Bockmuehl is Dean Ireland’s Professor and a Fellow of Keble College, University of Oxford

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 Photo by Ron Lach :

Markus Bockmuehl

Markus Bockmuehl

Markus Bockmuehl is Dean Ireland’s Professor and a Fellow of Keble College, University of Oxford.

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Posted 9 April 2024



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