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pharisee-publicanThere is heresy in the New Testament. Galatian, Colossians, the Pastoral Epistles, Jude, 2 Peter, 1 John and Revelation are the places we find heresy. The bad news for those who argue that ‘orthodoxy’ was a late development is that the heretics are denounced by the writers of those epistles, because heresy appears only to be condemned; you can only condemn something if you have an orthodoxy which defines its as unorthodox.

St Paul rebukes the Galatians for listening to those who preached ‘another Gospel’.  It seems they had been promoting the idea that Gentile converts should be circumcised. They had been putting forward the idea that it was vital to observe Old Testament Law. These Judaisers may well, as some have speculated, have been from the Jerusalem Church, and have been ‘James’ men’. Either way, it took the first council of Jerusalem to rule on the issue. You might argue that this set the model for the future. SOmeone came along to a church claiming something which the Apostle who founded it had never said; it caused a ruckus; the Church decided what was and was not orthodox.

We don’t quite know what the ‘Colossian heresy’ was. In his epistle, Paul mentions circumcision, food laws, Sabbath and purity regulations, but whilst there may have been elements of ‘Judaising’ there were other element involved. Paul mentions words such as ‘pleroma’ (fullness), ‘philosophia’, and ‘gnosis’ (knowledge), all of which, along with the rest of the letter, suggest elements of gnosticism – that is the idea that there was some hidden knowledge, and legions of intermediaries between God and man.

In Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul roundly condemns heretical teaching. Again it looks as though there was a mixture of Judaising and gnostic speculations. None of this should be surprising. It was natural that many converting Jews would bring with them their own practices, and that converting Gentiles would do the same.

It may have been similar sorts of teaching against which Jude was warning when he writes about false teachers who do not ‘have the Spirit.’ These self-seeking, unreliable and unstable shepherds were roundly condemned. It may be that like those mentioned in 2 Peter, their ‘cunningly devised fables’ about the date of the Second Coming, and justified indulgence in fleshly sins on the back of it.

We can see in 1 John that, as In Colossus and Galatia, some of the heretics had been part of the church, but had ended up preaching a different Gospel, in John’s case this seems to have been a denial that Jesus had come truly in the flesh – an early form of what became known as Docetism.

Revelation is a feast of examples of heresies: the Nicolaitans (who seem to have urged believers to take part in pagan rituals); a Jezabel, who led believers into idolatry, and the ‘depths of Satan’, another set of idolaters.

Against all of this was set the message which Paul and the Apostles had received, what Jude called the ‘faith once delivered to the Apostles’. There was, as we shall see, a diversity of orthodox belief and practice, but there was, from the beginning, a very clear idea of what lay outside the sphere of what Christians could believe and remain Christian.