In medieval Greek, orthodoxy’s etymology is straightforward: orthos, which is ‘sound, correct, right’, and doxé, which is ‘doctrine, teaching, conviction’. Heresy, meanwhile, comes from the classical Greek verb aireo, ‘to take or choose for oneself’. In classical Latin, by contrast, the origins of the word religio are obscure.
The Term ‘Religion’
In the first century BCE, religio was defined by Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman, as the proper worship of the gods. Saint Augustine, writing in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, popularized the etymology re and ligare— ‘to bind again’, suggesting that the goal of religion is to restore the right relationship between human and divine. In medieval Latin Christendom, where we would think that the term religio was pervasive, it usually meant something more specific—the regulated life of a monastic order.
In a profound sense, our modern use of religion to reference a distinct faith or set of beliefs crystallized in the 16th century, at precisely the time when medieval Christendom was torn asunder by the Protestant Reformation, which resulted in the proliferation of religious communities and centuries of religious warfare. But what made this category meaningful was the previous millennium-long struggle over what made one’s faith and practices either right-thinking or a matter of personal, and deviant, choice.
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Occurrence of Orthodoxy
It must be understood that to locate the emergence of orthodoxy and its counterpart, heresy, in early medieval Christianity—that is, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century—is not to claim that more ancient religious traditions did not hold strong opinions about the attributes of their gods or the proper ways to worship them; they certainly did—and do. But in a polytheistic world, the gods are plural, and so are their rites and requirements—there can be no singular orthodoxy.
Moreover, orthodoxy is not something that occurs spontaneously; it is something that has to be collectively asserted and constantly policed in the face of inevitable dissent—heresy. This means that elites who claim the authority to define orthodoxy (religious elites) have to be backed by the authority of political elites who can enforce conformity to that definition. Sacred and secular authority have to be closely allied.
However, there also has to be something in it for average people: something that is going to unify them, give them a shared identity, make them feel that their way of behaving and believing is not just the best way, but the only way. How did this come to be the case for medieval Christianity?
Among the early followers of Jesus Christ, prior to the Christianity’s legitimation in the 4th century, defining and enforcing anything like orthodoxy was impossible. Both the canonical and noncanonical books of the New Testament, among a host of other early writings, reveal how deeply contested Christian beliefs were.
Could Christians be Gentiles as well as Jews? If a Gentile wanted to claim to be a follower of Christ, should he have to convert to Judaism first and be circumcised? Did Christians have to follow Jewish dietary laws and tenets about ritual purity? We can see all these questions being raised and debated in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, and we also see fundamental disagreements within the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry.
Moreover, archeological and epigraphic discoveries have also revolutionized and complicated our understanding of Judaism in the lifetime of Jesus, and have revealed the diversity of religious practices among groups of Jews during this period.
Christianity and Judaism
As both Christianity and Judaism redefined themselves, they grew further apart. Judaism was slowly adapting to the Romans’ destruction of the Temple and the mass exile of refugees from Jerusalem and surrounding provinces. Some of the rabbinic scholars who reshaped it during these difficult years did so in dialogue with developing tenets of Christianity; others, however, ignored this upstart cult. Christians, however, could not ignore Judaism. Their religion rested on the belief that Jesus was the Savior promised by God to Israel in the Hebrew Bible. For them, the heroes of Jewish scripture prefigured Jesus, while the major events of Hebrew history could be read allegorically, as Christian paradigms.
In short, most early apologists argued that the Christian community was the true Israel, and that when the Jews rejected Jesus, God rejected the Jews and made Christians his new chosen people. Some even argued that God had rejected the Jews from the beginning of time. For all of these critics, the Hebrew Bible was (at best) the Old Testament—the old law and covenant—superseded by the New Testament, as articulated by the gospel evangelists, the messengers of good news, and by the earliest apostles, like Paul.
Cult of Christianity
Yet, unlike Christianity, Judaism remained legally recognized within the Roman Empire, and many Jews were further protected by their Roman citizenship.
Unlike Judaism, Christianity was not a religion in any sense: it had no rules, no traditions, no centralized authority. It was an upstart, novelty cult that raised suspicions on many levels. It encouraged women and slaves to hold office—to rise above their proper stations; it revolved around the worship of a criminal condemned by the Roman state; its secret meetings could be breeding grounds for rebellion.
So, for nearly three centuries after the death of Jesus, small Christian churches formed, evolved, and often died out in relative isolation.
Common Questions about the Emergence of Orthodoxy and Heresy in Christianity
In the first century BCE, religio was defined by Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman, as the proper worship of the gods.
Unlike Judaism, Christianity was not a religion in any sense: it had no rules, no traditions, no centralized authority.
Christianity was an upstart, a novelty cult that raised suspicions on many levels: it encouraged women and slaves to hold office—to rise above their proper stations; it revolved around the worship of a criminal condemned by the Roman state; and its secret meetings could be breeding grounds for rebellion.