Monarchianism and Two Powers: Jewish and Christian Monotheism at the Beginning of the Third Century

in Vigiliae Christianae
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This article examines claims made by Alan Segal and Daniel Boyarin that the Monarchian controversy and rabbinic polemics against “powers in heaven” were connected. The arguments of Segal and Boyarin are more suggestive than concrete. In order to assess these claims, I undertake a close reading of the earliest layer of texts from the Monarchian controversy and rabbinic polemic against “powers in heaven.” After highlighting the salient features from the Monarchian controversy, I examine key Tannaitic “powers in heaven” texts. Ultimately, I contend that there is no evidence that the Monarchians had any contact with the early rabbinic sages and that the similarities Boyarin and Segal recognized are only superficial.

Monarchianism and Two Powers: Jewish and Christian Monotheism at the Beginning of the Third Century

in Vigiliae Christianae




See especially Boyarin“Two Powers in Heaven” 349. He writes “ ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ became the primary heresy for the Rabbis and Modalism the Christian heresy par excellence became the only ‘orthodox’ theology allowed to Jews. We could moreover almost as easily describe the developments in the opposite direction namely that Christianity insisted on separate persons and rejected modalism as a response to the rabbinic insistence that binitarianism was equal to ditheism.”


See SegalTwo Powers in Heaven7; Hurtado One God One Lord 3 49; Hurtado Lord Jesus Christ 51. By the third century of course the theology was becoming more Trinitarian but reflections on the Holy Spirit do not occupy nearly as much space as reflections on the Father and Son. Note that Contra Noetum appears to have more concern for the Holy Spirit. Note also that some scholars think the Holy Spirit passages in cn are later interpolations. Even where the Holy Spirit is mentioned in cn we see that the Noetians were almost exclusively focused on the Father and Son. Tertullian also has some noteworthy Pneumatological reflections in Adversus Praxean but it is difficult to determine if this Pneumatological focus is the result of his Montanism or representative of a broader trend to ascribe divine status to the Spirit. Note also Anthony Briggman’s discussion of the binitarian orientation of Justin’s theology in the middle of the second century: Anthony Briggman “Measuring Justin’s Approach to the Spirit: Trinitarian Conviction and Binitarian Orientation” Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009): 107-37.


HippolytusContra Noetum1.2: ἔφη τὸν Χριστὸν αὐτὸν εἶναι τὸν Πατέρα καὶ αὐτὸν τὸν Πατέρα γεγεννῆσθαι καὶ πεπονθέναι καὶ ἀποτεθνηκέναι. Greek from Hippolytus Contra Noetum ed. Robert Butterworth Heythrop Monographs 2 (London: Heythrop College [University of London] 1977). Unless otherwise noted all translations of Contra Noetum are my own. As noted above I find Simonetti’s position on Hippolytus convincing. Accordingly I am working under the assumption that it was written by Hippolytus and that a different author wrote the Refutatio omnium haeresium.


HippolytusContra Noetum1.6: ὁ δὲ ἀνθίστατο λέγων Τί οὖν κακὸν ποιῶ δοξάζων τὸν Χριστόν; It is interesting here that Noetus responded to the elders by speaking about the fact that he glorifies Christ. In Justin’s Dialogue Trypho quotes Isaiah 42:8 in order to argue that God does not share glory with anyone else. See Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 65.1. Given Noetus’ strident defense of the claim that there is only one God his glorification of Christ is at first puzzling. After all Trypho rejects the glorification of another because it endangers the uniqueness of God. Noetus’ statement is not problematic when viewed in the context of this theology however because he views the Father and Son as the same. This means that the glorification of Christ does not entail the admission of another god. For Noetus Christ is glorified precisely because he himself is the Father.


HippolytusContra Noetum1.7.


Ibid.2.3: οὕτω φάσκουσιν συνιστᾶν ἕνα Θεόν.


Ibid.11.1 14.2-3. The charge of ditheism is made explicitly by Callistus later when he says δίθεοί ἐστε. See Refutatio omnium haeresium 9.12.16. See also Tertullian Adversus Praxean 3.1.


HippolytusContra Noetum2.1-2.3: οἳ καὶ δεῖξαι βούλονται σύστασιν τῷ δόγµατι λέγοντες Εἶπεν ἐν νόµῳ Ἐγὼ εἰµὶ ὁ Θεὸς τῶν πατέρων ὑµῶν• οὐκ ἔσονται ὑµῖν θεοὶ ἕτεροι πλὴν ἐµοῦ. καὶ πάλιν ἐν ἑτέρῳ Ἐγώ φησίν πρῶτος καὶ ἐγὼ ἔσχατος καὶ µετ’ ἐµὲ οὔκ ἐστιν οὐδείς. οὕτω φάσκουσιν συνιστᾶν ἕνα Θεόν.


HippolytusContra Noetum2.5: χρῶνται δὲ καὶ ἑτέραις µαρτυρίαις λέγοντες Οὕτω γέγραπται Οὗτος ὁ Θεὸς ἡµῶν• οὐ λογισθήσεται ἕτερος πρὸς αὐτόν. ἐξηῦρεν πᾶσαν ὁδὸν ἐπιστήµης καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτὴν Ἰακὼβ τῷ παιδὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ Ἰσραὴλ τῷ ἠγαπηµένῳ ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ. µετὰ ταῦτα ἐπὶ γῆς ὤφθη καὶ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις συνανεστράφη. Ὁρᾷς οὖν φησίν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ Θεὸς ὁ µόνος ὢν καὶ ὕστερον ὀφθεὶς καὶ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις συναναστραφείς.


HippolytusContra Noetum2.6: ÎἘν> ἑτέρῳ δέ φησίν λέγει Ἐκοπίασεν Αἴγυπτος καὶ ἐµπόρια Αἰθιόπων καὶ οἱ Σαβαεὶµ ἄνδρες ὑψηλοὶ ἐπὶ σὲ διαβήσονται καί σοι δοῦλοι ἔσονται καὶ πορεύσονται ὀπίσω σου δεδεµένοι ἐν χειροπέδαις καὶ ἐν σοὶ προσκυνήσουσιν ὅτι ἐν σοὶ ὁ Θεός ἐστιν καὶ ἐν σοὶ προσεύξονται καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν Θεὸς πλὴν σοῦ. σὺ γὰρ ἦς ὁ Θεὸς καὶ οὐκ ᾔδειµεν ὁ Θεὸς τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ σωτήρ. Ὁρᾷς φησίν πῶς ἕνα Θεὸν κηρύσσουσιν αἱ γραφαί τούτου ἐµφανοῦς δεικνυµένου.


Justin MartyrDialogue with Trypho56.1 (trans. Justin Dialogue with Trypho ed. Thomas P. Halton and Michael Slusser trans. Thomas B. Falls Selections from the Fathers of the Church vol. 3 [Washington d.c.: Catholic University of America Press 2003] 83).


Ibid.7.1. Here Hippolytus uses the subjunctive (ἐὰν δὲ λέγῃ) and suggests that they would use John 10:30 to argue for the identity of the Father and the Son. Elsewhere Hippolytus appears to be directly quoting the Noetians using φησίν. Later texts from the Monarchian controversy show however that John 10:30 was one of the key proof-texts for the Monarchians. Hippolytus then is probably responding to the actual exegesis of the Noetians rather than anticipating a move they could make. Mark DelCogliano has examined the place of John 10:30 in the Monarchian controversy and the use of grammatical techniques to refute the Monarchian reading. See Mark DelCogliano “The Interpretation of John 10:30 in the Third Century: Antimonarchian Polemics and the Rise of Grammatical Reading Techniques” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6 (2012): 117-38.


HippolytusContra Noetum7.4.


Praxeas is mentioned in Ps. TertullianAdversus omnium haereses8.4. We know very little about the author of this text although scholars have noted that it has some interesting similarities with the Refutatio ascribed to Hippolytus. See William Tabbernee Fake Prophecy and Polluted Sacraments: Ecclesiastical and Imperial Reactions to Montanism Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 84 (Leiden: Brill 2007) 78-79. The work itself does not add anything to our knowledge of Praxeas so I will not treat it further. Hermann Hagemann has one of the more thorough treatments of the identity of Praxeas: Hermann Hagemann Die römische Kirche und ihr Einfluss auf Disciplin und Dogma in den drei ersten Jahrhunderten (Freiburg 1864) 234-57. Hagemann argues that Praxeas is really a pseudonym for Callistus. Other scholars have also adopted this conclusion. See Evans “Introduction” 10-11; Allen Brent Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century: Communities in Tension before the Emergence of a Monarch-Bishop Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 31 (Leiden: Brill 1995) 525. Some scholars reject the view that Praxeas is merely a pseudonym for Callistus. See Gustave Bardy “Monarchianisme” in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique contenant l’exposé des doctrines de la théologie catholique leurs preuves et leur histoire ed. Alfred Vacant E. Mangenot and Emile Amann vol. 10.2 (Paris: Letouzey et Ané 1929) 2203; Harnack History of Dogma 3:59-60; Henri Leclercq “Monarchianisme” in Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie ed. Fernand Cabrol and Henri Leclercq vol. 11.2 (Paris: Letouzey et Ané 1934) 1953-55; George La Piana “The Roman Church at the End of the Second Century: The Episcopate of Victor the Latinization of the Roman Church the Easter Controversy Consolidation of Power and Doctrinal Development the Catacomb of Callistus” Harvard Theological Review 18 (1925): 246-47. Stuart Hall has suggested that Praxeas is a pseudonym for Irenaeus but his thesis is based on an impressionistic and superficial reading of texts that is hard to sustain. Stuart George Hall “Praxeas and Irenaeus” in Studia Patristica 14.3 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1976) 145-47.


TertullianAdversus Praxean18.1 (Trans. Ernest Evans ed. Tertullian’s Treatise against Praxeas [London: s.p.c.k. 1948] 156).


TertullianAdversus Praxean18.3 (Trans. Evans 156). Note here that Tertullian’s rejection of the Son as another [god] might be meant to temper the earlier claims of Justin. In Dialogue with Trypho 56.4 Justin argues that the Son is another God.


TertullianAdversus Praxean20.1-2 (Trans. Evans 159). Italics in original.




Ibid.13.2 (Trans. Evans 146).


TertullianAdversus Praxean14.3 (Trans. Evans 149).


Bogdan G. Bucur“Justin Martyr’s Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies and the Parting of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism,” Theological Studies 75 (2014): 34-91.


Boyarin“Two Powers in Heaven” 332.


Ibid.333-38. Note especially Boyarin’s description on pp. 337-38: “Rather than the heresy of ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ being interpreted then as an outside intruder into the world of ‘orthodox’ Judaism I suggest that the construction of this ‘heresy’ in rabbinic texts represents the border making and self-definition that ultimately produced orthodox rabbinism.” In another article Boyarin argues that the rabbis rewrote the history of Yavneh after the fact in order to “shore up [their] attempt at predominance . . .” Boyarin “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism” 428.


Boyarin“Two Powers in Heaven” 335.


Adiel Schremer“Midrash, Theology, and History: Two Powers in Heaven Revisited,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian Hellenistic and Roman Period 39 (2008): 230-31.


See especially Adiel SchremerBrothers Estranged: Heresy Christianity and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press2010) 14-16.


Adiel Schremer“Thinking about Belonging in Early Rabbinic Literature: Proselytes, Apostates, and ‘Children of Israel,’ or: Does It Make Sense to Speak of Early Rabbinic Orthodoxy?,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian Hellenistic and Roman Period 43 (2012): 251-52. He singles out Boyarin as one who has resurrected the stubborn conception of some sort of orthodoxy in ancient Judaism. It must be remembered however that Boyarin specifically argued that there was not a pre-existing dominant “orthodoxy” within Judaism during the second century ce. According to Boyarin this formative period is when this later “orthodoxy” was in its early stages.


Schremer“Midrash Theology and History” 232. Italics in original. Schremer’s position appears to presuppose some sort of sharp division between an existential crisis and theological doctrine. It is difficult to see how this division holds up in reality. If in fact the “two powers” teaching was an existential response to the destruction of the Second Temple and failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt this does not preclude it having a real impact on theology. After all giving up on God because God appears to be powerless in the face of destruction is undoubtedly a theological stance. It seems that existential crises readily yield new theological convictions. Schremer’s broader point that we need not view “two powers” as some extra-Jewish threat to supposed “orthodoxy” can stand without this disjunction between existential angst and theology. While Schremer critiques Segal and Boyarin for spending too much time trying to identify the “school” that taught “two powers” he seems equally fixated on determining what gave rise to this position that was so troubling for the rabbis although he locates it outside of the theological sphere.


Schremer“Midrash Theology and History” 233. Boyarin also recognizes the chronological challenges of early rabbinic texts and attempts to account for the different layers of redaction. See for example Boyarin “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism” 429. Despite Boyarin’s recognition that the different chronological strata of the texts need to be separated Schremer still accuses him of a certain degree of anachronism when reading rabbinic texts. He thinks that Boyarin’s reading is much more sophisticated than Segal’s—even if it does not completely escape Segal’s problems. See Schremer “Midrash Theology and History” 232 n. 10.


SchremerBrothers Estranged84.


Ibid.197n. 103.


See PhiloDe opificio mundi24. In this passage Philo’s main concern is to protect God from being the creator of anything evil or vicious. He argues that what is virtuous and good in humans is attributed to God while what is evil and vicious is attributed to those who helped God in the creation of humans. With this interpretation Philo insulates God from human evil and vice. Schremer’s attempt to identify “Gnostics” as the opponent in this passage is certainly in tension with his critique of Segal and Boyarin for fixating on determining the identity of those who propounded “two powers” teaching. See Schremer “Midrash Theology and History” 230-31.


See Schremer“Midrash Theology and History” 238. Schremer’s reading of the passage within the surrounding context does elucidate its meaning but the existential crisis here yields differing theological positions which the rabbis find unsatisfactory. Schremer’s argument is very plausible but it is not clear that Christians or Gnostics are not also the referent of this section. The virtue of a laconic passage such as this is that it can be used against a variety of opponents. Segal demonstrated well that “two powers” became something of a catch-all watchword. See for example Segal Two Powers in Heaven 153. Schremer’s contention presupposes a sharp disjunction between an existential crisis and theological positions but existential crises often produce new or different theological stances.


SegalTwo Powers in Heaven36. Segal also discusses the important place of debates about the two attributes of God (mercy and justice) within the rabbinic conflict with those who taught “two powers.” See Schremer “Midrash Theology and History” 244; Boyarin “Two Powers in Heaven” 343 n. 40.




Jeffrey Rubenstein“Social and Institutional Settings of Rabbinic Literature,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literatureed. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press2007) 62.


SegalTwo Powers in Heaven229.


BoyarinBorder Lines145-46. See also Boyarin “Two Powers in Heaven” 348.


Ibid.131. “That is by naming Two Powers heresy and giving over that doctrine to Christianity (in which some Christians avidly colluded) an ancient Jewish doctrine was marked as a heresy and the two ‘religions’ were produced as different.” It should here be noted that Tertullian does refer to the position of his opponents in Adversus Praxean as a “Jewish” way of thinking. He writes “Moreover this matter is of Jewish faith so to believe in one God as to refuse to count in with him the Son and after the Son the Spirit (Ceterum Iudaicae fidei ista res sic unum Deum credere ut filium adnumerare ei nolis et post Filium Spiritum).” Tertullian Adversus Praxean 31.1. Trans. Evans Against Praxeas 179.


BoyarinBorder Lines138; Boyarin “Two Powers in Heaven” 348.


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