Part of the problem that I'm only now getting my head around, is that in the first place our understanding has been dictated by the categories that the church fathers put into place. We understand that they did this to legitimate and consolidate their own positions, but we still have continued to bury ourselves in them. Some scholars, here I am thinking about Karen King and also Elaine Pagels recently, have gone the next step and removed the categories altogether, so there are no heretics and there are no gnostics. The conundrum that this puts us into is it leaves us with no way to talk about the gnostics who were different types of Jews and Christians and who by the fourth century had become some kind of alternative or new religious movement persecuted by the conventional religions.
In the second place, the sociologists of religion have not been too helpful. Here I am thinking of Rodney Stark especially. I really disliked his A Theory of Religion. It might be meaningful to discuss some groups today, but it has nothing to do with the ancient world at all. And so when he tries to apply his theory to the ancient world, it is anachronistic and obscures what was happening.
Why? Because the western world wasn't Christian then. It was Roman. And the Romans didn't have an orthodox religion, unless you want to call their civic polytheism orthodox. I wouldn't because orthodox implies a right way. And for the Romans, there were many right ways, and you could enlist in lots of them simultaneously without offending any of the gods.
And Christianity, which was actually one of many religions in the second century, just did not exist as a dominant orthodox pattern yet. So to talk about sects deviating from Christianity, or cults forming, just does not work. We are in a pluriform Roman religious environment, and a pluriform Jewish and Christian sub-environment (if you get my drift), no matter how we slice it. So I have trouble with words like "deviant" which make up the basis for social theories of religion. Now by the fourth century, this is another story, and then we might begin to engage these categories.
At any rate, it is this complicated mess that I want to try to untangle this year.