"Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem, I argue, is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity." —Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism?
Many provocative and wonderful—and some admittedly bizarre—texts never made it into the New Testament. Some that were excluded told wild stories about the young Jesus; in others, individual disciples of ill repute, like Mary Magdala and even Judas Iscariot, are depicted as the ones who truly understood Jesus' teachings. Still others took heavily philosophical or poetic turns that offer very different ideas of God, Jesus, and humanity's relationship to both. In popular pious terms, all these texts are considered "heretical," supportive of ideas that fall outside acceptable limits of belief.
Scholars have known for over a hundred years that they couldn't describe these texts as "heretical" in historical study. History is not theology. Historians must make some attempt to acknowledge and minimize bias and value judgments. For example, a historian doesn't ask, "Was Jesus the son of God?" Rather, a historian might ask, "Did followers of Jesus believe he was the son of God?" Or, to be more open-ended, "How did first- and second-century followers of Jesus interpret who he was?"
At risk of oversimplifying, we might consider gnosticism to be the politically correct term in biblical studies for heresy. Indeed, the word gnosticism has taken on a life of its own, and so these days it is possible to be "for" gnostic teachings, however defined. You can even belong to a modern gnostic community.
But was there ever an actual gnostic movement in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement? Did any group actually describe itself that way, for example? Where did this word even come from? King explains that there is no single ancient group that called itself "gnostic." This is a modern term that has basically supplanted "heretical" without altering form and function. It continues to hold up traditional/orthodox Christianity as normal and lump everything else outside the fold. One can be "for" or "against" it, but none of this alters the paradigm. Quite simply, this is too limiting for historical inquiry. We need a more useful paradigm.
As I read this book, I also happen to be reading Bart Ehrman's Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford, 2012). Something these two books share is an emphasis on the fact that there was no obvious consensus in the first and second centuries about what Christianity was, and the disputes about it were anything but mild. While there were conflicts with outside groups like non-Christian Jews and pagans, intramural arguments reigned the day. "The writings of ancient Christian polemicists fostered the search for a single origin based on their claim that heresy had one author, Satan, even as truth had one author, God," writes King (7). Ehrman elaborates: "Throughout antiquity it was standard polemical fare to charge one's opponents with the most nefarious of crimes against nature and humanity, in particular indiscriminate sex, infanticide, and cannibalism" (23). To be described as gnostic in this context was not complimentary. In works as early as the second-century writings of Irenaeus, gnosis came to stand "for false knowledge, in short, for heresy" (King, 7). Unfortunately, rather than breaking out of this Christian infighting, "scholars accepted in principle that all the manifold expressions of Gnosticism could be traced to a single origin, but they searched for the source in more historical places" (7).
Key to breaking free of this all-too-easy error, King argues, is understanding why we might want to define gnosticism. Definitions need context. What is the goal, however provisional?
So what do we wish to know from a study of Gnosticism? Christianity in all its variety? Why? To provide more options for contemporary theological reflection? To put normative Christianity on a firm historical foundation by showing the superiority of its particular structures and traditions? To legitimate changes to the definitional norms and practices of contemporary Christians (feminist, liberationist, evangelical)? To understand Gnostic phenomena as exempla of the religious experiences of humanity and thus for us? To plumb the depths of human intellectual folly? (19)
So why are you interested? What drives you to this subject? In my case, having grown up in Idaho, I am driven by my early experiences of "intramural" debates with my high school friends, who were members of the LDS (Mormon) church. I also used to attend the services of both the mainline Presbyterian church of my grandparents and the local Pentecostal church, usually on the same Sunday, so I became naturally curious about how two such radically different communities both called themselves Christian and yet refused to acknowledge that Mormons were Christian, too. How odd, I thought. The religious beliefs have left me, but the curiosity remains. Now I want to know about the earliest generations of people who followed Jesus, and their diverse answers to, "Why?"
And yes, I want to know because I want to offer alternatives to my friends and community, which remains just as conservative as it was when I was a child. Not even a month ago I attended two different church services, both of which preached miracles, the end of the world in a violent apocalypse, and Satan as a living entity, none of which I accept, even though the people who attend these services are people I dearly love. This is how I know the fight for a different future is by no means over. Whether they should or not, people are invested in the historical roots for their beliefs, so that's where I must look, too.
This is the first post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.