4 Commandments for a New Christian History (Gnosticism series)

This is the final post in the blog series on Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? Up until this point I've followed along with King's critique of existing methods of doing Christian history. But of course no one wants to stop at criticism. The whole point of King's book is to encourage us to try out new strategies while mindful of past mistakes. In her final chapters King presents a range of experiments recent scholars have attempted, and gives specific advice for doing Christian history in a new way.

Credit: Pixgood.com

For today's blog, then, I have set her advice into guidelines, updated somewhat by the recent conclusions of the Christianity Seminar. Let's call them commandments, because we need to take them seriously for a while. It's too easy to sink back into what's familiar.

Guidelines for a New History of Christianity

  • Thou shalt not assume books of the New Testament are more historically important than other early Christian texts.

We actually don't know which texts came first, and in most cases there is healthy scholarly debate even around the exact dating of books within the Bible, ranging from within a couple decades of the death of Jesus to the late second century. Nag Hammadi and other texts have an equally wide range of possible dates of composition. Let's not confuse the theological importance of a text with its historical importance.

  • Thou shalt pick an audience.

Knowing your audience will help you decide how to choose what problems you tackle and what terms you use to define them. If you are a pastor speaking to a conservative-leaning mainline congregation, or a guest speaker at a Unitarian Universalist gathering, words like "gnostic" and even "Christian" might hold different meanings. Likewise, an academic writing a paper for New Testament scholars in one context maybe needs to take a different approach to the topic of early Christian history when engaging with classicists or patristics scholars. King quotes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on this point: "Scholarship, current and past, is always produced by and for people with certain experiences, values, and goals. Hence one must investigate the implicit interests and articulated goals of scholarship, its degree of conscious responsibility, and its accountability" (245, quoting Rhetoric and Ethic).

  • Thou shalt not seek the "origin" of "faulty" teachings.

First, what makes a teaching faulty? By whose standard? Second, all religions are derivative in the sense that they are all a mixture of traits of the religions that came before them. For example, Christianity inherited traits of Judaism, Greek mystery cults, and the philosophy and sciences of the times. If Christianity, even at its most traditional, is built upon the religious beliefs and practices of its predecessors, we shouldn't be concerned that non-traditional varieties of Christianity or related movements are somehow inferior simply because they also borrowed from other systems. Syncretism, writes King, "is 'an aspect of religious interaction over time'; it is about change, about the dynamics of religious beliefs and practices through time and across geographical and cultural space" (223, quoting Peter Van der Veer, "Syncretism, Multiculturalism, and the Discourse of Tolerance"). We must not assume truth always comes before error (228), or that truth is pure and unified while mixing is contamination (229).

  • Thou shalt become curious about ancient Christian literary production and social formation.

If you're not trying to find the "origin" of a religious movement, then what are you doing? You have a lot of options here. King (p. 190) suggests literary production and social formation. Let's become curious about how people invented and reworked the stories of their communities. Rather than saying we only care about the most original and earliest version of a text, let's become interested in what sort of community or person wrote a given text. For instance, who would want to take Paul's understanding of baptism as a ritual for Gentiles to be adopted into the people of God, and change it into a ritual for awakening the hidden, divine self? Both the adoption community and the divine-self community are surely interesting groups of people.

May we all go forth and re-tell the story.

This is the final post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed 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 FarrinCassandra 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.

4 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Thou shalt not assume that rationalism is the only way to approach an investigative project! Reasoned analysis is not the be-all and end-all of epistemology. “Beware of the scholars” is not an empty headed reflection. The heart of life is closer to relationalism than it is to rationalism, closer to spirit than it is to law.

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, your comment brings to mind the arts for me, which apply intuitive knowledge to investigation, something I appreciate very much but have different goals from historians. This seems to be tied to the audience issue. Some audiences won’t appreciate the difference between rationalism and other forms of knowledge (such as mythological or artistic knowledge).

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    “Thou shalt pick an audience.” Maybe, but if they are interested they won’t be using anachronistic pronouns and verbs to speak of biblical things.

    Instead of that, I would propose this. “You shall remember that, regardless of the topic, your audience will be infinitesimally small.” The purpose of “church” is not a consummately boring history lesson but commensality with like-minded folk.

    I just had a stroke of moronity: Maybe one could judge the audience by putting “squirm detectors” in the seats of the pews. The more the audience squirms, the less enticing the message is. This would be a way to quantify the message and to tweak it according to the audience. But(t), how to interpret… How to interpret?

    • Cassandra says:

      If the squirm detectors could also generate electricity, that would be an added bonus, right?

      I’ve been thinking recently quite a bit about who occupies the biblical/New Testament studies “space.” It is a large crowd, but it’s true that each niche has their own interests and aims. The result is that no one angle is going to satisfy the issue of retelling Christian history. It needs its academics, its artists, its social activists. It’s the cumulative effort in many different sectors of society that will have the greatest impact.

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