The Ancient Rhetoric of Exclusion and Its Modern Bedfellows (Gnosticism series)

“Ancient philosophical discourse identified truth with origin, purity and essence. … True knowledge was knowledge of the beginning, and above all, knowledge of the Divine. History was generally plotted as a story of decline from the moment of pure origin.”

—Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism?

It’s pretty well established by now that historians have to be careful not to assume ancient people thought like they did. But there’s a less obvious facet of that problem that deserves our attention. Consider this parable from Jack Miles about a pair of twin boys, Benjamin and Joshua, from the preface of Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels:

Because they are fraternal twins, not identical, they don’t look alike, and they are different from one another in other ways as well. Ben is an athlete, a scrappy competitor who makes up in hustle whatever he may lack in raw ability. Josh is a singer-songwriter with bedroom eyes whose second love, after his current girlfriend, is his guitar.

… Being twins, sharing a bedroom since they were toddlers, Ben and Josh know each other quite well. Ben knows—as no one else does—that Josh can beat him in one-on-one basketball. Josh knows that Ben can sing a two-part harmony in a sweet tenor voice never heard outside their bedroom. But what they know about themselves has mattered less and less as time has passed and as a received version of who they are has taken hold in their extended family. … By degrees, the brothers themselves have succumbed to the family definition. (x‒xi)

Later, Miles says, when a visitor was offered the family album and pointed out photos of the boys in roles that the family had come to associate with the opposite brother, “the family chuckled at these completely out-of-character moments” (xi).

Judaism and Christianity are like Josh and Ben. There was a time when they were not separated so dramatically, and yet over time it became “out of character” for a Jewish person to be associated with one idea, say the belief in a divine son of God, and for a Christian person to be associated with another, say, keeping kosher. As we continue to read Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I find this a helpful metaphor for King’s cautions about concepts like heresy, orthodoxy, and gnosticism.

King explains that ancient polemicists like Irenaeus and Tertullian used certain social and rhetorical strategies both to create a uniform definition of Christianity and, in the same stroke, to exclude individuals and groups that muddied the waters with different beliefs and practices. While she gives a nod to the role of political power (such as the ability to excommunicate someone), she draws our attention to a polemical tool that doesn’t get quite as much attention: the interplay between widespread ancient beliefs about origins and a clever appeal by polemicists to metaphors of genealogy.

This is a crucial point because this rhetoric is still used, consciously or unconsciously, by scholars today in defining gnosticism. More on that in a moment.

Basilica Saint-Sernin - Simon Magus (Wikimedia Commons)

Relief on the Miègeville’s gate of the basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. The relief shows Simon magus, demons, and birth of the wine. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

First, what were ancient beliefs about origins? As the quote with which I opened this post suggests, according to ancient rhetoric truth was associated with a pure origin, and an associated belief that everything deterioriates from there. This attitude toward history had a powerful influence on Christianity through the work of polemicists, who cleverly appealed to biological metaphors of “like follows like” to claim that “true” teachings led from the twelve apostles and their inheritors, while “false” teachings led from mistaken individuals like Simon Magus, as infamously depicted in Acts 8, to whichever individuals or groups a given polemicist wanted to attack in his own era. In other words, there was a genealogy of truth leading from God and a genealogy of falsehood leading from Satan, with certain iconic figures coming to represent one versus the other. As troubling as this is, King observes, “modern scholarship has tended to keep Irenaeus’ tactics alive by offering alternative genealogies” instead of challenging the whole model (32).

What all this amounts to, as I understand it, is that we’re like the family of Josh and Ben, only we’re trusting a couple disgruntled uncles to tell us what we ought to think about how things actually unfolded over the years. And that, as we’ve become aware of it, we’ve just grabbed a different uncle.

An awful lot of anxiety is implied by all this shoring up of boundaries while at the same time playing the old-fashioned trick of getting a person to look at the right hand while the left hand acts. Notice that there is no pre-existing orthodoxy to be defended. Rather, the polemicists are themselves creating an orthodox position through engaging with their opponents. They themselves are searching for past figures to represent their immediate problems. It’s only in looking back that the result seems inevitable. Yet all this was going on in close quarters. The anxiety underlying these acts is not caused by strangers but by individuals who threatened the immediate identity of the polemicists. King quotes Jonathon Z. Smith on this point: “Rather than the remote ‘other’ being perceived as problematic and/or dangerous, it is the proximate ‘other,’ the near neighbor, who is most troublesome” (in King, 25).

Philosopher Judith Butler has written extensively on boundary-making and anxiety about the near “other.” Although frequently she addresses this in terms of gender and, lately, political philosophy, one can easily see the connections to the issue we’re discussing here. In Undoing Gender she writes,

The Hegelian tradition links desire with recognition, claiming that desire is always a desire for recognition and that it is only through the experience of recognition that any of us becomes constituted as socially viable beings. That view has its allure and its truth, but it also missed a couple of important points. The terms by which we are recognized as human are socially articulated and changeable. And sometimes the very terms that confer ‘humanness’ on some individuals are those that deprive certain other individuals of the possibility of achieving that status. … These norms have far-reaching consequences. … (2)

Contemporary debates about a number of topics in Christianity—such as the role of the Bible and how it ought to be interpreted, gender and sexuality, and appropriate leadership—rest on what beliefs and practices are considered to fall inside the definition of Christianity and which ones don’t by those with the power to enforce it. I recognize that some people don’t like to hear the phrase “socially constructed” because it suggests these don’t have weight or influence in real life, but I can think of several examples offhand of this power to enforce a particular definition of Christianity: a minor whose behaviors fall out of line with the expectations of the head of household can face physical and financial punishment, for instance. On a broader level, Margaret Battin in Ethics in the Sanctuary cites multiple examples of church communities publicly humiliating members who fail to meet their expectations, not to mention shunning, denying resources, and other punitive actions. I remember at Westar’s Spring 2014 national meeting when we were discussing hell in American culture, one participant said, “Some of us are still dealing with this in our families. We know people for whom hell is a real, scary place they have to avoid.” It’s not just interesting history; individuals in families and communities everywhere are still enforcing such beliefs as a matter of course, with, as Butler says, “far-reaching consequences.”

I hope it is clear, then, that if we can break free of the orthodox-versus-heresy model, this can lead to a very real impact on the lives of the people around us. We can offer new possibilities not only for understanding the past but also creating a more flexible boundary line for the contemporary church. For those of us outside the church but still affected by it, it can give us the right to say, “It doesn’t have to be so.” Ben and Josh can be different, and they will still be Ben and Josh. Jews and Christians can be different, and still be meaningful communities; the seeds are still right there in history, waiting to be noticed by the right person, waiting to be nurtured.

Join us in reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

This is the second 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 ↓

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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.

21 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    King on Tertullian: “Origins were linked with unity, purity, essence, and truth – became the normative treatment of difference within the history of Christianity.” (36) This approach in itself does not erupt in pointing the finger at heretics. The key is if one insists on the label of ‘essential truth’ for one’s own view, i.e., insisting that truth has to be grounded either in sin and forgiveness or ignorance and knowledge (1). To me, the greatest orthodox weakness is limiting God to Father.

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, yes, responding to your comment, “The key is if one insists on the label of ‘essential truth’ for one’s own view…” it’s a bit difficult to articulate but the core point was that identity formation worked both directions: groups mutually define themselves and others in the same stroke. (By the way, comments should now allow for up to 3000 characters, so you should be able to write longer responses now. Let me know if gives you any trouble.)

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I counted 22 “heretical” sects in irenaeus, 14 different ones in extant Hippolytus. Christian sects haven’t changed much & they won’t. Christianity is defined by ‘outsiders,’ and the various sects set up boundaries protecting their orthodoxy, their culture. One reads more about what Christian sects don’t believe than what they believe.

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      Also,beliefs like those found in the N.Hammadi sources are no more absurd than, for instance, a Trinitarian belief, a belief that god sired a son,resurrection, exaltation of Satan… These,however,are part of the religious inbreeding, mythic explanations that help to create the cultural cohesiveness of religion.It would have been simpler -and less convoluted- to have accepted Marcion’s version!

    • Cassandra says:

      Dennis, I think something that doesn’t always come across in these conversations clearly enough is that nobody is saying, “The so-called heretics were right and the so-called orthodox were wrong.” Although I didn’t quote King on this point, later in this same chapter she mentions that even ethnic groups come to be defined as distinct groups because they and others around them claim distinctions from one another. Once value and primacy get assigned to one group versus another, with the power to enforce it, ethics enters the picture in a visceral way. (By the way, as I mentioned to Gene above, comments should now allow for up to 3000 characters, so you should be able to write longer responses now. Let me know if gives you any trouble. We’re still working out a few kinks.)

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Marcellus of Ancyra (On the Holy Church 9,4th c.) writing about Valentinius stated he “was the first to devise the notion of 3 subsistent entities… For he devised the notion of 3 subsistent entities and 3 persons-father, son, and holy spirit.”Say it ain’t so, orthodoxy!Could be correct. V. was influential in Rome before attacked for some of his ideas.If Gtr is his,it is a unique way to see the Johanine & Pauline literature. 80% of the allusions originate there.

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    “subsistence: the act or state of being.” “hypostasis: the essence of any person of the Trinity.” Council of Nicea, 325: “LJC…begotten not made…being of one substance with the father…those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      Can you point to anyone before Valentinius (app. 2nd quarter of second century) who is attested to have taken water soluble superglue to father, son, and holy spirit, Gene, and tried to create a 3 musketeers one for three, three for one goddishness?

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        Gene, I’ve been writing about Gospel of Truth(Gtr),which Irenaeus says was written by Valentinus (3.11.9).Using versification of ANNT, it seems like the author is contemplating an interesting proto-Trinitarian belief in 10.1-9; dad, mom, son through the bosom of Father, which is the holy spirit.

      • Gene Stecher says:

        Probably not! GJohn 1: “the Word was God, the Word became flesh” (reads like essence, no HS included); GJohn 10:30: “the Father and I are one.” (reads like purpose; no HS included). GMatt 11:27/Lk/Marcion: “no one knows the Father except the Son” (reads like purpose; no HS included). Phil 2:5f: “CJ, form of God, equality with God” (reads like essence+purpose; no HS included). Col 1:15f “Christ, the 1stborn of all creation (heresy at Nicea), all things were created through him.”

        • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

          I think you are overlaying a “Trinitarian” belief on something not there when it was written. Certainly those were verses used in the middle of the second century – Gtr relies heavily on material attributed to John – but the author of Gtr, with a style like Val, is developing it, I think, fairly early. (Athenagorus & Tertullian are probably later.)

          • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

            I’ll work on my ideas to put in larger format, Gene (Hodos), but let me use Layton’s Gtr translation: “& the father uncovers his bosom-now, his bosom is the holy spirit,&reveals his secret-his secret is his son so that out of the father’s bowels they might learn to know him & the aeons might no longer be weary from searching for the father, might repose in him & might know that he is repose.”

  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Does one find an exegesis of the Trinity elsewhere before this? The latest Taussig has it is 160ce, with 80ce being the earliest.Of possible allusions, GJohn, 1John & Rev. (all “John” lit), 45% are from those (with 34% from Pauline material). I’m not finding this development in the Apost. Fathers. I feel another quest coming on!

  6. Gene Stecher says:

    This shorthand is causing confusion, Dennis. I did not “overlay a Trinitarian belief”. I pointed out that the biblical formulas did not include the Holy Spirit and probably supported common purpose at least as much, or more, than common essence between Father and Son. Your GTruth/Valentinian formula is surely proto-Trinitarian, as you indicate.

  7. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Perusing the Apostolic Fathers, as well as Justin & Irenaeus, the Holy Spirit seems more in line with TNK references to the spirit. It seems to become personified at the end of the second century. Without the label “gnostic” one can clump Marcion back in the mix. This means he was as responsible as any for canonical Luke and Acts, as well as the Paulines. If one can assign the beginnings of Trinitarian belief (which, even in the Roman catechisms, relies most on Gospel of John) to others outside of the orthodoxy, it would show the influence of these groups and one could get rid of the fiction of a united Christianity from day one.

  8. Peter Kane says:

    Trinity and unifying Constantine’s Empire just don’t float my boat any more. More interesting to me is, for example, when we were looking for another denomination to share our oversized building with, I thought it would be fascinating to approach a synagogue. We went Episcopal instead, but sometimes I still imagine the possibilities of creative interaction. Almost like putting yourself back into the world of Paul, playing around again with how people can live in the world creatively and authentically together.

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      Peter, in the town I live the Jewish synagogue meets in a Presbyterian church. I’m not sure of any interaction, since the worship would be on different days. (I will never attend any church service again, whether worship, funeral or wedding after what happened to me last year.)

      But, my essay about the Trinity is progressing nicely, should have it posted (elsewhere) by the end of the weekend. It’s the history that intrigues me! In this one, Theodoret of Cyrus meets Thomas Jefferson meets Valentinus.

  9. Peter Kane says:

    “I hope it is clear, then, that if we can break free of the orthodox-versus-heresy model, this can lead to a very real impact on the lives of the people around us.”

    Cassandra, I think it is bigger than how churches approach ‘truth’. In a post-Platonic world what takes the place of seeking the true? How does a relative world actually function? Crossan was commenting once on Ryland P52, possibly the oldest gospel fragment in existence, and he pointed out that the text quoted John’s Pilate, “what is truth”. Which goes to show, Crossan quipped, that god has a sense of humor.

    I think people will be struggling for a long time to determine the shape of a relative world. It would be nice of little communities here and there would experiment and practice with the possibilities.

    PS – Thanks for the 3000

  10. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Peter, perhaps that is part of the cultural “lag” one finds in Christianity. My secular world is “relative.” When a religion is “book bound,” bound by ancient manuscripts that demand their version of “truth,” one is thrown into the sludge of the first and second centuries, told that this is the final “Word of God,” gasping to surface unscathed by the ethnocentric, misogynist world of the Bible. In the secular world, I study early Christian texts wondering that people believe this as history, in the modern sense of the world, and obey the texts for fear of eternal damnation. This doesn’t make for a healthy psychological profile. Perhaps the answers to the “relative” world are found, not in Christian churches, but in a secular life, a secular community and world. (Nigel Leaves speaks to this, as do Cupitt and Geering, all who have Polebridge/Westar books.)

    • Peter Kane says:

      Dennis: Churches don’t have a monopoly on static thinking. The ‘world’s greatest democracy’ seems to need a father figure president. Resistance to gay marriage isn’t (wasn’t?) just a church thing. I drove through Chicago last weekend, and one could make a case for a lack of relational thinking ruling the transition from 5 lanes to 4 lanes. I imagine traffic engineers somewhere with parabolic images of a ‘better place’ somewhere in the clouds.

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