Religion and Boundary Making (Gnosticism series)

“When modern historians adopt the strategies as well as the content of the [ancient] polemicists’ construction of heresy to define Gnosticism, they are not just reproducing the heresy of the polemicists; they are themselves propagating the politics of orthodoxy and heresy.”
—Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism?, 54

Have you ever looked at a map of the world from a country other than your own? Odds are there was something peculiar about it. Your own country was no longer the center of the world. Japan, or Africa, or Australia, or some other country had taken its place. On a more subtle level, all one-dimensional maps stretch and distort what they describe, because they can’t easily reproduce a perfect sphere. Peter Turchi, in Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, observes in response to this phenomenon:

If no map is objective, we must reconsider what we mean when we ask if a map is “accurate.” Under the most rigorous examination, no map is accurate. On the other hand, you can probably draw on a scrap of paper what is called a sketch map sufficiently accurate to guide a new colleague from your workplace to your home. “Accuracy,” then, must be judged against the map’s stated purpose.

“School Cadets Map Reading” by Andrew MacPherson. Credit: Imperial War Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

Religion and boundary making can be understood in a similar way, with equally troubling pitfalls. We’ve been reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, a critique of how scholars today “map” the earliest generations of Christianity. King’s central claim is that the reigning maps are inaccurate for the stated purpose of the scholars.

Imagine you want to draw a map—not of a physical place but of typical religious beliefs, practices, and their associated texts in the Roman Empire of the first two centuries. That’s what most scholars of early Christianity are doing in the books they write. The labels they choose to represent clusters of certain artifacts from that time period are the equivalent of boundary markers. You can probably name a few of these labels yourself, but here’s a quick list from books I have sitting on my shelf:

  • Jewish
  • Christian
  • Pagan
  • Gnostic
  • Hellenistic
  • Jesus movement
  • Christ followers
  • Pauline churches
  • Pharisaic Jews
  • Second Temple Judaism
  • Emperor cult/veneration
  • Mystery cults

For the most part, these words are used to describe real people, real groups, and real practices. Like Peter Turchi’s sketched map, the words get the job done. If I want to explain how Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, or how Pharisaic Judaism came to more-or-less replace Temple Judaism, I can use these boundary markers to roughly describe the process. As long as we remember that the details are fuzzy, we can head in the right direction.

Here’s the problem: we inherited certain boundary markers from early Christian polemicists and then took them too much at their word. Specifically, we assumed they were right that their version of Christianity was “obviously” the middle course between being “too Roman” and “too Jewish.” It’s like we got a map with proto-Catholic Christianity, or proto-Protestant Christianity, smack dab in the center, and when we found maps with something else in the center, we shook our heads in confusion and looked away, saying, “This can’t be right.”

That mistake was understandable thirty or forty years ago when we didn’t have as much access many texts from opposing points of view, but those days are done. Now we know that other groups were also saying, “Here’s the real map. Yours is wrong!”

I believe King’s point is this: scholars today are erring on the side of either (1) assuming static categories of identity with easily assignable characteristics and practices, or (2) assuming static boundaries, that is, drawing more obvious dividing lines between groups than actually existed. The groups were often more similar than different, as she frequently observes. Last but certainly not least, some scholars are taking the extra step of (3) assigning a positive or negative value to certain boundary markers. “This” counts as Christianity—even “true” Christianity!—and “that” does not.

What’s your take on this? Do you find certain of these labels and boundary markers of history confusing or odd? Where do you see this debate going?

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

This is the third 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 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.

22 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Why would “scholars” be assuming anything, let alone static categories and static boundaries, and assigning values. Don’t “scholars” follow the data wherever it leads??? I guess not, so much for scholarship.

    Take a look at Patterson’s ‘St. Paul Hated Sex’ (4thR, Sept-Oct, 2013) and Walker’s ‘Maybe Paul Didn’t Hate Sex’ and ‘Stephen Patterson Replies” (4thR, Sept-Oct, 2014). It’s not like they had access to different sets of sources. Both are looking at the same stuff and saying different things, meaning the internal condition of the observer, not the data, determines conclusions. We might be able to see some truth in this multiplicity except for Patterson’s refusal to credit Walker with any legitimate correction of the original article, even suggesting that he was inept enough to be mislead by the hyperbole of the original title.

    I think our hope for best outcomes rests on multiple scholars working together on a given null hypothesis: there is no difference in the evidence for or against proposition A, B, or whatever. Although only one author, I think that Goodacre did a pretty good job of exploring the null hypothesis in his “Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics.”

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, I was talking with a friend about this problem not too long ago. What you’re pointing out, it seems to me, is the tension between two values: honesty and acknowledgement of human subjectivity (humility?). The ideal humble scholar acknowledges the limits of what he knows and gives credit where credit is due to other equally valid ideas. The ideal honest scholar “pulls no punches” when seeking the most plausible explanation of phenomena.

      In my mind, the honesty needs to have slightly more weight than the humility, but both need to be present in good scholarship.

  2. RoseKeister says:

    The Jerusalem messianic community of James and Peter has obscured the fact that the center of the oral tradition was Galilee. Draw a circle with a 50 mile radius (2-3 days journey) around Capernaum and look at how many regions, countries, cultures, languages and religions it encompasses. This is the heart of the argument for a multiple points of origin model of early Christianity rather than the tradition that Christianity originated with Peter and James’ belief in Jesus as the Messiah.

    I think where the debate is leading is a fuller recognition that not only was the Pauline community just one of several points of origin but that the Jerusalem messianic community itself was just one of several. This in turn emphasizes that what later was considered gnosticism also arose as part of the multiple points of origin. None is the “real” or even main thrust of early Christianity. We won’t have a real history of early Christianity until a model is developed of the multiple points of origin and none are privileged in the telling as orthodox or proto-orthodox. Walter Bauer, Helmut Koester and Burton Mack have done the most so far on these lines.

    The debate may also lead to the conclusion that the foundation of the oral tradition was not by “Jesus followers” or disciples. Rather the stories of Jesus arose simply from people remembering what he said in light of his death. Instead of people devoted to him, dedicated to following him, apostles etc the foundation of the oral tradition were just memories of Jesus by those who had heard him or of him then learned of his death. From this foundation of memories of what Jesus said rather than visions came Peter and James with their messianic ideas, Paul and the Christ figure, and the teachings that led to what was later called gnosticism by those who considered themselves orthodox.

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        That radius was “scorched earth” by the time the earliest gospels were probably composed. If anything, the gospels are a reflection of the war, not traditions. With a life expectancy in portions of the area (Jericho, for instance) at less than 40 even before the war, it seems unlikely that any of the gospels were derived from any meaningful oral tradition. Peter (Rock) was one of the greatest examples of a ironic cue name every created! His character is probably as part of the fiction, not of any historical significance. James seems to come into prominence in the second century literature. I think that Mack’s hypothesis relies far too much on fictive literary characters (which have purpose within the literature) and hypotheses of “early written sources” being historicized.

        • RoseKeister says:

          The radius was referring to the origins of the oral tradition and how many different cultures were interpreting Jesus’ life in the decades leading up to the war, however your point is well taken. I just finished reading “The View From Across the Euphrates” by Stephen Patterson where he raised the point that rather than ask why “The Gospel of Thomas” lacks the passion and resurrection, we should be asking why the canonical gospels include them.

          His answer is that the canonical gospels were written in the Roman empire during the Jewish wars when the Jewish people were viewed with suspicion and isolated by society. The gospels reflect this in their emphasis on Jesus’ death and how to interpret this, whereas he locates the Gospel of Thomas in Edessa outside the Roman empire where the emphasis was Jesus’ life and teachings.

          By coincidence I just received Patterson’s latest book “The Lost Way” which I hope continues his thoughts on this subject because I can see the debate on labels and boundaries following his lead on why the canonical gospels include increased apocalypticism, anti-semitism, the emphasis on Jesus death rather than his life and the need to make Jesus the son of God and then God. Hopefully “The Two Ways” addresses further the New Testament origin in the Roman empire during the Jewish Wars.

          • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

            On the other hand, Mark Goodacre (Thomas and the Gospels) makes a great point, based on verbatim agreement of the Greek Thomas and the gospels, as well as other things like the redaction style of the author, that Thomas was derived from the gospels. Per the “missing passion,” he points out that salvation, according to the “collector” of sayings, was emphasized that salvation came from hearing the words. It isn’t “whoever believes Jesus was raised,” but “whoever interprets” the sayings, repeating this “hearing” around nine times. This notion of “agreement” in the Synoptics does not necessarily presume that a lack of agreement necessitates independence. As he wrote on p. 15, “But one cannot legitimately reverse that positive argument and make the absence of substantial agreement in order a sign of the lack of literary relationship.”

            Thus, if one does not begin with the presumption that something is missing, one can better judge what is there. He argues that this “Fifth Gospel” elevation “only serves to draw attention to its differences from the Synoptic Gospels… the Gospel of Thomas distinguishes itself from the Synoptics in genre, literary conceit, and antiquity. To grant Thomas ‘Fifth Gospel’ status encourages a kind of ahistorical privileging of one noncanonical gospel gospel over many others.” And, this has been done by many, who have even created, quite literally “out of thin air,” a Thomas community in the first century, though all the Thomas literature seems both later and dependent on the gospels.

        • Gene Stecher says:

          Dennis, could you share the “methodology” that led you to conclude that, “…if anything, the gospels are a reflection of the war.”

          • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

            Literary, Gene. I just hit an errant key that caused what I wrote to “eject” and I’m too irritated to write it over. Back in a bit when I cool off!

          • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

            Priority of Mark is central to the way I see things. It is literature. I look at Mark as the genesis of Jesus. (I firmly see the Paulines coming later, so I am not a mythicist.) Mark has over 150 allusions to the Hebrew scriptures and symbolical geography that takes one back to the mythical exodus. Mark personifies the 12 tribes as ignorant disciples. Jesus is created in the image of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, but with more “mojo.” His very name, Joshua, points him in that direction, as well as in the direction of eponymy, “God’s salvation,” as does the dunderheaded “Rock,” Peter. Much of the story is in first person present tense, with sentences connected with “and,” which is the way one writes to push the story along at a fast clip. There is a definite chiastic structure, with the middle of the structure hearkening the figures he is paralleling, Moses and Elijah. With that in mind…

            One finds the chief priests as the antagonists, an anti-Judean theme, which would have been rampant after the first Roman war. That is juxtapositioned by the Galileans, the “Israelites,” loving him. At the Passion’s “core” is the Josephus story of Jesus ben Ananias. The story is set “one generation,” forty years, before the war. The message is that, even though Judea was destroyed, God is salvation and will be found, not in the Judea that rejected God’s salvation, but in “Israel,” probably hearkening the “new Israel” of mythical lore. That is what the literature “tells” me. Hopefully, that answers the question. (Much of my background lies in literature and language.)

            Keep in mind, Gene (and others), I own and have read sixty Jesus Seminar books and am closing in on 500 scholarly titles in my biblical studies collection. Though I once was enamored with the Q, the Thomas and other fads, I come from a background that, above all, treasured independent thinking and good argument.

    • Peter Kane says:

      Rose: I like the way you look behind the boundary stereotypes, and ask why people said what they said, or did what they did. To me it seems much more fruitful to forget about what is true and what is false, and concentrate instead on people’s varying reactions to historical situations. Extracting the essence of Jesus out of Galilean context, or the ‘theology of Paul’ without Rome is like studying MLK without the civil rights movement. Which is just to say history is way more fun than theology. God only knows why organized religion gets so sidetracked on what is true.

      • Rosekeister says:

        I just finished Stephen Patterson’s “The Lost Way” in which he makes a comparison of the canonical gospels, with their themes of martyrdom and emphasis on death and resurrection, with the Gospel of Thomas which he situates in Edessa outside the Roman empire and emphasizes the Jewish wisdom tradition.

        He considers the canonical gospels as wartime literature when being Jewish meant being under suspicion, harassed and even persecuted and the gospels reflect this. The Jewish community of Thomas however was outside the Roman empire and martyrdom themes are therefore absent and what is found is the wisdom tradition.

        Patterson has written a lot about Thomas much of which is collected in “The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Origins: Essays on the Fifth Gospel (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies) .” I think he and others connected with Westar are reaching the point that it can fairly be called a new model of the origins of Christianity.

    • Cassandra says:

      “The debate may also lead to the conclusion that the foundation of the oral tradition was not by “Jesus followers” or disciples. Rather the stories of Jesus arose simply from people remembering what he said in light of his death. Instead of people devoted to him, dedicated to following him, apostles etc the foundation of the oral tradition were just memories of Jesus by those who had heard him or of him then learned of his death.”

      Rose, something I like about what you’re saying here is that there’s nothing official about this process. It’s very human, emotive, engaged with memory. It’s not a “tradition” in any formal sense. Even if we look at something like September 11th, and how the narratives around that have developed since it happened, the responses of individuals become traditions by being assigned value by a given community.

      It’s too early to give details, but we do have a couple forthcoming books related to this subject. Very much looking forward to conversations around them!

      • Rosekeister says:

        “It’s too early to give details, but we do have a couple forthcoming books related to this subject. Very much looking forward to conversations around them!”

        I’m glad to hear that because I’m expressing it very awkwardly. It’s just becoming more clear, primarily from reading Westar publications, that nascent Christianity did not follow Peter and James around but rather Peter and James’ reactions and interpretations were just part of an larger overall reaction in Galilee to Jesus’ death on the cross.

        I’m also wondering more if Peter and “disciples” were not with Jesus when he was arrested before fleeing to Galilee. Instead they were just people who had heard Jesus speak and were still fishermen in Galilee at his death. Peter and James then interpreted Jesus life developing a messianic sect which Galileans did not accept and therefore the move to Jerusalem.

        Narratives of the woes on Bethsaida and Chorazin and narratives of rejections of Jesus are more likely reflections of the rejection by Galilee of a messianic sect. The Jerusalem to Galilee and back to Jerusalem is just too artificial. Indeed the entire theme of Peter and the disciples in Mark now begins to stand out more as Mark arguing against Peter’s and James’ messianic ideas in favor of Jesus as the Son of God as interpreted by the emerging Gentile communities.

        • Gene Stecher says:

          Rose, if Mark is arguing against Messianic identity in favor of Son of God identity, how do you explain Mark’s identification of the Messiah as Son of Man and Jesus’ identity as Son of Man throughout Mark, with this whole notion pivoting on Mark 8:27ff. where Peter’s confession of the Christos/Messiah is found?

        • Cassandra says:

          Rose, I don’t think you’re expressing it awkwardly at all! I attended a Westar meeting a year or so ago at which someone observed that in the study of history in general and Christianity in particular, we like to pick out “heroes” who lead the way instead of allowing for communal force. I had that on my mind because I was just reading the opening chapters of Karen Armstrong’s new book Fields of Blood. In the context of relating the story of Gilgamesh, she points toward a human obsession with archetypes as part of a larger argument about how religion provides the structures we need for giving meaning to life. I’m talking about that some in my next blog post, though, so I won’t get into it too much. 😉

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    “…how Pharisaic Judaism came to more-or-less replace Temple Judaism…” Even that statement is not assured. One reads in the introduction of Jacob Neusner’s translation of the Mishnah (p.xxxii), “On the other hand, the Mishnah rarely refers to the Pharisees. When it does, it does not represent them as its definitive authorities. Sages, not Pharisees, are the Mishnah’s authorities.” This section about the Pharisees is enlightening. According to this Jewish source it seems the Sages produced the Judaism that became normative after the temple was squashed.

    • Cassandra says:

      This is a good reminder, Dennis, that Judaism-Christianity as a whole entangled movement was complicated, and each of the descriptive labels we apply to the period run a risk of being misunderstood. King has stressed over the past couple chapters that we must include our intent with our definitions, or else we run a greater risk of hyperbole (thinking also of Gene’s observations about the recent exchange between Stephen Patterson and Bill Walker).

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        Cassandra, here are the synonyms of “Pharisee” in one of my dictionaries: “hypocrite, pretender, dissembler, humbug, fraud, white sepulcher, pietist, charlatan, goody, goody-goody.” It is disgusting and sounds like it came straight from NT polemic. On the other hand, Josephus saw Pharisees as good fellows.

        One of the more interesting creations of early Christianity and modern scholars is “James, brother of the Lord.” The only mention of a James in the Paulines, as per the Marcionite Galatians (which according to Tertullian, he discovered, so it is probably the earliest) is as one of the three at the “transfiguration,” Peter, James and John. Because of what must have been an interpolation (1:18 – 24), James is transported from being a bare mention of one of the brothers in Mark who probably thought Jesus crazy to the famous guru of a “Jerusalem group.” Silly! (I’m knee deep into Marcion’s incredible Apostolikon right now. If one takes the Catholic interpolations out of the Paulines, it actually forms a fairly coherent view.)

        • Cassandra says:

          I remember even as a child wondering where James came from. When I read (naively) in NT order, from the gospels to Acts, all of sudden there he was.

          After I posted this blog, I came across a really great quote from The Jewish Gospels by Boyarin, which would have been helpful for suggesting an alternative approach to the stark definitions we inherited and adapted from polemicists. He suggests using the metaphor of family resemblance to describe Jewish-Christian relations, and quotes Chana Kronfeld from On the Margins of Modernism saying, “Members of one family share a variety of similar features—eyes, gait, hair color, temperament. But—and this is the crucial point—there need be no one set of features shared by all family members” (20-21).

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    Since methodology, and which methods to value, are central to King’s book, I looked through the posts to date and found the following suggested approaches: null hypotheses, geographical sensitivity, lifespan sensitivity, awareness of literary strategies, sensitivity to cultural origins, avoidance of presumptive errors, practicing the rules of logical derivation, identification of distinctiveness, accuracy in labeling.

  5. Gene Stecher says:

    I wonder what role “compromise” could play in the arena of scholarly practices. I woke up this morning thinking of a young couple I married in 1972, a 19yr old Protestant woman and a 21 year old Jewish man. The families were absolutely torn, but eventually they reached a compromise: the couple would marry in the bride’s family’s Methodist church, and the grooms’ parents’ wishes would be recognized by not using the name of Jesus during the service. I don’t remember why the participation of a rabbi was not solicited. I remember visiting this couple after their first child was born and the families were getting along well at the time.

    This experience meets King’s criteria of the possibility of truth in recency, multiplicity and impurity. The scholarly multi-author books I’ve read are either separate chapters, or chapters responding to other chapters, or cooperative chapters of the like-minded. Has anyone read a text that evidences a perception of truth as multiple and impure, as a collision but compromise of different mind sets.

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