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Redeeming Gnosticism? Scholars Weigh the Pros and Cons

A mixture of long-time supporters of Westar, new and inquiring members of the public, students, and faculty gathered in the ballroom of the San Diego Convention Center Friday, November 21st, 2014, at the Westar Christianity Seminar to discuss a troublesome little word you won't hear much in everyday conversations, even ones about Christianity—gnosticism.

One reason you may not have heard this term much is that gnosticism has become a catch-all in biblical studies for communities, texts and ideas that don't deserve much attention. "As soon as you put the label gnosticism on something, it's bound to be misunderstood," said Michael Williams (University of Washington), who has worked with such texts for five decades. Texts labeled "gnostic" are often excluded from stories of Christian history. They don't appear in the New Testament, so people tend to look right past them, as though their absence automatically makes them unimportant.

The Secret Revelation of John by Karen L. King

Karen King's The Secret Revelation of John attempted to place this text alongside books inside and outside the New Testament without giving priority to one versus the other.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the average person hasn't heard much about gnosticism, any more than they've heard of or read texts like the Secret Revelation of John, Gospel of Thomas, or more than fifty other texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Rather than being read alongside New Testament texts, which belong to the same historical period, they are relegated to the sidelines in stories about Christian origins.

It's tempting to say that this is a publicity problem and not a scholarly problem, but this issue has deep roots in the discipline. "Scholarly bias and preconceptions about gnosticism, mostly derived from polemicists"—that is, early leaders in the Jesus movement who first labeled certain groups and practices as heresy—"are a serious problem today," remarked Stephen Patterson of Willamette University in his opening comments. "The study of early Christianities is fraught for everyone. We must be attentive to unsensed tendencies in our work."

Before Nag Hammadi, some of the best historical resources available were "catalogues" of what certain ancient people considered "wrong" or "flawed" teaching. Unfortunately, scholars consciously or unconsciously took up the biases of these catalogues along with the content. To give a modern equivalent, imagine basing your entire opinion of groups like the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, or People's Temple on anti-cult pamphlets. No matter what you might think of these groups if you were able to observe them in practice, your understanding of them would be seriously skewed through the narrow lens of their most virulent opponents. All of this builds to the question of the hour: Is redeeming gnosticism possible anymore?

To answer this question, scholars had to cover a lot of territory and brainstorm about other possible models. The reason walking away from gnosticism isn't as simple as it appears is that, as Maia Kotrosits of Denison University warned, the term gnosticism is bound up with the term Christianity. The two terms often operate as foils of one another in biblical studies. What is Christianity? Whatever gnosticism is not. What is gnosticism? Whatever Christianity is not. What if we were to walk away from Christianity, too? Is it possible to jump ship entirely, perhaps appeal to other streams of literature from the same era, like diaspora discourse? We know that many people experienced loss in what several scholars have described as the "casual violence" of the Roman Empire. Are the texts we have better understood as responses to this violence, longing for a different reality, mourning what was lost? Remember that ancient people didn't see religion as separate from the rest of our lives. Religion, too, is a category, and a very modern one at that.

Madame Blavatsky

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) was a leading figure in the theosophy movement. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Denise Buell made a critical observation that the rise of gnosticism in scholarly discourse took place in the midst of appropriation of the term by highly popular 19th-century spiritualist and theosophist movements. Some of the critiques leveled at gnosticism reveal themselves to be veiled critiques instead of these contemporary movements, not critiques of actual ancient groups.

David Brakke of The Ohio State University advocated for freeing even the polemicists from their traditional groupings. After all, some of them were eventually labeled heretics themselves, or defected to groups they once maligned. Such men did not belong to a unified group anymore than their opponents did. Brakke's more fundamental point, in spite of this, was that categories can have value. "One nice thing about categories is that we rethink them as we use them," he said. Texts are associated with communities and their practices. To deny them a place by refusing to group them runs the risk of denying them rituals, habits of life, and the visions or dreams that brought them together. We're already concerned that alternative visions of Christianity have been erased from history. As Arthur Dewey of Xavier University put it, we cannot be so afraid of freezing categories that we forget their interpretive or heuristic value.

King, reflecting on her original thesis from What Is Gnosticism?, questioned whether her own feelings had changed. "A challenge for me over the past ten years has been to ask, 'Is there really no way to talk about these things as a group?'" She suggested that perhaps gnosticism could be redeemed by tying it to Christianity, such as referring to particular strands of tradition as "gnostic Christian" in nature the way we would refer to others as "Pauline Christian." Bernard Brandon Scott, borrowing from the scientific theory of evolution, asked whether we might step away from essentialist definitions and talk in terms of variety in populations. Rather than labeling groups and expecting them to conform to set boundaries, what if we mapped features or tendencies of this ancient population that birthed Christianity?

It is not possible to do justice to all the comments of scholars in this brief report, except to end on a strong note of appreciation for the organizers of this particular seminar session, which created a space for participants to apologize to one another for past disagreements, question their own assumptions, and change their minds. Suffice it to say that I have left out far more than I have reported here.

The Christianity Seminar closed with voting on 31 statements, the results of which will appear in a future issue of The Fourth R magazine and on the project page at a later date. Here are a few sample statements from the ballot:

  • Scholarship now needs a less blunt tool/analytical category than gnosticism for examination of the Jesus/Christ(ian) literature of the second and third centuries.
  • The essentializing influence of Plato inhibits in major ways conscientious re-thinking of the history of early Christianity.
  • The category of “diasporic literature” is a more analytically helpful term for The Secret Revelation of John than the categories of “Christian,” “Gnostic,” or “Jewish.”
  • To be even considered as a possible phenomenon related to something called gnostic or gnosticism, ancient groups must have called themselves gnostikos.
  • Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and company should be liberated from “proto-orthodoxy” and allowed to be their own idiosyncratic selves.

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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.

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 ↓

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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.

Seven Hard-to-Deny Limits to What We Can Claim about Jesus (EHJ series)

"When our ancient ancestors wrote about a famous person, they wanted to show how that person embodied an ideal. ... [Today,] the point isn't to show how closely an individual reaches the eternal and immovable divine or demonic ideal but exactly the opposite: to show how close an individual reaches the greatness of being human."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 2 of 9, "Biblical Criticism Comes of Age," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter One  Chapter 3 »

I had the pleasure this week of listening to interviews with Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson, editors of Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report, on Pastor John Shuck's radio program Religion for Life. Back in 2000, the Acts Seminar posed a critical question, "How far can we rely on the book of Acts for historical information about the earliest generations of Christianity?" Their answer after ten years of research—not to mention soul-searching—is, "Not much."

The book of Acts, they explain, serves as an origin myth, an idealized story of the beginning of Christianity. We can glean information from this ancient document, of course, but we won't necessarily walk away with the message its writer intended.

If this is a new topic for you, you might be surprised to learn that we've actually ended up in a much better place when it comes to the the historical Jesus. In chapter 3 of Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston warns that "in order to uncover the human Jesus it is necessary to wander in the land of the legendary Jesus" (34). This is because the historical sensibility of his era idealized him, transfigured him. The way you did history back then was to nudge a person toward an eternal ideal archetype. What did that mean for Jesus? He became the ideal sacrifice.

Nevertheless, we actually do know some really useful and important things about Jesus. That's where those seven hard-to-deny limits to claims about Jesus come in handy. Westar founder Robert W. Funk introduced seven "pillars" of scholarly wisdom we've accumulated over several hundred years of the quest for the historical Jesus, which Galston revisits in this chapter of EHJ.

These pillars represent items that "are extremely difficult to deny without creating even greater problems as a consequence." Think Ockham's Razor: all else being equal, the simplest explanation rules the day. If you imagine a circle of plausible explanations of who Jesus was, these seven points are what limit our answers. Like fences, they more or less close in the possible from the improbable.

  1. There is a distinction between what Jesus taught and what the gospel writers taught.
  2. The ancient view of the world was mythical, so to use modern explanations to understand incredible reports (such as miracles) from antiquity is to misunderstand antiquity.
  3. Mark is the earliest narrative gospel in the Christian Bible and a source for Matthew and Luke.
  4. A second literary source was used by both Matthew and Luke, now lost but reconstructed by modern scholars and known as the "Q" (from the German Quelle or "Source") Gospel.
  5. The teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus are different. Jesus was a student of John who eventually went his own way. "Neither does it seem that Jesus, accused of loose living and carousing, modeled very closely his austere and abstinent teacher" (EHJ: 43).
  6. The Gospel of John belongs to a wholly different context and outlook than the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke).
  7. Jesus had a "voiceprint," a unique rhetorical style, that enabled his sayings to survive in the memories of the people around him, even though they employed those sayings for their own purposes.

I recognize that some more conservative readers will want to fixate on point #2. I know quite a few people, many of them good friends, who will want to leave open a door for the mystical and miraculous. However, I'm comfortable defending this point. If you have had a personal religious experience, I can respect that. But personal religious experiences should not hold power over members of a larger community without their consent. Even a well respected scholar like Elaine Pagels doesn't wave around her personal religious experiences for the purpose of shutting down historical inquiry; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rather, it's the final point, point #7, that Galston draws to our attention for the sake of a more fruitful and invigorating future for anyone interested in holding onto some aspect of our inherited Christian traditions: Jesus had a voiceprint. There is a familiar flavor to Jesus' sayings and stories. In the world before the printing press, where oral and visual storytelling had the most likelihood of success at transmitting ideas, Jesus' signature style survived in memory. We can look at what of that memory remains, and carry it forward. Galston explains:

The point for those who seek to follow the historical Jesus is not to determine precisely what Jesus said but to recognize the style or voiceprint of the teaching. ... Ancient students, and hopefully modern ones, did not just repeat what the teacher said. The point is to integrate the teaching into one's own practice of life. (47–48)

So we move cautiously forward, attentive to the limits offered by biblical criticism as a way to keep ourselves honest. For those of you keeping tally, this is the final "set-up" chapter before we start getting into some really interesting stuff, like what exactly that Jesus voiceprint sounds like, and what might happen if we tried it out today. Who knows? Maybe we'll even come up with a new parables or two in coming weeks. I think I'd enjoy that very much!

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Fences to hold back infinity

Photo credit: Kerryanna Kershner

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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.