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New Blog Series on Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?

"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. 

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

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 ↓

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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.

Marcion: Forgotten “Father” and Inventor of the New Testament

Christianity owes a major debt to a man with no direct connection to Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus – a man labeled a heretic by the forerunners of orthodox Christianity. Marcion (c. 95-165 CE) was a shipbuilder, possibly ship owner, from Pontus, a small region in what is now northern Turkey. We know little else about him, except that at some point in his career he joined the Christian community in Rome only to find himself embroiled in debate with the leadership there. Ultimately they were unable to resolve their differences, and the Marcionite community broke from other Jesus followers of that era. It is unknown how separate the communities were in practice, but in some parts of the ancient world Marcionites were called "Christians" while groups with closer ties to Judaism were called "Nazoreans."

Jason BeDuhn gives a lecture on Marcion

Jason BeDuhn

Marcion holds a lasting legacy for Christians as the inventor of the New Testament. Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, argues that Marcion not only put together the very first Christian canon of scriptures, he gave Christianity very idea of doing so. At the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference in Santa Rosa, California, BeDuhn spoke about the important role Marcion played in shaping Christian identity. This begins with the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the Roman Empire. “A good contemporary analogy is the interest some modern White Americans have in Native American religion and culture,” he said, “A similar thing was going on with Gentile fans of Judaism in the ancient world. They wanted to take on foreign spirituality and practices.” However, Jews rebelled multiple times against the Roman Empire in the second century, and Gentile Christian groups fled association with them, taking on new forms in the process.

Marcionites were pesco-vegetarians who embraced pacifism. Women held high leadership roles, at least prominently enough that critics of Marcionites complained about the role women were playing in the movement. They did not believe the god of Jesus was the god of the Jews. They believed the god of the Jews was a creator god that ruled based on judgment and violence, which Marcion argued by appealing to violent texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion saw the god of Jesus as an entirely new being, a higher god who provided escape from the judgment of this world. Most importantly, Marcionites had something no other Christians had: a canon of their own scriptures.

Challenging Traditional Views of Marcion

Critics of Marcion like Tertullian and Epiphanius complained that Marcion cut and edited scripture to fit his beliefs. Biblical scholar Adolf von Harnack accepted this claim in his definitive text on Marcion, Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God (1920). However, Tertullian and Epiphanius lived several generations after Marcion, and they assumed the New Testament they read already existed in Marcion's era. It didn't. Marcion's critics were reading history backward instead of forward: there was no New Testament yet.

We tend to assume the version of Christianity we see today as inevitable, but actually there were many possible ways for Christianity to develop. Christianity may never have become a religion with a set of scriptures at all. Christians may have continued to interpret and reinterpret Hebrew scriptures, rely on oral storytelling, consider themselves Jewish, and so on. The very attitude of Marcionites setting themselves apart from Jews led them to declare a "new" testament, and that has made all the difference.

Marcion's New Testament

What did Marcion's version of the New Testament look like? It had two parts: the Evangelion, which was a gospel related to the Gospel of Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of Paul's letters. Marcion is our first witness to six of the ten letters now considered to be authentic by modern biblical scholars. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that only some letters attributed to Paul are authentic (most exclude 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example). The evidence from Marcion supports this finding. The inclusion of Paul's letters in the New Testament was by no means certain. Rather, Marcion's choice to include the letters succeeded in pushing other communities to do the same thing when they came up with competing canons of scripture, although it took his competitors two hundred years to establish the canon now found in Bibles today.

This is a very different way of looking at the Marcionite New Testament, and scholars will need to compare the edition reconstructed by Jason BeDuhn to determine how this changes our view of how early Christianity developed. For example, the Evangelion is much shorter than the Gospel of Luke, and it is not clear whether they were both written by the same person for different communities, or if a later editor added new material to the Gospel of Luke. Also, BeDuhn found that the Marcionite version of Romans 9-11 is completely different, yet this text has been used by some scholars as a key to Pauline theology. Regardless of how these findings eventually play out in scholarly discussion and debates, BeDuhn identifies four significant contributions of Marcion to Christian history:

The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon

Available from Polebridge Press

  1. Christians owe the idea of a "new" testament to Marcion.
  2. Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament.
  3. Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament.
  4. Finally, Christians owe to Marcion a Christian identity built on a special scripture all their own.