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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.

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.

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.