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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.

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.