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4 Commandments for a New Christian History (Gnosticism series)

This is the final post in the blog series on Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? Up until this point I've followed along with King's critique of existing methods of doing Christian history. But of course no one wants to stop at criticism. The whole point of King's book is to encourage us to try out new strategies while mindful of past mistakes. In her final chapters King presents a range of experiments recent scholars have attempted, and gives specific advice for doing Christian history in a new way.

Credit: Pixgood.com

For today's blog, then, I have set her advice into guidelines, updated somewhat by the recent conclusions of the Christianity Seminar. Let's call them commandments, because we need to take them seriously for a while. It's too easy to sink back into what's familiar.

Guidelines for a New History of Christianity

  • Thou shalt not assume books of the New Testament are more historically important than other early Christian texts.

We actually don't know which texts came first, and in most cases there is healthy scholarly debate even around the exact dating of books within the Bible, ranging from within a couple decades of the death of Jesus to the late second century. Nag Hammadi and other texts have an equally wide range of possible dates of composition. Let's not confuse the theological importance of a text with its historical importance.

  • Thou shalt pick an audience.

Knowing your audience will help you decide how to choose what problems you tackle and what terms you use to define them. If you are a pastor speaking to a conservative-leaning mainline congregation, or a guest speaker at a Unitarian Universalist gathering, words like "gnostic" and even "Christian" might hold different meanings. Likewise, an academic writing a paper for New Testament scholars in one context maybe needs to take a different approach to the topic of early Christian history when engaging with classicists or patristics scholars. King quotes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on this point: "Scholarship, current and past, is always produced by and for people with certain experiences, values, and goals. Hence one must investigate the implicit interests and articulated goals of scholarship, its degree of conscious responsibility, and its accountability" (245, quoting Rhetoric and Ethic).

  • Thou shalt not seek the "origin" of "faulty" teachings.

First, what makes a teaching faulty? By whose standard? Second, all religions are derivative in the sense that they are all a mixture of traits of the religions that came before them. For example, Christianity inherited traits of Judaism, Greek mystery cults, and the philosophy and sciences of the times. If Christianity, even at its most traditional, is built upon the religious beliefs and practices of its predecessors, we shouldn't be concerned that non-traditional varieties of Christianity or related movements are somehow inferior simply because they also borrowed from other systems. Syncretism, writes King, "is 'an aspect of religious interaction over time'; it is about change, about the dynamics of religious beliefs and practices through time and across geographical and cultural space" (223, quoting Peter Van der Veer, "Syncretism, Multiculturalism, and the Discourse of Tolerance"). We must not assume truth always comes before error (228), or that truth is pure and unified while mixing is contamination (229).

  • Thou shalt become curious about ancient Christian literary production and social formation.

If you're not trying to find the "origin" of a religious movement, then what are you doing? You have a lot of options here. King (p. 190) suggests literary production and social formation. Let's become curious about how people invented and reworked the stories of their communities. Rather than saying we only care about the most original and earliest version of a text, let's become interested in what sort of community or person wrote a given text. For instance, who would want to take Paul's understanding of baptism as a ritual for Gentiles to be adopted into the people of God, and change it into a ritual for awakening the hidden, divine self? Both the adoption community and the divine-self community are surely interesting groups of people.

May we all go forth and re-tell the story.

This is the final post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed 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.

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.

What is the Gnostic Redeemer Myth? (Gnosticism series)

Last week we left off our reading of Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? with the problem of historians ignoring and distorting data for the sake of protecting the exalted status of whatever they believed to be true Christianity. They let theological concerns get in the way of historical ones. The most damaging idea introduced by this generation of scholars was the gnostic redeemer myth.

What is the gnostic redeemer myth? More or less invented by philologist Richard Reitzenstein by combining elements from many different texts, the gnostic redeemer myth is summarized as follows by twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann:

A heavenly being is sent down from the world of light to the earth, which has fallen under the sway of the demonic powers, in order to liberate the sparks of light, which have their origin in the world of light, but owing to a fall in primeval times, have been compelled to inhabit human bodies. This emissary takes a human form, and carries out the works entrusted to him by the Father; as a result he is not cut off from the Father. He reveals himself in his utterances (‘I am the shepherd’, etc.) and so brings about the separation of the seeing from the blind to whom he appears as a stranger. His own harken to him, and he awakes in them the memory of their home of light, teaches them to recognise their own true nature, and teaches them also the way of return to their home, to which he, as a redeemed Redeemer, rises again. (Bultmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart).

Bultmann, like other scholars of his generation, believed the gnostic redeemer myth to be a pre-Christian myth appropriated and transformed by Christian evangelists like the writer of the Gospel of John (Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography: 319). Most of you will be familiar with the Christian version, as can be read in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed:

I believe … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Apocryphon of John

King questions whether the Apocryphon of John, pictured above, should be understood as an example of gnostic alienation, as Jonas believed, or a social critique of imperial violence. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The gnostic and Christian myths mostly differed “in what each conceived to be the root cause of the problem [of the human situation]. For Gnosticism, it was fate; for Christianity, sin” (King, 105). Often viewed as a direct competitor with the Christian redeemer myth, the gnostic myth was deemed “an alien parasite whose infestation produced the heresies of Christian Gnosticism” (109). Scholars were able to assume this in part because they assumed a master narrative in which Jesus delivered an original, “pure” doctrine to his disciples that was later corrupted (111).

In chapter 5 of What Is Gnosticism?, Karen King introduces three scholars who became increasingly critical of earlier claims about gnosticism, especially the redeemer myth: Walter Bauer challenged the notion that “heresy was a secondary development in the history of Christianity” (110). Christianity "did not look the same everywhere" (112). Whatever form Christianity took in a given city or region, that was Christianity to those communities. There was no model or protocol for how Christianity ought to be until several generations later. Hans Jonas challenged the history of religions school’s obsession with tracing the origin of gnostic ideas as though a movement could be defined merely by the sum of its parts. “Myth demands interpretation,” he believed (128). We can engage myth on a psychological and philosophical level rather than merely dissecting it. Carsten Colpe dissected faulty assumptions in past studies of gnostic texts, such as the fact that no single text tells a complete version of the myth, and that the Jewish “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel cannot easily be tied to redeemer figures in Manichaean and Mandaean traditions.

While the work of this later generation of scholars carried forward some of the prejudices of the past, such as the assumption that gnosticism was immoral and inferior, their “enduring work” has been “to emphasize the multiformity of early Christian phenomena, as well as to demonstrate irrefutably that Christianity and Judaism are integrally entwined in a wider historical and cultural matrix” (148). This laid a crucial foundation for the further upset of assumptions about gnosticism that was to come with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

More on that next week as part of the Westar Christianity Seminar discussion of this book at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego!

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

This is the fifth post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed 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.

Christianity and Colonialism (Gnosticism series)

In my last blog post about Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I used the metaphor of maps and boundary-making to point to the problem of always keeping in mind the purposes behind our “map” of early Christian history. This has proven to be a problem in the study of Christianity because it’s too tempting to take what early Christian writers claimed about themselves—and about their opponents—at face-value.

King goes on in chapters 3 and 4 to give examples of actual scholars who fell into this trap, complicated by the rise of Western colonialism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars like Adolf von Harnack and the history of religions school tried to move beyond the church’s language of heresy without, however, endangering Christianity’s status as the highest form of religion. Some even went so far as to claim Christianity had taken over and improved upon the ideas of other religions on its path to ascendancy. Of course this or that brand of Christianity might get touted above another, such as Protestantism versus Catholicism, but the status of Christianity itself was left untouched. Scholars assumed the superiority of Christianity just like wider society assumed the superiority of white Europeans.

Today we study that phenomenon under the term "colonialism." Arguably, we haven't yet moved beyond colonialism. It is evident in the ways race, class, and gender are treated differently in pop culture, our legal system, and other social institutions. Bell hooks, an American feminist and cultural critic, links colonialism to our tendency to recycle old ideas in new forms for the sake of power. In Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, she gives a commonsense example of this phenomenon:

We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation. People forget that when they wanted white women to get into the workforce because of the world war, what did they start doing? They started having a lot of commercials, a lot of movies, a lot of things that were redoing the female image, saying, “Hey, you can work for the war, but you can still be feminine.” So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.

Sometimes people get upset in conversations about racism and other –isms because they don’t feel they should be held personally responsible for the actions of past generations. And that’s a fair complaint, to a point. What Hooks is talking about here is not the past as such, but our choices to reproduce past attitudes through new movies, books, and so on. If we reproduce sexist, racist, and other oppressive images without criticizing or challenging them, we keep them alive for the next generation.

Richard Reitzenstein

Richard Reitzenstein is credited (for better or for worse) by King with the invention of the "gnostic redeemer myth." Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars deal with this problem, too. King is claiming that gnosticism happens to be a tool used—consciously or unconsciously—by scholars of early Christian history to keep alive the basic structures of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and heresy (“deviance”). The orthodoxy-heresy divide served the church’s goal of claiming authority for itself, but it does not in any way serve a scholar’s goal of a better understanding of history.

I found this quote especially illustrative:

Possibly the greatest mischief [of history of religions school] was done by the invention of the Gnostic redeemer myth, that staple of two-page summaries of Gnosticism. This stirring narrative … was constructed by taking bits and pieces from particular motifs from a variety of historical and literary contexts, and combining them into a single, coherent narrative. … In reality there is no single existing ancient literary source that gives ‘the Gnostic redeemer myth’ as scholars have ‘reconstructed’ (i.e., invented) it. (109, italics in original)

Last week I mentioned Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion that the metaphor of “family resemblance” is a useful alternative to other kinds of definitions. No one member of the family has all the family traits, but they all share some. However, now I see that the case of the history of religions school shows one weakness of that metaphor. Because there is no family prototype, out of which the rest of the family members are stamped, we’re all family if you draw a large enough circle. The lack of a prototype allowed scholars who liked the history of religions approach to cherry-pick whatever traits they felt like assigning to gnosticism, without anchoring them in place and time.

All along, King’s point has been that the entire structure of a “good” Christianity and “bad” gnosticism, or vice versa, is flawed. We know things were never so monolithic in practice. The end result is absolutely going to look like a family of some kind, but I can safely say this much: the Christian family is not going to divide easily into two groups.

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

This is the fourth 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.

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.