Friday, May 4, 2007

Is Gnosticism a dangerous error?

Mark Goodacre has pointed out a review on two books on the Gospel of Judas (Ehrman and Wright) written by Robin Griffith-Jones. What surprised me about the otherwise historically-sensitive and critical review was the last paragraph where Griffith-Jones writes,
Gnosticism is a dangerous error and must be fought — on that Dr Wright and I are at one. But such a campaign must surely do more than satisfy the hawks at home; and, regretfully, I am not sure that with this book Dr Wright will win over the hearts and minds of those he hopes to liberate.
Why is Gnosticism considered a dangerous error that must be fought? This is certainly not the position of a historian of religion, but appears to represent the sentiments of some theologians today. But even from the position of contemporary theology I have a difficult time understanding why Gnosticism is so threatening. In fact, I think that Christianity today might benefit from listening again to the Gnostic voices which have so much to say about spirituality.


David said...

When the house of cards starts to fall down, the owners try desperately to shore it up, despite all evidence that this is useless.

The more we uncover of the abuses of power that occurred in the creation of early Christian orthodoxy and the more we realize that alternatives existed which had their own independent reality, the more we can expect people who have bought in to the orthodox view to protest and resist.

I have not heard a scholar say this, but what do you think the reaction from the believers would be if a scholar said "the evidence leads to the conclusion that what we know as orthodoxy is mostly invented, which means it could be considered a fraud?"

John Shuck said...

Thanks for this. Can you imagine a religious scholar saying:

Presbyterianism "is a dangerous error and must be fought."

Or Judaism, or Roman Catholicism, or Buddhism, or fill in the blank.

This affirms my agreement with Karen King that gnosticism as used popularly is a synonym for "bad, evil, heresy" etc. and does not describe an actual religion or philosophy.

Which leads me to another question on another topic for you. What is gnosticism? Now that we have more texts can we better define this term, or should let the term go as Karen King suggests?

Peter Nathan said...

The problem is that "traditional" orthodox Christianity has seen a terrible attrition of attendance in places like the UK. More Moslems attend a mosque on Friday than "Christians" attend church on Sunday. The fascination with Judas, Gnosticism and other ism's is a challenge to what is left of Christianity in these environs.
My take is that orthodox Christianity has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Patrick G. McCullough said...

Thanks for raising the issue. I have two initial responses.

(1) I assume that the language of the reviewer, making an off-hand hostile remark towards Gnosticism, is attributive to the particular readership of the publication. I don't know anything about "Church Times," so I will try not to make too many assumptions, but they do identify themselves as "the world's leading Anglican weekly newspaper." It is written from an acknowledged confessional bias. Their readership will most likely look for an affirmation (after the critique of Wright) that this critic does believe Gnosticism to be a heresy, otherwise the readership may simply discard the critique.

(2) Personally, I am quite into spirituality. I do find Gnosticism troubling, however, in its condemnation of the material world (and I recognize how simplistic that is... but this is just a brief comment about my personal opinion, after all). I think that when we say spirit=good and physical=bad, this has "dangerous" consequences, not only theologically, but ethically as well.

There are my two cents :) In the end, perhaps the reviewer could have adapted her language a little bit (or at least qualified it), but given its context, I don't find it too problematic.

Pat said...

Griffith-Jones also wrote:"This Gospel appears to be using Judas to advance an agenda, and is probably not reliable as a historical source, however interesting it is for under-standing how later Christians portrayed Judas."

Griffith-Jones surely believes Judas was relly the villain as portrayed in the NT. His 'reliable' historical source for believing so can only be the NT. But as I have pointed out, some of the memories inherited by the writer of the Gospel of Judas could not have come directly from the NT.

There is another quite remarkable memory of Judas in that gospel. I refer to the implication that Judas near the end of his life was in the "guest room" of the temple which I presumed was the sanctuary. He was praying, and the 'scribes' are described as watching him while he prayed. My question is: what were these so-called scribes expecting to see? Well, what else would one expect from a prophet but a sign - may be rain and a rainbow (see Eisenman on Honi the circle drawer). Judas had to produce a sign that proved he was indeed a prophet. Thus Judas underwent the trial of a prophet in the sanctuary before being condemned as a false prophet.

This leads me to suggest that the 'house' 'Jesus' was taken to after his arrest was not the house of the high priest Annas, but the temple, and that it was there that his trial as a prophet took place. The Gospel of Judas implies so.

There is a parallel related to Zechariah, the father of the so-called John the Baptist. Luke 1 contains a garbled version of Zechariah's trial and murder in the temple (he was silenced). The anachronistic account of the trial and assasination of Zacharias the son of 'Baruch' in the temple (War 4.5.4) was, I believe, about the same person and events that are garbled in Luke 1.

So it is the inherited memories of Judas in the Gospel of Judas that are important historically. Griffith-Jones is wrong to say that the Gospel of Judas is not a relible historical source with regard to Judas. What say you April?


Patrick G. McCullough said...

Whoops, I called Robin Griffith-Jones a "her" instead of a "him." My apologies if he happens upon my comment (too bad you can't edit comments!).

Jim Deardorff said...

By the definition of gnosticism I prefer, it can be very dangerous to Christianity if it is true and if its truth can be made widely known. That definition is: the belief in (some of) the knowledge of God (or god) enabled by secret (or generally unavailable) teachings or writings. For example, the gnostic document I've studied the past 20 years gives the teachings and ministry of a man named Immanuel, whose followers Paul persecuted until his conversion experience, after which he preferred a different name: Jesus. Immanuel taught about true God (or Creation) as distinguished from El, the title of the leader of the ETs who planned his life and mission.

In the surviving document (a translation of the original Aramaic), Immanuel also taught rebirth, about the human spirit and its evolution, and the value of learning from one's mistakes, among much else. Its narration describes his survival of the crucifixion, his appearances to his disciples afterwards, and the first portion of his subsequent travels that ended in the Kashmir area. Although the document's co-discoverer is still alive to vouch for their find, in 1963 in Jerusalem, NT scholars must avoid any serious study of it due to the non-survival of its original, its other topics that lie outside the realm of NT scholasticism, and the fact that from it one deduces that it was Matthew, not Mark, that was formed out of it.

Therefore this topic cannot even survive on a Western scholar's blog, but must be treated similar to the way the gnostic gospels were treated by Irenaeus and other early Christians.

Jim Deardorff

April DeConick said...

To all who have responded, thanks!

1. David, You point to a fear that when Christians realize that alternative forms of the faith existed in early Christianity and that orthodoxy was invented, that Christians will flee the church. I guess my thinking about this is that everything about us is constructed, including our religions. There is that old saying that if horses had a religion God would be a horse. And also that most (if not all?) things include a struggle for power and survival.

2. John, The language we use as scholars is very important. It conveys subtle but powerful messages. Gnosticism is one of those loaded words that has been used negatively to mean heretical, wrong, evil, demon-inspired, and so forth. This is one good argument for getting rid of the thing altogether as Karen King has suggested (and implemented in "Reading Judas". But this doesn't seem to me to be the best approach - I mean completely erasing the word. I think we need to acknowledge its constructed nature (there we go with constructions again) and its abused past. And then reclaim it since it is a useful category to describe a variety of early forms of Christianity. By the way these forms of Christianity were not "alternatives" to apostolic or mainstream Christianity anymore than they were heresies. They were simply different forms of Christianity that existed during the time that the apostolic tradition began to consolidate and gain power. I have other posts on Gnosticism - check out my sidebar for more.

3. Peter, Christianity in the UK is struggling with attrition. So Gnostic alternatives are seen as a possible threat to those who remain in the pews. This is a thought, but what about the writers in North America who worry over Gnosticism too?

4. Patrick, you are right that this is a confessional journal. So perhaps there were the concerns you raise. What gives me some pause though is that this type of fear appears to drive so much of the reactionary scholarship on the extra-canonical materials. I'm thinking especially of N. T. Wright, Darrell Bock, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington, and company.

As for the cosmic nihilism you see as part of Gnostic thought, yes, I too think that it is there. But I don't think it is very different from the cosmic nihilism found in the apostolic or mainstream churches of the time. These churches taught that the demons led by Satan were in the atmosphere around us and the earth, and wrecked havoc on our bodies and souls. Salvation in the orthodox tradition is salvation from sin and liberation from fate which controls us (at baptism). I could go on and on. The positions are not that different. The main difference is that in Gnostic thought the supreme God controls the game board from beyond the universe, while in apostolic thought the supreme God controls the game board from the seventh or eighth heaven. As for our bodies, well, gosh, the apostolic churches did not have a very positive view of the body (or sexuality)either. The body in fact has to be transcended or glorified, which in many strands of orthodoxy means severe denial and reformation into the "body from nowhere".

5. Geoff, My reading of most of the early Christian literature is very similar on this point. I really don't know how much "historical" information about Jesus and his disciples our materials actually tell us. I think there are hints, but their recovery is questionable to me mainly for two reasons. The materials are formed out of memories of happenings that have become part of the communal memory and liturgical practices of the early Christians. The materials were written as theological documents, rather than historical documents, so I find it very difficult to separate the two. I'm not saying "impossible" but I am saying "problematic." I'm just not convinced that we have found a rigorous enough method to get at the history with certainty.

6. Jim, this is the demise of newly discovered materials, especially those with suspicious origins as we have discussed in our e-mails.

Doug said...

In his comment, Geoff states that Griffith-Jones writes "This Gospel appears to be using Judas to advance an agenda, and is probably not reliable as a historical source, however interesting it is for under-standing how later Christians portrayed Judas" - however this is a direct quote from Ehrman.
Perhaps if it's that easy to misrepresent a review, it's not a huge step to simultaneously casting doubt on the canonical gospels and speaking of the "memories" of the Gospel of Judas. I don't want to defend a naive historical approach to the canonical gospels - merely suggest that there's something about preferring the non-canonical ones which is everything to do with ones theological reconstructions and opposition to (church-constructed) orthodoxy and very little to do with sifting historical evidence.

Phil Snider said...

The thing is that, as someone who actually prefers the orthodox position developed from the 2nd century onwards, I do think Gnosticism to be a spiritually dangerous place to go. I find its tendency towards spiritual elitism and ignoring/condemnation of matter move away from what I believe to be a more integrated view including a bodily resurrection and the basic equality of all Christians.

Yet I find it interesting that Dr. DeConick so openly states that Gnostic voices would benefit Christianity today, but still critcises Griffith-Jones for not acting as a historian of religion. I submit, as I've argued earlier, that, not only is this conception of history flawed , but that Dr. DeConick here is stating her preference and invites us to ask whether this perference affects her scholarship in such a way to encourage a positive view of Gnosticism. If that is true, does that not suggest that theology and history are harder to detach than Dr. Deconick has suggested.

I'm not saying this to condemn or discredit Dr. DeConick. In fact, what I've seen of her scholarship is that it is responsibile, even if I'm not sure I'd go to the same places she would with the Gnostic writings. What I am saying is that there is disjunction between her stated historical hermeneutic (which I consider both impossible and unadvisable) and her practice on this blog.


April DeConick said...


Of course I disagree. I am not a Gnostic, practicing or otherwise. Nor is my statement in anyway prejudicing a historical analysis as you suggest. I am merely wondering in my blog why Gnosticism is considered such a dangerous threat to Christianity, when in fact there are elements that might actually benefit contemporary Christianity.

Phil Snider said...


I'm not claiming you are a full-blown Gnostic, rather that you find yourself sympathetic to Gnostic Christians. That, I think, is a safe inference from the content of your blog and your admission that you believe that Gnostic insights could be useful for today's Christianity. This is sufficient to raise the question I raised.

I'm really not trying to be obstreperous, but I have found that, sometimes, one honest opponent in a discussion is worth 300 who agree with me. I recognize your honesty in your treatment of me. I hope that you see that I'm saying what I'm saying because I honestly can't agree with you on the hermeneutic question nor on your interpretation of the Gnostics. Take my criticism for what it's worth, but I hope it will challenge you as much as you challenge me.

Which is a shockingly arrogant thing for a non-PhD to say to a professor, but I hope this will be taken as part of a conversation, not an arguement.

Phil said...

Doug, I'm sorry I was half asleep. It was a quote from Erhman. But Griffith-Jones was more assertive than Erhman. For Ehrman, the Gospel of Judas is 'probably' not reliable as a historical source. Griffith-Jones objected to the word 'probably'. For him, the Gospel of Judas is certainly not reliable as a historical source.

But also note the Erhman statement: "This gospel 'appears' to be using Judas to advance an agenda". Erhman is unsure of himself again. The kind of information given about Judas (that he was a prophet, and was stoned to death after trial) appears in the Gospel as incidental matter of fact.

And remember the Gospel of Judas was buried shortly after it was written, but the NT was subject to extensive development. Thus the real prophet of the NT was transformed into Judas the villain who according to the NT died after a 'fall' - a first stage in a stoning.


April DeConick said...


You are confusing sympathy with empathy. A historian of religion must have empathy for his/her subject.

Phil Snider said...


I really don't think I am confusing empathy with sympathy, although the two concepts are extremely close so confusion is very possible. Perhaps I'm looking from a perspective outside your own and what I see something closer to sympathy. Perhaps I'm merely confused. A clear definition of the difference would, in fact, be helpful. Empathy and sympathy are notoriously fuzzy concepts, I could easily be making the mistake you think I'm making. I'm just not sure how to take your suggstion about Gnostic insights being useful for today's Christianity. That sounds very much like a sympathetic view. How am I wrong here?


David Larsen said...

I believe that truth can be beneficial, no matter where it comes from. I don't think that means that we have to accept everything that Gnosticism presents as reliable or "true," but I think that if we use some discernment, we can identify many points that will illuminate our knowledge about early Christianity. There is obviously much that was going on that is not recorded in our canonized Bible. For example, what about the 40-day teaching of the resurrected Christ? Those teachings are often labeled as "secret" and were not recorded. Maybe some gnostics did have some access to that knowledge. Gnosticism doesn't represent one organization or tradition--it just gets lumped under the same title. I don't think that means that it should all be discarded as "heresy."
I'm just now starting graduate work in Theology, so I don't know much--but that is my opinion.