Tuesday, July 31, 2007

(4) Are Gnostics fringe believers?

My third point was that most biblical scholars aren't interested in studying the NH documents because they are perceived to be late and therefore of no consequence to Christian Origins. The same is true, I suppose, for ante-Nicene literature in general. Not many biblical scholars take the time to become well-versed in much beyond the apostolic fathers.

This is a terrible mistake in my opinion. Christian Origins isn't just about studying the historical Jesus or the rise of the first Christian Jews or the study of Paul. Christian Origins is about trying to map out how an obscure Jewish messianic apocalyptic movement became a Christian religion by the time of Constantine. The second century is the "moment" when this transformation was underway, when the normative process kicked into high gear.

It is a fallacy, although one tauted around frequently as fact, that the "other" forms of Christianity in the second century were "fringe" groups of Christians. Part of the reason for this characterization is that for years we have called the proto-orthodox tradition "mainstream" while all the other traditions "alternatives." Although better than "orthodox" and "heretical," this is language that still gives us a false impression. It is still language that is the consequence again of our theological heritage, the desire to preserve authentic biblical faith of the churches today. Our tradition is "mainstream"; everyone else's is "alternative." This makes it seem like everyone else is on the "fringe" of Christianity, and that they are small, minor or deviant movements.

I have realized the problems with this language only recently. So in my newest book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle), I have shifted the language I use to talk about the second century Christians. I now use the term "Apostolic church(es)" when discussing what we have previously called "proto-orthodox" or "mainstream." This shift in language suggests something much closer to the truth: that the Apostolic Church was one variety of Christianity in the ancient world, and in the second century it was not yet the dominant form.

The literature tells us - both the patristic and the NH - that the "other" forms of Christianity were in no way fringe or minor. The Church Fathers tell us over and over again, how massive the Churches of Marcion and the New Prophecy were, how widespread the Gnostic teachings. How concerned were they? Enough to write volumes and volumes against their teachings. Tertullian alone devotes an entire book to depose Valentinianism; five books to criticize Marcion. Irenaeus' Against Heresies is no small feat arguing against minor forms of Christianity. Etc. In the ancient world, where literacy is low and writing expensive and for restricted purposes, the massive amount of rhetoric written against these people is extremely informative.

The literature produced by the "other" forms of Christianity looks scant only because the members of the Apostolic Church burnt it. But these other Christians were equally prolific in their writing and instruction. We happened to get lucky with the NH and Tchacos finds, which recovers part of this other literature. From it we can tell that they were very very sophisticated theologically, and were often critical of theologies of the Apostolic Church. And we can see theologies develop within the Apostolic Church that respond to the criticisms of the other Christians. The theology of the Apostolic Church would not have become what it did without the Gnostics and other Christians (and Jews) as dialogue partners.

The next time we want to dismiss the Gnostic material in particular as late and irrelevant, just remember that a version of the Apocryphon of John existed by the time that the Pastoral letters were written (about 130 CE)! Basilides was our first known commentator on any NT books, teaching and writing around 120 CE. By 120 CE, Valentinus had already set up his school in Alexandria and was a well known theologian. Carpocrates similarly was fully operational at this early date. Marcion (who was no Gnostic) was not only functioning in this period, but had successfully established his own churches with the first NT canon in place (Luke and ten of Paul's letters).

Doug has an interesting post on his blog about this very issue, and how it is perceived by people outside the academic sphere.


John said...

Thank you for a very well-written post. Your points are sinking in more and more. I encourage you to keep at it.

John Hobbins

Bryan L said...

Thanks a bunch for the thorough response. I'll defuinitely be thinking through these things.
Bryan L

Jared said...

I am curious about your distinction of "apostolic" churches. Although this is very prevalent language in those commonly referred to as "proto-orthodox" (e.g. Irenaeus of Lyons), would not Valentinus fall under this category? Thomasine Christians? And others traditionally excluded from "orthodoxy"?

It also seems to me that the term "apostolic" is also one that was polemically charged in terms of inclusion/exclusion and the later development of "orthodoxy"/"heresy." As such, I would resist using it as a categorical descriptor of a group of Christians, but as a rhetorical strategy used by many groups of Christians to define who belonged.

I would also be reluctant to use it in the current mess, in which the term "apostolic" is now being used (again) for the purposes of exclusion and polemic. I just fear this language could lead to the same distortions and difficulties as the language you are trying to replace.

Geoff Hudson said...

Indeed some of the interpolated responses to gnostic teachings suggest that the pastoral epistles had an earlier existence in a more primitive form.

April DeConick said...


Good questions as always.

Apostolic is chosen by me because it aligns with the view that this church rested on the authority of the 12 disciples for their creed(s).

I don't feel that the word is polemically charged anymore than Valentinian or Marcionism or Montanism. These are all fabricated descriptors that come from this period of normation. And I don't know a way to get around them. If you do, please share your insight.

Valentinians attended the Apostolic Churches, although they are an esoteric subgroup that had its own distinctive characteristics, distinctive enough to identify them in sectarian terms.

Apostolic churches is used by me in the same way I use the term Protestant churches. There is Protestantism and then there are types of Protestants like Lutherans, Methodists, and so forth. The same is true of the ancient Apostolic church - which included Valentinian Christianity and Thomasine Christianity, and probably others like the Montanists.

At least that is my thinking on the subject today. It may change as I dig around the texts and discover more nuances that I currently do not know. Or am persuaded by your own sense of what labels we should use.

Jared said...

Since there is a tendency to use the language of the "founder" of typically excluded groups, "Valentinian," "Montanist," etc., perhaps we should refer to the "apostolic" or "proto-orthodox" as "Irenaeans."

I am partially joking here, but the oddity of it just shows how engrained the language of triumphal orthodoxy still is! It also leads to an interesting insight: the "proto-orthodox" or "apostolic church" is hardly one, unified group (it is just perceived as such in retrospect; Irenaeus himself practically concedes as much). So, when I say "Irenaeans" the immediate rebuttal is the Clementine tradition (which would include Origen, although no one ever calls Origen a "Clementine" theologian), which seems very different from Irenaean tendencies in many ways (although Irenaeus's works seem to have had a very quick geographic dispersal based upon the remnants found in Egypt).

This might suggest a preference for geographic dispersal language: Alexandrian, Syrian, Antiochene, Roman/Italian, Greek, North African. For this taxonomy, the Montanists would be "Phrygian Christians." This difficulty here, of course, is to account for the variety within one region. although there are some interesting similarities between Clement, Valentinus, and Origen. It also would have difficulty accounting for Marcion, a truly interregional figure.

Another taxonomy would use what person a particular tradition aligned itself with (Petrine, Pauline, Johannine, Thomasine, etc.). In this system, Marcion would just be Pauline, Irenaeus largely Johannine with a splashing of Petrine.

Of course the problem with all of these is that none of them can account very well for the interactions that occurred between groups, regions, teachers, students, etc.

There are several matrices available, but none of them is quite adequate. I wish I currently had a useful solution, but it is something I need to rethink continually.

Eric Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Rowe said...

I like the term "apostolic". However, I don't see how it helps the argument for the importance of non-apostolic churches. To recognize one group (or really group of groups) of Christians as apostolic is to unite them with the trunk of the faith that has inherited and passed down the faith of the original "apostolic" Christianity. Other groups are branches that have diverged from that trunk, and for that reason deserve a secondary status in study of Christian origins.

Also, the way you define the second century as the "moment" of transformation seems to me like question-begging. As history unfolds, the years that we look back from modern times and label with nice round numbers of 100 and 200 are no more significant than any other year. But, since you have chosen to use number of adherents as the main criterion for the significance of the groups you want to rescue, then your claim of extra importance for the second century serves to buttress their value. Actually, the evidence you adduce for their great numbers is only from the end of the second century, which gives me the impression that you have defined the crucial moment as "the second century" so as to extend its boundary to the arbitrary year 200 and thus squeeze these groups in.

In truth, the sources allow us to go back to a time well before those post-150 non-apostolic groups developed. Sure, you are able to find one short period in the time of the apologists when their own apparent panic over heretical groups may indicate that those groups (when added together) had come to outnumber apostolic Christians. But decades before that time a form of Christianity that emphasized the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God incarnate, for the salvation of sinners, both Jew and Gentile had taken hold throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. For a historical interest in Christian origins, the abundant literature of this early period deserves pride of place. Naturally, the considerably more abundant later literature from after this time until Nicea is also very important. And that would include both writings of the apostolic and non-apostolic varieties. But the latter must always be recognized as belonging to groups that self-consciously broke from the apostolic faith rather than faithfully transmitting it.

Geoff Hudson said...

With reference to my previous comment, I would, for example, see a pre 120CE 1 Tim. 3, not about Overseers and Deacons, but simply about the quality of prophets (prescribed in the Didache). Thus 1 Tim 3.1 was something like: 'The Spirit says, "If anyone desires the spirit of a prophet, he desires a pure spirit." (not 'desires a noble task/good work'). And 1 Tim. 3.2-4 was something like: 'Now a prophet must be above reproach etc.' In other words, a prophet's behaviour should demonstrate that he has a pure spirit. The section on Deacons (1 Tim.3.5-12), is all interpolation. 3.13 continued from 3.4 about prophets: 'Those who have served well gain glory in the Spirit.' (The extant 'In Christ' is relatively meaningless, and the prophet's reward was glory in the Spirit before God not honour or good standing before members of the church.)

The editors, having established that 'God's church' 'of the living God', 'the pillar and foundation of truth' was a respectable well ordered organistion, then endulge in further drum-beating (1 Tim.3.16) (probably in reaction to gnostics): 'Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great. He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up to glory.'