Sunday, July 29, 2007

(2) Is Gnosticism Perverted Christianity?

As promised, I'm going to unpack my earlier post. My first reason why the NH documents aren't used or known by scholars as much as the Dead Sea Scrolls: because they were quickly labeled "Gnostic." "Gnosticism" has been used as a pejorative term meant to label texts that "pervert" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Why would any "real" biblical scholar want to waste time studying perverted Christianity?

There are several things I'd like to note about the inaccuracy of this position for those of us invested in the historical hermeneutic:

1. Not every piece of literature in the NH collection is "Gnostic." The Thomasine literature is simply early Christian literature that represents the earliest form of orthodoxy in eastern Syrian around Edessa - a mystical form of Christianity that required celibacy to be admitted to the church. There is some Hermetic literature in NH collection (i.e., Discourse on 8th and 9th; Ascelpius). There is some Platonic literature (i.e., Republic). There is some early Christian (i.e., Teaching of Silvanus; Letter of Peter to Philip). To lump them all together as "Gnostic" and then ignore them is a way of marginalizing forms of Christianity that aren't familiar to us.

2. The word Gnosticism is a term relatively modern (18thc.) and it does not reflect the historical reality of the second century. There was no Gnostic religion separate from Judaism and Christianity or trying to pervert Christianity. Gnostic thought developed first within Judaism as a way to read the Bible literally while also maintaining the cosmology and anthropology of Middle Platonism. By the early second century, Christian theologians like Basilides and Valentinus who were philosophers were reading Christian scripture through this same lens. Orthodoxy did not yet exist, so there was no "real" Christianity to "pervert." There were many varieties of Christianity competing to control the Christian landscape. The "real" story is that Christianity was diverse in its early expression, and became more and more singular as borders were drawn and ideas and practices limited by very powerful bishops in the big metropolitan areas like Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch. This story is quite different from the one that these bishops claimed and which scholars for centuries bought into: that Christianity was singular in its early formation and that heretical thinkers (the Gnostics!) emerged along the way to lead good Christians astray.

3. The notion that Gnostic thinkers were perverting authentic Christianity is a theological position, not a historical one. It is a position with theological investment, that is, securing and maintaining the "real" and "biblical" Christianity of today.

4. If we want to know how the heck early Christianity formed into the type of Christianity it did, the second century is what we have to study. It is in the second century that the boundaries are drawn and the lines lay out. Everything prior feeds into it and everything after flows out of it. It is a period when normation is at a high and yet nothing has been established. Everyone is talking to everyone else and defining their own positions over and against those of others. Everyone is control of his own piece of the pie and no one owns the whole pie but everyone acts as if he does. Really understanding the second century literature is the only way to really understand Christian Origins. Christian Origins is not just about the creation of the NT books, or what the NT books can tell us about the first Christians. Christian Origins is about understanding how a messianic apocalyptic Jewish sect became a Christian Church by the time of Constantine.

5. If we take seriously the fact that the heretic was not a heretic before he was labeled a heretic by someone else, then the second century literature becomes even more interesting. What was the heretic before he became a heretic? Orthodox? Think of the Ebionites. Their form of Christianity was akin to the "original" form of Christianity of the Jerusalem Church (pre-Paul). By the mid-second century, they are heretics. Why? Because the Christian population became dominated by Gentiles, and their Jewish constituency became in their eyes an oddity and a liability. So the original form of Christianity was declared heretical by the newer Christians. What might this say about the Gnostics?

6 comments:

Jim Deardorff said...

Christian Origins is about understanding how a messianic apocalyptic Jewish sect became a Christian Church by the time of Constantine.

I would add a most important step before your step 4. Its true origins then would require understanding of how the teachings of the man we know as Jesus were turned into a messianic apocalyptic sect by Paul and later the writer of Matthew.

Geoff Hudson said...

By the time we get to the second century, there was a veritable babel of 'Christianities'. Choosing which elements of the various factions were 'original' is complicated to say the least, but may be useful. I believe that the NT documents are edited or expanded versions of texts produced by the original 'Christians'.

Were the earliest 'Christians' even a Jewish sect? And were they even messianic? Why couldn't they have been a legitimate Jewish order of 'peaceful' prophets with the ability to evolve and bring in Gentiles without the need for circumcision? Obedience of the Spirit as promoted by prophets gave a flexibility not available to the priests following the rigid written law. It was one Judas who brought about the revolution. I suggest that Judas's philosophy (War 2.8.1) was garbled by editors so that it only appeared to be about not submitting to mortal men as their Lords. I suggest Judas's philosophy was really about submitting to the Spirit of God as their Lord (a philosophy very much in-tune with Acts 1). The Spirit's commands were to overrule those of the written law. There are indications in the extant text attributed to Josephus to make one think that, like the Ebionites, animal sacrifices did not feature in Judas's philosophy.

And the editors of Josephus's text changed Judas to someone with a messianic temperament, i.e. someone who apparently would not submit to a mortal man as his Lord.

Geoff Hudson said...

I don't believe that making the Jewish elements of the earliest 'Christians' heretics was simply a matter of them being dominated by Gentiles. In fact I believe there was, for a short time, a large number of Gentiles folowing the Jewish 'Christian', or prophetic way. Indeed it was that free way of the Spirit that appealed to many liberal Romans and other Gentiles during the reign of Nero. There was no nonsense about animal sacrifices and circumcisn.

I suggest that what dominated after Nero, was the well documented Flavian desire to sweep away all things Neronian, and so to have state control of a religion that had thrived under Nero. Added to that, the Flavians had amassed the great wealth of the sanctuary, left untouched by Nero, and fought for by the prophets led by Simon. It was the prophets who had to be silenced, because they knew the truth that Vespasian and Titus had misclaimed their triumph on the back of real wars fought by troops under Burrus and Nero against the priests, the messianic siccari. The Neronian forces took all the fortresses, including Masada (easily overcome), before they were finally let into Jerusalem.

The editors changed the earlier battles fought in Judea to Vespasian's battles fought in Galilee. Thus, by a strange coincidence, in the different stories, both Vespasian and Jesus came out of Galilee as saviours.

Bryan L said...

April,
Thanks for the interesting post. I had a few thoughts that came to mind when reading what you wrote, that maybe you can provide some answers to or a different perspective.

You said, "Gnosticism" has been used as a pejorative term meant to label texts that "pervert" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Why would any "real" biblical scholar want to waste time studying perverted Christianity?

I wonder though if it has more to do with many considering them fringe groups that don’t help us much in understanding what the early church as a whole believed, but instead just give us some insight into what they didn’t believe and what the early church was arguing against.

I would draw a modern analogy with someone trying to study a particular political party or denomination to understand what characterizes them and what they generally believe as a whole. Although they would find lot of diversity in beliefs and practices within that political party or denomination (each believing they are correct), there would still be those groups whom the party or denomination as a whole considered fringe groups and outside the boundaries. And I believe it wouldn’t be beneficial to spend a large amount of time studying those fringe groups to gain an accurate picture of the political party or denomination as a whole. I think it would be more beneficial to study the many accepted representatives of the movement instead. Again it might be interesting to see what they (the fringe groups) believed and even help us to understand why the political party or denomination took public stands on certain things in response to those fringe groups, but the study of them and their beliefs still wouldn’t provide us much help in understanding what characterizes the wider movement as a whole, unless we are trying to find out what they didn’t believe and considered out of the boundaries.

You said “Orthodoxy did not yet exist, so there was no "real" Christianity to "pervert." There were many varieties of Christianity competing to control the Christian landscape. The "real" story is that Christianity was diverse in its early expression, and became more and more singular as borders were drawn and ideas and practices limited by very powerful bishops in the big metropolitan areas like Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch.”

Even where there is diversity in a movement (whether it is young or not) we can still discern boundaries that the movement as a whole adheres to. Even if there was a wide range of diversity in the early church I don’t think that means there was no common ground that most of the different groups agreed on, or that those many diverse groups still didn’t consider some groups to be way out of bounds or too different in their beliefs and practices to have any real claim to be part of the church. I think you could find a modern analogy in Christianity today with those like Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and Protestantism on one side and other groups like LDS and Watchtower and Christian Science on the other side.

I believe you are right in saying that the question of whether they perverted Christianity or were heretic is a theological question and not a historical question, and so I believe that question is better left to those inside the church to decide who are trying to establish their own boundaries. But I still think we can discern historically whether those in the early church as a whole did across the board consider certain groups to be a perversion of Christianity and heretical.

I guess I would be interested in seeing how common these groups like the Gnostics or other groups later considered heretical were viewed in the early church. Do we find a lot of their documents being preserved, do we have writings from the actual people (not just anonymous writings) or do we primarily hear about them only through early church writings about controversies. Do we find their views primarily preserved in their opponents writing. How big were these groups and were they commonly thought to be out of the boundaries of the church by the many diverse groups in the church?

Anyway that’s just my thoughts on the points you raised. Thanks for the giving me some interesting questions to think through.

Blessings,
Bryan L

James F. McGrath said...

Two quick thoughts to share on this topic. First, I wonder whether Mark's Gospel, when it has Jesus offer to the apostles the 'true interpretation' of the parables and 'the mysteries of the kingdom', it isn't already showing an awareness of claims to particular views and understandings, associated with names of specific apostles. Second, particularly if 'Gnosticism' arose within Judaism, it may well be the case that among the followers of John the Baptist and Jesus there were people who heard them in this way and interpreted them in this way from the very beginning.

Leon said...

I just have one or two questions. Where would the ones labeled the Judaizers fit in all this? The ones that John Chrysostom complained so much about. It seems they were Christian in all their theological beliefs, but they felt a certain affinity for Jewish practices because Jesus was a Jew who followed these practices.

Also, though Chrysostom complained about them, giving the impression that they were numerous, one could take the view that he only perceived them to be numerous because he felt threatened by them. The same might be true of other Christian groups. That is, if the Church Fathers spent considerable energy disputing their beliefs and claims, it could just mean that it was their perception that these other groups were a big threat. Can one muster evidence beyond the Catholic Church's perception about how large or influential these groups were?

Leon Zitzer