Monday, April 21, 2008

Thinking about Gnosis again

I am working on the problem of Gnosticism and Gnosis. I never meant to do this because it is such a can of worms. But my research this semester that led to my Codex Judas Congress paper, "Apostles as Archons: The Emergence of Gnosticism and the Fight for Authority in the Gospel of Judas, First Apocalypse of James, and Other Literature," has got my engines revved. I actually think there is a very reasonable solution. And, as I found with my work on the Gospel of Thomas, the reason that we couldn't see it before is that we didn't have the categories to understand it.

Part of the problem that I'm only now getting my head around, is that in the first place our understanding has been dictated by the categories that the church fathers put into place. We understand that they did this to legitimate and consolidate their own positions, but we still have continued to bury ourselves in them. Some scholars, here I am thinking about Karen King and also Elaine Pagels recently, have gone the next step and removed the categories altogether, so there are no heretics and there are no gnostics. The conundrum that this puts us into is it leaves us with no way to talk about the gnostics who were different types of Jews and Christians and who by the fourth century had become some kind of alternative or new religious movement persecuted by the conventional religions.

In the second place, the sociologists of religion have not been too helpful. Here I am thinking of Rodney Stark especially. I really disliked his A Theory of Religion. It might be meaningful to discuss some groups today, but it has nothing to do with the ancient world at all. And so when he tries to apply his theory to the ancient world, it is anachronistic and obscures what was happening.

Why? Because the western world wasn't Christian then. It was Roman. And the Romans didn't have an orthodox religion, unless you want to call their civic polytheism orthodox. I wouldn't because orthodox implies a right way. And for the Romans, there were many right ways, and you could enlist in lots of them simultaneously without offending any of the gods.

And Christianity, which was actually one of many religions in the second century, just did not exist as a dominant orthodox pattern yet. So to talk about sects deviating from Christianity, or cults forming, just does not work. We are in a pluriform Roman religious environment, and a pluriform Jewish and Christian sub-environment (if you get my drift), no matter how we slice it. So I have trouble with words like "deviant" which make up the basis for social theories of religion. Now by the fourth century, this is another story, and then we might begin to engage these categories.

At any rate, it is this complicated mess that I want to try to untangle this year.


JMS Providence said...

Dr. D, this isn't necessarily related to your post but last night, I was up rather late, and at 1AM the National Geographic Channel was airing their work on the Gospel of Judas. I'll tell ya, I haven't really studied any of this much, but I was quite shocked when I first saw it year or two ago. So does this mean that they still hold to their position and have not edited their program to show such opposing work as yours? Just wondering. And if so, is Judas' gospel that ambiguous?

J. K. Gayle said...

And the Romans didn't have an orthodox religion, unless you want to call their civic polytheism orthodox. I wouldn't because orthodox implies a right way. And for the Romans, there were many right ways, and you could enlist in lots of them simultaneously without offending any of the gods.

This is a great post! Reminds me of what Lydia H. Liu does in studying Chinese appropriations of Western modernism. When post-colonialism is such the vogue to look at how we in the west now look at our own "Orientalism," Liu comes in and reminds us that China has never been colonized by a western european nation.

So you're reminding us that Rome didn't have gnostic OR christian categories (if Roman male rulers did struggle to get out from under the Greek shadows). And, my goodness, where are all those heresies and the canonical conventions that they surely must have resisted?

And how? How now can we put down our own Anglo-Euro centric lenses on history? (We need the gnostics! :) )

Richard said...

There is no question that I would like a clearer view/understanding of what is Gnosticism. At present (and I am no scholar) I see many wildly different flavours of Gnosticism. The only commonality I notice is that things labelled as "Gnostic" tend to have more complicated notions of the spiritual / divine realm than mere Christianity or Judaism do.

Anything to help clarify this would be of interest to me.

eleleth said...

I would be fascinated to hear your further thoughts on this matter.

At the Palm Tree Garden, we've been playing with something to which we refer as "The Four Point Plane." It's a 'litmus test' we use when discussing "Gnosticism," and we've found it especially useful

1) Emanations Cosmology. The heavenly and phenomenal worlds are ultimately the effect of God's process of "emanation," or pouring forth from itself.

2) Immanent Pneumatology. God's spirit fills the heavenly and phenomenal worlds. God is right here, right now.

3) Gnostic Soteriology. Gnosis, which can also be called insight, plays the most important role in the salvation of the Gnostic.

4) Sacramental Praxis. Gnosis can be facilitated by symbolic ritual.

Using this litmus test, we've arrived at some interesting conclusions regarding (for example) the classical Hermetic liturature (Gnostic) and groups like the Manichaeans (early on, possibly Gnostic, later in their development likely not Gnostic).

More details and some textual examples from the literature can be found at the following link:

Nonetheless, these distinctions are often some of the most controversial and difficult to suss out, and I'm sure your thoughts on the matter will be much discussed.

sparkwidget said...

Whoah, Jeremy you're really putting our pet model to the test by pasting it on here. You gotta put the caveat in there that the model is a working theological model and we've still got some problems with it. Hinduism, for instance, looks "Gnostic" by the 4pp, but it is not "Gnostic" culturally and historically. The model is only really useful when applied within the "Judeo-Christian pluriform subenvironment" (Dr D I love this phrase). To complicate matters (I've been rereading Williams) what is "Gnostic" in the first place is a contested issue. Heavy stuff!

Dr D I truly appreciate that you can be honest with the cultural situation of early Christianity. In my experience studying this stuff, both people who are sympathetic to Gnosticism as well as those inimical to it force the "Gnostics fought the orthodox church" stuff. But it's pretty clear now that no monolithic orthodox church even existed for anyone to "rebel" against or "deviate" from. There were a bunch of Christianities that evolved and coalesced into what we know now as the orthodox church. It is my personal suspicion that Valentinian sacramental theology, so complex and trinitarian as it was, actually contributed to the development of later Catholic sacramental theology, rather than "rebelled" or "deviated".

Thanks for the great post!

g. wesley said...

Prof. DeConick,

I can't wait to witness the untangling first hand.

I agree that getting rid of 'gnostic' and its related terms creates another conundrum. What are your current thoughts on: 1) limitting them to more or less Sethian/Ophite stuff? 2)avoiding them altogether and using the names of the subgroups and categories alone?

As far as social structure, I've been meaning to ask, how did you think to liken the 'gnostics' to a lodge movement (I don't recall anyone else who does this)? And how has that been received in your experience? I think it's definitely better than sect or cult. Would you also liken the Greco-Roman clubs, or associations, or mysteries (in which more than just Greeks and Romans participated) to lodge movements?

Oh, and have you gotten Stark's Cities of God and Discovering God?


Michael F. Bird said...

The Greco-Roman context certainly did not operate with categories of orthodoxy and heresy, but in the philosophical schools there could be defections (e.g. from Stoicism to Epicureanism) and debates about who more properly represented the the pristine teachings of a school's founder (e.g. among the Phythagoreans). Similarly, debates abouts the appropriateness of certain rites and rituals for a cultus were not unknown either. My point is that "right belief" was not a foreign concept to the Greco-Roman world even if it is not loaded up as "orthodoxy".

sparkwidget said...

I'd like to follow up on g.wesley's question. Ought we consider "Gnostics" to be strictly Sethians? Do Valentinians count or are they "orthodox apologists" like Quispel pegged them? In the massive tangle of heresiology, is there a single instance where we can be confident this label applies? (I been reading Williams, so help me...)