Thursday, July 31, 2008

Accommodation to society in Gnosticism

I have been working on a little-known text, the Paraphrase of Shem, while doing research for an article I'm writing called "After the Gospel of Judas: Reassessing what we have known to be true about Cain and Judas." What has struck home for me about this text is just how "weird" it is to modern readers, myself included, yet how "advanced" it must have been at the time it was written.

This text is what I'm calling "wombic Gnosticism" since it relies on a mythology of three divine principles and a Womb which births everything - angels, demons, the cosmos. The text is very erotic, with sexual images everywhere, used to explain how this cosmos came into being.

What is so fascinating about this text is that its mythology is based on second century scientific knowledge about embryology. What the author is doing is taking the most advanced scientific knowledge about conception and the formation of embryos and he is using it to explain religious questions. This is a person who was on the cutting edge of science and religion in the second century.

So the Gnostics appear to me to be the ones who were trying to combine "secular" knowledge of the second century - whether it be middle Platonic philosophy or Soranus' embryology - with Judaism and Christianity. In sociological terms this is interesting because what it means is that they were not forming sects or cults. Rather they were taking a religious "sect" (i.e. Christianity) which was defining itself by removing itself from society's ways, and reforming it so that it was more friendly to society, so it fit in to society's ways. This is a tendency that sociologists track. Often sects and cults define themselves against society. But overtime, this erodes and there are people within the movement that want to belong to society again. So the movement is reformed. This appears to me to be what was happening with the ancient Gnostics.

At any rate, this is a topic that I am collecting evidence for to write another paper about the origins and growth of Gnosticism.


g. wesley said...

sounds like an interesting paper.

in his 1931 morse lectures, f.c. burkitt said that "the various gnostic systems are attempts to reformulate and express the ordinary christianity in terms and categories which suited the science and philosophy of the day" (church and gnosis, p.58)

do you think that gnostic myth has been stereotyped as 'protest exegesis' because the christian and jewish contexts (often) get more attention than the larger hellenistic 'background'?


April DeConick said...


I think the "protest" exegesis is overplayed. The Gnostics weren't protesting anything as far as I can tell. They were interested, however, in finding the hidden meaning in scripture, and thought that they were the REAL or the AUTHENTIC Jews and Christians because they did so.

The Gnostics weren't against Judaism or against Christianity. They believed that they themselves were the true adherents of these religions and that other Jews and Christians had been duped into worshiping the Demiurge. There is a difference between being anti-Jewish or anti-Christian, and being authentic Jews or Christians. The early Gnostics thought they were the latter.

Now eventually, Judaism and Christianity get defined as non-Gnostic. When this happens, the Gnostics must build a religion of their own. So by the end of the third century, we have a new religious movement on our hands - actually "movements" (Manichees, early Mandaeans?, Jeu-Pistis Sophia people, etc) - Gnosticism emerged! Although it contains bits and pieces of Christianity and Judaism, these people don't define themselves as the true Christians or the true Jews anymore.

Richard said...

I want to read this paper also. I have read elsewhere that the early Gnostics were trying to integrate various systems into a unified explanation of everything. I find this fascinating. Studying this would help those of us who are interested in doing the same thing with our current science and religious thought. RB