Thursday, March 12, 2009

Transtheism/Supratheism follow up

Comment on the comments to my last post:

Rebecca Lesses: "at the beginning of an article just state - this is what I mean by gnostic, gnosticism, and if you want to know more, see such and such an article that I wrote that explains this exactly with all the details"

Rebecca, I have been doing this. But it doesn't work well. It also limits what I can do or say.

But if I create a category that everyone knows is a modern heuristic device, my analysis will be more transparent. I will be able to identify family relationships better. For instance, take Hermetic materials. There is a genetic link between the religiosity of these lodges and the gnostics. But they aren't gnostics because their creator god isn't oppositional. What they are though are transtheists who are linked to other transtheists (the gnostics) who have taken the hermetic tradition and worked in jewish and samaritan (and eventually christian) exegetical traditions.

Of course I will continue discussing different groups by name when we might know a group. But these groups are not unconnected varieties. Almost every one of them is from Alexandria with some connections with Antioch and Rome and Edessa and Carthage and Lyons. There are genetic connections that need to be worked out, and we need overarching language to be able to identify those characteristics - and the characteristics that uniquely develop with different groups.

Marcion is also a transtheist, but I wouldn't call him a traditional gnostic. Why? Because he is not genetically connected to the Alexandrian group. His Unknown alien god has no connection to the ruler of this world. He just looks down here one day and feels sorry for the plight of humans under the rule of the Yah god and decides to intervene by sending the adult Jesus to save us. He is a god of love and mercy afterall - at least that is Maricon's argument. But his system is a very interesting transtheistic one. If it is studied from that perspective it won't get mixed up with the gnostic systems.

Jared Calaway: "On a somewhat related note, when does the second edition of your Thirteenth Apostle come out? I am slated to teach a class next fall on gospels--using the genre as a lens to discuss, as you say, polydoxy--and I think the second edition of the book could be a great help for undergrads in conceptualizing this."

The second edition of the Thirteenth Apostle is due out by the end of the month as far as I have been told. I still don't see it on Amazon, but it is in press as I write. I can't wait to see the gem. It will be on the back cover in full color, and on the inside in the gem chapter. I made some drawings of other gems for the book which I am also looking forward to seeing. I love visuals, and it is not often that our books get to contain them. So this is extra special.

As for "no biblical demiurgical traditions?!"....that is just what I mean to avoid. I want to open up the discussion of these systems beyond the narrower confines - to explode our expectations. What would happen if we cleared the table? If we started the analysis fresh? If we got away from framing the picture the way it has always been done beginning with the church fathers who were all contorted over the fact that the creator god from the OT was perceived negatively. But when you study these systems, you discover that the thing that is important to these gnostics is that they know a God who is above the fray, and this is a God of pure love, mercy, truth, perfection, etc. And they belong to him-her. The rest of their systems will vary, including their perceptions of the biblical god (if they have one).


Jared Calaway said...

Of course, my comment on Williams' category was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I cannot think of a more awkward expression than his "biblical demiurgical traditions."

sparkwidget said...

After a day to contemplate your definitions, I think I prefer "supratheism" to "transtheism" between the two. If your gist is the difference between traditions that consider God to be the immediate creator/fabricator (Zlatko Plese prefers "fabricator" for the Demiurge, since he creates nothing but shapes pre-existent material) and traditions that assign these duties to lower beings, "supra" might be the appropriate prefix. "Trans", at least in my mind, is caught up in connotations of equal exchange (maybe because of all these languages I've been studying?). In this case, God is bigger than God, so to speak. So I prefer Supratheism. Though it is not as catchy as "Gnosticism," it is better than "biblical demiurgical traditions."

In 2006 I was fortunate to have had the chance to discuss this very matter with Dr John D Turner. He encouraged me to stop trying to arrange early Christian groups in rigid categories but instead, as you suggested, look at their "DNA" on a family tree. He suggested that the solution to all this category debate is just to treat individual texts and sects as units and not to worry so much about the defining characteristics of "Gnosticism."

Gnostic semantics! What a trip!

I have also suggested "panentheism" in the past, but this term is problematic, and I'm uncertain how clear it is in Gnostic texts that the material Universe is a part of God, though it is seemingly an emanation of an emanation of God.

BTW Doctor, my name is Jesse and I study Coptic at Catholic University in Washington DC. I am a former administrator of the Palm Tree Garden Forum that you graciously participated with around the release of your book on Judas. We've exchanged a few emails, but you might not have recognized me under my blogger pseudonym, sparkwidget.

sparkwidget said...

Dr DeConick's post is being discussed here.

Unknown said...

I started a topic over at to ask a bunch of folks who currently go by the name "gnostic" what they think. Here:

I know you are talking about academia but when you identify yourself as a gnostic follower you run into the same kinds of difficulties described in the blog. Even today there are wide difference between various Gnostic groups. Sophian Gnostics are not neo-Gnostic revivalists since we have a linage that can be empirically traced back several hundred years to European masters. But folks assume that we are neo-gnostic when you talk to them. Even after you explain why you aren't.

Leon said...

I am opposed to all terminology in any scinetific study. Terminology just blinds us to the evidence. If you think the term "gnosticism" creates problems, the same will happen with any new terminology. There are very rare occasions when new terminology can highlight evidence we have missed, but that is extremely rare.

The goal is simply to reveal the evidence as plainly, as clearly as possible, and for that, you hardly ever need terminology. Any good thoughts can be communicated without it. In the end, terminology hides more than it reveals. Just consider how terms like the trial and the betrayal and the Law and the Cleansing and more have messed up the study of the historical Jesus and continue to do so. The fear that scholars have is that if you drop all terminology, they will lose control of history. And they are right. They will. That's the point: To lose control and let the evidence take control and center stage. It takes deep courage to do that.

Leon Zitzer

N T Wrong said...

How about "Fullness Christians"?

The term "fullness" captures both the cosmological and epistemic distinctives, and is grounded in the ancient usage.

pearl said...

N T Wrong, "Fullness Christians" might work for Valentinians, but what about texts that do not appear to show any direct Christian influence, such as Zostrianos or Allogenes?

N T Wrong said...


Well, you could go for 'Fullness theology'. But I tend to think that all this emanation- and cosmology-focused literature ('Gnosticism') is 'Christian' - in the sense that it is only after and with Christian theologizing about emanations from God that you get this particular stuff. I don't know that there is a non-Christian Gnosticism. Sure, there are Jewish cosmological speculations and Middle and Neo-Platonic speculations, and other mystery-religion speculations - but these are not what you get at Nag Hammadi nor in the proto-orthodox polemics. They might have read and used Plato, and display continuities with Middle and Neo-Platonists, but they weren't Platonists, either.

I don't think Zostrianos or Allogenes are real exceptions. The whole structure of the schemes is dependent on the (Christian) Gnostic or 'Fullness Christian' cosmologies and emanation speculations. Isn't there still a triad in Allogenes?

pearl said...

N T Wrong, one might ask whether emanationism and a triad are the provenance of Christian theology or rather the influence of Neoplatonists and others.

John D. Turner discusses in depth the triad in Allogenes, starting p. 9 of his article, Gnosticism and Platonism.

We also see emanationism with Plotinus.

I’m not here to debate for or against a pre-Christian or Jewish Gnosticism. However, can some of these “Gnostics” stand alone as not wholly identified with, even if influenced by (in syncretistic fashion), other traditions?

Dr. DeConick likes to shake things up, try new perspectives, unearth fresh glimpses of insight. By engaging a wider category, one might see new relationships emerge. I would hope that the unique soteriological distinction that gnosis is salvific, mentioned by Jordan Stratford+ in the previous post, is recognized during this important process. Even with all the maddening confusion and slippery categories, I’m not yet quite ready to give up the term, “Gnosticism”. ;-)

N T Wrong said...


I agree that the borders between 'Gnosticism' and Neoplatonists are relatively fluid, and some of the categories cross over. There may even be some that stand in both camps, perhaps Allogenes is one. I know that many second-century proto-orthodox Christian documents cross over into 'Gnosticism' (eg Epistle of the Apostles, Odes of Solomon), although these documents are still 'more' proto-orthodox than 'Gnostic'. Likewise, I expect that some of the 'Gnostic' documents cross over into speculative Platonism. And how do we classify Thomas, between proto-Gnosticism, proto-orthodoxy, or other?? Plato himself turns up at Nag Hammadi, after all. But, at the same time, I still think the 'Gnostic' corpus as a whole has a quite different 'center' than any Platonism or other mystery religion or Jewish mysticism. Couldn't Zostrianos and Allogenes be the minor exceptions that proves the rule?

Although Leon is far too doctrinaire in his rejection of 'terminology' (without which, it is very difficult to speak), there is a good point waiting to be made there. Semantic categories both aid our thinking, and necessarily impede it. Reality always challenges the limits of our categories, just as reality is seen clearer by our conceptual devices. Rather than the (impossible) rejection of terminology that Leon advocates, I think we do have to be constantly aware of terminology's limitations, of its accompanying risks. In practical terms, I think there is heuristic value in retaining the qualifier 'Christian...' for Gnostic literature, but I wouldn't want it to blind me to the distinctives of individual texts that confound the generality.

For the danger at the other extreme is reducing every religious document to a version of the 'perennial philosophy'.

pearl said...

N T Wrong, I totally agree with your comments about the need for semantic categories. However, it does appear that at least in relation to Dr. DeConick’s new quest, our conversation here has been rendered moot. She has chosen the term “Transtheism” and says she is “not going to be restrained by previous research and definitions! The limits are gone.”

I shall be quite interested to see what she comes up with in relation to literature that has been traditionally categorized as “Sethian” and “Valentinian”, let alone the varied emphasis on “Christianizing”. :-)

Leon said...

It is hardly impossible to reject terminology completely. Most of the great science of the past is terminology free or almost so. Einstein and Darwin did not need it. They were too concerned with the evidence. Terminology is usually applied by others after a theory has been formulated by strict attention to the evidence. And history, perhaps more than any other subject, does not have a great need for terminology. I cannot think of any other historical field which has the penchant for making up terms that biblical scholarship has.

The main point is that evidence must rule over terminology. Terminology must never become a substitute for evidence, which is the great danger. Terminology is at best a temporary crutch. And it is usually unnecessary. Whatever the terminology accomplishes, you can say just as well without it. The benefits of terminology are slight, the risks and dangers are enormous. That is an accurate assessment. Historians especially have an obligation to make sure evidence and voices of the past are not suppressed. Occasionally terminology can be a help to achieve that goal, but you can get there even better without it and, more often than not, terminology gets used to erase evidence. Evidence, evidence, evidence — the three most important features of great science, as Einstein and Darwin would tell you.

Leon Zitzer