Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sabbatical Post 5: The Erasure of Gnostic(ism)

As you might imagine, I have been thinking lately about the meaning of Gnostic(ism).  I remain unconvinced by arguments of difference and polemics which are serving scholars in the erasure the Gnostic(ism) from western history, as if Gnostic(ism) has not made an enormous contribution to our culture and society (and I am arguing, still does).  Scholarship today, however unintentional, is accomplishing what the church fathers started.  The complete eradication of Gnostic(ism). 

Gnostics were not just different Christians in a laundry list of assorted Christianities.  And just because Christianity was diverse in the beginning does not mean that there were not normative elements within Christianity from the beginning.  There were boundaries in which the difference operated.  When a group transgressed these boundaries, the limits were exposed and the creeds were formulated.  Then polemics flashed back and forth, igniting a battle and further entrenching the boundaries and reconfigurating categories.  The Gnostics found themselves in hostile territory outside the wall, no longer welcome in the synagogues and churches where they had once worshiped.

It is a total misrepresentation of history to say that Gnosticism or Gnostic Religion did not exist.  It most certainly did, and I might add, it did so early on.  By the early third century, Manichaeism was born and quickly spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, becoming the first world religion.  Who gets taught that in World Religions courses?  The Mandaeans (=The Knowers) also were around in the third century, and have their roots in the first century.   Mandaeism still exists as a Gnostic religion today.  Both of these Gnostic religions, while combining elements from other religions were distinctly their own independent religions.  They were neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Buddhist.  They were Gnostic.

As for the first and second centuries, well this is my goal.  To try to make sense of how Gnostic spirituality emerged as a new religiosity and interacted with religions and philosophies that were contemporaneous to it, and also struggling to emerge themselves.  Somehow there emerged three discrete religions by the third century: Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism.  It is telling this story that will capture my attention in the first half of my book The Ancient New Age.

Image: Rock crystal seal engraved with three profile busts of Mani and two priests; inscription reads: “Mani, the Apostle of Jesus Christ”. Bibliothèque nationale de France, INT 1384BIS. Via Zenobia and Encyclopaedia Iranica

13 comments:

Jared said...

My students hear about Manicheanism in the first lecture in my Religions of the World class: I start off with the concept if even as vibrant and long-lasting and widespread religious tradition as the Manicheans can die out, any religion can, even theirs.

Jared said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff Hudson said...

Was the time when the gnostics were formed about the same time the original christianos (latin) were forced out of the synagogues of Rome into the catacombs? I believe that Vespasian and Titus were responsible for this persecution. The christianos were not 'christians' by the modern definition. The christianos hadn't heard of Jesus. They were the anointed ones who worshipped God in the Spirit. One of the early catacomb images show a mother and child. This was later turned into Mary and Jesus, but the explanation is to be found in worship in the Spirit. The persecution attributed to Nero by Flavian historians was really persecution by Vespasian and Titus who held the power after destroying the temple.

The smashing of the christianos led to the growth of christianity with belief in Jesus, and the gnostics.

Wired For Sound said...

Thomasine Traditions in Antiquity: The Social And Cultural World of the Gospel of Thomas $139.00.

Sure would like to be able to afford to buy a copy of this. Perhaps Brill will publish it in paperback some time in the future?

rick allen said...

Seems to me that one criterion for a "religion" is some degree of self-consciousness in the members of being in a distinctive group. I think we can point to that with Jews, Christians, Samaritans, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jains, Moslems, classical pagans, even Brahmanists/Hindus.

Recognizing that the word "gnostic" is a modern descriptor (like Hindu), can we point to any overarching indication that those we call Gnostics had that sense of being, so to speak, under a common umbrella? That the various groups identified by St. Irenaeus, for example, saw themselves as related to each other as members of a single whole, or even as being closer or farther from a shared truth?

+Shimun said...

In light of this post, what do you think about the thesis that David Brakke argues in The Gnostics? Unless I am misunderstanding his argument, he argues for a far more circumscribed usage of the terms "Gnostic" and "Gnosticism" when referring to ancient groups.

Tao said...

I am in agreement and write about Manichaean origins, etc. in my book, 'The Trail of Gnosis'. An opportunity to win 2 free giveaway copies is at Goodreads.com until May 27.

Judith Mann

monkey king said...

I just finished your book Holy Misogyny and all I can say is wow. I can't wait for this book to come out. I struggle with defining myself as a Gnostic. I understand that the term wasn't invented until the 18th century. I can see that the term may not mean the same to us as to people who called themselves "knowers" in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries. But I understand your point that some people may be trying to erase Gnosticism from history. I certainly see it as a modern literary genre. So I am still formulating my definition of Gnostic(ism). If I lable myself a Sophian Gnostic, what is that?

monkey king said...

I meant to write "label"

Wendy said...

NO RELIGION CAN DIE OUT. GOD CANNOT DIE OUT. GOD IS RELIGION. IF RELIGION DIES OUT THEN IT IS NOT OF GOD. NOT EVERY RELIGION CLAIMING TO BE RELIGION IS.

GOD IS A PERSON. KNOW HIM--EVERYTHING ELSE IS BOGUS. YOU ARE BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE, ALL.

YOU CAN KNOW HIM AS ABRAHAM KNEW HIM. HE IS NOT THEORY. HE IS A PERSON!

IF YOU SEEK TRUTH RATHER THAN THEORIZING, YOU FIND HIM! GUARANTEED. <3+

Wydad Club Casablanca said...

Another good post thank you admin, can you visit my modest blog please, here two best documentaries online: The Slender Man Documentary Online and the seconde is: Watch The Corporation online
thanks again

henry alan said...

This post looks good.Thanks for sharing the blog.I wish you to post the new updates regularly.

najlepsze konto dla firm

VC said...

This is very interesting. It's funny how when you begin to hear something on a topic you come across it everywhere! I recently heard about a new book, Cover Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs that discusses how the Jewish flavor was removed from Christianity. Lawrence Goudge proposes that the Jewish followers of Jesus preserved the beliefs and practices of the original apostles: Peter, James and John. Therefore, the true heretics were those who created the new religion of the dying God (anathema to Peter James and John). Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs exposes the church's hypocrisy in first silencing those who truly followed Jesus and then exterminating them, just as they did the Cathars.  I just learned of a new book – Cover Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs by Lawrence Goudge. I found it here http://tinyurl.com/69cazll. Let me know what you think of it.