Monday, February 24, 2014

The Gnostics Were Intellectuals

Larry Hurtado has posted his opinion of the Gnostics, that they were not intellectuals, but esoterics who taught a bunch of "mumble-gumble", such as a read of the Nag Hammadi texts reveal; that they were not engaged with reasonable arguments such as we find in the writings of the church fathers; and that pagans never engaged them, proving that they were not an important part of the intellectual scene. The only real intellectuals were the catholic Christians.

Now Larry is a good friend of mine - we have been members of the early high christology club since its inception, which is a good number of years.  But that does not mean that we do not disagree, and on this topic we disagree.  Larry is taking a standard position espoused by many biblical scholars (he is in very good company), that the Gnostics are non-consequential to Christianity and that their ideas and practices were irrational and secretive.  Some biblical scholars would add to this description, perverse and exploitative.

I remember about ten years ago when I visited Oxford to work in the library, I was invited to dine at the table in one of the colleges.  One of the biblical studies professors sat next to me and asked me what I was working on.  When I told him the Gnostics and the Nag Hammadi texts, his immediate reaction was, "Why are you wasting your time on them?  When I read the Nag Hammadi texts it was clear to me that it is all craziness.  Nonsense.  Go back to the New Testament where it matters."

So I have been working upstream most of my career, swimming against a current that is much stronger than I am.  I guess I like the challenge, or I wouldn't keep doing it.  I have spent a lot of time within the Nag Hammadi texts, reconstructing the worlds of the authors, which are not crazy once you learn their references and points of view.  The Gnostics from antiquity were anything but crazy, inconsequential or irrational.  But they were different.  And difference often leads to misunderstanding.

So let's clear up some of the misunderstanding:

1. Basilides was a philosopher who converted to Christianity as a Gnostic.  This was sometime between 110 and 120 CE.  He wrote some of the first commentaries on New Testament texts, that is before they were part of any New Testament.  He appears to have been our earliest biblical theologian.  He was also a mathematician and astronomer.

2. Valentinus was a contemporary to Basilides.  Tertullian, who dislikes him with a passion, admits that people at the time thought he was a "genuis" because of his command of the biblical materials and his exegetical abilities.  He was also a poet.  There was even a moment when some thought he would be the next bishop of Rome.  When he was not elected, he felt a big mistake had been made so  started his own church school to train Christians correctly.

3. We have a letter that Ptolemy writes to Flora (yes a woman convert) which is every bit a rational and reasonable interpretation of biblical texts that supports his view of the world as anything we have from the catholic Christians.

4. The Sethians participated in Plotinus' classes, much to his dismay.  While he disagreed with them on several points, we are coming to find out that Plotinus and the Gnostics were in dialogue with each other and the influence of each other's philosophical doctrines went both ways.

5. Heracleon wrote one of the first, if not the first, commentary on the Gospel of John.  Origen engages it thoroughly and from this engagement we can see that Heracleon was an astute philosopher and biblical theologian with very reasonable arguments for his positions.

6. Celsus engaged the Gnostics, although he called them Christians and knew of them only as Christians.   It is because of his extensive engagement with these Christians that we know so much about a group that Origen calls the Ophians.  Origen in fact is furious with Celsus, that Celsus thought the Ophians were Christians.  Origen tries desperately to distance catholic Christianity from Celsus' description of (Ophian) Christianity.  By the way, one of Celsus' arguments against them is that they were simply Platonists who had nothing new to say because Plato had said it already.

7. The Gnostics were engaged in actual debates with catholic Christians.  For instance, Origen debated the Gnostic Christian Candidus in Athens.  Archelaus debated Mani.  This debate is recorded by Epiphanius and it is extremely learned and rational.  We should also add here that there is a solid tradition that Simon and Peter debated, some of which is recorded in the Ps-Clem literature.  Even if the records of these debates are not actual transcripts (they probably aren't), they do not portray the Gnostic opponents as irrational dunces.  In fact, the Gnostics come across as very learned and articulate opponents.

What does this all mean?  

1. The Gnostics were extremely rational and educated people.  They were intellectuals and their study of biblical texts was as astute as (and sometimes they read the Greek better, as in John 8:44) the catholic Christians. They were engaged in a two-way debate with catholic Christians, a debate that was consequential to the birth of the catholic landscape, as well as the generation of a new form of spirituality: Gnostic spirituality.

2. The Gnostics turned the tables on religion in antiquity.  They really revolutionized conventional religion.  While they based their world views on profound philosophical insights and reasoned biblical exegesis, they felt that reason could not get us all the way to God.  Reason was step one.  But step two was another matter.  God, for the Gnostics, was beyond our comprehension, ineffable, unknowable by conventional means.  The Gnostic felt that God had to be experienced.  Ultimately it was the experience of God (which was had through intense ritual events) that mattered.  This was the pinnacle of knowledge.  This was step two, and it is what they thought other Jews and Christians missed.  The Gnostics felt that other Jews and Christians had mistaken lower gods for the real God who was beyond all the images and forms we can make of him-her.

3. The consequence of their form of religiosity was enormous, as I am writing about now in The Ancient New Age, where I argue that Gnostic spirituality which emerged in antiquity has won the day and now forms the basis of modern American religion. The book will be published with Columbia University Press.

I go now to keep writing my chapter on Gnostic ritual: "Helltreks and Skywalks"...


ariadnegreen said...

Hi April,
I see you wasted no time in responding Hurtado's argument. You made your points concisely in my opinion. I look forward reading your work in progress. I have often thought that the Gnostic community of the 2nd century was very much like the New Age movement that began in the 1980's. I have a new book out for the mainstream that I would love for you to read. I think you will be particularly interested in my discussion on the Bridal Chamber mystery as well as my discovery of a Gnostic Mary Magdalene tradition in the illuminations of Petite Heures de Jean Berry. I direct you to one of my blogs to read a bit about it.

gallileo said...


I have enjoyed your blog and books very much.Thanks & kudos for the nice work on GosJudas.

1. Weren't some Gnostic traditions absorbed into orthodoxy ? What about the Gospel of John ? What about passages like '..I teach you a mystery" & how Jesus promised to reveal secret knowledge only to the disciples etc. " as well as dirct revelatory experiences that continue today with Pentecostals for example.


Himself said...

Well April,
So glad that you addressed this issue. I have been studying the Gnostics for the past sixteen years and I found your perspective spot on. I would have posted a response to Larry's post but this site just stopped me cold. Thanks for posting this. Have enjoyed your efforts in the past and am looking forward to reading more in the future.
Dr Denis O'Callaghan

John Dash said...

What a fine response to such a bizarre assertion. Thank you Dr. DeConick for keeping this so properly academic. I had a much more vigorous impulse.
John Dash
Fairport, NY

lightseeker said...

I was going to leave a snarky comment in response to Hurtado's post (and other smug comments) along the lines of "exactly who here is acting special and haughty or arrogant, certain that they know they are right?" and "wasn't it Paul who said that Christianity would appear as foolishness to outsiders?" ;-) How ironic, seeing the flip-side of that in action. But I thought better of it, and withheld comment.

I am so glad, because, April, you've done a great job with this post in response. Thank you!

And I agree with your premise that the ancient Gnostics' preference to "experience God" directly to access inner wisdom was exactly what modern Christians do in having their "personal relationships" with Christ/God and listening to the still, small voice within for guidance.

Oh, the blind irony. Thank you again, can't wait to read your new book! And good to see you posting again -- really have missed your posts.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I'm very glad to see you posting again. You're right, IMHO, about the Gnostics, and Hurtado is wrong. (He has struck me elsewhere as so committed to the truth of classical Christian orthodoxy as to have crippled himself for any rational consideration of other possibilities.)

Jenny said...

Admittedly, I'm not a scholar in this area, but I have to say that I don't find you're argument very convincing. Okay, let's grant that many gnostics were skilled philosophers, learned scholars, etc. Does that in any way prevent them from writing or using some rather bizarre texts to promote their own religious agenda? No, it doesn't.

Jim Deardorff said...

Hi April,

That was an excellent response to Hurtado’s mumbo-jumbo complaint. Only a few years ago I noticed that certain Gnostics held some extremely important hidden information. It is that the true name of the Savior was not to be uttered, and/or that, in cryptic terms, this name had been Immanuel. This is found in the Acts of Thomas, Ascension of Isaiah, Gospel of Philip, and Testament of Solomon. These and other gnostic writers had evidently learned that if they mentioned the name “Immanuel” their writing would stand no chance of surviving into the future.

One of several overlooked puzzles this explains is why early Christian writers felt that “Jesus” fulfilled Isaiah 7:14 if the child had not been given the name Immanuel at birth. The reason, then, why the writer of Matthew, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus endorsed fulfillment of the prophecy is because they knew the tradition was true – the original name had in fact been Immanuel.

At the same time, the reason why this fulfillment wasn’t shouted from the roof tops is easily inferred from what those Gnostics had indicated. After Pauline theology had won out, the key opposition – the supporters of Immanuel -- had to be kept silenced. In the first two centuries ”Immanuel” could only be expressed sparingly by Christians within the context of quoting Isa 7:14, and not at all by the Jewish priests and rabbis.d.

It is unfortunate that this name-change finding itself tends to be ignored. Hurtado dismissed it as just Gnostic stuff.

rogerv said...

As I discussed with Miguel Conner (our modern era Valentinus presiding over virtual Alexandria), me thinks the root of difference between Gnostic Christians and Orthodox Christians is that the latter never had a genuine experience of the Awakening process or gnosis. As such it remained completely alien to their mindset and they (the orthodox) fell into a so-called spirituality that could be founded on doctrines, creeds, and straight forward rituals.

Modern scholars don't seem to state this obvious division point on account most do not seem to be of the world view that such a thing as gnosis is an actual metaphysical process (where paranormal phenomena take place). Instead they tend to view it as some sort of insight arrived at via the mind. Instead, Awakening is a process that grips you and unfolds. The mind then races to try to comprehend what is happening.

Jim Deardorff said...

In a still more modern form, I believe I’m paralleling the main distinction made by Roger Voss between the Gnostic Chrstians and the orthodox or Pauline Christians. I.e., the former tended to believed in the existence of the individual spirit within (along with the God of All), which repeatedly reincarnates, while the latter held little or no belief in an individual spirit, but rather held a more Pharisaic view of a one-time resurrection of the body (along with belief in the God of Israel whose Spirit could occasionally come upon one’s self).

I’ve stated it this way because of the many modern studies by MDs, PhDs, etc. that have verified the existence of past lives (in human form only) as a fact of life. Hence I also feel that certain Gnostics were way ahead of Orthodox Christianity in terms of truth.

Geoff Hudson said...

April, Larry's was a bit of a rant, wasn't it? He reckoned that the gnostics were not really intellectuals. More than likely they could see the threat that was coming from their immediate neighbours, the 'real Christians'. The gnostics would ever likely want to keep their religion close to their chest, because they could see the storm clouds gathering.
They were shortly to be wiped from the face of the earth by the western power in the shape of Constantine, who was supposedly the first Christian emperor. They would have to hide their scriptures, as the TV programme showed.

The gnostics were intellectual enough to realise that their fundamental belief was in direct opposition to that of traditional Christians. For the gnostics, Jesus was a spirit. The gnostic hatred of the priests, as in the Gospel of Judas, showed that they were against sacrifice, and that sacrifice was useless in the sight of God. More to the point, Judas, who also appears as a spirit, speaks with Jesus while both are in the sanctuary where the altar of incense was. They were not at the altar for burnt offerings where the priests would have been. If this does not involve an intellectual idea, then I don't know what does.

So we have two christian religions in Egypt. One, an export from Rome. The other, essentially, indigenous. The first believed in sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus. The second rejected sacrifice. The first paralleled the Jewish priests, and the second the prophets who rejected sacrifice.

Egypt had a long history with the enmity between Jewish priests and prophets. The Egyptians gave protection to the prophets. That enmity culminated in the rebellion of Judas the Maccabean (a prophet) against Antiochus the king who allied himself to the priests who let him into Jerusalem.

Istvan Pasztori-Kupan said...

Dear All,
It is fascinating to follow a truly scholarly exchange between Prof. Hurtado and Prof. DeConick concerning the so-called 'Gnostic' problem. The very exercise itself is worthy of recognition.
The term 'Gnostic' is in fact far too problematic (and perhaps too vague or ambivalent) to be applied successfully for the correct or precise characterisation of any Early Christian group. I am very interested in the history of doctrine and had certainly encountered the term 'Gnostic' far too many times. This is why I venture to say that if we were to consider and compare the teachings of every group, which at some point had been labelled 'Gnostic' by one or more reputable scholars, we would easily realise that most of these 'Gnostic' communities were often much more at odds with each other than they had ever been with the so-called 'Catholic', 'Orthodox' or 'Proto-Orthodox' Christians. Yet, the very term 'Gnostic', skillfully used in modern filmed documentaries, may easily suggest that those belonging to this category were not only 'the majority' (in number) amongst the early believers in Christ, but they also had a homogenous common teaching. Of course, no serious scholar would claim this (since even the main 'Gnostic' trends were at considerable variance with each other in doctrinal matters), most of these 'documentaries' are somehow suggesting it, with a clear tendency to show that this more or less 'homogenous' system of belief and its 'united followers' were somehow suppressed by the Early Christian teachers (most of whom had also been persecuted or killed for their faith, but who cares?). To put it mildly, I am a little overwhelmed by these stereotypical TV-presentations. It is not the case of Prof. DeConick, that is why I think it is worth noting that Prof. Hurtado's first posting criticised the TV-shows and not the reputable researchers of the 'Gnostic' problem.

Geoff Hudson said...

April, you wrote:3. "The consequence of their form of religiosity was enormous, as I am writing about now in The Ancient New Age, where I argue that Gnostic spirituality which emerged in antiquity has won the day and now forms the basis of modern American religion. The book will be published with Columbia University Press."

Gnostic beliefs and orthodox Christian beliefs have a common root. They have their origins in the Jewish prophets, who the priests separated from. The prophets were the 'seekers of smooth things' in the DSS. The prophets believed in the Spirit of God and that the Spirit would cleanse them if they obeyed him. They did not consider it necessary to obey the law and that sacrifice was useless.

rogerv said...

Indeed, the Sethian Gospel of Judas is yet another example in and of itself where Gnostics are distinguishing themselves on the basis of the intellectual issue of blood sacrifice. It deals in the question of whether a blood sacrifice is necessary to satiate the true deity. Even today Western modem culture universally (whether religious or secular) holds an opinion that blood sacrifice to a deity is a kind of defining characteristic of belief systems that are labeled as demonic.

Modern Christians thus engage in Orwellian double think in attempting to adhere to an imagery of God as received from Yeshua's teachings found in the Testament vs. the personality profile of the deity that the Jewish priesthood sacrificed animals to, as depicted in the Old Testament. Gnostics evidently saw the great divide here (Gospel of Judas and Yahweh as the demiurge concept).

This stark and in reconcilable imagery of the nature of God is one of the greatest crisis points for sincerely believing Christians today. Unlike the orthodox Catholics, the early Gnostics were fully on top of this crucial theology problem. This in itself demonstrates that the Gnostics were the intellectual superiors of the day - the orthodox were too dull witted to sense the gross error they were engaging in by grafting Christianity onto the Joseph Stalin character of god found in the Old Testament.

AB said...

It's almost a given that the people who write off the Gnostics today know next to nothing about Middle Platonism and have never studied the works of Plotinus. In other words, their ignorance prevents them from recognizing how ignorant they sound.

AB said...

Another thing I find interesting is when people think denigrating Gnostic cosmology as "science fiction" is a clever put down, when such an interpretation would actually show how far ahead of their time they were.

ἐκκλησία said...

Let's suppose for a second that Christianity is correct, Christianity engages Atheists all the time, as does Atheism engage Christianity.

That one group engages another, or studies its work does not mean both groups are equal in merit or intellectual accomplishment. Clearly Atheists and Christians cannot both be correct.

History has ultimately preserved Christianity, and confined the Gnostics to the dustbin of history. In some sense that validates the claim that the intellectual basis behind Christianity has withstood criticism. It also shows that Gnosticism hasn't.

Gnosticism's modern appeal is no different than it was the first time around - it appeals to those who seek 'hidden' knowledge. It's commitment to talking crosses, and giants also shows its commitment to reason is still no different.

rogerv said...

Actually there is a perspective where both religionists and atheist in a sense are the same. They are a ying and yang compliment to each other where there is a dynamic interplay - one checking and critiquing the hubris, corruption, and dark fanaticism of the other.

From a higher spiritual perspective, the soul that chooses to incarnate into a life plan involving atheism or agnosticism can accomplish social good for the community of mankind at large, as well as advance their own spiritual evolution. They are blessed individuals where they check religious insanities run amuck. And the dynamic works in the other direction as well, of course.

There are blessings and spiritual beneficence that can be found in the spectrum of human expression - that is the magnificent of the breadth of existence.

As to history having pronounced triumphant outcomes, well, to my knowledge history is not over - the Earth is still circuiting the sun. Gnosticism has resurfaced (very literally, by the way) in the modern era to powerful effect. I am a participant in conventional orthodox theological Christianity and I continue to see its impact over the decades. The face of Christianity is really in a a state of very rapid flux - an old paradigm is crumbling bit by bit. My prior comments in this thread reference some of those areas where re-examination of base presumptions is basically two millinia over due.

History is not linear - and not even cyclical - it is holographically recursive. We have opportunity to synthesize a better outcome.