Sunday, July 1, 2007

Part 1: Why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy?

As I wrote my last blog entry on the BYU journal discussing the Gospel of Judas, I kept asking myself the question, "Why do non-canonical texts make us so uneasy?" It isn't just the LDS scholars, or Christian scholars of other traditions. Except for a few, this is the reaction I have seen across the Academy generally. When referring to these texts, they are always the "other," always the "extra," always the "non." There appears to be a satisfaction in writing that these texts are "late" or "legendary" or "gnostic." If "gnostic" then "gnostic" is explained as some crazy, nonsensible, unintelligible, why-would-anyone-want-to-be tradition in antiquity that the church fathers fought, and thank god they did. There is set up a contrast between them and the "real" or "authentic" writings of the church. This is enough to dismiss the text from our scholarly repertoire. But is this historically justifiable?

Personally, I think it worthwhile to reflect on these questions, to ask ourselves why the study of these texts is so provoking? What is it about them that makes us so uneasy? This is not a rhetorical question, but one that I hope to pose as a self-reflection. What are your own answers? I will post mine later this week.


Doug said...

I have tried to offer an initial set of responses to the question of what does and doesn't make me, personally, uneasy here on my blog

Leon said...

I think Dr. DeConick is right that these are important questions. Our emotional responses often control our ability to see the evidence let alone to analyze it correctly. Vocabulary or terminology is just one way that scholars, or any authorities really, have to control a discussion and to control what insights are permitted.

Here is one powerful reason why I think so many people are uneasy with gnostic texts or the "new" Gospel of Judas (and why they invent a vocabulary that puts them down or diminishes them): The canonical New Testament (NT)has been around for almost 2,000 years and the control over how they are to be read is well established. There may be alternative voices in the NT but traditionalists feel they have this well under control, so nobody will hear or notice them. But the gnostic texts and the very new Gospel of Judas do not have a long tradition of study behind them. They are not as well controlled as the canonical texts are. So many religious and scholarly authorities feel uneasy with them because they don't own them the way they own the traditional stuff. They have not yet mastered how to totally dismiss them and that worries them. Other voices make them very nervous because it means loss of control; they have not yet figured out a way to make them completely Other.

Leon said...


I took a look at your blog. One thing surprised me very much. You said that the use of power (and theology) to marginalize certain texts does not make you uneasy. It makes me very uneasy. Studying the evidence with as much rationality as possible is the goal and whenever power is used to subvert that goal, I get very nervous -- frightened actually.

You are right that a document being lost is not automatically a reason to think that it was suppressed or more authentic than anything else. But it is also not automatically a reason to think that it is worth less. And yes, marginlaized groups can sometimes be obsessed with power too. But this does not let off the hook the outrageous abuse of power that established churches have too often engaged in (just think of how fiercely the Catholic Church in England fought the English Bible and more accurate translations from the original languages rather than from the Latin).

What I believe is that anything, including the power of authorities, which is used to suppress or interfere with the rational study of history must be exposed for what it is.

Doug said...

Leon,, let me clarify: what I intended by this was that saying power is involved in marginalising texts is a claim I recognise as historical fact and human nature, and that making that claim does not make me uneasy. That doesn't mean I approve of such behaviour, but I do regard those who would deny the claim (and there are some) in favour of the persuasive truthfulness of "orthodoxy" as the only real issue, as people who don't live in the real world. Nor do I think we will ever live in a world where power is not involved.

Jim Deardorff said...

What is most disturbing to me is the implicit suggestion by some that any text that once was lost, but now is found, can without careful study be assumed to be an unreliable testimony to the truth of the man known as Jesus. This most certainly would include an archaeological find whose text was so disturbing to authorities that it was destroyed before it could be fully translated.

Leon said...


Thank you for clarifying that point. Power may always be an issue in the real world we live in, but for me that means we always have to be ready to examine what effect it has on our studies. And even if power is an ever-present reality in our world, that does not mean we have to accept abuse of power. There are times when power goes too far and it is legitimate to challenge it when it does.

One can even say it is especially important in studying the historical Jesus since Jesus himself would have a thing or two to say about abuse of power. So would the ancient Pharisees and rabbis. I could tell you rabbinic stories about challenging power and parallel points made by Jesus, Rabbi Joshua of Nazareth. The point I would make here is that examining power and correcting it when it makes mistakes is a religious duty. Just ask the historical Jesus. He'll tell you.

Leon Zitzer

David said...

Fear follows from perceived threat. So what threat could taking gnostic texts as historical texts really represent?

I believe that people who are committed to any degree to orthodoxy will always view material such as the gnostic texts as a threat. People who believe that the received tradition is largely correct and this is why Christianity as we know it won the early battles are bound to think of gnostic texts as if they were weeds, so to speak. "We've already beaten these weeds down, so why do they keep reoccuring? Why do they keep coming back?" Such people fear that the battle is not completely won after all, especially if they subscribe to the notion that evil is active in the world.

Re-evaluating the gnostic texts without canonical blinders will no doubt cause shock waves for people who are afraid to re-evaluate their faith positions. If you are afraid that you will have to change your treasured beliefs or perhaps even realize that your tradition is (partly/largely/mostly/completely) based on myths, is it any wonder why this would not cause hysterical denial?

If you are not ready for change or are unwilling to change, you will resist change, even if you don't know what changes will be required.

gdelassu said...

I believe that people who are committed to any degree to orthodoxy will always view material such as the gnostic texts as a threat.

For what little my opinion is worth, I think that this is largely nonsensical and tells us more about what David thinks of the self-professed orthodox than what the self-professed orthodox think of non-canonical texts. After all, Tertullian and Origen are just as heretical as the Gospel of Judas or the Acts of Phillip and yet no one supposes that the self-professed orthodox are "afraid" to read Tertullian or Origen. I agree that the vitriol aimed at non-canonical texts (and at those who study them) is largely irrational, but I think this the-orthodox-are-blinded-by-their-fears-and-prejudices line is a poor explanation for that irrationality with little more to back it up other than a popular mythology built up around the idea of the scholarly-hero/Gallileo-contra-mundum.