Why do Americans believe so many different things?

The Pew Forum has put out an absolutely fascinating report about a survey they recently conducted in which they wanted to analyze how much and in what ways Americans "mix" aspects of different religions. This report has me captivated since I feel like I am reading a report about religious belief of Christians in the second century.

The argument I have been developing about second century Christians is that they were eclectic, and that gnosticism was an amalgamation of Egyptian astrology and religion, Greek mysteries and Hermetism, middle Platonic philosophy, Judaism and Christianity, with its constituents comfortable attending more than one religious house or being part of a multiple of religious bodies. It is exactly the kind of 'hybrid' that we are seeing today, and may have been seeing since the 1800s. I think it has something to do with 'internationalization', when a variety of religious traditions become available for consumption within a given culture at a given point in history.

I will be returning to this report and analyzing it carefully, and expect to post more thoughts on it. For now I just want to bring it to your attention because it is so fascinating and representative of the religion of no religion that is sweeping America.

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).

Transtheism or Supratheism?

I am giving serious thought to letting go of the category "gnostic and gnosticism" (just as I did with "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in my period, turning instead to "polydoxy" or multiple competing self-defining orthodoxies). My reason for this is not that I do not think that gnosticism existed in the ancient world - in fact I do. But the categories have become so abused, that they have become heuristically meaningless for me as an historian of religion. I can't use them without running into walls.

The category is a huge mess and people use these words whatever-which-way they see fit for whatever argument they want to make. If they don't want a particular text to be gnostic, they will say that it doesn't have this-that-or-the-other characteristic that is gnostic. If they want the text to be gnostic, they will say that it has such-and-such characteristic which is gnostic. And then there is proto-gnostic, which means there are elements of gnosticism here, but not enough to make it gnostic yet. And then when it comes to those who make the claim to be gnostics, like Clement of Alexandria, well, he can't be a gnostic because he is a famous church father who is considered "orthodox".

The biggest gripe I have is the claim to doceticism that so many people want to make - as if all or even most gnostics were! Marcion was docetic. For him, Jesus appeared on earth one day as an adult "appearance". But for most of the other Christian gnostics, Jesus was born and had a physical body (including the Eastern Valentinians).

"The snake is always the good guy." No, not in all gnostic systems. And even in those systems where he is "good", he sometimes becomes "evil" as in the case of the Ophians described by Irenaeus.

"The gnostics hated the body and lived encratic lifestyles." Some did. But not all by any means. The Valentinians and the Simonians enjoyed sex and considered it a sacred activity within the confines of monogamous marriage. Who knows what Carpocrates was up to or the Archontics.

"The creator god has to be evil." In some cases he is, in some cases he is just foolish, or trying the best he can - but because he is ignorant, he has a hard time. He is rash. He is arrogant. He is even repentant as in the case of Western Valentinianism. For Basilides, Abrasax is "psyche" and the best that psyche can be (if we believe Hippolytus' account). In all cases, he is powerful and must be reckoned with because he owns the soul within which lives the spirit from above him.

"The creator is singular." Most of the time he isn't. He is often helped by the archons or angels in the heavens to create Adam. Sometimes it is a collective of angels who create and a single angel name is not identified.

I could go on and on with all the misconceptions and nonsense that have been heaped on this category, smothering it to death.

So I am about to retire it because I cannot continue my work if I have to constantly be fighting the category's baggage. I am going to set it aside and work to develop new language so that I can create a map of what was going on in the first, second, third and fourth centuries with these communities. I want to know their histories, their relationships to each other, their relationships to other religious movements, their multiplicity of beliefs and practices, their scriptures, their hermeneutics, their geographical locations, etc.

My proposal is to name descriptively the phenonemon I want to study. What I want to study are those groups of religious people in the ancient world that worship a god who is spatially beyond our universe and who is not identified as the immediate creator and ruler of our universe. Instead, these roles are attributed to subordinate powers who are not being worshiped.

I'm considering two names for this phenonemon. Transtheism or Supratheism. I like Transtheism because "trans" has two connotations: across and above/beyond. This is nice because it suggests that the believers could understand that a cross-over between our universe and the otherworld is possible, in terms of the spilling over of the otherworldly god into our universe (as our spirits) and/or the sending of an emissary from the otherworld to assist with salvation and/or our journey "home" to the otherworld. Supratheism is also possible, although it may indicate too much of a complete transcendence and separation of the God, as if the otherworldly God has no contact with this world (which is not the case in these systems).

This may mean that I will have to subtitle my book: The Gnostics and Their Gospels: An Introduction to Ancient Transtheism, the Worship of the God-Beyond our World.

What are your preferences? Transtheism or Supratheism?

Aeon Byte Interview

Miguel Connor of Aeon Byte interviewed me recently about the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. He has a website where downloads are available HERE. If you scroll down, you will find at the bottom a menu of all his shows and his many guests. This is quite a resource that Mr. Connor has put together over the years! His website contains downloads of shows featuring a variety of well-known scholars discussing their ideas about the ancient world on everything from Hermetism to Gnosticism to Mysticism. Thank you Miguel for caring so much about esotericism in the ancient world, making these interviews available to all.

Magical Cup has nothing to do with Christ

Jim Davila posted today on a news release item about an old magic cup that has been discovered in the sea of Alexandria.

The report:
A bowl, dating to between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., is engraved with what may be the world's first known reference to Christ. The engraving reads, "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which has been interpreted to mean either, "by Christ the magician" or, "the magician by Christ."
This cup has nothing to do with Christ. The Greek on the cup has CHRESTOU not CHRISTOU (or CHRSTOU as the newsreport has it!). CHRESTOU was a well-known title for one of the Sethian Gnostic archons, ATHOTH. It means "EXCELLENT ONE". It is found in several Sethian texts, including the Gospel of Judas. I do not yet know what OGOISTAIS is, but I am going to work on it. But it doesn't mean "magician." This magical bowl is possibly a GNOSTIC magical bowl with an invocation to ATHOTH on it. So don't believe the hype for minute. This bowl had absolutely nothing to do with CHRIST or with CHRIST as a magician. BUT it is totally fascinating if this object is actually SETHIAN!

UPDATE: Wieland Willker has been tracking suggestions on his blog Textual Criticism of the Bible HERE. Thanks for the link Wieland!

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.

Those exclusive Gnostics?!

The Gnostics have been characterized as elitists and exclusivists - a characterization begun by the church fathers and kept in our common knowledge about what Gnostics are supposed to be. But were they?

This is a good question and since I've been dealing with all the children of Eve texts lately, I have had to re-evaluate this common knowledge. Yes, the texts say that the Sethians thought they were the carefully preserved race of Seth, that they even had a heavenly pre-existence. There were other races descended from Eve's other children, but the seed of Seth was elect.

Now this sounds elitist and exclusive at first glance. Until you ask the question, how do you become a Sethian? The answer is that you convert. In other words the Sethians, like the Valentinians, thought that your response to the religious message - i.e. you choose to become one of us - is what signaled that you were an elect. Certainly the Valentinians at least were concerned about proper sex so that an elect might be conceived, but one only knew if the child was elect if the child responded instantly in a positive way to the Valentinian message.

I haven't figured out how the Mandaean (modern Gnostics) notion that only children born to Mandaean fathers and mothers could be Mandaean, but I imagine that this was a later development and had to do with social issues. As the community moved and settled into new locations, intermarriage was probably a natural response to keep the faith "pure".

At any rate, the ancient Gnostic Christians look to be every bit as much like any other Christian tradition at the time. If you converted, you became part of the saved. If not, you were doomed. They were no more elitist or exclusive in terms of salvation than the standard Christians in that period (or many Christians today).

Who was in Noah's Ark? A Gnostic perspective

Since many of us are familiar with Christian traditions that have "exclusives" on knowledge and on hermeneutics - i.e. there are few acceptable ways (usually only one) interpret any given scriptural passage according to most churches today - it is sometimes difficult for us when we confront ancient materials to face the huge (and often contradictory) variety of explanations of given scriptures. This is even the case in the study of the gnostic literature, where I have seen us more than once want to talk about "the" Valentinian or "the" Sethian interpretation of a scripture. If a new text doesn't read that scripture in our pre-determined Valentinian or Sethian way, than it can't be Valentinian or it can't be Sethian.

This is dangerous business indeed, because we are assuming that the ancient gnostic Christians had exclusive interpretations of passages. My reading of the gnostic literature reveals to me that this was not the case. That any given tradition - be it Valentinian or Sethian or whatever - had a wide range of acceptable hermeneutical possibilities for any given scripture. And that a particular community in fact may have held contradictory views comfortably.

The gnostic literature isn't about exclusive views as many of us have been taught. The gnostic literature is about uncovering a range of subversive interpretations of scriptures (that is, reading meanings out of the scripture that were not the traditional acceptable interpretations). Both the knowledge of the scripture and the manner of interpretation reminds me more of rabbis arguing and writing midrash, than it does Christian teachers trained in Hellenistic philosophy and apologetics trying to persuade a reader to "the" right view.

I have been studying carefully the Sethian exegesis of the flood story and the Sodom story, and I am finding that their literature doesn't have a consensus view, other than an agreement that the flood story and the Sodom story was about the rescue of the children of Seth from the wrath of the biblical god. But what actually happened and who belonged to who and who tricked who, etc., are all up in the air as possible ways to read the story.

Noah can be good in one text, and bad in another. Was he righteous, serving the supreme God, or the demiurge, the lower biblical god? Who was "hidden in the ark" (cf. 1 Enoch 10.2). In the Apocryphon of John, Noah is an enlightened gnostic (Epinoia comes to his rescue and gives him gnosis) and he and the children of Seth are hidden in a luminous cloud. So the children of Seth are directly his ancestors. But in the Hypostasis of the Archons, Noah is the father of non-Gnostic Jews and Christians, while the children of Seth are traced only through Norea the daughter of Eve. Noah serves Ialdabaoth. So when Norea wants to join Noah in the ark, he refuses her, so she sets it on fire and destroys it. Noah has to make it a second time. Norea is rescued by the angel Eleleth. In the Apocalypse of Adam, angels transport the children of Seth to the light realms where they live until they can be transported back after the flood and join Noah's descendants tricking the Demiurge.

The gnostic writers were not forging an exclusive consensus view on scripture. What they were doing was acting like rabbis, exploring many possibilities, while trying to uncover the hidden meaning of the scripture. It appears that these communities thrived on hermeneutical problems and a wide range of solutions.

Illustration from medieval illuminated bible: Jean Bondol, Bible historial. Paris, 1372.

Thinking about Gnosis again

I am working on the problem of Gnosticism and Gnosis. I never meant to do this because it is such a can of worms. But my research this semester that led to my Codex Judas Congress paper, "Apostles as Archons: The Emergence of Gnosticism and the Fight for Authority in the Gospel of Judas, First Apocalypse of James, and Other Literature," has got my engines revved. I actually think there is a very reasonable solution. And, as I found with my work on the Gospel of Thomas, the reason that we couldn't see it before is that we didn't have the categories to understand it.

Part of the problem that I'm only now getting my head around, is that in the first place our understanding has been dictated by the categories that the church fathers put into place. We understand that they did this to legitimate and consolidate their own positions, but we still have continued to bury ourselves in them. Some scholars, here I am thinking about Karen King and also Elaine Pagels recently, have gone the next step and removed the categories altogether, so there are no heretics and there are no gnostics. The conundrum that this puts us into is it leaves us with no way to talk about the gnostics who were different types of Jews and Christians and who by the fourth century had become some kind of alternative or new religious movement persecuted by the conventional religions.

In the second place, the sociologists of religion have not been too helpful. Here I am thinking of Rodney Stark especially. I really disliked his A Theory of Religion. It might be meaningful to discuss some groups today, but it has nothing to do with the ancient world at all. And so when he tries to apply his theory to the ancient world, it is anachronistic and obscures what was happening.

Why? Because the western world wasn't Christian then. It was Roman. And the Romans didn't have an orthodox religion, unless you want to call their civic polytheism orthodox. I wouldn't because orthodox implies a right way. And for the Romans, there were many right ways, and you could enlist in lots of them simultaneously without offending any of the gods.

And Christianity, which was actually one of many religions in the second century, just did not exist as a dominant orthodox pattern yet. So to talk about sects deviating from Christianity, or cults forming, just does not work. We are in a pluriform Roman religious environment, and a pluriform Jewish and Christian sub-environment (if you get my drift), no matter how we slice it. So I have trouble with words like "deviant" which make up the basis for social theories of religion. Now by the fourth century, this is another story, and then we might begin to engage these categories.

At any rate, it is this complicated mess that I want to try to untangle this year.

Two Festschrifts on Apocryphal Texts and Subjects

In case you missed them, there are two relatively recent festschrifts that include a number of important studies on apocryphal and Gnostic texts.

David H. Warren, Ann Grahman Brock, and David W. Pao, Early Christian Voices in Texts, Traditions, and Symbols: Essays in Honor of François Bovon, Biblical Interpretation Series 66 (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
Contains 32 studies from well-known scholars on subjects ranging from Q, Thomas, Luke, second-century movements, exegesis and hermeneutics in apocryphal texts, and unpublished ancient manuscripts. Particularly interesting to me is Morard's contribution which is a critical edition of a Coptic Apostolic Homily. But there are many more fantastic articles, so be sure to at least check it out of the library (it is a pricey Brill volume).
Anthony Hilhorst and George H. van Kooten, The Wisdom of Egypt: Jewish, Early Christian, and Gnostic Essays in Honour of Gerard Pl Luttikhuizen, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity 59 (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
This volume has a entire section devoted to Gnosticism including Mani, magical practices, and NH text studies. The other two sections cover early Christianity in Egypt and Judaism in Egypt. So this is another very good volume to check out (and another pricey Brill book!).

ARAM Conference on Mandaeans

I just received this information about a conference in September 2008 focused on the Mandaeans at the University of London.

September 2007

Dear Colleague,

ARAM Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies is organising its Twenty Sixth International Conference on the theme of The Mandaeans, to be held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 08-10 September 2008.

The conference aims to study Mandaeism and its relationship to Near Eastern religions and gnostic movements, and it will start on Monday 08 September at 9am, finishing on Wednesday 10 September at 6pm. Each speaker's paper is limited to 30 minutes, with an additional 10 minutes for discussion.

If you wish to participate in the conference, please send your proposal to alroomi@alroomi.freeserve.co.uk before December 2007. We would like to remind our colleagues that only academics are allowed to present a paper at an ARAM conference.

The conference will start on Monday 8 September at 9am, finishing on Wednesday 10 September at 6pm. All papers given at the conference will be considered for publication in a future edition of the ARAM Periodical, subject to editorial review.

If you wish to know more about our ARAM Society and its academic activities, please open our website: www.aramsociety.org

If you have any questions or comments at any time, I am always happy to receive them.
Yours sincerely,

Shafiq Abouzayd (Dr.)
Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Society
The Oriental Institute
University of Oxford
Pusey Lane
Oxford OX1 2LE ˆ UK
Tel: +1865-514041
Fax: +1865-516824

Book Note: The Great Stem of Souls. Reconstructing Mandaean History (Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley)

Gorgias Press released in 2005 a book by Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History. For those of you interested in Mandaeism and Gnosticism, this is a must-have reference book. It is a modern reconstruction of Mandaean history.

How did Buckley achieve this? By studying the colophons in manuscript editions of the Ginza, Canonical Prayerbook, Book of John, and other sources including Lady Drower's personal papers and letters given to Buckley by Drower's daughter. Colophons are lists of scribes and the scribal postscripts that are appended to most Mandaean manuscripts. The list of scribes extends from the current copyist all the way back to the first scribe recorded to have copied the manuscript. They present the name of the scribe and his lineage. It is quite genius I think to work through these lists as a way to resurrect Mandaean history.

I find it extremely interesting that some of the names recovered are names of women priests who were initiated into the religion by their biological fathers who were priests. This view is against the dominant one in scholarship, that there weren't ever women Mandaean priests. Buckley says this is wrong, and quotes several present-day Mandaeans who remember their ancestors talking about women priests in the past. Buckley has detected 24 women priests in the Mandaean colophons. The dates for the women she detected: ca. 200, 700, 750-800, 1300, 15th c. to early 16th c., 17th c. to mid-19th c. (pp. 181-182).

In the end, Buckley postulates that the Mandaeans are at least as old as 30 CE, that they left Palestine via the Wadi Hauran route and went to Media. Although they may have initially been a Jewish group connected to John the Baptist, they turned against Judaism in much the same way that the Jewish-Christians polemicized against Paul and pro-Gentile Christianity. She thinks that their Gnostic religiosity is very old, that they may be our oldest example of mid-first-century Gnostics. By 200 CE they were well-established in Media and lived along the trade routes tied to the Silk Road. It is in Media, she suggests, that their traditions absorbed Zoroastrian and maybe Christian ideas. She suggests that "we view the Mandaeans as the earliest example of a wide-ranging group - possible moving from Palestine to Media - creating our first evidence for Gnostic religiosity" (p. 341).

Article Note: "Body Metaphors in 1 Corinthians and in the Interpretation of Knowledge (NHC XI,1)" by Ismo Dunderberg

Professor Dunderberg just sent me an offprint of his new article that just appeared in Actes du Huitième Congrès International D'Études Coptes (eds. Nathalie Bosson and Anne Boud'hors; Leuven: Peeters, 2007) pp. 833-847. Its timing is rather convenient for the discussion that we have been having about the Gnostics and how some of them were very much part of the wider Apostolic church. As an aside, I wish to send my best to Professor Dunderberg who has just moved from Helsinki to Oxford where he will be teaching this year.

Dunderberg argues that the author is a Pauline exegete, although he applies the body metaphor quite differently from Paul. Paul is concerned about the weak members of the body and is trying to prove that they are indispensable and concludes that God gave greater honor to them. The author of the Valentinian Interpretation, however, is concerned that the weaker members have a wrong attitude (envy) that threatens the unity of the social body. They should change their attitude or face possible expulsion.

Why did the weaker part feel envious? The stronger members have made progress in the "Word" while the rest have not. The stronger members can "speak" while the rest of the ekklesia cannot. This situation created animosity of the weaker toward the stronger.

The author makes three arguments to resolve the issue:
1. the gifts given to the stronger members will benefit all members of the ekklesia; the weaker members benefit spiritually from the more advanced in the community
2. all body parts are mutually dependent
3. the inferior part should be grateful that is is not outside the body or ekklesia
Dunderberg concludes, and this I like very much, that the author of this text may be responding to Irenaeus or other critics like him who accused the Valentinians of elitism. "The author of Interpretation addresses protests, such as we find in Irenaeus, against the boundary between those who have and those who do not have the spiritual gift, and responds by portraying these protests as expressions of hatred and envy" (Dunderberg, pp. 844-845).

The author does NOT see two separate communities - the Gnostics and the Apostolic Church - but presupposes a situation of two groups within the same church and says that the inferior can gain benefit from the gift that the advanced have. "While Irenaeus wanted to make the boundary between Valentinians and other Christians as insurmountable as possible, the vision of the Christian community in Interpretation is that, instead of separation, there should be unity between the two factions of Christians" (Dunderberg, p. 845).

(4) Are Gnostics fringe believers?

My third point was that most biblical scholars aren't interested in studying the NH documents because they are perceived to be late and therefore of no consequence to Christian Origins. The same is true, I suppose, for ante-Nicene literature in general. Not many biblical scholars take the time to become well-versed in much beyond the apostolic fathers.

This is a terrible mistake in my opinion. Christian Origins isn't just about studying the historical Jesus or the rise of the first Christian Jews or the study of Paul. Christian Origins is about trying to map out how an obscure Jewish messianic apocalyptic movement became a Christian religion by the time of Constantine. The second century is the "moment" when this transformation was underway, when the normative process kicked into high gear.

It is a fallacy, although one tauted around frequently as fact, that the "other" forms of Christianity in the second century were "fringe" groups of Christians. Part of the reason for this characterization is that for years we have called the proto-orthodox tradition "mainstream" while all the other traditions "alternatives." Although better than "orthodox" and "heretical," this is language that still gives us a false impression. It is still language that is the consequence again of our theological heritage, the desire to preserve authentic biblical faith of the churches today. Our tradition is "mainstream"; everyone else's is "alternative." This makes it seem like everyone else is on the "fringe" of Christianity, and that they are small, minor or deviant movements.

I have realized the problems with this language only recently. So in my newest book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle), I have shifted the language I use to talk about the second century Christians. I now use the term "Apostolic church(es)" when discussing what we have previously called "proto-orthodox" or "mainstream." This shift in language suggests something much closer to the truth: that the Apostolic Church was one variety of Christianity in the ancient world, and in the second century it was not yet the dominant form.

The literature tells us - both the patristic and the NH - that the "other" forms of Christianity were in no way fringe or minor. The Church Fathers tell us over and over again, how massive the Churches of Marcion and the New Prophecy were, how widespread the Gnostic teachings. How concerned were they? Enough to write volumes and volumes against their teachings. Tertullian alone devotes an entire book to depose Valentinianism; five books to criticize Marcion. Irenaeus' Against Heresies is no small feat arguing against minor forms of Christianity. Etc. In the ancient world, where literacy is low and writing expensive and for restricted purposes, the massive amount of rhetoric written against these people is extremely informative.

The literature produced by the "other" forms of Christianity looks scant only because the members of the Apostolic Church burnt it. But these other Christians were equally prolific in their writing and instruction. We happened to get lucky with the NH and Tchacos finds, which recovers part of this other literature. From it we can tell that they were very very sophisticated theologically, and were often critical of theologies of the Apostolic Church. And we can see theologies develop within the Apostolic Church that respond to the criticisms of the other Christians. The theology of the Apostolic Church would not have become what it did without the Gnostics and other Christians (and Jews) as dialogue partners.

The next time we want to dismiss the Gnostic material in particular as late and irrelevant, just remember that a version of the Apocryphon of John existed by the time that the Pastoral letters were written (about 130 CE)! Basilides was our first known commentator on any NT books, teaching and writing around 120 CE. By 120 CE, Valentinus had already set up his school in Alexandria and was a well known theologian. Carpocrates similarly was fully operational at this early date. Marcion (who was no Gnostic) was not only functioning in this period, but had successfully established his own churches with the first NT canon in place (Luke and ten of Paul's letters).

Doug has an interesting post on his blog about this very issue, and how it is perceived by people outside the academic sphere.

(2) Is Gnosticism Perverted Christianity?

As promised, I'm going to unpack my earlier post. My first reason why the NH documents aren't used or known by scholars as much as the Dead Sea Scrolls: because they were quickly labeled "Gnostic." "Gnosticism" has been used as a pejorative term meant to label texts that "pervert" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Why would any "real" biblical scholar want to waste time studying perverted Christianity?

There are several things I'd like to note about the inaccuracy of this position for those of us invested in the historical hermeneutic:

1. Not every piece of literature in the NH collection is "Gnostic." The Thomasine literature is simply early Christian literature that represents the earliest form of orthodoxy in eastern Syrian around Edessa - a mystical form of Christianity that required celibacy to be admitted to the church. There is some Hermetic literature in NH collection (i.e., Discourse on 8th and 9th; Ascelpius). There is some Platonic literature (i.e., Republic). There is some early Christian (i.e., Teaching of Silvanus; Letter of Peter to Philip). To lump them all together as "Gnostic" and then ignore them is a way of marginalizing forms of Christianity that aren't familiar to us.

2. The word Gnosticism is a term relatively modern (18thc.) and it does not reflect the historical reality of the second century. There was no Gnostic religion separate from Judaism and Christianity or trying to pervert Christianity. Gnostic thought developed first within Judaism as a way to read the Bible literally while also maintaining the cosmology and anthropology of Middle Platonism. By the early second century, Christian theologians like Basilides and Valentinus who were philosophers were reading Christian scripture through this same lens. Orthodoxy did not yet exist, so there was no "real" Christianity to "pervert." There were many varieties of Christianity competing to control the Christian landscape. The "real" story is that Christianity was diverse in its early expression, and became more and more singular as borders were drawn and ideas and practices limited by very powerful bishops in the big metropolitan areas like Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch. This story is quite different from the one that these bishops claimed and which scholars for centuries bought into: that Christianity was singular in its early formation and that heretical thinkers (the Gnostics!) emerged along the way to lead good Christians astray.

3. The notion that Gnostic thinkers were perverting authentic Christianity is a theological position, not a historical one. It is a position with theological investment, that is, securing and maintaining the "real" and "biblical" Christianity of today.

4. If we want to know how the heck early Christianity formed into the type of Christianity it did, the second century is what we have to study. It is in the second century that the boundaries are drawn and the lines lay out. Everything prior feeds into it and everything after flows out of it. It is a period when normation is at a high and yet nothing has been established. Everyone is talking to everyone else and defining their own positions over and against those of others. Everyone is control of his own piece of the pie and no one owns the whole pie but everyone acts as if he does. Really understanding the second century literature is the only way to really understand Christian Origins. Christian Origins is not just about the creation of the NT books, or what the NT books can tell us about the first Christians. Christian Origins is about understanding how a messianic apocalyptic Jewish sect became a Christian Church by the time of Constantine.

5. If we take seriously the fact that the heretic was not a heretic before he was labeled a heretic by someone else, then the second century literature becomes even more interesting. What was the heretic before he became a heretic? Orthodox? Think of the Ebionites. Their form of Christianity was akin to the "original" form of Christianity of the Jerusalem Church (pre-Paul). By the mid-second century, they are heretics. Why? Because the Christian population became dominated by Gentiles, and their Jewish constituency became in their eyes an oddity and a liability. So the original form of Christianity was declared heretical by the newer Christians. What might this say about the Gnostics?

(1) Why Nag Hammadi texts aren't as interesting to scholars of early Christianity as the Dead Sea Scrolls

Jim West has made an interesting observation in a recent post. He has noticed that more scholars of Christianity show interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls than in Nag Hammadi. Why? he asks.

I have thought about this for a long time. It is one of the reasons why I started this blog - to raise awareness about the Nag Hammadi writings and to focus attention on why they are so vital for us to study as biblical scholars. I'm also trying to get an exhibit of Nag Hammadi manuscripts to accompany the Codex Judas Congress, but this will depend on whether or not the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities will allow them to leave the Coptic Museum. Let us hope!

I think that scholars of early Christianity are more interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls for these simple reasons:

1. The Nag Hammadi documents got labeled pejoratively "Gnostic" from the beginning. Doresse when he looked at the first codex and read a few lines made the announcement that these books were Gnostic writings. In the 1940s and 1950s this was not a positive spin (and frankly it still isn't). In fact, many early commentators talk about these texts as "perverting" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Since our field is so dominated by this theological perspective, the study of "perverted" literature was not considered important. Many scholars (even yet today) wonder why any "real" biblical scholar would want to waste his or her time studying perverted Christianity. I know this because scholars have said this directly to me, calling the literature "crazy" and "a waste of time."

The Dead Sea Scrolls never had this labeling problem. My understanding of the spin originally put on the scrolls is that it was not one of a perversion of "real" Judaism, but of a disgruntled sect of Judaism (the Essenes), a sect that might tell us something about Jesus and early Christianity. For scholars of Christianity at the time, this was a positive thing because it helped them explain the formation of Christianity which was for them like the Essene movement, a critique or revolt against Judaism. From what I can tell, this was part of the anti-Semitic explanation of Christian Origins common at the time. The other explanation was to erase its Jewish roots by demonstrating the victory of Hellenistic thought and practices. So Christianity was understood to be a Gentile religion that superceded and erased the Jewish one.

2. Because the Nag Hammadi materials are in Coptic, they are difficult for the majority of scholars to assess in the original language. This is not the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls whose original language is much easier for scholars of the bible to handle.

3. The Nag Hammadi materials, for the most part, are from the second and third centuries. Most biblical scholars don't even study the ante-Nicene fathers let alone the Nag Hammadi documents because they perceive the time period to be later than the NT, so therefore inconsequential to biblical studies. This is not so for the Dead Sea Scrolls which predate the NT writings.

4. Gnosticism is a word with a lot of baggage, most of it completely inaccurate. One of these inaccuracies is the belief that Gnosticism is a religion in antiquity that is separate from Judaism and Christianity, that is is a revolt against Judaism and Christianity. So scholars who understand Gnosticism as a religion separate from/revolting against Judaism and Christianity, do not see that the study of Gnosticism has anything to contribute to the study of the bible or early Christianity.

In future posts, I will address why each of these assumptions needs to be reassessed by all of us studying early Christianity.

Coptic Culture Conference

The Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK is proposing to organize a conference in Stevenage on Coptic Culture: Past, Present, and Future. The conference aims to bring together specialists, academics, and Coptic clergy working on all aspects of Coptic culture, from its earliest phases to the present day. New research on Coptic art, writings, and archaeology will be highlighted. One of the panels being discussed is Coptic culture and the nature of Coptic identity (religious, ethnic, and cultural), and its integration into local community in Egypt and abroad.

I don't know much more than this. As more information comes my way about this event, I'll post on it. Right now, the proposed dates for the conference are May 15-17, 2008.

So 2008 is going to be a big year for Coptic studies, with three major conferences. This is highly unusual, but let's make hay while the sun shines. These are the dates for your calendars:

Codex Judas Congress, March 13-16, 2008, Rice University, Houston, Texas

Coptic Culture: Past, Present, and Future, May 15-17, 2008, Shepalbury Manor, Stevenage, UK

Ninth International Congress of Coptic Studies, September 14-20, 2008, Sonesta Hotel, Cairo

More about Hybridity

There have been some interesting comments on my last post on hybridity. So I want to respond here to those.

In my opinion, hybridity is a buzz word, and it is problematic because many in our field are applying it too loosely. Often I think that it is being used to try to dress up our field and discussions so that it appears that we are saying something new. There is a tendency in many fields to use arcane insider language instead of transparent. This has always been a gripe of mine about the field of philosophy, and I resist bringing over this language into my own writings UNLESS it is going to help us.

The usage of hybridity is confusing in our field when it moves out of the arena of imperialism and post-colonial analysis where it can be argued to make some sense (but, even the scholars who study post-colonialism cannot agree if it is a best term to use or not!).

To apply it as a descriptor of the tradition of early Judaism-Christianity (pre-Nicaea) - to call this a hybrid - is misleading. It is a "single" tradition that develops positions internally that eventually, through normation, compete and force the consolidation of two separate and different traditions with common heritage.

Gnosticism is not a hybrid either. It does not represent the mixture of the views of a colonizer imposed on the colonized. It is the Platonic world view made biblical by people who wanted to think in these directions. It has nothing whatsoever to do with post-colonial hybridity and imperialism.

Gnostic movements did, however, make other Christians anxious, but then other forms of Christianity made certain Gnostic groups anxious as well. I don't think this had to do with hybridity producing colonial anxiety. I don't think that Irenaeus really cared whether the Gnostic groups laid claim to Christian tradition - what he cared about was the fact that some of his own church members, including one of his deacon's wives, had joined a Gnostic church down the street from his own. This led him then to begin to criticize the Gnostics for not really being Christian, but trying to trick people into thinking they were Christians by stealing Christian language and ritual.

All religions may indeed be syncretistic. But this is not a reason to discard the word or replace it with hybrid (which is a word that has too much baggage from the sciences and from philosophy, and is not being applied carefully enough in our field). To say that a religion is "syncretistic" isn't the point. The point is to describe and analyze the way in which this is true. Then a whole range of possibilities presents itself in terms of politics, normation, religious identities, and all the rest.

Five lessons about Normation

I use the word "normation" to describe the process whereby one religious tradition asserts its superiority over others, particularly laying claim to being "the" orthodox tradition, while others are considered to be lesser, defective, or downright errant.

What lessons about normation might we be able to learn from the most recent declaration by the Vatican and the reinstatement of the Catholic Latin Mass?

1. What is written as normative by one religious group does not reflect the religious reality. In this case, the written declaration of the Catholic Church uses language of superiority, describing other forms of Christianity in deviant and "lesser" terms. But the fact is that other forms of Christianity do not consider themselves to be deviant or lesser, nor do all Catholics themselves think along these lines. Because one group describes another group as thus-and-so does not mean that the other group is thus-and-so.

2. Normative posturing in religion is successful because of its appeals to authority, appeals which are meaningful to certain parties, but do not reflect the fact that other parties have their own equally successful appeals. In this case, the appeals from the Vatican come in two ways: Roman successorship of the Pope (Petrine authority), and apostolic succession (our tradition is a continuation of the tradition that has been handed down from the twelve apostles).

3. Normative declarations result in confusion and offense. Need I say more?

4. There is always response to normative posturing (although in the ancient world this may not always be captured in the literature). Typical responses include outrage, anger, insult, defensiveness and questions like why would you say this about me? My religious views are just as good as yours if not better.

5. The group that is norming will then consolidate its position, sometimes adjusting its previous position, sometimes intensifying it.