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.

(3) Is Coptic a hindrance to serious study of NH texts?

My second point was that the Nag Hammadi texts are in Coptic, a language not as accessible to NT scholars as the language of the DSS.

Okay. But so what. Learn Coptic.

I have been a strong advocate that Coptic become a regular language in any Christian Origins curriculum. It should not be considered an additional language to Greek and Hebrew. Over fifty early Christian texts are written in Coptic, and this doesn't even begin to include the early monastic literature, although the early monastic literature is farther removed from the study of Christian Origins than the second and third century literature from NH and the Tchacos Codex.

If a scholar doesn't learn Coptic, he or she can only include the Greek literature in any discussion of early Christianity and Christian Origins. This means that his or her study of the period is lopsided, including only the NT texts and the early fathers. Not knowing how to read Coptic is not an excuse for excluding almost half the literature from full consideration in our reconstruction of early Christianity.

If you want to learn Coptic, it is taught at many major universities. The International Association of Coptic Studies keeps a web page of all places where Coptic is taught. There is one very good learning grammar by Thomas Lambdin. There is another that has just been published by Bentley Layton, although I have not received my desk copy yet to comment on its usefulness as a learning grammar. Crum has been reprinted. There are also online resources available. I have all of these links here. Click and scroll down to Coptic History, Literature, and Art - General Resources/Coptic Language Resources.

Update: July 30, 2007
Mark Goodacre here also recommends that all graduate students in Christian Origins learn Coptic early in their career.

(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.