Gnosticism 101

Well, I just love it when new early Christian documents are discovered. If you haven’t read about The Gospel of Judas being discovered, you can do so here

Document Is Genuine, but Is Its Story True?

In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal

Excerpts From the Gospel of Judas

Karen King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, is quoted in two of the three articles. I’ve taken two of her classes and really really really think she is just a wonderful professor and scholar. I wish I wasn’t language-disabled and I would learn Coptic, Greek, and Hebrew and apply to study early Christianity at Harvard in hopes of studying with her (and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza who is my advisor and another favorite professor). The Harvard Divinity School website list two places where Prof. King is online talking about the Gospel of Judas. You can find that here

Prof. King’s specialty is early Christianity, and in particular gnosticism. The Gospel of Judas, along with the Gospels of Thomas and Mary (and a bunch of other documents that I know nothing about) are often put into the category of “gnostic gospels.” Since Karen writes a whole book on what gnosticism is, I feel like it isn’t easy to sum up here. Her book is What is Gnosticism? and is a bit of an academic read, but still worth it even if you aren’t in divinity school. I think wikipedia also does a reasonably good job here of offering a short introduction.

Gnosticism is a historical term for various mystical initiatory religions, sects and knowledge schools which were most active in the first few centuries AD around the Mediterranean and extending into central Asia.

These systems typically recommend the pursuit of mysticism or “special knowledge” (gnosis) as the central goal of life. They also commonly depict creation as a mythological struggle between competing forces of light and dark, and posit a marked division between the material realm, typically depicted as under the governance of malign forces, and the higher spiritual realm from which it is divided, governed by God and the Aeons.

I think that Karen’s basic argument is that gnosticism is a modern invention in order to help us better understand and categorize early Christian texts. As I understand her argument, there weren’t a bunch of people running around in antiquity calling themselves gnostics. Rather, from the very start of Christianity there was a struggle to define what “Christianity” was and what it meant. Those who wrote The Gospel of Mary or The Gospel of Thomas, for instance, had one understanding of what “Christianity” meant. Those who wrote Matthew or Mark had another understanding.

The Gospel of Judas (and the other “Gnostic” gospels) are part of a bunch of early Christian writing that didn’t make the cut into what eventually came to be understood as “real” or “authentic” Christianity. There was fighting and arguing and eventually those who “won” portrayed it as if they had been right all along and all along had been “in charge” and that “those others” had obviously been heretics the whole time. But this was not the case. There was never one Christianity from which all other “versions” emerged, but rather, from the beginnings of what we today call Christianity, there were a plurality of visions as to what this meant and how this new way of understanding things should be lived out. The Gospel of Judas is from one way of understanding what “Christianity” meant that did not eventually “win” and was, thus, considered heretical by the “winners.” Of course, I’m sure I’m one of the few people in any divinity school, or in the United States for that matter, that has not read The Da Vinci Code which, although fiction, deals with a lot of these issues.

One more thing while I am on my early Christianity kick. I use quotes around “Christianity” when referring to it in antiquity because the term Christianity took a while to be a word that was used by “Jesus-followers” to refer to themselves or to be referred to by others. There is tons of debate as to when it started being used. For a good while those people who we would today probably call “early Christians” understood themselves as a part of Judaism, not a new religion. The question as to when groups began to either be identified or identify themselves as “Christian” or when it makes sense for scholars to begin to call groups “Christian” continues to be a highly disputed point. For more on the issues involved on understanding when “Christianity cease[d] to be Judaism” or “when and why Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism stopped considering themselves and recognizing the other, as belonging to the same religion,” see Gabriele Boccaccini, “History of Judaism: Its Periods in Antiquity,” in J. Neusner (ed.), Judaism in Late Antiquity 2 Historical Syntheses, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1995: 279-302 (as cited in Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004: 2. Again, while pretty academic, if you are at all interested in early Christianity (okay if you are really interested) Judith Leiu’s book is just great.). For more on Christian identity formation, particularly as it relates to the term Christian, see Lieu, 1-26, 240-241, 250-259. Anyway, I’m getting off track here but I figure if I learn all of this in school, I might as well try to share it with somebody.

That’s it for Gnosticism 101 today.


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