Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anxious Gnosticism

PHILIP JENKINS has been putting up a series of informative posts on Gnosticism over at The Anxious Bench. They are still in progress, but this seems like a good time to note what he has published to date and to make some comments of my own.

Those Who Know
Ever since my undergraduate years, I have been interested in early Christian history and Gnosticism. In the next few posts, I will talk about some of the things I have learned about Gnosticism, why it is so important, and some of the areas I am still trying to explore in my present book project. Here, I will just define my terms, and identify my main questions.
More on Kabbalah and Gnosticism here.

The Beginning of Wisdom
I am assembling that package of ideas out of pure imagination, and I can point to no group of texts that prove its existence. What I am suggesting is that a large part of Gnosticism could, hypothetically, have been constructed without wandering too far outside Judaism as it existed, in its very diverse and sectarian forms, during the first century AD.
True, but I still want some texts.

Athens, Jerusalem and Nag Hammadi
Gnosticism thus emerges from a world in which Platonism more generally defined had become a common currency of philosophical language and thought. Of the vast number of ideas and theories that Plato and his successors generated, some are particularly relevant to our subject here, in providing the intellectual vocabulary of Gnosticism.
Gnostics and Platonists
Although the origins of Gnostic thought are controversial, many of the core themes and terms undoubtedly stemmed from Greek philosophical thought, especially Platonism. That did not necessarily mean that early Gnostics were taking these ideas directly from Greek thinkers or schools, rather that they came from a Jewish (and emerging Christian) world that had long sought to integrate Platonic concepts. Any attempt to separate Greek and Jewish elements in this synthesis is doomed to failure.
Asking the Wrong Question
I have been puzzling over the origins of Gnosticism, and we can certainly find some plausible answers to that issue. Jewish, Greek and Christian, (and possibly Persian), the building blocks were all clearly there. Perhaps, though, I have been asking the wrong question all along. Instead of asking why some people came up with that particular set of answers, we should rather inquire why others didn’t.
Philo’s Answer
Greek philosophy made it all but impossible to reconcile the transcendence of God with a deity who created and ruled the world, with a deity like that portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. During the Second Temple era, that clash of visions was deeply troubling for Jews who wished to integrate into the Greek-dominated international culture.

Of the thinkers who tried to reconcile the systems, the best-known was Philo of Alexandria (25 BC – 50 AD), whose life overlapped with figures like Jesus and Paul. ...
Dating the Gnostics
Obviously, arguing from silence is risky. The account I have given here is drawn from Irenaeus, who was widely traveled and well-connected, but who did not necessarily know everything that was in progress in every corner of the Christian world. He knew Asia Minor, Rome and Gaul at first hand, but might not have had such good connections elsewhere. As I have remarked, such early accounts of Gnosticism are curious in their geographical emphasis. They focus on Alexandria and Antioch, with much commuting to and from Rome. Few pay much attention to the quite intense activity that seems to have been in progress in Mesopotamia, where Jewish Christian, baptismal and Gnostic sects were highly active no later than the early second century. Perhaps Irenaeus was simply missing some key events and activists.

Alternatively, perhaps Irenaeus really was depicting historical reality, in which Gnosticism really was an innovation of the late first century, at least a generation or two after Jesus’s time. And at least in its early days, it was strictly confined to Syria, even to Antioch itself.

The question then arises: why then, and why there?
I'm sure Professor Jenkins's answers will continue to be interesting and I look forward to hearing more. Background to the series is here.

For my part, I have not found any arguments for a pre- (or non-) Christian Jewish Gnosticism in antiquity persuasive. The development of Gnosticism seems much easier to me once you add Pauline theology (notably its demotion of Jewish law) into the mix of Judaism and Platonism. And, tellingly, none of the surviving Gnostic texts deal with the halakhic and national/ethnic issues that the demiurgic myth would inevitably have raised. I have discussed the issues in greater detail here and here.