Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bruce Chilton on the Gnostics

BRUCE CHILTON ON THE GNOSTICS (Bible and Interpretation):
Gnostic Breakthrough

By Bruce Chilton

Author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000). His most recent book, The Way of Jesus: To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), has just been published.
May 2010

Gnosticism emerged as an important and influential stream of thought in the West, but its depth and diversity have been obscured by clichés. Present discussion, even while claiming to be fresh and original, often perpetuates the reduction of Gnostic insights to banal truisms of fashion. Fortunately, the wealth of text available today offers the prospect that Gnosticism might break through the prejudgments that have consigned it to marginal status.


Perhaps inevitably, scholarly interest sometimes tipped into uncritical enthusiasm. It is frequently said, for example, that scholars never had direct access to such sources before the discovery [of the Nag Hammadi Library], but only to what the Gnostics’ opponents (Irenaeus, and Clement and Tertullian above all) had to say. In fact, the Pistis Sophis [should read Pisis Sophia) (which means “Faith-Wisdom”) has been known since the eighteenth century and the Gospel of Mary since the nineteenth century.

This enthusiasm has fed the rise of neo-Gnosticism, a modern revival greatly encouraged by the discovery at Nag Hammadi. In co-opting these ancient sources, the neo-Gnostics are unlike their ancient counterparts. They want to embrace the earth, while Gnostics often shunned the earth; they don’t wish to be elitist, although many Gnostics claimed to be a class apart from humanity at large. Above all, neo-Gnostics want to insist on the gender-equality of women with men. Those are aims I happen to agree with, but you need to cherry-pick Gnostic sources and ignore a great deal of what they say to make that picture work as an account of the Nag Hammadi library.

Gnosticism has yet to be evaluated in the light of its own sources because two prejudgments have stood in the way of fair reading. One prejudgment dismisses Gnostics as heretics, in the tradition of Cyril of Alexandria. The other imagines that, because Gnostics were repressed by the Orthodox, it must be that the Gnostics themselves embraced diversity. Neither of these pictures is plausible.

Indeed. This is a good essay on a slippery subject: some scholars do not want to use the term "Gnostic" as an etic category at all. I'm surprised that in his typology of Gnosticism Chilton doesn't have an explicit discussion of the centrality of the demiurgic myth for some branches. This seems quite important to me.