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What is Gnosticism?

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    To: GThomas (et al) On: What is Gnosticism? From: Bruce Judy Redman s recent interchange with others on the GThomas list brings up, at least for me, the root
    Message 1 of 12 , Apr 12, 2012
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      To: GThomas (et al)

      On: What is Gnosticism?

      From: Bruce

       

      Judy Redman’s recent interchange with others on the GThomas list brings up, at least for me, the root question of What is Gnosticism? Pearson (it seems) relies on the formula “gnosis saves,” whereas Judy, while conceding a “significant ascetical emphasis” in Thomas, finds “no evidence of the cosmogony that has the earth created and overseen by a secondary divine being.” Such is the width and variety of current criteria. I think it is quite possible that the root Gnostic idea had several forms in several places, so that we may be better referring to Type A Gnosticism, etc, than always to the generic term. Indeed, I seem to hear that there is Jewish Gnosticism as well as Christian Gnosticism. To me this suggests the need to refine categories, and not always use the generic term to decide particular cases.

       

      But perhaps the generic term itself could still be sharpened.

       

      There is an amusingly similar situation in Sinology at this very moment, complete with instant excommunication, over the question whether such wide-spectrum terms as “Confucian” are usable, or should be banned altogether from scholarly discourse. Obviously, if our definition of Confucian is so wide that everything qualifies, the term is of no analytical use, and I should think the same of Gnosticism. In these situations, I like to ask the organizational question: have we a leader, a text, a system of propagation, behind any of the varieties of Confucianism? It is at once obvious that this is the case. For example, there is the Confucianism of Sywndz, and the Confucianism of Mencius (both of which groups use the term Ru, or Confucian, of themselves), and very bitterly indeed do they dispute some doctrines, such as human nature, between themselves. I don’t think that we, as later spectators of this scene of intellectual carnage, are at liberty to rely on the dispute to void the use of the blanket term Confucian (especially since both parties use it, and indeed, seem to be arguing over which has the right version of that common category, a matter apparently meaningful to both of them). Nor, on the other hand, would it be seemly in us to affirm the common heritage and then proceed to deny or ignore the internal disputes.  The fights are part of the fraternal status, and are the more bitter for being, precisely, fraternal.

       

      Perhaps the same differentiated strategy would work with the Gnostic matter. For example, it seems to be agreed in at least some circles that there is a recognizable thing called Valentinian Gnosticism, which is surely free to differ from other known forms. And so on. We might then have the redefined question: Is there a Thomas Gnosticism, and if so, of what does its worldview consist, and at what points does it contact other worldviews, the Gnostic as well as the others? What is its place on the larger map of the times?

       

      Coming at the Gnostic matter from the Christian side, I think that if we take stock soberly, we will find that within canonical Christian writings there is a detectable Johannine Gnosticism, and a Pauline Gnosticism. Is there also, I at once proceed to ask, an Early Christian Gnosticism?

       

      ALPHA CHRISTIANITY (see http://www.umass.edu/wsp/alpha/index.html)

       

      By “early Christian” I mean Christianity before the advent of the Resurrection doctrine, an event which seems to draw something of a line across the history of the Jesus movement. To have a convenient label, I have called Christianity before that event (or Christianity which continues to defend and develop the early doctrines thereafter) Alpha Christianity, and the post-Resurrection version Beta Christianity. Gnosticism (or Gamma Christianity) interests me chiefly because it seems to tap off mainline Christianity at the Alpha level; it has no interest in the Resurrection (Beta Christianity), or in Jesus’s death generally. There are several canonical texts which do the same (eg, the Epistle of James, the hymn embedded in Philippians 2). In these systems of thought, Jesus’s death is not an enabling factor for the individual; it is instead conspicuously absent. This is surely a difference of theological and practical consequence, and I think it will be useful to follow it out, to see where it may lead us.

       

      Was Jesus Gnostic? My way of answering that question would be to ask: What did he teach? I answer that by restricting myself to the early layers of the earliest Gospel (Mark), and there I find that, quite apart from any nationalistic agenda, Jesus taught obedience to a reformed and reduced Mosaic code, the reductions being what disendeared him to those exquisite legislators, the Pharisees. But of course Jesus’s code and indeed Moses’s code do not save anyone just by being there; the individual has to take note; has to have knowledge, as the first step in the proper doing and refraining which the law enjoins. But it is on the second step, the doing and refraining, that the law will judge individual cases. So goes the background tradition, which the [early Markan] evidence suggests also applied to Jesus’s idea of things.

       

      In that sense, Jesus was a teacher, not of wisdom at large, but of knowledge leading to salvation. And I note that it is in precisely this sense of Jesus’s contribution to salvation that the Eucharist prayer in the Didache thanks God for the gift of Jesus. Not for his death, as Paul would have insisted, but for something else. Here is the prayer (Varner’s translation):

       

      9:3. And concerning the broken bread:

       

      We give you thanks, our Father,

      For the Life and Knowledge (UPER THS ZWHS KAI GNWSEWS)

      which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus.

      To you is the glory forever.

       

       

      So we do not have Gnosis as an end to itself, but we do have it. Here is at least a suggestive starting point. I now ask: When do we cross over from this kind of Early Christian knowledge (the Way which Mark regularly shows Jesus as teaching, the Way to Life as the Didachist seems to be implying) to what it is analytically worthwhile to categorize as Gnosis? My current guess would be: at the point where knowledge no longer merely points the way for action, as in Moses and Jesus and the Didachist, but becomes efficacious in itself.

       

      So defined, I think that Paul, at least at the end of his life (meaning, Paul in Romans), has crossed the above line. For him, in his famous dispute with the proprietor of the Epistle of James, which contests the point with him, faith, not works, saves. Faith in Paul’s sense means knowledge of, and assent to, the Atoning Death of Jesus. Once the believer grants that assent, Paul seems to be telling us, the Blood of Jesus does the rest of the work. It is not our repentance, but Jesus’s sacrifice, which saves. I love the way [the proprietor of] James comes back at this, with all the scorn and derision at his command. I like to watch the two of them, because it is always fun to watch somebody else fighting, and also because it reminds me of the Mencians and Sywndzians, each going for each other’s jugular on the question of innate vs induced human propensities. But personal pleasure apart, I think that James and Paul are arguing over precisely the line separating deeds done in implementation of knowledge, and knowledge itself, as the ground of personal salvation.

       

      Somewhere in here, then, may lie the point, and the context, for the further divergence of the Gnostic way of looking at things.  Is Thomas, who seems to take the *opposite* line from Paul (on the relevance of Jesus’s death to salvation) more exactly taking an abstract version of the *same* line (the primacy of knowledge over action?).

       

      Respectfully suggested,

       

      Bruce

       

    • Mark M. Mattison
      I wonder whether the term Gnostic is helpful in any case. The term Gnosticism isn t an ancient label, and it seems that very few of those in antiquity whom
      Message 2 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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        I wonder whether the term "Gnostic" is helpful in any case.

        The term "Gnosticism" isn't an ancient label, and it seems that very
        few of those in antiquity whom we call "Gnostics" actually used that
        terms of themselves. The labels seem to carry so much polemical
        "baggage" at this point that I wonder if it would be better to speak
        simply of "Valentinianism," "Sethianism," etc., rather than
        "Valentinian Gnosticism," etc.

        Just thinking aloud.

        -Mark
      • Bob Schacht
        ... Maybe I m just thinking under the influence of Pagels, but I thought that the big deal about Gnosticism was the secrecy-- the special gnosis that you had
        Message 3 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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          At 05:27 AM 4/13/2012, Mark M. Mattison wrote:
          I wonder whether the term "Gnostic" is helpful in any case.

          The term "Gnosticism" isn't an ancient label, and it seems that very
          few of those in antiquity whom we call "Gnostics" actually used that
          terms of themselves. The labels seem to carry so much polemical
          "baggage" at this point that I wonder if it would be better to speak
          simply of "Valentinianism," "Sethianism," etc., rather than
          "Valentinian Gnosticism," etc.

          Just thinking aloud.

          Maybe I'm just thinking under the influence of Pagels, but I thought that the big deal about Gnosticism was the secrecy-- the special gnosis that you had to have for salvation. This is in contrast with the developing catholic churches, which were open book. I don't know how early it became a slogan, but the idea that the Canon included all necessary and sufficient information for salvation impressed me as the counter-argument in chief.

          Of course, for this argument to be conclusive, they had to have a canon. And it was my impression that one of the forces driving the development of the Canon was exactly this point-- to exclude secret books or letters from being necessary or sufficient for salvation.

          From this perspective, trying to define gnosis in theological or metaphysical terms is pointless-- because we outsiders are not meant to know the secrets. And whatever we think we know about Gnostic theology is probably wrong or secondary.

          So, that's my thinking out loud.

          Bob Schacht
          Northern Arizona University
        • Mike Grondin
          ... Strictly speaking, you may be right, but gnostic and gnosis were ancient ... As to gnosis , I believe that Clement of Alexandria referred to the
          Message 4 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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            [Mark Mattison]:
            > The term "Gnosticism" isn't an ancient label ...
             
            Strictly speaking, you may be right, but 'gnostic' and 'gnosis' were ancient
            labels. In Against All Heresies (1.29) Irenaeus writes (about Ap.John):
             
            > multitudo Gnosticorum Barbelo exsurrexit ...
            ... which translates as something like:
            > a multitude of Barbeloite Gnostics have sprung up ...
             
            As to 'gnosis', I believe that Clement of Alexandria referred to "the so-called
            'gnosis'", although I can't lay my hands on it at the moment. This is not to
            say that 'gnostic' is a useful term, but just that it was in use, even if its form
            'gnosticism' may not have been.
             
            Mike Grondin
             
          • Mark M. Mattison
            Gnosis is used in that way in texts like 1 Timothy 5:20. It was certainly an important term, perhaps a technical term even, but I wonder about the
            Message 5 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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              "Gnosis" is used in that way in texts like 1 Timothy 5:20. It was
              certainly an important term, perhaps a technical term even, but I
              wonder about the heresiologists' use of the label. How many of these
              groups actually identified themselves as "Gnostics"?

              -Mark

              On 4/13/12, Mike Grondin <mwgrondin@...> wrote:
              > [Mark Mattison]:
              >> The term "Gnosticism" isn't an ancient label ...
              >
              > Strictly speaking, you may be right, but 'gnostic' and 'gnosis' were ancient
              > labels. In Against All Heresies (1.29) Irenaeus writes (about Ap.John):
              >
              >> multitudo Gnosticorum Barbelo exsurrexit ...
              > ... which translates as something like:
              >> a multitude of Barbeloite Gnostics have sprung up ...
              >
              > As to 'gnosis', I believe that Clement of Alexandria referred to "the
              > so-called
              > 'gnosis'", although I can't lay my hands on it at the moment. This is not to
              > say that 'gnostic' is a useful term, but just that it was in use, even if
              > its form
              > 'gnosticism' may not have been.
              >
              > Mike Grondin
              >
            • Mike Grondin
              ... No, not Pearson - Jordan Stratford. Pearson (according to Judy Redman) has four criteria, the one of which Judy employs against Jordan s position is this:
              Message 6 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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                [Bruce Brooks]:
                 
                > Pearson (it seems) relies on the formula “gnosis saves,”
                ...
                 
                No, not Pearson - Jordan Stratford. Pearson (according to Judy Redman) has four
                criteria, the one of which Judy employs against Jordan's position is this:
                 
                ·         A dualistic way of looking at God – there is a super-transcendent supreme God utterly alien
                 to the world and a lower deity who is responsible for creating and governing the world
                 
                If I may also use this note to add a little something I left out of my earlier note to
                Mark Mattison, the Irenaeus quotation is from Appendix 4 of an invaluable source
                for (and titled) The Apocryphon of John, edited by Michael Waldstein and Frederik
                Wisse. Published by Brill in 1995, it has the lengthy subtitle 'Synopsis of Nag Hammadi
                Codices II,1; III,1; and IV,1 with BG 8502,2'. Anyone seriously interested in Ap.John,
                a text that surely meets Pearson's criteria, should have access to this book. It contains
                both source-language and English translations, comparing (as the subtitle indicates)
                four versions of Ap.John, with indices of Coptic and Greek words, and a number of
                other valuable add-ons. In the article I'm currently working on, I suggest that it was
                Ap.John's interest in numbers that inspired the numerically-based hidden structures
                that appear only in Coptic Thomas (which of course follows Ap.John in Codex II).
                 
                Mike Grondin
              • Mike Grondin
                ... I m not aware that they identified themselves as anything, perhaps because they thought of themselves as individuals rather than as members of a group.
                Message 7 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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                  [Mark Mattison]: 
                  > "Gnosis" is used in that way in texts like 1 Timothy 5:20. It
                  was
                  > certainly an important term, perhaps a technical term even, but
                  I
                  > wonder about the heresiologists' use of the label. How many of
                  these
                  > groups actually identified themselves as "Gnostics"?
                   
                  I'm not aware that they identified themselves as anything, perhaps because
                  they thought of themselves as individuals rather than as members of a group.
                  But, BTW, I can't find 'gnosis' in 1 Tim 5:20 ("Those who sin are to be
                  rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning.")
                   
                  Mike
                • Mike McLafferty
                  Mike Grondin wrote : *** ... [...] As to gnosis , I believe that Clement of Alexandria referred to the so-called gnosis , although I can t lay my hands on
                  Message 8 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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                    Mike Grondin wrote:

                     

                    ***

                    [...] In Against All Heresies (1.29) Irenaeus writes (about Ap.John):

                    > multitudo Gnosticorum Barbelo exsurrexit ...

                    [...] As to 'gnosis', I believe that Clement of Alexandria referred to "the so-called
                    'gnosis'", although I can't lay my hands on it at the moment. This is not to
                    say that 'gnostic' is a useful term, but just that it was in use, even if its form
                    'gnosticism' may not have been.

                    ***


                    MM: I think you're referring to Irenaeus himself, in 'Against Heresies' (fully titled 'On the Detection and Overthrow of /Knowledge Falsely So Called/') [/tes pseudoonymou gnooseoos/] which quotes 1 Tim 6:20.

                     

                    --M. McLafferty

                     
                  • Mark M. Mattison
                    Mike, sorry, that was a typo, I meant 1 Timothy 6:20. -Mark
                    Message 9 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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                      Mike, sorry, that was a typo, I meant 1 Timothy 6:20.

                      -Mark
                    • Mike Grondin
                      ... Thanks, Mike, for correcting me and also Mark s citation. For those who don t have their Bible at hand: Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your
                      Message 10 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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                        > MM: I think you're referring to Irenaeus himself, in 'Against
                        Heresies' (fully titled
                        > 'On the Detection and Overthrow of /Knowledge Falsely So
                        Called/') [/tes
                        > pseudoonymou gnooseoos/] which quotes 1 Tim 6:20.
                         
                        Thanks, Mike, for correcting me and also Mark's citation. For those who don't have their
                        Bible at hand:
                         
                        "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter
                        and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge ('gnosis'), which some have
                        professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith."
                         
                        Mike Grondin
                      • Judy Redman
                        Bruce says: Judy Redman s recent interchange with others on the GThomas list brings up, at least for me, the root question of What is Gnosticism? Pearson (it
                        Message 11 of 12 , Apr 13, 2012
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                          Bruce says:

                          Judy Redman’s recent interchange with others on the GThomas list brings up, at least for me, the root question of What is Gnosticism? Pearson (it seems) relies on the formula “gnosis saves,” whereas Judy, while conceding a “significant ascetical emphasis” in Thomas, finds “no evidence of the cosmogony that has the earth created and overseen by a secondary divine being.” Such is the width and variety of current criteria. I think it is quite possible that the root Gnostic idea had several forms in several places, so that we may be better referring to Type A Gnosticism, etc, than always to the generic term. Indeed, I seem to hear that there is Jewish Gnosticism as well as Christia n Gnosticism. To me this suggests the need to refine categories, and not always use the generic term to decide particular cases.

                          But perhaps the generic term itself could still be sharpened.

                          [Judy:] Pearson certainly differentiates between different kinds of gnosis. He looks at Sethian gnosis, Basilides and Basilidian gnosis, Valentinus and Valentinian gnosis; what he calls ‘three-principle systems’, under which he includes the Naasenes, the Peratics, the Docetists, Monoimus the Arabian and the Paraphrase of Shem (I haven’t read the book for some time so I am not sure exactly what he says about these). He then looks at various Coptic gnostic texts of uncertain affiliation, Hermes Trismegistus and Hermetic gnosis, Mani and Manichaeism, Thomas Christianity, and finally at the Mandaeans. He says ”The Gospel of Thomas is not a Gnostic text, though some scholars argue that it is. But there is no doctrine of pleromatic emanations in it, no Sophia myth, and no ignorant or malevolent Demiurge. What it does share is the emphasis on self-knowledge, but that is not something specific to Gnosticism as we have defined it” (p 257). He also identifies the doctrine of the soul in Thomas as one that is rooted in Middle Platonism.

                          Judy__

                        • richfaussette
                          Hi Judy, I was drawn here initially because of the similarities between Zen koans and some of the GofT logions. I went back to DT Suzuki the Zen master and
                          Message 12 of 12 , Apr 19, 2012
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                            Hi Judy,

                            I was drawn here initially because of the similarities between Zen koans and some of the GofT logions. I went back to DT Suzuki the Zen master and read his history of the development of the koan. He writes that the koans were employed to maintain the direct Zen experience that was being lost through excessive textual intellectualization; which is to say that there were so many different intellectual explanations of what Zen was that Zen got lost in them. The koans were created to provide a glimpse *of* the Zen experience rather than talking *about* what it was to maintain the target experience that was being lost in the multiplicity of philosophies that had proliferated to attain it.

                            "...With the growth of Zen literature it was perfectly natural now for Zen followers to begin to attempt an intellectual solution or interpretation of it... This was disastrous, yet inevitable. Therefore, the zen master who wished for the normal development of Zen consciousness and the vigorous growth of Zen tradition would not fail to recognize rightly the actual state of things, and to devise such a method as to achieve finally the attainment of Zen truth... The worst enemy of Zen experience, at least in the beginning, is the intellect, which consists and insists in discriminating subject from object. The discriminating intellect, therefore, must be cut short if Zen consciousness is to unfold itself, and the koan is constructed eminently to serve this end."
                            From Zen Buddhism, DT Suzuki, Doubleday, page 136

                            Suzuki relates the coming of the Bodhi-dharma to China from the west in AD 520.

                            "He [Bodhi-dharma] came to China with a special message which is summed up in the following lines:

                            'A special transmission outside the scriptures;
                            No dependence on words and letters;
                            Direct pointing at the soul of Man;
                            Seeing into one's nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.'

                            In Romans, Paul, like the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, also eschews the written law for the law written on the human heart:

                            "... a letter written not with ink but with the spirit of the living god; written not on stone tablets but on the pages of the human heart." 2 Cor. 3:3

                            Notice that Paul's faith is also 'a special transmission outside the scriptures.'

                            Hebrews 12:5 reads:
                            "You have forgotten the text of Scripture which addresses you as sons and appeals to you in these words:

                            'My son, do not think lightly of the Lord's discipline,
                            nor lose heart when he corrects you;
                            for the Lord disciplines those he loves;
                            he lays the rod on every son whom he acknowledges.'
                            You must endure it as discipline: God is treating you as sons. Can anyone be a son, who is not disciplined by his father?"

                            The gnosis is a self sacrifical state achieved through discipline. Gnosticisms are philosophies *about* the gnosis but not *of* the gnosis, so I think it is misleading to talk of a Sethian gnosis or a Valentinian gnosis. It is more helpful to say: Sethian gnosticism or Valentinian gnosticism, because at its core, the gnosis is the same regardless of the system (the -ism) created to explicate it.

                            It helps to separate the personal gnosis which is a state achieved via discipline from gnosticisms and their texts which contain cosmogonies and philosophies that purport to talk *about* a gnostic system but do little to portray the state *of* gnosis.

                            Here is where the the Gospel of Thomas logions, particularly the paradoxes, function like the Zen koans. They are literary devices that provide a glimpse into the state *of* gnosis which is achieved via self-sacrificial discipline; the same way Zen enlightenment is achieved.

                            "When such problems [as we find in koans] are presented to the uninitiated for solution, what is the object of the master? The idea is to unfold the Zen psychology in the mind of the uninitiated and to reproduce the state of consciousness, of which these statements are the expression. That is to say, when the koans are understood, the master's [Jesus'! /rf] state of mind is understood, which is satori (enlightenment) and without which Zen is a sealed book."

                            Zen is the "seeing into own's own nature." The Greeks from whom we get the word "gnosis" said "know thyself."

                            The Gospel of Thomas, in light of the history of the Zen koan, was apparently written by a religious man who was concerned that the essence of the Jesus experience had been allegorized and over-intellectualized and was in danger of being lost. He compiled these sayings, some of which also became Zen koans, to help a disciple get directly to the core of the self sacrifical experience without the impediment of intellectualization.


                            Regards,
                            Rich Faussette
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