Class, Week 3: The Heretics

When last we talked about the crazy worldview of the Gnostics, I left unresolved the question of legitimacy:

The winners write the history books, and they get to determine what is orthodox. Is it possible the first centuries of Christianity were a lot muddier than we usually think? Stay tuned!

Elaine Pagels has made a career of portraying Gnostic worldviews as widespread alternatives within the broad stream of early Christianity that were ultimately defeated and sidelined by what later became orthodox Christianity. It’s an intriguing possibility, one that cannot be disproven, which is what makes it seductive – any evidence one could produce to show Gnosticism’s marginalization in early Christianity can be dismissed as ex post facto dismissal by the winners of the debates.

But this view is rejected by both my professor and the textbook for this class, Church History Volume One by Everett Ferguson, and I think their argument is stronger than the one posited by Pagels and other scholars of Gnosticism.

In class yesterday, my professor argued the response of orthodox Christianity to the Gnostic worldview – it was more of a worldview or a lens than an alternate religion or denomination – was an appeal to transparency and the public transmission of apostolic belief, pretty much the opposite of what Pagels argues.

Gnostics said they had a special knowledge that had been secretly transmitted through the generations. Only an elite few had the inner divine spark – the gnosis, or knowledge – that would help them shake off the nasty old matter that traps their true selves and attain their spiritual nature in the heavens. They supported this with an elaborate cosmology, as seen particularly in the Gospel of Judas, in which a veritable constellation of deities populates the heavens.

Usually, physical creation is explained as some sort of accident or mistake by one of the evil lesser gods, which is a way to address theodicy and likely a reason for its popularity – I do think Gnosticism made more efforts than orthodox Christianity to explain why suffering existed in the world, and should be credited for that, but of course the reasons they came up with are insane, which is definitely a drawback.

In response, Christians did not try to silence Gnosticism – after all, we first learned about it through the preserved writings of the early church fathers – rather they argued against it. And the argument is compelling: The apostles, those closest to Jesus, publicly repeated and interpreted his teachings in the letters and gospels that eventually became the canon (though it did not officially exist yet, the basic structure of the New Testament was already in place). Those apostles then publicly appointed successors in the forms of bishops or presbyters, whose own teachings and interpretations were done publicly and held accountable by their congregations. In other words, the shape, scope and evolution of the Christian faith from the apostles to the bishops over the course of 100 years was fully public and transparent to its followers. Gnosticism offered no such accountability; it blatantly relied on a secret knowledge that had only recently been made public.

In Reading Judas, Pagels and King counter this somewhat by insinuating that the bishops had ulterior motives – their arguments conveniently reinforced their own position as the keepers of the true faith. There may be something to that; we’re seeing the faith move to an increasingly hierarchical structure, even in these very early years, as bishops become more singular and centralized. But that sidesteps the actual point of their argument, regardless of motives. Because if there’s anyone in this debate interested in centralizing power and authority, it’s those who are claiming to possess an elite secret knowledge handed down directly from Jesus.

In the end, Gnosticism failed not because of oppressive orthodoxy, but because its own narrowness pretty much ensured that failure. The alternative might be sexier, but it’s no more realistic than the Gnostic worldview itself.

One thought on “Class, Week 3: The Heretics”

  1. When I was young and naive, conspiracy theories seemed to make sense – but the more I’ve seen of the real world, the more I realize how impossible it is to keep a really big important secret from leaking out. Secrecy only works when the most powerful people around are able to enforce it, and in the first several centuries nobody in early Christianity was that powerful.

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