Early Christian Movements: “Successful” and “Unsuccessful”
Further to my posting earlier today, I draw attention to an important book that has received attention but deserves more: Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). It’s full of intriguing insights, observations and proposals, most of which bear on scholarly attempts to characterize “gnosticism/gnostics” and use these terms meaningfully. Williams’ main argument is that this effort hasn’t been very successful. Not all have agreed with the full measure of his own take on things, which is that we should drop these terms as not having any agreed meaning, but he does mount an impressive case. Essentially, Williams proposes that we can identify certain ancient Christians who held to what he calls “demiurgical” ideas, i.e., that the world was created by an inferior or evil deity, not the high deity of salvation. He insists that this is a quite specific and verifiable type of early Christian belief/stance, but that when we move off beyond this specific belief the terms “gnostic/gnosticism” become a”wax nose”, i.e., the terms don’t have any firm meaning but become a kind of catch-all for various emphases such as asceticism, mysticism, etc.
One of the many intriguing portions of the book that I was re-reading today comes in his final chapter titled “… and What They Left Behind”. Williams proposes (p. 262) that the 4th-century Nag Hammadi mansucripts of so-called “gnostic” writings should be regarded then as “shards from what were, in relative terms, failed religious movements of earlier generations, debris from religious experiences that never really created truly successful new religions.” Nevertheless, the copying and gathering of these texts in the 4th century reflected some continuing interest in them, “the vibrant and incessant experientation to which the Nag Hammadi texts bear anecdotal testimony . . . itself evidence that ‘failures’ in the sociological sense only create fresh opportunity and inviting leftover material for the next round of innovators.”
Earlier in this chapter, Williams considers what a “successful” and an “unsuccessful” religious movement means in sociological terms, drawing upon the work of other scholars such as Rodney Stark too, proposing features of various forms of early Christianity that made them “unsuccessful”. Some of them were “not radical enough,” sustaining too little tension with their sociocultural environment, and others were too much in tension with their environment, or failed to develop the organizational strength needed to succeed and sustain themselves over time.
He doesn’t use the image, but in a sense in the first three centuries CE, when no form of Christianity had any special status (and, indeed, Christians were often regarded as deviant and were subject to social hostility and sometimes government persecution), it was a kind of “free-market economy”, each form of Christianity required to contend for its emphases and win adherents. To put it another way, in his stimulating study of key intellectual developments in second-century Chrisitanity, as Eric Osborn said of key Christian thinkers of the second century, they “had to argue for their lives” (The Emergence of Christian Theology [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 3). And some were more up to this than others. By the time that Constantine was looking at Christianity as a religion to endorse, it was already clear that by far the most “successful” version was that constellation that became “orthodox/catholic” Christianity. Other Christian movements just didn’t commend themselves as well, and didn’t hold up as well in the difficult 2nd-3rd centuries of complex struggles. As I wrote once in a review of Bart Ehrman’s book, Lost Christianities, I was reminded of a quip by the American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld: “Sometimes the road less taken is less taken for a reason!”