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Ancient “Gnostics”: Intellectuals? Not Really!

February 22, 2014

Another feature of the “Bible Hunters” programme (part 2) that caught my attention was the reference to ancient “gnostic” Christians as “intellectuals.”  That was very funny, really.  Just read the relevant texts, which are readily available in English translation:  James M. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd rev. ed. (Leiden/New York: Brill, 1988)

It’s perhaps a natural mistake for people who haven’t read the texts, given that “gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, which means “knowledge.”  But in the case of those called “gnostics,” the kind of “knowledge” that they sought wasn’t “intellectual,” but (to put it kindly) what we might term “esoteric,” secretive truths expressed typically in cryptic, riddling form, deliberately intended to make little sense as expressed.  Put unkindly, one might characterize it as a bunch of “mumbo-jumbo” with no attempt to present them reasonably and in terms of the intellectual climate of the time.

But there was substance.  They tended, for example, to project the view that the world and all therein was evil, deceptive, ensnaring, and so to be rejected or at least minimized so far as possible.  So, e.g., women were to avoid giving birth, as this only imprisoned souls in this mire.  Instead, they were to “become male” and cease “the work of women,” i.e., live celibate.  (Hardly the elevation of women some people erroneously ascribe to “gnostic” circles.)

Their aim and approach, however, wasn’t “intellectual.”  They didn’t seek to understand through inquiry and argumentation.  They didn’t seek to project and commend their views through patient exposition, argumentation, and the exercise of rational thinking.   These were people who may well have imagined that they had some sort of superiority spiritually, i.e., he sort of souls (and they were really interested only in their souls) that regarded themselves as by nature more attuned to divine things perhaps, certainly superior to “mere” Christians.

For them, the ordinary beliefs/claims of Christian faith seemed . . . too elemental, even foolish.  “God so loved the world,” “Jesus died for our sins and rose again for our salvation,” etc., these all apparently seemed . . . well, dull.  It appears that ordinary Christian ideas just didn’t tickle their fancy, didn’t scratch their itch.  They needed something more titillating in their view.  They seem to have thought, “This can’t be it.  There must be some secretive truths that we alone are worthy to find.”

If you want what we would recognize as people trying to act like “intellectuals,” you’ll have to read writers such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Origen (to stay with the early ones).  These guys worked hard to formulate and express their faith in terms that could be engaged by others, especially non-Christians.  Justin’s Dialogue, for example portrays an extended argument with Jewish interlocutors.  His Apology was directed at the larger intellectual and political elite, seeking to justify Christian faith in terms that they could understand and engage.

Justin and the other “apologists” (from the Greek “apologia” = defence) may well have over-estimated their powers of persuasion and may well have presumed a larger readership than they actually obtained (something that academic authors often tend to do, or so I’m told by publishers).  But they were the closest to “intellectuals” that the early churches had to offer.

And if you take account of those “pagan” critics, such as Celsus, it’s quite clear that they were attempting to refute and overturn the sort of “ordinary” Christianity that people such as Justin and the others affirmed.  I know of no pagan critique of “gnostic” Christianity.  And the reasons are likely that the “gnostic” texts never circulated outside the somewhat selective networks for which they were written, and had they been read by pagans they would have been regarded as so much  . . . well, mumbo-jumbo that you couldn’t really get a handle on, and that probably wasn’t worth the effort.

There are modern equivalents to the ancient “gnostics,” people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves “special” in some way, such that, without the sort of academic training most of us think necessary, they can leap into some mystical “truths.”  Just go to the average bookshop and scan the “religion & magic”  section (yeah, I know, “religion & magic,” says it all).  You’ll likely find many (perhaps most on the shelves) catering to such tastes and positing such ideas.  (If you’d like a great send-up of all this, I heartily recommend Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum.  Apparently, when Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code subsequently appeared, and Eco was asked what he thought of the book, he reportedly replied, “Dan Brown is a character in my novel!”)

If you want to assess the efforts of the real early Christian “intellectuals,” the original texts in English translation are freely available in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series.  For a stimulating study of their efforts, I recommend Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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  1. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry —

    The “elaborate myths of archons, emanations, the ‘fall’ of Sophia, etc.” that you refer to above hardly seem to be the result of a special knowledge.

    Those myths seem to be the products of pure speculation and Ireneaus and you deal with them as such even though he, you and so many others continue to refer to them — for the sake of convention, I assume — as “gnostic” writings.

    The Jesus quoted in the Gospel of Thomas seems much less concerned with speculative cosmologies, however.

    Nevertheless, while explicating the latter sections of Thomas 50, Luke Timothy Johnson avers in a Teaching Company Course about extra-canonical gospels: “This is all very oogie boogie.”

    His wording seems very similar to your term “mumbo jumbo.” I’d like to hear your take on this verse:

    “If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ say to them ‘It is motion and rest.’ ”

    Thank you.

    • It’s always dangerous to generalize, of course, but I do think that it is a mistake to confuse mystification with profundity, and esoterica with intelligence.

  2. I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on the merits of the argument I was merely wondering if you knew where I could get an ebook copy of the Ante-Nicene Fathers you mention at the end that is freely available?


  3. Dr. Hurtado,

    After reading both your article and Dr. Deconick’s rebuttal, I do have a few questions regarding your thesis. Admittedly, I am only a rank amateur in biblical studies, but I can not say I find your thesis convincing. Having read several Nag Hammadi texts, I do not find their premise much more unusual than the idea that a deity would descend from the heavens to be born of a virgin only to be sacrificed thirty-three years later as an atonement for sin. I think we can agree that in reality, there was not a “gnostic” Christianity in the fist two centuries any more than there was a “orthodox” one. My own markedly limited study of early Christian history suggests that these ideas were in fact circulating and being debated, much like the later debates between Catholic priests and Cathar Perfeci during the 11th century CE. While it is true that what we now call “gnostic” Christianity was a mixture of Neoplatonism, Zoroastrianism and Hellenistic Judaism, the same can be said for the surviving streams of the modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox schools of Christianity. To dismiss these early heretics as non-intellectuals is, in my opinion as a lay scholar, a gross exaggeration. However, I would like to read more regarding your view, as this area of study intrigues me.


    Dave Adkins

  4. From my own laymen’s reading of the gnostic writings (which I’ve been blogging about), I’d agree that the reputation for intellectualism and pro-women views appears to be the product of wishful thinking on the part of scholars and the public alike. I read April DeConick’s reply to your post. I don’t question her claim that many gnostics were skilled philosophers, learned scholars, etc. However, that doesn’t means they couldn’t have written or used some rather bizarre texts to promote their religious agenda.

  5. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, do you think that most NT scholars suffer from cognitive bias or confirmation bias? Their views are based on past experiences or what they know already. I think so. It’s easier to say they have been brainwashed.

    • Geoff: Leave off your nasty jibes. Just because you’re not a scholar yourself, that’s no reason to rubbish those who give their lives to scholarship. Nobody’s brainwashed, Geoff. Get over yourself. And if you can’t offer something useful, take yourself elsewhere. I tire of nonsense readily.

      • Cernowain Greenman permalink

        I think Geoff is making a point by playing off Larry’s usage of “mumbo jumbo”. Some intellectuals feel the need to disdain esoterica and minority religious movements. The irony is that Christianity was once one of these mystery religions and it’s “mumbo jumbo” sounds reasonable since it is a majority religion.

        I have great respect for Larry and he presents a good post here. I especially liked his explanation of how women were being told to reject childbearing. But to cast repeated aspersions upon the gnostics would be to fall into the trap of siding with traditional orthodoxy’s rejection of them. It would give any scholar more credibility, rather, to be neutral.

      • Cernowain: First, I’m not sure what kind of early Christianity you think was “one of these mystery religions”, but none that I know of (after some 40 yrs of peer-reviewed research in the topic). The so-called “mystery” religions are called that because we know very little about them, and that because they seem not to have communicated themselves broadly/openly.
        By contrast, early Christianity is perhaps the best sourced and documented religious movement in Roman antiquity! It’s clear that early Christianity was concerned with proclaiming openly, articulating and defending the faith-stance to outsiders, and open in its ceremonies and meetings (e.g., note Paul’s references to “outsiders” in 1 Cor 14).
        Second, if you read my postings carefully, you’ll note that I essentially focus on the highly riddling and deliberately esoteric nature of some so-called “gnostic” texts. That’s not “rejection” or bad-mouthing, just a description. If you read my treatments of the varieties of early Christianity (e.g., in my book, Lord Jesus Christ), I think you’ll find little by way of tendentious “rejection” based on “orthodoxy”, but instead simply an attempt to describe the phenomena.

  6. Professor Hurtado,

    That was an extremely illuminating post. In particular:

    “There are modern equivalents to the ancient “gnostics,” people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves “special” in some way, such that, without the sort of academic training most of us think necessary, they can leap into some mystical “truths.””

    As an interested layperson I had always wondered what gnosticism was about and you seem to have given an excellent summary. It was good to see you in “The Bible-Hunters” programme though I suspect you would have gotten a bigger part if you had confirmed in a suitably inflamed manner something like “Early Orthodox Christianity hung, drawed and quartered the writers of recently-discovered and suppresed alternative versions of Christianity which would have given us the real low-down on Christianity”.

    I suppose whoever makes these programmes needs to sell them. Nevertheless I think it a good thing that real scholars make an appearance and try to educate.

  7. Larry, you say here for the second time that it looks likely that that the “gnostic” texts never circulated outside the somewhat selective networks for which they were written. Do you happen to have a nice neat reference or two for this? And would you include Thomas in this category – ie the group of texts that only circulated in somewhat selective networks, although if you want to say whether or not you think Thomas is gnostic, I’d also be interested in that. 🙂

    • I base my judgments on the nature/contents of the texts, plus also (something often overlooked) the physical nature of the manuscripts, especially the earliest. E.g., the “Gospel of Thomas” (which may have acquired that title in the course of its transmission, for the Incipit is “Secret Sayings of the Living Jesus”, more likely what the author intended as his title), in our earliest copies = a miniature roll (obviously for private reading), a re-used roll (again, for private reading), and a leaf of a codex whose hand and other features make it fair to judge that it was intended for the same reading-situation.
      The contrast with copies of texts that were early treated as “scripture” is significant.
      For an insightful discussion of the likely situation reflected in these texts:
      Frederik Wisse, “The Use of Early Christian Literature As Evidence for Inner Diversity and Conflict,” in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, ed. Charles W. Hedrick and Robert Hodgson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 177-90.

      • Thanks. This makes sense. I also have my doubts about the title “Gospel of Thomas” – it seems to have been written for an entirely different purpose to the canonical gospels or some of the other apocryphal gospels. However, it did make its way into the Nag Hammadi library. Do you think this means that it might have gained wider popularity over time or just that it happened to have been used within the Nag Hammadi community?

      • The Nag Hammadi texts seem to comprise a wide assortment of items that once formed part of someone’s library. There’s no indication that any of the texts functioned as “scripture”, e.g., read as part of the corporate worship of a group.

    • Bradley Skene permalink

      In fact we have definite evidence that they did circulate outside of narrow Gnostic circles. Porphyry, Plotinus and others of his circle read Zostrianos and Allogenes, and other books of the same kind we no longer possess. Besides the writings of Plotinus I already mentioned. Porphyry himself wrote to refute these books, and he says that his fellow student Amelius wrote a 40 book long refutation of Zostrianos (both of these now lost). This all comes from Porphyry’s life of Plotinus 16.

      • Yes, and Porphyry says that there were Christians among those Plotinus criticized. But reading what Plotinus wrote (as transmitted by Porphyry), it’s actually hard to judge just who he was criticizing. There’s certainly nothing specifically Christian in the ideas that he attacks. Instead, they seem to be simply more radical versions of the Neo-Platonism that Plotinus himself worked with.
        In any case, Porphyry’s own critique of Christianity was far more influential, and it’s pretty clear that he directed his fire against recognizable Christianity.

  8. Bradley Skene permalink

    Plotinus wrote a series of essays, the so-called Grossschrift (III 8, V8, V5, II 9), dealing with the objections raised by students on the basis of Gnostic ideas. Presumably these people were Christian Gnostics. Its hard to see how you could have overlooked this, but also hard to reconcile it with your statement: ” I know of no pagan critique of “gnostic” Christianity.” Perhaps you discount that his opponents were Gnostics?

    • We have something of Plotinus’ critique of “those who say that the creator deity is evil”, preserved by Porphery in Ennead II. 9). First, Plotinus doesn’t call them “gnostics” or Christians. So, it’s hard to determine with exactness who they were. But the point of view he challenges would probably include the “gnostic” Christians, esp. those who posited an evil “demiurge”/creator-deity. But my point stands that Plotinus’ essay doesn’t attack them as Christians, and so isn’t an attack on “gnostic Christianity”.

  9. Absolutely!!!

    Since Gnosticism is essentially a pagan construct, I’ve always wondered why the “Christian” Gnostics even bothered conflating pagan mystery cult with Christianity.

    As their writings mostly seem to predate the conversion of Constantine, there appears to be no advantage whatever to having grafted Jesus into pre-existing pagan esotericism. Indeed, it might have been highly dangerous, risking the kind of periodic pogroms that Orthodox Christians endured.

    Is there an explanation, Professor Hurtado?

    • Well, I’d say you’re being a bit simplistic in characterizing Christian “gnostics” as “a pagan construct”. As for your second paragraph, I’m not clear what you’re saying. The Christian “gnostics” did incorporate Jesus (or the divine emanation connected to him) in their schemes. In, e.g., the “Gospel of Thomas” Jesus is the speaking figure who acts as the revealer-figure.
      But there were also pagan forms of “gnostic” thought, in which the creator was thought to be an inferior deity or even evil.

  10. I see Clement of Alexandria is overlooked here and called neither good guy nor bad guy.

    Is he too late for consideration?

    We all know he used the word gnostic favorably, called himself one, recommended it even. Do you think he was trying to refurbish the word, rescue it from prejudice, give it a higher meaning, or do you consider his interpretation of the inner ‘tutor’ and ‘friend’ to be so much mumbo-jumbo?

    • John, You’ll note that I put the word “gnostic(s)” in quote marks, and referred to “so-called ‘gnostics’.” The texts usually characterized as such don’t refer to their stance as “gnostic”, and that’s a scholarly label. For a telling critique, see Michael A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). I was referring to the sort of texts usually cited, e.g., a number among the Nag Hammadi collection.
      As for Clement, he seems to have been an adventurous soul, but didn’t separate himself from the wider circles of fellow Christians or claim that he had some special divine spark denied to others.

  11. Herman van de Berg permalink

    “I know of no pagan critique of “gnostic” Christianity. And the reasons are likely that the “gnostic” texts never circulated outside the somewhat selective networks for which they were written, and had they been read by pagans they would have been regarded as so much . . . well, mumbo-jumbo that you couldn’t really get a handle on, and that probably wasn’t worth the effort.”

    Well, what about Plotinus’ Against the Gnostics? I’m no expert on this, but I think there are some indications in Plotinus’ writings that he wasn’t the first (Middle/Neo-)Platonist to argue against the (so-called) Gnostics…

    • Herman,
      As I’ve replied to others, it’s actually not quite as clear as some assume who it was that Plotinus wrote against in the essay that has been given the title “Against the Gnostics”. He mainly seems to argue against people who he regarded as holding an extreme version of his own Platonic view. Their error (in his mind) was to regard the creator-deity as evil, and not (as he preferred, it seems) as simply an inferior deity. See, e.g., Joseph Katz, “Plotinus and the Gnostics,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15, no. 2 (1954): 289-98. There’s certainly no indication that he was attacking them as Christians.

  12. Paddy permalink

    Hi Larry. You mentioned Thomas, Philip and Mary. Which other texts are considered in the same group “gnostic” and to which the general points made above about gnostics and gnostic writings would apply?

    • I was alluding particularly to those texts that involve elaborate myths of archons, emanations, the “fall” of Sophia, etc. Particularly important, it seems, is The Apocryphon of John, along with several others. With Michael Williams, I prefer to refer to “demiurgical traditions”, i.e., groups that distinguish the creator-deity from their high deity. The term “gnostics” is a wax nose that has been used for a variety of views that may have little to do with one another. So when I use it I refer to “so-called gnostics”, simply because that’s the popular argot.

  13. Ferdie Mulder permalink

    Hi prof Larry,I don’t think my friend Wayne Choppins would mind me copying his Facebook remarks about your blogpost here: “found Larry Hurtado’s blog post to be a helpful corrective to the Bible Hunter presentation (which I have not watched) of ancient “gnostic” Christians as “intellectuals”, but thinks Hurtado’s post may also require greater nuance. In Kaiserzeitliche Christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen (p. 88) Christoph Markschies, for example, compares Justin Martyr with salon or popular philosophers such as Maximus of Tyre and Origen with professional philosophers such as what we find in Plato’s academy, while suggesting that we could perhaps view Valentinian Gnosticism as a movement that oscillates between these levels of philosophical instruction. So while it may well be problematic when Bible Hunters shows a tendency to upgrade the character/status of ancient “gnostic” Christians by dubbing them “intellectuals”, perhaps in implicit contrast to others in the “majority church”, Hurtado’s strong attempt to deprive them of this label and reclaim it solely for key figures in the “majority church” may also require greater differentiation”.

    • Yes, Valentinus seems to have been a bright guy, and reading Ptolemy’s “Letter to Flora” reveals someone very thoughtful and articulate, and exhibiting some of the polite (and somewhat patronizing) critique of the OT that anticipated some modern Christian liberalism. But were Valentinians such as Ptolemy “gnostics”?? I wouldn’t say so. My posting was about those so-called “gnostics” for whom mythis of demiurge, archons, etc., were central.
      And, yes, Justin et al. can be judged as “second raters” as philosophers, hence my statement “the closest you get to intellectuals in early Christianity” in referring to them.
      They were intellectuals in the sense that they sought to articulate their faith openly and in ways that could be engaged by non-Christians, rather than in the sort of esoteric forms favoured by “demiurgical traditions”.

  14. There are modern equivalents to the ancient “gnostics,” people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves “special” in some way, such that, without the sort of academic training most of us think necessary, they can leap into some mystical “truths”…

    Sadly, there are some within ‘Christendom’, with their books being sold at brick and mortar Christian bookstores (at least here in the US) and various conferences, many on imprints specifically dedicated to this sort of thing. Those penning these works: (1) promote a staunch anti-intellectualism, an implicit (or explicit) rejection of orthodox theology; (2) claim new revelation (gnosis) on par with or even superseding Scripture, brought about through mystical means, primarily by ‘seeking God’s presence’; and (3) implicitly (or explicitly) promote an elitist mindset as a result of (1) and (2).

  15. If I recall correctly, however, Porphyry opposed – or explicitly dismissed – some Gnostic thought. So perhaps not in the second or third centuries, but by the fourth they had caught at least one pagan critic’s attention.

    • Jared: It was Plotinus, not Porphyry. And see my replies to others who mentioned this.

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