Ancient “Gnostics”: Intellectuals? Not Really!
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).