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“Gnostic” Intellectuals: A Response to DeConick

February 26, 2014

Well, it seems that my earlier posting (here) questioning the characterization of ancient Christian “gnostics” as “intellectuals” (in the recent “Bible Hunters” programme) has drawn a lot of interest . . . and controversy.  I note, in particular, that my long-time friend, April DeConick, has weighed in challenging my posting here.

I will return her compliment, in affirming her as a long-time friend, and I acknowledge her as an impressive scholar in the field of ancient “gnostic” texts and versions of early Christianity.   In offering the following response to her critique, my purpose is not rebuttal, but a productive public dialogue.

First, granted, depending on who you include in that dubious label “gnostics”, you can point to people who seem to have been impressive in learning and intelligence.  I certainly didn’t mean to say that all those who might be labelled “gnostics” were stupid!  Those DeConick cites are good examples.  But part of the problem here is the term “gnostic(s)/gnosticism.”   With Michael Williams (Rethinking “Gnosticism”), I find the term “gnostics” very slippery and used so diversely as to make it less than useful as a scholarly category.  Hence my placing it in scare-quotes.

I prefer to restrict myself to those whom he characterizes as expressing “demiurgical” traditions:  That is, those who specifically distinguished between the high/ultimate deity and the creator-deity (the “demiurge”, whom they often characterized as evil), and who typically had accompanying elaborate myths of emanations, etc.  If we take that definition, it’s not that clear (at least to me) how many of those April lists really fit.

Ptolemy’s “Letter to Flora” (to cite one of April’s examples) is a gem of a kind of “sweet reasonableness,” to be sure.  But, as April will know, it’s not really clear/agreed that Ptolemy should be classified as a “gnostic” (it all depends on which modern-day scholar uses the term and with what meaning).  He may have been a kind of moderate “Valentinian,” but were “Valentinians” really all “gnostics”?  You see the problem.  Also, by the way, it’s not even clear how much we can say about some of those whom April lists, e.g., Basilides, as there are scant remains of whatever they may have said/written.  So, to some extent, April and I are arguing past each other, at least to my mind.

There is also a question of what one designates an “intellectual”.  In my posting, I proposed that the term better applied to those early Christians who, e.g., (1) strove to articulate their faith-stance in terms that might be made meaningful openly to the wider public, including those of more philosophical training, and (2) offered reasoned defences of Christian faith in the arena of public discourse (and to the political authorities).   I listed some prime examples of such people in my earlier posting.

By contrast, it’s not clear to me that works such as “The Apocryphon of John” were ever intended to be understood by anyone outside the loose circle/network of people keen on such esoterica.

Even in the case of the “Gospel of Thomas” (and, here again, scholars dispute whether this text is “gnostic”, but it’s certainly got a strong esoteric character), I submit that we have a text that was not intended to promote open and intelligent dialogue and debate, not intended to communicate a faith-stance openly and in terms that could be engaged by a wider public.

Plotinus may well have met a few Christian “gnostics” (although we are dependent on Porphyry for this claim), but the preserved remnants of his refutation don’t identify those he refutes as Christian or gnostics, but, instead unidentified people who make the creator-deity evil and the his world evil.  That might well have included some “demiurgical” Christians, but it’s hard to say for sure.  In any case, Plotinus is hardly evidence of any significant public impact of Christian “gnostics”.

So, yes, my friend April is right in pointing to some ancient Christians who seem to have been very literate and intelligent and whose ideas were judged by others dubious, and so came to be labelled “heretical”, and classified by some scholars “gnostics”.  My intended point in my posting was that what distinguished the sort of “gnostics” cited in the “Bible Hunters” programme wasn’t a greater intelligence, but, instead, a tendency toward esoterica, and (in some cases) a kind of self-regarding elitism, with a certain implicit disdain for ordinary Christian beliefs and Christians of the time.

And I also reiterate that the more serious critiques of early Christianity (e.g., Celsus, Lucian) seem to show that what these “pagan” intellectuals found a sufficient threat (or nuisance) to demand their attention seems to have been more familiar forms of Christianity, suggesting that “gnostic” versions either weren’t all that well circulated/known by these critics, or weren’t regarded as much of a threat.

And I reiterate my claim that those who seem to me to fit the category  “early Christian intellectuals” are the sort of people named in my earlier posting, who sought to articulate their beliefs and defend them in the public arena, engaging their intellectual, political and social environment.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Anti-intellectualism often includes sarcasm. Paul’s ironic use of the word “foolish” was an expression of his anti-intellectualism, and rejection of the contemporary view of wisdom. I frankly don’t understand how you think the detection of irony in the passage undermines the clear anti-intellectualism at work. Do most scholars take the passage as an expression of anti intellectualism or not?

    • Donald: Read the commentaries on 1 Cor and the studies on Paul. I don’t know anyone who thinks that Paul was “anti-intellectual”. It is fair to say that in the passage in 1 Cor 1-2 he sharply distinguishes the proclamation of his gospel from some of the philosophical schemes of the day. But rejection of a philosophical scheme isn’t being “anti-intellectual”. Paul certainly saw his gospel as based on divine revelation, not “bootstrap” reasoning or some “natural” knowledge. But, yet again, that’s not “anti-intellectualism”. Clear?? (I hope so, for it’s tiring to have to deal with something that should be obvious.)

  2. Hi Larry, I watched the two-part documentary which spawned yours and April DeConick’s conversation, and I appreciate your many careful remarks that have followed their being aired on TV. However, on this latest issue, I’m inclined to disagree with you (slightly). Since Markschies’s “Valentinus Gnosticus?” called Valentinus own “Gnosticism” into severe doubt, many scholars of Valentinianism have begun to look to Ptolemy as the author of the Valentinian Pleromic and demiurgic myth. While this is not strongly supported by the Letter to Flora, it is strongly supported by Irenaeus’s “Grande Notice” and Tertullian (Adv.Val. 4.2). In this way, Ptolemy would apparently fit into both the categories of “Gnostic” and “intellectual” as you delimit them. That’s one counterexample.

    Secondly, judging by your last posting, you seem to treat “intellectual” as almost synonymous with “exoteric”, or at least, to quote you, “intended to communicate a faith-stance openly and in terms that could be engaged by a wider public”; and conversely therefore, “esoteric” with “non-intellectual”. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but I’m not sure this really does justice to “esotericism” or “intellectual discourse”. To my mind, the two are by no means mutually exclusive, and some of your comments seem to come close to such a position. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


    • I can’t here engage what Ptolemy actually may have taught, and it’s not central. My point wasn’t that there were no intelligent “gnostics”, but only that the Bible Hunters programme erred in distinguishing “gnostics” from other christians by describing “gnostics” as “intellectuals” (in distinction from other Christians, implicitly not “intellectuals”).
      I also do hold that a true “intellectual” is more readily identified if she/he writes/speaks in a way obviously intended to inform, communicate, convey ideas and defend them. And in the case of at least some “gnostic” texts, it’s pretty hard to tell exactly what they were trying to communicate. So, yes, I would prefer to use the term “intellectual” for someone who is both intelligent and is good at communicating complex ideas in a way that is comprehensible to others. As “esoteric” texts leaves one wondering just whether it reflects intelligence or simply obfuscation.

      • Thanks for your response. My response is that many of the esoteric texts in question are excellent at conveying their meaning to others … other initiates! Of course, if exotericism is a precondition of intellectualism, then esotericism is not intellectual, but this is surely begging the question. I want to be a little more charitable to esoteric authors, and say that they are communicating information to an elect group, and from the latter’s perspective, it is both intelligible and intelligent. Of course, there are exceptions. I’ve been at the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism seminar in Laval all week, and people seemed to agree that GThomas was partially written to confuse. But I suppose the author is quite intelligent about how he goes about confusing his audience…

      • Yes, OK. I repeat: I’m not saying all “gnostics” were stupid. Just that what set them apart wasn’t that they (in particular) were “intellectuals” over against the “proto-orthodox” bunch.

      • Dear Larry and Matthew,
        (sorry for the length of this remark)
        Concerning the actual ‘Gnostic’ texts and their message(s) – since I have spent some years reading and re-reading quite a few of them (I am doing a facultative course on the apocryphal gospels in Kolozsvár) – I tend to suspect that some of these might have carried some coded message to which we may well have lost the key (if we had it at all). It is only a theory or better said: a hunch, so treat or dismiss it as such. I have a feeling that some of these ‘Gnostic’ texts were meant to sound like ‘mumbo-jumbo’ for the uninitiated (like myself and the rest of the ‘simple-minded’ Christians), who could not make any sense of it, yet it bore a deeper meaning for the ‘advanced’ members of the group. Thus, the sentence ‘John went across the street’ in a ‘Gnostic’ text would mean just that for an outsider, yet for the ‘initiated’ it may well be equivalent to e.g. ‘Jesus died for us’ (or the same sentence could mean something else each time, depending on the context). I am not saying that this is true or could be proven to be true for any or all the so-called ‘Gnostic’ texts, but it might be a possibility. Yet even so, this would imply a somewhat self-conceited attitude towards the others. See e.g. The Gospel of Truth (composed or not by Valentinus), where the author classifies the people in three categories: ‘pneumatikoi’, i.e. ‘spirituals’, who shall rise by nature to God; ‘psychikoi’, i.e. ‘besouled’, who may rise to God or may fall; and ‘hylikoi’, i.e. ‘earthly’ or ‘material’, who shall by nature decline and fall. Without intending to be rude here, the very nature of Christianity is meant to be inclusive and not exclusive (‘make disciples of all nations’). Therefore, whilst one cannot deny the raison d’être of any elitist Christian movement, nonetheless, we should not confound it/them with Christendom itself, even less to consider them as being ‘the true’ Christianity. It is perhaps a form of ‘l’art pour l’art’ Christianity, but certainly not ‘the’ Christianity, with the definite article.
        To provide a practical example: having spent some years studying the doctrinal debates in the Early Church, I might be able to provide some very sophisticated and refined definitions concerning the two natures of Christ to the extent that a considerable percentage of Christian believers (even theologians) would find them difficult to understand, yet that does not mean at all that my faith or my spirituality as a Christian would be in the least measure ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than that of any practicing Christian believer who never studied theology (or, perhaps, was never taught to read or write for that matter). Thus, when we talk about ‘Gnostics’ as ‘intellectuals’, we should take heed not to confound the ‘intellectual’ with ‘exclusionist’. A true ‘intellectual’ in my view (I am a teacher) is the one who tries and strives to make the others perceive what he/she may have realized or understood, without categorising them from the very outset. I am afraid I have little sympathy towards ‘unintelligible intellectuals’ (I have seen far too many of them)…

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Maybe what the programme makers was getting at was to distinguish Gnostics from the strand of proto-orthodox Christianity which stood for anti-intellectualism as represented by Saint Paul.

        1 Cor 1:21 God was wise and decided not to let the people of this world use their wisdom to learn about him. Instead, God chose to save only those who believe the foolish message we preach.

        Taking them at their own self-description, Gnostics were wise whereas orthodox Christians revelled in their “foolishness”, at least at the early stage before Justin Martyr and other orthodox Christians writers began to defend their position from an intellectual perspective.

      • Donald: You read the Pauline passage rather poorly. It should be obvious that it’s ironic, even sarcastic, playing off the sophistic world of the time with the “foolishness” (in the eyes of self-regarding “sophisticates”) of Paul’s gospel with the self-proclaimed “wise” who disdain it.
        There’s no “anti-intellectualism” in Paul, but there is a strong critique of any judgement against his gospel on the basis of the sophistic tastes of his day.
        No, the writers of the programme weren’t dissing Paul. That’s giving too much credit. They were posing (inaccurately) supposed differences between “gnostic” and “proto-orthodox” people of the 2nd/3rd century.

  3. Dear Prof. Hurtado,
    It is fascinating to follow a truly scholarly exchange between you and Prof. DeConick concerning the so-called ‘Gnostic’ problem. The very exercise itself is worthy of recognition.
    I completely agree with you that the term ‘Gnostic’ is in fact far too problematic (and perhaps too vague or ambivalent) to be applied successfully for the correct or precise characterisation of any Early Christian group. I am very interested in the history of doctrine and had certainly encountered the term ‘Gnostic’ far too many times. This is why I venture to say that if we were to consider and compare the teachings of every group, which at some point had been labelled ‘Gnostic’ by one or more reputable scholars, we would easily realise that most of these ‘Gnostic’ communities were often much more at odds with each other than they had ever been with the so-called ‘Catholic’, ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Proto-Orthodox’ Christians. Yet, the very term ‘Gnostic’, skillfully used in modern filmed documentaries, may easily suggest that those belonging to this category were not only ‘the majority’ (in number) amongst the early believers in Christ, but they also had a fairly homogenous (!) common teaching. Of course, no serious scholar would claim this (since even the main ‘Gnostic’ trends were at considerable variance with each other in doctrinal matters), most of these ‘documentaries’ are somehow suggesting it, with a clear tendency to show that this more or less ‘homogenous’ system of belief and its ‘united followers’ were somehow suppressed by the Early Christian teachers (most of whom had also been persecuted or killed for their faith, but who cares?). To put it mildly, I am a little fed up by these stereotypical TV presentations. Of course, it is by far not the case of Prof. DeConick, yet the mainstream media is readily promoting such ideas. What I think she may have missed in your former posting is that you were criticising a somewhat sensationalist TV production (how many more of these do we have to endure?) and not the respectable research of modern scholars concerning ‘Gnosticism’.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Professor Hurtado, what did you make of DeConick’s remarks about how Gnosticism is perceived among contemporary scholars and the reasons for that, as well as comparisons with the current religious situation?

    Plus in the comments sedition of her blog it was suggested that possibility a commitment to Christian orthodoxy may lead to stereotypical or derogatory readings of gnostic texts. Do you think that’s a danger?

    • Well, I think that it’s probably easy for various kinds of people to find some of the “gnostic” texts (esp. the more esoteric ones) difficult, and even off-putting. That might well include people more attuned to or more comfortable with “Christian orthodoxy,” but not restricted to them by any means.
      My own initial posting wasn’t intended to “do down” the “gnostics” or the texts linked with them (or to treat with any disdain those who study them). Instead, I simply queried the claim in the “Bible Hunters” programme that “gnostics” were somehow, more than other Christians, “intellectuals”.

  5. Wow, fascinating post, Prof Hurtado. It makes Gnosticism much more understandable to laymen like myself. Thanks so much for the clarification.

  6. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry —

    Given the “strong esoteric character” of the Gospel of Thomas, is it at all worthwhile, then, for scholars or the general public to promote an open and intelligent dialogue about it in 2014, even though it was “not intended to communicate a faith-stance openly and in terms that could be engaged by a wider public” back in the early centuries of the first millennium when it was presumably making the rounds?

    Willing to give it a shot, some scholars have ventured explications of seemingly esoteric portions of Thomas. For example, regarding latter portion of Thomas 50,

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

    the Complete Gospels by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar offer this explanation:

    “The phrase is obscure. It has the ring of code language, and thus may be intentionally opaque … Motion may refer to the movement of the Thomas Christian up through the heavenly spheres to the heavenly domain.”

    Referring to Thomas 50 in a Teaching Company Course, Luke Timothy Johnson avers to the same verse (as I mentioned in a previous comment):

    “This is all very oogie boogie,” a reaction that reflects Johnson’s critique of that passage’s esoteric nature.

    Another explication is that the phrase “motion and rest” parallels Genesis’s six days of creation and a seventh day of rest, which at least two other scholars have offered as an interpretation.

    Will you share your interpretation of that verse?

    Or do you think that Thomas 50 and perhaps many of the 114 sayings are simply too esoteric, too way out there, too inaccessible to be considered by scholars, and were originally intended for the eyes and ears of only a privileged group of insiders?

    Thank you.

    • I’ve got an extended discussion of the Gospel of Thomas in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 452-83.

      • Steve Walach permalink

        Larry –

        I’ve read your commentary in Lord Jesus Christ on the Gospel of Thomas and now understand, I believe, why you referred me to those pages in response to my request for your interpretation of the latter portion of logion 50: “If they ask you for evidence of the Father in you, tell them ‘it is motion and rest.’ ”
        As I understand your take on GThomas, your chief complaints are that its 114 sayings are secretive, and therefore esoteric, and that the in-crowd who is privy to the secret knowledge treats those without that knowledge with disdain. You also portray GThomas as a rejection of Christology, a stance I would not argue with though perhaps rejection is too strong a word.

        However, I fully agree with you that there is no “discernible or thematic structure” to them – probably because there was never any intention for them to be anything but perplexing and confounding. Perhaps the sayings’ riddling nature was meant more to challenge those with the secret knowledge in hopes of sharpening their understanding of spiritual baptism and deepening their experience of the pleroma – that is, fulfillment – than it was to annoy critics like Irenaeus. The cryptic nature of many of the logions may also have served to confront the elitist attitude adopted by those Gnostics who aligned themselves with the so-called upper-class Christians and were dire need of a necessary humbling.

        I do differ do, though, with your pejorative characterization of the sayings as “elitist,” and “disdainful,” mainly because there are instances in the canonical gospels that are equally esoteric, elitist, secretive and also disdainful but in the canonical context they have become quite acceptable.

        As I examine the parable of the sower, Mk 4: 3 – 8 and 13 – 20, I see Jesus delineating the flaws in several categories of people who actually hear the sower’s word but fail to grasp its significance, or if they do initially understand the word, for one reason or another the word does not establish roots and the message is either stolen, short-lived or choked off. Only in one group – the “good earth” – does the sower’s word bear fruit.


      • Steve, I’ve edited down your rather lengthy comment, removing some illustrative material and aiming to preserve your main points.
        The essential difference between the esoteric and elitist attitude in GThomas and what one finds in, e.g., Mark 4 is this: The NT texts typically divide “unbelievers” from “believers”, claiming that the latter have perceived God’s will, and the latter are blind or disobedient to it. So, e.g., Paul can refer to God’s “mystery”, which is nothing other than the plain claim that Jesus’ crucifixion was the key revelatory and redemptive event, a view of the event that he knows was not shared except by believers.
        But in GThomas the distinction is between classes/kinds of Christians. The text declares that it comprises “secret sayings” of Jesus, made know uniquely to Thomas, and discerned only by special believers. Consider esp. GThomas 13, where you have a kind of parody of the Gospel scene where Peter (on behalf of the 12) confesses Jesus’ messianic significance. In GThomas, Peter and the other disciples are pictured as failing to perceive the secret of Jesus’ person, made known secretly to Thomas.
        This is reflective of the elitist stance of the text. It doesn’t discourage or critique elitism, but projects it!

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