“Gnostic” Intellectuals: A Response to DeConick
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.