Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 12: Modern Gnosticism.

Though titled “Modern Gnosticism,” the final lecture for my Gnosticism class covered more than the past century. We examined medieval forms of Christian Gnosticism, as well as Jewish and Islamic analogues, and some expressions of Gnosticism in modern literature, including Philip K. Dick and, well, Harry Potter. Our course textbook, Nicola Denzey Lewis’ Introduction to “Gnosticism,” does not cover this material, so I had students prepare for the class by reading Richard Smith’s essay, “The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism,” featured as an appendix to James Robinson’s The Nag Hammadi Library collection. We began with an overview of gnostic groups who […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week Eleven: Judas and Mary

Thanks to CNN’s Finding Jesus I was able to sit back and relax a bit this week and let the episodes on the Gospel of Judas and Mary Magdalene do much of the work for me. We began our look at Judas with an overview of his appearances in the canonical gospels, covering some aspects of Judas’ story not mentioned in the documentary, including the additional story about his demise from Acts 1:18-20 (it seems most documentary and filmmakers prefer the story of Judas’ repentant suicide to the one of his fall and bowels-gushing). I couldn’t resist also adding the […]

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Finding Jesus Episode 6: Mary Magdalene

The final episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery looked at the role of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus. The relationship between the two is probably the most burning issue in contemporary popular discourse about Jesus; most recently, the topic has been brought o public attention via the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s controversial book The Lost Gospel—neither of which, with good reason, were discussed in the documentary. But viewers did learn about three other apocryphal texts: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary. But […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 10: Eastern Gnosis

Much of our Gnosticism course to date has focused on western forms of gnosis (well, more westerly, I suppose), but this week we moved east for a look at Manicheism, Mandaeism, and Hermeticism. We were flying without a net for much of the discussion, as Nicola Denzey Lewis’ textbook has a chapter on the Nag Hammadi Hermetic texts but nothing on the Manicheism and Mandaeism. As I have said before, the textbook is self-consciously an introduction to the Nag Hammadi library and strays little from that corpus; the only exception is a chapter on the Gospels of Judas and Mary, […]

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Finding Jesus Episode 5: “Inventing” the True Cross

The penultimate episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery tells the story of the discovery of the True Cross by Helena, the mother of Constantine. Through a mixture of dramatic re-enactments, scholarly commentary, and relic-hunting sleuthery, viewers learn much about the life of Helena, her son Constantine, and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. But, as in previous episodes, the sources relating to the artifacts are not treated with the kind of critical rigor that they require. There are multiple versions of the inventio crucis, the discovery of the True Cross, not all of which even feature Helena, and […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 9: Apocalypses

The TA and Sessionals strike at York continues but some classes taught by full-time faculty have resumed, including my Gnosticism course. The few weeks off led to some confusion for me on the organization of the course (see below) but I was happy to be back in class. We continued our journey through Nicola Denzey Lewis’ textbook, covering several more of her thematic chapters. This week we read the two chapters on apocalypses. Chapter 18 of the textbook focuses on texts with “apocalypse” in their titles (the Apocalypse of Adam and the Apocalypse of Paul, but not the Apocalypse of […]

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Finding Jesus Episode 4: The “Secret Brother of Jesus”

The fourth episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery examines the contentious ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus, which David Gibson (author of the companion book to the series) calls the “first physical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed” (I guess they are already discounting the Shroud of Turin from episode 1). The episode was fair and balanced in its presentation of the evidence for the authenticity of the ossuary and, to my delight, mentioned several apocryphal texts in its piecing together of James’ biography. It was also nice to see them open the episode with shots of […]

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Abstracts for 2015 CSBS/CSPS Christian Apocrypha Session

The Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies will take place May 30 to June 1, 2015 at the University of Ottawa. For the past four years I have been leading a session at the CSBS on Christian Apocrypha. Last year we began a partnership with the Canadian Society of Patristic Studies for a joint session and once again this year the two societies have assembled a wide-ranging (and multi-lingual) group of papers for the session. Also of interest to scholars and readers of Christian Apocrypha is the session entitled “Later Christianity,” which includes several additional papers on […]

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Finding Jesus Episode 3: The Gospel of Judas

This week’s episode of CNN’s six-part documentary series Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery focused on a literary artifact: the Gospel of Judas. When the text was published in 2006 it caused quite a sensation. It’s initial editors declared that it portrayed Judas as a hero, not a villain. Scholars were cautious in their conclusions about the text, saying that it had no bearing on the historical Judas, but the media were not interested in what it revealed of second-century controversies—they wanted to know what it said about the life of Jesus. The first half of the episode focuses on dramatizing […]

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Finding Jesus Episode 2: “Inventing” John the Baptist

The latest episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, a mini-series which aims to present “fascinating new insights into the historical Jesus, utilizing the latest scientific techniques and archaeological research,” focused on relics of John the Baptist. The episode was a sequel of sorts to a 2012 National Geographic documentary called The Head of John the Baptist, which examines claims that a set of bones found in Bulgaria belonged to John (details HERE). CNN followed the efforts of experts to authenticate another relic of John from Kansas City but derived some of its content for the episode from the […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 8: Rituals and the Divine Feminine

Classes at my university (York in Toronto) have been suspended for the past week due to a strike by the teaching assistants and part-time instructors. Undaunted, I put together a Youtube video of my lecture so that the class could continue with relatively little disruption. The assigned readings from the textbook covered three topics: rituals relating to the Five Seals and death, martyrdom, and the Divine Feminine. Ritual practices can be difficult to retrieve from texts. Consider, for example, Christian practices. A typical liturgy today contains various readings, prayers, responsories, and credal formulas derived from the New Testament (and sometimes […]

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Finding Jesus Episode 1: Giving in to the Apocryphal Urge

Last Sunday night, I tuned in, along with over a million other viewers, to the first episode of CNN’s six-part series Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery. The series seeks to answer questions about the life and death of Jesus using evidence from artifacts—some textual (the Gospel of Judas) some not (the bones of John the Baptist). This first episode focused on the Shroud of Turin as possible evidence for Jesus’ death—indeed perhaps also his resurrection, given the Shroud’s apparent miraculous qualities. My interest in the episode is in how it demonstrates the apocryphal urge—meaning, the temptation to retell stories from […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 7: Sethianism

As with the lecture on Valentinianism a few weeks ago, this week we looked at another prominent gnostic group, Sethians, and again squeezed in a lot of reading: three chapters from the textbook and two primary texts: the Three Steles of Seth and the Apocryphon of John. The lecture was structured around a callout box on. p. 118 of Denzey Lewis’s textbook entitled “The Development of Sethianism,” adapted from the work of John D. Turner. This schema essentially has three stages: Jewish, Christian, and Platonic. It can be hard for some to swallow the notion that Gnostic Judaism could have […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 6: Thomas

This week’s class was comparatively lighter than last week’s look at Valentinianism. The students had to read only one textbook chapter and two primary texts. Mind you, they also had to hand in their book review of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. And if they were anything like me as an undergrad, most of them were reading the book up to the last minute in a mad scramble to get the review done. It feels increasingly odd to teach the Gospel of Thomas in a Gnosticism class. Many scholars do not see it as really Gnostic; it does hint at […]

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