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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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 5: Valentinianism

I was overly ambitious this week. Denzey Lewis’ textbook devotes four chapters to Valentinianism; we covered all of it in one class. On top of that the students had to read an assortment of primary texts—Prayer of the Apostle Paul, Tripartite Tractate, Gospel of Truth, and Gospel of Philip—and hand in a short paper on the Gospel of Truth. Worse still, the Tripartite Tractate is really, really long! Even I had trouble getting through all the material before class. The lecture distilled the textbook discussion of the life of Valentinus, the Valentinian schools that succeeded him, and the problems of […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 4: Religious Landscapes

Following the order of the textbook (Nicola Denzey Lewis’s Introduction to “Gnosticism”), we spent this week’s class on background. The students read the chapters in the textbook on “The Roman Empire” and “Christianity in the Second-Century Empire” and I had them read selections from a number of texts important particularly for understanding gnostic cosmologies—specifically, Plato’s The Republic (on the myth of the cave) and Timaeus (on the creation of the universe by the Demiurge), Plotinus’s Enneads (on the ascent of the soul), and Genesis 1-9. The lecture was essentially an encyclopedic tour of these texts with a smattering of historical […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 3: Heresy Hunting

This week we continued working through our sources for Gnosticism, this time with some discussion of the heresiologists. Before the manuscript discoveries discussed last week, the writings of the heresy hunters were virtually our only sources for gnostic Christianity. But as we saw in our discussion, their accounts are not dispassionate—they did not like gnostic forms of Christianity and tried to eradicate it; but in their attempts they preserved a lot of information about gnostic groups they had encountered and even sometimes provide us with texts that otherwise would be lost. We began with a look at the beginnings of […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 2: Rethinking Nag Hammadi

As mentioned on my blog entry from last week, the textbook we are using for the course focuses almost entirely on the Nag Hammadi Library, leaving other sources for Gnosticism relatively unexamined. So we began class this week by redressing this deficiency with an examination of the discoveries made before Nag Hammadi, namely the codices Askew (British Museum, Add. 511; 4th cent.; published in 1851), Bruce (Bodleian Library, Bruce MS 96; 5th cent.; published in 1891), and Berlin (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502; 5th cent.; published in 1955). To these discoveries we owe the existence of the Pistis Sophia, the Books of […]

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Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 1: Who Will Take the Red Pill?

My New Testament Apocrypha course came to an end in December but that doesn’t mean studying apocryphal texts has to end too. So, let’s continue our examination of noncanonical early Christian literature in my Winter course: Gnosticism (the syllabus can be read HERE). As with the New Testament Apocrypha course, I will post some reflections on the week’s activities to encourage discussions of pedagogy and to provide a forum for my students to participate in the course outside of the classroom. This  is my fourth time teaching Gnosticism at York, but the first using Nicola Denzey Lewis’s new textbook Introduction […]

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