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 to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). In previous years I have used Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) and Birger Pearson’s Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), neither of which were ideal. Denzey Lewis’s book is structured very much like Bart Ehrman’s introduction to the New Testament (also published by Oxford) and thus is very reader-friendly. Strangely, however, the textbook focuses almost entirely on the Nag Hammadi Library material, with only casual mention of the traditions preserved by the church fathers (e.g., the Epistle to Flora) and the pre-Nag Hammadi discoveries (in the codices Askew, Bruce, and Berlin) and no discussion at all of Manicheism, Mandaeism, and gnostic movements of medieval and modern times. Mind you, this can be of benefit to me as it gives me the opportunity to introduce these other materials in the lectures.

The other books used in the course are Marvin Meyer’s collection of primary texts (The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2007), Elaine Pagels’s classic The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), and Michael Williams’s Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

The first lecture this week began with an exchange with the students about what they know of Jesus. After hearing from them that he was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and died for the sins of humanity, etc., I proceeded to tell them that everything they knew about Jesus was wrong. I told them that he was not born of a virgin, indeed he was not truly human at all; his father was the Great Invisible Spirit and his mother was Wisdom; he came to us from the realm of light to rescue us from this prison of darkness; and he did not die on the cross, rather someone else was crucified in his place. My goal in this exchange was to have the students experience what early Christians may have felt when hearing gnostic interpretations of Jesus for the first time. I was hoping to entice them to learn more.

After a quick tour of the course syllabus, we finished the class with a viewing of a sizable chunk (about 30 minutes) of The Matrix (dir. Larry/Lana and Andy Wachowski, 1999)—the scenes of Neo’s rescue from the Matrix and Morpheus’s exposition of how and why the Matrix was created. The excerpts form a gentle and familiar (over half the class had already seen the film) entry into the gnostic thoughtworld; Denzey Lewis agrees, as she uses the film to introduce the second chapter in her textbook. The class concluded with a discussion of the Christian and gnostic imagery and concepts observable in the film.

I warned the students a number of times that Gnosticism is difficult to define, and the course builds toward questioning the category with an examination of Williams’s important study. I wonder how the students feel about taking a course in which the validity of the subject itself is called into question. Hopefully it doesn’t deter students from continuing in the course. We’ll see next week how many decided to take the blue pill and stay home, and how many took the red pill and are willing to follow me into wonderland.


One response to “Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 1: Who Will Take the Red Pill?

  1. Hello Professor Tony !.

    For sure I will be taking the red pill in hope of surviving for the next few weeks :). I am really excited to find out more about the other side of Christianity that has been left in the dark for centuries. After reading more on the Nag Hammadi, it idea on the codices is a lot more clear. For example, the story of Sophia & Jesus was recognized in the movie and book of Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code which I found was interesting at the time – funny enough to find out the Nag Hammadi is the source of this story allows me to understand that this base of scriptures has the same importance of the Bible most Christians use today.

    My end goal of this course is to understand the true meaning of why these scriptures have been shunned away from Christianity and to understand the true meaning of Gnosticism as much as I can.


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