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 heresiological literature in apologetic literature: texts written by Christians to Romans to argue that Christians are not deserving of punishment and persecution. The most well-known example of this literature is Justin Martyr’s two Apologies. We discussed how the apologists sought to articulate Christianity as a philosophy and tried to reconcile Christianity with Greco-Roman philosophical thought. Not everyone at the time agreed on the extent to which that should be done. Tertullian famously said “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians?” Gnostics were far more comfortable about integrating Greco-Roman philosophy into Christianity, particularly Platonic thought; though today these texts look bizarre, they would have been considered more consistent with the intellectual pursuits of the day than the texts that ended up in the canon.

The heresy hunters were less concerned with presenting Christian views to non-Christians as presenting the correct Christian view to other Christians. Christianity was a religion of belief, not practice or ritual. So statements of right belief became very important, and the heresy hunters were intent on having everyone be unified in belief. We focused on Irenaeus and noted some of the tendencies of heresiological writers observable in his The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called (Against Heresies). I pointed out that Irenaeus wished to subsume all forms of Christianity he opposed under the umbrella term “Gnosis,” even such groups as the Jewish-Christian Ebionites or the apocalyptic Montanists; Irenaeus wanted to show how the “Gnosticis” did not agree with one another, but of course how can they when some of the groups he refutes are not even gnostic? He also claimed that Gnosticism can be traced to one figure, Simon Magus, and other gnostic thinkers followed in his footsteps. Both of these strategies were employed by later heresy hunters like Hippolytus of Rome and Epiphanius of Salamis and heavily influenced reconstructions of Christian history for centuries.

The chapter from the textbook assigned for this week spends some time on efforts to define Gnosticism, including a look at the Messina Definition, the Yale School, and attempts at rethinking Gnosticism by Karen King and Michael Williams. We discussed this section of the book only briefly in class since we will be coming back to Williams at the end of the course, though I did use the opportunity to throw in a short overview of Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Bauer was an early challenger of the orthodox view of the origins of Christianity—that is, he illustrated that heresy did not enter the church from without (via Simon Magus or other arch-heretics) but was a manifestation of early variety in Christianity. Most importantly, Bauer and likeminded scholars have urged caution in how we use such terms as “orthodoxy” and “heresy”—all Christians, gnostic or not, considered themselves orthodox and others heretics—and no-one has a monopoly on truth.

After the break we turned to this week’s primary reading: Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora preserved by Epiphanius of Salamis. I described the text last week as a “gentle entry point” into Gnosticism—both for the student and for Flora, the woman who is the intended recipient of the letter. The class discussed how the letter reads like a correspondence course for Gnosticism, as Ptolemy promises to send Flora more advanced teachings in a future letter. The students were surprised by how “orthodox” the letter seemed, and I emphasized how the author appeals in his arguments to many standard Christian texts, including the letters of Paul, John, and sayings of Jesus from the Gospels. Some students described the author’s rhetorical strategy as “seductive”—that is, he was gently trying to convince Flora of the cogency of his beliefs—and I agree, but cautioned against seeing “seductive” as something negative, in the sense of manipulative or deceptive. There’s nothing wrong with trying to teach difficult concepts in small doses using ideas that are familiar to your audience—isn’t that what I’m doing in this course?

One student mentioned an argument about the backstory of the letter put forward by Tim Pettipiece in his entry on the text for the collection Milestone Documents of World Religions (p. 444). Pettipiece said that the author of the letter may have been the same Ptolemy mentioned by Justin Martyr as having been put to death for trying to convert a wealthy Roman woman. It’s an intriguing idea but, as Pettipiece states, it “remains unconfirmed.”

I pointed out to the students that Ptolemy uses some of the same strategies in his letter that we observed in the writings of the heresy hunters: both refute the beliefs of groups with which they do not agree (in Ptolemy’s case, those who see the god of this world as evil, perhaps the Marcionites), and both use Scripture (not yet canon, but certainly highly-regarded texts) to argue their positions, thus demonstrating that their ideas come directly from Jesus and the apostles. The heresy hunters and their opponents are not so different at all.

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2 Responses to Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 3: Heresy Hunting

  1. Aren’t the real heretics those whose writings are currently found in the New Testament?

    Who’s a heretic is all a matter of perspective!

  2. David Bremang says:

    Just to add on your take with Heresy. I believe it’s found everywhere- not only Christianity, but in Islam, Judaism, and Marxism.

    There will be oppositions to so called traditional practises in most major religions I find. To say that the real Heretics are found in the New Testament might be a bit I would say it’s more relevant in the Old Testament.

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