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 context.

For the Genesis material, I had the students watch a few scenes from the recent Noah film (Aronofsky 2014), including Noah’s recounting of the creation story, the opening scene that mentions the line of Seth as the protectors of Creation, and the origins of the Watchers. Then we had a reading quiz on Genesis 1-3 to emphasize the problems in the twin creation accounts that Hellenistic Jews and Christians tried to reconcile. After a discussion of Greek myths and Plato, I asked the class how someone might integrate Platonic cosmology—with its heavenly and earthly realms, its twin deities (the Good and the Demiurge), the paradeigma (model) in the heavens, and gods as helpers in the creation of humanity—with the Jewish creation stories. As one student rightly pointed out, “you get Gnosticism.” But first you get Philo of Alexandria, and I demonstrated how Philo articulated the Genesis story using Plato (Gen 1 is the creation of the heavenly realm, Gen 2-3 the earthly; the Logos and angelic helpers correspond to the Demiurge and the gods; etc.).

After the break we turned to the origins of Christianity, with a quick run through the gospels and Paul. I noted how Mark’s adoptionist Christology was attractive to gnostic Christians, as was John’s Logos hymn (and here I pointed out similarities with Philo’s system). For Paul we looked at selections from his undisputed letters (1 Cor 1-3, 8-9, 12; 2 Cor 10-12) that hint at early Gnosticism (Apollos’s sophisticated gospel, the “super apostles” ) and elements of Paul’s views attractive to gnostic Christians in later centuries (his championing of asceticism, his two-tier system of instruction, and various mentions of “gnosis”). Then we examined Colossians 2 for its spiritualization of resurrection and warnings against outside influences (such as “See to it that no-one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit,” 2:8), and we finished up Paul with a look at similar warnings in 1 Timothy of “myths and endless genealogies,” and the instructions to “instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine” and “avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” One text then remained: 1 John with its condemnation of doceticism.

It is clear that there was division in early Christianity, with different views about Jesus, different ways to interpret his divinity, different practices, etc. It is difficult to identify these groups; it is not clear they are gnostic in the sense you find in later Christianity, but some similarities exist: ascetic leanings, anti-nomianism, wisdom or knowledge as key to salvation, revelations, and docetic Christology. And keep in mind that Simon, who, as we saw last week, was considered the originator of heresy by Irenaeus, was a contemporary of Jesus. Some of the writers’ own use of terms like knowledge, light and darkness, etc. also allowed later Christian groups with gnostic leanings to appeal to them as authorities.

The students should now have sufficient knowledge of the thoughtworld of Gnosticism that such complex texts as the Apocryphon of John should be relatively intelligible, or at least more so. We’ll see if I’m right next week when we delve into Valentinianism.



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