Historiographic Sophistications: Did Gnosticism Exist?

When one looks at the field of study that is the History of Christianity one cannot but be impressed by the intent and extent of its inquiry and its fruits. To deeper penetration of texts, enabled by sharper philological tools and a more refined understanding of the immediate and circumambient contexts of texts, practices, and forms of life, one can point to both the steady enlargement of the archive and the appropriate centering on movements and figures that have been relatively neglected throughout the centuries, whether this concerns Syrian and/or Armenian Christianity of the early centuries, 16th-century reception of Aquinas, or women mystics between the 13th-16th centuries—to choose arbitrarily from a very large number of possible examples.

This work of excavation satisfies both our desire to know and the interest of passing on (traditio) discourses, practices, and forms of life as having the power to deepen our response to reality and deepen ourselves. One should add to the long list of accomplishments the coming on the scene of new methods or theories whose intent is to shed light not only on what the texts are saying—which may not be reducible to the circumstances of origin—but also on the broad patterns of thought, feeling, and disposition for which texts seem to be an expression and various religious thinkers carriers, but which also disclose symptoms of what they are not saying, but perhaps are groping to say.

This is not to say, however, that the field of the history of Christianity as a whole has reached anything like reflective equilibrium. Nor is it to deny that significant pockets in the field of the History of Christianity remain relatively underdeveloped from a theoretical point of view. And that at any moment particular forms of theory, which are extraordinarily useful when responsive to the phenomena that makes application of theory both necessary and fruitful, can come to function as distorting mirrors whereby Christian texts, practices, or forms of life serve as mere illustrations of the theory that was first put into play in an ancillary role with the intention of it remaining more or less permanently in a service capacity. In the the latter case, the precipitating phenomenon is concealed as much as disclosed, since one gets only the results that are allowed by the theory. If blindness with regard to the important facets of a phenomenon provides the motive and warrant for use of a particular theory in the first case, then with an uncircumspect use of a theory we are likely to have done no more than to have substituted one form of blindness for another.

To clarify our use of the word in the history of Christianity: “theory” is not the same as “concern.” For example, the concern a particular scholar in the history of Christianity may have for women, the poor, marginalized, the colonized, all of which can be rendered in interpretive discourses that are not high theory and proceed without eminent danger of being reductive. It is tempting to start with an abstract definition of theory in which one underscores among other things the claim to explain rather than understand phenomena. I think, however, it might be more helpful to proceed by examples. Without giving an exhaustive list, included under “theory” would be Marxist or Marxian analysis of culture as dependent on power dynamics played out in society—even if not so acknowledged by that society—in which the economy is decisive in the last instance; Critical Theory, which is a complex derivative of Marxism subversive of its reductionist tendencies (Adorno, Horkeimmer); Psychoanalysis in its more classical or more trending Lacanian form; Post-Nietzscheanism illustrated variously, but most expressively by Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault who have shown far more positive interest in the history of Christanity than followers of Nietzsche are inclined to have; and however descending at the moment, Deconstruction as a theory of signification in which the emphasis falls on the signifiers rather than the signified. And perhaps we can tagend the inventory of theoretical forms with the various kinds of post-Heideggerian hermeneutics, whether Gadamerian, Ricoeurian, or whatever the latest update in the hermeneutic manifold happens to be with or without its melding with the various forms of critical theory.

Looked at as a whole, as a field of study, the History of Christianity is hardly in crisis. Thus, I do not understand what I am writing here to be an intervention in the strict sense. Nor, though I am not immune to the charms of high drama, am I asking the reader to conceive it as a low-grade variant of intervention, intervention in the mode of decrescendo as it were. There is extraordinary work being done in all areas of inquiry across all periods of Christianity’s long, complex, and sometimes tortured history. Some—maybe much of the historical and textual investigation—proceeds with little explicit appeal to theory. Some historical investigations or historically-based investigations, however, proceed with considerable appeal to theory in which the fruits show up positively. As a whole, arguably, the field comes across as in a far healthier state than the field of Biblical Studies which, if dominated by Historical Critical Method, also permits on the margins the free-play of theories many of which tend to function hegemonically.

Still, I do think of what I am writing here and what will follow in the coming weeks as something of a redress. More specifically, I will be drawing attention to examples of domains of inquiry of what amounts, on the one hand, to the foreclosure of theory in historical inquiry into the discourses, practices, and forms of life of Christianity and, on the other, the precisely opposite tendency of granting theory so much scope that it leads to covering over the phenomenon, whether a discourse, practice, form of life, that called for illumination in the first case.

I plan to attend to examples of both unsaturation and oversaturation by theory which, in my view, hinders rather than helps at getting at the complex truth of a phenomenon thrown up by history. Other examples than the ones I discuss could just as easily suffice. In any event, I invite the reader to supply their own. Not surprisingly, given my own intellectual pedigree, my main example of a refusal of theory is the call in the last last 20 years or so to remove from the historiographic lexicon the category of “Gnosticism.” I am known for arguing a case of “Gnostic return” in modernity. At the outset, however, I want to assure the reader that I have no intention of taxing their patience with complex arguments regarding the viability of using the category with regard to modern speculative forms of thought that either self-identify as Christian or have Christianity positively or negatively in view. All I intend to do here is

  1. to defend the categories of “Gnosticism” and “Valentinianism”—particularly the latter—regarding a discrete band of texts in Nag Hammadi including the Gospel of Truth and the Tripartite Tractate, and
  2. to deflate the claim that heresiologists such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus essentially invented (in a pejorative sense) a phenomenon that did not really exist, and
  3. contest the view that Gnostic attribution should be excised in a more intellectually responsible historiography weaned of a conceptualism and essentialism, unfaithful both to the plurality and contingency of historical forms of Christianity, indeed, blind to the reality of multiple Christianities which, due to the Darwinism of survival, had (unfortunately) losers as well as winners.

In any event, I am thinking of the “there is no Gnosticism” historiography as an example of a refusal of theory or what might be called a historiography that is theoretically undersaturated. In the case of what might be regarded as the opposite problem, the over-development or hypertrophy of theory, a good example can plausibly be found in the study of medieval mysticism and medieval women mystics in particular.

Specifically, I am talking about the injection by Amy Hollywood of Georges Bataille’s particular form of negative theology into the analyses of the texts of medieval women mystics such Hildegaard of Bingen, Marguerite Poirete, and Angela de Foligno among others. The question raised is whether his form of negative theology or a/theology can function as the lens in and through which to examine the phenomenon of medieval women mystics, given its connection with concepts of transgression and sovereignty that have their origin in such a philosophical luminary as the Marquis de Sade and as laminated in the more aesthetic language of Nietzsche come to imply that transgression only has consequences for the transgressor and none for the poor unfortunates, the poor, women, and children who are the objects of transgression. In any event, in her deployment of a theoretical apparatus Hollywood is casual in her application of a syncretistic philosopher, who suspends common morality, ignores divine commandment, excises Christian virtues of humility as well as faith and love only to elevate at every moment the intoxicating increase of power that leads to an exalted state, that is the plenitude of excess that craves more excess. Bataille’s discourse seems to function so hegemonically that one cannot avoid asking the question: what of the specifically Christian in these women mystics ultimately remains?

I have provided clear examples of two forms of historiography in which, on the one hand, there is a failure to open up a theoretical lens and, on the other, the aperture is opened up far too wide. Arguably, there is a third type, one which oscillates between too little and too much theory. I am thinking here of the ongoing rehabilitation of Arianism that has tended to function as a cipher for proper historiographical method that insists on bracketing theological notions of providence without, however, ever giving notice that such a notion might get deployed under any circumstances. Since the publication of Rowan Williams’s influential book on Arianism it has hardened into a creed that the victory of the orthodox party at Nicaea had everything to do with power politics and nothing to do with the value of theological argument and creative fidelity to the Christian tradition. Here we are talking about a prevailing praxis of positivistic interpretation of the formation and formulation of doctrine attended in the first instance by generic appeals to intellectual probity, historical sympathy, and moral responsibility, but sometimes explicitly favoring the historiography of Gibbon over Newman. Newman’s historiographical praxis may well be under attack these days, but I want to suggest its superiority both in general and when it comes to Arianism and to Nicaea.

Historiographical Sophistication 1:There is No Such Thing as Gnosticism

In the academy the authority of a discourse is as much a function of its ability to embarrass those whose intellectual and discursive authority is being displaced, as the persuasiveness of its promoters who prestige-wise are in the ascent. What is true in general is no less true in the historiographical field. It can be granted that here more than literary fields of study there will be resistance to fashion and more signs of religious conviction and confessional affiliation. Still, this does not mean that a long-time laborer in the vineyard of History of Christianity may not end up feeling embarrassed that she has not fully grasped “difference” or fully appropriated “techniques of the self.”

I would suggest that the historiographical mantra “there is no Gnosticism” also functions to shame as much as convince, because it seems to have taken on something of the property of the child exclaiming “the emperor has no clothes.” One finds oneself shocked that you thought the emperor did, or more concretely you find yourself embarrassed that you were party to the collective illusion (nay, even delusion) that “Gnosticism” named anything at all, that it was anything more than a flatus vocis and maybe even something far more insidious and noxious.

Needless to say, there are straight-up converts who, given time, will proselytize. One is enlightened with regard to the proper etiquette regarding the strange texts from the early centuries of the common era now in our possession, and owns this enlightenment as one throws off one’s erstwhile wretchedly subpar historiographic past. Yet, there are more reluctant as well as more ardent holders of the upgraded truth. For some, there is less a clean break than an acquired suffering. The new truth is held in something like bad faith. One finds oneself in the classroom and among friends talking as if the category of “Gnosticism” had something like an objective correlative. A double take exposes less the horror of it all than veniality. In any event, the latter all-too-common response to one’s disillusionment eloquently demonstrates that in the career of a rising intellectual fashion power is indexed by engendering shame in those who fail the tests of the true believer. Feeling cowed by the declarative that there is no Gnosticism and your inadequacy as a scholar is painfully exposed, one finds oneself reduced to stammering or silence.

Shaming is a form of coercion; it is put to the aspiring younger as well as the tried and true older scholar whether they want to live outside the city of refined intellect. The price of resistance is high, and often too steep not to yield. Integrity in scholarship, dogged pursuit of truth even if so-called truth has little sparkle and brings no prestige, these are noble virtues, but who wants to be a barbarian and have one’s discourse come across as borborygmic rumblings in the brilliant salon of the disenchanters?

A little over twenty years ago Michael Williams inaugurated what has turned out to be something of a sub-tradition in the field of the study of ancient Christianity. His interesting and well-written book, Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (1996), argued that “Gnosticism” was essentially a pseudo-category and that with the evidence of the Nag Hammadi Library before us the category could at best be considered a convention that had worn out its usefulness. At worst, and Williams moved decisively in this direction, the category did violence to the plurality of texts in the first centuries of the common era, which illustrated quite different religious and philosophical aspirations and commitments, many (if not most) of which would not conform to what many scholars in the 20th century have come to view as “Gnostic.” What makes Williams’s text different than other scholarly texts on Gnosticism in the previous decades that took a pro-stance towards the fabulously constructed heretics—for example, the work of Elaine Pagels—is that it adds a new objection to the objection already in play of the construct of “Gnosticism” being from the beginning a polemical category connected with the politics of insiders and outsiders.

The new objection is more fundamentally methodological: the label of “Gnosticism” represents the intellectually dishonest homogenization of a field of religious discourses marked by an enormous level of heterogeneity. His book constitutes thereby a disciplinary intervention suggesting that with the library of Nag Hammadi scholars of ancient Christianity will have to wean themselves from essentially 19th century methodological approaches to the plural texts of the ancient Mediterranean world that uncritically granted the heresiologist the right to define the terms of analysis of other discourses either within its broad precincts or on its margins. The disavowal of the concept of “Gnosticism” is based on a rejection of conceptualism and essentialism in historiography, and the correlative recommendation that truth is served when we grasp the unique nature of each of these discourses. We are enjoined to embrace the plurality, difference, and irreducibility of these discourses as the appropriate intellectual and moral virtues for a scholar of ancient Christianity.

Unlike scholars of ancient Christianity in the previous generation Williams does not perserervate on the forsenic use of the category of “Gnosticism” in the heresiologists which was uncritically repeated in much of the historiography up until the 1970’s. Still, whether Williams repeats this slightly earlier scholarship or not, at the very least his book owes much to it. One can see its influence in his fine-grained analyses of texts in the Nag Hammadi Library he deems to be irreducible to categorization. Albeit at a safe distance, he seems inclined to join in the earlier cheering for the underdog who was a victim of bellicose rhetoric of an emerging institutional force devoted to the negative construction of the other and practicing to the nth degree the violent politics of exclusion. Whether named or unnamed, we are all supposed to know that this emergent institutional power is Catholic Christianity.

Williams, as I indicated, is the father or forefather of a tradition that might not unfairly be cast after the subject matter he studies as emanations. One such emanation is the work of Karen King. In What is Gnosticism? (2003). King seconds and develops Williams’s historiographic thesis. Though her work is far less finely calibrated than his, what she lacks in subtlety she makes up in force: she is far more derogatory than he in the language she uses to describe the heresiologists and far more more disclosive about the politics that guides her dismissal of modern historiography in which the category of “Gnosticism” finds favor, however qualified that favor might be. While she differs from Williams in some of her substantive judgments regarding the texts from the Nag Hammadi Library and their putative communities, she also decries the essentialism of previous generations of scholars of Ancient Christianity, whether it is the strong kind of essentialism to be found in earlier 20th century theorists not familiar with Nag Hammadi such Hans Jonas, or the more moderate kind of essentialism she finds in the likes of Bentley Layton in his Gnostic Scriptures—in which one can distinguish in the Library between different traditions, a non-Christian or Sethean form of Gnosticism, a Christian or Valentinian form of Gnosticism, and other adjacent traditions such as the Thomas tradition.

Layton makes these distinctions simply by way of historiographic commonsense. While the library as a whole does not admit of being reduced to a unity, Layton thinks it obvious that there are plural unities. One such unity is the group of texts in which the figure of Seth is prominent and in which we are presented with a metanarraive in which it is disclosed among other thngs that the God of Hebrew scripture is malevolent, creation an abortion, and our only hope an escape from an oppressive material world by an insight into who one truly is, that is, a knower. Layton does not linger over the formal side of literary production of these strange texts in the way Harold Bloom does. For him, it is clear that being a knower means that one has grasped one’s blighted situation, remembered where one has really come from—which is the exact opposite of where and how one finds oneself—and understood whither one is going. Yet, it follows from what he says that only the “knower” can produce or reproduce the narrative and be author of apocalypse or write the gospel.

And, again, at the level of concrete historical judgment rather than high-flown theory, Layton suggests that there are commonalities and differences between texts in Nag Hammadi that pragmatically he is calling “Sethian” and those that he is calling “Valentinian,” which rightly or wrongly get associated with the historical Valentinus of the second century of the common era who self-identified as Christian. One finds in Valentinian Gnosticism similar pastiches of the creator and legislator God of Hebrew scriptures that one finds in those texts in which the figure of Seth is prominent. One also finds terms such as Wisdom, Word, Only Begotten, Life, Spirit, Christ and Jesus, where each used in a way at odds with the sense they have in the biblical text in general and the New Testament in particular.

For King, Layton says far too much and says too little. He belongs to the ancien regime in historiography of ancient Christianity and is not sufficiently an enemy of the heresiologists, despite his his attempts to take his distance from them. Layton’s extraordinarily cautious and meticulous scholarship is cast as “essentialist,” and as insufficiently an enemy of her enemies is essentially cast out.

The third and clearly the most moderate member of what might constitute nothing less than a historiographic regime is David Brakke. Brakke agrees with Williams and King about the dubious nature of the term, and makes explicit also the connection between the essentialist historiography that dominated before the deconstruction of “Gnosticism” as an explanatory concept and the polemical use of “Gnosticism” in the heresiologists. He repeats what in King is already a repetition. As the most moderate of the three most prominent scholars who insist there is no Gnosticism, Brakke does not discriminate between his work and that of the previous generation of scholars of ancient Christianity to the same extent as Williams or King, even if he is equally dismissive of the non-historical or inadequately historical theorizing of Jonas and the like. In all likelihood this may have something to do with his loyalty to his teacher, Bentley Layton, who if he renounced a Gnostic monomyth was convinced that a significant number of texts in the Nag Hammadi Library could be classed as “Sethian” and “Valentinian.” Although Brakke does not follow him exactly, he does concede that perhaps in a restricted way we might be able to talk of a “Valentinian” corpus. This reluctant accommodation is wrung in part because of sentiment, but in part also because it is difficult to imagine how historiography can proceeds without a minimum of categorization. Brakke recoils as if he is facing the terror of nominalism in historiography that might signal the very end of the discipline.

The value of the above is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. Its purpose in the study of Nag Hammadi, as the site of what one might want to say are “alternate Christianities,” is to show that from Williams to Brakke and beyond there is a line of interpretation that has gained a considerable amount of intellectual prestige. The result is a new uncritical tradition that has come to function as an authority that cannot but be obeyed, and if not obeyed, then at least come to “haunt” our dated and unregenerate view of Gnosticism which now can only be held in bad faith. Some antediluvian scholars will feel entitled to continue to use the term “Gnosticism” and to elevate figures like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Many, however, will feel cowed and come to feel that they are second-class intellectual citizens, mere teachers in fact, who present the milk of “Gnosticism” to their undergraduate student flock, since it would be useless to do otherwise in a situation where the destroyers have not supplied us with alternatives that are communicable. In any event, our options are cogent but not particularly good: either we present the meat of the truth of a teeming plurality seen by Williams et al to an uncomprehending audience, or feel bad about not doing so.

I would like to suggest that the Williams line of interpretation and recommendation is not only not true, but quite unsophisticated, indeed, simply a tissue of half-truthful derogations, misinterpretations, and unasked questions. For example, it is not true that the early scholars of Gnosticism, and it is certainly not true of scholars of Bentley Layton’s era, that they failed to emphasize plurality. They all did significantly and to various extents. Scholars of Layton’s generation insisted that the plurality of discourses and narratives exhibited in Nag Hammadi cannot be reduced to a simple unity. They simply did not take this to mean, however, that the library ruled out multiple unities which in turn might justify “Gnosticism” as a cover term that could be used without a guilty conscience.

Turning to the early Church, it is undoubtedly true in a text such as Adversus Haereses that the scope of the general term “Gnosticism” is not always clear. Sometimes the term “Gnosticism” seems to refer to heterogeneous (even contrary) forms of religious thought to which Christians presumably have access. At other times “Gnosticism” signifies in a more restricted way would-be Christian insiders who are proposing esoteric interpretations of biblical symbols and transposing the Christian narrative into a larger metanarrative frame that speaks to a saving knowledge that is the prerogative of the few. Of course, in the trajectory of Williams Irenaeus can be abused for being too vague and being too polemical in his application of the term, both of which are taken to devastate plurality, but perhaps also the live-and-let-live mentality of the contemporary historian of ancient Christianity. But does Irenaeus in fact ignore plurality?

While he does reduce what he obviously regards as a cacophony of discourses to type, is it not the case that he almost histrionically underscores the plurality of Gnostic forms and the imaginative inventiveness of the so-called “Gnostics” whose texts sprout up like mushrooms on a daily basis? Irenaeus wishes to draw attention to three things:

  1. that a teeming variety of discourses are in play which are either claimed to be Christian or appear to attract Christians;
  2. that some of the differences are intentional or authorial
  3. and relatedly, the fact that discourses are different does not mean that they do not bear a family resemblance to each other.

This suggests that the real issue between Williams, King, and Brakke, on the one hand, and rival interpreters of Nag Hammadi and heresiologists, on the other, is not the reality of plurality at all, but rather its interpretation. With the exception of Brakke, this group of interpreters operate dogmatically. The obvious family resemblances between texts in Nag Hammadi in terms of lexemes, symbols, narrative, placement and interpretation of biblical passages, and intended effect in the reader are ignored. Because of the dogma of pluralism these texts are read as monads with no relation to each other.

This is one example of a theoretical decision functioning at a covert rather than overt level, which leaves the interpreter off the hook when it comes to justification. I think it is not inaccurate to say that given its operation as assumption rather than a theoretical construct that needs to be defended, that pluralism in this interpretive literature is functioning ideologically. This is true also with regard to the accusation of “interest” in the case of heresiologists that comes across in the unseemliness of their use of polemic and invective. Of course, at one level this new tradition of interpretation is not fully at one with itself. As historians of religion, all are keenly aware of polemic as a rhetorical form, so the objection in the case of the heresiologists seems unnecessarily evaluative.

Given the plurality of religious forms in the Mediterranean world, would it not be anachronistic, if not utopian, to think of these discourses outside the context of rivalry and agon. It is true that Irenaeus behaves towards alternate renderings of Christianity, alternate readings of scripture, and alternative sources of authority, as rivals, but is not this a general pattern rather than the exception? Does not The Gospel of Truth in its incipit make a claim for itself and insofar as it does so make a claim against rival interpretations of the biblical text and perhaps even against the biblical text itself? Is the Tripartite Tractate not only making a truth claim against standard forms of Christianity, but revising its own tradition in which always and everywhere there is an absolute contrast between cosmos and pleroma when it suggests that the creation of the cosmos is a form of felix culpa? The heresiologists definitely betray interest, but then so do their rivals who refuse precisely the form of institutional, dogmatic, and practical-ethical Christianity that the heresiologists recommend. Once again, a value, this time “disinterest,” is used as sword of Damocles over Catholic Christianity which has the bad manners to be the survivor. But as a matter of logic and history the same sword hangs over Catholic Christianity’s rivals who are deemed to be maliciously constructed. Are they not similarly “interested”?

From a theoretical point of view the attack against interest is ill-conceived. At the very least it fails to acknowledge that it anachronistically makes demands of disinterest which, as a value, is a creation of the Enlightenment as it responds to the wars of religion thought to be a function of the vehement expression of particular truth claims held to be non-negotiable. In short, this particular band of interpretation commits the historiographic faux pas of faux pas, that is, it fails to maintain the historical distance that is the lynchpin of historical method. In fact members of the Williams group do precisely the opposite. In what appears to be a form of wish-fulfillment they insert their own unexamined assumptions of disinterest and tolerance which then come to function as criteria of judgment that pick out the victims and the villians. Again the villians are the winners, where it is assumed that the survival was merely accidental or rested on the illegitimate use of power based on interest and manifested in exclusion. It would seem that only Catholic Christianity has interests, makes truth claims, and excludes. As I have already indicated, this is factually incorrect and does injustice to the texts of Nag Hammadi which, if sometimes bizarre, are full of existential pathos, and sometimes riveting in their beauty. It is also nonsense.

The texts of Nag Hammadi are neither texts of the boudoir nor the salon: they are texts looking for an audience, looking for converts, looking for believers. And if we are to follow Spinoza’s maxim, omnis determinatio est negatio, then exclusion is built into the texts of Nag Hammadi from the start. Moreover, one finds in the Williams line of historiography an extraordinary lack of reflection on the question of what religious forms have the inherent capacity to survive beyond their nascent context.

Sometimes notice is made of Catholic Christianity’s greater capacity to survive precisely because of its institutional genius, even if this cuts against the thesis of the sheer contingency of survival, which is required to delegitimate its existence and in particular to rule out appeals to providence which is the wrong kind of argument, that is, a “theological” argument. The question is not squarely faced as to whether texts such as The Gospel of Truth or The Tripartite Tractate have the capacity to survive over a long period. Not to raise this question makes sentimental all historical judgements that the putative communities of the texts of Nag Hammadi “could have” or “should have” survived, given the malignancy of the actual survivor characterized by obscurantism, moral turpitude, and political chicanery.

In attacking the “disinterest” that is recommended by the Williams line of interpretation of ancient Christianity as a value I have already been speaking in a low-flying sense of ideology. I want to up the ante and up the level of critical discourse by drawing attention to the fact that Critical Theory in the shape of Habermas, and before him Adorno and Horkheimer, have exposed the pretension of the disinterestedness of knowing as the mark of marks of ideology. Of course, all can and do take their lead from the historical Karl Marx who stated with a vehemence of which only he is capable in the German Ideology and the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that the appeal to disinterest is always a mask hiding interest. In fact Habermas and Critical Theory in principle would be far less tolerant of promoters of disinterest than figures like Irenaeus who straight up confess interest and presumes that all the actors involved are moved by it.

What am I saying? I am saying that the historiographical reform regarding the category of “Gnosticism,” inaugurated by Williams and brought forward by King and Brakke, and in my experience fairly routinely echoed in a throat-clearing way in many papers written on particular topics in ancient Christianity or particular texts of the Nag Hammadi corpus, is theoretically naïve in the extreme. It mirrors what it accuses the heresiologists of, that is, of operating from assumptions, in this instance, modern assumptions of pluralism and tolerance. These values are the screen in and through which Catholic Christianity is presumed to be obscurantist and violent. Contrariwise, given the beneficent sentiments regarding the spiritualities and modalities of Christianity that lost out, these “others” are intrinsically unpolemical and nonviolent. Leaving aside the difficulty that there is no evidence to support this imputation, nor even a mounting of an argument to support it, this is not only anachronistic, but an example of interpretive violence. This violence is both exhibited and extended when we remind ourselves of the dispensing with theory indicated in the dismissal of early scholars of Gnosticism such as Jonas and Quispel.

Unlike the next generation of historians of ancient Christianity such as Bentley Layton and the like, for both of these intellectuals reading ancient texts of the first centuries of the common era was a means in and through which to read ourselves. There is, of course, much that is wrong with this particular method, which is best described as excavating existential states such as alienation and focusing on symbolic networks such as forgetting, darkness, dream, nightmare and their contraries in order to show the continuing pertinence of this era. Both think that these texts can speak to us, just as Platonic and Neoplatonic texts can, and as the biblical text can. Still, whatever the deficiencies of this earlier form of scholarlship, it did have the virtue of reminding all of us that ancient religious texts, whether Mandean or Manichaean, whether Sethean or Valentinian, are not the property of the specialists. They belong in the same way as the Dead Sea Scrolls to all of us.

This is not what is allowed by the new regime of the study of the Nag Hammadi. Only the specialist can read these texts; only the specialist can understand them; only the specialist will understand that small differences make all the difference from a scholarly point of view. While there may be secret admiration for the bravado of some of the intellectual-spiritual performances—and who could not be impressed with the intellectual and imaginative performance that is The Gospel of Truth—the texts are put in amber and a small-group of Coptic reading specialists hold the keys to the museum. But this too is a political act, ironically an entirely undemocratic and authoritarian act that involves a self-serving legitimation of special competence and what Derrida defines in his great essay “Faith and Knowledge” as an auto-immunization strategy. One inoculates against critique by constructing the likely criticisms of an interpretation which values transparence and order as witnessing to the disorder of a barbarian and thug. In short, Williams’s sacred line of interpretation, implicitly or explicitly, represents a violent construction of Catholic Christianity as exhaustively defined by polemical construction of the other and the politics of exclusion. Maybe one should not be surprised. Pluralism and tolerance are ineluctable virtues, purportedly illustrated in the texts that point to alternate Christianities, but congenitally absent from Catholic Christianity. Perhaps it is not a total accident then that the apostle of plurality and tolerance, John Locke, at the dawn of the modern era excluded Catholicism as a body deserving of tolerance. It was the one religious body that did not require being treated as “other.”

Now, with respect to theory there are two ways to characterize what is happening in Williams’s sacred line of “there is no Gnosticism.” One could characterize this regime of historiographic discourse as an enervating lack of theory or refusal of theory, or as exhibiting a surreptitious use of a theory that does not take on the responsibility of supplying argumentative warrants. Perhaps in the end we can go with the first, since unsophistication in theory does not mean naivete, but allowing assumptions rather than arguments to do the intellectual and interpretive work and being blind to their working. As the great Marxist interpreter Louis Althusser said: ideology operates as the means by which one sees and determines nothing less than what is visible or invisible. Of course, ideology would cease to be ideology if there were a reflexive mechanism whereby it could see its seeing and its deficits. Williams’s sacred line of interpretation has no clue with regard to the mote in its own eye.

The critique that I have been prosecuting here, which involves deflating the authority of Williams’s sacred line, is intended as penultimate. If there is an insufficient measure of theory to be found here, the obvious question follows: what would a sufficient measure of theory look like? If you have read my Gnostic Return in Modernity (2001)—and let’s be honest: you probably have not—you might recall talk of a “Baurian” model of Gnosticism. And in fact I do recall Ferdinand Christian Baur’s great Die christliche Gnosis (1835) because I have learned that sometimes scholars who do not have the historical advantages of the likes of Williams and company who have decades of interpretation of Nag Hammadi before them, say inspiringly intelligent things even if they cannot justify them. But the reason why I supplied this designation was that my main or at least ultimate task in that book was to grasp whether throughout the history of Western religious and philosophical thought we could speak of Gnostic return. In order to get that argument going, I had to deal with heresiologists, Nag Hammadi, and the “Gnosticism” deniers, and pose and answer the latter’s question (at that point only Williams). I would have been inclined to answer the question whether “Gnosticism” has a historical referent in the affirmative and would have included those texts in Nag Hammadi in which there is a pastiche of the God of Hebrew scripture as well as those texts that more directly engaged the New Testament, which we can label “Valentinian.” In fact, given my aim with respect Gnostic return in discourses that are putatively Christian, I dealt only with the latter.

In terms of method, I used what I called a “middle-voice” form of theory to account for differences and resemblances in Valentinian texts. Given that two of the central constructs of analysis are “narrative” and “grammar,” and given my Yale background, It might seem odd that I put on and continue to put on the mantle of Ricoeur. This is not to deny the influence of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck; they provided the general ethos, and I should add that study with Bentley Layton allowed me to gain real access to the subject matter and also to appreciate the sobriety with which he went about his scholarly business. His work continues to inform my own. Still, it is just a matter of historical fact that on the level of theory the particular formulations of both concepts and a third concept of “paradigm” were generated in the conversation with Ricoeur’s hermeneutic theory in general and with Time and Narrative in particular.

The issues with regard to the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library were clear. Texts such as The Gospel of Truth and The Tripartite Tractate present in different registers and styles a story about salvation that involves the restoration of a perfection lost, where writing and reading the story itself constitutes nothing short of the realization of perfection. There are other texts in Nag Hammadi that seem to recall elements of these two texts and therefore expand the horizon of significant family resemblance such that we can raise the question of unity as well as difference or raise the question of unity precisely because of the specificity of the differences. If I thought it legitimate to speak of The Gospel of Truth and The Tripartite Tractate as presenting paradigms of Valentinian Christianity, it was for the reason that the difference of symbols and narrative emphases between them and between them and other manifestly less ambitious texts seems to be restricted. They appeared to be the kind of differences one might find in the members of a family. We could recognize the family resemblance in and through the differences.

With a hint from Layton’s practice of speaking about Sethian and Valentinian texts as “narratives,” and with a theoretical nudge from Ricoeur’s notion of “grammar” as well as his sophisticated understanding of “narrative,” I suggested that we could speak of a “Valentinian narrative grammar” to go with the “paradigmatic” instances. As a narrative grammar, Valentinianism is a transformational grammar which recalls and distorts—either grossly or subtly—narrative episodes in the biblical text (creation, fall, redeemer, redemption etc). As with any grammar, a narrative grammar allows a significant amount of variation, but variation is restricted on pain of vacuity. This narrative grammar consisted of a six-step narrative, which allowed considerable variation, was made up of the following episodes:

  1. pleroma or world of perfection before the introduction of fault which eventually yields the material world as a monstrous horror;
  2. the introduction of fault and the possibility of non-perfect and non-spiritual order;
  3. generation of a demiurgic figure and the construction of matter;
  4. the creation of human being; creation and human condition
  5. the appearance of a savior associated with the name Jesus or Christ who is a teacher of the liberating story;
  6. the end of the material and psychic universe and the return of the scattered spiritual particles into a reconstituted spiritual realm.

This narrative however can have different registers, some more nearly mythological, some not; it can have different persona play different roles; have different proximities to the realism of biblical symbols etc. I am persuaded that narrative grammar-paradigm model of Valentinianism can easily be transferred to that batch of texts in Nag Hammadi in which the figure of Seth is prominent. I will leave this suggestion hang, and will not develop my thought any further. I do so for essentially two reasons.

First, while I am suggesting—but not demonstrating—that the model of Gnosticism elaborated in Gnostic Return in Modernity is vastly more sophisticated theoretically, while also being more commonsensical, than that produced by Williams et al, nonetheless, I do not consider the model to be probative in the strict sense. And, second, and crucially, my task here has been negative rather than positive. My intention has been to deflate the prestige of a particular influential line of interpretation of texts of the first centuries with pretensions to intellectual sophistication that it does not actually have. I want to suggest to those who continue to use the terms “Gnosticism” and “Valentinianism” that maybe they are entitled to do so after all and that they can at least become resident aliens in the arena of historical inquiry. In any event, perhaps a seed of doubt may have been sown that the interpretive line of Williams may be more patois than deep thought, a tradition in which the prejudices of the Enlightenment are passed on and historical fields intellectually colonized. Perhaps. More soon.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the first part of a three-part series on the concept of Gnosticism. It was first delivered as the keynote speech at the 2019 Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) Conference at Villanova University.

Featured Image, Karl Friedrich Schinkel's stage set for Mozart's Magic Flute, 1815; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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