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«What Categories are Left? A Review of Karen King’s What is Gnosticism Bernard Brandon Scott Introduction Karen King’s What is Gnosticism? has ...»

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Her control of the data and exposition of the history of scholarship is • compelling;

Her argument coheres with other problematic areas we are uncovering as • we explore the rise of the Christian movement.

Gnosticism is one more problematic category in long list of problematic categories, all calling for a thorough revamping of how we reconstruct the emergence and development of the Christian movement.

She charges that Gnosticism was a construct of scholarship based upon the dogmatic categories of the heresiologists, principally Irenaeus.

The ancient discourse of orthodoxy and heresy has affected not only the goals and substance of the study of Gnosticism but its methods as well.

I suggest that in the development of modern historical scholarship the concerns of ancient discourse with origins, essence, and purity were transformed into disciplinary methodologies.1 She demonstrates that the Gnostic redeemer myth, a favorite of German scholarship, was a complete fabrication.

Furthermore, scholars attempted to shoehorn the newly discovered Nag Hamadi documents into the procrustean bed of the gnostic model.

After following her careful analysis, I began to wonder if what these documents had in common was the jar in which they were found.2 I take away a set of correlated conclusions from King’s analysis.

Historical categories must not be determined by dogmatic concerns.

• The categories should arise out of the material itself.

• King, What Is Gnosticism?


1 2 In a similar way, I have wondered if what the books in the Canon of the New Testament have in common is that they are in the Canon.

At the heart of King’s charge against the scholarly gnostic model is its dependence upon the dogmatic categories, especially those of Irenaeus.

Ultimately it is a dogmatic model, not an historical model.3 Thus her argument is another in the long line that attempts to free the study of early Christianity from the grasp of dogma and theological needs.

This debate extends back to the origins of our


back to Herman Samuel Reimarus, David Fredrick Strauss, and Ferdinand Christina Bauer.

It has been a long and difficult struggle, always being refought in each generation.

Gains are never as complete as we think and the task always remains unfinished.

King argues that the categories of the heresiologists where determined by dogmatic needs.

Since they sought to define who was in and who was out, these needs were also political.

Thus his [Irenaeus’s] refutation was


to describe the false

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This is essentially correct, but it can be pushed deeper.

Irenaeus seeks to protect and prove the truth of Christianity by following the ancient Greek model of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

He is after the essence of Christianity which he maintains the heretics have defiled.

For Plato, the form or, in Aristotle’s terms, the essence precedes or preexists existence.

It is eternal, perfect, and changeless.

What we see in this world is defective and error prone, yet it reflects that perfect other world.

Our senses perceive these perfect forms but only in a reflected way.

This model is often referred to as essentialism.

This dogmatic prejudice is easily seen in debates concerning the Gospel of Thomas.

3 Identifying it as “Gnostic” means that it is not historical, not reliable, as though canonical meant the opposite.

John Meier, A Marginal


Rethinking the Historical Jesus, is a good example of this tendency.

He assumes that “among firstgeneration Christian leaders, there was a common gospel message on which all of them agreed,” (118) pointing to 1 Cor 15:11.

Likewise “from the very beginning of Christian preaching about Jesus, there was a certain ‘biographical’ thrust that formed the Jesus tradition in a direction that ultimately produced the canonical Gospels.” This biographical thrust is antignostic.

Notice the implicit use of Irenaeus’s


the pure the essence of the gospel handed on in the canonical gospels.

In Meier’s discussion of the Gospel of Thomas, showing that it is Gnostic is what resolves the question of its use as a historical resource for the historical Jesus (125

–  –  –

Irenaeus has adopted and adapted this model for his apologetic purposes.

The pure essence is handed on through the unbroken chain of apostolic succession, what King calls the argument from genealogy.

He lays this out in Book 3, chapter 1, part 1 of Against Heresies.

–  –  –

Like an eternal, unchanging form, the truth is contained in a guaranteed vehicle, “in the tradition of the apostles.” This truth they took care to hand


–  –  –

Like the forms themselves, those who were entrusted with handing on the truth “should be very perfect and blameless in all things.” The chain from the apostles to the bishops is like the chain of a perfect philosophical school.

From Christ the prefect philosopher, to the apostles, to the bishops, a perfect, unchanging essence is handed on to perfect and blameless successors.

This very chain of succession (genealogy) guarantees the truth of what they hand


–  –  –

The truth and those who pass it on are perfect and unchanging.

Those are the marks of truth.

The heretics “rave” and are disordered and have changed the unchangeable, thus proving they are not true.

Irenaeus has coopted Plato’s model for his understanding of the truth of Christianity.

That truth must be a perfect, unchanging essence.

The heretics have evidently corrupted that pure, eternal, and perfect essence.

In fact, their lack of moral perfection is proof of their heresy because ethics and ontology are interchangeable.

The underlying power of Plato’s model is evident in Irenaeus’s defense of why there must be four and only four gospels.

Four in his analysis is the number of perfection.

Translation of Irenaeus, Against Heresies, is from the AnteNicene Fathers, vol 1, Kindle 5 edition.

There is only one Gospel but four gospels, so the four gospels represent the perfect representation of the one—their very fourness demonstrates their perfection.

–  –  –


But unlike a Platonic form, it is clearly manifest here and now in the apostolic tradition.

The heretics who deviate and corrupt this pure, changeless form correspond to the imperfect shadows on the cave wall.

As King demonstrates, Irenaeus’s model has not only had a great influence on the scholarly construction of Gnosticism, but it has set a course for all succeeding

–  –  –

6 Christianity.

Christianity has sought to define its pure essence and to eliminate those who did not conform.

On a personal note, my doctoral dissertation was on the debate been Adolf von Harnack7 and Alfred Loisy8 concerning the essence of Christianity.

Ironically Harnack, a Protestant and defender of Marcion, sought the pure essence of the Gospel, while Loisy, a Roman Catholic, maintained that Harnack’s pure essence was an illusion.

Harnack employed the analogy of the fruit with its seed.

Remove the fruit and find the seed, the pure essence.

Loisy thought maybe Harnack’s fruit had metamorphosed into an onion— one kept peeling away the layers until there was nothing left.

For Loisy the more correct analogy was the tree which organically grew from an acorn.

But the acorn was not the essence of tree, only a beginning and the tree was constantly changing.9

–  –  –

It is important to appreciate the fundamental intellectual debt of Western thought to the doctrine of essentialism.

Showing that Irenaeus was wrong and that we should not use dogmatic categories is not sufficient.

We need to be careful not fall into an unthinking essentialism of our own.

I take King’s study of The Secret Revelation of John to be an effort to do just this.

She analyses it on its own terms, not a representative of some “type” or “essence” of a religion.10 But Irenaeus has buried essentialism in the DNA of Christianity, just as Plato has put essentialism into the DNA of Western thought.

It constitutes a major struggle to free ourselves of this intellectual habit.

According to Ernst Mayr, Darwin’s rejection of essentialism was a critical aspect of his achievement and the lingering strength of essentialism was central in preventing biologists from accepting Darwinism.

Mayr was in a unique position to pass judgment on this issue.

The opening paragraph of Wikipedia article “Ernst Mayr”11 summarizes his


–  –  –

was also a renowned taxonomist, tropical explorer, ornithologist, and historian of science.

His work contributed to the conceptual revolution Harnack, What Is Christianity?

7 8 Loisy, The Gospel and the Church.

My introductory essay to the reprint of this book in the Lives of Jesus Series attempts to situate the debate between Harnack and Loisy in its historical context.

9 King takes note of this debate in long endnote, # 14, 291, and devotes chapter 3 to Harnack.

10 See Maia Kotrosits paper in this session, “But What Do We Call It?

Crises of Categories and The Secret Revelation of John.” 11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Mayr A long time professor at Harvard, he was one of the most important formulators of the Darwinian synthesis that triumphed in modern biology in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

–  –  –

Mayr suggests a number of factors slowed the acceptance of Darwin’s theories until the late 1940s.

Early on, the literal interpretation of the Bible was certainly important, but Mayr does not think this it was all that critical as evidenced by the rapid acceptance of Darwin’s theory of common descent.13 Much more important for him was the dominance of essentialism.

–  –  –

For Mayr, Darwin’s real intellectual breakthrough was his rejection of essentialism and also what delayed Darwinism’s acceptance by biologists for 80 years.

Darwin was in point of fact rejecting the common sense of his day, the common of sense of most of Western intellectual history, and the common sense of most folks until this very day.

Dictionaries are predicated on essentialism.

In defining each and every word they provide the user with the word’s essence.

But modern dictionaries also demonstrate the triumph of Darwinism.

They provide multiple definitions and, over time when new definitions arise, they duly record them.

Language mavens (linguistic conservatives) often become agitated over a dictionary’s refusal to support the “correct,”

–  –  –

12 13 Common descent is part of evolutionary theory but was accepted by many biologists while rejecting the mechanisms that Darwin proposed.

Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, disagreed with Darwin on the issue of essentialism.

See Mayr, What Evolution Is, 79.

–  –  –

that is, the essential, definition.15 I.A.

Richards labelled this “the proper meaning superstition,” the insistence that words have one and only one proper meaning.

He marked that this understanding of words assumes “that water, for all its virtues, in canals, baths and turbines, were really a weak form of ice.”16 He was attacking the rhetoric of his day that was governed by essentialism precisely during the 80 year period that essentialism also was blocking the acceptance of Darwinism by biologists.

Darwin rejected looking for the essence and studied instead a population.

“What we find among living organisms, he said, are not constant classes (types), but variable populations.”17 Darwin was not seeking the essence of a species, some eternal, unchanging (fixed) form, but variability in a population.

Where species had been fixed in the older essentialist model, species now became a


just what was it?

To this day this is a debated problem in biology and its related disciplines.

The answers are not essentialist but pragmatic.

The most popular, but by no means universal,18 understanding of a species is the one originated by


–  –  –

In developing his model for evolution, Darwin introduced the concepts of population thinking, chance, and history.

Natural selection is the process that mades evolution work.

Population thinking, chance, and history refuted essentialism.

They eliminated in one fell swoop Plato’s forms, Aristotle’s essences, the common sense of essentialist thinking that had dominated and in many ways continues to dominate the West.

See Skinner, David.

The Story of


America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial 15 Dictionary Ever Published.

New York,


Harper, 2012.;

Morton, Herbert C.

The Story of Webster’s

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