056 Gnostics Old and New

During the past few decades “advocacy scholarship” has gained increased standing and influence in academic circles. Readers unaware of subtly hidden agendas may read the work of such “scholars” and assume their research and writing set forth demonstrable conclusions, but all too frequently careful scholars reviewing their work simply find them demonstrably untrue. Thus it’s important that works such as Daniel L. Hoffman’s The Status of Women and Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Tertullian (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, c. 1995) gain a hearing.

Hoffman subjects Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels to an exacting test, a meticulous examination, asking whether her many assertions concerning women in the second century are true. Though The Gnostic Gospels collected a National book Award and a multitude of readers, renowned scholars such as Raymond E. Brown and Frederick Wisse early contended she distorted both gnostic and patristic texts to “prove” her theses.

A lengthy review of Pagals’ recent On the Origin of Satan (in First Things, Nov. 1995) by Jeffrey Burton Russell indicts her for the same fault: trying to re-make Christianity to suit her own designs. Her beguiling style subtly suggests “questionable corollaries”–e.g. Christianity has espoused dualism, invented the technique of demonization and routinely relied on it throughout its history. For example, “To make Christians seem the originators of demonization, Pagels inverts her first two chapters chronologically” (p. 41), placing her chapter on Jewish sources after she’s dealt with Christian teachings. Russell, widely acknowledged to have written the definitive historical works on Satan, ends his critique thusly: Pagels “wants to remake Christianity,” shaping it in her own “image and likeness” (p. 45). That re-shaping seemed to have begun years ago!

Hoffman thus undertook research on a Ph.D. dissertation to see whether Pagels or her critics were right. Of its 239 pages, Hoffman’s dissertation devotes 104 pages to detailed notes and references; reading the notes demonstrates the author’s exhaustive research and balanced perspective. What he found is that, contra Pagels, second century Gnostics (despite their pervasive feminine images for deity) did not grant women privileged status in their groups. On the other hand–again contra Pagels–St Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian, while denouncing heretics of all stripes, females included, espoused a “relatively positive” (p. 3) view of women.

Pagels assumed that because Gnostics “were equally comfortable with descriptions of God as the Mother or as the Father” (p. 24) they necessarily established egalitarian communities. In fact, though Gnostics did, as Pagels said, focus on Genesis l, emphasizing “an equal or androgynous human creation,'” (p. 24), careful examination of the Gnostic texts shows that her claims concerning their practices “are based on misreadings, misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the sources” (p. 25). Rather than accepting Pagels’ assertions at face value, Hoffman goes to the Nag Hammadi texts themselves, then draws upon the scholarly work of experts in the field, and effectively disproves Pagals’ generalizations.

Rather than being pro-women, Gnostic texts, Hoffman says, were markedly antifeminine. Thus there is no correlation between actual practice and the “feminine images in Gnostic cosmological and theological texts. Moreover, with deficient goddesses like Sophia involved in the creation of the evil world; with Eve created by a figure corresponding to Satan (with any spark of light removed by evil archons); with women linked to evil sexuality, intercourse, and procreation; with the creation of the first female considered the beginning of death; with a feminine ‘Holy Spirit’ leading people into sin; with femaleness linked with weakness, sickness and illness; with femininity considered a madness to be avoided; and with patriarchal assumptions apparent throughout Gnostic cosmology and theology, it would be quite reasonable to conclude that women were viewed negatively in Gnosticism” (p. 49).

On the other hand, women in the orthodox communities enjoyed considerable opportunity for influence and were often celebrated for their sanctity and courage by Church Fathers such as Irenaeus. They especially praised the Virgin Mary as Christ’s mother, celebrating her virtue and goodness, whereas the Gnostics (generally denying the Virgin Birth) limited their praise to her “knowledge.” Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian also supported women “prophets” ministering within the church–something Pagels explicitly denied (conveniently ignoring texts which contradicted her bias), alleging they “were strictly forbidden to do.”

Tertullian too deserves defending against those who accuse him of misogyny. Pagals and her cohorts have routinely labeled Tertullian anti-women, largely by quoting (out-of-context) some of his rhetorical excesses. Tertullian certainly assailed heretical women–but no more vehemently than he attacked heretical men. “Even his infamous comparison of women to Eve as the ‘devil’s gateway,’ when seen in the context of his use of rhetorical language and his similar condemnations of men in Adam, will not support the characterizations of him as a radical misogynist. Instead, his praise for his wife, women martyrs, prophetesses, the order of widows, virgins, and other Christian women . . . will indicate that he valued and respected Christian women and supported their ministry in many areas” (p. 148).

Still more: Tertullian did “not support a marriage relationship in which the husband treats his wife as inferior in her being, although he believes that the marriage relationship does call for submission by both parties at times” (p. 161). He certainly reserved to men the office of bishop, the right to baptize and celebrate the Eucharist. But other than that, he allowed and encouraged various forms of women’s ministries.

Hoffman’s work is a fine piece of research, clearly written, persuasive in its presentation. Unfortunately its price will restrict its distribution and readership. Hoffman’s work, however, must be utilized as historians continue to seek a truthful portrait of the Early Church.

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Reading Hoffman’s treatise (reviewing it for fides et historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History) prompted me to re-read Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Vintage Books, c. 1979) to ascertain the validity of Hoffman’s critique

since Pagels has so influenced some writers’ views of Early Christianity. Pagals apparently follows a consistent pattern. In general, she seems committed to selecting evidence to prove a pre-determined thesis which supports the political ambitions of gynocentric or gender feminists to find freedom from “patriarchal” authorities.

After assessing the importance of the 52 Gnostic texts unearthed at Nag Hammadi in 1945, she proceeds to argue that until the end of the second century many “Christians” were Gnostic rather than orthodox and were only gradually excluded as males gained firmer control of ecclesiastical machinery, doing so under the guise of establishing theological orthodoxy.

Thus the Orthodox insisted on the literal truth of Christ’s bodily Resurrection. To Gnostics, on the other hand, it was a symbol obviously central to the Christian Faith, but “not a unique event in the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present. What mattered was not literal seeing, but spiritual vision” (p. 11). Gnostics taught (anticipating Bultmann) that what mattered was the spiritual truth of Resurrection–our coming to new life with the dawning of individual enlightenment.

As Pagels interprets the documents, it was not until the days of Irenaeus and Tertullian that “Christians” dogmatically insisted on the facticity of Christ’s Resurrection. That came about as men in the Church sought to ground the notion of apostolic succession on the fact that Peter was the first witness of the Resurrection. Conveniently ignoring the Roman Catholic Church’s central argument for Petrine succession–Peter’s confession of faith in Matthew 16–Pagels constructs a curious counter-case revolving around the fact that women, not Peter, were the first witnesses of whatever happened Easter morning.

In a similar way, she says, the Orthodox managed to impose the creedal confession of faith in “one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” mainly to insure the power of male bishops. St Clement of Rome and St Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the beginning of the second century, strongly emphasized episcopal authority. St Ignatius even declared “one God, one bishop,” which, Pagels says, “became the orthodox slogan” (p. 35). For the bishops to

successfully assert their political power, they singularly elevated God the Father.

The Gnostics, however, sought God in the “depths” of their inner selves. Thus they needed no established hierarchy, no clergy-laity distinctions, for every person discovered God on his own in his own soul. Therein many identified God the Mother as well as Father. One group of Gnostics, following the alleged teachings of Mary Magdalene, prayed: “‘From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being'” (p. 49). Thus God as well as Adam was portrayed as ultimately androgynous, a “dyad,” in the view of Valentinus (an influential second century Gnostic). Intent on cementing their control of the Church, the Orthodox (Pagels insists) snuffed out the Gnostic insight that God is Mother as well as Father.

Christ’s Passion and the deaths of martyrs, she continues, were similarly elevated by Orthodox power-brokers to secure their positions! They insisted their followers believe “that Jesus was a human being, and that all ‘straight-thinking’ Christians must take the crucifixion as a historical and literal event” (p. 75). That would demand that they trusted in Christ’s efficacious suffering, paying the penalty for their sins, rather than discovering their own enlightened and personalized path to salvation.

Thus by the end of the second century, two groups of “Christians” had developed radically different understandings of the Church. The Orthodox had clearly “objective criteria”–creed, clergy, rituals. Consequently, it followed that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The Gnostics, however, relied on more subjective, “qualitative” factors–knowledge, inner experiences, personal relations. Self-knowledge, experiential consciousness of the divine, “becoming Christ” qualified Gnostic adherents as “Christians.”

“It is the winners who write history–their way,” Pagels declares (p. 142). Whether or not Pagels et al. will be “winners” in the current historiographical war, I’m not sure; but she surely writes history her way! Let me illustrate by a careful examination of the only “Father” who receives high marks from Pagels: St Clement of Alexandria. He is, she says “a striking exception to the orthodox pattern” (p. 67). I carefully studied her presentation, comparing her assertions with Clement’s texts.

In her first quotation (from Clement’s Christ the Educator, I, 6 {42-44}), Pagels collapses 20 sentences into what appears to be three consecutive sentences with two ellipses indicating the excision of sections within a sentence (p. 67). Such devious “quoting,” of course, enables one to prove whatever one desires! Her second quotation (ibid., I, 4) is simply unrecognizable in the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” or “Fathers of the Church” translations. Again she blends together phrases which lead the reader to believe they’re straight-forward sentences in the original text. Pagels’ third quotation, apparently a misprint in the footnote, refers one to a non-existent chapter in the text!

Pagels contends that “Clement characterizes God in feminine as well as masculine terms” (p. 67), resting her case on his statement that “The Word is everything to His little ones, both father and mother, educator and nurse” (I,6,42). Clement’s statement is part of an extensive, highly allegorical discussion of milk as spiritual food. To be precise, Clement characterizes the Word, not God, as “father and mother.” Repeatedly he insists that “the Blood of Christ is milk.” Thus, the sentence following the above quotation (one of the many deleted by Pagals) says: “‘Eat My flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink my Blood.’ He is himself the nourishment that He gives” (I,6,42).

Still more, Clement insists: “In all these various ways and figures of speech is the Word spoken of: solid food, flesh, nourishment, bread, blood and milk. The Lord is all these things for the refreshment of us who believe in Him” (I,6,47). An honest reading of Clement shows that he constantly addresses God as “Father,” never as “Mother.” Anyone concluding he “characterizes God in feminine as well as masculine terms” brought that presumption to the text, for it’s clearly not evident therein!

Consequently, my in-depth study of only two pages of Pagels’ “scholarship,” leaves me both dismayed and astounded! Either she deliberately distorts the data or is incredibly sloppy in her methodology. Having reviewed Hoffman’s monograph, I’m now persuaded she distorts whenever necessary to support her political agenda, the neo-Gnostic wing of the feminist movement. In her mind, the Gnostics tried to liberate women (and of course enlightened men), freeing them to devise their own brand of salvation, resembling in many ways the depth-psychology of Carl Jung so popular in today’s Gnostic circles.

In their revolt against orthodoxy and its authoritarian structures, many moderns, Pagels says, find Gnostics worthy mentors. The Gnostic pattern for Christianity, open to unorthodox understandings of the Resurrection, women priests and bishops, the universality of the Gospel, etc. may give alternative routes to God which are preferable to those historically afforded by orthodox churches. Though claiming to be an impartial “historian” who refuses to side with Gnosticism, her personal preferences shine clearly through the text.

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One of the more probing historian/philosophers of our century, Eric Voegelin, for many years a professor at the University of Munich, authored Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, c. 1986), a collection of essays centering on Gnosticism, one of the clearly perennial philosophies which prove endlessly enticing. In Voegelin’s judgment, “The more we come to know about the gnosis of antiquity, the more it becomes certain that modern movements of thought, such as progressivism, positivism, Hegelianism, and Marxism, are variants of gnosticism” (p. v). Add to that list communism, fascism, national socialism and psychoanalysis and you gather how pervasively Gnosticism influences modernity.

Voegelin brings to his study a prodigious mastery of European (especially German) thought. Ever since Ferdinand Christian Baur published Die christliche Gnosis, oder die Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung in 1835, scholars have recognized the degree to which the speculations of Boehme, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger tap and unleash ancient Gnostic notions. Other scholarly studies made it clear “that with the Enlightenment and German idealism the gnostic movement had acquired great social significance” (p. 4).

Gnostics denied precisely what the great Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, discerned: a transcendent source of being and order. Thus “In the experiences of love for the world-transcendent origin of being, in philia toward the sophon (the wise), in eros toward the agathon (the good) and the kalon (the beautiful), man became philosopher” (p. 18). When that truly philosophical stance is abandoned, Voegelin insists, a consequent sense of alienation necessarily incubates various subjective epistemologies and self-salvation solutions to the human predicament.

In Nietzsche’s aphorism, explicating his libido dominandi: “‘To rule, and to be no longer a servant of a god: this means was left behind to ennoble man.’ To rule means to be God; in order to be God gnostic man takes upon himself the torments of deception and self-laceration” (p. 30). So too Marx, celebrating Prometheus’s hatred of all the gods (deviously distorting the text of Aeschylus to serve his own ends), insisted we “‘acknowledge human self-consciousness as the supreme deity'” (p. 35). Then Heidegger, “that ingenious gnostic of our own time” (p. 46), replaced the Hellenic openness to transcendent Being with a willingness to work with an immanent, actio being shaping human history.

In Nietzsche and Marx, Voegelin identifies Gnostic traits at odds with true philosophy, for “Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the gnostic constructs his system” (p. 42). Just as authentic historians appreciate the mystery of history, so true philosophers recognize the ultimate mystery of being, knowing that knowledge must ever take “the form of the analogia entis, and thus refuse to build gnostic systems.

Whereas authentic philosophy treasures and simply seeks to plumb the goodness of Being, “the aim of parousiastic gnosticism is to destroy the order of being, which is experienced as defective and unjust, and through man’s creative power to replace it with a perfect and just order” (p. 53). The ultimate objective is the death of God, so clearly evident in Nietzsche. “The murder of god, then, is of the very essence of the gnostic re-creation of the order of being” (p. 55). This is accomplished, primarily, through sustained, savage “critiques” of religion, relying on indignation and denunciation rather than evidence and argument.

In the long run, however, the Gnostics’ “intellectual swindle” collapses on the hard rock of reality. Efforts of escape the constraints of creation, to construct social or intellectual systems on fantasy foundations, ultimately fail.

Such failures, however, seem little deterrent to the infinite air castles puffed up by Gnostic intellectuals.


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