Friday, April 07, 2006

The Gospel of Judas et al.---Part One

Right at Easter time, just as the dandelions are starting to appear in my yard, a new crop of theories about Jesus and the Gospels usually pop up as well, often rushed into the Easter market. Clearly the appropriate amount of fertilizer has been applied to these supposed 'new revelations' to make such hot house theories grow, seemingly over night.

We have "The Jesus Papers" reviving the old "Passover Plot" theory that Jesus never really died on the cross, he only swooned and was revived, a theory supported by no first century source whatsoever (even our Roman sources are clear that he was executed under Pontius Pilate--- see Tacitus and Suetonius), and with much more fan fare we also have the Gospel of Judas which we have known about for a long time. It is yet another Gnostic document, which Elaine Pagels says helps to explode the theory of a monolithic early Christianity. Of course the only conservative Protestant scholar of the group National Geographic engaged to comment on this work, Craig Evans, has a very different take on the matter. So do I. So also do conservative Catholic scholars.

First let us deal with the facts: 1) we do not have a Greek text of this Gospel, we have a Coptic one from which the English translation has been made. To simply state this text was based on Greek text is to argue without hard evidence. The fact that Irenaeus mentions this document may suggest there was a Greek original, but we do not have it, and the translation done is not based on any Greek text. We need to be clear on this: 2) You will find a link above to the article in today's NY Times about this find. You will see me suggesting we all need to take a deep breath before consuming too much baloney; 3) this papyrus carbon dates to about 300 A.D. We only know some document called the Gospel of Judas existed around 180 because Irenaeus mentions it. One could also raise the question of whether Irenaeus is referring to the same document, but probably he is. 4) This document reflects the same sort of dualism that we find in many other Gnostic documents-- matter or flesh is evil or tainted, spirit is good. Thus at one juncture in the Gospel of Judas Jesus says to Judas that he will become the top disciple for "you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." In other words Judas is the good guy who helps Jesus get rid of his tainted flesh and become a true spiritual and free being.

This of course is miles from early Jewish theology about the goodness of creation and the flesh, much less the belief that God intends to redeem the flesh by means of resurrection. Much of what Jesus is depicted as saying in the Gospel of Judas the historical, thoroughly Jewish, resurrection believing Jesus could never have said. In other words it is revisionist history being done by a splinter group of Gnostics. This group was at variance with the theology and praxis of the church whose beliefs could in fact be traced back to Jesus and his earliest disciples.

But my greater concern is not so much with this document which is interesting and tells us more about the Gnostic heresy of the 2nd-4th centuries. This is important to know about and reminds us just how vibrant early Christianity was that it could create secatrian split off groups like the Gnostics. My greater concern is the revisionist history being tauted by Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Bart Ehrman, Marvin Meyer and others, on the basis of such Gnostic documents, wanting to suggest that somehow, someway these documents reflect Christianity at its very point of origin--- the first century A.D.

Such scholars indeed represent a small minority of NT scholarship, and in fact, like the early Gnostics, are busily creating a new myth of origins that suggests that Christianity was dramatically pluriform from the beginning. Unfortunately, as a historian I have to say that this is argument without first century evidence.

We have no first century evidence of Gnostics or Gnosticism. This is a movement that reacted to mainstream Christianity, and emerged from it sometime in the middle of the second century A.D. Every shred of first century evidence we have suggests that the actual physical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was at the heart of the belief of the earliest Christians--- all of whom were Jews, not Gnostics. It simply will not do to suggest that the esoteric Gospel of the Gnostics bears any resemblance to the Jewish creation and redemption theology of Jesus and his first Jewish followers.

More will be said on this after the National Geographic special on Palm Sunday.

51 comments:

Jordan said...

Thanks for this post. Lots of good information! I was given a link - http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/ - of some info from NG.

Just curious - what is it that makes Craig Evans' take different from yours?

Brett Royal said...

Thanks for the post. I have been waiting patiently ever since I saw you on ABC last night.

Ben Witherington said...

I don't know that Craig' take is much different from mine, although he is on record as saying maybe Jesus had some private chats with Judas and there is some memory of that fact in this document. I have no problems with the idea that they spoke. I do have a problem with the idea that Jesus put Judas up to betraying him and orchestrated the whole thing.

Ben

Brian said...

I wish to thank you as well. I don't describe myself as theologically conservative, but I know enough about Biblical studies and historical research to be methodologically conservative in those matters. I'm glad that the NYT quoted you, although it was halfway through the article, probably just below the part that the average subway rider would scan before moving on.

Something that hasn't been made clear to me yet is how long the actual Coptic manuscript has been in the possession of the official team of scholars and the NGS. Has it been known for some time among the Biblical studies/history/papyrology crowd that this manuscript existed? Was there some sort of Dead-Sea-Scrolls-type agreement among the official team that restricted wider scholarly access? Etc.

mason booth said...

I am enclosing a post that i made earlier in the morning. i posted it under Dr. Witherington's post conerning Ice Age. Thanks Dr. Witherington for your accurate scholarship.

mason

mason booth said...
Dr. Witherington,

i am eagerly awaiting your post concerning the "Gospel of Judas." Having read some info concerning the content, i do not understand what is so new and revolutionary. i remember reading somewhere in my seminary studies that there is a theory (i do not know how much support there is for it) that Judas' last name was actually a short version or a mis-understanding to refer to Ish-Sacarii..(man of the dagger??)referring to a particular zealot group, implying that Judas was a member of the Sacarii and that his intention of handing Jesus over was to force or at least encourage Jesus in to becoming the Messiah that he and his movement wanted (i.e. military and revolt). maybe you can reference in your post additional theories concerning Judas and his motives. i seem to think that the money motive or greed is not the total story, but i am pretty sure that Judas was not a pre-gnostic evangelist in the early part of the 1 century AD. Can't wait for you to add your comments!!!

blessings..

mason

6:02 AM

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Brian:

Well the translation team is one thing, the scholar voices another. The are are only a few scholars who know Coptic, and in fact amongst NT scholars probably less than five total. This of course creates something of a dilemma because it means the NT folks enlisted to promote this document have to have unfailing trust in the translators, since they can't read the original. I don't know how long the translators have been at it, but Craig Evans was only enlisted eight months ago and sworn to secrecy. If the other NT scholars were enlisted by NG at the same time--- well then its not been very long. What is interesting about all this is that they did not contact anyone who has done a serious critique of the Gnostic stuff used in the Da Vinci Code. This I find curious.

Ben

Stephen said...

ben,

Thank you for bringing your expertise to bear on this "breaking news." Can you recommend one or two good books to read for those of us who want to get up to speed on the gnostic gospels and their relationship to the canonical gospels? I know that Bock's working on a book on "Alternative Christianities" that's coming out ... I think in August.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Brian:

Well the translation team is one thing, the scholar voices another. There are are only a few scholars who know Coptic, and in fact amongst NT scholars probably less than five total. This of course creates something of a dilemma because it means the NT folks enlisted to promote this document have to have unfailing trust in the translators, since they can't read the original. I don't know how long the translators have been at it, but Craig Evans was only enlisted eight months ago and sworn to secrecy. If the other NT scholars were enlisted by NG at the same time--- well then its not been very long. What is interesting about all this is that they did not contact anyone who has done a serious critique of the Gnostic stuff used in the Da Vinci Code. This I find curious.

Ben

Troy said...

As one of your no-fee-online- student-auditors, sincere thanks for the info here. I agree the larger question isn't about GJ but whether the canonical gospels are corrupted versions (or merely equally alternate versions) of the gnostic 'original faith.'

But I also agree that the canonical gospels feel deeply Jewish, flooded with explicit and implicit OT references, apocalyptic, and political expectations appropriate for that period and culture (whatever we think of the feeding of the multitude, the fact that many wanted to take Jesus by force to be king is quite believable).

Since gnosticism also preceded Christianity in various forms, I'd expect there to be a blurring of the two in the canonicals, a mix of Jewish and gnostic Christianity as we see in the gnostic texts. I'm unaware of any examples at this time.

Though plenty of online skeptics tell me Paul was a gnostic because of his third heaven vision (whatever P means by that) and his 'I received the gospel direct from God.'

This is something I'm working out for myself. The surface evidence, though, seems to argue that Christianity was what I think Wright calls a 'mutation' of monotheist Judaism.

Finally, I don't know how the term 'heretic' became so provocative and cool. If I believe the earth is flat, am I a heroic heretic whose truth has been suppressed by the vast scientific conspiracy?

Thanks again.

Ben Witherington said...

I would suggest you could read the chapters in my Gospel Code book on Gnostic materials--- this will give you a starting point.

Ben

Ben Witherington said...

Troy:

Just one point--- there were no Gnostics before the time of Jesus. This is historically false. You should not confuse Gnosticism with asceticism in general or with Platonic speculation of someone like Philo.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

Stephen said...

Ben, I had the chance to finish Gospel Code a couple of days ago and it was very helpful - I was hoping to dig a bit deeper but I've had a bit of a difficult time differentiating book length treatments of the gnostic gospels that are gnostic-triumphant from those that are more even-handed. Any suggestions? What would be really helpful would be to find a text that critically interacts with Pagels, Ehrman, etc.

Ben Witherington said...

I can now recommend as well Phillip Jenkins fine book Hidden Gospels.How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way (2001).

Blessings,

Ben W.

Brian said...

Ben-- thanks, this helps fill in the gaps. I had no idea how rare knowledge of Coptic was. And eight months seems like pretty fast work for doing scholarship, even if the translators had been at it longer. I know that in my discipline (philosophy), eight months isn't enough to produce a lot of scholarship. Of course, publishing a text and a translation encourages the rest of the scholarly world to examine the text at a more deliberative pace.

Sandalstraps said...

Dr. Witherington,

When you say

Just one point--- there were no Gnostics before the time of Jesus. This is historically false. You should not confuse Gnosticism with asceticism in general or with Platonic speculation of someone like Philo

are you not overstating your case a bit?

After all, Pagels and Ehrman - while in your view "fringe" scholars - are not nearly the only scholarly voices indicating a Gnosticism which precedes Christianity, stands both inside and outside of Christianity, and may have had some influence on Christian texts. Hans Kung, hardly a "fringe" scholar, make similar arguments in the section of his Christianity: Essence, History, and Future (translated by John Bowden from the German Christentum: Wesen und Geschichte - my German's not terrible, but not being a scholar, I prefer reading Kung in English).

I am particularly refering to some of his comments on p. 137. for instance, he says that "[m]any historical questions about Gnosticism ha[ve] long been disputed, for example whether there was already a Gnosticism before or outside Christianity (which is demonstrated at the latest after the Nag Hammadi finds by writings which are not influenced by Christianity),".

Later he speaks of the influences of two kinds of dualism on Gnosticism, Jewish-Iranian (his thesis is that the Jewish dualism was influenced by Iranian-Persian dualism) and Greek-Platonic dualism (to which you have already refered). But, with you he says that "Gnostic dualism differed from the Iranian-Jewish and Greek-Platonic dualism by its marked hostility to the world, matter and the body."

This makes Gnosticism very unlike what we call orthodox Christianity. But, in speaking to the sorts of pluriform Christianity which you claim is only upheld by the scholars which you rejected in your piece, he says this:

"... it is important to see that for some Christians the boundaries between the mainstream church and Gnosticism were for a long time fluid. Gnosticism was no a priori heresy; after all, there were even already traditions in the New Testament itself (above all the Johannine prologue, the Phillipians hymn) which Christians with a Gnostic orientation could take up."

While Kung, unlike Pagels and others, is not principally interested in redeeming Gnosticism, he (who is by no means reducible to a "fringe" scholar so easily dismissed) does disagree with you on two points concerning Gnosticism:

1. Some form of Gnosticism probably does predate the time of Jesus.

2. The presense of Gnosticism (along with other disputed forms of Christianity) does speak to a very early pluriformity within the Church, which was later beaten down. That pluriform Christianity is now being reclaimed.

I have no great love for Gnosticism. You have correctly identified a major problem with it: its reviling of the fleshly, which contradicts the Jewish character of our faith. But I don't think that Gnosticism can be dismissed as easily as you have dismissed it, and I don't think that it is safe to categorically say (against Kung, by the way) that Gnosticism certainly did not exist before the time of Jesus.

Sandalstraps said...

Just to be clear: all of the above quotes come from page 137 of Christianity: Essence, History and Future, the Second Printing (paperback) on Continuum, New York (1995).

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Sandal Straps:

No I am not overstating the case at all. There was a theory in the 60s that characterized the work of Walter Schmidthals and a few others which tried to suggest that Gnosticism existed in the NT era. This theory is the one Kung is speaking of and responding to, and it was thoroughly discredited by Martin Hengel and others at great length. This in turn led to scholars adopting the term proto-gnosticism to refer to ideas that later became markee items in the Gnostic systems which were generated in the second century by Valentinus and others. This is where the state of the discussion is with NT scholars today. Please note-- neither Pagels nor Ehrman have ever written any commentaries on any NT books, or had to wrestle inch by inch with the exegesis of those texts as I and many other exegetes have. Their use of the NT is slender and superficial in justifying their theories, as is widely recognized by scholars around the globe. Read Raymond Brown's thorough rebuttal and review that appeared years ago in the NY Times when her first edition of the Gnostic Gospels came out.

No--- the most we can say is that some ideas which became leitmotifs in Gnosticism existed in the first century A.D. There was not Gnostic movement, Jewish or Christian in that century.

Ben W.

Metaphysician said...

Love ya, Dr. W. Thanks for discussing these important issues with us. Thanks also for writing 'The Gospel Code'. I love it! I'll be praying for you. Bless the Lord

Sandalstraps said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for your patience. I have just a few sets of questions for you, concerning our conversation about Gnosticism etc.

1. Kung first published his comments on the subject in German in 1994. Did the thorough refutation of the theory of Gnosticism before the time of Christ come before or after then? If after, then it is easy to see why Kung did not include it in his discussion, and his ommission is of no consequence. But if it is before then, we ought to consider a couple more questions:

Was Kung unaware of this refutation, and if so, how do we account for that? A good scholar slipping in his old age?

If Kung was aware of this refutation, and still published what he published, how do we account for this? Did he disagree with the refutation? Did he ignore it, hoping no one would notice?

I take Kung's work quite seriously, and consider him to be perhaps the best Christian historian. There's no problem if the refutation you allude to happend after Kung published, or close enough to his publication date that everything was already set into motion and he thought there was no reason to delay such a massive tome of Christian history for essentially two or three pages of information.

So, basically, I'd like more information on that subject.

2. If we say that there was no Gnosticism before the time of Christ, only proto-Gnosticism (which anticipates Gnosticism but doesn't count as Gnosticism), how does that impact our view of the historical development of the Trinity? After all, many scholars argue (and perhaps rightly so) that while the New Testament was being written there was no overt concept of the Trinity, and as such in the Scriptures we have only proto-Trinitarian formulations, but not an overt Trinitarianism.

Can we use proto-Trinitarian formulations as evidence for Trinitarian theology being supported by Scripture while denying that proto-Gnosticism points to Gnosticism?

Thank you for considering these rambling questions.

Ben Witherington said...

Dear S.S.:

First of all, Kung is not a historian at all. He is by training and by trade a theologian. No one that I know of would characterize him as a historian and certainly not as a NT historian or a historian of that period.

Secondly, Kung was well past retirement in 1994, and he was by no means up to date on NT scholarship. In fact he was about 15 years out of date on the Gnosticism question. Perhaps he was just ignorant of the state of the discussion. This does not mean of course that his mind was not keen, and his edge wasn't still there on other subjects. One can't be on top of every discipline including issues like 2nd century heresies.

As for your analogy its not an apt one on several scores. The fact that there were some dualistic ideas out there in the Greco-Roman world does not mean: 1) Jews or followers of Jesus embraced them, and 2) certainly provides no evidence for a Gnostic movement, whereas when we are talking about the early Christian movement you have clear historical evidence for the existence of both the movement and the beginnings of Trinitarian thinking coming from within that movement.

I do think we have quite clear evidence in the NT on the issue of the divinity of both Christ and the Spirit, and equally clearly they are both treated as persons, not just powers. We have, perhaps 10 texts where Trinitarian thinking is at least implicit, and a few like Mt. 28 where it is clearly explicit.

This does not mean we have any Nicean formulations in the NT, but they are clearly enough amplifications of some things that actually are in the NT.

The situation is quite different with Gnosticism. There were no Gnostic communities, no Gnostic worship services, no Gnostic leaders--- nothing like this in the first century. There were simply some dualistic and ascetical ideas which Gnostics later drew on and sprinkled into their gumbo with some parts of mainstream Christian thinking. That's the whole story.

Ben

usarkurt said...

sir,
you comment,that "conservative catholic scholars" reject the theses purportedly put forward by pagels et al.,you are wrong,at least in europe,nearly all! catholic scholars are agreeing with the position you are putting forward, with best regards
kurt usar,graz,austria

Christopher said...

I wonder if "The Gospel of Judas" will end up being another "Gospel of Thomas" or "Da Vinci Code"?

Ben Witherington said...

usarkurt:

You have misunderstood me. I am indeed saying that conservative Catholic scholars agree with me. Donald Senior who is on the Gospel of Judas show is not a particularly conservative U.S. Catholic scholar but even he agrees with me.

Thanks,

Ben W.

Sandalstraps said...

Dr. Witherington,

You are right when you say that Kung is by training a theologian. But he is a historical theologian who has written some of the best work available on the history of the Catholic church.

That said, I think that your explanation of his omission is a good one, particularly since the focus of his work was broad rather than narrow, providing us with a "big picture" of theological trends rather than a narrow focus on any particular historical era or discipline.

As for your distinction between proto-Gnosticsm and proto-Trinitarianism, I'm not sure that I buy it. You often attack scholars for speaking from their biases rather than from objective scholarship (for example, in your piece on Ehrman you say that he should be "honest" and admit that his agenda is not "value-neutral scholarship" but rather an attack on traditional Christianity). But you are open to the same attack. Could it be that you see such a sharp distinction because you agree with the version of Christianity that "won"?

Of course, you don't need for me or anyone else to "buy" your arguments, as the truth of the matter does not depend on my accepting it. But when you deny a more pluri-form vision of early Christianity you deny a great deal of good scholarship, even if you have good scholarship on your side as well. When you attack other scholars for having an agenda with their scholarship, implying that is the reason they interpret the data differently than you, you would do well to admit your own biases and agendas.

Thank you again for bearing with me so patiently. Unless you feel like you have been attacked in some way by this, you needn't respond. You answered my questions very well.

Ben Witherington said...

S.S.:

You are of course right that every scholar must own up to their predispositions.

My issue with the Gnostic debate is that when you are a historian you must follow the evidence-- to argue that there were Christian Gnostics in the first century is entirely an argument from silence. We have no archaeological or textual evidence from the first century to support such a claim.

To argue that there were Christians beginning to think in Trinitarian ways is an argue from actual first century evidence. Again, we have no first century Gnostic documents. Until we do, we can do without anachronistic theories that say "there must have been such persons because.......".

Show me a single NT exegete that argues that way, someone who has actually had to do the hard work of working through the first century Christian documents in the primary sources, someone who has written commentaries or historical monographs on these matters. Unless I am missing something, you won't find any.

Blessings,

Ben

Ben Witherington said...

S.S.:

You are of course right that every scholar must own up to their predispositions.

My issue with the Gnostic debate is that when you are a historian you must follow the evidence-- to argue that there were Christian Gnostics in the first century is entirely an argument from silence. We have no archaeological or textual evidence from the first century to support such a claim.

To argue that there were Christians beginning to think in Trinitarian ways is an argue from actual first century evidence. Again, we have no first century Gnostic documents. Until we do, we can do without anachronistic theories that say "there must have been such persons because.......".

Show me a single NT exegete that argues that way, someone who has actually had to do the hard work of working through the first century Christian documents in the primary sources, someone who has written commentaries or historical monographs on these matters. Unless I am missing something, you won't find any.

Blessings,

Ben

Traditionalist1611 said...

Dr. W, I have read commentaries, on (I think) I John that argue that he was addressing some form of early gnosticism. Does that position have any evidence or is it just conjecture? I always wondered where they were coming from on that. Thanks.

Ben Witherington said...

As I was saying to S.S. there were scholars in the 60s-70s who thought that Gnosticism existed in the first century, until further scholarship showed that we could not really talk about Gnosticism as a movement or a formed philosophy in the first century.

Ben

Troy said...

When I said that there were gnostics before Jesus, I was referring to what I guess should be called proto-gnostics, other philosophies which gnosticism probably drew on. I agree: at this time I am unaware of any pre-Christian philosophies which are identical to what formed later. The 2-3rd cent. gnosticism we do know seems to have drawn on multiple sources and been a new synthesis.

Two things: one, certainly the early Christian community was diverse, plural. Even in Paul's time we see him writing to correct concerns, theological or behavioral, often. And Christianity is plural now, yet many of those strands produce those with true faith in Christ: Catholics, Episcopals, Baptists, Methodists, etc...theologically different on even important issues, yet one God seems to be using each to change individual lives through his Son.

I am troubled by ancient Christian gnosticism because it seems to be not just another strand, but another religion entirely (whether any came to know the living Christ through it or not I can't know). Christianity touches our race's darkest fears and hopes: guilt, sin, anxiety over physical death, our need for unconditional love, transcendence, justice, and an 'infinite reference point;' we come to it on our knees. Gnosticism appeals to the desire for 'secret knowledge,' something found in the Greek mystery cults of course, shades in Plato, something as ancient as Genesis 1, essentially, the need to be on the inside, feel intelligent and superior, pride. It's what drives scientology in large part today. I've read (or tried to read) the pistis-sophia and the intentionally oblique nature of that document reminds me, oddly, of some modern literary criticism.

Also, gnosticism's black and white thinking regarding the material world: this somehow stinks of an adolescent error, what Stoker in Dracula would call the work of a child-mind (this only comes to mind because I just read it). Gnosticism denies the full embrace of wonder, beauty, the spiritual instruction of nature and even the body, and I would imagine the need for active charity for those who suffer, though here I guess. Again, it smacks of pride and the elevation of the individual psyche. It promises to make us clever and aloof, not humble or merciful.

This site is great because I get homework. I'll read your book as soon as I get the chance. Sincere thanks for the work you are doing here.

yuckabuck said...

Dr. Witherington,
I must say that it is a little difficult to me as well to forget everything I read about "incipient gnosticism" in the early church. You state that Martin Hengel definitively disproved this earlier theory. I am wondering where I could find his take on it, or perhaps a place where you have gone over the evidence in some publication? (Amazon.com's "Search Inside" feature has opend up a whole new world of research for me!) I'm not wanting to hold on proto-gnosticism, per se, but would like to be able to say intelligently why the older theory is wrong.

Traditionalist1611 said...

I think there are some others like me that are surprised at hearing there was no early gnostics at the time of the very early church. But what Dr. W is saying is that the newest and best scholarship on the issue shows they didn't exist. So sometimes our prior assumptions are wrong based on new evidence. We should accept that. One thing I don't want to do in my sunday school classes I teach is give smart sounding backround information that turns out not to be true. I did that for years with the whole "needles gate" thing until I found out that no research ever turned that up.

Bird of Paradise said...

I have greatly benefitted by the comments submitted in response to your posting. Wikipedia's listing for "Gnosticism" has a section devoted to "'Gnosticism' as a Potentially Flawed Category" in which reference is made to a 1966 conference in Messina that dealt with the rising dissatisfaction with the broad application of the term "gnosticism" in theological and historical literature. Michael Allen Williams' book, "Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category" is specifically referred to in the article.

Personally, I shall continue to use the term gnostic as always but will henceforth place the italicized word in quotation marks as well.

We can agree, perhaps, that "Gnostic Christianity" did not arise as a distinct movement until the end of the 2nd century and flourishing (so to speak) in the 3rd century AD. We should also be able to agree, however, that the philosophical dualism that comprises the radical theological premise for Christian Gnosticism predates the New Testament not only in Greece but in many areas of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

So it is in my own brief posting that I feel confident to say that, "It is not, therefore, that the early Christians were Gnostic, it was that the 'Gnostics' took the outline of the Christian faith and reshaped it according to their own pre-Christian spirituality."

As hymn writer James Lowell might have put it, "New occasions teach new duties, time makes (last year's words) uncouth."

Ben Witherington said...

Yuck a buck--- see the posting by Bird of Paradise below. In addition you might want to look at the entry on Gnosticism in the Dictionary of NT Background edited by Craig Evans. There is a fine article by Ed Yamauchi with copious bibliography. His own two books deal with this matter in some depth.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Brian said...

I caught a glimpse of something on 20/20 the other night about "The Jesus Dynasty" which appears to be similar material. I didn't catch the whole thing. Perhaps you could comment.

AMDG

Brian said...

I wasn't too clear in my last comment...it didn't have anything to do with gnosticism but seemed to be on target with your initial post about easter and theories about Jesus.

The one part I did catch was the author's (James D. Tabor) claim that Jesus never rose from the dead.

AMDG

yuckabuck said...

Thanks for the suggestions!
I have the older "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology" edited by Walter Elwell. Obviously I need to abstain from ice cream for a few weeks, save the money, and buy something more up to date. :-)

Brian said...

I think it is legal to at least post the bibliography...definitely worth buying the book though. :)

Gnosticism

Bibliography. W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. R. Kraft and G. Kro-del (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971); M. R. Desjardins, Sin in Valentinianism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990); G. Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992); R. M. Grant, ed., Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961); W. E. Helleman, ed., Hellenization Revisited (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994); D. Hoffman, The Status of Women and Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Tertullian (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995); H.-J. Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road (New York: HarperCollins, 1993); B. Layton, ed., The Rediscovery of Gnosticism (2 vols.; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980–81); E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979); B. A. Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); P. Perkins, Gnosticism and the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998); S. P├ętrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990); J. M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (3d ed.; San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990); T. A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988); K. Rudolph, Gnosis (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987); W. Schmithals, Neues Testament und Gnosis (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984); J. D. Turner and A. McGuire, eds., The Nag Hammadi Library After Fifty Years (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997); M. A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); E. M. Yamauchi, Gnostic Ethics and Mandean Origins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970); idem, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (2d ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983).
E. M. Yamauchi

Porter, S. E., & Evans, C. A. 2000. Dictionary of New Testament background : A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL

Zimri said...

You say: "My greater concern is the revisionist history being tauted by Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Bart Ehrman, Marvin Meyer and others, on the basis of such Gnostic documents, wanting to suggest that somehow, someway these documents reflect Christianity at its very point of origin--- the first century A.D."

I don't read Pagels, I haven't heard of King, and I agree with you on Meyer. But I have made a layman's study of Ehrman, from "Orthodox Corruption" onward, and I must say your statement quoted above is not a fair representation of Ehrman's opinion of Jesus's message.

Ehrman wrote a whole book called "Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium" on how Jesus claimed to be an, uh, apocalyptic prophet of the coming kingdom of God. Ehrman's Jesus did not preach that the Kingdom of God was already in us and around us; this Jesus was baptised by the Prophet John / Johanan / Yahya at the Jordan and then went on to preach that the Temple was a-comin' down and that he was standing by to rebuild it.

To my knowledge, Ehrman has never claimed that Jesus was a gnostic sage; and he has never claimed that centuries-late gnostic scribblings like GosJudas, GosSaviour, or even SecJames et al ad nauseam should be taken as coequal with GosMark.

EricG said...

What about Saint Paul's confemnation of those who profess "knowledge false so-called" and those who teach that sex/marriage is evil and other strange teachings? Don't these represent some form of Gnosticism?

As well, doesn't the Gospel of Thomas date to the late first-century, or at least the early second-? And if the latter period, don't we need to take into account the fact that movements usually predate their first writings, especially in the ancient world?

Ben Witherington said...

Zimri: You are right about Ehrman's view of Jesus--- he is busy reviving the defunct views of Albert Schweitzer that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who was mistaken about the timing of the end of the world/ second coming etc. In other words, he is a false prophet whose eschatology was out of whack. We find this very same view revived in James Tabor's new book The Jesus Dynasty. My point however about Ehrman is that he uses textual criticism, including the study of Gnostic texts, as a basis for arguing for the pluriformity of Christianity right back to its point of origins.

It is right to ask about Paul's condemnation of 'false wisdom' and of asceticism. Two points are in order: 1) in the Greco-Roman world there were various sorts of mystery religions which had nothing to do with Gnosticism. They tauted certain secret rituals and magical names which if one went through the rituals one could be saved; 2) asceticism was a part of many different ancient religions, it was not exclusive to Gnosticisms. In Corinth we are probably dealing with some sort of Greek philosophical asceticism--- ala Stoicism.

Blessings,

Ben

Brian said...

To add to your point about Greek philosophical asceticism, Ben, the influence of Plato and the Platonic Academy on Gnosticism is palpable, but that doesn't make Platonism Gnostic. Plotinus (205-270) was an influential Neoplatonic philosopher in Alexandria whose own school was infiltrated by Gnosticism to such an extent that he felt motivated to write a treatise distinguishing his philosophical principles from theirs. (His student, Porphyry, called the treatise "Against the Gnostics" (Enneads II.9) when he edited Plotinus' writings after his death.)

Plotinus is a biased source, granted. But if his basic description of the Gnostics of his acquaintance are to be believed, Gnostics paid lip service to Plato (mainly through proof-text exegesis of Plato's Timaeus and parts of the Republic), but generally lacked patience with philosophical dialectic. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts bear out this haphazard use of Plato.

The point is that by the time Gnosticism reached its mature phase in the 3rd century CE in Plotinus' Alexandria, Gnosticism and Platonism-- indeed, Gnosticism and traditional philosophy-- were quite distinct things. We might expect Plato and Platonism to have been widespread in the 1st century CE, but that's not enough to posit Gnosticism, or indeed anything that sufficiently resembles it to serve as a functional substitute.

Steve T said...

Dear Dr. Witherington -

Thanks so much for your blog, which I find to be very helpful. A couple of questions related to the Gnostic documents, if you would be so kind:

First, can you comment on the extent of incidental details of history or archaeology that might be present in them? I know that the Gospels of Luke and John do well in this area, mentioning various facts of their time and surroundings which indicate a reliability not to be expected in legendary accounts. Is this a fair distinguishing point over and against the Gnostic texts?

Second, can you comment on the dating methods used? How good are they and to what specificity? I ask because I've heard that some academics (Pagels?) want to date the Gospel of Thomas earlier than most are comfortable with.

Thanks very much and please keep this up! You're doing a vital service for the church here.

Blessings...

Ben Witherington said...

Most of the Gnostic documents are philosophical tracts of a kind, and do not present us with any substantial historical details of any kind, nor do they add anything to what we know from the canonical Gospels on such matters. One thing that makes the Gospel of Judas so interesting is that we finally have a Gnostic document that wants to talk about the pre-Easter, rather than the post-Easter Jesus. This is very unusual in a Gnostic doucment which mainly wants to fulminate on the Easter and 'more spiritual' Jesus.

Blessings,

Ben

Alexandra said...

All Things Beautiful TrackBack 'The Gospel Of Judas'

graham old said...

Hi Ben,

"...a new myth of origins that suggests that Christianity was dramatically pluriform from the beginning. Unfortunately, as a historian I have to say that this is argument without first century evidence."

What argument is it that lacks evidence: that Christianity was pluriform from the beginning, or that it was *dramatically* pluriform?

Lifelearning said...

Hi Ben,
Thanks for your enlightening posts!

1. Taking as a whole those people of the 2nd century whose religion recognized Jesus as a central figure, can an estimation be made of the percentage of people who belonged to the apostolic church (the "great Church tradition"-- Pelikan) relative to competing traditions, especially gnostic, Marcionite, and Ebionite?

2. Same question: but regarding the competing traditions of the 3rd century?

3. Around what time peiod did the growth of the apostolic Church far exceed its gnostic/Marcionite/Ebionite competition before the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity?

Deeply appreciative, Joe

human_progress_landscape said...

I think that the notion of Gnosticsm being somewhat of an unfit general category is something interesting to draw upon. Scholars, especially Pagels, who suggest that the plurality of the early Christian tradition was the orthodoxy (meaning there was not orthodoxy) seem to assume some sort of uniformity of Gnosticism, which is surely not the case.

Dr. Witherington, though some concepts can be found throughout various forms of Gnostic thinking, such as dualism and corruption of matter, would it be appropriate to say that the "plurality" of the Gnostic tradition far exceeds that even described of the Christian tradition by scholars like Pagels?

Thanks for all your work.

goliah said...

Like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi discoveries, this latest 'gospel' increases the amount of new scriptural material only available this century making the concept of 'canonical scriptures' and the traditions built upon them even less convincing. What would 'Christianity' look like if all these resources were available from the beginning? For a divine comedy check this link: www.energon.uklinux.net

PresidenToor said...

I bet my comment will get lost in the sea but I will add what I add.

From the perspective of a non-Christian, and being no expert in the field, when do any of you here or anywhere reading this think it will be time to question what you have been taught about your religion.

When do you think it will be time to start asking questions? There is so much - more - religious material about Christianity then those who praise such a religion are ever taught.

Gnostic, by historical counts has just about everything to do with Mysticism. I will ask what relevance does Gnostics have with the Gospel of Judas?

It seems from my point of view that "Christians" have put a name on just about everything they seek to own. Everything from renaming Jesus from however one was to pronounce his birth name. It's rather silly that you change a man's name...I mean it's a different language how can you go around changing every letter of their alphabet and get Jesus?

It seems to me after 2000 years, Christianity has lost its way...like I said in my blog...Christianity today is the farthest thrown rock from what Jesus ever set out to teach. Which in all honesty by anybody's account was "the truth."

Home Insurance said...

Thank you very much for this information.

If interested, can visit Home Best Insurance blog.