Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy: You Said What??!!

Indeed, the title might seem as contradictory as “Towards a Marxist Capitalism” or “Towards a Christian Atheism”!  So what, exactly, am I up to?

I first became aware of the “Lost (or even better, Banned) Books of the Bible” in my early teens.  Dad had recently got the New English Bible, still one of my favorite translations, and was quite taken with 2 Esdras (that’s a story for another day).  As a boy raised in a more or less generic Protestant background, with a slight tint of Baptist/Evangelical (at a time when Evangelicals hadn’t yet gone totally over the deep end), this concept gave a delightful frisson of forbidden fruit, scandal, adventure, esoteric knowledge, and the naughtiness of reading something that was Rejected From the Bible!  In a sense, it was sort of a theological peep show, ogling the naughty bits of heretofore hidden Scripture.

As I’ve chronicled before, I read the Bible twice in my late teens.  First was the King James Version (at that time I didn’t know there even was a KJV translation of the Deuterocanonicals, so I read the standard-issue version of it).  About a year later I read the New English Bible, which had all the Deuterocanonical books as well as 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh (which are all, I think, not technically Deuterocanonical, but are in the appendix to the Vulgate).  I enjoyed it–I still think  the style of the NEB is very effective and contemporary without being banal–but the Apocrypha were not as exciting and mysterious as advertised.  Many of them, in fact, were as boring as all get-out.  I guess it’s not the first time a peep show promised more than it could deliver.  

A few years later I ordered  The Lost Books of Eden and The Hidden Books of the Bible.  These were essentially cheap reprints of 19th Century translations of various apocryphal books such as the Odes of Solomon, the Protevangelium Jacobi (the Infancy Gospel), the Shepherd of Hermas, the  Book of Enoch, and other such pious fictions, also-rans, and miscellaneous books well-known to the scholarly community but obscure to the public.  Parts of some of them were interesting; most wasn’t.  The tiresome, quasi-Victorian diction of the outdated translations didn’t help much, either.

By my early 20’s I had embarked on a course of reading as much of the scriptures of various religions, and as much scholarship on Christianity, as I could get my hands on; so it was about this time that I became aware of Gnosticism.  At about the same time, translations of the Nag Hammadi texts were starting to hit the stands in the bookstores after having been lost for centuries.  I read here and there in them–not in depth, but a bit of this and a bit of that.  I bought Marvin Meyer’s The Secret Teachings of Jesus:  Four Gnostic Gospels, which contains the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, the Secret Book of John, and the Secret Book of James.   I liked the first of these immensely and the second somewhat.  James was OK and at the time my impression of the Apocryphon of John was “WTF?!”  Other stuff I scanned in less detail.

At 26 I entered the Catholic Church and took a hiatus from all the esoteric, off-the-wall stuff, not so much out of a feeling of being forbidden, but more to have time to adapt to my new faith and to put other areas of my life in order.  I wasn’t really reading a lot of theology, orthodox or otherwise, at that time.

About ten years ago a friend of mine went off on a Gnostic kick.  You’d have to know him to appreciate him; but he gets obsessions on things and spouts about them without having the patience to dig in enough to get real insight.  He was putting out a lot of simplistic stuff about Gnosticism and how preferable it was to orthodoxy, etc.  He and I went around on in a bit in a generally friendly manner.  I wasn’t so much out as Defender of the Faith, as I was trying to correct his misconceptions about both Gnosticism and orthodoxy.  Eventually he moved on to something else.  Meanwhile, I re-purchased Myers’s book (I had long since given it away or lost it), and began fiddling around on the Internet reading the new cornucopia of Gnostic sites therein.

Over the last decade I’ve come to a more nuanced and subtle view of the matter.  For reasons I’ll be discussing and elaborating in this series–which will be ongoing–I’ve decided that Gnosticism and orthodoxy share a lot more in common, and are much closer to each other, than is widely realized.  More, in fact, than a lot on both sides want to acknowledge.  I don’t claim that they can be entirely reconciled or conflated; but I do think it is worthwhile to look at the strengths and weaknesses of both, and see what insights we can glean, whether we consider ourselves orthodox, Gnostic, or somewhere in between.  It should be an interesting journey.

Posted on 14/09/2012, in Christianity, Gnosticism, philosophy, religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I’m looking forward to this series.

  2. Turmarion,

    This is all quite fascinating.

    I’d love to hear more about your father’s interest in 2 Esdras. It is, indeed, quite an interesting book. My understanding is that some Orthodox churches do consider it fully canonical, while others don’t. The Anglican communion, with typical wishy-washiness, groups it together with the rest of the Deuterocanonical books, and calls them sort of semi-canonical: the basic idea is that they are to be read for moral instruction, but not to establish dogma. In practice, Anglican and Episcopal churches do include readings from the Deuterocanonica, including 2 Esdras, in their lectionaries (though not often). 2 Esdras is supposedly the only book that’s in the Bible (or at least, some versions of the Bible) which was actually written after the fall of Jerusalem, and some portions were supposedly written up to a century or so later, which make it really pretty interesting as an insight into what early Christians were thinking. And of course, I’m drawn to the visionary and apocalyptic side of Christianity, and always have been, so I like 2 Esdras.

    I also have a basically dualist view of the world (in the sense of moral dualism, not metaphysical dualism so much), because I think the only way to really resolve the problem of evil is to accept that evil is a much more powerful, independent and ineradicable aspect of our world than the orthodox generally believe. I don’t think that is incompatible with my reading of the Gospels. The Apostle John, in particular, was clear that the devil is ‘the ruler of this world.’ The more orthodox takes on the problem of evil don’t really seem convincing to me. I would disagree with the gnostics in that I don’t believe this makes matter inherently evil or irredeemable, and in particular I would disagree with their denial of the incarnation, and with their focus on knowledge as our salvation. So no, I’m not a gnostic. But I’m too sympathetic to the basic dualist take on the world- God and the devil, fighting a struggle that is a real war, not a sham- to be comfortable in a completely ‘orthodox’ church like Rome or Constantinople (with all due respect to those who feel differently). Part of why I’m an Anglican is that my church doesn’t claim that, throughout history, we have always been *right*, and it has a famous tolerance for unorthodox or unusual opinions (even if, most of the time, those opinions are blazingly silly).

    It’s worth noting, finally, that the ‘secret books of the Bible’ is a separate issue from Gnosticism (or more broadly, dualist heresies in general). There were medieval dualists who made their case based entirely on the canonical scriptures (the Albigensian writer Jean de Lugio was one, using the orthodox Bible to argue against orthodoxy) and of course many of the early ‘lost writings’ weren’t gnostic or dualist at all. (The Protevangelium Jacobi, as I understand, is accepted as basically *true* and reliable by the Orthodox, even though they don’t include it in the Bible).

  1. Pingback: Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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