Read the first part of the interview with David Brakke, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, based on his book The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity.
In the second part Brakke discusses the origins, dualism, ultimate fate, and legacy of the Gnostics. Audio version for interview can be found at Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio.
MC: And would you say that the Gnostics saw themselves as the highest branch of Christianity? April DeConick agrees with me that they really thought they were Christian Bodhisattvas; they were full of compassion, but they still saw themselves as above everybody, head and shoulders.
DB: I’m not sure about that. Let’s put it this way: I’m sure they thought they were the most accurate form of Christianity. They were the true Christianity. They were bringing the message that Jesus meant to bring. I’m hesitating about the adjective “above” because that might suggest that other Christians were forms of them, or were on their way to be them. I think the Valentinians thought of themselves that way. The Valentinians thought of themselves as a more advanced form of Christianity, and other Christians are kind of “junior Valentinians.”
The Gnostics really saw themselves as being the right Christians and other Christians being wrong, in the same way Irenaeus thought other people were simply wrong. If the newly discovered Gospel of Judas comes from these Gnostics, or Sethians as others would call them, it’s very critical of other Christians. It’s not like “We’re just better than you. You’re not even right about who God is.” I think they were Christians and they thought their form of Christianity was the true one, the most accurate one.
One of the points of my book is to say, we like to sometimes think “Oh, the Gnostics, they’re like cool people who are inclusive,” but in reality they were just as adamant about the truth of their beliefs and the wrongness of other people’s beliefs as anyone else was in antiquity.
MC: But they weren’t like these rebellious individuals a lot people like to paint them to be? The “protest exegetes” Kurt Rudolph talks about.
DB: Right. I think this is a very important point that Michael Williams made in his book, Rethinking Gnosticism. That’s one of the great things about Michael Williams’ book. It’s hard to believe it’s been like fifteen years now.
MC: I know!
DB: But one of the great things about is that he pointed out that the Gnostics were much more engaged with the wider philosophical thought of the day than for example Irenaeus. We think of them as rebels and protesters. They really are part of the fringe to the extent intellectuals are a fringe—but they’re not really rebelling against something. They are actually participating in a wider conversation about God and how we know God. They’re not radical, wild protesters—they are participants in that conversation.
The fact that a major philosopher like Plotinus, in the third century, felt that he had to write tractates against the Gnostics and explain how he really is different from these people shows that they really weren’t so different from people like him.
Protesting the most about being different than others is a usual sign that you’re like them!
MC: The lady doth protest too much, right?
DB: Exactly. If you have to spend page after page saying, “We are not like them and they’re not us,” that usually is a sure sign that there’s something close between these two groups.
MC: And if Plotinus is giving somebody attention when we know what Plotinus thought of himself, that’s huge. That’s like a celebrity talking about you.
DB: Exactly. He was not one to spend a lot of time worrying about people he thought were not worth thinking about.
MC: What about their origins? Birger Pearson states that there were once Jews who later became Christianized. I think John Turn or April DeConick has this model—where they might have been Jews and then they became Christian and later they were thrown out of the churches. Where do you stand? A lot of their scriptures have Jesus as a kind of Johnny-Come-Lately, or there’s no Jesus at all. So how do you explain these scriptures like the Apocalypse of Adam, Marsanes, and so many others?
DB: The prevailing hypothesis among scholars right now is that Gnostics emerged as a kind of disaffected Greek-speaking Jews. Somehow you’ve got to have a Jewish element because these are people so obsessed with Genesis. It’s hard to imagine that some non-Jewish Pagan person decided to pick up Genesis and decided to create a whole mythology just around that book.
The Jewish hypothesis is that Jews started making this myth before they had even heard about Jesus, and that Jesus is indeed added later in a kind of secondary way. I think there’s a lot of virtue to that because it explains why they were so interested in what we now call the Old Testament; it avoids the Irenaeus model of seeing them as bad Christians who’ve gone off the path. Unfortunately, in this model, they become kind of bad Jews who’ve gone off the path.
But that’s what all Christians were, we should say, at the beginning, right?
MC: They were heretical Jews.
DB: Right. I tend to belong to the school of thought that they were Christian from the get go. We’ve got to be clear about what does it means to say a person is Christian. What I mean to say by that is that from the beginning these were people who knew about Jesus and felt that something had changed with Jesus; they needed to respond to that in some way. That doesn’t necessarily mean then that they would, for example, make their religion completely about Jesus. Certainly Christians did and do—that’s what we’d think Christianity would look like, completely Jesus-focused.
One reason I believe this—and I’ll come back to the issue of the lack of Jesus in certain Gnostic texts—is the decision to make the god of Genesis this malevolent, ignorant deity, Yaldabaoth. It’s very hard for me to understand any ancient Jew doing this without some message saying something has radically changed and is completely different: that we’ve had a revelation of a new and higher god, which is what they’re interpreting Jesus is.
Jews throughout history have suffered various ills, but never say, “Therefore our God is evil.” They always say things like “We have sinned, God’s ways are inscrutable,” these kinds of things. So I think that what’s needed here is not just Jews who feel disaffected and are heavily influenced by Platonism. Something new needs to have happened that says, “Here’s a new revelation of a god even higher than the god we thought we knew.” That’s what they see happening in Jesus.
You’re exactly right that some of the texts that come from this group—Jesus is not a hugely prominent character. The Apocalypse of Adam is a good example because it doesn’t mention Jesus at all, at least overtly. I still think, though, that this human being the Rulers were chastising his flesh could be a reference to Jesus. It is true that, in a document like the Apocryphon of John, Christ is a very important figure. Jesus seems to come at the end of these things, and sometimes seems tacked on. But I think that from the get go they thought something new had happened with this Jesus person. Some new revelation had occurred. Maybe for them it wasn’t really all about Jesus, it was all about God. Jesus isn’t as prominent in this literature as we might think.
Certainly, the external evidence that we have seems to say they were Christians because of the people who talk about them, like Irenaeus. Of course, Irenaeus doesn’t say they were real Christians—they were false, horrible Christians.
Almost certainly they were from a Jewish background, but that something had happened that to their minds revealed a higher deity. And that something was Jesus for them. So I don’t think they were something that happened before there was Jesus and they later learned about him and said “Oh, let’s add him to our story.” I think they were thinking about these issues post-Jesus from the start. I want to say that I and others who think this way—and I think Karen King is one of them—we are not adhering to some sort of Irenaeus model where there was original Christianity and the Gnostics kind of went astray from that.
But when the Jesus event happened, things went off in all sorts of different directions. All sorts of movements and trajectories formed around what Jesus meant. There wasn’t just one Christian thing from which the Gnostics derived; but they were one of these many ways of thinking that developed in the light of what happened, in the light of the Jesus event. They may not look as Christian to us as other groups did, but Christ and Jesus were part of it from the start.
If it’s the same Gospel of Judas Irenaeus was talking about, and I think it is, then the Gospel of Judas is thoroughly Christian, along with The Apocryphon of John, one of the earliest Gnostic texts. That’s one of the most important pieces of information in this question: were the Gnostics Christian from the beginning or not?
MC: Another point, David, where you seem to go against the grain is the concept of dualism. You seem to think that the artists formerly known as Sethians were not as dualistic as other scholars say.
DB: I think dualism is not a helpful word when you apply it to this group, because there are different kinds of dualism, but strictly speaking is the view that there are two eternal principles—good and evil, light and darkness—and one does not derive from the other.
The Manicheans, who come later in the third century with Mani, seem to have been actual dualists—believing in two principles from the beginning. The Gnostics are not this because they seem to believe that the Great Invisible Spirit, who is the ultimate god, the Father of the Entirety, is the source of all that is. Even the world in which we live, as flawed as it is in their view, ultimately has its source in the Father. So they are really monists.
You can use dualism in a softer sense: people who distinguish very sharply between the spiritual or intellectual realm of existence and the material type of existence. In that case the spiritual type of reality is what is truly real, and this material world isn’t quite as real or maybe isn’t even ultimately real. That’s just basic Platonism. In that sense you can call them dualists because they do make that distinction pretty sharply.
To say “Oh, they’re dualists, as opposed to other Christians who are not dualists,” I don’t think is very helpful, because other Christians can in fact be very intense on distinguishing between spirit and flesh. I don’t want to call them dualists in that kind of strict sense of having two ultimate principles because they really don’t think that way.
MC: What do you think happened to the Gnostic school of thought? People want to have this romantic notion that Constantine went from house to house with a sword. But that’s not what happened.
DB: No, I don’t think so. Part of the problem is that in the end we don’t really know, let’s put it that way. My own view is that they were probably were never a big group to start with. I think that by the fourth century there were really not many Gnostics left. This for a couple reasons:
One, in reaction to them and in dialogue with them, other groups had formed. Among them were the Valentinians, which were a much more successful movement. I could see the Valentinans as being a good alternative for Gnostics.
When Porphyry talks about Gnostics interacting with Plotinus in the middle of the third century, they seem to be much more engaged in discussion with other Platonists than with other Christians—which may be a sign that they feel less at home—although they probably never felt at home in the wider Christian network. You just don’t hear that much about them in the fourth century. In the fourth century you have people like Epiphanius with these wild stories accusing them of ritual cannibalism. That seems more like, “Oh, in the old days there were these evil people that did all these terrible things, and they’re still around. Watch your children, lock your doors!”
DB: I think what happened to them is that they just kind of petered out. Other groups like the Valentinians picked up some of those other people who had mystical interests. As you pointed out, the later Gnostic literature doesn’t feel, from our perspective, particularly Christian. Jesus isn’t a big deal anymore.
As time went on, and the lines between who was a Jew and who was a Christian became more a matter of clarity, the Gnostics found themselves in an increasingly difficult position as well. I think their unique mode of Christianity became increasingly less possible. Not because some government saying, “Don’t do this!” but because the ritual and communal life and thought-world of Christians and Jews just evolved in a way that gave them less space to have a productive existence.
The Valentinians lasted longer, and then perhaps you can give Constantine and the bishops and emperors who followed him some credit for getting rid of groups like the Valentinians.
MC: It would be reasonable to say that the Sethians, or original Gnostics, might have been absorbed into Neoplatonism. Furthermore, as Jason BeDuhn explains and we always forget about the Manicheans who were just as successful at converting people, they might have converted the Gnostics in Alexandria and other parts of the empire.
DB: I totally agree with that. I was holding up the Valentinians as just one option for them, but I they might have just as well gone off into other Neoplatonic groups. The Manicheans would have been another great place for Gnostics to end up because—despite the fact that I don’t want to call them Gnostics—I do want to agree with people that point out the resonances between Manichean teaching and the mythology of the Gnostics. And yes, Manicheans were extremely successful.
Often people who study Christianity, third century and later, totally underestimate the importance of Manichaeism as a movement and its attractiveness to a lot of people
MC: I will, but you won’t convince Birger Pearson, I know that.
DB: I don’t think so, and that’s okay. What a great contribution he has made to scholarship. All of us are in his debt. I do disagree about the way he sees Gnosticism, as a larger phenomenon, but few people are as knowledgeable about all of the different movements in antiquity that contributed to what I’m calling the Gnostics, especially Hellenistic Judaism. Great scholar; great guy.
MC: What’s the legacy that the Gnostic school of thought left on Christianity?
DB: One of the things I want to say in this book is that we often hear that the Church rejected Gnosticism. One of the things I want to say is that there was no big Gnosticism. There was this Gnostic school of thought, and there wasn’t of course a single Church, and “reject” is too simple for what was going on. I think the Gnostics contributed to how Christianity developed in several ways.
Of course, one of them was negative. Not negative because I think it was bad, but a lot of how Christians felt was a response to them. To say, “We don’t agree with that so we have to come up with an answer for what they’re saying.” One way they left a legacy was simply by having ideas that other Christians were like, “No, no, no, we don’t like that! So we have to come up with our own thought about the questions they’re raising.” I think they left other things.
One of them—Karen King pointed this out and she’s exactly right—is that The Apocryphon of John is really the earliest datable book we that provides a Christian comprehensive account of human salvation from God to the future consummation of all things. The Gnostics set a precedent of saying one of the tasks of a Christian intellectual or thinker is to come up with such a comprehensive vision. They left this audacious act: come up with a comprehensive vision of God and the world. That is as a legacy.
Another legacy is their interest in the demonic rulers that oppose human beings and prevent us from being virtuous. They’re very interested in the various demonic cohorts that are around Yaldabaoth and obstruct our quest to be good, virtuous people. That’s picked up by not only by people like Origen but later by desert monks. Christians develop a great interest in that.
And their mysticism. As I said earlier this is one of the things that really interests me about the work of some younger scholars. They’re showing how texts like Zostrianos and the Foreigner—the Gnostic texts that talk about mystical acquaintance with God—actually influenced other people like Plotinus and so on, and through him people like Pseudo-Dionysius. That’s also part of their legacy, part of the things that Christianity as we know it has actually taken from the Gnostics.
The Gnostics weren’t just rejected—they interacted with and some of their ways of doing things were actually assimilated into other forms of Christianity.
Transcript kindly provided by Leon Sandler