Were the Ancient Gnostics Great Intellectuals?

Here’s one New Testament scholar (Larry Hurtado, recently retired, Univ. of Edinburgh) who laughs at the idea. I’d agree with him (and I like reading western esotericism).

If you think they’re intellectual elites, you’ve been watching too much on the Fantasy Channel (aka, History Channel) and reading too many pages by modern new agers. Go to the primary sources, like Prof. Hurtado suggests.

[Addendum: 2/24/2014. Prof. April DeConick was apparently put off by Prof. Hurtado. It didn’t take her long to respond. I’m with Hurtado on this one. I’ve read enough esoteric material and western esotericism to know that the short path to sounding intellectual is to spout streams of barely intelligible ideas. That way, you come off as the possessor of elite knowledge: “If you were as brilliant as I am, you’d understand what I’m saying.” Gnostic literature is filled with that sort of thing. Just read it. My point is not that they were dumb or on acid. It’s that calling them leading intellectuals of the ancient world is silly. In terms of the New Age crowd, it’s hard for them to take reasoned discourse and make it sound like mystery and mysticism to convince you they’re deep. It’s easy to do that with Gnostic material, and many have done so. That ought to tell us something. (And readers will know I’m not in the ecclesiastical box of the “historic” church in several respects). Yes, I can be accused at this point of assessing that material through “western logic.” But tell me — when we debate the subject, are we going to use the rules of western logic for discussion or not? Will we evaluate the soundness of argumentation using rules of western logic or not? We all know the answer, and that tells us something as well.]

2 thoughts on “Were the Ancient Gnostics Great Intellectuals?

  1. Damn, I’m glad to hear this. When I read some gnostic stuff I thought I just wasn’t smart enough to understand it!

  2. I’ve found that the Gnostics’ writings are obtuse enough that almost anyone can say virtually anything about them and cook up some rationale to justify it. That goes as much for their “fans” as it does (and did, in classical times) for their detractors.

    But when Hurtado declares the Gnostics cannot have been “intellectuals” because “they didn’t seek to understand through inquiry and argumentation,” that’s not even him using something the Gnostics said or did and using it against them. That’s just his subjective value judgement about them. He’s correct they considered the physical realm around them to be “foolish” and beneath them, however, one can say the same about other sorts of Christians … not to mention all kinds of other schools of thought in the Greco-Roman world. Some of those, e.g. of the Pythagorean variety, were true ascetics who lived in reclusive communities. Most of the various Gnostic sects didn’t go this far (even if their writings sometimes imply they ought to). Likewise, his complaint about Gnostics being “selective” leaves unstated that there were lots of other religious groups in the Greco-Roman world who were “selective.” In a lot of ways it wasn’t unusual for religious groups to be choosy about who they admitted and who they didn’t.

    Hurtado also condemns Gnostics for feeling “superior” to others, however, that also can be said of their critics. Anyone who reads, for example, Tertullian can virtually taste the man’s towering sense of superiority over others. Even, at times, over others within his own particular faction of the Christian community. One might argue that his sense of superiority and sanctimoniousness caused him to vault over the wall of heresy, if you will, into Montanism. The same goes for a lot of other presumably great Christian thinkers, whose ideas have proven influential. If we’re now to condemn Gnostics for their “superiority,” virtually every other saint who ever lived also must be condemned for the same quality.

    But my critique of Hurtado shouldn’t be construed as approval for what other sorts of scholars have done with the Gnostics. Some are poised to canonize them. Freke & Gandy provide a good example of what not to do with Gnosticism. I’m not even going to explain why I say that, I suspect you know already, and nothing more needs to be said about it.

    It’s much better to view Gnosticism, as well as all the other religions of the time, as products of the classical world and of the circumstances in which they first appeared and in which they flourished, rather than looking back at them now and making anachronistic judgements about them. The classical Gnostics were, above all else, human beings. They had their flaws. They made mistakes. They believed odd things. They honked people off (a tendency which is undeniable, and which probably was fatal for their religion). But for us to sit back and vilify them posthumously, merely because they had a belief-system which was essentially different from the one which ended up prevailing in occidental culture … ?

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