Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hurtado - DeConick Debate on (Gnostic) Christian Intellectuals

If anyone who reads this blog has somehow does not also read Larry Hurtado's or April DeConick's blogs, please check into the discussion they're having about Gnostics as Christian Intellectuals.

Hurtado's first post; DeConick's response; Hurtado's response to DeConick's response.

Hurtado's posts predominantly raise the question of definition: what is an intellectual (and, by the way, most scholars would not fall under his definition because you have to be public - and therefore counts only those engaged in apologetics or who can draw a Greco-Roman response)?  This definition of intellectual, relying on the old distinction between a scholar and an intellectual, raises some questions for early Christian thinkers (a term I will use to cover both scholars and intellectuals).

So was Origen merely a scholar - not an intellectual - until he wrote Contra Celsum?  How truly "public" are apologetic writings?  Though Justin's apologies are addressed to the emperor, they very unlikely met their addressee - so to whom was he actually writing?  Was Dialogue with Trypho meant to be read to Jews?  Or was all of this predominantly internally distributed?  That is, were they really more public than other writings?  At this point, the difference between Justin and Apocryphon of John is its distribution network.  Nonetheless, "Gnostics" weren't very good at keeping these texts esoteric if that is what they meant to do, since it seems Irenaeus was able to get copies of it and other documents with relative ease - and if he could get copies, couldn't others?  Origen clearly had a copy of Heracleon's Commentary on John.  So, again, if meant to be esoteric, they kept falling into other people's hands if those people wanted them.  Though Larry is unsure if Valentinians count as Gnostic.

Perhaps it is not a matter of actual distribution - since it is conceivable that the Apocryphon of John and Justin's Second Apology both had relatively similar levels of distribution - but perhaps it is a matter of intention.  But I think all members of the debate would stop at this point and say we cannot reconstruct such intentions.  All we have are texts, and we tend to find Justin's apologies clear - though quite pedestrian in their quality of thinking - and Hypostasis of the Archons unclear.  Is this a matter of esotericism? Or just the distance of modern and ancient modes of thinking?  Or - put another way - how strongly does one divide the line between pseudo-philosophical inquiry of the earliest apologists and mythopoetic inquiry of the Gnostics (since Plato himself - undoubtedly an intellectual, right? - dabbled in both in Timaeus).  Relevance for other periods: are Kabbalists intellectuals?

It is an important question not just for ancient Christians, but for today: what constitutes an intellectual?

The second main question that has arisen in Hurtado's most recent post is: What is a "Gnostic" (using Michael Williams's critique from Rethinking Gnosticism)?  Michael Williams and Karen King have both written books to critique the concept of Gnostic/Gnosticism.  It is still an open debate with others defending the category (e.g., Birger Pearson and April DeConick herself) or others restricting the term to those typically designated as Sethians (e.g., Bentley Layton and David Brakke).  I doubt there will be much out of this particular definitional impasse anytime soon.

DeConick's post predominantly raises the issue of evidence, listing several traditionally Gnostic texts / figures as proof of their intellectual vibrancy - as well as the evidence of Greco-Roman responses from Plotinus/Porphyry and Celsus.  Hurtado's response to her recognizes several of these figures as, indeed, intellectuals but questions whether they count as Gnostic.  She also notes an institutional bias in modern scholarship that re-marginalizes these ancient marginalized group.

Be sure to read the posts - and let's see if they continue or if others join the chorus.

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