Dr. James M. Robinson
June 6, 2006
"The familiar idiom that the winners are the ones who write history is probably never that simple."
Contributing writers David Lloyd and Peter Nathan discuss The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene and Gnosticism with Dr. James M. Robinson. Dr. Robinson is General Editor of The Nag Hammadi Library; former director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity and Professor Emeritus of Religion, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California.
DL The phenomenally successful Da Vinci Code novel presents some sensational claims as historical facts. It is itself partly inspired by quite sensational claims in books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. How does such sensationalizing affect the work and impact of serious scholarship?
JR. These sensationalizing books are very bad for serious scholarship, because they mislead the public into thinking that such sensations are the new things scholarship is producing, whereas the important things that are in fact resulting from serious scholarship get lost from sight (since they are less sensational).
The confusion resulting in the lay public is of course today derived from The Da Vinci Code and Mary Magdalene. I regret very much that the appeal to be sensationalizing (it also produces money, which serious scholarship does not) is attracting some of my colleagues into being “soft” on such sensationalizing (see their TV appearances). Of course there may be a tone of jealousy on the part of those of us who do the basic spade-work, publishing material read only by scholars, but then to see our views picked up and sensationalized by those whose fame and fortune is thereby assured.
DL The tenuous designation of Mary Magdalene in religious tradition as a reformed prostitute or loose woman has been replaced—at least in the works of some feminist writers—by a confident woman who outthinks the apostles and is variously presented as an eastern priestess, the consort of Christ and even the mother of his child. Are these ideas rooted in sound historical evidence? And how much do the New Testament or Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Mary, support such notions?
JR Of course the reformed prostitute has now been abandoned even officially by the Second Vatican Council, after having been officially maintained by a pope of over a millennium ago[Gregory I ca. 540-604], and has no historical foundation. Of course the other positive alternatives you mention are also questionable.
The lay public does not realize that later material projected back on the beginnings was just a way to claim for later views the authority of the beginnings. Of course the orthodox launched this procedure, by claiming apostolic authority or at least apostolic credentials for the canonical Gospels, half of Paul’s letters, etc. The Gospel of Mary is a second-century text that may not go back to actual factual reality in Mary’s life, but does reflect the feminist and anti-feminist trends in second-century Christianity that used her as their topic for their own debate (just as the use of male apostles’ names was the way most second-century debates were languaged). Her confidence and outthinking the apostles is in the Gospel of Mary. This of course could be historical fact, but the first-century sources (the New Testament) do not make this explicit. She is always in the New Testament mentioned first among women disciples.
DL You mention in your introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library that Gnostics tended to be syncretic and ecumenical provided they found a stance congenial to their own. You mention that it was “a new religion.” Did this new religion stand up in its own right, or did it need other religions such as Christianity and Judaism as a conduit? As a rider to that question, was/is Gnosticism in any way subversive? (You mention, for instance, that 2 Timothy 2:16-18 is a repudiation of Gnostic Christians).
JR Gnosticism is sometimes called a “parasite religion,” since in fact it did build on other religions, such as Judaism and Christianity (what you call “conduit”), Hermetism, neo-Platonic philosophy, etc. (But so did mainline Christianity in the second century.) The newness was the particular way in which these ingredients were mixed. Gnosticism was in the second century the way intellectuals tried to make sense of, advocate, Christianity, which began without ideology (theology or philosophy) with peasants and fisherfolk. The grand exception in the first century was Paul, who did create problems for the original disciples patched over by the Jerusalem conference. But he did not use philosophy, whereas in the second century both the Gnostic leaders and the “orthodox” apologists did try their best. I do not know whether I would use the term “subversive,” but those opposed in 2 Timothy diverge from the conservative branch of the Pauline school that wrote 2 Timothy. There is a Nag Hammadi text (On the Resurrection in Codex I) that seems to be on the side of those opposed in 2 Timothy.
DL “Competing Christianities” in the first and second centuries are sometimes presented as though the champions of what became the Catholic Church were the “winners” and the Gnostics were the “losers” of history. Was the situation that simple? Were there, for instance, other winners or losers?
JR The familiar idiom that the winners are the ones who write history is probably never that simple. There are certainly other losers; i.e., the other “heresies,” such as Adoptionism, Montanism and then after the Constantinian Council of Nicea all who were opposed to its view, which produced lots of fourth- and fifth-century losers. Once the Roman army was Christian, such losers tended to lose their lives. As to other winners, the Catholic Church of today is only one of the winners. The Greek (and Russian) Orthodox Church(es) were part of the not-yet-split winners of the first millennium, and after the east-west schism were of course also winners in the turf they controlled.
DL In her recent book What Is Gnosticism? Harvard’s Karen King laments that the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices did nothing to clarify our understanding of Gnosticism. She states: “The problem of defining Gnosticism is as intractable as ever” (p.149). What’s your view on this?
JR Nag Hammadi has created as many new questions as it has answered old questions. Originally one expected the tractates to fit nicely into the lists of heresies we already had described by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, etc. Some did (for example The Apocryphon of John and Irenaeus), but many did not. And so some ideas of Gnosticism had to be given up and other ones formed. A “definition” is probably not possible, if one means something with clear boundaries. It was a cultural trend, somewhat comparable, for example, to “new age” religiosity, modern spirituality, “zen,” eggheaded intellectualism; i.e., all kinds of ways to be different and to make “higher” sense of it all. They were grappling with what the basic human dilemma is and how to solve it, but they went in various concrete ways (myths).
DL King’s final chapter is entitled “The End of Gnosticism?” She opines that the term “Gnosticism” will probably be abandoned. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
JR The term “Gnosticism” is loaded, since it has always been the name of a rejected heresy. So those wishing to use Nag Hammadi tractates to present a serious alternative to the “winners” (us) begin with two strikes against them, since we “know” that these newfangled views have long since been “exposed” as false. (The heresy-hunters also told tales about the sexual immorality of Gnostics, which are like modern mud-slinging in politics.) So some, especially Michael Williams and Karen King, advocate avoiding this loaded term. The sources do not call themselves Gnostics, except in a few groups, and it is scholarship which broadened the term to include many others, in order to discredit them all. They tended to be eggheads, and no one (who uses the term “eggheads”) likes them. But the term “Gnosticism” will probably continue to be used by those more conservative scholars wanting to play down the Nag Hammadi texts. (That’s better than having to learn Coptic!)
DL You mention in your introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library that first-century Judaism was pluralistic and that the Qumram community understood their situation in terms of the antithesis of light and darkness—a dualism that harked back to Persian dualism and anticipated Gnosticism. What do you think the Essenes would have made of The Nag Hammadi Library?
JR Karl Georg Kuhn, one of the first German Qumran scholars, pointed out the “Persian” dualism in some Qumran texts that is surprising within Judaism. Most of the Qumran texts tend to be by orthodox adherents to the Hebrew Scriptures, and so would not have approved of the way Nag Hammadi texts smear the Creator God who gets blamed for the human dilemma (rather than Adam and Eve being the guilty ones). There is even one Nag Hammadi text that portrays the Creation narratives all-too-literalistically as exposing the Creator God to be ignorant, jealous, etc. See The Testimony of Truth, Codex 9, tractate 3, pp. 45-48 (pp. 454-455 of the 1990 edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English).
PN In that Judaism is seen as being pluralistic, would the same hold true of the Gnostics? Was there just one form, or did it vary according to the teacher?
JR It varied according to the teacher, so there were Valentinians, Basilideans, Marcionites, Mandaeans, Manichaeans. Branding the “heresy” with the name of its founder was intended as a put-down. (Tags such as Calvinists, Lutherans, Wesleyans, were terms so used.)
PN Gnostics are popularized as being kinder to the female than Orthodoxy. Yet the female appears in some Gnostic systems to be equated to the physical and hence the evil world. Is this true of all forms of Gnosticism?
JR This would not be true of all forms of Gnosticism. But the popularization of Gnosticism as prefiguring modern feminism has been a way feminists have used to gain a broader audience. Who is just interested in rehashing long-gone heresies? The whole fad over Mary Magdalene illustrates this all too well. But there are things less feministic in Nag Hammadi (which get cited less often), such as the Gospel of Thomas concluding on the sour note that women must become men to get saved (most of the literature on this last saying is trying to produce better interpretations, and I wish them luck.)
PN Describing Gnostic views of the Hebrew Scriptures, one writer described the Gnostics as holding “to a cosmic anti-semitism” (Desjardins 311). If so, in what way could the Gnostics have had a basis among the Judaisms of the Second Temple period?
JR The defining of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the bad God who created our bad world is what one would mean by using the term “anti-semitic.” The higher, good God revealed through the Gnostic myth will ultimately win out over the lower heavenly beings under the thumb of the Creator God. But there may have been disgruntled Jews (as were the first Christians). The Gnostic sect of Sethians is thought to have been a Jewish sect before becoming a Christian sect and a neo-Platonic philosophy. One usually built one’s Gnostic mythology on the Hebrew Scriptures, so there was obviously some historical tie, even if an alienated kind. The Essenes themselves, though as orthodox as Jews could get, were unacceptable to Jerusalem orthodoxy for having a “wrong” calendar, and the feeling was mutual.
PN In what way do the Nag Hammadi documents support the views of the Patristic writers about Gnostic beliefs?
JR Of course one does not agree with the way the heresiologists smeared the Gnostics, picking and choosing among quotes to find those they could best make fun of or refute. Actually, one has found less direct overlaps than one initially expected to find. And some Gnostic views are presented in a way that commends them. We have more respect for some Gnostic authors and texts than one might have expected.
PN One aspect of second-/third-century Gnosticism is its intent “to interpret the Gospels spiritually and allegorically, using for this purpose the categories of Greek and in particular platonic philosophy” (Freund 309). Is this a reasonable statement about the hermeneutic approach of the Nag Hammadi documents?
JR This is a fair statement. Only a few actually are interpreting the Gospels, but apart from this pedantic detail it is in general correct. It is actually more the Jewish Creation texts that are so interpreted.
PN Ireneaus describes Simon Magus as the first Gnostic. Is this a fair label in light of what we know of the man?
JR The book of Acts presents Simon as the inventor of “simony”, buying the Holy Spirit or church office (but the many who have subsequently done this don’t get promoted into “Gnostics”). Acts does not present him as a Gnostic, but even before Irenaeus this label was given to him. His pupil was named Cerinthus, and Nag Hammadi Codex one, tractate 2, The Apocryphon of James, begins with a letter formula, somebody (presumably James) writing to someone the first half of whose name is in a lacuna, but the last part is legible: “...thos”. So this has been thought to be a Simonian Gnostic text. But many Greek words end in “-thus”, and so all this is without firm proof. (I spent months in the Coptic museum in Cairo placing fragments, and tried endlessly to find a fragment that was the first half of this name, but unsuccessfully.) But as the bad guy of Acts, Simon is a likely fellow to saddle with any future evils that turn up. But the last word has not been spoken as to the Gnosticism of Simon.