Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Gnostic Turn For the Worse

The Big Hominid, a fellow expatriate and fellow blogger here in the Republic of Korea, has read my online paper on the "Ethical Dualism of Food," which I wrote on John's Gospel and Gnosticism for presentation at the annual SBL/AAR conference back in 1999, and he has a few questions:

"Could it be that the writer(s)/redactor(s) of the Fourth Gospel were appropriating Gnostic symbolism and fusing it with Jewish tropes? Maybe I've been reading too much Elaine Pagels, but Gnosticism, it seems, is hard to pin down as an easily definable '-ism.' Free-floating Gnostic memes wafting about the Mediterranean could have been picked up by Jewish writers and incorporated into the scriptures. Personally, I'm partial to the notion that the Fourth Gospel is shot through with Gnosticism, even if John's version of Jesus doesn't follow the Gnostic model in crucial ways. There's too much light/dark, spirit/flesh dualism to rule Gnosticism's presence out (not that your paper was doing that, though it seems to imply that scholars reach too quickly for the Gnostic interpretation). I also tend to think that Jewish thinkers have always been adept at taking surrounding cultural tropes and subverting them -- witness how the Hebrews took Canaanite deities and demonized then, or how Jesus -- very much a Jew -- subverted prevalent Jewish preconceptions about purity, morality, etc. to make his points. I wouldn't put it past a Jewish writer to lift a trope and rework it. My point is that the Gnosticism we might be seeing in the Fourth Gospel is really there, but it's been reappropriated: Judaicized Gnosticism . . . ?"

Tough questions. Scholars have been arguing about this sort of thing for well over a hundred years. I'm a bit out of the argument these days since my research projects have taken other directions (partly from my lack of access to sources).

If by "Gnosticism," one means the full-blown Gnostic system that presents the myth of an evil creator-god who shapes the material world to trap fragments of the divine spirit that must be released through the help of a heavenly messenger sent by the higher, spiritual god of salvation, then I'd say that the author of John is probably not drawing on that. Gnostic systems like this seem to come from the second-century A.D.

But if by "Gnosticism," one means a much broader constellation of dualistic ideas and images -- such as dark versus light or flesh versus spirit -- then I'd agree that the author of the fourth gospel is certainly drawing on some of that. But to note this and call it an appropriation of Gnosticism is to make it sound more significant than it is because there's no system that's being appropriated.

For something more like a genuine Judaized Gnosticism, I think that we'd need to look at Kabbalistic systems, which are several hundred years later than John and which really do echo those second-century Gnostic systems.

Your questions deserve a more in-depth response, but I'm short of time. Thanks for asking. Mark Goodacre will be happy.


At 4:44 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, and for a very interesting paper.



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