Everyone was gnostic until “Jesus of Nazareth”

Richard Carrier wrote an interesting post on August 31, 2020 called Gnosticism Didn’t Exist (Say What Now?).

“Gnosticism was never actually a thing. It was an invention of modern scholars; an interpretive category, it turns out, that refers to no actual thing that existed in antiquity. Or worse, when defined vaguely enough to actually encompass anything real, it refers to every sect of Christianity and thus distinguishes none of them. The word is therefore useless and ought to be abandoned.”

I recalled my thinking about Mark’s Roman congregation in the mid-second-century while I was preparing the book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. By the time of Irenaeus (180 CE) the concept of “Jesus of Nazareth, human being” had been accepted by orthodox leaders. (At minimum, the centers of orthodox authority were Rome and Ephesus.)But the new concept had little impact in Rome. Irenaeus isn’t interested in what “human being” meant. And after at least a century of “Jesus the divine intermediary/heavenly high priest,” I thought that the congregants in the Roman congregation were not going to change their focus to the mystery of incarnation just because it was now official doctrine. Official doctrine does not imply dogma. Rather, it was the Easterners who needed “Jesus of Nazareth, human being and teacher of the apostles.” (However, the Romans did get one big benefit: they manipulated the Acts of the Apostles to ensure that the Pope—their leader—got his authorization directly from Peter.) I said in the book, “I think it is likely that the Roman congregation throughout the second century and beyond included members who continued to understand the Jesus of the gospel story as a heavenly figure and his ‘time on earth’ as ahistorical and mythical.” (p. 146)

It turns out my intuition was right. But the introduction of “Jesus of Nazareth, human being” into the Christian mythos (via the synoptic gospels and related nonsynoptic stories), changed things. First, the religion was now more accessible to the illiterate. The ‘story of Jesus’ was no longer entirely symbolic. It had occurred on earth, in some way. Every Christian congregation had members who were illiterate (if only the children, and the slaves of members). As I say in the book, these people took the story of Jesus literally. Over time, their numbers must have pressured the congregational mythos toward a greater focus on “Jesus’s life on earth” and a lesser focus on “Jesus as divine intermediary.” Second, the “Jesus of Nazareth, human being” concept inevitably drew the congregants’ attention away from Jesus’s activities in the heavenly realm, which could be entirely understood within a Judean Scriptural context. In contrast, during Jesus’s life on earth per the canonical gospels he interacted with Gentiles, including Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate. Jesus explicitly rejected Judean Law and was condemned to death by the request of the Judean establishment and masses.* With this Jesus of Nazareth story at the center of their religion, it was inevitable that the orthodox church would cease to be centered in the Judean ethnos. I think that for centuries syncretistic Judeans who wanted only a symbolic observance of the Law continued to join/belong to the orthodox church, but culturally they had become indistinguishable from the ethnically Gentile members. The church had acquired characteristics it now has: rooted in Judean Scripture (the Old Testament), focused on Gentile-welcoming Scripture (the New Testament). It was now a Gentile religion.

*This may have not been true in Mark’s original play. See my post Reconstruction of the Pilate scene in the Gospel of Mark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *