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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Vetting the Claims about Heresy Hunting

Darrell L. Bock

I want to thank the SBL Forum and Tony Burke for allowing me to respond to his essay. I evaluate his claims, cited verbatim, in a counter point mode. Then I respond. I will focus on my own work because I can speak to my own motives. I hope to show that the issues raised operate on more responsible, historically rooted ground than his piece suggests. The list of texts he treats are listed at the end of this article.

Claim 1: The problem with such books, at least from the perspective of those who value the CA [= Christian Apocrypha], is that they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them. Proper research and sober argument take a back seat to the apologists’ goal of buttressing the faith.

Wrong. Is the point to disparage these books, buttress the faith or to challenge the historical claim by some that these texts reflect the earliest era of Christianity? I was explicit in my conclusion that I was interested in the historical question (Bock, Missing Gospels, p. 206, first paragraph under Problem 2). If the more traditional story is buttressed in the process of doing the history, then so be it. However, the argumentation was grounded in direct engagement with these texts and their sources. These were treated using strictly historical considerations, like standard, accepted dates of the works, issues of origin, and citation using the best translations currently available.

Claim 2: Their chief strategy is to refute by exposure, a strategy reflected in the full title of Irenaeus’ work: “the exposure and overthrow of the falsely so-called Gnostics.” This refutation is done with little or no argumentation; the views are presented in such a disparaging way that detailed argument is unnecessary.

Is it disparaging simply to name a theme, cite the texts next to each other so one can see what they say on that topic? Is that not how historical investigation should proceed, namely, citing the texts in question and citing up to date discussions of their date and provenance in the standard sources? Ad fontes is central to any historical work.

Claim 3: Another common strategy is to place their opponents in a chain of known heretics…. On the whole, the heresy hunters spare no invective in their description of the heresies and tend to place emphasis on the most repugnant aspects (real or imagined) of their beliefs and practices.

Is that really the case here? Are CA sympathizers immune from such a claim? How do we explain the fact that all the discussion in The Gospel of Judas release focused on the role of Judas and next to nothing about the cosmology that actually represents the core of the work? More than that, maybe it is not “the most repugnant” points that are being cited, but the most central parts of these texts. In addition, maybe certain texts are brought forward because of claims made by those presenting CA works. Why does Thomas 114 come up? It was raised because many trumpet that CA material exalts women. But is that the case when females are removed from creation by becoming male in the final era as in 114? Or is it the case there is a respect for women when the flaws in creation are laid at the feet of Sophia in the key text of the Apocryphon of John, which all regard as a key text in this collection? These CA texts show that respect for women is not what should be claimed without some serious qualification.

Claim 4: The modern CA critics, like the heresy hunters, situate themselves within the “orthodox” church.

This is true, but why and how? The argument is that one can show a historical chain going back quite early in the “orthodox” material that is lacking in the alternative materials. Such advocacy can be part of making historical judgments about the material in question.

Claim 5: Also like the heresy hunters, the writers address their concerns to insiders, a closed group of believers who likely need little convincing that the Browns and Ehrmans of the world must be ignored.

Flatly false. My goal was to write for anyone with interest in the area and to use the standard sources for this material (Bock, Missing Gospels, p. xiii; “a popular audience,” “those who were hearing about it”). That was the case for many of the other writers Burke cites as well. The point of these books is hardly a claim to ignore these writers, but to engage them on the historical ground of all of these texts (thus the “exposure” to the texts).

Claim 6: Quotations from the CA are necessary if constructing an argument about or against their contents. However, often the apologists excerpt the texts simply to highlight their differences from the canonical texts. Of course, only those sections of the CA texts that are particularly odd are provided and commented upon.

Not true. Texts are provided that show what is characteristic of this material. In my book, long citations were provided so that context was not lost. Ancient CA concerns do include what the views of creation were and what constituted knowledge and salvation in contrast to canonical texts. After all they were written in many cases to challenge other Christian expressions. Such comparison allows one to see the differences and evaluate them. Neither is it true that only odd non-orthodox texts are discussed with all the passages linked together in a guilt by association by saying they are Gnostic. I describe The Gospel of Thomas as a hybrid text that mixes orthodox themes and fresh themes that contain some Gnostic elements in its final version (Bock, Missing Gospels, pp. 59-63; “mix of old and young material,” “not clearly Gnostic,” “Gnostic-like thought” in some sayings 2-3, 37, 50-51, 60, 77, 84, 86-87, 90; saying 75 mentions the Gnostic Christian rite of the bridal chamber). Of course, it is the distinctive features of these texts that created the reaction to them when they were created, so those elements have to be a point of focus.

Claim 7: But the apologists make no effort to understand these texts sympathetically; their goal is to show their readers that the CA are not compatible with the canonical texts. Indeed, again and again Bock points out that, in antiquity and today, canonical and non-canonical portrayals of Jesus are not reconcilable: “Either the Gnostic texts reflect what Jesus was and is, or the four Gospels are the best witnesses to the movement that Jesus generated. One cannot have it both ways.”

This assessment reflects a defended historical evaluation of the material, after working through the material in detail. An important historical question is which set of texts better connect us or take us back to Jesus and his followers. When the two sets of texts disagree on key themes, claim the same set of origins, and one can detail the disagreements, then such a judgment is permissible.

Claim 8: And Wright, taking issue with Elaine Pagels’ view that one could read the canonical and Gnostic gospels side-by-side, states “it could only be sustained by a systematic and sustained rereading and in fact radical misreading, of the canonical gospels themselves.” That may be so, but the fact remains that throughout history Christians have combined both accepted and censured texts in a variety of ways, including art and iconography, popular literature, and manuscript transmission. So, reading the canonical and non-canonical gospels side-by-side was not only possible, it actually happened.

This observation about the mix of usage in the ancient period, though true, misses the historical point again. Wright is not saying that such side-by-side readings did not happen in the second century, but that such observations ignore or understate the polemic the two groups had against each other at the time (E.g. Judas is an anti-orthodox text. That is why it was written). Also relevant to the historical discussion is the nature of those readings (in polemic or side-by-side), as well as how far back one can trace them. In my work, I was clear about cases where side by side things were taking place, making this point about certain Valentinian texts and Thomas (Bock, Missing Gospels, p. 211).

Claim 9: Several of the apologists go on to associate all non-canonical texts with Gnosticism—even the Gospel of Peter and the infancy gospels—either because of a lack of awareness of the complexities of defining Gnosticism, or because of a reliance on outdated scholarship on the texts, or simply because it suits their purposes to associate all non-orthodox forms of Christianity with oft-demonized Gnosticism. The connection with Gnosticism allows them also to date the texts late—it is simply assumed that a Gnostic text must have been composed in the late second-century, even if there is evidence that might suggest otherwise.

This claim complains about Peter and Thomas being placed in the late second century. These are not my dates (so perhaps why we see several in this claim). I reject Perrin’s take on Thomas even though I am cited because I mention it. The dates I used came right out of the multi-volume Brill edition of the Coptic Nag Hammadi texts (Bock, Missing Gospels, p. 56, discusses which sources I use and why, namely, to use the best resources we have). I also had a chapter discussing the current debates about the date and the use of the term Gnosticism. I discussed and used works that reached well into this decade (My books were written in 2004, 2006, out of some 94s book in the closing bibliography, 26 are from this decade).

Claim 10: CA authors also are disparagingly labeled “forgers” because they have composed pseudonymous texts; it seems to matter little that some of the apostolic attributions in these texts are late developments and that some of these texts are named for their contents (e.g., the Gospel of Judas) not for their authorship. And being conservative scholars, the apologists do not acknowledge the possibility of pseudonymity in canonical texts.

Actually in my discussion of Matthew and John, I did note that many hold to a “school” authorship for some of the gospels which is the same position (Bock, Missing Gospels, p. 204). So this possibility was entertained.

Claim 11: The modern apologists’ inadequate knowledge of the CA is due to the fact that they are not experts on the CA nor on Gnosticism. The apologists show their shortcomings in CA studies also in their reliance on collections of apocryphal texts or commentaries rather than recent and comprehensive scholarship on the texts.

False. What better source to cite for English speaking audiences than the Brill English Nag Hammadi translations in the Coptic library volumes or to have looked at translations by experts such as Marvin Meyer and Karen King?

Claim 12: There is also an overall tendency to cite only those authors or studies that are useful for making their arguments—for example, Stephen Carlson’s work on Secret Mark is said to have proven that the gospel is a forgery, and Nicholas Perrin’s work on the Gospel of Thomas is taken as proof that the text postdates Tatian’s Diatessaron.

Not true. In my work, there is interaction with and presentation of arguments by Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Karen King, Michael Williams, not to mention Kurt Rudolph, Marvin Meyer, and Birger Pearson. These discussions exist alongside beyond my dating of these works which worked with the Brill Library edited by James Robinson, as well as with individual volumes by those who are sympathetic with CA materials. In almost all cases I accepted standard CA dates. I only doubt an early date for the Gospel of Peter (as do most) and noted the debate over the issue of the date of Thomas, including the debate over its gradual formation. Who else and what else should be cited? I already noted I do not date Thomas with Perrin and even noted how some of the sayings come from the same early strand of tradition the four gospels use. I do mention the view of Perrin in Missing Gospels (p. 6), but do not refer to him or his date when actually dating Thomas (on pp. 59-63 and 219, where I place it in the late-first or early-second century). I also explained that Thomas was rejected only down the road once it was linked to Gnosticism (Missing Gospels, p. 211).

Claim 13: Another strategy the apologists have in common with the ancient heresy hunters is the demonization of the heresiarchs, or in the modern context, the demonization of CA scholars. Bock’s straw man is the “new school” of Harvard, also called Neo-Gnostics, led by James Robinson and Helmut Koester. Elaine Pagels is also associated with the new school. She is often singled out by the apologists and, it seems, misrepresented.

How is it demonization to present the development of a school, trace its history and its claims? And where is Pagels misrepresented? Is it inaccurate really to claim that this approach is arguing that the canonical materials need to be deprivileged, which is a key point in the debate that these writers make in common? Such a line of views occurs in CA works themselves as the work of Walter Bauer, James Robinson, and Helmut Koester are cited by them as getting the new emphasis on the scholarly radar screen (just read Karen King’s discussions related to the scholarly discussion of Gnosticism in What is Gnosticism? [esp. pp. 110-48 on Gnosticism reconsidered, and 150-53 on the current state of research]). Treating all documents on the same level has been their argument from the start, since Walter Bauer made it in his groundbreaking opening in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (a work I did say was “the base for current material,” “epic-making with regard to method,” “significant”; no demonizing here; Missing Gospels, pp. 46, 48, 49). The key claim this pro-CA group shares is that there was no such thing as early orthodoxy. Our work attempted to show otherwise by working only with texts before Irenaeus, the figure that many argue began the real move to orthodoxy.

Claim 14: But the “new school” is not as monolithic as the apologists suggest. Bart Ehrman, for example, considers Secret Mark a forgery and Thomas and Peter early second-century developments of the canonical gospels, positions that the apologists would find attractive. The new school is further maligned by associating them with fringe scholarship, such as Michael Baigent, Barbara Thiering, Carsten Thiede, and John Allegro.

Where is there the claim the school is a monolith? It is suggested there are certain core themes numerous writers of this approach hold that are substantiated with citations. These include multiple citations about their affirmation of the work of Walter Bauer as revolutionary and the idea that the alternative roots go back to the earliest Christianity. The works responding to these claims sought to challenge the second claim in particular. As for the “fringe” associations, the point was not to say these are all members of the school but that these works are how the approach has been popularized at points, even by some who do have some scholarly credentials (Allegro). The teachings of these more academic tomes have influenced these popular works since they are cited as sources for the roots of their more popularizing claims.

Claim 15: The worst of the invective directed at the “new school” is leveled by Ben Witherington. Speculating about their Christian upbringing, he says, “Perhaps these scholars have been burned in one way or another by orthodox Christianity,” and he impugns their motives: “It’s almost as if they said to themselves, ‘If the first-century documents don’t suit my belief system, I’ll find some other early materials and rewrite the history of the first century.’” Witherington even thinks the “new school’s” sensationalist theories are created because they tire of fundamentalist scholars getting all the attention and to “prove (to themselves and/or others) that they are good critical scholars by showing how much of the Jesus tradition or the New Testament in general they can discount, explain away, or discredit.

I generally do not like the motive kind of argument Witherington makes. It comes across as condescending and judgmental. So Burke is correct to sense this is “over the line.” However, a read of the introductory chapter to Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus traces the biography of several of the major players. The reader of that chapter will see a reaction to their conservative religious background in their life stories, often in their own words!

Claim 16: The apologists use another technique of the heresy hunters in concluding their works with statements of orthodoxy. Typically these are presented as portraits of the “real Jesus” to counter the, presumably, false Jesus of the CA and those who study it.

Now, again, what is one to do? The claim of others is that orthodoxy did not exist in this period nor can one get back to Jesus in these materials. So I spend over 125 pages working through both sets of texts. I show how in one set of texts certain key themes are actually presented in every text cited, across two centuries (i.e., not just using canonical materials, but also other second century texts that line up with this “proto-orthodoxy”). This detailed presentation argued that there was a consistent core seen or mentioned in all of these works, including presenting a summary of what this orthodox core was. I also made it clear in doing so that these texts do not appear in Nicean language, so one can see the development as well as the core narrative. In my book, the point is made not to declare superiority but to substantiate a historical claim about origins. I even addressed this point specifically in my conclusion by saying I am not making a theological claim, but a historical one on the basis of what the citation of the texts show about the content and roots of this material. So what else should one do when making a historical case based on two centuries of texts but cite all sides of the ancient debate?

Claim 17 (We are now in Burke’s conclusion): First, the modern apologists are motivated to write by a fear that orthodox Christians will be led astray by the ideas presented in the CA and popular treatments of these texts. Their works are aimed at those curious about the literature and/or those concerned about others who are curious about the literature. In either case, the books mainly appeal to those within a rather closed community of believers who, ultimately, are unlikely to leave the group over the claims of “radical, liberal” scholarship.

I was motivated by a historical concern that CA enthusiasts often misrepresent the ancient record (often while making their own polemical points from this caricature). I also said that the reading of that history is important because it is related to a key influence on Western culture being misrepresented. (Note how in Burke’s claim he makes the admission that the CA critical books are not just for insiders but also the curious.) As for the claim about who reads and responds to these books, my email included many people who thanked me for giving another take on the material, with many of them noting they had not heard the other case before (i.e., those outside the closed community he sees as the audience).

Claim 18: Second, the modern apologists and their rivals seem never to interact with one another. The apologists read and seek to refute the CA scholars’ works, but otherwise have little substantial knowledge of the literature and ignore scholarship that does not support their interpretation of the evidence.

In my case, this is simply false. I used the standard sources and key works of people from all sides of this debate. I do disagree with the alternative approach, so refutation comes with that territory.

Claim 19: Third, the modern apologists make no effort to understand or sympathize with the CA and their ancient supporters. Such antipathy is observable also in the works of the heresy hunters.

There was a careful explanation in a set of chapters of the roots of Gnosticism in my work (Bock, Missing Gospels, pp. 15-31), as well as noting the debate and case made by some that the term should not be used at all. I rooted Gnosticism in neo-Platonism, as a key source of the dualism (which is very widely accepted as a key influence). I also took and acknowledged as more debatable the view that Gnosticism emerged in reaction to the crushing of the Jews in Egypt in the second century. I made it clear this was debated, but tried to argue the case. I used and interacted with the standard sources for these discussions in multiple languages (since I did my research at the University of Tübingen, Germany). There was no lack of sympathy for the historical value of the material, only a historically rooted presentation about how far back its origins go. (In fact, I made a point about how valuable this work was for the study of second century Christianity (Bock, Missing Gospels, pp. 201-2). My key claim was that the Jesus movement that came out of Judaism, as Jesus and his disciples did, would not have embraced the cosmology in many of the key CA texts. I argued that these texts’ view of creation was directly opposite the teaching on creation of the Hebrew Scriptures, texts all Jesus movement scholars accept as at work in the earliest years of the movement. That material could never have reflected what the earliest generation of Christians taught. That is simply a historical claim. Are there any indications that this argument is wrong?

Claim 20: Likewise, the apologists would be served well to consult a broader range of scholarship in their assessment of the CA and in other aspects of their scholarship; such openness might lead them to reconsider their beliefs that the CA are all late, derivative, and ultimately deserving of censure. If the two groups can set aside their guiding assumptions, they may find they have more to discuss than they expect.

This is a conversation I would love to continue, as I am sure others who hold my view also would. And, in fact, I have had direct discussions with some on the other side, even fascinating ones. I have learned much from these interactions, although it has not significantly impacted my views on the relationships of these materials for reasons I argued a text and a theme at a time. I think my bibliography did reflect the state of current discussion on multiple continents. So I reject the suggestion that the field was not adequately surveyed. However, in a similar spirit to his closing, I thank Tony for raising the topic and for the opportunity to continue the discussion. I close with a summary point. There was no heresy hunting in my book (or in that of many others he has surveyed). I do not recall ever using that word as a charge. There was only a historical quest to trace the contentious relationship between these two important sets of texts. I argued there were good historical reasons for this contention, reasons that are obscured by the current presentation of some. This debate and the recent finds that have legitimately invigorated the recent discussion continue to fascinate scholars. The texts and the issues they raise about the history of religious ideas have been the subject of much lively discussion over about the last sixty years. I suspect that discussion will continue, but let us not confuse historical work with heresy hunting, just because someone comes to a different conclusion about the origins of and relationships between these materials.

Darrell L. Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary

Works Treated

Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004); idem, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2006); Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007); Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007); J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2006); Stanley E. Porter and Gordon L. Heath, The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007); Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004); idem, What Have They Done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006); N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Judas: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2006).

Citation: Darrell L. Bock, " Vetting the Claims about Heresy Hunting," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=791

 
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