On Gnostics as Proto-Feminists

I’ll point you to two things today. First, Dr. Deirdre Good has an interesting piece up at the Cafe today on women prophets in the first Christian century. It’s a good piece in what it says. I fear that it leaves a few things unstated but implicit. That is, it mentions little bits on women prophets from the NT, then notes that the Church Fathers spoke about some of these unfavorably but gnostic texts were more favorable. This leads one to believe that the Church Fathers and the Early Church in general were oppressive patriarchs and the gnostics were proto-feminists. The texts don’t bear this out…

[Correction: Dr. Good did not mention the gnostics; I had gnostics on the brain this morning from the article on Elaine Pagels mentioned below and did not read the article carefully enough before opening my big mouth… Rather, she mentions Philo (a Jewish author), the Montanists (a group claiming their prophets to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost deemed heretical by emerging catholic orthodoxy), and the Protoevangelium of James, a popular Christian work later supressed for its denial of Joseph’s virginity.

Pagels, however, does suggest that the gnostic practice of calling God Mother as well as Father translated into social categories and adduces her evidence in chapter 3 of the Gnostic Gospels.]

Yes, the Early Church was born in a patriarchal culture and yes, the Church Fathers didn’t like the Montanists. This doesn’t mean the gnostics weren’t every bit as patriarchial–and sometimes moreso. And that’s what you find when you read gnostic texts. The idea that materiality is evil, a prison for the divine spark of the soul, leaves little place for women who are, as it were, the very source of the infection itself for in procreation they are little demiurges—prison-makers if you will—and each child they bear is another soul entrapped…

Also missing from Dr. Good’s discussion is the way that the NT orders of Widows and Virgins were continued within the Early Church up to the rise of monasticism where they joined their brothers and we had female monastics.
So I added a little addenda that points people to Jerome’s letters to show a vibrant community of women religious within the mainstream church supported rather than oppressed by the Church Fathers.

Add to this a nice article by Bruce Chilton that The Swain points us to on the mistakes of Elaine Pagels and the incorrect picture that many current Christians (especially Episcopalians) have about the gnosts as proto-liberal Christians.

10 thoughts on “On Gnostics as Proto-Feminists

  1. Deirdre Good


    I do appreciate your interest in my piece!

    However, if you read it carefully you will note that I do not quote from a single source that might be identified as “gnostic”! This is quite deliberate.

    I am trying to get a cross-section of voices from Corinthian women prophets and Philo’s Therapeutrides plus Luke’s portrait of Mary in the 1st Century to Montanus and other prophets plus the Protevangelium of James in the second century and thereafter. There is a pattern, but, with all due respect, I don’t think its the one you describe!

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Thank you for the correction. You did not quote from any gnostic materials.

    However, the three non/post-biblical sources are also outside the mainstream Christian tradition. (Yes, the PJ was rather influential in Christian popular culture but was eventually suppressed because it denied the virginity of *Joseph*.) As such the pattern that you are building implicitly is that to find positive statements about women prophets or women religious figures one must go outside of the Christian mainstream.

    I will concede that it is difficult to find mainstream Christian texts on women *prophets* but I’ll also note that it’s really hard to find texts in support of Christian *male* prophets after the Apostolic Fathers anyway.

    At that point I have to ask, is the issue one of gender or is it one of prophecy in light of the Montanist problem?

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    (And now to complete the thought…)

    I believe that there are a lot of postitive pictures of women within the mainstream Christian tradition *despite* it growing in and participating in a demonstrably patriarchal culture. I fear that constantly going outside of it serves only to undermine the value of the tradition in the eyes of those who have not been exposed to its richness.

  4. revdrmom

    And I would ask why the voices of women were -kept- out of the Christian mainstream? I hear your argument that women were valued and present within it, but that is certainly a well kept secret to many of us, and there has to be a reason if only scholars of the early church are aware of it.

    And the issue of gnosticism seems to be a bit of red herring here…

  5. Derek the Ænglican


    The gnostics were not and are not a red herring. Rather, I had gnostics on the brain this morning due to reading Dr. Chilton’s article before Dr. Good’s. My main point still stands–the gnostics were not proto-feminists.

    Dr. Good corrected me and I fully accept her correction that she was not speaking about the gnostics.

    Yes, women’s voices were kept out of the mainstream in the early church. I do not dispute that it was in and participated in a patriarchal culture. That doesn’t change the fact that they were there and we have interesting bits of data about them.

    However–you know how academia works–it often takes a while for ideas current there to perk to the level of public knowledge. I have heard of some interesting work done on recovering images and practices of women in patristic and other early texts; regrettably, I can’t name any names as I’ve been concentrating pretty exclusively on tenth century England and Matthew commentaries for the last several years and haven’t been keeping up with the field as much as I’d like.

    Other readers of this blog may be able to offer suggestions.

    One of my general beefs with seminary education is that not enough early material is read. The patristic and early church writings should form an important part of our dogmatic and ascetical theology—not to mention preaching, Scripture interpretation, etc…

  6. LP

    Benedicta Ward has an interesting book out on the desert mothers, and there area handful of authors who have written both academically and more popularly about women monastics (Lauren Swan, Roberta Bondi, Mary Earle). Most of this material focuses on the third-fifth century, and gives a different perspective than the typical and trite monasticism-leads-to-body-hating-leads-to-oppression-of-women line of though so popular.

  7. Fr Chris

    Sarah Coakley and Kathryn Tanner are the names that immediately come to mind when I think of feminist theologians who are working with patristic material and mining it for feminist resources. They’re not quite doing what you describe, Derek — recovering images and practices of women. But they’re doing good work that I think redeems some of the patristic stuff that is problematic.

    Your point about gnosticism not being proto-feminism (or proto-any other positive liberal movement) is a good one. I got some negative email responses on my strongly critical review of the Gospel of Judas, but the fact is, it is not a “good find” (except in the scholarly sense), but a misogynistic, anti-Semitic text that has no place in Christian faith formation.

    Gnosticism is not monolithic, of course, but for the most part its texts are just not useful for Christians.

  8. Deirdre Good

    (On my way to class…) How do we know what mainstream is in the first or second century? The pneumatology of Luke/Acts is distinct. But gifts of the Spirit in first century Egypt, Corinth, and second century Asia Minor are judged and found wanting only in hindsight and through a patristic lens…

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    When I mentioned the mainstream Christian tradition above, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of mainstream then. If that were the case we’d be talking Marcionite in some times and places and Arian in others.

    I was using the term mainstream to describe the doctrines and practices that became normative for the so-called Great Church that would later divide into the Eastern and Western Churches.

    To paraphrase Lancelot Andrewes’s famous dictum on sources of Anglican theology “…three creeds, four Councils, five centuries and the Fathers who wrote therein.” As I’ve said before, I find the materials outside the canon fascinating—but too many in the church today know too little of what is in the canon or written in the early texts of the church to appreciate the different perspective. There is a richness, a diversity, a variety even within the bounds of the church’s thinking that goes untapped when it goes untaught.

  10. trueanglican

    Derek, the discussion in this thread seems to me so much more important than efforts by some to “save” the Anglican Communion by adopting some “covenant.” Let’s hear it for more study, less legislation (or attempted legislation). And one small plug: I think Sarah Coakley (mentioned upthread) is one of the most interesting Anglican theologians at work today. I deeply regret her decamping from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge,England, even though the latter is where she originated academically.

Comments are closed.