July 01, 2004


Having read, and enjoyed, Constantine and Eusebius, by Timothy D. Barnes, I moved on to his Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire, which deals more directly with Athanasius's role in combatting the Arian heresy and establishing orthodoxy. One observation: Athanasius had his hands full with his Arian opponents, and at times it appeared that he might not prevail (given the rise of the Monophysites in roughly the same area after Athanasius's death, one might well argue that his victory was short lived.)

What I find curious, given all the Councils and anathemas hurled and disputed ecclesiastical successions and the bitter rivalry over questions that we might regard as entirely unimportant -- whether Christ was of the same nature or a different nature than God the Father, whether he existed later than God the Father temporally but in a nontemporal sense existed as long as God the Father (if I'm not expressing this well, it's because, with my sensibilities formed in the twentieth century, the argument appears to be exceedingly obscure, and based not on Scripture but rather theological semantics) -- is what has been missing from both of Barnes's books (or at least, all of Eusebius and what portion of Athanasius I've waded through). Now, this may well be another case of my having spoken too soon -- that it would be better if I shut up and finished the book -- but there's little reference in either the work on Athanasius or Eusebius to gnostic gospels of the sort found at Nag Hammadi. Yet as I noted here, the erudite Elaine Pagels, whose various works on the Gnostics I've found well worth reading and pondering, argued that the during the 4th Century -- specifically from the Council of Nicea and its aftermath -- works like the Gospel of Thomas were suppressed by avatars of Orthodoxy like Athanasius, in conjunction with the Roman state. Odd, then, that in two histories of the period (both of which, I should add, are cited by Pagels to support her characterization of events in the fourth century -- see pp. 223-4, footnote 81, of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas), those works are not mentioned. Further odd, that while Athanasius devoted considerable energy to attacking and defending himself against the Arians, it appears that he references spurious gospels (to an Orthodox believer like Athanasius) in a single Festal letter.

Posted by Ideofact at July 1, 2004 10:27 PM

Erudite != accurate.
Van Daniken or Velikovsky can appear erudite, after all. Or if physics is more to your taste, Wolfram's (he of Mathematica fame) great opus _A New Kind of Science_ is the huge, detailed, and researched work of a crank.

Posted by: James at July 2, 2004 10:28 AM

I've said that I admire Pagels' work, and I still do. I think her analysis and explication of Gnostic texts in works like Adam & Eve & the Serpent and the Gnostic Gospels is well worth reading, as is Beyond Belief. What I question somewhat is her characterization of the development of early Christianity, and the importance she ascribes to some of these texts in that historical process. I think her grasp of theological issues is sound, but I'm not sure her presentation of their relative importance is necessarily accurate. The Arian controversy, it seems to me, occupied far more attention in the 4th Century than spurious gospels, but spurious gospels were a pressing concern in the 2nd Century.

Posted by: Bill at July 2, 2004 01:56 PM