Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor

By Halvor Moxnes | Go to book overview

13

FAMILY STRUCTURES IN GNOSTIC RELIGION

Ingvild Sælid Gilhus

THE GNOSTIC RELIGION

Gnosticism was a complex movement within early Christianity. It flourished in the second and third centuries when its advocates were resourceful contributors to Christian discourse. Family structures in Gnosticism are clearly visible and rather prominent as mythological configurations. But little is known of Gnostic social life, and the family as a social category is elusive. In this chapter the stress will be laid on the Gnostic mythological world, with some suggestions to be made about Gnostic family life.

Gnostic religion is mythologically rich and seems to have been constantly developing. All the same, the themes of this mythology are limited, its cast of main characters is short, and its heroes in no way take part in the entire field of human experience; on the contrary, they have some specialised interests. These interests are mainly concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and the process of salvation. A consequence of this rather limited range of interests is that the mythological entities suffer from a lack of personality and appear more like functions than persons. All the same, the connections between them are described in terms of family relations. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. However, their relationships are often bizarre, as when androgyne mothers bear monstrous offspring or when Christ is the fruit of a triadic parentship consisting of the Father, the Son of Man and the First Woman. These mythological families are used as cognitive tools shaped to carve out Gnostic thinking about the nature of human beings and the process of their salvation. In other words, family relations are used as mythical paradigms and metaphors.

Because family relations are close to human experience and symbolically rich it is to be expected that the semantic potential of the family used as a symbol is always greater than its realisation in the actual texts: connotations will occur abundantly on a subtextual level and contribute to making family a fruitful religious symbol. Further, it is probable that when mythological family structures transcend normal family relationships they will have more power in generating religious meaning.

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