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Faculty Profile: Anne McGuire
by Evan Pressman '00
In December of 1945, an Egyptian farmer was digging in the desert soil in search of fertilizer for his fields. In his excavation, he unearthed an old reddish ceramic jug, which he immediately smashed open with his pick, hoping to find some sort of ancient buried treasure. To his dismay, the jug did not contain jewels or gold, but a trove even more invaluable -- to historians. Inside were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books of ancient texts of an ancient religious movement called Gnosticism. The collection became known as the Nag Hammadi Library, after the region where the farmer discovered it.
These "Gnostic Gospels" and other writings based on Gnostic myths and teachings had been hidden in the fourth century C.E. during the early Christian struggle to define orthodoxy, which involved a violent eradication of all traditions that the leaders of the increasingly powerful Church declared heretical. Gnostic Christianity differed from other forms of developing Christianity in that its subscribers believed not only in the divine identity and mission of Jesus, but also claimed to possess a "gnosis," or knowledge, of authentic divine truths requisite to supreme enlightenment and salvation.
Anne McGuire, professor in the Haverford department of religion since 1982, is in the forefront of the research of the Nag Hammadi Library, focusing especially on the literary interpretation of the texts and their relation to early Christianity and other eastern Mediterranean religions. According to McGuire, Gnosticism of late antiquity was a mystical society concerned more with salvation and celestial connectivity with the divine than with mundane daily life, an obsession Gnosticism shared with many of its religious contemporaries in the Roman Empire. McGuire classifies the chief characteristic of Gnosticism as its claim to possess "knowledge of the unknowable." It was that kind of paradoxical claim, she explains, along with the Gnostics' assertion to understand "the hidden aspects of the divine, the self, the cosmos" that incensed the early Christian church and ultimately orchestrated their annihilation.
To fully understand the abstract, complex, and unique principles of Gnosticism is no easy task. McGuire believes, however, that a comprehension of such early forms of Judaism and Christianity is crucial to a complete appreciation of modern religions and the impact their ancient counterparts had in shaping the belief systems which pervade our society today. To achieve this end, she teaches a religion course called 'Gnosticism' which "explores the varieties of Gnostic religious traditions in the ancient and contemporary worlds." The course focuses on Gnostic mythology, its relation to other religious and philosophical systems (including Platonism and paganism), Gnostic biblical reinterpretation, gender imagery, and Gnosticism in contemporary culture. Although its teachings seem antiquated, McGuire notes that many contemporary popular artists and thinkers have drawn from Gnostic texts. Author Toni Morrison and filmmaker Julie Dash, for example, both have used quotes from a Gnostic text, Thunder, Perfect Mind, in their recent work.
McGuire developed her own interest in the study of religion in a freshman year course on Eastern religions at Barnard, where she was an undergraduate. Although she planned to focus her graduate studies on those religions, she decided to take a course on the New Testament for a little variety during the last semester of her senior year. The class was taught by Elaine Pagels, a primary researcher and translator of the Nag Hammadi codices, who brought to class then-unpublished translations of two texts. McGuire was immediately fascinated by Gnosticism, and ultimately decided to enter this area of study instead. Upon graduation, she studied Greek and Coptic, an ancient form of colloquial Egyptian in which the texts survive. She then continued her study of early Christianity at Columbia and Yale, where she received her master's and her Ph.D., respectively.
Although too young to have been on the original team of translators, McGuire was still able to get in on the ground floor of the Nag Hammadi project, and has since dedicated much of her research to the interpretation and analysis of the texts. She has chaired the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Section of the Society of Biblical Literature since 1997, and has edited The Nag Hammadi Library After Fifty Years, a volume that includes several papers delivered at an international seminar of Nag Hammadi scholars held at Haverford in November 1995.
The issue of gender imagery in Gnostic literature is one of McGuire's primary fields of study; she is currently working on a book entitled Engendering Gnosis: Images of Gender in Nag Hammadi Texts, which studies the representation of gender in six Gnostic texts. Gnostic teachings, she explains, deviate greatly from normative Judaism and Christianity in their conception of the duality, as well as the gender, of the divine. Based on a mythic account of events that precede Genesis 1:1, Gnostics distinguish sharply between the god who created the heavens and the earth ("the Creator") and a superior divine being, an unfathomable spirit which is both male and female. One aspect of the higher god is the feminine Sophia, or Wisdom of God, whose curiosity to "know the unknowable, the hidden," McGuire says, actually produced the Creator, ignorant and imperfect according to Gnostic myth.
McGuire explains that the idea of a female representation of the supreme being is uncharacteristic of the patriarchal religions of the period; her book thus studies how these images work in Gnostic texts. Female images of the divine would presumably lead to positive images of women in ancient Gnostic society, but do not necessarily do so. Perhaps more important, she notes that Gnostic beliefs portray the creator--and Sophia's curiosity--as a mistake, "a disastrous event that produced an imperfect cosmos." Given the notion that Sophia is responsible for "the fallenness of creation," the greater goal of the book is to move beyond old claims of exclusively positive or negative images of the female and re-examine the complexity of gender in Gnostic myth.
It was, of course, McGuire's expertise in the literature of the New Testament that originally drew her to the study of Gnosticism, and she still focuses much of her research and coursework on the teachings of Jesus and the early Christian church. One theme of this study is the biblical roots of antipathy towards Judaism, from which she developed her course, 'Christian Anti-Semitism.' McGuire believes the roots of modern anti-Semitism are based on the incorrect notion, held by many Christians and fueled by the pro-Roman bias evident in some of the Gospels, that "the Jews" were responsible for Jesus' execution. She comments on the diatribes in the gospel of Matthew against the Pharisees, the predominant Jewish sect at the time of Matthew's composition, and says that even today, "many misread [these passages] as accurate depictions of Pharisees, which they are not, as well as of Jews today." McGuire clarifies the text, saying "Jesus was put to death by the Romans," and notes the Vatican's position exonerating the Jews from culpability. In an effort to dispel many of the myths that have soured Christian-Jewish relations to this day, McGuire's course focuses on the theological, social, and cultural sources of negative representations of Judaism, as well as current efforts of Jews and Christians to resist and overcome anti-Semitism.
McGuire is also in the process of developing a new course, to be taught this spring, called 'Images of Jesus,' a redesign of a previous course, 'Jesus and the Gospels.' Just as it is dubious to accept all the details of the Gospels as unbiased and historical truth, she claims that trusting the accuracy of the physical depictions of Jesus in medieval and Renaissance European art is equally unwise. For example, there is little doubt that Jesus was, as the Bible says, born somewhere in the Middle East. But it would be a difficult task to find a native Jordanian or Iraqi with the fair skin and long, straight reddish-blond hair and beard we see in the traditional western images found in churches and paintings. In order to explore these and other depictions, McGuire will focus on three areas of research: Jesus in ancient Christian literature, pictorial representations of Jesus in the history of Christian art, and contemporary images of Jesus in film, literature, theology, and popular religion. With the support of a Teaching with Technology Grant, she has also added an innovative feature to her course: students will design Web sites in order to display and share their work with each other. "The Worldwide Web," says McGuire, "is a great medium to combine text with images."
Whether it's Gnosticism, Judaism, Christianity, or Hinduism and Buddhism, which McGuire covers in her 'Introduction to Religion' course, her goal is to teach students to "develop the skills of interpretation" of texts and rituals while historically reconstructing the events that led to the creation or demise of these religions. As we know too well, religious differences are some of the most divisive issues facing humanity today. With a greater appreciation and knowledge of the various global belief systems&emdash;the kind of knowledge that Anne McGuire brings to Haverford students each semester&emdash;we can begin to bridge these gaps and turn the threat of destruction into the promise of unity.