A Survey on Some Recent Books on Gnosticism
Kurt Rudolf, Gnosis. Trans. Robert
McLachlan Wilson, P.W. Coxon, K.H. Kuhn. Harper & Row, 1983.
Birger Pearson, Judaism, Gnosticism, and Egyptian
Christianity. Studies in Antiquity & Christianity, Fortress
Pheme Perkins, Gnosticism and the New Testament.
Augsburg Fortress, 1993.
Ioan Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic
Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism.
Simone Petrement, A Separate God: The Christian
Origins of Gnosticism. Trans. Carol Harrison. HarperCollins,
Giovanni Filaremo, A History of Gnosticism.
Trans. Anthony Alcock. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Henry Green, The Social and Economic Origins of
Gnosticism. SBL Dissertation Series 77. Scholars Press, 1985.
Hyam Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism. Trinty
Press International, 1991.
Margaret Barker, The Great Angel, A Study in
Israel's Second God. Westminster John Knox, 1992.
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
Kurt Rudolf, Gnosis
used for binding the Nag Hammadi codices attest that the work was done
by the monks of St. Pachomius. We can ascertain the precise
circumstances in which the texts were hidden away: the Festal Letter of
Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 would have spelled trouble for the
brethren of St. Pachomius with their exotic library. Indeed, it must
have been just such currency of "heretical" apocrypha that led
Athanasius to frame his canon list in the first place! When we read the
Nag Hammadi texts we are no doubt reading the very books Athanasius
wanted to exclude!
The texts tend to confirm all the major theories as to Gnostic roots.
That Gnosticism is Platonic is implied by the fragment of the Republic
discovered there. Reitzenstein's claim of interchangeability between
Gnosis and the Hermetic Mysticism is confirmed by the presence of the
Asklepios and other Hermetica at Nag Hammadi. The Iranian element of
which Reitzenstein made so much (and which other scholars would like to
discount) is attested from the presence of the Zostrianos, as well as
the parallel in the Apocalypse of Adam to the idea of the Saoshyant
(here the Illuminator) being born from the hidden seed of Seth deposited
in a lake. That there was Jewish, pre/non-Christian Gnosis, a la
Schmithals and Grant, seems clear from the relation of the Adam
Apocalypse to Jewish Apocalyptic, and as Schmithals observes, from the
simple fact that OT worthies are chosen as the vessels of revelation.
Was there a "Gnostic Redeemer Myth" such as Reitzenstein argued but
Colpe denied? Rudolf says that there is a greater number of redeemer
figures and abstract forces of redemption (cf. the Paraclete) than
Reitzenstein recognized, and that there is no single redeemer myth, but
he says Reitzenstein is fundamentally correct anyway, at least with
regard to many texts which cannot be understood without Reitzenstein's
construct of the Redeemed Redeemer who is reclaiming sundered
light-sparks of himself when he saves the elect.
Rudolf speaks of the twin processes of the Gnosticizing of Christian
concepts (Jesus modeled upon the Gnostic Redeemer) and the
Christianizing of Gnostic concepts (Gnostic redeemers being transformed
into Jesus as a secondary redaction of some Nag Hammadi texts). Like
Bultmann, he recognizes Gnostic Redeemer mythology in the hymn in
Philippians 2:6-11 and in the Johannine Prologue. He seconds Harnack's
judgment that the two-nature Christology of Chalcedon is a Gnostic
inheritance, maintaining as it does a heavenly Christ-aeon as distinct
from a fleshly Jesus, something that ought to be obvious, but like the
forest, can't be seen for the trees. Even Paul cares nothing for any
earthly Jesus, speaking of only the heavenly Christ-aion.
This brings up the fascinating vista of many kinds of sectarians
entering into Christianity and bringing their theologies and
soteriologies with them, e.g., Jewish Sethian Gnostics. And as Bultmann
saw, this can have been no mere late growth. Also note the equation in
the Naasene Hymn of Christ and Attis.
Celsus makes no distinction between Gnostics and other Christians,
remarking on their pathetically superstitious efforts to be prepared to
slip past the planetary gods at death. Maybe this is because there
was no such distinction yet! There is by Origen's time, but maybe
not in Celsus'! Also the Apocryphal Acts combine docetic Christology
with popular piety. They were not Gnostic as such, but rather attest
that there was not segregation of theological motifs in this period
except in the minds of the theologian-inquisitors who wanted to
draw a clear line between "orthodoxy" and "heresy."
The very fact of the Mandaeans as an Aramaic-speaking Palestinian
Gnostic sect is enough to rule out certain theories like the exclusive
derivation of Gnosticism from Platonism or from within Hellenistic
Gnosticism, despite Schmithals and others, was never simply a religion
of salvation by the sheer fact of self-knowledge. On the one hand, in
the Nag Hammadi accounts of the post-mortem ascent of the soul, the
dangers to the voyager and the persistence and care required make it
plain that there is a real contest of salvation.
On the other hand, it is not clear that the sacramentalism and magical
practices in Gnosticism represent a later vulgarizing of the movement
(such as is also predicated, perhaps wrongly, of Taoism). It may have
been the reverse: ritualistic at first, abstracted and streamlined
later. Some were outwardly little different from Mystery Religions.
Most Gnostic communities probably had the inner circle of illuminati
("Perfects," telioi, as in Corinth) and the outer circle of
hearers and aspirants.
He notes the close kinship between Apocalyptic and Gnosis. In fact,
there is very little difference. Both have the same self-conscious
alienation from the world. Both involve the ascent of the soul through
concentric heavens (as Himmelfarb points out, the ascent of Enoch or
Abraham often prefigures that of all the pious at death). Both even have
a linear view of history including a scheduled consummation when the
evil Powers ruling this age/world will be destroyed. And in the case of
the DSS we have a sect sharing the Gnostic tenet of an innate
election-substance. Bultmann was right: Qumran did vindicate his
supposition of baptizing Jewish Gnosticism.
That there is a close relationship between Gnosis, Jewish Christianity
and Jewish baptizing sects is clear from these factors: The report that
both Simon Magus and Dositheus were disciples of John the Baptist! Here
is Jewish baptizing Gnosis. The existence of the Mandaeans, a Jewish
Gnostic baptizing sect from the Jordan valley. The known link between
the Jewish-Christian esotericist Elkasites and the Manicheans.
The appeal in the Nag Hammadi texts to James the Just as a source of
Gnostic revelations. This means a dependence of Gnosticism on Jewish
Christianity. James is everywhere pictured as the exemplar of Jewish
Christianity. There is no reason to doubt he is so pictured here, as in
the Pseudo-Clementine Literature, which embodies Gnostic and
[The close similarity between the systems of Mani and Isaac Luria, the
Galilean Kabbalist, many centuries apart. It shows how "Gnostic" ideas
need by no means have been alien to the Jewish spirit.]
John's Gospel was said by Irenaeus to have been written against
Cerinthus, whereas others claimed Cerinthus himself was its author! This
would beautifully reflect Bultmann's theory that the Fourth Gospel was a
Christian-Gnostic redaction of a Gnostic text, and all this before its
Ecclesiastical Redaction. John's Gospel does not speak of "knowledge"
but rather of "faith" and yet the same is true for Basilides, who
understands faith to be an innate quality, not a free decision. Isn't
John saying the same thing? Poimandres-Jesus has come only for his
preordained flock who alone can hear his Call.
The Marcionite church died out in the West only once Constantine
legislated it out of existence and burned its literature. It survived
for another couple of centuries in the east. In Eastern Syria, there
were even whole Marcionite villages. Valentinus had been in serious
consideration for bishop of Rome in the mid-second century (about the
time Marcion was active there, too), but was edged out by a martyr. In
the ensuing strife he was excommunicated. It sounds as if his teaching
was not the issue, but rather the pulling of rank by the martyr, and
that his teaching became "heretical" only because of a church-political
breach. Hitherto, as the Shepherd of Hermas also attests, Roman
Christianity must have been open and pluralistic.
Rudolf is convinced of the 1st Century AD origins of the Mandaeans as a
Jewish heterodox baptizing sect. He indicates in broad strokes how
Gnosis survived in the West in the forms of Paulicians, Bogomils,
Cathari, and in the East in the form of Shi'ite esoteric movements and
Several other scholars agree with Rudolf on the Jewish origins of
Gnosticism, rejecting the view of the heresiologists that Gnosticism was
simply a Christian deviation ( a pollution of the clear Christian stream
with the poison of Hellenistic philosophy.
Judaism, Gnosticism, and Egyptian Christianity
shows how many specific Gnostic mythologoumena are direct survivals or
modifications of Aramaic midrash on OT texts. These traditions, central
to Gnostic biblical speculation (the roles of Seth, Norea, the serpent,
Eve, the Fallen Watchers, etc.) must have originated in Palestinian
Jewish tradition, probably mediated into the Greek language and with the
admixture of Platonism once they reached Hellenistic Egypt.
He rehabilitates Friedlander's neglected century-old thesis that
Gnosticism began in Alexandria among certain Jews mentioned by Philo as
allegorizing away literal observance of the law or outright repudiation
of biblical law and myth. Philo made Cain the heresiarch of the Bible,
just as later Christian heresiologists spoke of "Cainite" gnostics.
The Christian elements in the Nag Hammadi texts are plainly discerned by
source analysis to be Christianizing later strata. We see in some of the
Sethian texts an almost pure Jewish Gnosticism with only the slightest
addition of Christian themes.
Pheme Perkins Gnosticism and
the New Testament
provides an overview of recent scholarship, judging for herself who
scores what points. She agrees with Pearson about the Jewish origins and
with Rudolf about the early simultaneous influence between Christian and
Gnostic traditions. It is not as if full-blown Gnosticism influenced
nascent Christianity, or that nascent Gnosticism borrowed themes from
Perkins seems to side with Helmut Koester in dismissing Bultmann's
theory that the dialogues of the Gospel of John derive directly from a
Gnostic Revelations Source. Koester thinks instead that the Johannine
discourses, like those in the Dialogue of the Savior, are the
result of expanding individual sayings of Jesus such as we find in
Thomas and Q in a gnostic direction and cementing the whole with the
mortar of the disciples' questions. Yet Perkins herself is skeptical
of Koester's analysis, based as it is on a fragmentary text full of
Perkins says that scrutiny of the Nag Hammadi materials has not
disclosed a single instance of the "Redeemed Redeemer" version of the
Gnostic Redeemer myth, though she admits there is ample evidence of the
idea of a heavenly revealer descending to reveal Gnosis. She does not
address Rudolf's claim that the Redeemed Redeemer Myth (which we do find
in the Hymn of the Pearl and in later Manicheanism) is
presupposed by several of the Nag Hammadi texts which speak of the
recovery of the lost sparks of heavenly light by the redeemer, bits of
the God Man/Adamas, of whom the redeemer himself seems to be an avatar.
Similarly, I would not be so quick as Couliano (see just below) to
dismiss the Indo-Aryan prototype of the Primal Man as the origin of the
Gnostic Redeemer. There certainly was Iranian influence on most themes
of Jewish Apocalyptic, itself one of the sources of Gnosticism (see
Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come),
and there is a striking similarity between the Adamas, Enosh-Uthra, Son
of Man, Gayomard, Man of Light, Adam Kadmon myths.
Ioan Couliano The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology
from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism
Ioan Couliano gleefully repudiates all the theories of the
Religionsgeschichtlicheschule. Partly he accuses Bousset and
Reitzenstein of pursuing a Nazi agenda of trying top find an Aryan,
non-Jewish origin for Christianity. Partly he dumps not so much their
particular genetic dissemination hypotheses as he does that whole
approach. He does venture occasional guesses about influences one way
or the other, seeming at one point to endorse a Jewish or Jewish
Christian origin for Gnosticism (he says it would be easier to explain
the Platonist element if Jewish Gnosticism had already picked up
Christian elements.) He also says Pistis Sophia is influenced by
But on the whole he prefers to bracket the whole idea of dissemination
of mythemes in favor of a structuralist approach. He sees Myth systems
as "ideal objects," which can recur to human minds again and again
throughout history in analogous circumstances, because of the structural
similarity of the human mind all over the world and through history. If,
as in this case, there is also a common set of texts to work on (the
Bible), we must not be at all surprised when certain exegetical
possibilities are realized over and over again. Dualism would be one
such. The alienation of the soul from the world is another.
He shows that there is less reason than is sometimes thought for making
medieval movements like Bogomilism, Paulicianism, Catharism, etc., later
recipients of subterranean streams of tradition. Why do Basilidean
Gnosticism and Lurianic Kabbalism look so much alike? Not because one
knew of the other so many centuries apart as Gershom Scholem felt
obliged to suggest, but simply because in a similar situation, ingenious
unorthodox minds approaching the same texts will see the same sorts of
things and draw the same sorts of implications (e.g., we hear that the
ascetic Marcionites, Cathari, and Jainists all practiced ritual suicide
by starvation, so as to totally repudiate this material world. But they
no more learned it from each other than the Mayans and the Egyptian
borrowed the idea of Pyramids from each other.)
Couliano echoes Arthur Darby Nock's quip that all you would need to come
up with Gnosticism is the first chapters of Genesis and a wild
imagination. Couliano says Gnostic myths are the result of unfolding
the myriad possibilities of the text with Platonizing exegetical lenses.
Many could have done so independently. And yet Couiano's own arguments
show that the structuralist approach by no means rules out dissemination
hypotheses. There is no need to isolate similar-sounding myth-structures
from each other if there is good reason to believe there was borrowing.
Jonathan Z. Smith makes the same error, in my opinion.
Simone Petrement A Separate God: The Christian
Origins of Gnosticism. Trans. Carol Harrison.
argues for the old view of a Christian origin of Gnosticism. Her
strategy is to discount almost everything the heresiologists say of the
Gnostics except for their dubious "heretical succession" chains and to
demythologize their writings, as well as the Nag Hammadi texts, boiling
them down to innocuous Johannine and Pauline themes. Their colorful
imagery was, she says, misunderstood by their critics.
The first real Gnostic was Satornilus, but the earlier ones were simply
Hellenist Christians. Simon was a heretic simply because he sought to
establish an autocephalous Hellenistic church free of Jerusalem's
The God Adamas is simply a twisting of the Gospel's Son of Man. If Jesus
the Son of God were also the Son of Man, then the God must have been
Hermeticism is paganized Christian mysticism, not a pagan source for
Gnosticism. The Sethian writings are Christian syncretism, not
Her work is marred by at least these factors: She assumes that the
peculiar Gnostic terms and concepts do not require an elaborate search
for origins leading to the positing of a pre-existent Gnostic religion.
All we need to do is trace them back to a reading or misreading of New
Testament ideas. And if we can trace them there we need look no further.
Why did Paul or John hold such ideas? We need not "explain" them: they
may have held them simply because they were true! Here is a Christian,
apologetical canonical bias. The buck stops here at the Bible. It has
no antecedents because, of course, it simply fell out of heaven!
Her derivations and re-explanations are all far-fetched readjustments
which could only seem attractive if we already had some independent
reason for believing Gnosticism had a Christian origin and had to
harmonize all the evidence. And she does have such a reason:
apologetics. She uses the common apologist's trick: if the traditional,
orthodox view could possibly be true, if there is some reading of
the evidence we could square with it, then that reading is good enough,
She uses the Larry Hurtado/James Dunn gimmick of allegorizing the myths
and theologies of some extrabiblical sources so as to whittle away
uncomfortable parallels or other theological inconveniences. Pearson
and Perkins both take her to task for ignoring recent work in source
criticism on the Nag Hammadi texts.
Giovanni Filaremo, A History of Gnosticism.
Trans. Anthony Alcock
Filaremo points out that Gnosticism is by no means parasitic upon
Christianity (as Petrement claims, though he does not mention her), but
is obviously a self-sufficient system with its own mythos, soteriology,
etc. It has its own integrity. In fact, it is hard to imagine how this
all could have developed from Christian roots. Petrement's attempt to
show this only proves how difficult it is. He also accepts a Jewish,
perhaps even Simonian, origin for Gnosticism, which many scholars
reject, but see Ludemann's article on Simon Magus in which he suggests
that Luke's reference to Simon's "intention" (ennoia) must be a
reference to the myth of Helen/Ennoia of the Simonian system.
[I think we might posit a fairly simple origin of the Demiurge myth in
the combination of Simonian, Menandrian, Satornilian Gnosis, in which
angels create, Satornilus making one of these the Hebrew God, with
Marcionism, in which the Hebrew God is other than the Father of Jesus
Christ. The latter, as Harnack shows, appears in Marcion independently
of Gnosticism. Though many scholars today seem determined to obscure the
clear line drawn by Harnack between Marcion and the Gnostics, Harnack
was right, and the Gnostics may have borrowed the idea of the Biblical
God as an inferior God from him.]
Henry Green, The Social and Economic Origins of Gnosticism
Green tries to bring the Gnostics down to earth, to identify their
origin and character by means of socio-economic factors. In agreement
with Pearson and Rudolf as to an Alexandrian Jewish origin for
Gnosticism, Green suggests that the movement arose in the aftermath of
two developments in Hellenistic Egypt. First there was the changeover
from the Ptolemaic system in which the state owned all the land and
means of production, to the Roman system which fostered independent
private ownership. This development made for an increase in
Second was the increasing assimilation of wealthy and educated Jews into
the upper levels of Egyptian society—until anti-Semitism slammed the
door in the first century. The price for social acceptance was often
apostasy from Judaism, so there was a substantial group of wealthy,
individualistic, intellectual Jews who had alienated themselves from
Judaism and then found themselves alienated from the very Greco-Roman
society they had sought to enter. As Wayne A. Meeks suggests for
Christian apocalyptic believers, Green theorizes that Gnosticism stemmed
from the "relative deprivation" of an affluent class who had education
and wealth but not status. They enshrined a mythology of the rejection
of Judaism (hence the satirical Eden re-writes) as well as the
demonization of Rome as the Powers of this age from whom they were
Hyam Maccoby, Paul and
Maccoby offers a related but slightly different sketch of Gnostic
origins. He thinks they were Gentile God-fearers who had been initially
attracted to Philonic-Platonic apologetics for Judaism and then drew
back in unbelief. On second thought, and once they had gotten a good
look at Genesis, they decoded it was absurd opportunism for these Jewish
would-be philosophers to deck out the tribal genie of Israel in the rich
finery of Platonic metaphysics. So they recoiled and wrote their own
satirical version of the Eden events, showing up the Jewish god for what
he was, in contrast to the infinitely superior Platonic deity.
But then we must ask, did they form a whole new religion from
these motives? I guess they might've. They had grown weary of hereditary
paganism, so they were little inclined to return to it. The spiritual
longings they had hoped to satisfy in Hellenistic Judaism moved them to
form their own new mystical alternative.
Gnostic communities were often organized much like the Catholic church
with a hierarchy as well as rituals and claims of apostolic succession.
Green admits this is discernible only for Valentinianism and represents
a subsequent stage of the routinization of charisma, which can still be
observed in the earlier statements of heresiologists that the Gnostics
have a rotating system of prophets and elders, an egalitarianism classic
in early sect-morphology. To use the Grid/Group typology of Mary Douglas
as modified by Bruce J. Malina, we might say that the Gnostics were
"Weak Group/Low Grid," since a movement based on spiritual, mystical
individual salvation elevating spirit over body neglects both the
physical body and the social one. Libertine behavior would fit this, as
Theissen and Stevan L. Davies say of the wandering apostles of the first
and second centuries. Their teachings undermined the very communities
they sought to form.
Even so, says Filaremo, Gnostic groups tended to splinter and dissolve
from excessive individualism. Those that didn't survived because of the
routinization of charisma among members: charismatic experience being
a thing of the past, of the founding generation. Valentinianism, Marcionism,
and Manicheanism were successful because they were Mahayana movements
with a tourist class to heaven for the psychics, the hearers, etc.
Couliano, Pearson, and the others seem to agree that the Gnostics
derived their protology of the Demiurge, the fall of Sophia, etc., from
an ingenious but revolutionary misreading of Genesis (again, what Nock
called a wild imagination), what Harold Bloom calls "creative
misprision." But I think another possibility is suggested by Margaret
Margaret Barker, The Great
Angel, A Study in Israel's Second God
Barker argues that Gnosticism is the heir to an abundance of archaic
Israelite traditions excluded from what became the Jewish mainstream
(already at the time of the Deuteronomic Reform). It is inconceivable
that the wealth of myths and personae apparent in the Gnostic
cosmologies could have appeared out of nowhere overnight. (Apocalyptic
and Philo utilized many of the same myths, as does Christianity.) The
argument here is much like Pearson's, save that whereas Pearson stops
short of the mark. There are crucial mythemes Barker can account for
that Pearson cannot.
The Deuteronomic Reform seems to have driven out other Israelite deities
(like Nehushtan [2 Kings 18:1-4; Numbers 21:8-9), Asherah (Jeremiah
44:15-19), Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), and to have fused together the
originally separate deities Yahweh and Elyon (Deuteronomy 32:8-9;
Genesis 14: 18-22f). Barker suggests that Asherah/Isis/Ishtar remained
an object of worship in Israel, albeit outside the officially sanctioned
religion of the Second Temple. (Cf. Paul Hanson on the conflict between
the popular faith of the am-ha-aretz and the official hierocratic
orthodoxy of the returning Exilic aristocracy.) Where do we find her?
[In the story of Esther/Ishtar; in the Song of Songs, where she and her
lover Tammuz hymn one another's undying love,] and in the figure of
Wisdom, who is rudely exiled by foolish mortals and, having once
made her home in Israel, had to leave. This myth is another version of
the complaint of the women devotees of the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah
44. So Wisdom remained an object of veneration among the Apocalyptists
and their grandfathers the Sages. Note how this theory makes perfect
sense of the observation that Wisdom bears close resemblance to Isis:
because she is Isis!
Barker suggests that in the same way, the Gnostic Demiurge can be
understood as a rebuke to the upstart Yahweh for usurping the throne of
Elyon. He thinks he is the only God, as he says in Isaiah 45
passim, but he is pitifully deluded. Elyon is the real God Most High.
This is a narrative satire of the exaltation of the lesser God by the
We see the same thing centuries later in the Hekhaloth texts when
Metatron the Lesser Yahweh is punished because a visionary has confused
him with the Greater Yahweh. The Gnostic Demiurge myth is just more of
the same. We know that the Egyptian Jews maintained other pre-Deuteronomic
mythologoumena, such as "Yahweh and his Asherah," so why not this? Or
just look at the appearance of Leviathan in Revelation and in the
Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
In the same way, I would suggest, though Barker does not, that the
Gnostics were not at all misreading the Eden narrative, but rather had
exactly grasped the intent of the author! See The Testimony of Truth.
This is a story told by Levitical/Nehushtan priest after the
interdiction of their favorite god. They remained on the temple staff
(cf. Deuteronomy and Ezekiel where the idolatrous local priests are
nonetheless included in the reformed cultus). They had to give
lip-service to Yahweh Elohim (note the compound form in Genesis,
intended to reinforce the fusion of the two distinct gods, as in Genesis
14) but continued to worship Nehushtan/Leviathan in their hearts.
The story makes Yahweh Elohim the winner but the villain, which
mythically reflects the politics of the situation. An exact parallel to
this is the story of Prometheus who also champions the interests of
fledgling humanity against the arrogant and jealous king of the Gods,
Zeus. He pays dearly for it. He is the hero but the loser, a fallen god
from an obsolete pantheon, a Titan. So I would see the Gnostic mythology
as a survival/revival of ancient "unorthodox" (pre-orthodox) mythemes.