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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 Press, 1990.

  • Pheme Perkins, Gnosticism and the New Testament. Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

  • Ioan Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity  to Modern Nihilism. HarperCollins, 1990.

  • Simone Petrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism. Trans. Carol Harrison. HarperCollins, 1990.

  • 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

Scraps 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 Christianity.

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 Jewish-Christian doctrines.

[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 Islamic mysticism.

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.


Birger Pearson, Judaism, Gnosticism, and Egyptian Christianity

Pearson 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

Perkins 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 full-blown Christianity.

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 holes.

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 Norman Cohn, 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 Manicheanism.

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.

Petrement 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 control.

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 named Man.

Hermeticism is paganized Christian mysticism, not a pagan source for Gnosticism. The Sethian writings are Christian syncretism, not Christianized Gnosis.

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, case closed.

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 individualism.

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 alienated.


Hyam Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism

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 Barker.


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 streamlining priests.

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.



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