Gnosticism: History of Study

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The problem of the origin of Gnosticism has been approached in Western culture with methods and results that are sometimes in clear disagreement. Perhaps the first to deal with the subject critically was Gottfried Arnold, who wrote in 1699 the Unparteiische Kirchen und Ketzer Historie (Impartial History of the Church and of Heresy )a work that influenced the poetry of Goethe in a Gnostic sensealthough the subject was previously mentioned in by G. P. Marcossius's De Vitis Secretis et Dogmatibus omnium Haereticorum, printed in Cologne in 1569.

However, it was only with Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (16941755) that the study of Gnosticism came to the fore as an independent discipline. In his degree thesis entitled "Institutiones christianae maiores" (Helmstadt, 1739) the future Protestant pastor and theologian described gnōsis as an Eastern philosophy that had rapidly expanded of its own accord from Greece and Chaldea (=Mesopotamia), and reached as far as Egypt. This doctrine, almost by a process of osmosis, would have taken certain elements from Jewish thinking. In its turn, the Jewish world would also have drawn themes from Gnostic thought, using them in its polemic against Greek philosophy. In the analysis of Mosheim we can already discern in a nutshell a substantial part of the themes developed by later historiography.

The works of J. Horn and Ernest Anton Lewald partly disagree with Mosheim. According to them, the sources of Gnosticism could be traced back to the land and teaching of Zoroaster, thus forming the basis for that successful interpretation which considered ancient Gnosticism a classic example of dualist philosophy. However, the works of Johann August Neander and Jacques Matter follow the same line of interpretation as Mosheim. The extensive work of Matter describes gnōsis as the emergence at the heart of Christianity of all the cosmological and theosophical speculation which formed the greater part of Eastern religions and which had been adopted in the West by the Neoplatonists. This doctrine therefore arose as a synthesis of themes drawn from the philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle, the Avesta, the Qabbalah, and the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries. If the work of Matter provided Gnostic doctrine with a certain notoriety and cultural dignity on the one hand, it was nevertheless an interpretation based upon a particularly stereotyped view of the East, and very much a product of its time.

From the very beginning there has been an attempt to reconstruct the possible relationship between Gnosticism and Judaism: in 1846 Heinrich Graetz, in his book Gnostizismus und Judentum, tried to prove Gnostic influence on a number of rabbinical traditions. Decades later, Moritz Friedländer would reverse the methodological model of Graetz, stressing Jewish influence upon Gnosticism and thus giving rise to a fresh line of interpretation which has lasted to the present day.

Influence of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule

In 1851, study of Gnosticism was given a new impetus thanks to the discovery of the Philosophumena or, rather, The Refutation of All Heresies, a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, which over the years has seen numerous editions and translations, including those by Paul Wendland and Miroslav Marcovich, to mention two that are very different. In 1853 came the work of F. C. Baur, Das Christentum und die christliche Kirche der drei ersten Jahrhunderte, which assembled an impressive range of comparative material and formed the basis for the bold speculations of scholars of the Religionsge-schichtliche Schule, especially Johann Franz Wilhelm Bousset (18651920) and Richard Reitzenstein (18611931). In the years that followed the publication of the work of Baur, there were significant researches by Gustav Volkmar, Gerhard Uhlhorn, and particularly Richard Adelbert Lipsius (18301892), who was responsible for a critical study of the Ophite Gnostic system and a monumental article on Gnosticism in the Allgemeine Enzyklopaedie.

The fundamental idea of placing Gnosticism in the context of Greek philosophy and in particular Platonic philosophy dates from the 1880s and is restated in the work of Manuel Joel. Some of the interpretations that regard Gnosticism as a philosophical phenomenon originating from the very heart of Christianity are the thinking and researches of Adolph Hilgenfeld (18231907) and Adolf von Harnack (18511930), scholarly philologists belonging to the so-called School of the History of Dogma.

In a certain way prefigured by the studies of ancient syncretism by Albrecht Dieterich, the pan-Egyptian theories of M. A. Amelineau, and the pan-Babylonian theories of Wilhelm Anz and Konrad Kessler, the School of the History of Religions put forward the theory that Gnosticism was a phenomenon that predated Christianity, and that so-called Christian gnōsis represented merely a particular and at times even marginal aspect of this. The work of Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis, is central to these hermeneutics. Despite the critical review of Carsten Colpe, it is a text that is still of fundamental importance to today. Bousset studied the various Gnostic motifs such as dualism, the myth of the descent of the Savior, and the ascension to heaven and the figure of the Mother of Light, tracing their origins back in the form of Iranian/Mesopotamian syncretism. Another very important scholar, classical philologist, and religious historian who concerned himself with the origins of Gnosticism was Eduard Norden (18681941) in his work Agnostos Theos. Even if in this book the topic was not dealt with explicitly, Norden assumes the existence of a pre-Christian Gnosticism, basing this interpretation on material derived from hermetic literature.

The high point of the historical religious trend was undoubtedly the Das iranische Erlösungsmysterium of Reitzenstein. Preceded by a work on hermetic literature and by one on mystery religions, the "Iranian Salvation Mystery" is an analytical development of several of the themes already set out in the works of Bousset. The central motif for Reitzenstein is the event which he defines as "The Savior Saved," namely the Messenger, the primordial man who descends to matter to set free the Light Soul. If God is light and a part of that light remained trapped in the world, when God comes down into the world in the form of the envoy to free it, by saving it he also saves himself. Reitzenstein, in support of the Iranian nature of these themes, refers to a supposed "Fragment of Zarathushtra," a spurious text which later philological criticism would identify as being a Manichaean literary creation and thus not Zoroastrian.

Reactions to the works of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule were not long in coming: in 1925 in Paris the second edition of Eugène de Faye's book, Gnostiques et gnosticisme, was published. In this it was possible to catch a glimpse of several approaches, including an analysis of sources aiming to prove the existence of the Syntagma of Justinthe first true list of heresieshypothetically reconstructed from pseudo-Tertullian and Epiphanius; an analysis of the individual features of various Gnostic systems; and the forceful statement that Gnostic philosophy predated its mythology. In short, de Faye intended to describe a Christian Gnosticism that was independent from previous Iranian or Mesopotamian religious models.

The Iranian hypothesis of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule was also the basis of the exegetic work by the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann (18841976). Studies on Mandaeism by the philologist and Semitist Mark Lidzbarski had a decisive influence on Bultmann in his interpretation of John's Gospel: the passages where Jesus is considered a heavenly messenger who has come down to bring revelation to humanity had certain parallels in Mandaean literature. For Bultmann the fourth Gospel represents the outcome of and reaction to a pre-Christian myth deriving directly from a Gnostic Mandaean milieu.

Harnack had defined Gnosticism as a phenomenon involving the "acute Hellenization of Christianity" (Harnack, 18931904). In stark contrast with this definition were the claims of Bousset and Reitzenstein, according to whom Gnosticism was a pre-Christian religious movement of Iranian/Mesopotamian origin. The controversy also involved the Iranist Hans H. Schaeder, at first a supporter of Reitzenstein in the joint work Studien zum antiken Synkretismus (Leipzig, 1926). A follower of the philosopher Oswald Spengler, Schaeder went on to describe hermeneutics according to which Gnosticism is seen as a combination of elements that were Greek in form but Eastern in content. This trend was continued by Hans Leisegang in his work Die Gnosis, which confirmed the dual nature of the Gnostic phenomenon but nonetheless stated its single origin, developed from the amalgamation of those two religious elements.

The work of Hans Jonas (19031993), Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, occupies an intermediate position. It is a work which is set out as the first genuine synthesis on the Gnostic problem. Jonas's work uses two main interpretative sources: the comparative material assembled by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (in particular Bousset and Reizenstein), and the existentialist theological hermeneutics of Bultmann (which is in turn indebted to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger). For Jonas, the central kind of gnōsis is "Syro-Egyptian," as distinct from the "Iranian" sort: the first has an emanative "de-evolutive" structure which finally produces a rebellious Demiurge; in the second there is an absolute dualism of two principles, in which the cosmos arises from the dismemberment of an original being (a typical Indo-Iranian motif). Jonas, however, as subsequently noted by Ioan Petru Culianu and Giovanni Casadio, omits to take into account the so-called Triadic Gnostic Systems that are usually defined as "Sethian," in which there are three main principles involved: Light, the pneuma (spirit), and Darkness. Starting from what he calls das Prinzip der Konstruktion, Jonas traces in Syro-Egyptian gnōsis, in addition to a large number of influences derived from hermetic and mystery writings, a new factor, that of regarding the world (=kosmos ) as an ontological evil from which it is necessary to be set free. From this point of view God is therefore the one who saves humans from the world. The relationship between God and the world is developed in a cosmological and anthropological antithesis: if on the one hand God is the opposite of the world, on the other hand the pneuma, which is hidden in the human body, is opposed to the psyche and hyle (soul and matter). The earthly world has a totally autonomous beginning: it is Darkness, a substance which is "real" only in contrast to its opposite, Life, the shining pleroma (fullness). God and the world are absolutely incompatible. Such an idea is an absurdity to the Greek mind, and the anti-Gnostic Ennead of Plotinus is a confirmation of this. It is thus impossible to ascribe the origins of the Gnostic phenomenon to Platonic speculation. The Fathers of the Church were no less unresponsive to this idea of denial of the world, and thus rejected the possibility that the origin of Gnosticism should be found in the heart of the Christian church. As regards the figure of the Demiurge, he should not be identified with the Devil: his portrayal comes both from Platonic doctrines and from Jewish beliefs on creation. For Jonas, the most distinctive form of Gnostic dualism is the Syro-Egyptian emanative system, in which the passage from the perfection of the world of light to the disorder of the earthly world is marked by the hybris (arrogance) of an intermediate creature, Sophia. On the other hand, according to Jonas, the Iranian kind of Gnosticism would represent an anticosmic adaptation of a preexisting, specifically Iranian dualism.

Judeo-Christian Origins

A large number of scholars eventually supported the theory of the Jewish or Judeo-Christian origin of Gnosticism. As has been said, one of the first and main exponents of this tendency was Friedländer in his Der vorchristliche jüdische Gnosticismus. He insisted in particular that there existed a popular religious feeling in the heart of Judaism, within which apocalyptic and subsequently Gnostic speculation emerged. In this hermeneutic vein, according to the writings of Erik Peterson (18901960) and Jean Daniélou (19051974), the first Gnostic writers should be sought in Jewish apocalyptic. Hans Joachim Schoeps offers a similar interpretation, in which he stresses the presence of a "Gnostic Judaism" in the writings of the Qumran community. Another scholar, Robert McLachalan Wilson, has noted the relationship between post-Christian Gnosticism and the Judaism of the Diaspora in his book The Gnostic Problem (1958). His conclusions tend to define the Gnostic phenomenon as being strongly influenced by the religious representations of post-Diaspora Judaism. In discussion of the work of Wilson, a German scholar, Alfred Adam, has set out evidence of the clear presence of Aramaic borrowings in the nomina numina of Gnostic mythology, a line of interpretation also pursued by the Coptic scholar Alexander Böhlig (19121996). The works of the U.S. scholar Birger A. Pearson are also important with regard to the hypothesis concerning Judaism. He has studied the Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi for evidence of their possible sources and interpolations in Jewish writings.

The most complete description of the existence of a genuine Gnosticism at the heart of Jewish tradition is, however, by two scholars of exceptional talent: Gershom G. Scholem (18971982) and Gilles Quispel (b. 1916). Scholem is responsible for the "discovery" of mystic Jewish gnōsis, found in the ecstatic vision of the merkavah, the "chariot" or "throne" on which God sits in Ezekiel 1:26. Analysis of merkavah literature led Scholem to redefine the problem of Gnostic origins. First of all, these merkavah texts in many regards go back to orthodox Judaism and some are datable to the beginning of the fourth century ce. With tremendous erudition Scholem demonstrates that Gnostic documents considered "Christian" assume certain fundamental connections with the mysticism of the merkavah. Thus when Saint Paul describes his ascension into paradise, to the "third heaven," he borrows words from Jewish mysticism; thus it is also probable that the visionary author of The Shepherd of Hermas, and Valentinus were aware of Jewish speculation on the name of God; the documents of the Valentinian Gnosis, especially the Excerpta ex Theodoto, reveal the influence of teaching imparted in Jewish esoteric circles. For Scholem, in the end, this mystic Gnosticism of the merkavah was not outside the sphere of Halakhic tradition: it would eventually develop motifs and attitudes already present in orthodox rabbinical teaching of the law, upon which apocalyptic eschatology had exerted a marginal influence, expressing in the first decades of the Christian era the restlessness and religious revival of a large part of the Jewish world. The coptologist and religious historian Gilles Quispel has a related viewpoint, but expresses it differently. "Gnosis minus Christentum ist Gnosis" (Quispel, 1951); with this assumption Quispel claims independence and originality for Gnosticism as regards the philosophical and religious currents of Hellenistic and Roman syncretism. On the one hand, in line with the Jungian psychology of which Quispel is an adherent, gnōsis is a unique religious self-contained experience, namely a mythical projection involving the search for the true essence of the human person (=the self); on the other hand, Quispel traces the origins of this original pattern of thinking to a specific branch of Alexandrian Judaism. From this cultural milieumore recently defined as "The Hermetic Lodge of Alexandria"originated the thinking on the cosmos and on the human race found in the highly developed visions of Valentinus, if not directly those of Origen (185254). Quispel is indebted, albeit indirectly, to the method of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule; Giovanni Casadio has indeed noted how the pan-Judaic hypothesis regarding the origin of Gnosticism expressed by Quispel reflects the method and conclusions of the pan-Iranian hypothesis of Reitzenstein and his followers: heterogeneous aims then!

In the wake of the works of Scholem and Quispel followed the researches of Guy Gedaliahu Stroumsa (Judaic and Gnostic origins of the Manichaean myths), Jarl Fossum (Samaritan origins of Gnostic myths), and Nathaniel Deutsch. Deutsch in particular took up the ideas of Scholem on the mysticism of the merkavah, going into more detail on the subject as regards the mythological description in the Mandaean Gnostic texts. J. C. Reeves studied the Jewish Gnostic contributions as the basis of Manichaean texts such as The Book of Giants, arriving at an original definition of Syrian-Mesopotamian gnōsis in which elements drawn from Iranian tradition also converged.

According to the study of the patrologist Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, Gnosticism originated from the remains of the apocalyptic eschatological expectations after the fall of Jerusalem. The hope that the kingdom of YHWH would come to pass on earth had guided and sustained the people of Israel. From the Maccabean revolt to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce, to the extreme revolt of Bar Kosebah under Hadrian, a bloody chain of events left a deep mark on the destiny of the "people of YHWH." The failure of the eschatological hope to be fulfilled on earth thus signified the outbreak of a tremendous spiritual crisis, which led to the appearance of new religious forms. From the belief that the God of this world has not managed to fulfill the hopes of his people comes rejection of the world, which, together with eschatological dualism, are the characteristic features of Gnosticism. The outer fringes of Judaism (e.g., the Essene community of Qumran, the Jewish circles influenced by the Iranian/Chaldaean "theology" of the "Hellenized Magi," the Judaism of the Diaspora in direct contact with the Aramaic Syro-Mesopotamian world) provided the materials which were united in the synthesis of the great Gnostic masters of the second century ce.

A hermeneutic work, which is somewhat similar to Grant's but which draws rather puzzling conclusions, is that by Ioan Petru Culianu (19501991), a Romanian scholar linked to the school of Ugo Bianchi (19221995). According to Culianu the origin of Gnostic nihilism can be found in the problem of the "Angels of the Nations": in ancient Judaism there existed a belief that every nation on earth had its own representative in the heavenly court, and the Jews expected direct political advantages because their heavenly representative was God himself, or the archangel Michael, who occupied the first place next to God. The fall of the Second Temple in 70 ce profoundly altered this vision. As Rome had conquered Palestine, and the occupation of the Holy Land had begun to seem unending, this seemed to indicate only one thing: Samael, the angel of Rome, had replaced God or Michael in the role of leader of the Angels of the Nations; like the power of Rome itself, Samael was an evil angel, the equivalent of Satan. To this hermeneutic hypothesis, Culianu added a precise, detailed phenomenology of Gnostic myths, studied in a diachronic manner. In the work of Culianu the interlinking of Gnosticism and modern nihilist thought is particularly important, a topic analyzed impartially and sometimes relentlessly, which has had a significant effect on the work of the Italian philosopher and scholar Elémire Zolla (19262002).

Greek Platonic Origins

In its theoretical layout the work of Culianu is certainly indebted to the research of another significant Italian scholar, Ugo Bianchi, who was responsible for organizing the important Congress of Messina in 1966 on the origin of Gnosticism. An ardent supporter of the Orphic and Platonic origins of the key themes of Gnosticism, Bianchi further maintained that Gnostic mythology reabsorbed and redeveloped archaic material, which can be identified by ethnological and folkloric research. To this last aspect of the question, he dedicated a specific volume (Il dualismo religioso), an important work which laid bare the analogies and possible relationships between Gnostic myths and the sphere of religious ethnography. The hypothesis of a purely Greek Platonic origin of Gnostic theodicy is also present in the works of Simone Pétrement, a French scholar and follower of the philosopher Simone Weil. Pétrement, following at times slavishly in the footsteps of Harnack, maintains that Gnosticism is a phenomenon involving the Hellenization of Christianity, in which religious elements give rise to a political theology of rebellion against every kind of social oppression; this is a hermeneutic concept that is definitely borrowed from the Marxist ideology of Weil. Consideration of social and political themes is also found in the research of the American scholar Elaine Pagels, who has made particular study of the balance of power as the basis of the contradiction between Gnostic thought and the church hierarchy. On the relations between the origins of Christianity and Gnosticism, the works of Manlio Simonetti (b. 1926) and Christoph Markschies (b. 1962) should also be considered.

A German religious historian, Carsten Colpe (b. 1929), in a famous early work critically revisited the ideas of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, demonstrating that many of the hypotheses proposed by Reitzenstein were without foundation. Over the years Colpe has produced a series of fundamental analyses that aim to untangle the various syncretic elements that are intertwined in the original Gnostic texts. Despite Colpe's criticisms, the Iranist interpretation of the Gnostic phenomenon has been articulately expounded in the work of another historian of religions, the Swedish scholar Geo Widengren (19071996). Widengren has improved upon the research of his predecessors, identifying the origin of Gnosticism in a particular esoteric and philosophical tendency in the Mazdean religion Zurvanism. According to Widengren, such wisdom traditions, along with the ideas of the Aramaic Mesopotamian world, gave rise to the gnōsis of the Mandaeans and consequently in a whole series of documents ascribed to what he has defined as "Parthian gnosis." The hybrid production based on Iranian and Mesopotamian materials in the context of the kingdom of Parthia is further at the root of a complex syncretism that runs through apocalyptic texts such as The Book of Enoch or more typical Qumran texts such as The War Rule, examples of an intertestamental Judaism that was beginning to interpret everything according to Gnostic canons. The research of Widengren and the fascinating work of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule have found support in the work of the Italian Gherardo Gnoli (b. 1937), a scholar who has forcefully pointed out the Iranian roots of the Gnostic phenomenon. In Gnoli we also find Manichaeism redefined as an "Iranian Gnostic religion." An attempt to find a middle way between the extreme positions cited has been made by the German Kurt Rudolph (b. 1929), who as well as stressing the Hellenistic Greek and Judaic Aramaic substratum of the origins of Gnosticism also emphasizes the presence of Iranian material.

Nag Hammadi

The discovery in the 1940s at Nag Hammadi, ancient Chenoboskion, of an entire library of Gnostic texts written in Coptic has given a new impetus to studies concerning the origins of Gnosticism. This literary corpus was discovered by Jean Doresse, a Coptologist whose fame has been eclipsed by that of Henri-Charles Puech (19021986). Puech was responsible for an outstanding series of works on Gnostic phenomenology; mention should be made of his work La gnose et le temps, which was inspired by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (18751961) and dealt with the correspondence between the conceptions of space and time in Gnostic demiurgy. The school on Gnosticism and dualism begun by Puech has been continued in the work of his pupil Michel Tardieu, a keen supporter of historicophilological method but also the first to use the approach of structural anthropology in interpreting the Gnostic myths. We should also recall in the same context the work of Antoine Guillaumont on Semitic expressions in the Gnostic texts.

The disputes and controversies involving the rediscovery and publication of the Coptic corpus of Nag Hammadi have resulted in a large number of editions and versions of the Gnostic tracts. Between the 1950s and the 1970s various translations were circulated (published mainly in the pages of academic reviews) with parallel texts in Coptic. Mention should also be made of the pioneering works of Puech, Quispel, Pahor Labib, Walter Till, Guillaumont, Jan Zandee, Soren Giversen, Rudolf Kasser, Hans-Martin Schenke, Martin Krause, and Bentley Layton. Recently a critical edition and translation of the Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi has been completed by a group of international scholars led by James M. Robinson, who is in charge of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity of Claremont (California). A series of predominantly but not exclusively French-speaking scholars (Jacques É. Ménard, Bernard Barc, Paul-Hubert Poirier, Michel Roberge, Louis Painchaud, Wolf-Peter Funk, Jean-Marie Sevrin, Einar Thomassen, John Turner, and others) at the University of Laval in Quebec in Canada are working on a French translation with critical text, equipped with monumental theological historical commentary on all the Nag Hammadi texts.


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Rudolph, Kurt. "Gnosis und Gnostizismus, ein Forschungbericht." Theologische Rundschau 34 (1969): 121175; 181231; 358361; 36 (1971): 161; 89124; 37 (1972): 289360; 38 (1973): 125; 50 (1985): 140; 55 (1990): 113152.

Rudolph, Kurt, ed. Gnosis und Gnostizismus. Darmstadt, Germany, 1975.

Schoeps, Hans Joachim. Auf frühchristlicher Zeit. Tübingen, Germany, 1950.

Scholem, Gershom G. Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition. New York, 1960.

Scholer, David Martin. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 19481969. Leiden, 1971.

Scholer, David Martin. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 19701994. Leiden, 1997.

Simonetti, Manlio. Ortodossia ed Edesia tra I e II secolo. Messina, Italy, 1994.

Stroumsa, Gedaliahu. Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology. Leiden, 1984.

Tardieu, Michel. Trois mythes gnostiques. Paris, 1974.

Van den Broek, Roelof. "The Present State of Gnostic Studies." Vigiliae Christianae 37 (1983): 4171.

Weiss, H.-F. "Einige Randbemerkungen zum Problem des Verhältnisses von 'Judentum' und 'Gnōsis.'" Orientalische Literarturzeitung 64 (1969): 550551.

Widengren, Geo. Iranisch-semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit. Cologne, 1960.

Widengren, Geo. Fenomenologia della religione. Bologna, 1984. Translated as Phenomenology of Religion.

Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking "Gnosticism." An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J., 1996. In a postmodern vein he considers Gnosticism a modern construct, not justified by any ancient self-definition.

Wilson, Robert McLachalan. The Gnostic Problem. London, 1958.

Yamauchi, Edwin Martin. Pre-Christian Gnosticism. A Survey of the Proposed Evidences. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983.

Ezio Albrile (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis