A Famous Heresy
The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity.
by Hans Jonas.
Beacon. 302 pp. $6.00.
In any conflict it is the victorious party that writes the history, and, particularly if the issue is religion, the record of the opposition is either wholly effaced or survives only in the aspect given it by its enemies. So it has been with the Gnostics, whose doctrines could be reconstructed only from attacks made upon them by certain Church Fathers who wrote while Gnosticism was a present danger. After the 4th century when victory was complete the movement was ignored, until 19th-century scholars began to study it, mainly from the viewpoint of Protestant apologetics. In the 20th century new discoveries have made a fuller and more objective appreciation possible. Particularly valuable is the extensive Manichaean library in Coptic found in Egypt in 1930 and not yet fully published. “Barring the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Professor Jonas writes, “this find is easily the greatest event for the history of religion which archaeology has provided within this generation.”
In any major conflict—and Gnosticism was not, like other heresies, a localized or ephemeral phenomenon but widespread and persistent—the ideology of the vanquished is likely to infect the victors, and so it was in this case. Study of Gnostic teachings is therefore not merely the intellectual pastime of solving a particularly knotty puzzle but relevant to a fuller understanding of the orthodoxies which rejected it. But knowledge has been difficult to come by. The ancient sources are elusive passages in esoteric books the ordinary student never encounters, and secondary treatments are fragmentary and recondite. Professor Jonas’s synoptic book, well organized and beautifully written, is therefore a pioneer effort, unrivaled and indispensable. It is at once a work of original scholarship by an acknowledged authority in its field, and so lucid in its presentation that the enormous learning which it exploits is never obtrusive. It is a feat of imaginative scholarship to combine scattered and tangled threads into a unified texture with patterns clearly revealed in their dark side and in their light, and it is no less a feat to clarify the strange patterns by relating them to more familiar ones.
Gnosis means “knowledge”—not knowledge in our normal sense of what is knowable, but paradoxically a knowledge of God who is by definition unknowable. Actually only a few groups called themselves Gnostics, but the complex of ideas which characterized these groups were characteristic also of many other groups, and the Church Fathers and modern scholars after them have correctly applied the term gnostic to the ideas wherever they occurred. The most striking element in the system was a stark dualism, so radical that it regarded everything outside the unknowable and alien God as the realm of the adverse forces. This meant that not only the world and man but the teachers and scriptures of current orthodoxies were devices to keep sparks of the divine in perpetual bondage. There is a fascination in the ruthlessness of the central conception and the uncompromising consistency of some of its ramifications, and there is a welter of fabricated and therefore absurd mythology.
It is easy to be swept away by the stark purity of the central conception, and it is easy to profess amused superiority to the essential irrationality of striving to know what is by definition unknowable and to the obfuscating imagery in which the irrationality is swathed. Professor Jonas wishes neither to praise nor to condemn but to facilitate understanding. He opens his book with a discussion of the intellectual and religious climate of the Hellenistic and imperial Roman world, with particular attention to modes of thought, East and West, and to the basis of their fusion in gnosis. He then proceeds systematically to a survey of the sources, definition of terms and tenets, clarification of Gnostic imagery and symbolic language, and analysis of Gnostic systems of thought according to Simon Magus, the “Hymn of the Pearl,” Marcion, Valentinianism, and (most fully and sympathetically) Mani. A final section pinpoints the distinctive Gnostic views by contrasting them with traditional classical theory in such items as the cosmos, virtue, and the soul.
It is here that Professor Jonas’s own innovation becomes clear. Earlier scholars had agreed with Harnack in seeing Gnosticism as “an acute Hellenization of Christianity.” Jonas allots a larger share in the amalgam to Eastern, including Jewish, thought. There can be no question that Judaism was in fact involved, both in cause and effect. If nevertheless the Gnostics expressed hostility to orthodox Judaism, so they did to orthodox Christianity also, and so did Christianity (whose debt to Judaism is indubitable) express hostility to Judaism. But precise distribution of credit or debit in such a matter as this is, in the judgment of this reviewer, footless. Influence between East and West in the Hellenistic age worked like a pendulum; at each swing, as can be demonstrated in fields other than religion, the pendulum received in altered form matter which it had itself brought in on the previous swing. Indeed from one point of view Gnosticism is another instance of the centripetal forces of society which are purposefully made centrifugal by organized authority. But the disparate fragments of what was once an amalgam may still be traced, whether in the Cabbala or in the legend of Perceval and the Holy Grail.