Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. By Birger A. Pearson
Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 4, pages 700–701, July 2009
How to Cite
Meconi, D. (2009), Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. By Birger A. Pearson. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 700–701. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00501_4.x
- Issue published online: 8 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
Pp. xv, 362 , Minneapolis, Minnesota : Fortress Press , 2007 , £12.00/$25.00 .
Birger Pearson has been researching and writing on what we today call ancient Gnosticism for almost half a century now. He is emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and he admits that this is his first introductory sketch of the primary figures and central texts of gnostic thought. P. accordingly begins by defining Gnosticism, providing a brief historical sketch of modern academe on the subject (the term ‘Gnosticism’ as it is used today was coined in the 17th century by Henry More, the mystic and theosophist of the Cambridge Movement). As such, this monograph proves to be an indispensable survey which will serve as a standard volume for any student of late antiquity.
P. shows that the adjective gnositkos was coined by Plato (Statesman 258E) to mean simply a kind of science, but was appropriated by many philosophical circles, and by the second century had come to mean a furtive or esoteric knowledge providing an otherwise unknown plan for salvation. P. hence writes that Gnosticism is a saving kind of knowledge which ‘comes by revelation from a transcendent realm, mediated by a revealer who has come from that realm in order to awaken people to a knowledge of God and a knowledge of the true nature of the human self’(p. 12). This knowledge, P. continues, almost always reveals a myriad of dualisms: between a transcendent God and a lower deity who is puckishly responsible for the material realm, between the human soul and the repressive body, between male and female, and so on. Consequently, practically every gnostic system searches beyond all the lower gods so as to worship the one true (because devoid of all contact with the visible and corporeal) deity, deprecates the material order, and therefore aims to flee all that is limited and finite. While P. admits that such divisions are lessened in later gnostic thinkers, all Gnosticism is to some degree characterized by dualism and a plan for deliverance from such a hostile realm.
Eleven chapters follow this introduction; each takes up a particular school of Gnosticism. We begin by examining the earliest known figures, from Simon Magus as portrayed in Acts 8 up to the Cainites (an eponymous group who worshipped Cain for his dominance known to us only through the more rigorous of the Catholic Fathers). Ch. 3 analyzes Sethian (what P. calls ‘Classical’) Gnosticism; ch. 4 is an illuminating look at how the creation accounts in Genesis were used and adjusted by Gnostics. The next two chapters take up Basilides and Valentinus respectively, while ch. 7 collects various groups under what P. calls a ‘Three-Principle System’. Here P. shows how the fall from unity – the One giving way to some sort of dyad – runs through much of Gnosticism in general and some more obscure groups (e.g., Naassenes, Peratics, Docetists, Sethians) in particular. Ch. 8 handles various Coptic Gnostic writings of uncertain provenance; ch. 9 is a much welcomed look at the ‘secret sayings’ found in the Gospel and in the Acts of Thomas (as well as the Hymn of the Pearl and the Book of Thomas the Contender), late 1st or early 2nd century logia which have found more credibility among pseudo-scholars today than they ever did in antiquity. Ch. 10 is one of the best treatments of Hermetic Gnosis I have seen in any contemporary scholarship, P. very attentive to how Hermetism differs from traditional Gnosticism in significant ways. He next treats Manichaeism, known to most today through the pen of Saint Augustine, while ch. 12 takes up the Mandaeans, a surviving Aramaic group whose writings and liturgies still reveal many of the tenets of ancient Gnosticism examined hitherto.
In each of these chapters P. is accurate and even-handed, taking great care to introduce the reader to the central persons and works of each school of Gnosticism. P.'s work thus proves timely in that such precision deserves a place next to more popular books like Ehrman's Lost Christianities, where the gnostic schools are presented only through the lens of the church's supposed fear and consequent suppression. Gnosticism is much more than an oppressed ideology, with complexities and nuances worthy of rigorous study, and this is made richly evident here.