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Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism

Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism

by Kurt Rudolph, Robert McLachlan Wilson (Translator)

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Presents a readable and appealing introduction to what otherwise might seem an inaccessible religion of late antiquity.


Presents a readable and appealing introduction to what otherwise might seem an inaccessible religion of late antiquity.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.08(d)

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Chapter One

The Sources

The Heresiological Literature
and the Older History of Research

Our knowledge and understanding of any historical phenomenon is dependent to a quite considerable extent upon the state of our sources, be they written, oral, archaeological or of some other kind. This is particularly true for the ancient religion of the so-called Gnosis or, to use the term employed by modern scholars since the 18th century, of Gnosticism. Up to quite recent times it was known almost exclusively through the work of its opponents, and the picture was therefore only a weak and distorted reflection. It was only through laborious research and some surprising new discoveries that there gradually emerged a more clearly defined picture of this religion, which was influential and significant for the history of religion in late antiquity and whose influence, through various channels, can be detected right down to modern times. One branch indeed, the Baptist sect of the Mandeans, still survives even today in Iraq.

The opponents mentioned above were in the first place Christian apologists and religious philosophers, some of them holders of episcopal office and subsequently elevated by Catholic theology to the status of "Church Fathers". They judged the deviations and opinions of their opponents from the point of view of a tradition of Christian faith and thought which was considered as firm and certain, and sought to refute them. For them it was above all a question of refuting doctrines which did not agree with the so-calledapostolic tradition laid down in a lengthy process in the New Testament and in the oldest confessions of faith, since these doctrines were detrimental to the building up of a strongly organised church, relatively uniform in its leadership. For this purpose the most varied arguments and methods were employed: the demonstration of the post-Christian origin of Gnosis, the reproach of a falsification of Christian doctrine or of relapse into heathenism (in which Greek philosophy also is included), the demonstration of the lack of uniformity and the discordant nature of the opposing camp; gnostics were also accused of deceit, falsehood and magic; finally the supernatural cause of gnostic teaching was held to be Satan himself, who in this fashion sought to corrupt the Church. The varied reports about the gnostic doctrines and schools were evaluated and interpreted accordingly, and to an increasing degree the tendency developed simply to repeat the older presentations or to copy them out. In this way much valuable source material has it is true been preserved, but by and large the work of the so-called heresiologists or "opponents of heresy" led not only to the disappearance of the gnostic communities but also to the destruction of their literary heritage. It is however the duty of the historian to understand the phenomena he is investigating in the first place on their own terms, that is on the basis of their own period; he must therefore do justice to the Church Fathers who dedicated themselves to the conflict against Gnosticism, and indeed they acted with every confidence in the justice of their cause, and were fighting for the unity of a Church threatened from different sides (including that of relations with the state); any scientific intention in the modern sense was quite alien to them. From a modern point of view the procedure of the heresiologists is indeed to be regretted, and must be assessed very critically; a contemporary view of them on the other hand leads to an understanding of their procedure, and at the same time shows how these works should be read: not as historical and critical presentations but as theological treatises. Once this is understood then the relevant works are important sources for the role of Gnosis in early Christianity; they contain also a whole range of authentic witnesses, as the historical and critical study concerned with the Church Fathers (so-called Patristics) has already established.

The Early Heresiologists and Their Works

The oldest heresiological work of which we have any information has unfortunately not survived. It came from the pen of Justin, who died as a martyr in Rome about 165 and ranks among the most significant early Christian apologists. In his First Apology to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, composed between 150 and 155, he writes at the end of chapter 26, which is concerned with the three heretics Simon, Menander and Marcion: "There is also a compilation (Syntagma), which we have put together against all the heresies so far; if you wish to look at it we shall set it before you". Earlier scholars made various efforts to reconstruct this work from other contexts and quotations, but without any great success, and the effort has for that reason now been abandoned. It is however certain that for Justin the heretics were influenced by the demons, who even after the ascension of Christ practised their wiles among men.

One of the most comprehensive and authoritative anti-heretical documents has come down to us from the second half of the second century. Its author was the first Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyons (Lugdunum). He originated from Asia Minorand in the reign of Marcus Aurelius came to Lyons in the land of the Celts, where in 177/178 he became successor to the bishop, who had died as a martyr; it is later reported of Irenaeus too that he died in a persecution. The year of his death, like that of his birth, is unknown to us (about 130/150 to 200). His main work is the "Exposure and Refutation of the falsely so called Gnosis", consisting of five books and generally cited by the abbreviated Latin title Adversus Haereses ("Against Heresies"). Unfortunately this work has survived in full only in a Latin translation. The Greek original is extant only in fragments(which for the first book are almost complete). In addition there are parts in Armenian and Syriac. The work was not written all at one time but grew gradually, probably under the...

Gnosis. Copyright © by Kurt Rudolph. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Kurt Rudolph is an internationally recognized authority on Gnosticism. He is professor of history of religion at Philipps Universität, Marburg, West Germany.

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