The Gnostic Bible: A Review

The Gnostic Bible (Boston & London: Shabala, rev. ed., 2009; $29.95 [a bargain]) collects many important documents from the early sects that have been lumped together under the umbrella term of “Gnostic.” It was edited, with many of the documents translated, by Willis Barnstone (who, among his other achievements, has carried out the best translations of Sappho ever) and the late Marvin Meyer (whom I had the pleasure of knowing since my salad days in the AAR and who, I just learned, passed over 4 months ago; he was younger than me). Their translations are often improvements of the (carefully credited) translations by other Gnostic scholars, such as Wesley Isenberg and Bentley Layton. It is an advance over previous anthologies, in that it includes hefty selections from the writings of the Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Islamic mystics, and Cathars, on all of whom much serious research has been done in recent decades, based on more than a dozen discoveries of previously unknown documents. The translations are from a variety of languages: Coptic, Greek, Syriac, Mandaic, and several Asian languages.

I was very glad to learn that the Mandaeans were not exterminated by Saddam Hussein, but instead underwent a diaspora. There are now Mandaean communities around the world, with at least four in the USA. They are the only Gnostic community that has survived into modern times, primarily because their theology, although dualistic, is not ascetic. They, as the Valentinians did, believe that sex, marriage, and children are essential elements of the Divine Plan. Their priests must be married, and, in fact, they believe that celibacy is a grievous sin, as was the attitude in classical Judaism, which makes the idea that Jesus was not married even stranger. One can suppose that communities which believe in universal celibacy do tend to die out—another instance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I found the Cathar documents especially interesting. Their writings have previously been quite inaccessible, and, as Jeffrey Buetz has argued, their praxis is an unusual combination of extreme dualism with elements from the original Jewish form of Christianity.

Overall, it is a magnificent achievement. Hence I feel a little sad that I did not like it more. In part, that is my own fault. I grabbed the book in the library in order to look for more bits of data on the questions of whether Jesus and Mary Magdalen were married or at least lovers, whether the movement to reform Judaism that Jesus intended did survive, and so on, instead of looking forward to seeing the book as it is. On the other hand, Barnstone and Meyer had to deal with the massive problem of creating a coherent book out of almost incoherent, fragmentary information.

The problem in dealing with “gnostics” is one of terminology. The label “gnostic” was adopted only in the nineteenth century as an umbrella term for all the ancient religious groups, movements, sects, etc., that were not part of the tracks that led to orthodox Christianity and normative Judaism. As a result, the umbrella covers a hodgepodge of groups that have nothing whatsoever in common except for being non-Christian, etc. It is impossible to posit a generalization that is accurate for all of them. Hence Barnstone and Meyer deal with a selection from that hodgepodge about which they could propose accurate generalizations. For that purpose, they implicitly defined “Gnostic” as applying only to groups that were radically dualistic and/or radically ascetic and that therefore suffered even more than official Christianity from the heretical belief that sex is inherently sinful. Here I mean that such a belief is heretical relative to the fundamental teachings of Judaism and thus to those of Rabbi Joshua the Nazarene.

I think it logically impossible for Rabbi Joshua to have believed or taught that our sexuality is sinful rather than our most precious gift (I discussed all that in my Aphrodiphobia sequence about two months ago). If, as I think did happen, his original teaching was corrupted by the antisexual pathology of the Greeks as the good news began to be preached to the Gentiles, can one deduce with any certainty what his original teaching might actually have been? That’s what I’ve been working on, posting notes about some results in blogs as I go along. I was hoping that The Gnostic Bible would give me news about new discoveries, better translations, more insights into the ancient documents that seem most relevant for this task—but that is what I did not find, because of the narrower definition of “Gnostic” that the book is based on. But their work has cleared the ground for my own quest. A different selection from the hodgepodge, based on different criteria, does seem to reveal that there was also a very different sort of religious movement, one that overlapped in some ways with the religion of the dualistic ascetics, one that I think might provide some very useful insights for our times.

The documents of that other sort of religion are hardly represented at all in the Nag Hammadi documents. That lack is quite understandable, since the Nag Hammadi collection was apparently buried by a community of monks who have always been notorious for their radical asceticism and self-denial. We cut our teeth on some of their Coptic writings in Professor Leonard Lesko’s class at UC Berkeley in preparation for being able to read the Nag Hammadi documents for ourselves; for his final, we had to do a cold translation of a page out of The Gospel of Thomas. (I also had the immense privilege of studying with Fr. David Johnson and with Antoinette Wire, one of the translators who contributed to the first edition of the Nag Hammadi Library in English, for which Professor Meyer was the managing editor.) I know such documents existed, because they are discussed extensively, or at least referred to, by many of the Ante-Nicene heresiologists, especially Irenaeus of Lyon, Hippolytus of Rome, and Clement of Alexandria, whose writings, despite their hostility to all “heretics,” have preserved unique information. The Nag Hammadi library has confirmed that Irenaeus, despite his sarcasm, was not making anything up. He knew that creating a “straw man” argument would have accomplished nothing, and he had known some of the “Gnostic” teachers during his student days in Rome about A.D. 140.

Barnstone and Meyer do use data from those writers. For example, they have edited the “Naasene sermon” from Hippolytus’ Philosophoumena; that’s the one in which the writer describes what actually happened at the climactic moment in the final initiation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Many have thought his description could not possibly be true, but, as Walter Burkert commented in his Homo Necans, it is quite plausible that a “Gnostic” would have had no qualms about revealing the Secret of the Mysteries. What Barnstone and Meyer do not quote are the major passages about the Marcosians in Irenaeus, the Carpocratians in Clement, or other “libertine” groups discussed by Hippolytus and others. Of course, what the Church Fathers meant by “libertine” was anyone who did not believe sex to be sinful (except for married couples—as long as they did not enjoy it).

Clement discusses the Carpocratians in the third book of his Miscellanies. In the 1898 Edinburgh edition of the Ante-Nicene Library, the Victorian editors translate that book not into English, but into Latin, on the then-current theory that people who could not read Latin shouldn’t be allowed to read anything about sex. I have a photocopy of an English translation of that chapter thoughtfully provided by Professor Chadwick and a colleague some decades ago.

One can glean some curious facts, especially from Clement. First, almost all the action among the “Gnostics” was focused on the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria. Second, “Gnostic” literally meant “knower,” but what the various Gnostics “knew” could differ a great deal. Third, for Clement, “Gnostic” was not a dirty word; he spent a great deal of time in his Miscellanies trying to demonstrate that the Christians of his flavor were the True Gnostics. Fourth, it was the “libertine” sect in Alexandria that apparently first called themselves Gnostics, which is why Clement was so anxious to claim the term—and why it is somewhat counterproductive to apply the term to the ascetic dualists. Fifth, both Hippolytus and Origen state that the Naasenes in Alexandria claimed that their apostolic authority came from Mary Magdalene. What Hippolytus specifically says is that they had a great mass of books that James, the “brother of the Lord,” had given to Mariamme, which is one of the standard variations on the name usually translated as “Mary.” (I have seen some people try to claim that this Mariamme was a priest. I’m willing to be charitable and to ascribe that claim to incompetence rather than dishonesty.) If their claim was true, a great deal of early church history will need to be rewritten.

This little essay has now gotten long enough. I will write more about that other, more life-affirming religion I am ferreting out later, as I discover more about it.

  • M

    “The problem in dealing with “gnostics” is one of terminology. The label “gnostic” was adopted only in the nineteenth century as an umbrella term for all the ancient religious groups, movements, sects, etc., that were not part of the tracks that led to orthodox Christianity and normative Judaism.”

    “Fourth, it was the “libertine” sect in Alexandria that apparently first called themselves Gnostics, which is why Clement was so anxious to claim the term—and why it is somewhat counterproductive to apply the term to the ascetic dualists.”

    “Gnosticism” is the term adopted in the 19th century not “Gnostic”. The term “Gnostic” (Gnostikoi) was used by most all of the heresy hunters and if memory serves me right goes back to Plato.

    • aidanakelly

      Yes, “gnosis” is the ordinary Greek term for “knowledge.” My point is that the umbrella term used by the heresiologists was “heresies.” Not all “heretics” called themselves “gnostics,” and Irenaeus, at least, uses the term “gnostic” only for groups that did call themselves “gnostic.”

      • M

        Aidan,

        We don’t have any primary sources of any group calling themselves “gnostic”. Irenaeus only have one single mention in his huge five volume tome of anti heretic writings of a group calling themselves “gnostic” (Marcellina). Most of the time Ireneaus uses the term “gnostic” interchangeable with “heretic”.

        Cheers,

        M

  • C

    Actually, Saddam Hussein was the LEAST of the Mandaeans’ concerns. The overwhelming majority of the community only went into diaspora when the US-led invasion toppled him in 2003 and handed the country over to some Islamist groups lately removed from the State Department’s terrorist watch list and hastily recruited from the Islamic Republic of Iran, where they had been based until 2003. THAT, and the lawlessness and instability which plagued Iraq after the invasion, were what ultimately forced the bulk of Mandaeans into exile.

    On another note, if Mandaean (Mandā’ī) means what it appears to mean (“the knowing”), then at least one form of the term “Gnostic” is an autonym for one of the groups lately encompassed by the term, and of a much older vintage than the 19th c.

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  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I have some theories on the Carpocratians myself, and how they show up in other “Gnostic” (or, perhaps more correctly, non-canonical) sources. A very fascinating topic…
    We owe an awful lot to Clement, despite his dislike for “non-conforming” Christians, and for polytheists generally. He preserves some information on Antinous that is important and unique (and, not surprisingly, sexually related); he preserves a lot of interesting information on Dionysos; and, of course, if Morton Smith is to be believed (which I think he is), he also preserved the “Secret Gospel of Mark” in a manner to specifically counter Carpocratian assertions. Fascinating stuff generally!

  • Deborah Bender

    It’s tangential to the topic of Aidan’s post, but I’d like to mention the publication of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2011. The translation is NRSV. It’s got a hundred pages of essays, time lines and tables, all by Jewish scholars, and a boatload of short commentaries interspersed in the text. Probably not a lot that’s new to Aidan, but most of us could learn something.


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