Through the celebrated discovery of many alternative gospels and scriptures, the word Gnostic has entered popular discourse almost as synonymous with bold or experimental religious thinking. Of course, the term Gnostic has a specific meaning as a movement, and one about which we now have a substantial body of written evidence. I have written recently about some modern debates about this idea. Here, I want to focus on the Greek and Hellenistic roots of the movement. Yes, we know that Gnosticism was a powerful temptation to the early church, but it also tells us a lot about how Jewish and Greek ideas merged and interacted between, say 200 BC and 300 AD. It also matters greatly to understanding how early Christianity framed its appeal within the Greek-speaking world(s). Adolf von Harnack famously described Gnosticism as “the acute Hellenization of Christianity” – a phrase that demands a “Discuss!” after it.
Among the scriptures and texts found at Nag Hammadi were some very clearly rooted in Greek and specifically Platonist thought, with titles such as the Hypostasis of the Archons. Yet these has once shared shelves with obviously Hebrew and biblical-derived manuscripts, focused on Adam, Noah and (especially) Seth. How had the two traditions come into contact? Where, when and how?
To begin with a general chronology. Plato lived from c.428-348 BC, and after his death, his tradition was carried on by his academy, which lasted into the first century AD. Platonism moved through various phases, as identified and named by modern scholars. Middle Platonism, which built on the insights of other schools of thought, prevailed from c.100 BC through the early third century AD. It was succeeded by Neoplatonism, which flourished from the third through the sixth century AD. The main philosopher of Middle Platonism was Plutarch (45-120 AD).
Fundamental to Plato’s thought was the theme of hierarchies of reality and perfection, the idea that the visible, changeable material world is only an image of a higher and authentically real world, which does not change. Visible things are images of higher Forms. In terms of Judaism and Christianity, Philo (25 BC-50 AD) belongs in the Middle Platonist phase, as do most of the Christian apologists of the second and third centuries. Within the New Testament, Platonist ideas are obvious in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in passages like “The law is only a shadow [skia] of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves” (10.1). C. S. Lewis did much to popularize Platonic approaches for modern-day Christians.
Over the past thirty years or so, a sizable literature has evolved around the relationship between Platonism and Gnosticism, and specifically Neoplatonism. In terms of chronology, that is a little misleading, because Gnosticism was flourishing in the first and second centuries, long before the emergence of Neoplatonism. In the second century AD, the very important Gnostic thinker Basilides drew on Middle Platonism, and he in turn influenced Valentinus.Gnosticism thus emerges from a world in which Platonism more generally defined had become a common currency of philosophical language and thought. Of the vast number of ideas and theories that Plato and his successors generated, some are particularly relevant to our subject here, in providing the intellectual vocabulary of Gnosticism.
Perhaps the greatest Platonic contribution was in the area of Dualism, as taught in his Phaedo. His system is of course quite distinct from Cosmic Dualism, the struggle of forces of Light and Darkness, but the one concept is an essential foundation for the other. Plato made a novel and revolutionary distinction between the worldly reality that we see, the world of the body, and the non-visible non-material realm of Ideas. Humans have a visible material body, and an incorporeal soul. So fundamental has that matter/spirit distinction become to us that it seems incredible that anyone could ever have invented it at a given historical moment. Linked to this Platonic approach is the theme of the soul being imprisoned in the body, from which it needs liberation.
Obviously, these Platonic themes had an enormous impact within both Christianity and Gnosticism. More generally, Greek philosophy in the last two or three centuries BC made a powerful distinction between body and soul, which presented the material world as inferior. Although these concepts are usually termed Platonic, scholars like Abraham P. Bos also stress the Dualist content of much Aristotelian thinking.
Middle Platonist philosophers explored the relationship between the good creator and the flawed material world, a discussion they drew from Plato’s Timaeus. Plato had portrayed the creation of the world through a Demiurge, demiourgos, or Craftsman, who shaped the material world – crudely, a Creator. Plato’s description of Creation makes extensive use of geometry and mathematics, and gives the origins of the planets and the elements. The Demiurge also created a world-soul, psyche tou kosmou.
The Middle Platonists understood the universe as deriving from two principles, the One, God or the Monad, and the Dyad, which is matter. Plutarch believed that the creation had transformed matter into the divine soul of the world, but that matter continues to function as a force for disorder, and even for evil. Although he did not offer anything like Cosmic Dualism, that construction could easily be reconciled with the Gnostic dichotomy between one all-powerful God, and an inferior creator of the material world.
Plutarch portrayed God as a transcendent being who ruled through subordinate creatures or intermediaries, daimons, which we know as gods or spirits. The only way to reach the highest good, the One, was through these intermediary forces. That hierarchical vision fitted well into the Jewish/Christian/Gnostic syntheses emerging in these years, and especially the hierarchy of divine Aeons formed by the highest God. Plutarch also believed in divine interventions in the material world through revelation and prophecy.
But here’s the problem. Platonists were fine with talk of one great God, provided he was not directly involved in the detailed work of Creation. You needed some kind of intermediate Creator figure who tended to become divine in his own right. In the Jewish or later Christian sense, it was very difficult to be a Platonist and a strict monotheist.
In my next post, I’ll expand on these Gnostic parallels and precedents.