Reviews of

Gnostic Religion in Antiquity

In Gnosticism, Matthew Twigg, Roelof van den BROEK on July 8, 2013 at 2:00 am


2013.07.13 | Roelof van den Broek, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 263pp. ISBN: 978-1107031371.

Review by Matthew Twigg, University of Oxford.

Gnostic Religion in Antiquity is split into six chapters: Chapter 1 (“Gnosis and gnostic religion”) lays out van den Broek’s methodological approach to the thorny problem of gnostic religion itself; Chapter 2 (“Gnostic literature I: tradition”) introduces the Greek and Coptic sources themselves, making clear that there is gnostic literature extant outside the Nag Hammadi codices; Chapter 3 (“Gnostic literature II: texts”) gives extremely useful introductions and overviews of this extant literature; Chapter 4 (“Anti-gnostic literature”) introduces a selection of heresiological literature; Chapter 5 (“Gnosis: essence and expressions”) provides more detailed analyses of various gnostic ideas concerning religious experience, theology, pleromatology, cosmology, cosmogony, anthropology, and soteriology; and Chapter 6 (“Backgrounds”) assesses the scholarly hypotheses on “gnostic origins” in Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity.

Despite pleas for consensus from all concerned, the academic study of what is here called “gnostic religion” is still plagued by an utter lack of agreement over what one means by terms like “Gnosis”, “Gnostic”, and “Gnosticism”, and even whether they, particularly the latter, ought to be used at all. This persisting terminological crisis has left the field in a semantic limbo which can only be mitigated on a case by case basis, by each author delineating at the outset precisely what it is they mean by such terms. This laborious obligation is fulfilled by van den Broek in chapter 1. First, it is important to recognise that this volume is not entitled “The Gnostic Religion in Antiquity”, as though it were discussing a particular religious sect, such as that of the so-called “Sethians” (e.g. Hans-Martin Schenke), “Sethian-Gnostics” (e.g. John Turner), or just “Gnostics” (e.g. David Brakke). Rather, according to Gnostic Religion in Antiquity, a religion is “gnostic” if it is governed by a particular conceptualization of gnosis. Van den Broek summarises this concept of gnosis as, “an esoteric … spiritual knowledge of God and of the divine origin and destination of the essential core of the human being which is based on revelation and inner enlightenment, the possession of which involves a liberation from the material world which holds humans captive” (3). A person is a “gnostic” if they adhere to such a religion. In this way, van den Broek uses “gnostic” as both an adjective to describe a mode of religiosity, and a noun to describe a person whose religious life is expressed in this mode of religiosity.

This is strongly reflected in the book’s concluding chapter, where van den Broek notes that although scholarly attempts to locate the roots of gnostic religion in Platonism, Judaism, or Christianity have highlighted many important aspects of particular gnostic texts and figures, they have never singularly grasped the gnostic experience. Instead, recalling Hans Jonas’s famous title, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, van den Broek concludes gnostic religion was “the spirit of the age”, and that, “the gnostic mood was in the air” (226). He thereby emphasises that gnostic religion arose from a certain widespread mindset or mentality, which he then attempts to historicize on pages 228-231. The crucial point is that the “gnostic mood” is only manifested as “gnostic religion” once it has been formulated and systematized by persons or groups who already belong to, or have at least been influenced by, existing religious and philosophical frameworks, such as Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity, but presumably also many/any others in principle.

In light of this, van den Broek limits himself to discussing “forms of gnosis” (30) which arose in the Graeco-Roman world, and as such he excludes the gnostic religions of Mandaeism and Manichaeism from his analysis (4-5). On the other hand, van den Broek identifies Hermetism, or “hermetic religion” as he prefers to designate it, as another Graeco-Roman current of gnostic religion. He laments the fact that “Hermetism” and “Gnosticism” have traditionally been treated separately in academic research, calling it a “deplorable development” (4). Curiously, barely two lines later, van den Broek announces, “In this book … the traditional separation between hermetic and gnostic studies will be retained.” Why one would label a scholarly trend “deplorable” and then consciously perpetuate it almost immediately is odd to say the least.

Nonetheless, having demarcated his subject area as Graeco-Roman forms of gnostic religion, excluding hermetic religion, van den Broek proceeds to give an excellent and exhaustive overview of the traditions and texts in chapters 2 and 3. He provides summaries and brief analyses (between half a page and two pages) of every single Nag Hammadi text, as well as those gnostic texts from the Berlin and Askew codices, the more recently recovered Codex Tchacos, and those preserved in patristic literature. The subdivision of texts is inadequate in certain cases, such that, for example, numerous texts filed under the heading “The Barbelo myth and heavenly journeys” in fact bear no imprint of the Barbelo myth (e.g. Apocalypse of Paul (NHC V,2)), as van den Broek concedes. This could mislead the careless or casual reader. Also, as well as being of the opinion that virtually all the works he deals with were originally written in the 125 year period between 125 and 250 CE, van den Broek seems often to work from the principle that where there is a larger time-window for composition, the earliest possible date is for some reason preferable; although having said that, for most texts, van den Broek commendably errs on the side of caution and simply recommends a date within this 125 year period.

Particularly refreshing in chapter 5 is van den Broek’s focus on “the gnostic experience”, in which he describes various understandings of the ascent of the soul in gnostic texts; but importantly not just in the so-called “Sethian ascent treatises”, Zostrianos, Allogenes, and Marsanes, but also in Valentinian gnostic texts, and others such as Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu. He suggests that in the relevant strands of gnostic religion, theurgy was not the unique practice of “Sethians”, as the balance of secondary literature would indicate, but was practiced by a range of gnostics.

Overall, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity is an excellent introduction to the primary sources, their major themes, as well as current scholarly debates concerning them. Much of the content will be fairly uncontroversial to experts, given its introductory nature. That is not to say that it is simplistic or patronizing to the careful reader. Quite the contrary; van den Broek packs a great deal of accessible, readable, yet scholarly conversation into a relatively short book. But from the perspective of the expert, for whom this book was not primarily written but who is still offered much to digest and reflect upon, the main areas of contention shall no doubt be the concept of “gnostic religion” laid out in chapter 1, and the notion of a “gnostic mood” as “the spirit of the age” in chapter 6. So, while scholars fight over the methodological and terminological nitty gritty, other readers may rest assured that the meat of this book is of a very high quality indeed.

Matthew Twigg
University of Oxford
matthew.twigg [ at ]

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