Reviews of

Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Under Pitiless Skies

In Brill, Nicola Denzey LEWIS, Sarah Parkhouse, Uncategorized on October 16, 2014 at 10:00 am


2014.10.16 | Nicola Denzey Lewis. Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Under Pitiless Skies. (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 81). Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013.

Reviewed by Sarah Parkhouse, Durham University.

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.

Nicola Denzey Lewis’ Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity reveals that in Gnostic and Graeco-Roman texts, the skies are not pitiless. The aims of the book are three-fold: firstly, a survey of how second-century authors understood astrological fate (heimarmene) as controlled by cosmic beings; secondly, the suggestion that these authors (almost) consistently offered their readers an escape from heimarmene; and, thirdly, further deconstruction of the orthodoxy-heresy dichotomy. The book demonstrates Denzey Lewis’ impressive knowledge of all things second century, explicitly shown by her ability to discuss fate in New Testament, Middle Platonic, Stoic, Gnostic, Manichean, Hermetic, pagan and proto-orthodox texts, despite stating that ‘language of “enslavement to Fate” in antiquity was rare’ (p.28).

Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity is divided into nine chapters. Chapter one questions whether the Gnostics were pessimists. The answer is a resounding no. In chapter two, Denzey Lewis shows that divine providence (pronia) was a cause of concern for Nag Hammadi, Middle Platonic and proto-orthodox authors. In chapter three she proposes that the Pauline understanding of enslavement to sin was a foundation for cosmic pessimism. Chapter four proposes heimarmene as an explanation for human disinterest in spiritual engagement, with the Apocryphon of John and On the Origin of the World as case studies. In chapter five, Denzey Lewis demonstrates that certain Hermetic authors thought that celestial beings influenced heimarmene, corresponding to the rise of demonology in Middle Platonism. Chapters six and seven show how the authors of these texts offered salvation: chapter six dedicated to the role of a Saviour God and chapter seven to baptism. The penultimate chapter studies the Gospel of Judas. Judas is the sole text, she argues, that does not propound escape from astral fatalism. In the final chapter Denzey Lewis offers conclusions and proposes new approaches to the scholarly understanding of heimarmene in the first centuries.

Denzey Lewis hints at deficiencies within theological scholarship which understands Hellenic or pagan ideas as ‘a manifestation of intellectual and religious ignorance’ (p.23). She purposefully does not wish to state any religious perspective as legitimate or illegitimate. This leads into – what I consider a particular strength of the book – Denzey Lewis’ work on Paul. She quotes and contests the Interpreter’s Bible on more than one occasion, writing ‘Many modern scholars remain too tempted to play off Pauline Christianity against what they perceive as the wildly speculative cosmology and angelology of Paul’s opponents’ (p.67). Denzey Lewis resists such temptation. Rather, she proposes that Paul shared with his opponents ‘an unspoken but mutually understood cosmological “myth” that celestial beings exert control over humanity’ (p.67). Unfortunately, this myth cannot be precisely discerned. To prove her point, Denzey Lewis considers selected passages from Paul which show concern with cosmic malevolence and enslavement to sin, including Romans 8.38-39 (celestial entities negatively influence human activity), Galatians 4.3-8 (enslavement by the cosmos) and 1 Corinthians 2.12-13 (psychic and pneumatic bodies). She fully engages with Paul’s influence on Gnostic cosmology (stating that ‘oddly, other scholars have often missed the mark here’ (p.53-54 n.1)), showing that demonic powers are at work in Paul’s cosmos. Furthermore, she writes of the ‘intriguing possibility’ that Paul alludes to Christian freedom from heimarmene. It is refreshingly evident that her academic background lies within the “heretical sphere” of early Christianities.

There are two further distinct virtues of the book. Firstly, the inclusion of twentieth-century debates concerning cults dedicated to “Saviour Gods” including Isis and Mithras. This is a rare line of questioning in modern scholarship on Gnosticism and adds new dimensions to the overall hypothesis. The second virtue lies in the reinforcement of similarities between Middle Platonic, Gnostic and proto-orthodox beliefs. For example, the proposal that Tatian and Athenagoras ‘owed their cosmology, if not their belief in fallen angels, to the Platonism of the first and second century’ (p.36). Another brilliant example is the comparison between Justin Marytr and the Valentinian writer Theodotus, concluding that they share the identical idea that Christians were only enslaved to fate until baptism.

Denzey Lewis introduces many of her arguments (such as the un-pitiless skies) as replacements for previous conjectures of Gnosticism as a world-negating, nihilistic ideology. However, she repeatedly cites Hans Jonas as the main scholar that her work is superseding. Jonas’ work not only belongs to the last century but to the period of “Gnostic scholarship” before extensive engagement with the Nag Hammadi codices, let alone the Berlin Codex, Codex Tchacos, many Oxyrhynchus papyri and other significant texts. Although Denzey Lewis cites a decent amount of recent scholarship, further engagement with the copious wealth of new and ongoing research into “Gnostic” texts would have been beneficial to more advanced readers.

A setback of the book is in its structure and length. As examples of structural issues, Denzey Lewis provides a history of the term heimarmeme in chapter four which may have been better placed at the beginning. Furthermore, chapter four is dedicated to the Apocryphon of John and On the Origin of the World but the exegesis of the latter is extremely short. Chapter eight raises a refreshing but speculative hypothesis on the Jewish apocalyptic background of the Gospel of Judas but this may have served better as an isolated journal article than in a book dedicated to heimarmene. In terms of length, the scope of the book is mammoth but its contents a mere 129 pages. Denzey Lewis clearly has a passion for all things cosmic in the second century and the publication would benefit from more of her extensive knowledge.

Overall, Denzey Lewis clearly shows the cultural interplay and overlaps of the second century and, in doing so, provides an excellent overview of the primary sources whilst producing numerous thought-provoking arguments. The book critically engages with and consequently deconstructs scholarly assumptions. Furthermore, Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity is accessible – which is not always an easy task when dealing with “esoteric” texts. It is a useful book for anyone interested in second-century thought patterns and is suitable for a wide audience with a range of interests.

Sarah Parkhouse
Durham University

s.j.parkhouse at

  1. Thanks for this excellent and detailed review.

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