2015.10.18 | Erin Evans. The Books of Jeu and the Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity: Exploring the Gnostic Mysteries to the Ineffable. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 89. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Review by Paul Linjamaa, Lund University.
Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.
This is a much needed book. After the Nag Hammadi-texts became available for the broader scholarly public – after many years of preservation work, editing and legal quarrels – much effort has been devoted to tracing the different Christian stances found in the large corpus. However, there have been surprisingly few studies on the very interesting Coptic “Gnostic” texts found before the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Considering the amount of attention the different Nag Hammadi-texts have received and considering the many similarities to the texts in the Bruce and Askew codex (found long before the Nag Hammadi), this is indeed surprising. Erin Evans’ work on Pistis Sophia (Askew codex) and the Books of Jeu (Bruce Codex) endeavors to fill this scholarly gap. Evans book is an exposition of the nature of, and relation between, the many different parts that the Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu comprise of. In the introduction Evans calls for the need of new terminology that fits the particular “Gnostic” group behind Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu. She does not want to call them Christians (since they do not use the label Christ for Jesus) and instead she suggests “Jeuian”, after the demiurge figure occurs in both Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu. This term is then used throughout the work to denote the system portrayed in the text collections and the people behind them.
The book is divided into three parts followed by a concluding section. Part one deals with Books of Jeu 1 and 2 and Pistis Sophia book 4, texts that Evans identifies as instructions for purification rituals and ascension of the soul. Even though there are important differences between these texts there are also decisive similarities, particularly in the cosmology, for example, a highest realm, also called “the Treasury of Light”, its cosmic contrast, the thirteen Aeons, also called “the left” and a middle region, called “the Middle”. Chapter one and two discusses 1 and 2 Book of Jeu which Evans argues contains instructions for teachers, priests and ritual instructors, not meant for everyday use but as handbooks for study of the complicated mystical landscape of the highest realms of “treasuries”. The soul had to traverse many different treasuries before reaching the most sacred and highest level, the Treasury of Light, home to the highest god Jeu (which in some “Jeuian” texts seems to be split into Jeu and the a higher unknown god). An initiate had to undergo several levels of initiation, which included baptisms, memorization of sacred names and formulas that locked up the many gates on the way to the highest realm. Chapter 3 deals with the many and complicated diagrams and cosmologic maps included in the 1 and 2 Book of Jeu. These diagrams, Evans argues, function as aids in the study of the nature, navigation and population of the divine realms that humans had to traverse after death. Chapter four, the last in part one, discusses the first part (a) of book 4 in Pistis Sophia (chapters 136-143), which is identified as an instruction manual for novices who are about the enter the first level of initiation, baptism. The cosmology presented in this text is devoted to discussing the lower regions of the envisioned “Jeuian” reality which would have been important for novices to get to know, that is the 12 Aeons that the soul has to traverse before entering into the highest realm. Much influence from Hellenistic astrological thought is reflected here as the 12 Aeons take on the role of the different zodiacal signs as well as Greek gods/planets. The cosmology of Pistis Sophia 4a thus differs from 1 and 2 Book of Jeu on several points, which Evans postulates is dues to its later composition and reflects “shifts within a cultural climate” (133).
Part two of Evans’ book goes over to discuss the second part of Pistis Sophia 4 (chapters 144-148) and also book 3. These two texts, she maintains, were intended to be read by initiates not yet eligible for baptism, who had to receive basic ethical and lifestyle codes before initiation, codes that these two texts expound upon. Here we also find details of the different punishments, as well as modes of forgiveness, for breaking the codes. The cosmology in these two texts do not discuss the distinct “Jeuian” highest realm much, and differ in many respects from Books of Jeu 1-2 and Pistis Sophia 4a (for example in the portrayal of “the Middle”). They instead display more use of Christian scripture, especially Pistis Sophia 3, as well as more familiarity with and less polemical attitudes toward Sethian systems (compared to Books of Jeu). This Evans explains by imagining the authors seeking an “syncretistic compromise” due to the an “increasing Christian Gnostic religio-cultural environment” (185).
The last section of the book, part three, devotes one chapter to Pistis Sophia 1–2, texts that make out the majority of Pistis Sophia-collection and start out by stating that Jesus waited until the twelfth year after his resurrection to tell the disciples of the way to the highest heaven. These two texts outline of the information needed for true salvation and deal with cosmology, astrology, cosmic rulers and fate as well as mentioning lists of mysteries and hierarchical ranks. There are many parallels to the Books of Jeu here. The third part of Evans’ book finishes with a chapter on the Pistis Sophia–myth, which is not included in the Books of Jeu 1-2 but plays a central role in Pistis Sophia (drawing on popular stories of the fall and redemption of divine Wisdom). This myth is reviewed and contextualized from the perspective of its imagined cultural context. Pistis Sophia 1-2 is written, Evans maintains, in order to attract people familiar with the Sethian worldview (especially the one reflected in Apocryphon of John) and convince them that this system is basically flawed, and the only way of gaining true salvation is to be initiated into the mysteries possessed by this particular “Jeuian” group. Sophia is not, as in Apocryphon of John, a divine figure from the highest realms, but she is tied to the material realm. This is a reinterpretation of the traditional myth from the perspective of the “Jeuian” worldview, Evans suggests. Pistis Sophia 1-2 both reflect more knowledge of and dependence on Christian literature and since the aim of these texts is to convert people to the “Jeuian” sect, and not to give post-baptismal instruction as Pistis Sophia 3 and 4b, the ethical discussions and hortatory sections are kept to a minimal.
The chapters of the book are ordered according to the structure that Evans envisions Pistis Sophia and Books of Jeu were composed chronologically. Evans argues that these two text collections “are representative texts from a distinct Christian Gnostic group or community” (p. 1). Differences between the texts are explained as due to the passing of time, changes in the cultural milieu of the group and the need for “syncretism” (a term that perhaps should have been problematized) in order to make the group’s doctrines attractive for outsiders. Evans succeeds, in both a lucid and learned way, to illuminate the workings of and context behind the different texts she engages, not to mention highlight the distinction of these systems and their relation to and dependence upon Manichaeanism, Egyptian religion and Greek astronomy.
I am, however, less convinced by the hypothesis concerning the development of the group(s) behind the texts and how the texts fit together since it seems that one ultimately has to presuppose that the “Jeuian” cosmology of the Book of Jeu 1 and 2 features in all the books of Pistis Sophia, with fairly undiminished importance. Furthermore, there are some drawbacks in the introductory chapter where the theoretical foundation of the work is presented. For example, just because Jesus is not called Christ in the texts (or that the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are not discussed in detail), it does not mean that the people behind them did not call themselves or think of themselves as Christians. I am unsure if this is a viable definition of “Christian” at all. Consider Gos. Thom., for example, which does not mention the birth, death or resurrection of Jesus but which no one would question is a thoroughly Christian work. Also, I do not agree with the statement that “no importance” is given to the resurrection, in these texts (260). The resurrection is the very premise of the whole discussion of Pistis Sophia book 1. Furthermore, if they did not call themselves Christians, why then does Evans call them Christian, or “Christian Gnostic”, throughout the work?
Nevertheless, Evans book is a well-written and important contribution to the study of these texts, much due to the fact that nothing has been written the last 50 years. It is not just a relevant book for people interested in Pistis Sophia and the Book of Jeu, but would fascinate anyone with a broader interest in the late antique religious scene.
paul.linjamaa [ at ] teol.lu.se