Gnosticism from a Non-Voegelinian Perspective, Part II

Part I of this series posed the linked questions whether Eric Voegelin’s characterization of Gnosticism in his various books on the topic was valid – and whether, as Voegelin asserted, modernity, in the form of the liberal and totalitarian ideologies, could be understood as the resurgence of ancient Gnosticism.  The purpose of Part I was not to furnish definitive answers to those questions, but rather to explore two critiques of Gnostic doctrine from Late Antiquity. These were the essay Against the Gnostics by the Third-Century Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and the discussion in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Books III, IV, and V) of the Manichaean religion, a late variant of Gnosticism. The exposition concluded that the two accounts of Gnosticism although written more than a century apart (Augustine being subsequent to Plotinus) were convergent and largely similar. The prose did not state vigorously that Plotinus and Augustine, in their critiques, anticipate Voegelin, but readers might justly have inferred that as a tacit thesis. Readers might also have registered, as they read the various critical descriptions of Gnostic belief, many parallelisms between ancient cultic doctrine and modern political ideology – particularly the prohibition of questions.  I refrained from drawing such parallelisms myself partly so as not to burden the exposition with them but also because I wrote in full confidence that informed readers would find their own way to those same parallelisms. 

The present essay addresses Gnosticism by examining it in its own terms.  It is certainly provocative that two ancient writers, separated by a tumultuous century-and-a-half should have arrived at essentially the same assessment of Gnosticism.  Nevertheless, this similitude in the judgment might be because both authors are prejudiced in the same way; thus their agreement could erroneous or bigoted.  After all, as the father of modern Gnosticism-scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), averred, the Gnostics were formidable thinkers, masters of confabulation, and connoisseurs of a wide variety of religions, including but by no means confined to Judaism and Christianity.  Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy. 

What follows concerns itself with details of four Gnostic documents: The Tri-Partite Tractate, usually attributed to Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus; The Origin of the World, of anonymous authorship; The Gospel of Truth, by Valentinus; and Zostrianos, also of anonymous authorship – all of which come from the so-called Nag Hammadi documents and all of which belong to the mid-Second Century or slightly later.  Zostrianos likely influenced Mani (216-276) when he was writing his own scripture in the Third Century. 

I. It would not be surprising if the manifestos of an anticosmic religious movement exhibited an obsession with cosmology, as the Gnostic texts emphatically do, for such is the nature of mimetic antipathy.  This fact is significant in that an observable trend in mythic narrative – beginning say with Enuma Elish, the Babylonian “Creation,” or Hesiod’s Theogony and ending say with Genesis – is to elide or entirely eliminate the many prehuman phases of creation, while concentrating on anthropogenesis and its sequels almost exclusively.  One might hazard the thesis, even, that when myth relinquishes its engagement with the details of physical creation and begins to focus on anthropology – hence also on ethics and other things specifically human – it ceases to be myth and rises to the level of real religion in the higher, reflective sense.  Otherwise it remains myth.  Thus Enuma Elish devotes nine tenths of its eight hundred or so lines to recounting how determinate nature acquired its form through the archetypal combat of Marduk, a male principle of the second divine generation, with Tiamat, a female principle of the first divine generation; and how, on slaying Tiamat, Marduk used her dismembered body to establish the structure of familiar existence.  Man, called Adapa or Adama, does not appear in the narrative until the seventh tablet, but then only as a wretched temple-servant of Marduk and the younger gods. 

In Genesis, by contrast, the business of physical creation demands only a few lines.  The author obviously considers the details of physical creation relatively unimportant; the basic gestures are all that he finds necessary to record.  Ninety-nine per cent of Genesis has to do with Adam and Eve and their offspring, with us, the crooked timber of humanity.  Gnostic discourse, in reacting to the cosmological minimalism of Jewish and Christian creation-narrative, represents therefore a distinct throwback, not a speculative or philosophical advance, as modern apologists of Late-Antique religious reaction maintain.  Consider The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World, two texts from the Nag Hammadi cache that are related to Valentinian Gnosticism. 

A novice reader coming to either The Tri-Partite Tractate or The Origin of the World for the first time would likely react to the text with bewilderment and confusion, states of mind that would be justified.  The Tri-Partite Tractate largely employs allegorical abstractions; The Origin of the World invokes a plethora of proper names, Greek and Semitic, arranged by genealogy and by spiritual rank, many of them exotic sounding, as though plundered from a variety of separate sources with the deliberate aim of baffling eclecticism. 

The Tri-Partite Tractate devotes its first part to the figure called the Father.  The Tractate also defines the Father’s relation to two other figures, the Son and the Church.  Because these terms have a provenance in the New Testament, the novice reader might suspect that he is addressing a Patristic text.  That certain other references seem to be to Platonic cosmology, as articulated in the dialogue Timaeus, would not necessarily squelch the suspicion since Platonism and Christianity began their reconciliation early in writers like Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and Justin Martyr (103-165).  Careful interpretation of the Tractate’s language will reveal, however, that these allusions are consistently antithetic and hostile.  In this wise, the Tractate insists on the solipsism, the total self-sufficiency, of the Father, whom the author eulogizes in the vocabulary of what is known as negative theology.  The Father is “unbegotten, nameless, unnamable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible.”  Elsewhere: “He alone is the good”; and “he alone is the one who knows himself, as he is.” 

The Father emanated his realm, the Pleroma, which is identical with him, and he brought forth the Son and the Aeons, to be with him in the Pleroma.  But, as the Tractate says, “nor is there a primordial form which he uses… nor is there any material set out for him from which he creates what he creates.” 

The Tractate’s Father explicitly never deigns to create the material world, which the text deprecates, when once it is accidentally formed, as a corrupt mockery of the Pleroma removed from it by many degrees.  This disinclination to create a physical world differentiates the Tractate’s Father from the God of Genesis and the Father, also so-called, of the Gospel.  Nor should one confuse the Tractate’s Son with the Son of Man of the Gospel.  The former never leaves the presence of the Father, but exists to distinguish the uniquely “unbegotten” from the singularly “begotten,” which, in resembling the Father, remains unlike anything else that is “begotten,” and so furnishes the benchmark for increasing stages of distance from absolute primordial self-sufficiency.  The references to “a primordial form” and “material… from which he creates” intentionally distinguish the Tractate’s Father from Plato’s Demiurge, or World-Creator, as described in Timaeus.  There is a World-Creator in the Tractate: He is the last-emanated Aeon, archly named “Logos,” who in envy of the Father has the “arrogant thought” to emanate his own Pleroma.  The material realm stems from the wicked Aeon’s rebellion, which triggers a catastrophe in the Pleroma. 

The Origin of the World offers a wild roster of dramatis personae: Adonaios, Astaphaios, Chaos, Eloai, Pistis (Faith), Sabaoth, Sophia (Wisdom), Yaldabaoth or Yao, and finally, after exhausting the alphabet, Zoë, with others in between too numerous to list.  Here again a Gnostic author represents the creation of the world as a catastrophe and evaluates matter, in which human beings body forth, as toxic.  The author begins by contradicting an accepted truth: “Since everyone – the gods of the world and men – says that nothing has existed prior to Chaos, I shall demonstrate that they all erred.”  The demonstration is a parody of logic: If Chaos were darkness, as everyone says, then it would be a shadow; a shadow is the shadow of something; therefore Chaos is ontologically after something else – something really real of which Chaos is merely a privation.  Finally, anything subsequent to Chaos, this world for example, would be the privation of a privation, hence doubly counterfeit.  What normative religion represents under the label of Creation, The Origin of the World represents, by rhetorical reversal, as de-creation: “A likeness called ‘Sophia’ flowed out of Pistis.  She wished that a work should come into being which is like the light which first existed.” 

As does the “arrogant thought” of the last-emanated Aeon in The Tri-Partite Tractate, Sophia’s attempt to match the glory of “the light which first existed” disrupts the unity of the pre-creational realm.  The result, which The Origin of the World likens to “afterbirth” and “miscarriage,” is this world.  A being, Yaldabaoth, emerges in this toxic mess under the delusion that it represents the sum and total of existence and that he is its creator and master.  The Origin of the World then parodies Genesis, ascribing the separation of the waters and the fashioning of the land, and finally the bringing forth of humanity, to the deluded Yaldabaoth, who is the Hebrew Yaweh by a variant of the Biblical name.  Yaldabaoth has a son, Sabaoth; the son comes to have acquaintance of Pistis, the male being who is prior to Sophia.  Illuminated by knowledge from Pistis, Sabaoth, who is a Gnostic type of Jesus, rebels against his father: “He hated his father, the darkness, and his mother, the abyss.”  Hatred is the proper attitude to existence. 

Both The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World agree that humanity belongs to the degree of being (or perhaps of non-being) at the farthest (most despicable) remove from the self-sufficient Father; but they both also agree that some few human beings differ from the rest by being attuned to the Pleroma and therefore by having a sense of their alienation in the world of matter.  The Tractate refers to the elect as “the spiritual race” or pneumatics and to all others as “the material race” or hylics.  As long as the conditions of matter obtain, “the material race” persecutes and oppresses “the spiritual race.”  When the botched creation is redeemed through its destruction, the hylics will perish and the pneumatics will be assimilated to their real home, the Pleroma.  

II. In addition to cultivating relentlessly the mythic elaboration with which Genesis and Timaeus largely dispense, both The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World exhibit the anticosmic and antinomian traits discerned in Gnostic discourse by Plotinus and Augustine, whose critiques the previous article to this one summarized.  The anticosmic disposition is stronger in The Origin than in the Tractate, especially in the obstetric metaphors of “afterbirth” and “miscarriage.”  A misogynist attitude belongs to the general Gnostic outlook in that, insofar as matter is evil and insofar as procreation sustains or prolongs the realm of matter, then women, through giving birth, are more blatantly complicit in the prevailing misery than men.  In the words of The Origin: “The man followed the earth, the woman followed the man, and marriage followed the woman, and reproduction followed marriage, and death followed reproduction.” Readers should also pay attention to the attitude towards the Old Testament revealed in The Origin.  The Biblical God who creates from benevolence becomes in the Gnostic pseudo-Genesis a tyrant-oppressor against whom the enlightened son must rebel.1 

In the Tractate and in The Origin, keeping track of cosmological devolution requires a scorecard.  The Father emanates Aeons and “Totalities,” as does the Son; and the Aeons emanate additional subdivisions (“Totalities”) within the Pleroma.  When the Pleroma suffers its disruption, many layers of toxic matter spill downward from the offense, each containing its own separate “powers,” “archons,” and demonic entities.  What attracted people to tales of this sort?  A combined sense of alienation from the world and superiority to it is an inescapable answer; but reverting to a single word, one might simply say, resentment.  One might remark that elaborate anticosmic narrative and the know-it-all posture play a role in modern popular culture, as in Star Wars, on the one hand, or in the old “Firesign Theater” comedy album Everything You Know Is Wrong on the other.  The relation between Sabaoth and Yaldabaoth in The Origin oddly anticipates the relation of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars.2 

The entirety of Leftwing antinomian rhetoric meanwhile resumes itself in the phrase, “everything you know is wrong,” a variant of the bumper-sticker slogan, “Question Authority,” related also to the supercilious verbal ploy, “they just don’t get it.”  The author of The Origin begins by iterating words to the effect that, “everything you know is wrong,” and that the benighted many “just don’t get it.” 

Some Gnostic prose expresses itself with fewer multiplications of agency and rank and with more lexical subtlety than the Tractate and The Origin.  On its surface, and in comparison with those two documents, Valentinus’ Gospel of Truth seems altogether sophisticated and benevolent.  Like The Tri-Partite Tractate, The Gospel of Truth ransacks items of New Testament theology and borrows, to put it so, from the Alexandrian or Christian-Platonic vocabulary.  As in the Tractate, we read of the Father, of Jesus, of the Logos, and of the wickedness of those who, acting in error, persecute the bearers of the veracious doctrine and prevent the restoration of the Pleroma.3  The document has the ring of a normative evangelical appeal about it: “The gospel of truth is a joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him, through the power of the Word that came forth from the Pleroma – the one who is in the thought and the mind of the Father, that is, the one who is addressed as the Savior.” 

The Tri-Partite Tractate posits God as a totally self-sufficient and self-regarding entity: So too does The Gospel of Truth although concessions to New Testament theology make that element of this particular Gnostic text difficult to see at first.  There is in The Gospel of Truth a “Word,” elsewhere a “Shepherd,” and elsewhere a “Christ,” that “became a body,” or who anyway “came by means of fleshly appearance.”  The qualification resides in the terminal noun, “appearance,” which contradicts the New Testament’s insistence on incarnation.4  The Gospel of Truth’s “Son” takes on no flesh; its Father intends no physical creation, but rather “the spaces” that arise from “his emanations” have a purely immaterial and luminous character, “light with no shadow.”  Such untainted luminosity is ontologically incompatible with matter or “darkness” or “ignorance” or “error.”  The Gospel of Truth represents the material world as a “fall” from the Pleroma.  Neither does The Gospel of Truth’s Father act to redeem physical nature, once it falls, unless one identifies redemption with abolition.  Valentinus writes, “The deficiency of matter has not arisen through the limitlessness of the Father.” 

According to The Gospel of Truth, this world arose despite the self-sufficiency of the Father through a catastrophe, the details of which remain obscure.  Thus, “Ignorance of the Father brought about anguish and terror” until “anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see.”  The story tells how “error,” exploiting the solidification of “anguish,” “fashioned its own matter foolishly” and “set about making a creature.”  A further detail of the exposition, one that differentiates this version of the catastrophe from the version in the Tractate, is that these events happen somehow in the Father.  Despite the minor difference, the outline remains the same as in the Tractate.  The Gospel of Truth’s “error” is the equivalent of the rebellious Aeon in the Tractate or of Sophia in The Origin of the World.  The “creature” of the narrative although grammatically singular seems to designate humanity, or perhaps the Adam from which humanity stems.  Thus humanity as a whole is not the creature of the Father, as in Genesis, but the creature of the wicked agent who works in ignorance or envy of the Father. 

According to The Gospel of Truth, however, all human beings are not equal.  Some – the text implies a minority, who would therefore have the status of election – possess the capability of receiving the “Truth,” that is, the knowledge concerning the privative character of material existence, its nullity, and the justice or non-enormity of its abolition.  “If one has knowledge,” as The Gospel of Truth puts it, “he is from above” and “having knowledge, he does the will of the one who called him.”  By contrast, “he who is ignorant until the end is a creature of oblivion” who will vanish with the material realm when the reception of knowledge by the elect cancels the “error” of the “fall.”  As the text says: “The deficiency came into being because the Father was not known,” so that “when the Father is known, from that moment on the deficiency will no longer exist.” 

III. The Gospel of Truth proclaims that when the light of knowledge abolishes the darkness of matter, or “form,” perfection will have been restored throughout the Pleroma “in the fusion of Unity.”  At that moment the foreordained recipient of knowledge “will attain himself… he will purify himself into Unity, consuming matter within himself like fire, and darkness by light, death by life.”  The theme of Unity, the antithesis of “form,” looms large in The Gospel of Truth, as it does again in The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World.  Unity is related in these texts to unanimity; unity also stands apart, in all three documents, from such traits, identifiable with material creation, as (leaving off the quotation marks) envy, strife, darkness, disturbance, instability, blood, what you have vomited, worms, sickness (The Gospel of Truth); likenesses, models, phantasms, disobedience, rebellion, ambition, lust, offspring, fighters, warriors, troublemakers, apostates, lovers of power (The Tri-Partite Tractate); envy, wrath, impiety, jealousy, weeping, sighing, mourning, lamenting, bitterness, quarrelsomeness, transgression, and molded bodies (The Origin of the World).  The last of those, the molded bodies, are identical with what The Gospel of Truth, using its vocabulary of abstraction, calls “form,” or what in philosophy goes by the name principium individuationis. 

Unity and unanimity belong exclusively to the undisrupted Pleroma.  The Gospel of Truth says, “The perfection of all is in the Father” and “we must see to it above all that the house will be holy and silent for the Unity.”  The second of the two phrases means that dissent and complaint needlessly prolong the disruption of the Pleroma.  Putative knowledge that fails to correspond with the secret knowledge that the Father sends forth in his “word” or his “living book” amounts only to obstreperous false knowledge.  Accepting the “word” means “to cease laboring in search of” truth.  In these assertions, the Gnostic doctrine of The Gospel of Truth presents itself as a closed system.  Normative religiosity and normative philosophy by contrast define authentic living as a continuous quest.  The Jesus of the Gospel rarely makes a direct assertion.  He speaks by preference in parables, which require the listener to reach his own conclusion according to his best lights.  Socrates taught, not by prohibiting questions or claiming the matter settled, but rather by open-ended conversation.  A noteworthy feature in normative philosophers like Plutarch and Seneca (the former an adherent of the Platonic school and the latter of the Stoic school) is the frequent concession to the rival school.  Plutarch or Seneca will write that we prefer the Platonic answer but let us not forget what the Stoics say, or vice versa. 

Normative religiosity and normative philosophy also both begin by accepting as an axiom that existence exists.  This axiom provides the condition for the entire remainder of knowledge, the pursuit of which no searcher can exhaust.  Gnosticism begins by denying that existence exists; Gnosticism indeed asserts the non-existence of a merely apparent existence.  Gnosticism declares that what the ordinary person takes for his consciousness of reality is but false consciousness.  Gnosticism would silence the false consciousness, which offends its of claiming priority by antithesis. 

      These remarks take us closer to another shared connotation of unity and unanimity in their Gnostic usages and to a rendezvous with the point made earlier in the argument that Gnostic discourse represents, not an advance to some new level of speculative sophistication, but rather a throwback to religious primitivism.  Consider the imagery of unanimity in The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World.  In the Tractate we read that the Aeons, who proceed from the Father, acknowledged and honored the Father “in a song of glorification,” in which devotion “they were drawn into a mingling and a combination and a unity with one another.”  They constituted “the pleromatic congregation.”  The crime of the rebellious Aeon (“Logos”) consisted in his trespassing “the boundary set to speech in the Pleroma” when he attempted “to grasp the incomprehensibility.”  The “boundary on speech” functions then as a boundary on inquiry.  Crossing the boundary generates “sickness,” afflicts the trespasser with a “female nature,” and separates him from the Pleroma in the afterbirth-world of his sub-creation.  The last and lowest degree of this sub-creation, the hylic or material race, is doomed to destruction when truth abolishes error. 

      In The Origin, Yaldabaoth behaves in an even more blatantly criminal manner than does the rebellious Aeon in the Tractate.  The Origin deploys terms more specific and more recognizably mythic and symbolic than those in the Tractate.  Readers learn of Yaldabaoth’s arrogance, tyranny, lechery, and destructiveness directly and in proper detail.  Yaldabaoth’s fate in the apocalyptic conclusion of The Origin issues from the judgment of a female Aeon who assumes the role to “drive out the gods of Chaos whom she had created together with the First Father.”  The avenger “will cast them down in the depths” where “they will be wiped out by their own injustice.”  The label “First Father” refers here, not to the primal Father, but to the false creator, to Yaldabaoth himself.  At that moment of “justice” the Pleroma will be healed and the knowers of secret knowledge will ascend into light. 

      In both the Tractate and The Origin we have paradigmatic scapegoat-myths, of the type identified by René Girard as quintessentially mythic and as representative of the ritual violence of sacrificially organized societies.  Enuma Elish offers as good an example any.  Tiamat, the Primal Mother, behaves monstrously, tyrannizing her children and preventing any semblance of order.  Marduk consults the elder gods, Tiamat’s first born, and they tell him that they are powerless against the monster, but that he is the hero who will subdue her.  Marduk fights and kills Tiamat; he uses the dismembered parts of the slain body to create the regions of the world – the land, the sea, and the sky, and all other features.  The other gods hail Marduk as their king.  Order, as Girard would observe, emerges in the myth from the slaying, which the story depicts as productive of peace and proper rank (preferable to chaos) in the form of unanimity minus one, the excluded, polarizing party being the victim.  In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus’ establishment of order requires the violent suppression of the Titans, after which Zeus becomes king in heaven.  Tiamat is a monster; so are the Titans in their behavior.  Oedipus, whose expulsion restores order in Thebes, is “guilty” (as the myth would have it) of stereotypical polluting crimes charged against victims.5 

IV. I draw my quotations of Gnostic theology and cosmology from The Nag Hammadi Library, a compendium edited by James M. Robinson and first published in 1978.  Robinson’s Introduction includes passages that now strike one’s sensibility as dated to the point of embarrassment.  These same passages nevertheless tell us something about the allure of the Gnostic texts, with their cosmological science-fiction-like plots and exotic personae.  Robinson notes that the individual texts of the Nag Hammadi cache although differing from one another markedly in detail nevertheless belonged to the ecclesiastical library of a unified community.  The reader-possessors of the texts must have found in the variety of them a single coherent point of view.  This point of view consisted, as Robinson writes, of “estrangement from the mass of humanity” and “an affinity to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it.”  Robinson adds this: “As such, the focus of [the Nag Hammadi library] has much in common with primitive Christianity, with eastern religions, and with holy men of all times, as well as with the more secular equivalents of today, such as the counter-culture movements coming from the 1960’s.”  Like their Gnostic precursors, participants in the “counter-culture movements” find unity through “sharing an in-group’s knowledge both of the disaster-course of the culture and of an ideal, radical alternative not commonly known.” 

Robinson characterizes Gnosticism as benign, pacifistic, withdrawn, unworldly, and immaculately non-involved in politics, society, or the market.  Yet the “counter-culture movements coming from the 1960’s,” which Robinson likens to the Late Antique sects, were anything but benign, pacifistic, and non-involved; they proved to be extremely aggressive, their constituents inserting themselves into institutions with the fixed plan of imposing their peculiar view of existence on the society as a whole, not excluding the use of coercion to do so.  The benign withdrawal invoked by Robinson describes Les soixante-huitards quite as inaccurately as it does the Second Century “knowers” to whom Robinson advocatively compares them.  A good word for capturing the essence of Gnosis is the Latin noun superbia, with its moral connotation of haughtiness, pride, and spiritual self-inflation.  A fine example of Gnosis as superbia comes in the text called Zostrianos.  This tract purports to record in the first person the elaborate initiation or “baptism” by which one of the pneumatics recognizes his superior status and acquires the secret knowledge appropriate to his “race.”  Zostrianos becomes “a messenger of the perfect male race.”6 

As in The Tri-Partite Tractate, The Origin of the World, and The Gospel of Truth, in Zostrianos we find extreme disapprobation of existence and intense execration of humanity.  During his illumination, while Zostrianos rises through the levels of being above terrestrial non-being, he marks every new altitude with refrain-like phrases such as “I ascended to the Transmigration which really exists” and “I ascended to the Repentance which really exists” and “I stood there having seen a light of the Truth, which really exists from its self-begotten root.”  The Zostrianos-writer equates creation, so-called, with non-existence or delusion – but always with a toxic non-existence or a wicked delusion.  The Zostrianos-author glorifies everything uncreated or “self-begotten,” the highest degree of which is “the Self-Begotten God.”  The trope of a cosmic ascent goes back to Parmenides of Elea  (born 540 0r 515 BC), who made use of it in his poem On Nature; such an ascent also figures prominently in Plato’s dialogues Symposium and Phaedrus.  Zostrianos parodies all of these. 

The emphasis on maleness in Zostrianos should not surprise us: The Origin of the World uses a misogynistic vocabulary of female effluvium to deprecate the material world; a pronounced antipathy to procreation furthermore pervades Gnosticism right through to its Medieval reassertion in the Paulician and Cathar religions.  Paulicianism seems to have a root in Manichaeism, via the Bogomil sect, as does also Catharism.  I remarked in my earlier summary of Augustine’s commentary on the Manichaeans (see Part I of this essay) that the ideal of Manichaean discipline was absolute continence.  The perfection of the “Self-Begotten God” in Zostrianos consists in his non-contamination by any particle of the female – the birth-giving – principle as well as in his absolute self-sufficiency.  Indeed, as a result of the “baptism” in the “self-begotten water,” Zostrianos himself becomes one of “the Self-Begotten Ones,” a realized pneumatic.  A female figure in Zostrianos, “Barbelo,” whose name means “virgin,” is spiritually “male” due to her “knowledge of the Triple Powerful Invisible Great Spirit,” presumably a title of the Father.  It remains an admonition, however, to “flee from the madness and bondage of femininity, and choose for yourself the salvation of masculinity.” 

The theme of unanimity also makes an appearance in Zostrianos.  The realized pneumatic “comes into being with reference to the knowledge of others.”  Before the “baptism,” the aspirant is “speechless because of the pains and limitlessness of matter…  He is made living [a bad thing] and bound always within the cruel, cutting bonds through every evil breath, until he acts again and begins again to come into being through himself.”  The unanimity of the pneumatics reflects the unanimity of the Aeons in their relation to the Father: “All of them exist in one since they dwell together and are perfected individually in fellowship and have been filled with the Aeon he really exists.” 

Zostrianos, like The Tri-Partite Tractate and The Origin of the World, deploys a large lexicon of exotic and intimidating names, each of which designates a particular agent within the complicated salvation-scheme of the epiphany.  Among these are: Doxomedon, Sethus, Antiphantes, Seldao, Elenos, Armedon, Phoē, Zoē, Zēoē, Zēooo, Zēsen, Ēooooēaēē, Harmozel, Orneos, Euthrounios, Oraiel, Arros, Daveithe, Laraneus, Epiphanios, Eideos, Eleleth, and Kodere – to quote the litany from a single paragraph.7  The exoticism is no doubt deliberate, constituting an arbitrary difficulty in mastery of which the initiate becomes identifiable as a member of the in-group.  The in-group’s palaver has the effect of baffling everyone in the out-group and so too of forming an impassable membrane between the in-group and the out-group. 

Given the provocative weirdness and outright inhumanism of the Gnostic texts, the criticism that such writers as Plotinus and Augustine direct at Gnosticism actually seems tame.  Most disturbing in Gnostic doctrine, as the sample-texts cited above attest, is the prominence of unanimity as the supremely desirable state, with silence validated as preferable to volubility in so-called error.  (“The debate is over,” as some people like to say.)  I have suggested that this unanimity represents the resurgence in Gnosticism of sacrificial thinking since its practical function is to sustain in-group solidarity by identifying the slightest hint of dissent so as to make it eligible for expulsion.  In a subsequent third essay, I will examine the status of Gnosticism in the work of Hans Jonas, Kurt Rudolph, Giovanni Filoramo, and one or two others.  I hope, in a fourth essay, to revisit the discussion of Gnosticism in the work of Eric Voegelin. 

[Additional Brussels-Journal articles exploring the relation of Gnosticism and modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau are these: Further Remarks on Voegelin and Gnosticism, Liberalism and the Search for the Ground, Literature and Ideology: Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance and Dick’s VALIS, and Literature and Ideology: Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen.]


[1] Gnosticism is anti-Platonic and anti-Christian but it is also and even more so anti-Semitic.  Manichaeism begins, for example, in the repudiation by its prophet of his Jewish-Baptist (Elchasaite) origins; and in Mani’s writings, antipathy to the Old Testament operates like a structuring principle.

[2] One could say the same about the relation of the James Dean to the Jim Backus character in Rebel without a Cause (1957).

[3] It is always useful to recall, in respect of Gnosticism, that the restoration of the Pleroma is equivalent to the annihilation of the material world.

[4] A Christian-Gnostic hybrid, the Marcionite Doctrine (after Marcion of Sinope [85-160]), in addition to rejecting the Old Testament, argued that Christ endured Crucifixion in appearance only.

[5] The Gospel tells a scapegoat-story too with the difference, as Girard points out, that its narrative denies the stereotypical charges, declares the victim innocent, and generally unmasks the subterfuges required by sacrifice in order that it should be successful.  The Gospel, concludes Girard, is therefore not a myth but an anti-myth; the Gospel is also in this way the foundation for all subsequent non-sacred – and non-sacrificial – thinking in the Western continuum.  Sir James G. Frazer anticipated Girard in many ways in The Golden Bough although Frazer saw no significant difference between the Gospel narrative and mythic narrative, with its basis in sacrifice.

[6] The presumptive word in the presumptive Greek original of Zostrianos would be genos (Latinized as genus); the language of the Nag Hammadi cache is Coptic (Egyptian), but Greek is the hypothetical original language, a conclusion based on parallel passages in Gnostic texts quoted by the heresiologists and their pagan contemporaries, such as Plotinus and Porphyry.

[7] It is only my wise-guy imagination that adds, “Manny, Moe, Jack, and Cthulhu.”  In reading through the Nag Hammadi documents I have never once come across so much as a scintilla of humor.

Part 2 Comments

Again we appreciate Professor Bertonneau's insights as he writes: In Genesis, by contrast, the business of physical creation demands only a few lines. The author obviously considers the details of physical creation relatively unimportant...

This curious fact should not be passed over inasmuch as the brief Genesis explanation has engendered much thought as to specific meaning: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form...

The first notion speaks to creation in time v. creation from eternity. The second is quite compatible with (and seems to preface) Aristotelian hylomorphism. Indeed, St. Thomas wrote as much within his Writings on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy.

Many expect that Christianity appeared ready made, and whole from the beginning. Why anyone would not want to understand the origins of their religion is a different question, but if the Christian understands as much history as possible, then perhaps he may understand better why it means to him what it does.

In previous comments (Part 1) we spoke of the tension between the early Marcionite church and the Catholic, and the work of Detering. One example: in Rom 5:7 we are presented with a completely unintelligible passage when viewed from the traditional Catholic perspective. However, when one views this passage under the influence of Marcionite dualism it is completely understandable. John Darby's direct translation identifies the usual English translation's superfluous insertions using brackets: For scarcely for [the] just [man] will one die, for perhaps for [the] good [man] some one might also dare to die;

The usual Catholic interpretation requires certain unsatisfying linguistic and logical twists to explain the insertions. That is, why is a "just" man not worthy, but we may die for a "good" man? Viewing the original passage sans translator insertions within a Marcionite perspective, it is entirely sensible: One will not die for the Jewish Demiurge [the creator God who is "just" inasmuch as he was the source of the earthly Law], however the Christian will certainly die for the true God, or the Good God from whom Christ emanated.

A Christian-Gnostic hybrid, the Marcionite Doctrine (after Marcion of Sinope [85-160]), in addition to rejecting the Old Testament, argued that Christ endured Crucifixion in appearance only.

With this in mind, I'd like to conclude by appending a brief passage from Detering's The Conception of Dutch Radical Criticism:

"This comes to light in, e.g., the remarkable expression in Rom 8:3, where the author says of Christ that (in his life on earth) he was en homoiömati sarkos hamartias ("in the likeness of sinful flesh"). Correspondingly it says also in the Hymn to Christ in Philippians (2:7) that he appeared en homoiömati anthröpön ("in the likeness of men"). Why does the author not simply say that God had sent him "into the flesh"? The concept homoiöma ("likeness") is clearly used by the author most consciously, so as to make clear the contrast of his view with that of the Catholic and Jewish-Christian view."

The not so 'Immaculate Conception'

"Many expect that Christianity appeared ready made, and whole from the beginning."

'Many' = The Faithful

"Why anyone would not want to understand the origins of their religion is a different question, but if the Christian understands as much history as possible, then perhaps he may understand better why it means to him what it does."

Indeed, why would 'anyone' not want to understand their religion? Maybe because it's not 'their' religion or they would like to start another one?

With this in mind, I would like to cite Detering's The Conception of Dutch Radical Criticism