THE study of Gnosticism has so far been almost entirely confined to specialists, whose works cannot be understanded of the people; the ordinary reader is deterred by the wealth of detail, by the difficulty of the technical terms, by the obscurity of theological phraseology, and by the feeling that he is expected to know many things of which he has never even heard. It is to be hoped that ere long some competent English scholar, endowed with the genius of lucid generalization, may be induced to write a popular sketch of the subject, in order that thinking men and women who have not enjoyed the advantages of a technical training in Church history and dogmatics, may understand its importance and absorbing interest.
Meantime our present essay may, perhaps, to some extent serve as a "guide to the perplexed," yet not conceived on the plan or carried out with the ability of a Maimonides, but rather the mere jotting down of a few notes and indications which may spare the general reader the years of labour the writer has spent in searching through many books.
First, then, as to books; what are the best works on Gnosticism? The best books without exception Literature. are by German scholars. Here, then, we are confronted with our first difficulty, for the general reader as a rule is a man of one language only. For the ordinary English reader, therefore, such works are closed books, and he must have recourse to
translations, if such exist. Unfortunately only two of such works are procurable in English dress.
The second volume of the translation (Bohn, new ed., 1890) of Neander's Church History (1825, etc.), deals with the Gnostics, but the great German theologian's work is now out of date.
The best general review of Gnosticism by the light of the most recent researches, is to be found in Harnack's admirable History of Dogma, in the first volume, translated in 1894.
For a more detailed account, Smith and Wace's Dictionary of Christian Biography (1877-1887) is absolutely indispensable. The scheme of this useful work contains a general article, with lengthy articles on every Gnostic teacher, and shorter articles on a number of the technical terms of the Gnosis. Lipsius, Salmon, and Hort are responsible for the work, and their names are a sufficient guarantee of thoroughness.
The last two works are all that are necessary for a preliminary grasp of the subject, and are the outcome of profound scholarship and admirable critical acumen. It is a pleasure to subscribe one's tribute of praise to such work, although the point of view assumed by these distinguished scholars is not sufficiently liberal for one who is deeply convinced that the inspiration of every honest effort to formulate the inner truth of things is really from above.
Of other English works we may mention King's Gnostics and their Remains (2nd ed., 1887), a work intended for the general reader. King strongly
insists on a distinct Indian influence in Gnosticism, and deals with a number of interesting points; but his work lacks the thoroughness of the specialist. He is, however, far removed from "orthodoxy," and has an exceeding great sympathy for the Gnostics. The weakest point of King's work is the side he has brought into chief prominence; the so-called "remains" of the Gnostics, amulets, talismans, etc., in which King as a numismatologist took special interest, are now stated by the best authorities to have had most probably no connection with our philosophers. Nevertheless King's book is well worth reading.
Mansel's posthumous work, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries (1875), is not only unsympathetic, but for the most part does grave injustice to the Gnostics, by insisting on treating their leading ideas as a metaphysic to be judged by the standard of modern German philosophical methods, the Dean having himself once held a chair of philosophy.
Norton, in his Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1847), devotes his second volume to the Gnostics, but the value of his work is small.
Burton's Inquiry into the Heresies of the Apostolic Age (1829) might have been written by an early Church Father. The Bampton lecturer's effort and Norton's are now both out of date; moreover their books and that of Mansel are only procurable in the second-hand market.
So much for works in English dealing directly with Gnosticism.
The student will find in Harnack brief but discriminating bibliographies after each chapter, in which all the best works are given, especially those of German scholars; in Smith and Wace's Dictionary each article is also followed by a fair bibliography. A short general bibliography, and also a list of nearly all the latest work done on the only direct documents of Gnosticism which we possess, is to be found in the Introduction to my translation of the Gnostic treatise Pistis Sophia (1896); and a classified bibliography of all the most important works is appended to this essay. The student will be surprised to see how unfavourably the paucity of information in English compares with the mass of encyclopædic work in German, and how France also in this department of Church history and theological research runs England very close. But the consideration of these works does not fall into the plan of this short essay.
Indirect Sources.So much, then, for the general literature of the subject in English; we have now to consider briefly the indirect and direct documents of Gnosticism. By "indirect" documents I mean the polemical writings of the Fathers of what subsequently established itself as the orthodox Catholic Church. These indirect documents were practically the only sources of information until 1853, when Schwartze's translation of the Pistis Sophia was published. By "direct" documents I mean the few Gnostic treatises which have reached our hands through the medium of Coptic translation.
Our indirect sources of information, therefore,
come through the hands of the most violent opponents of the Gnosis; and we have only to remember the intense bitterness of religious controversy at all times, and especially in the early centuries of the Church, to make us profoundly sceptical of the reliability of such sources of information. Moreover, the earlier and more contemporaneous, and therefore comparatively more reliable, sources are to be found mostly in the writings of the Fathers of the Western Church, who were less capable of understanding the philosophical and mystical problems which agitated the Eastern communities. The Roman and occidental mind could never really grasp Greek and oriental thought, and the Western Fathers were always the main champions of "orthodoxy."
We should further remember that we have extant no contemporary "refutation" of the first century (if any ever existed), or of the first three quarters of the second. The great "store-house of Gnosticism" is the Refutation of Irenæus, who wrote at Lyons in Gaul, far away from the real scene of action, in about the penultimate decade of the second century. All subsequent refutators base themselves more or less on the treatise of Irenæus, and frequently copy the work of the Gallic bishop. If, then, Irenæus can be shown to be unreliable, the whole edifice of refutation is endangered by the insecurity of its foundation. This important point will be considered later on.
Prior to Irenæus a certain Agrippa Castor, who flourished late in the reign of Hadrian, about 135 A.D.,
is said by Eusebius to have been the first to write against heresies. His work is unfortunately lost.
Justin Martyr, the apologist, also composed a work against heresies; this Syntagma or Compendium is also unfortunately lost. Judging from Justin's account of the Gospel-story in his extant works, it would appear that the "Memoirs of the Apostles" to which he repeatedly refers, were not identical with our four canonical Gospels, though it may well be that these Gospels were assuming their present shape at this period. It may therefore be supposed that his work upon heresies threw too strong a light on pre-canonical controversy to make its continued use desirable. This may also be the reason of the disappearance of the work of Agrippa Castor. Justin flourished about 140-160 A.D.
Clement of Alexandria, whose greatest literary activity was from about 190-203 A.D., lived in the greatest centre of Gnostic activity, and was personally acquainted with some of the great doctors of the Gnosis. His works are for the most part free from those wholesale accusations of immorality with which the general run of Church Fathers in after years loved to bespatter the character of the Gnostics of the first two centuries. All the critics are now agreed that these accusations were unfounded calumnies as far as the great schools and their teachers were concerned, seeing that the majority were rigid ascetics. But this point will come out more clearly later on.
Clement is supposed to have dealt with the higher problems of Gnosticism in his lost work, The Outlines,
in which he endeavoured to construct a complete system of Christian teaching, the first three books of which bore a strong resemblance to the three stages of the Platonists: (i.) Purification, (ii.) Initiation, (iii.) Direct Vision. This work is also unfortunately lost. It was the continuation of his famous Miscellanies, in which the Christian philosopher laboured to show that he was a true Gnostic himself.
Tertullian of Carthage (fl. 200-220 A.D.), whose intolerance, "fiery zeal," and violently abusive language are notorious, wrote against heresies, mostly copying Irenæus. For the Marcionites, however, he is an independent authority. Part of the treatise against heresies ascribed to Tertullian is written by some unknown refutator, and so we have a Pseudo-Tertullian to take into consideration.
Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus at the mouth of the Tiber, was the disciple of Irenæus. He wrote a Compendium against all heresies, based almost entirely on Irenæus, which is lost; but a much larger work of the same Father was in 1842 discovered at Mount Athos. This purported to be a Refutation of All Heresies, and adds considerably to our information from indirect sources; for the work is not a mere copy of Irenæus, but adds a large mass of new matter, with quotations from some Gnostic MSS. which had fallen into Hippolytus' hands. The composition of this work may be dated somewhere about 222 A.D.
About this time also (225-250) Origen, the great Alexandrian Father, wrote a refutation against a
certain Celsus, who is supposed to have been the first opponent of Christianity among the philosophers, and who lived some seventy-five years before Origen's time. In this there are passages referring to some of the Gnostics. If then we include Origen's work against The True Word of Celsus, we have mentioned all the Fathers who are of any real value for the indirect sources of Gnosticism in the first two centuries
Philaster, bishop of Brescia in Italy, Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, and Jerome, fall about the last quarter of the fourth century, and are therefore (unless, of course, they quote from earlier writers) too late for accuracy with regard to the things of the first two centuries. Philaster, moreover, is generally put out of court owing to his overweening credulity; and the reliability of Epiphanius is often open to grave suspicion, owing to his great faculty of inventing or retailing scandals and all kinds of foulness.
Eusebius is fifty years earlier, but there is little to be gleaned from him on the subject, and his reputation for accuracy has been called into question by many independent historical critics.
Theodoret's Compendium, based on his predecessors and dating about the middle of the fifth century, is far too late to add to our knowledge of the first two centuries.
The study of these indirect documents has exercised the ingenuity of the critics and resulted in a marvellously clever feat of scholarship. Lipsius has demonstrated that Epiphanius, Philaster, and
[paragraph continues] Pseudo-Tertullian all draw from a common source, which was the lost Syntagma or Compendium of Hippolytus, consisting mainly of notes of the lectures of Irenæus; that is to say, in all probability, of the polemical tractates which the bishop read to his community, and on which he based his larger work. Thus reconstructing the lost document, he compares it with Irenæus, and infers for both a common authority, probably the lost Syntagma of Justin.
We thus see that our main source is Irenæus. The Refutation of Irenæus is the "store-house of Gnosticism"--according to the Fathers--for the first two centuries. Irenæus lived far away in the wilds of Gaul; is his evidence reliable? Setting aside the general presumption that no ecclesiastical writer at such a time could, in the nature of things, have been fair to the views of his opponents, which he perforce regarded as the direct product of the prince of all iniquity, we shall shortly see that fate has at length--only a few years ago--placed the final proof of this presumption in our hands.
But meantime let us turn our attention to our Direct Sources. direct sources of information. We have now no less than three Codices containing Coptic translations of original Greek Gnostic works.
(i.) The Askew Codex, vellum, British Museum, London: containing the Pistis Sophia treatise and extracts from The Books of the Saviour.
(ii.) The Bruce Codex (consisting of two distinct MSS.), papyrus, Bodleian Library, Oxford: containing a series of lengthy fragments under the general
title The Book of the Great Logos according to the Mystery; another treatise of great sublimity but without a title; and a fragment or fragments of yet another treatise.
(iii.) The Akhmīm Codex, papyrus, Egyptian Museum, Berlin: containing The Gospel of Mary (or Apocryphon of John), The Wisdom of Jesus Christ, and The Acts of Peter.
The Akhmīm Codex was only discovered in 1896. Prior to 1853, when the Askew Codex was translated into Latin, nothing of a practical nature was known of its contents, while the contents of the Bruce Codex were not known till 1891-1892, when translations appeared in French and German. We have to reflect on the indifference which allowed these important documents to remain, in the one case (Cod. Ask.) for eighty years without translation, and in the other (Cod. Bruc.) one hundred and twenty years! The first attempt at translation in English appeared only in 1896 in my version of Pistis Sophia.
It will thus be seen that the study of Gnosticism from direct sources is quite recent, and that all but the most recent research is out of date. This new view is all the more forced upon us by the latest discovery which in the Akhmīm MS. places in our hands the means of testing the accuracy of Irenæus, the sheet-anchor of hæresiologists. The Gospel of Mary is one of the original sources that Irenæus used. We are now enabled in one case to control the Church Father point by point--and find that he has so condensed and paraphrased his original that the consistent system of the school of Gnosticism which
he is endeavouring to refute, appears as an incomprehensible jumble.
This recent activity among specialists in Gnostic research, at a time when a widespread interest in a revival of theosophic studies has prepared the way for a reconsideration of Gnosticism from, a totally different standpoint to that of pure criticism or refutation, is a curious coincidence.
From the above considerations it is evident that so far are the Gnostics and their ideas from being buried in that oblivion which their opponents have so fervently desired and so busily striven to ensure, that now at the opening of the twentieth century, at a time when Biblical criticism is working with the reincarnated energy and independence of a Marcion, the memory of these universalizers of Christianity is coming once more to the front and occupying the attention of earnest students of religion.
In addition to these indirect and direct sources there is also another source that may yield us some valuable information, when submitted to the searching of an enlightened criticism. The legends and traditions preserved in the Gnostic Acts deserve closer attention than they have hitherto received, as we shall hope to show in the sequel by quotations from several of them.