Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com

Religion Christianity


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Gnostic Religion

The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the Valentinians by Einar Thomassen (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies: Brill Academic Publishers) `The Spiritual Seed is in my opinion the most important book on Valentinian Gnostic Christianity published since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices years ago.' – Birger A. Pearson (Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara)

This book is a comprehensive study of `Valentinianism', the most important Gnostic Christian movement in Antiquity. It is the first attempt to make full use of the Valentinian documents from Nag Hammadi as well as the reports of the Church Fathers.

The book discusses the difference between the Eastern and the Western branches of Valentinianism, and argues that individual sources must always be understood in the context of the historical development of Valentinian doctrines. It also analyses the ideas about the incarnation, protological theories, and initiation practice, as well as the dynamic relationship between these building-blocks of Valentinian doctrine. A final chapter studies anew the doctrine of Valentinus himself and outlines the history of the movement. 

Excerpt: This book is an attempt to give a coherent account of "Valentinianism" by making full use of all the sources now available for understand­ing this peculiar form of ancient Christianity. Such an account is in fact long overdue, considering that the Valentinian texts from Nag Hammadi have now been available for three decades, and no system­atic attempt has yet been made to integrate them into an overall interpretation of the history and doctrines of Valentinianism. Much valuable work has indeed been done on the individual Nag Hammadi tractates during this time, and important Valentinian figures

Valentinus himself, Marcus "the Magician," Heracleon have recently attracted new interest and been the subjects of detailed monographs. It is also necessary, however, to try to paint the larger picture. Indeed, such a wider context is needed not least in order that the individ­ual Valentinian documents themselves may be properly understood, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that become fully meaningful only when they are placed in relation to the depicted scene as a whole.

As a matter of fact, the feeling of laying a puzzle has presented itself many times during the writing of this book. Needless to say, this is a puzzle for which many of the pieces are irrecoverably lost, and which therefore can never be fully solved. One of the largest missing pieces is of course that of Valentinus himself, for whom the scantiness of our information is strangely disproportionate to his evi­dent historical importance. But we also lack nearly all the concrete information about persons, and about the dates and provenance of the surviving texts, that would allow us to write a genuine history of Valentinianism.

Nevertheless, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts has pro­vided pieces that allow the puzzle to become somewhat more coher­ent than was possible when there were only the heresiological reports to work with. In particular The Tripartite Tractate, that seriously under­studied text, is able to serve as a key piece that creates a bridge between the heresiological reports on the Valentinian systems and the non-systematic Valentinian tractates in the Nag Hammadi library. It also, together with the materials associated with the eastern Valentinian Theodotus, allows us to outline the differences between the eastern form of Valentinianism, with its more primitive Christology, soteriology, and protology, and the more elaborate theories charac­teristic of the western systems. On this basis, moreover, it becomes possible to construct a relative chronology of the various attested forms of Valentinian theology.

Part I surveys a series of Valentinian sources, chiefly from`the point of view of their positions regarding the incarnation of the Saviour. A solution is here offered to the question of what was meant by the Saviour's body, and it is shown that significantly different positions on this issue are`found in the texts. One group of sources affirm the passion of the Saviour, as well as his incarnation in a material body, and attribute decisive soteriological importance to these facts. They also claim that the Saviour brought with him a spiritual body and conceive of salvation as being effected through a mechanism of mutual participation and exchange. A different group of texts, on the other hand, deny both the passion of the Saviour and his having had a material body, and give him a psychic com­ponent (sometimes called "the psychic Christ") in addition to his spiritual body. These texts make the psychic humans the central tar­get of salvation, and tend to see the incarnation more as a revela­tion of symbolic truths than as a salvific act effective in itself. The existence of these divergent interpretations of the incarnation in the texts confirms the basic correctness of the heresiologists' information about the two "schools" of Valentinianism. Hence, it becomes pos­sible to identify a given source as belonging to either eastern or west­ern Valentinianism, and to perceive the development that leads from the eastern form of soteriology to its western transformation.

Part II is a systematic investigation into the relationships of what I consider to be three basic dimensions of Valentinian theology: the historical appearance of the Saviour, protological speculation about the origin of plurality, and ritually enacted redemption. Since these dimensions are all governed by the even more fundamental opposi­tion between spirit and matter, a homology or parallelism exists between them. Thus, the incarnation and the earthly acts of the Saviour (his descent, birth, baptism, and crucifixion) are, in a certain way, the same as the projection of the Pleroma into plurality and potential materiality, and its subsequent restoration within the Limit. Also, the baptismal ritual of redemption mirrors the generation and stabilisation of the Pleroma and is at the same time a re-enactment of the Saviour's own baptism in the Jordan. Part II explores the logical complications that arise from this identification of historical events, protological processes, and ritual acts, when these three dimensions are at the same time distinguished as separate events occurring in a linear narrative.

In Parts III and IV, Valentinian protology and the initiation rituals are subjects of study on their own terms, in the form of broad sur­veys of the sources. (The various theories regarding the incarnation of the Saviour are discussed in Part I.) Although the 30 aeons system familiar from the heresiological accounts dominates our documenta­tion of Valentinian protology, it is by no means the only one, as The Tripartite Tractate shows. In Part III it is argued that the 30 aeons system can in fact only be understood as a secondary modification of a protology similar to that of The Tripartite Tractate, where the aeons are neither named nor numbered and the generation process takes place as an exteriorisation and a manifestation rather than as an arithmetical derivation. This version of the Pleroma appears, moreover, to agree with Tertullian's testimony about Valentinus' own ideas about the aeons. The distinction between the two types of protology thus tends to corroborate the conclusions reached in Part I regarding the inter­nal relationships of the various Valentinian theologies. Finally, Part III also traces the sources of Valentinian protology in Neopythagorean­ism and Jewish apocalyptic. Progress has been made, I think, par­ticularly in our understanding of the Neopythagorean background of Valentinian metaphysics, though many questions in this area still remain unanswered.

Part IV assembles the evidence for Valentinian initiatory rituals. With regard to the acts performed basically water baptism and anointing Valentinian initiation is, on the whole, decidedly "orthodox" in comparison to rituals practiced by other "Gnostics," for instance the Sethian baptism of the "five seals." On the other hand, the words used seem to have been more original, as was the per­ceived purpose of the initiation: reunification with the Pleroma. Valentinian ritual practices undoubtedly have roots in a very early phase of Christian worship, and deserve for that reason to be stud­ied by historians of the liturgy much more than has until now been the case, though here as well the unanswered questions are many.

In the last part of the book Valentinus himself finally enters into focus. As enigmatic a figure as he is, due to the very scant and frag­mentary information that has been transmitted, I nevertheless think that we cannot rest content with an interpretation of him that almost entirely separates him from the movement of which he was, after all, the founder, as was the case in the recent, extensive study by Christoph Markschies. It was, therefore, necessary also to take a fresh look at the fragments, and it will be seen that by interpreting these texts in the light of the full range of later Valentinian documents, and, in some cases, other "gnostic" sources as well     which form, after all the most natural hermeneutical context for their interpretation            I have reached other conclusions than did Markschies.
Valentinus was certainly not a "Valentinian" in the same sense as Ptolemy, or the author of The Tripartite Tractate, but there are surely enough themes in the fragments that resonate with later Valentinianism to make us perceive continuity between the nebulous founder and his better-known disciples.

To close the book I have added a brief sketch of the history of Valentinianism, recording the essential evidence about leading figures, events, and possible developments. It is certainly no replacement for a full-scale history of the movement; at most it serves as a reminder that that history still needs to be written. It may be reasonably doubted whether it will ever be possible to write such a history, though I believe that new information can still be forthcoming, not only by renewed study, in their Valentinian context, of such figures as Heracleon and Marcus, who have not been exhaustively dealt with in this book, but especially if one were to make a systematic search for possible anti-Valentinian polemics in the texts of many later, "orthodox" writers. 

Poetics of the Gnostic Universe: Narrative And Cosmology in the Apocryphon of John by Zlatko Plese (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies: Brill Academic Publishers) This volume is both an essay in Gnostic poetics and a study in the history of early Christian appropriation of ancient philosophy. The object of study is the cosmological model of the Apocryphon of John, a first-hand and fully narrated version of the Gnostic myth. The author examines his target text against a complex background of religious and philosophical systems, literary theories, and rhe­torical techniques of the period, and argues that the world model of the Apocryphon of John is inseparable from the epistemological, the­ological, and aesthetic debates within contemporary Platonism. Poetics of the Gnostic Universe also discusses the composition and narrative logic of the Apocryphon of John, explores its revisionist atti­tude towards various literary models (Plato's Timaeus, Wisdom literature, Genesis), and analyzes its peculiar discursive strategy of conjoining seemingly disconnected symbolic 'codes' while describing the derivation of a multi-layered universe from a single transcendent source.

This book has been long in the making. Plese had originally conceived it as a search for philosophical doctrines which helped to inform the cosmological model of the Apocryphon of John, one of the most coher­ent and comprehensive narrations of the classic 'Gnostic' myth. The principal aim of the study was to assess the impact of Plato's Timaeus on the Apocryphon's thematics, composition, and style. From the outset Plese was conscious of the danger of disregarding other constitutive elements of the Apocryphon: the Mosaic account of creation in Genesis, Jewish Wisdom tradition, Hellenistic philosophy, magic, science, and, last but not least, the Johannine Gospel. Yet it took a while before Plese realized that, in order properly to assess the status and function of philosophy in the cosmological section of the Apocryphon, he needed to take into account the other voices and explain the interplay of all these discursive domains.  

This monograph still argues that the Timaeus is the key text for understanding the 'poetics' of the 'Gnostic' universe. Plato's account of cosmogony provided the author of the Apocryphon of John with the appropriate interpretive frame for his revisionist explanation of the Mosaic story of creation; with the narrative template for his orderly exposition of cosmogony; and with the best representational schema to account for his basic presuppositions, such as the distinction between essence and appearance, original and copy, idea and image, image and apparition. At the same time, however, the universe that emerges from the Apocryphon's narrative is more complex and more dynamic than Plato's. Platonic forms are no longer endowed with objective existence, but are relegated to the divine subjectivity; the structure of the universe is not only more elaborate and hierar­chical, but is also pervaded with an immanent principle of eternal coherence; and finally, Plato's celebrated distinction between forms, copies, and deceptive apparitions seems obliterated in favor of the Deleuzian' duality of the original model and its distant, illusory simulacrum. In short, Plato's Timaeus`appears here not only as a text to read and scrutinize, but also as a phenomenon to rewrite. Such a subversive transformation is effected by the intercession of homolo­gous 'voices' from all of the above listed discursive domains. The relationship established between these domains is not that of mechan­ical juxtaposition but of partial substitution. Modern scholars have characterized this hermeneutical technique as `intertextuality', yet Plese continues to exploit its ancient name reasoning by analogy, syllogismos or ratiocinatio legalis, one of the four legal issues (staseis) in Hellenistic rhetorical classification. 

The book is thus not intended as a work of `Quellenforschung,' but rather as an essay in 'Gnostic' poetics. In spite of some significant divergences in wording and content between the four manuscript witnesses, Plese has looked at the Apocryphon of John as a unitary literary creation, in which the anonymous author makes creative use of various philosophical systems, religious traditions and rhetorical tech­niques of argumentation in order to articulate his original world-model. This model—perhaps best represented as a multiple-tiered fountain flowing with water that spurts from the single source at the top is indicative of the author's imaginative mind and 'mannerist' mentality. Both in style and in content, there is a tendency to excess. The universe of the Apocryphon of John is an anamorphic construction of high complexity, with tiers multiplied almost praeter necessitatem aeons, luminaries, archangels, angels, authorities, archons, demons, humans. Its language is equally complex and intrinsically obscure, reflecting the author's inclination to accumulate seemingly unrelated symbolic codes and disconnected ideas. The reliance on such 'mannerist' procedures discloses the strong conviction that truth must remain hidden from vulgar cobblers and, more importantly, that language can never adequately fill the inexpressible void of the spiritual plane.

The author and place of composition of the Apocryphon of John are unknown. The work is a piece of pseudepigraphy, falsely attributed to John the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus' original disciples. The ter­minus ante quem of the original Greek composition is sometime around A.D. 400, the time when the Nag Hammadi codices were copied. The terminus post quem cannot be established with certainty. A simi­lar account of cosmogony can be found in the doctrine of "a mul­titude of Gnostics named after Barbelo," as summarized by Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 1.29) in about A.D. 180. Irenaeus's compressed version differs, both in phraseology and in theological details, from the cos­mological sections in all of Apocyphon's versions. Whether the here­siologist had at his disposal a different Greek version of the Apocryphon

However one defines the relationship between the different ver­sions of the Apocryphon of John, it is clear that they all result from a textual activity that the ancient writers referred to as a revision involving modification in details. The editorial labor in which the author, his pupil, or some later redactor introduce minor changes into a text, while keeping intact its `subject', 'theme', or 'content') and "most of its wording." It is the search for this unchangeable aspect of the Apocryphon of John, its min­imal redation and its poetics that constitutes the heart of this study. In the ensuing sections, the emphasis is on analyzing the stable ele­ments that remain unaffected in the process of textual transmission. These elements include: projection of different perspectives on tiers of narrative material; a fairytale structure of the plot; a considerable complexity of the world model based on two seemingly incom­patible schemas of representations, viz., formism and organicism; hypotactic arrangement of compatible cultural traditions; consistent application of analogy (ratiocinatio legalis) as the guiding hermeneutical principle; and the metaphorical fusion of seemingly unrelated domains philosophical, religious, and biological—resulting in the characteristic loftiness of the Apocryphon of John and the enigmatic obscurity of its jargon. Viewed from this theoretical perspective, the aforementioned expansions in the longer version bear witness to the integrative aspect of the Apocryphon of John—its tendency to assimi­late compatible elements from various cultural traditions and pre­sent them as coordinate cases of the same universal message of salvation.

The Apocryphon of John is commonly regarded as an example of `Sethian' Gnosticism, characterized by a distinct type of cosmogra­phy, a focus on Seth, the son of Adam, as a divine revealer and redeemer, an apocalyptic view of history, specific imagery, and a distinct cast of characters. Thirteen other texts from the Nag Hammadi corpus (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, Gospel of the Egyptians, Apocalypse of Adam, Melchizedek, Thought of Norea, Thunder—Perfect Mind, Trimorphic Protennoia, Zostrianus, Allogenes, Three Steles of Seth, Marsanes) and the untitled text in the Bruce Codex are included under this heading. In this monograph Plese avoided this label, primarily because, in matters of doctrine, the Apocryphon of John some­times stands closer to the texts not included in the list (Exegesis on the Soul, On the Origin of the World, various Valentinian cosmologies) than to those identified as distinctively `Sethian' (Allogenes, Zostrianos). 

According to the first hypothesis, the Apocryphon of John is nothing but rewritten (Jewish) scripture. According to the second, the Apocryphon of John is the Platonizing version of the Fourth Gospel, made com­patible with the Septuagint to reach the Hellenized Jewish audience. If the former, then the Apocryphon is an example of Hellenistic Judaism with philosophical sensibilities and mystical tendencies, later deemed acceptable, and for that reason modified, by the Christians. If the latter, then the Savior's revelatory account, for all of its syncretistic flavor and universal aspirations, represents a Christianized version of Platonist `Orientalism', best exemplified in the work of the philoso­pher Numenius, a Greek-speaking Syrian from Apamea.

Probably because of his 'Oriental' origin, Numenius had a vivid interest in non-Greek cultures an interest that went beyond nostalgic antiquarianism. For Numenius, appropriation of 'barbarian philosophy' was part of the hermeneutical program of elucidating obscurities in the corpus of Plato, his venerable teacher. When a cross-referential, synchronic reading of the Plato's works fails to uncover the intent (dianoia) behind Plato's words (nomos), a true Platonist, faithful to his hermeneutical task, must go beyond Plato's own words and conjoin them with the teachings of Pythagoras, and then appeal to peoples of good reputation, bringing in comparison their rites, beliefs, and institutions in so far as they chime with Plato, those, that is, such as the Brachmanes and Jews and Magoi and Egyptians have laid down. (Numenius, frag. 1) The final step in Numenius's program bringing in comparison with Plato the rites and beliefs of foreign traditions—reflects the same exegetical technique as in the Apocryphon of John. This is yet another instance of the rhetorical reasoning by analogy (syllogismos) discussed on the previous pages  the reasoning in which an obscure text is elucidated by application of a seemingly unrelated, yet analogous, statement. To illustrate Numenius's creative use of 'Oriental' ana­logues in the elucidation of Plato, Plese quotes the passage where, as in the Apocryphon of John, the Mosaic verse from Genesis 1:2 is used as one of the coordinated premises. The only difference is that, this time, "the spirit of god's moving upon the waters" is not the initial premise (propositio) but the supporting reason (ratio). The passage comes from Porphyry's On the Cave of the Nymphs, where it is said that

"Some Pythagorean philosophers believed that souls are attracted to the water because of the divine spirit dwelling in it, as Numenius says, adding that this is the reason why the prophet, Moses had stated that "the spirit of god moved upon the waters."

Numenius next adduces two other`analogues, one from Egyptian religion and the other from Heraclitus. The phrase "the water in which the divine spirit is dwelling" proves, however, that the primary impetus for this extraordinary explanation of the reason for the soul's descent came from reading the Septuagint. Numenius's reasoning by analogy unfolds somewhat as follows: Plato has already established that the individual souls fall from their perfect state down into creation. Why they descend is a matter of controversy because Plato was deliberately obscure regarding this issue. In order to eluci­date this ambiguity, one must bring forward those foreign doctrines of the soul that "chime" with Plato. Moses, among others, states that "the spirit of God moved upon the waters" (Gen 1:2b). The conclusion inferred from the premises is that souls fall into the cycle of generation because the divine spirit dwelling in the watersthat is to say, in the flowing and ebbing tide of matter"  attracts them to do so.

What makes Numenius so attractive a point of comparison with the Apocryphon of John is the simple fact that both search for analogous structures and intertextual relations in an almost identical group of culturally heterogeneous texts (Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Christian). Both of them, too, consider analogy an important method of discovery. The point at which they diverge is their interpretation of these textual and cultural intersections. Numenius's juxtaposition of Plato, Pythagoras, and 'barbarian philosophy' leads him to an impor­tant discovery that they are all, in the end, coordinate cases of the same universal wisdom        a set of contiguous positions that cannot be
viewed in terms of progress and degradation, or ranked according to their relative superiority to one another. God, who is the pure active Intellect, disseminates his intellectual power among all men, irrespective of their race and origin (frag. 14 Des Places). This intellectual kinship between God and humankind, as well as between men of different origins and languages, precludes any attempt at assigning a higher value to one intellectual tradition (e.g., Judaism) over another (e.g., Platonism). This is, of course, not the case with the Apocryphon of John, where Moses and the Platonizing Christ are two dissonant voices, only occasionally made compatible through the intercession of the individual passages from the Septuagint passages where Dame Wisdom (Sophia), speaking in person (Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) or through the prophets (e.g., Isaiah), hints at the existence of the parallel reality that neither Moses nor his blind mas­ter Ialdabaoth can see. In this way, Sophia's oracles provide the link between Moses' material imagery and the Savior's "true account". No longer purely 'material and not yet fully 'spir­itual', Sophia's prophecies make use of a language in which equivocal symbols are combined with philosophical concepts just as, in the world conceived by the Apocryphon of John, Sophia dwells in the liminal zone (the realm of the world-soul, Regio Medietatis) as the mediator between the 'spiritual' realm and its distant 'material' image.  

 Levels of Reality Sources   Voices
Pleroma Gospel of John, Philosophy Christus Platonizans
Regio Medietatis Wisdom Literature Sophia
Ialdabaoth's Realm Genesis    Moses

The following chapters are essentially an elaboration on the points raised in the previous paragraphs. The next is analyzed the Savior's account of the spiritual realm or the Pleroma ("What Exists"). Next, I will examine in greater detail the Savior's polemic with Moses and, more important, the kind of reasoning (ratiocinatio) by which he sets out to prove that his new model of the universe (non scriptum) may be deduced from certain parts of Jewish scriptures`(ex scripto non scriptum deducere). A modern and more fashionable name for this complex textual strategy is—intertextuality.

Echoes from the Gnosis: 100th Anniversary Edition of the Spiritual Classics by G.R.S. Mead edited by John Algeo, introduction Robert Gilbert, Commentary by Stephan Hoeller (Quest Books) Long before the mid-twentieth-century discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, G. R. S. Mead had translated ancient Gnostic texts. Here in one book is the entire collection of his eleven volumes first published between 1906 and 1908, including "The Hymn of Jesus" and "The Wedding Song of Wisdom."

Each Gnostic text has added historical background, source information, literary comment, and spiritual interpretation. Mead, who devoted his life to esoteric studies and was a pioneer in the Gnostic revival, uniquely understood the complex symbolism of his subject. The reader may be surprised to learn that some of these texts were originally not books, but instead initiatory mystery rituals.

Editor John Algeo preserves Mead's own inspired language. To enhance the texts for today's readers, the volume includes new explanatory essays by contemporary Gnostic Stephan Hoeller and a biography by Robert Gilbert, a world authority on Mead.

Newcomers, as well as those familiar with Gnosticism, will treasure this definitive edition for its accessible, deep insights into the visionary religion that is once more attracting spiritual seekers. 

George Robert Stow Mead was born at Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, on March 22, 1863. He came from a military family—his father was a colonel in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps—but he chose to follow an academic career instead. From King's School, Rochester, he went up to St. John's College, Cambridge, to study mathematics but changed to classics, in which he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1884. In that same year, he joined the Theosophical Society and determined to devote his life to the cause of Theosophy. As a first step, he took up postgraduate study of Oriental philosophy at Oxford, but mundane necessity then led to his teaching classics at various minor "public schools" (which in England are exclusive and expensive private schools).

During his vacations, Mead worked as a volunteer at the London headquarters of the Theosophical Society, at 17 Lansdowne Road in Bayswater, and on one of his visits, in May 1887, he first met H. P. Blavatsky. He was at once captivated, and two years later HPB repaid his devotion by giving him her absolute trust and appointing him her private secretary. Mead recalled after her death, "She handed over to me the charge of all her keys, of her MSS., her writing desk and the nests of drawers in which she kept her most private papers; not only this, but she . . . absolutely refused to be bothered with her letters, and made me take over her voluminous correspondence, and that too without opening it first herself" ("Concerning H.P.B." 135).

In addition to handling HPB's correspondence, Mead also edited most of her later published works, and acted, without acknowledg­ment, as assistant editor of her magazine Lucifer, for which he had written anonymously since the first volume. His first credited con­tribution, "The Vivisectors: A Story of Black Magic, Founded on Fact," appeared in December 1889. It is not a memorable tale—fiction was not Mead's métier—but it was followed by a stream of scholarly papers, even though Mead had, in July 1890, also taken on the role of General Secretary of the newly formed European Section of the Society.

This new duty involved considerable administrative work, much traveling and lecturing, and, after HPB's death in May 1891, the edi­torship of the Vahan, "A Vehicle for the Interchange of Theosophical Opinions and News" and effectively the official organ of the Theosophical Society in Britain and Europe. The Vahan had first appeared in December 1890; originally a biweekly, the first fifteen issues were edited by W. R. Old (Sepharial). Under Mead's editorship it became a monthly.

Even without Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society continued to flourish. In the course of 1892, Mead edited her posthumous Theosophical Glossary. He also published his own first book, Simon Magus, and edited the papers of the European Section's "Oriental Department." During the following year, in addition to his existing and exhausting workload, he and Annie Besant edited the revised and much improved edition of The Secret Doctrine, but then storm clouds began to gather.

H. P. Blavatsky had left no heir apparent as the public face of the Theosophical Society; but its rising star, especially in Europe and India, was unquestionably Annie Besant. In America, however, the preeminent Theosophist was William Quan Judge, who, after HPB's death, claimed to have received letters from the Mahatmas with private revelations to himself. Eventually, in July 1894, Judge was summoned to appear before a judicial committee of his fellow Theosophists, including G. R. S. Mead. The outcome was unsatis­factory, but Judge escaped public condemnation — only to have the charges of fraud against him made public in a series of satirical articles in the Westminster Gazette. As a consequence, the pro- and anti Judge factions became more entrenched; a bitter pamphlet war followed, and Mead attempted, without success, to keep the peace. The result, in April 1895, was the first major split in the Theosophi­cal Society, effectively dividing most American Theosophists from those in the rest of the world.

Throughout this affair, Mead had held private conversations with Judge, but these led him to mistrust Judge. "If Mr. Judge's party," he wrote, "should by any chance get the upper hand in the Society, then we shall be within measurable distance of a spiritual papacy and an official tyranny" (A Letter to the European Section 4). Mead gave his total support to Annie Besant and for more than ten years remained utterly loyal to her, although he refused to be associated with the posthumous third volume of The Secret Doctrine (1897).

The 1890s were a decade in which Mead's career as a writer blos­somed. By 1896 he had published four more books: The World-Mystery (1895), Plotinus (1895), Orpheus (1896), and Pistis Sophia (1896), of which Pistis Sophia was the most significant but Orpheus the most rewarding, for it brought him the respect of W. B. Yeats, who had previously maintained that Mead's intellect resembled that "of a good-sized whelk." Mead now decided to concentrate on literary work and lecturing, and so in April 1898 he resigned from the post of General Secretary of the European Section. He remained as editor of the Vahan for another year, but in September 1897 he had already effectively become sole editor of Lucifer, immediately renaming it The Theosophical Review. Mead's name first appeared as coeditor with Annie Besant in September 1894 (volume 15), and her name remained on the title page until 1906, but she left the journal entirely in Mead's hands.

By virtue of Mead's contributions and editorship, the magazine had gained a modicum of academic respect. As early as 1893 Max Muller, the best-known Orientalist of his day, had thanked Mead for his long and detailed review of Theosophy, or Psychological Religion, Muller's Gifford Lectures for 1892. Mead later remembered that Muller was puzzled, however, that Mead should waste his talents on Theosophy when, as he said, "the whole field of Oriental studies lay before me, in which he [Muller] was kind enough to think I could do useful work" ("Concerning H.P.B." 139). This comment pinpoints Mead's most lasting and important contribution to the Theosophical Society—scholarship. Throughout his time in the soci­ety, Mead was the best scholar in its ranks.

By any objective canon of criticism, G. R. S. Mead's twin literary monuments, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (1900) and Thrice-Greatest Hermes (1906), are his two major works. They exemplify all that is best in his dedicated, scholarly, but eminently readable studies of the spiritual roots of Christian Gnosticism and, more generally, of per­sonal religion in the Greco-Roman world. But while his work encom­passed much more than this—Mead was equally at home with Sanskrit texts, patristic literature, Buddhist thought, and the prob­lems of contemporary philosophy and psychical research—he devot­ed his intellectual energy to the complex interplay of Hellenism, Judaism, and Christianity. And for Mead, the subtle and ever-shifting patterns of that intricate dance of praxis and idea were summed up in one word: Gnosis.

Gnosis, however, is a deceptively simple word. In its essence it means simply "knowledge"; but what kind of knowledge? It does not refer to the accumulation of facts by means of observation, experi­ment, and deduction, for it is not concerned at all with the empirical world. For the Greek philosophers, Gnosis was a "higher knowledge," a "deeper wisdom," acquired not by sense experience but by inner illumination. The followers of the Mystery religions and of the Christian sects labeled Gnostic saw it in a subtly different light; for them Gnosis was a secret knowledge of the way in which the true believer can attain salvation. Such knowledge comprised both a reve­lation, giving an immediate vision of the truth, and an interpretation of the vision, leading to full understanding, which was given by a teacher who had received it himself from an earlier teacher as part of an ancient and secret tradition.

For Mead, the basic nature of Gnosis was spiritual science or wisdom, the lack of which was spiritual ignorance, "the root of all bondage with which man is bound" ("On the Nature of the Quest," in Some Mystical Adventures 297). However, it is in the nature of human beings to seek escape from such ignorance. Always they are seeking the way to the eternal, and it is this quest that distinguishes mankind from the rest of creation. Mead wrote (288):

That Quest is final and complete; when found it is the begin­ning and end of all things for man. It pertains to the depths and not to the surfaces of things, to life and not to death, to the eternal and not to the temporal. No matter what route of research is tra­versed, no matter how many steps along the innumerous paths of the ever becoming, the final result is in no way affected; for it is something "more," something "greater," something "other" than the product or total of any series.

This one Quest is the search or call of the soul for That alone which can completely satisfy the whole man, and make him self-initiative and self-creative.

And that Quest drove Mead in his ceaseless probing of ancient wis­dom. It is what led him from purely objective historical study to inner experience—but without ever compromising his fine critical faculty—and it informed his decision to give to the world those trans­lations of ancient texts that became his Echoes from the Gnosis.

By 1906, when the series began publication with The Gnosis of the Mind, Mead had published eight works on various aspects of the early Christian world and on "The Theosophy of the Greeks." These, together with his remarkable translation of the Hermetic books, had established his reputation as one of the foremost English scholars in his chosen field—at least in Theosophical eyes. Over a period of four­teen years, his books had introduced Theosophists and others with an interest in esoteric pursuits to the obscure and difficult religious literature of the Greco-Roman world. What he had not yet done, however, was to provide a basic introduction to that literature, an omission that the Echoes from the Gnosis was designed to remedy.

That this literary motive was neither the sole nor most important purpose of Echoes from the Gnosis was recognized from the begin­ning. A. R. Orage, reviewing The Gnosis of the Mind (466), noted that "we have been waiting for such a series from Mr. Mead for a long time" and commented:

For every student, however, who will be led from them to the first­hand examination of the more difficult literature, there will be, it is to be hoped, a hundred who are inspired to the first-hand exam­ination of the nature of their own minds as well. And it is this intention quite as much as the first that Mr. Mead has kept very clearly in view.

But Mead's good intention came at the cost of his good name in academic circles. Contemporary authorities in the fields of Christian origins and classical paganism, whether theologians or classicists and whatever their faith or lack of it, tended to look askance at Mead. This was not because they doubted his skill as a translator or his abil­ity to understand the texts, but because they saw him as an occultist and thus flawed as an objective interpreter. A typical expression of their attitude is that of J. P. Arendzen in his article on "Gnosticism" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Condemning the portrayal of Gnosticism as "a mighty movement of the human mind towards the noblest and highest truth," Arendzen regretted that Mead should have renewed such an approach in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, which he described as "an unscholarly and misleading work, which in English-speaking countries may retard the sober and true appreciation of Gnosticism as it was in historical fact."

This attitude towards Mead and his work is still common today. Brian Copenhaver, in the introduction to his translation of the Greek Corpus Hermeticum (lx), acknowledges Mead's "good sense of the Greek and Latin," but he adds a caveat that Mead's translation "must be watched for theosophical motivations."

A similar suspicion of Mead's motives and beliefs is found in Legge's introduction to George Horner's translation of Pistis Sophia. Legge implies that Mead's having been "secretary of the Theosophi­cal Society" when his version was published rendered him incompe­tent as a scholar and that Mead's "attitude towards the original may be guessed by the statement in his preface that the comprehensive treatment of Gnosticism 'requires not only a writer who at least believes in the possibilities of magic, but also a mystic or at least a person who is in sympathy with mysticism" (xii). Such commenta­tors seem to be blind to the value of a translator or editor who can understand and empathize with the faith of those by and for whom these texts were created.

A few of Mead's contemporaries, notably Samuel Angus (54, 242, 302), a prominent New Testament scholar, did recognize the value ofhis work, but they would go only so far in support of his approach. Mead felt that his chosen course of genuine, but sympathetic, objec­tivity would enable him to provide his readers with "echoes of the mystic experiences and initiatory lore of their spiritual ancestry" (general preface to Echoes of the Gnosis, p. xi of this volume), but the one occasion on which he strayed too far in his embracing of the eso­teric mindset damned him forever in academic eyes.

In 1903 Mead published Did Jesus Live 100 B.C. ?—a remarkable and original work in which he questioned the traditional dating of the life of Christ. It is a comprehensive and well-researched study, but for the scholar it has one unfortunate element. The foreword has a sec­tion headed "Occult Research," in which Mead explains how he has acquired and made use of material obtained by clairvoyant means, "by personal friends, whom I have known for many years" (18). He carefully sets out the arguments for and against accepting the valid­ity of such material, concluding that he is "unable a priori to refuse any validity to these so-called occult methods of research" (23). At the same time he remains skeptical of anything that cannot be inde­pendently verified and refuses to accept that a "favored few" can in this way attain knowledge that sets at nought the labors of scholars and historians. For the general reader of that time it was, on the whole, not an unreasonable position to hold, but in an academic world peopled then almost exclusively by Christian theologians and their rationalist opponents, it was a sure guarantee of pariah status.

At the time that consequence did not trouble Mead. He was not an orthodox Christian and, although he inclined towards Western rather than Eastern spirituality, he was content with the syncretism that prevailed in the Theosophical Society, which had been his natu­ral home for`almost twenty years. It was, however, a situation that would soon change, as an end came to Mead's relationship with the "personal friends"—Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater—who had supplied him with the clairvoyantly obtained data.

Mead came to disapprove strongly of C. W. Leadbeater because of charges of sexual impropriety with young boys, which resulted in Leadbeater's resignation from the Theosophical Society in 1906. After Colonel Olcott's death in February 1907, however, Annie Besant was elected president of the society and in January 1909 officially invited Leadbeater to resume his membership. Mead bitterly opposed this move, but Leadbeater was readmitted, and Mead promptly left the Theosophical Society. He did not, however, abandon Theos­ophy, which for him was the true Gnosis. Indeed, Mead never lost sight of his unchanging aims, and his work continued for another thirty years, earning him the respect that his earlier associations had denied him.

Mead founded the Quest Society, and at its inaugural meeting, at Kensington Town Hall on March 11, 1909, he spoke on "The Nature of the Quest." It was in effect an expansion of the official objects of the new Society, which were

  1. to promote investigation and comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science, on the basis of experience;
  2. to encourage the expression of the ideal in beautiful forms.

Initially, some 250 members supported both the public and pri­vate lectures and subscribed to the quarterly journal, The Quest. This was quite unlike the usual form of esoteric periodicals. It offered a forum for sound, sympathetic, and academic debate in what might broadly be termed metaphysical subjects. Its contributors—who ranged from Martin Buber and A. K. Coomaraswamy to Gustav Hoist, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats—were all acknowledged authori­ties in their own fields, whether comparative religion, ancient and eastern faiths, scientific research, mysticism, literary criticism, poet­ry, or music. There was no official dogma, no bar to dissent, and no subtle censorship.

Despite continuing financial problems, The Quest flourished for twenty years and Mead continued with his writing and research. Some of his later books were revisions and expansions of earlier titles, but he also published such original works as The Doctrine of the Subtle Body in Western Tradition (London, 1919), and important con­tributions to Gnostic studies, notably The Gnostic John the Baptizer: Selections from the Mandaean John-Book (London, 1924), which has retained its scholarly value to the present day.

After the financial crash of 1929, The Quest became unsustainable, and Mead finally closed down both quarterly and society in 1930. Bythis time, and ever since the 1924 death of his wife, Laura Cooper Mead, whom he had married in 1899, Mead had become increasing­ly preoccupied with psychical research, especially with the question of survival, but not to the exclusion of his other interests. He was active in the Society for Promoting the Study of Religions, and short­ly before his own death, on September 29, 1933, he had delivered a lecture on the Mandaeans at a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society. Unlike most of his contemporaries in his chosen fields of research, Mead had always sought to unite his scholarly studies with the quest for spiritual truth; and, also unlike them, he had succeeded.

If he needs an epitaph, a statement of Mead's own cannot be bet­tered. His life's goal is set out in his valedictory address to the Theosophical Society, which he had served faithfully for twenty-five years and which he left not in anger but in sorrow:

But though my work for the Society is at an end, I shall never cease to labour with love and devotion and the best of the powers in me, to make accessible those priceless treasures which are to be found in the highest theosophy of all traditions, whether of the past or the present. In this theosophy, under whatever name it may be known, far from losing confidence, I become ever more and more established in reasonable certitude; it is the one thought of my mind, the one love of my soul, and the one activity of my spir­it. ["Farewell" 48].

That Spirit is embodied fully in his Echoes from the Gnosis.

Gnostic Revisions of Genesis Stories And Early Jesus Traditions by Gerard P. Luttikhuizen (Nag Hammadi & Manichaean Studies: Brill Academic) argues that the intellectuals behind early Gnostic revisions of Genesis stories were second-century Christians with an ideological background in Greek-Hellenistic philosophy, who adopted and reinterpreted biblical narrative materials with a view to exposing the inferiority of the creator-God of Genesis and the ignorance of those Christians who continued to worship this God. It also discusses controversies between Gnostic and early orthodox Christians about the person and the mission of Jesus Christ.

The first part examines the possible polemical function, the philosophical thought structure, and the narrative scheme of the Genesis rewritings, and continues with studies of individual episodes of the Gnostic myth, from the creation of Adam up to the story of Noah and the Flood. The second part focuses on Gnostic reinterpretations of the teaching and the passion of Jesus.

The book includes essays about Gnostic theology, ancient and modern readings of Gnostic texts, and an appendix dealing with the ancient baptist community in which Mani was reared.


The present study does not start from the familiarity of Gnostic authors with biblical traditions but from the other side of the same picture, their critical treatment of these traditions. Critical, revisionary and resis­tant interpretation is likely to indicate that there is a gap between the thought pattern of the interpreter and the text as he or she understands it. If we bear this in mind we have no reason to con­nect the critical rewritings of biblical texts with any form of Judaism. It is more plausible that we are dealing with non-Jewish intellectuals with a background in Hellenistic schools of thought" who evaluated biblical and other non-Gnostic traditions in the light of their own religio-philosophical world view. Where the information of the books of Moses was supposed to deviate from their favourite theological and anthropological ideas they apparently did not hesitate to cor­rect or to reject the biblical accounts: "Is is not as Moses said (. . .)".

This hypothesis may give rise to some objections. Why would Gnostic authors with such a background have referred to biblical traditions? Why did they bother to correct Moses and not just ignorehim?' How can we explain that non-Jewish authors had detailed knowledge of biblical traditions?

I will consider the possibility that the critical approach to biblical traditions originated in basically the same historical context as the Gnostic reactions to early orthodox accounts of Jesus's suffering and death: while the latter texts developed from controversies among early Christians about the person and the mission of Jesus Christ, the critical approach to Genesis stories and other biblical texts and concepts may have originated from intra-Christian debates about the proper understanding of the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament." This would mean that the intellectuals behind demiurgical-Gnostic texts discussing biblical traditions were Christians. These Christians used biblical stories and concepts with a view to exposing the infe­riority of the demiurgical God and the ignorance of those fellow Christians who continued to worship this God and to attach value to the texts testifying to his greatness and holiness.

In his The Gnostic Scriptures, Bentley Layton likewise points to the Greek-philosophical undercurrent of what he calls classic Gnostic lit­erature and to the Christian character of the surviving texts.' While the double hypothesis of the present study is in substantial agree­ment with Layton's position, it differs from the position held by Simone Pétrement in her monographic study Le Dieu séparé: les ori­gines du gnosticisme. My main problem with her approach is that she does not sufficiently account for the wide variety of early Christian beliefs in the period before the end of the second century.46 I agree

with Pétrement that the authors and the intended readers of the rel­evant texts were Christians, but I do not see reasons to assume that their beliefs evolved from Pauline or Johannine ideas or from other ideas expressed in texts that were later canonized.' Rather it is part of my hypothesis that the Gnostics authors under discussion were guided by Greek-Hellenistic ways of thinking before and after they came to believe in Jesus (as a messenger of the fully transcendent God of their philosophical tradition)." They came from a different back­ground and drew from different sources than other early Christians.


The syncretistic character of Apjohn and other demiurgical-Gnostic writings cannot be denied. But qualifying them as syncretistic does not relieve us of the task of finding out what motivated the authors in their adoption and adaptation of heterogeneous materials. The greater part of the present book is a search for the basic convictions of the Gnostics behind the texts and for the organizing principle in their mythical argumentation.

Chapters II–VIII will concentrate on Apjohn, more precisely on those parts of the book in which the Gnostic Christ refers to bibli­cal traditions." I hope that this study will shed some more light on the ideological background of the intellectuals who composed and read Apjohn and comparable demiurgical-Gnostic texts, on the his­torical context and function of their critical Bible interpretations, andon their relations to emerging mainstream Christianity. The interest will not only be focused on the Gnostics behind the texts as authors but also and first and foremost as readers: how did they understand biblical texts or, for that matter, second-hand interpretations of biblical texts? Chapter II deals with the historical context and the polemical function of the critical Genesis interpretations in Apjohn, chap. III with the philosophical undercurrent of Apjohn's mythical arguments, chap. IV with the narrative scheme of the Gnostic myth as it is presented in this document. Chapters V–VIII examine inter­pretations and rewritings of individual Genesis stories. Chapter IX discusses Gnostic theology, starting from the question of whether Gnostic authors also referred to Old Testament texts and concepts when they spoke about their fully transcendent true God.

Chapters X–XII deal with Gnostic interpretations of early Christian texts and traditions about the teaching of Jesus, and about his suffering and crucifixion. Chapter XIII discusses the use of Johannine lan­guage in some Gnostic texts. An epilogue (XIV) is devoted to a dis­cussion of the ways in which Gnostic texts were understood     and are understood—by various categories of readers. I add an appendix about the baptists of Mani's youth.

WT Main | About WT | Review Links | Contact | Review Sources | Search

Copyright © 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Headline 3

insert content here