Thursday, June 08, 2017

Précis: Post-Bauer Scholarship on Gnosticism(s): The Current State of Our “Knowledge” (Carl B. Smith) (p. 60-88)

Post-Bauer Scholarship on Gnosticism(s): The Current State of Our “Knowledge” (Carl B. Smith) (p. 60-88)


A Précis of 

Chapter 3 from 
Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis.  edited by Paul A. Hartog, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2015.


Gnosticism as a pre-Christian religious movement holds a “crucial position in Bauer’s reconstruction. Essentially it was the heresy which preceded orthodoxy.”(p. 60-61) Bauer’s scholarship falls within the historical philosophy of the University of Göttingen’s Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. This school “postulated that Gnosticism was essentially the product of Eastern oriental influence which had deeply impacted the Hellenistic world and the later writings of the Old Testament and Judaism, as well as those of the New Testament and early Christianity.” (p. 77 my emphasis)

Smith reviews what was known about Gnosticism in Bauer’s time (particularly through writings of church fathers), the discoveries of “Gnostic” texts since his time, and the complex issues that have attended Gnostic studies as an academic field.

Smith focuses attention on the Nag Hammadi library discovery, publication, and the significant lack of unifying theme of the diverse works which might justify labeling the group of documents as Gnostic. Smith highlights three more discoveries of gnostic texts:
  1. The Gospel of Mary,
  2. the Secret Gospel of Mark, widely controversial because the text was seen by only one Scholar, Morton Smith of Columbia University. He published a scholarly work and a popular work on the manuscript and then the manuscript was lost. Many regard the gospel as inauthentic and others see it as an “important text in the transmission of Mark’s gospel.”(p. 66)
  3. and the Gospel of Judas.

Smith discusses the issues surrounding the Gospel of Thomas and the scholarly work identifying Sethian Gnosticism. The difficulty is that there is that the documents and the early church fathers do not testify to a unified doctrinal structure. This is in fact a basic problem in the study of Gnosticism.

The term Gnosticism itself was coined in the 17th century by Henry More, a rationalist Platonist theologian involved in promoting a Platonic interpretation of Kabbalah. More used the term to designate a broad group of diverse non-Christian movements from the 2nd century. The term Gnosticism was not used by any of these ancient movements as a self-description of their systems of ideas and practices.

Acknowledging the inaccuracy of the term Gnosticism Smith presents a summary of the research on the social history of Gnostics and Gnosticism focusing on the most clearly discernable movement of Sethianism, then Basilides, and Valentinus. There are serious questions as to whether Valentinus belongs in this category.

Smith turns to discuss the basic questions, terminology, origins and definitions of Gnosticism. “That a variety of religious groups existed in the ancient world who claimed to possess a special knowledge or ‘gnosis’ is also undisputed; however, the term is so commonly used and in so widely diverse manners that it is not a helpful term to delineate any specific movement of antiquity.” (p. 79) The term gnostic is of greater utility, though primarily a pejorative. It may have been used for self-description, but caution is warranted against overgeneralizing.

Today there are four basic categories of views regarding Gnosticism: 1) abandon the term and look for more finely and measurably defined categories such as biblical demiurgy, 2) view Gnosticism as “a religion in its own right” … “a dualistic religion of alienation, protest, and transcendence, which, though multifarious, adapted itself readily to other religious traditions, perhaps in a parasitic manner.”(p. 81) 3) limit claims and research to carefully distinguish that can be more rigorously tested, and 4) “isolate those individuals, groups, and texts in the ancient world which called themselves ‘gnostik’..., identified themselves as possessors of ‘gnosis,’ or were perceived by their contemporaries as making these claims.” (p. 82)


What is known from their adversaries and from writings about individuals or movements that are categorized as Gnostic tends strongly to date from the 2nd century. This undermines the Bauer Thesis which depended on Gnosticism (loosely defined) preceding the development of Christianity.

Text Criticism News

Ancient History and Archaeology