Book Review: A History Of Gnosticism

A History Of Gnosticism, by Giovanni Filoramo

This book does not have an accurate title, but I do not know if that if the book had an accurate title if it would be any more enjoyable to read. At least some parts of this book, mostly towards the end, try to create the basis of a history of Gnosticism, but most of the book seems like the author’s attempt to spread the good news of Gnosticism through a very sympathetic reading of the corpus of materials that one finds from various religious traditions of the late classical world that are associated with that religious movement. This book was written by an Italian religious scholar and is translated from the German, and it is perhaps inevitable given the material included that this book is a particularly academic portrayal of Gnosticism from a point of view which has a high degree of sympathy with Gnostic thinkers as well as their Neoplatonist critics (like Plotinus) but without a high degree of understanding or appreciation for the biblical perspective. Given my own perspective, it is perhaps inevitable that I would find a lot of fault with this book, and in all honesty this book is not written for someone like me, but rather is written for someone who has more sympathy with the perspective of the Gnostic and certainly a lot more interest in what aristocratic Academics of the contemporary era as well as the past think about mass movements that leave them in the dust.

This book is a bit less than 200 pages of text, along with a lengthy set of endnotes, but despite its modest size, the book is a pretty tough slog in some respects. The book begins with Abbreviations and then with an introduction that looks at Gnosis and modern culture as well as the rediscovery of Gnosticism from the writings of Nag Hammadi. After this the book proper begins with a chapter on the fragments of a lost faith in Gnosticism that we get from the writings of anti-Gnostic writers of the early Catholic/Orthodox tradition as well as the writings of those within that tradition (1). This is followed by a chapter about the second century AD as an age of religious revelation in the world of late antiquity (2). The author then looks at the Gnostic imagination (3), as well as examining the world of the Pleroma (fullness) and its structure and supposed order (4). After this the author writes about the supposed arrogance of the Demiurge and the resulting creation of the world (5), as well as the way that Gnostics examined the problem of making mankind in the image and likeness of God (6), a problem that, it should be noted, does not adhere closely to biblical truth. This is followed by chapters that examine the Gnostic savior in both Sethian and Valentinian sources (7) as well as the nature of Gnostic eschatology (8). It is at this point, some 140 or so pages into a book that is only 190 pages, that the author actually begins writing about the history and not the theology of Gnosticism. First, the author explores the role of Simon Magus and his disciples as a way into the problem of the relationship between Gnosis and Gnosticism (9), then looks at the connection between various beliefs on ecstatic religion and various Gnostic teachers as well as the period of resistance and surrender to the dominant faith that followed the second-century beginning of the movement in later centuries (10), and then finally a discussion of ascetic and libertarian Gnosticism (11) before the book ends with notes, a select bibliography and suggestions for further reading and an index.

In reading a book like this, there is a great gulf that separates the author from this reader, a gulf that prevents me from wholeheartedly enjoying a book like this. If I am far from a sympathetic reader of this book, there are at least a few aspects of this book that are worth praise. For one, the author strives to understand Gnostics on their own terms, and is quick to recognize that the anti-heresy writers of the philosophical and Christian traditions did often have a good idea of what they were talking about when they criticized certain failings within particular Gnostic beliefs. The author recognizes that hidden within the hostility of many writers towards heretics was some sort of simultaneous attraction to it and susceptibility to the influence of heresy, which is something that one must always be careful of. Also, the author is also wise to point out that certain elements of the ascetic tradition that became important within Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity springs from roots that are not far from Gnosticism itself. Ultimately, though, this book is written by a friend of Gnosticism, someone who considers there to be truths within the batty and contradictory and imaginary cosmology of Gnosticism, and that is several bridges further than the facts and reality of the situation would warrant.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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