Shorter Reviews -- Gnosticism and the New Testament by Pheme Perkins

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Gnosticism and the New Testament, by Pheme Perkins. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993. 261 pp. $17.00 (paper). ISBN 0-8006-2801-2.

IT HAS BEEN ALMOST FIFTY YEARS since the discovery of the library of fifty-two Coptic gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt; it is, therefore, a good time to take stock. This volume by Perkins, an accomplished student of Gnosticism and of the New Testament, does just that. As the title indicates, Perkins is particularly concerned with the implications of the find for the New Testament, but the scope of her attention extends to the early church. Her approach is not to prepare a synthetic narrative of the origins and development of Gnosticism, but to construct a mosaic of various probes into gnostic literature and practice. The book is organized into three parts, dealing with the origins of Gnosticism, Gnosticism and the New Testament, and gnostic Christianity generally.

Perkins's overall understanding of the origins and development of Gnosticism is one that has become widely accepted, at least in North American scholarship. The influence of such scholars as Helmut Koester, George MacRae, and Birger Pearson is evident. For Perkins Gnosticism is not, as ecclesiastical apologists assumed, simply a Christian heresy, although many of its major attestations are Christian or Christianized. Neither is it an importation from Iranian mythology, as representatives of the history-of-religions school maintained. Gnosticism emerged in the first century on the basis of Jewish traditions. The process through which it developed was not unique to biblical traditions but is represented in various religious phenomena of the Hellenistic world. After its still somewhat obscure inception, Gnosticism flourished in the environment of imperial Rome. Some strands became embedded within "orthodox" Christian circles; some appropriated strains of second- and third-century philosophy; others became involved with ascetic and proto-monastic elements of Christianity.

Scholars have long debated the relevance of Gnosticism to the New Testament. Discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection intensified some debates and put most of them on new ground. Perkins surveys the major points at which contact has been alleged and provides a judicious assessment of the state of the question. For example, Paul's competitors at Corinth or Galatia were not gnostic in any simple sense. Nonetheless, the elements with which some of those competitors worked are closely related to materials in the Nag Hammadi library. Similarly, the interpretation of the message of Jesus in sapiential categories, as represented in some of the sayings of the synoptic Gospels (Q), is not in itself gnostic, but Gnostics could and did use and develop such sapiential materials. The Gospel of Thomas, although lacking many explicit gnostic mythemes, represents a gnosticizing development of the sayings of Jesus.

The Gospel of John has long been a focal point for debates about the relevance of Gnosticism to early Christianity. …