Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature

By Perrin, Nicholas | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature


Perrin, Nicholas, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. By Birger A. Pearson. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, xvi + 362 pp., $25.00 paper.

Written in clear prose without footnotes and a minimum of translational or technical terms, Birger A. Pearson's Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature is clearly geared to the reader who is wading into the murky waters of ancient Gnosticism for the first time. As such it holds considerable promise both as a primer and as a classroom text. However, with this promise, there are also some pitfalls. As I summarize Pearson's volume, giving more in-depth attention to certain chapters in order to substantiate my overall point, I hope to convey my own sense of its possible uses and limitations.

Pearson begins in chapter 1 by asking "What is Gnosticism?" This has been a highly controverted question over the years. Some, following the lead of Michael Williams's Rethinking Gnosticism (Princeton University Press, 1996), have sought to do away with the category of "Gnosticism" altogether: the term, so it is argued, is an unwieldy and unhelpful construct foisted upon historiographers by those who were least sympathetic to the so-called Gnostic cause. Others are content to use the term, properly defined, but cannot come to an agreement as to the movement's historical origin. Still others, historians and theologians alike, grant the usefulness of the term "Gnosticism" but disagree as to its defining features.

So, when Pearson attempts to take up a question as deceivingly simple as "What is Gnosticism?" the informed reader is not quite sure whether to grimace or to let out a sigh of relief on discovering that the author simply cuts through such turbulent eddies. For Pearson, these ancient movements under review can be (1) usefully subsumed under the heading of "Gnosticism" (p. 8); (2) characterized by a variety of features, including anthropological and cosmological dualism (pp. 12-15); and (3) historically tied to a heavily Platonized Judaism (pp. 15-19). While, personally, I am sympathetic with the broad outlines of this appraisal, a number of my colleagues would take exception. This is not to say that anyone could write a book on Gnosticism that would garner universal approval on such points. Yet perhaps more needs to be said regarding the nature and contours of the debate. As the text stands, the neophyte at Gnostica would have little idea that there is even a debate at all.

Following a fair-minded review of heresiological reports as preserved by the major heresiologists (Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius) in chapter 2, the author takes up in chapter 3 Sethian Gnosticism, equivalent in the author's mind to "Classic Gnosticism." Here the reader is treated to - among other things - a helpful outline of a Gnostic cosmogony, a tantalizingly brief mention of the Gospel of Judas (which was probably "discovered" no sooner than the author was sending his manuscript to the publishers!), and an interesting discussion of the Apocryphon of John. While Pearson recognizes the Apocryphon of John as betraying pre-Christian and Christian stages of redaction, its significance in providing important evidence for Gnosticism's pre-Christian origins goes unmentioned. This omission is quite in keeping with the book's "nothing but the facts and the primary texts" approach, but here again is an example where, without the compass of the scholarly discussion, there is no map on which to locate the various data. There is, in other words, too little indication as to why certain texts are (or are not) deemed significant.

The subsequent chapter (chap. 4) is my favorite. Here Pearson digresses from consideration of texts and movements in order to reflect on how the Gnostics interpreted scriptural tradition. …

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