Jewish Sources in Gnostic Literature
Birger A. Pearson
It is widely acknowledged that Gnosticism, especially in its earliest forms, displays a fundamental indebtedness to Jewish concepts and traditions. This fact has been made all the more evident as a result of the discovery and publication of the Coptic texts from Nag Hammadi.1 Indeed, some scholars, the present author included, have argued that Gnosticism takes its origin from within Judaism.2 Other scholars argue with considerable force that such a thing is improbable, if not impossible.3 Still others, for very good reasons, take a broader view of Gnosticism, and speak of various forms of the Gnostic religion: Jewish, Christian, and pagan. In this view one can legitimately speak of a Jewish Gnosticism,4 as well as Christian and other forms of Gnosticism. The Jewish forms of Gnosticism should, in any case, be differentiated from the kind of Jewish Gnosticism described
1 References to the Nag Hammadi texts are according to the Facsimile Edition edited by Robinson (NHC), by codex (Roman numeral), manuscript page and line. For an English translation of all of the tractates in the Nag Hammadi corpus, plus those in the Berlin Gnostic Codex (BG 8502), with brief introductions, see Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library. Quotations from Nag Hammadi texts in this article have been taken from that volume, except where otherwise noted. For a full bibliography on the Nag Hammadi Codices, and on Gnosticism in general, see Scholer, Nag Hammadi Bibliography.
2 An early proponent of this view was Friedländer, Der vorchristliche Gnosticismus; cf. Pearson, ‘Friedländer Revisited.’ For discussion of more recent studies, until 1970, see Rudolph, ‘Forschungsbericht,’ TR 36 (1971) 89-119. See also e.g. Rudolph, Gnosis, 275-82; Quispel, ‘Origins,’ and ‘Gnosis,’ 416-25; MacRae, ‘Jewish Background,’ esp. 97-101; Dahl, ‘Arrogant Archon’; Pearson, ‘Jewish Haggadic Traditions,’ esp. 469-70, and ‘Jewish Elements in Gnosticism,’ esp. 159-60. Stroumsa’s important dissertation should also be mentioned here: Another Seed. Stroumsa traces the key notions in Sethian Gnosticism to Jewish sources.
3 See esp. Jonas, Philosophical Essays, 274, 277-90; Van Unnik, ‘Die jüdischen Komponente.’ More recent studies in which the Jewish factor is downplayed are nevertheless also more ambiguous on the question. See e.g. Maier, ‘Jüdische Faktoren’; Yamauchi, ‘Jewish Gnosticism?’; Gruenwald, ‘Jewish-Gnostic Controversy,’ and ‘Jewish Merkavah Mysticism.’ In the last-named article, for example, Gruenwald takes issue with my contention that Gnosticism ‘originates in a Jewish environment’ (p. 44, italics his), yet eight pages later expresses his agreement with Rudolph that ‘Gnosticism emerged from a Jewish matrix’ (p. 52).
4 See e.g. Stone, Scriptures, 99-103.