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Was ist Gnosis? Studien zum frühen Christentum, zu Marcion und zur kaiserzeitlichen Philosophie.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2009. XV, 434 S. gr.8° = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 239. Lw. EUR 119,00. ISBN 978-3-16-149967-8.
In this volume Barbara Aland has collected her most important contributions to the field of gnostic studies, published over a time span of nearly forty years. The collection ranges widely; in addition to a series of contributions on »gnosticism« in the strict sense two early essays on Bardesanes, and Bardesanes and Mani have been included, as well as three articles on Marcion. The focus is mainly on the patristic sources, though one of the essays (»Gnosis und Christentum«) deals in particular with The Gospel of Truth and another (»Die Paraphrase als Form gnostischer Verkündigung«) studies the somewhat neglected Nag Hammadi tractate The Paraphrase of Shem.
Also offered is a previously unpublished and newly written paper called »Der unverzichtbare Beitrag der sogenannten Gnosis zur Ausbildung der christlichen Theologie,« and in an introductory essay A. once more reflects on the phenomenon of »Gnosis« and briefly reviews the articles contained in the volume. The older articles are reproduced in their original form, though a new footnote occasionally appears when A. feels the need to modify or clarify her position. (It would have been useful if such additions had been marked, e. g. by means of square brackets.) However, no systematic attempt has been made to update the contributions by taking note of more recent scholarship.
To be sure, A.’s contributions retain much of their value in their original form. Nevertheless, the lack of references to more recent work in some instances is a little disconcerting. To give just one example: in 2000, Michel Roberge placed the study of The Para-phrase of Shem on a new foundation with his meticulous edition and study of that text in the Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi series. There, he also argued, persuasively, I think, that the title given to this tractate in Nag Hammadi Codex VII is not original but has been fabricated by a scribe in the course of transmission, based on the occurrence of the word paraphrasis in a particular passage of the text. (The same situation probably obtains with the titles given to some of the other tractates in the Nag Hammadi library.) If this is so, the implications are serious for A.’s Paraph. Shem article, whose argument is based on considerations about paraphrasis as a title and a genre.
In A.’s efforts to understand the ancient Gnostics, two themes in particular are recurrent: the relationship between Gnosis and Christianity on the one hand, and that between Gnosis and philosophy on the other. Discussing Gnosis and Christianity A. writes, as she openly avows, as a (Lutheran) theologian. Moreover, her approach is distinctly essentialist. She is moved by a desire to understand what Gnosis »is«, and whether that which it is can rightly be called »Christianity«. Though her discussions of gnostic theology are far more sympathetic than those of the ancient heresiologists, her answer is, like theirs, ultimately negative. Recognizing that the Gnostics themselves professed to be Christians, and were decisively inspired by the revelation and the faith of Christianity, A. nevertheless concludes that the essence of Gnosis remains fundamentally different from that of Christianity. Such a normative and essentialist approach is, perhaps, justifiable within a systematic theological framework. From a historical point of view I have to admit that I find it deeply problematic: historical method does not allow us, I believe, to go beyond self-designations and empirical generalizations to essences.
A.’s analyses of gnostic anthropology and soteriology are no doubt often both perceptive and stimulating. However, one cannot help feeling that when she repeatedly highlights such notions as »guilt« and »sin« in her discussions of gnostic myths, and speaks of redemption as a »free gift«, a theological concern is brought in that is rather alien to the texts themselves and the type of vocabulary they typically employ. In particular, I do not believe that the emphasis on ignorance in the texts can be so easily reduced to a moral defect as it seems to me that A. tends to do. Moreover, the search for »the essence of Gnosis« runs the risks of a certain reductionism that tends to minimize the differences between such texts as the Apophasis Megale, Sethianism and Valentinianism. (The distance is considerable, e. g., between the Sethian view of the human body as a prison created by evil archons and the Valentinian idea that temporal corporeal existence forms part of a pedagogy designed by divine providence.)
The relationship of Gnosis to philosophy is an area where A., a student of Langerbeck, has done important and pioneering work. To her credit, she was one of the first to make serious use of Middle Platonist and Neopythagorean sources for the study of gnosticism. A. shows that the Gnostics absorbed a great deal of philosophical language. Somewhat surprisingly, however, she argues that Gnosis nevertheless has essentially nothing to do with philosophy. Thus here, too, an irreconcilable dichotomy is postulated. The main argument for this view is that the gnostic accounts of the fall describe an accidental moral transgression and not a logically necessary process. This is no doubt an important and valid point. However, the dichotomy is not, in my opinion, most fruitfully understood as one that irreconcilably divides philosophy and Gnosis, but as one that operates within the gnostic systems themselves: the desire to construct a logically coherent system co-exists ambiguously with the form of the mythical narrative in which agents act from their own will. This ambiguity is particularly evident in the various Valentinian accounts of the passion of Sophia, which sometimes seem to imply an error on the part of the youngest aeon and at other times suggest that it happened by necessity, or even as a result of divine providence. (Moreover, the ambiguity occasionally appears on the philosophical side as well, as Hans Jonas observes in his remarks on A.’s Yale paper, printed on p. 237–38 in the book.)
Such attempts to define a coherent essence of gnosticism by means of clear-cut alternatives are best abandoned. Rather than either-or we should think in terms of both-and: in constructing their systems »Gnostics« were trying to do more than one thing at a time, and exposed themselves to tensions and contradictions in their thinking as a result. (A similar remark can be made regarding another dichotomy made by A., that between salvation history and myth: gnostic myth, she states, is entirely unhistorical [165–166.226]. This too is a statement that cannot be accepted without further qualification.)
These critical remarks should be seen as a testimony to the stimulating character of A.’s contributions to gnostic studies, and do not detract from the recognition of the continuing value of many of A.’s fine analyses collected in this volume. Her work on such topics as the Apophasis Megale, Bardesanes and Marcion represent major contributions to scholarship. Her perspective on the Gnostics also represented a healthy turn away from the previously common view of them as pessimistic world-deniers driven by anxiety, emphasizing instead their joyful response to revelation and their optimistic hope of salvation. Students of early Christian-ity still have much to learn from these thoughtful essays.