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Broek, Roelof van den


Studies in Gnosticism and Alexandrian Christianity.


Leiden-New York-Köln: Brill 1996. IX, 300 S. gr.8 = Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, 39. Lw. hfl 178,-. ISBN 90-04-10654-5.


Henny Fiskå Hägg

As its title suggests, this book is divided into two main sections: two thirds are devoted to different aspects of Gnosticism in the wide sense of the term, one third to Alexandria in the second and third century, especially to the beginnings of Christianity in the city.

The studies were written between 1972 and 1995; most of them are in English. Four are published here for the first time. The other eleven have not been rewritten, but are presented in their original wording, since "the things I would have liked to change affect only minor points" (IX).

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library has shed new light not only on ancient Gnosticism, but also on the development of early Alexandrian Christianity. Most of the studies contained in this volume deal with religious and philosophical conceptions and theological ideas found in various Nag Hammadi writings.

The author emphasizes how important it is for the understanding of the often difficult Nag Hammadi texts to view them in "the broader religious and philosophical context of the Graeco-Roman world", including that of Christianity and Judaism, which he regards as integral parts of that world. He is sceptical however, about the tendency found in recent scholarship to assign a Christian-Gnostic origin to all the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi.

In the first study, "Gnosticism and Hermetism in Antiquity: Two Roads to Salvation", the author discusses the relation between Gnosticism and Hermetism. They are both regarded as basically religious - not philosophical - movements; they differ radically, however, in their view of God and of Man, and in their doctrines concerning the visible world.

Several of the ten studies in the first part of the book, ranging chronologically from Philo to the medieval Cathars, focus on the nature of God: "Eugnostus and Aristides on the Ineffable God", "Apuleius, Gnostics and Magicians on the Nature of God" as well as parts of the study mentioned above. The author rightly stresses the apophatic or negative nature of the Gnostic, Hermetic and Middle Platonic concepts of God; but whereas both the Hermetists and the Platonists (including some of the Christian ones) claimed that though God may be unknowable in his essence, he can nevertheless be comprehended by the human nous, the Gnostics argued that he is ineffable and inaccessible to the human mind. This did not, however, prevent them from describing God in positive terms.

Three further studies are based on one of the most important texts of second-century Gnosticism, the Apocryphon of John, primarily its mythological aspects: "Autogenes and Adamas: The Mythological Structure of the Apocryphon of John", "The Creation of Adam’s Phychic Body in the Apocryphon of John" and "Von der jüdischen Weisheit zum gnostischen Erlöser: Zum Schlußhymnus des Apokryphons des Johannes".

The second part of the volume is centred on the "how" and "when" of the beginnings of Christianity and on the relation between Christians and Jews in the first centuries in Alexandria. The two topics are closely connected: in "Juden und Christen in Alexandrien im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert" the author supports the common opinion that the beginnings of Alexandrian Christianity must be sought in the synagogues, and that the long-standing thesis of Walther Bauer, arguing a predominantly Gnostic origin of the Church, is untenable.

The question of the origins of Christianity in Alexandria is, however, closely related to the much-debated question of the nature of the catechetical school in the city, and whether Eusebius is trustworthy on this point. Eusebius describes an Alexandrian school with a continuous line of succession of catechetical teachers who were also members of the ecclesiastical organisation. In "The Christian ’School’ of Alexandria in the Second and Third Century" the author discusses the validity of this tradition and concludes that "the whole idea of a Christian school with a diadoche of teachers handing down a fixed tradition of learning to their pupil successors is completely false" (199). The teachers were laymen, not ecclesiastical officials. And further: "It is only from the second decade of the third century onward that with a certain right we can speak of a Christian School of Alexandria".

This conclusion which van den Broek shares with several earlier scholars, has recently met with opposition. David Runia in his monograph Philo in Early Christian Literature, 1993, relates the argument for the continuity of the Christian tradition, grown out of the Jewish community in Alexandria, to the fact that the Philonic corpus was preserved. In Runia’s view, Philo’s writings could never have survived without "the Alexandrian school as a scholarly resource center" (135). (This view is further supported by Annewies van den Hoek in her article "The ’Catechetical’ School of Early Christian Alexandria and its Philonic Heritage", Harvard Theological Review 90:1, 1997). It is a pity that van den Broek has not taken account of Runia’s arguments; one wonders if they would have affected "only minor points".

The last three studies deal with two more Nag Hammadi treatises, The Authentikos Logos and The Teachings of Silvanus, both related to Alexandrian Christianity. "The Authentikos Logos: A New Document of Christian Platonism" concludes that this treatise presents a doctrine of the soul which is Platonic, not Gnostic, and that both its author and its audience were Christians.

The Teachings of Silvanus is commonly regarded as a document of Christian Alexandrian theology, composed around AD 200, a date partly founded on the fact that there are in the ethical parts of the document striking parallels with Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215). Von den Broek, however, convincingly argues on the basis of theology, especially the relationship between the Father and the Son, that The Teachings of Silvanus reflexts a later stage of Origenistic trinitarian theology and was composed in the first decades of the fourth century.

The last study argues for a relationship between The Teachings of Silvanus and The Sentences of Sextus which is known to belong to the rare genre of early Christian sapiential literature. It is shown that the author of The Teachings of Silvanus was acquainted with the Greek gnomic tradition that lies behind this type of literature.

The book has an Index of Sources, but no index of names or tropics, which is to be regretted.

This collection is highly recommendable for students of the early Church as well as of ancient Gnosticism and Platonism. Its value lies not the least in the fact that it brings together from one common viewpoint texts that too often are regarded in isolation from each other.