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Smith II, Carl B.


No Longer Jews. The Search for Gnostic Origins.


Peabody: Hendrickson 2004. XVII, 317 S. gr.8°. Lw. £ 17,99. ISBN 1-56563-944-8.


Ismo Dunderberg

This study, based upon S.’s dissertation supervised by Edwin Ya­mauchi at Miami University (Ohio), argues that Gnosticism evolved in response to the devastating consequences of the Jewish revolt in Cyrenaica and Egypt in 115–117 CE. S. thus modifies his supervi­sor’s theory that Gnosticism arose after the Bar Kokhba revolt. (This theory, as S. correctly points out [250], sets the date too late to account for the emergence of teachers like Basilides and Valentinus.) S. admits that it is difficult to verify a causal connection be­tween the revolt in Egypt »and the rise of the gnostic religion« (6, cf. 46.113, n. 2), because there is only circumstantial evidence (e. g., 113). Nonetheless, it is this causal connection that S. argues for (5). A somewhat different and more nuanced formulation of his thesis follows on p. 48: »although a social crisis in Jewish society is inadequate on its own to explain the origins of gnostic speculations, ... gnostic speculations could not have arisen without a compelling circumstance that would make the theological leaps that Gnosticism took more acceptable.«
In Chapter 1, S. defines Gnosticism by »its anticosmism, or antip­athy toward the physical world and its creator(s)« (10, cf. 117), »its extremely negative view of the cosmos« (13), and its identification of the God of the Hebrew Bible »as the evil demiurge« (15, cf. 41). None of these characterizations applies to all of the available evidence – for example, most Valentinians considered the demiurge ignorant but not evil and their view of the cosmos was far from being »extremely negative« – but S. chooses not to discuss this prob­lem. He also portrays Gnosticism as »a religion in its own right« (214), being distinct from, and opposed to, Christianity, but leaves unexplained why then many of the people he classifies as »Gnos­tics« regarded themselves as »Christians« (16) and quoted and commented the New Testament as a proof of their ideas (241–242).
In Chapter 2, S. sides with other scholars who have traced the origins of Gnosticism to Jews disappointed with their religious tradition (especially with messianic hopes). He maintains that there must be an explanation why these Jews did »not simply apostatize« (69) but ended up with a radical subversion of their faith. S. reasons that this can only be due to a severe historical crisis, such as the Jewish revolt in Egypt. Chapter 3 then offers a comprehensive account of this revolt, based upon a broad array of scholars’ opin­ions as to its causes, its gradual spread from Egypt and Cyrenaica to Cyprus and Mesopotamia, and its consequences for the Jews in Egypt. What may have deserved a more critical reading are the massive numbers of the victims in ancient sources: 220000 killed in Cyrenaica and 240000 in Cyprus during the revolt (106), and the Jews of Alexandria killed in the aftermath of the revolt (99) – and yet a remnant of them obviously survived (107.110–111).
Chapter 4 starts with an attempt at establishing the chronology of Gnostic teachers. S. regards »early Gnostics« (Simon, Menander, Cerinthus) as not real Gnostics (because their worldview is not sufficiently negative to match S.’s definition of »Gnosticism«!) and deems »later Gnostics« (Valentinus and Marcion, 142–146) irrelevant to his case. The essential evidence is thus limited to Carpocrates (and Epiphanes), Saturninus, and Basilides. While this selection seems debat­able, S. offers a plausible reading of Basilides’s debunking of the Jewish God and his nation (Irenaeus, Her. 1.24.6) as a reflection of the consequences of the Jewish revolt in Egypt (138–142.231–232). Since this point merits attention, it is regrettable that, instead of delving deeper into the problems posed by the strikingly different accounts in the heresiologists’ reports of Basilides’ teaching, S. moves on to offer a quick review of early Christian polemics against Judaism (in order to show that the New Testament writers and Apostolic Fathers were unaffected by Gnosticism); after this he briefly discusses the absence of Jewish polemics against Gnosticism and the lacking refer­ences to Gnosticism among Platonists prior to Plotinus, and con­cludes with a survey of Gnostic polemics against Judaism, which, S. suggests, should first and foremost be understood as an attack against Christianity. Chapter 5 provides a cursory overview of the Sethian texts of the Nag Hammadi Library (seeking to show their Egyptian provenance, 216–227) and of the early evidence for Christian­ity in Egypt. In his concluding proposal of »how it might have happened«, S. offers a number of possible scenarios for Gnostic origins, based upon the assumption that the most likely candidates for inventing Gnosticism are »alienated Jewish intellectuals, Jewish Christ­ians, and Platonic converts to Judaism or Jewish Christianity« (244).
While S. manages to show that much (but not all!) of the earliest evidence related to Gnosticism points to an Egyptian origin, the quality of his research is not entirely solid. He operates with a conservative view of the New Testament (for example, he quotes Ephesians, Colossians, Pastorals and Acts as equally reliable sources of Paul’s teaching, 155–158), but does not attempt to justify it exegetic­ally. A downside of his running through large blocks of materials in Chapters 4 and 5 is the lack of detailed exegesis of any of the primary sources referred to. There are some obvious mistakes: S. claims that Poimandres is in the Nag Hammadi Library (67), attributes the Testimony of Truth to Valentinians (123, n. 29; on p. 198 S. correctly mentions that Valentinus is condemned in this text), and presupposes that the term »Gnosticism« appears in ancient sources (120). Finally, while S. is well-informed as regards American scholarship, a number of essential German studies are either not mentioned at all (e. g., Lüdemann, Koschorke) or mentioned but not really used (e. g., Markschies, Löhr). In fact, all quotations from German publications in this work are derived, not from original sources, but from other authors writing in English (85– Specifically, Löhr’s thorough monograph on Basilides could have helped S. add analytical depth to his treatment of what I consider to be the keystone of his thesis. This theory hardly explains the origins of Gnosticism entirely, but it is conceivable that the historical situation in Egypt after 117 CE contributed to Basilides’ views on Ju­daism and the success of these ideas in Alexandria.