To be honest, I had hoped to find within this publication about important Gnostic texts from important stages in history more clues about the origins and history of Gnosticism and Christianity than I really did. The big framework of motives and development of Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism within their very interesting Hellenistic context is not the subject of this study. It has a more specific subject and deals exactly with some special texts. Of course that might be interesting enough. But to me it does not clarify much about the practical context of the lives of the Gnostics who adhered to the views propagated within them. And not about the big picture within which the relevance of the studied special branch of Gnosticism could be formulated.
His main objective as a framework for interpretation is the Gnostic authors of the texts dealt with in this book as readers. Indeed this monograph, built up from partly rewritten articles, sketches a view of the framework in which the Gnostic readers of Jewish and Christian traditions interpreted – and accordingly changed – those traditions to be more in accordance with this framework. The author carefully opens up the probability of a “Christian” origin of Gnosticism. Gnosticism in the sense of what he calls the (very important) demiurgical-Gnostic tradition within Gnosticism, which is also called Sethianism and to which the Genesis stories and their Gnostic interpretation are central. These Christian Gnostics should be stemming from a background of Hellenistic schools of thought with Platonic-Aristotelic ideas about creation by a demiurge and of an absolute transcendent God which can not influence creation. At least we can understand that these ideas should lead to a confrontation with then existent more orthodox readings of the Jewish Scriptures by other Christian teachers and groups.
The way in which the author is arguing, is a joy in reading. His preference is to work bottom-up from the study of details to more general views, which prevents many problems which could arise after making bold conjectures without a thorough foundation in facts. And his way of reasoning is marked by sound logic which gives trust to the reader. The problem for him as for every student of Gnosticism and Hellenistic religions in general is that always new facts might come to the fore which could answer many questions and prove or disprove the truth of many suppositions and hypotheses which now are still needed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. But he himself avoids – at least in this study – to give such hypotheses. We find good information about a lot of important details, but alas not very much imagination about the importance of the subject or of the broader context in which the details should be important as well.
Of course this first of all leads us to the central question of how many and what sorts of “Christians” were present in the first centuries, which texts they used and why etcetera, what was their position within society and culture and so on. Questions which are in full research and debate, and about which many books and articles are published and will still be published, now that so much new material has to be taken into consideration (not only Gnostic and other material from Nag Hammadi but also new evidence from Manichaean and other origins from West and East, Jewish-“Christian” and other, and often in between, for example partly as forerunners of later Manichaeism or Islam, or of mystical developments within those).
As said, the author’s contribution is the above mentioned framework of Christian readers stemming from a background of Hellenistic schools of thought. This seems quite interesting to me, although to me the possibility of a Jewish origin of earlier versions of the same texts is not disproven and attention for a much broader context will likely help us much to understand what took place in reality.
As the author nowhere gives his exposé of the history of Gnosticism as he sees it, nor of Christian groups in the first centuries of the Christian era (although he refers to his work in Dutch language, De veelvormigheid van het vroegste christendom [English: The Pluriformity of the Earliest Christianity], 3d edition), it is not easy to discern his views of this history in general as he sees it.
In general this work is stronger in examining and assessing facts and theories of others, with interesting observations as a result, than in bold generalizations, conjectures or theories which could explain the many facts which now have come to our attention. One of his conclusions in the interesting Appendix – an interesting text about the relation of the figure of Elchasai and the Book of Elchasai to the Baptist community in which Mani grew up – is that the links between Syrian Jewish Christianity and Early Manicheans deserve more attention. To me however, this always will also influence the views of a more general history within which these facts should find their proper place. And this influence will lead to a very new picture – I assume – compared to the one known by the general public.
In general, this is a carefully written study about central texts of the “demiurgical-Gnostic tradition” (the author) which indeed are central texts to Gnosticism as a whole, it seems. For the most part the Apocryphon of John, a very important text indeed. The author concludes that the later versions of this text which are the ones now known, use their interpretation of the Genesis stories as proof for their Gnostic views in contrast to the views of other Christians, not Jews. So he does not need a Jewish origin of the later Christian text. But cannot disprove this either. He warns for conclusions made too rash.
In the second part of this work the author shows that regarding the interpretation of the teaching and the passion of Christ (for the most part in The Letter of Peter to Philip and the Apokalypse of Peter and the Greek Acts of John), the framework of the Gnostic authors as readers is comparable to that disclosed in the first part about the Apocryphon of John.
This is indeed very interesting to see. Because in this way a world opens up from within as it were. Of course this does not solve in one big strike all that many “general” questions regarding the views, position in society, and history of the Gnostics and the other Christian groups in their relations to one another and to surrounding Jewish, other Ethnic-Religious, Mystery, Philosophical and Pagan groups – all of which may have influenced each other in different ways in different times and places, as well as circumstances.
It is clear now that the study of Christian – as well as Jewish and Islamic – origins within and outside of the Roman Empire, now that so many texts have become available in so many languages, not just Greek or Latin, but many Semitic languages as well, and their descendent texts even in Persian and Chinese dialects and so on, that every study which attributes to a better understanding of these origins and their internal relations is to be welcomed very much. We should not be rushing to conclusions but we need extensive knowledge of languages, archaeology and history – to name just a few – as well as the boldness to imagine what the writers and readers of all those texts might have meant and felt. Interesting because of the different light this throws upon texts which were very well known until yet but not understood very well in their original context (at least not by the general public or even the adherents of the main religions themselves, for example the Christians of the churches), for example many texts of the New Testament. Many new possibilities of interpretation will be opened in this way.
It is clear that the academic part of these studies is very important. Because they can help to avoid making false conjectures, or correcting those already made (including the accepted interpretation of the general public!). On the other hand, we also need inspiration fed by imagination, and it seems that academy should help us to discern between inspirations comparable with historical models and totally new or modern ones.
Can we situate the branch of Gnosticism studied in this book more within the trajectories in which Greek influences stamped forms on emerging (non-orthodox) Gnostic Christian groups more than Judaistic influences?
Judaistic influences which stamped among others Christian Judaism, possibly also the mentioned Gnostic Christian groups as well as (later) emerging orthodox or “Catholic” Christian groups and traditions?
A big picture from which eventually to conclude this will not be found in this carefully written but compared with my expectations and hopes a little too restricted or too conservative publication. I wonder if the Gnostic authors it deals with – be it as readers, as writers or just as participators in their then very living traditions – would have recognized themselves very much in this book. Shouldn’t this then be a problem or at least a challenge? Who will tell – or take the challenge on?