Editor's Essay. Ancient and modern gnosticism
The Gnostic Scriptures, by Bentley Layton. New York: Doubleday & Co. 526 pp. $35. The New Science of Politics, An Introduction, by Eric Voegelin. With a new foreword by Dante Germino. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 193 pp. $9.95, paper.Skip to next paragraph
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Against the Protestant Gnostics, by Philip J. Lee. New York: Oxford University Press. 347 pp. $18.95.
GNOSTICISM is one of those hard words I keep hearing on the lips of know-it-alls. Political scientists, literary critics, students of religion - they all seem to flaunt the word.
I looked it up. It has a Greek stem - gnosis, or knowledge - plus that ever present and always suspicious suffix ``ism.''
The adjective ``gnostic'' means ``having esoteric spiritual knowledge.'' Harper's Bible Dictionary defines ``gnosticism'' as teaching that salvation comes through knowledge of the true self as explained in a myth revealed by a savior (often Jesus).
Historically, it's not clear whether gnosticism predates Christianity, or whether it's a variety of early Christian thought. There are kinds of gnosticism that have nothing to do with Christianity. And most recently, it has been used as a diagnostic term by historians to discuss distinctly modern problems.
And yet, thanks to Bentley Layton, the historical record has never been clearer. Until now the general reader has not had access to the original gnostic texts. But Layton, professor of ancient Christian history at Yale, has edited and translated ``The Gnostic Scriptures.'' This book is a valuable source for the historical study of gnosticism. Lucidly and concisely, Layton discusses the historical, theological, and literary aspects of each text, before he gives the translation; each translation is annotated with glosses on problems in the text.
Character of the gnostic gospel
As Layton explains in his introduction, some of these ``scriptures'' were used by members of Christian churches until Constantine, who became emperor of Rome in AD 306, made them illegal. What is most important in gnostic scripture, says Layton, is its interpretation of Old and New Testament books - ``especially its open hostility to the god of Israel and its views on resurrection, the reality of Jesus' incarnation and suffering, and the universality of Christian salvation.'' They include the famous Gospel of Thomas, a gathering of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus after the resurrection. The extreme inwardness of this ``gospel'' is a quality often associated now with gnosticism, as is the promise that anyone who finds the interpretation of the sayings will not ``taste death.''
``Bizarre,'' says Layton, is what modern readers will say about the ``... breathtaking world of fantastic symbols, beautifully intricate myths, weird heavenly denizens, and extraordinary poetry...'' of the gnostic scriptures. Suggesting another quality often associated with gnosticism, esoteric pride, Layton says that the gnostic theologians ``attempted nothing less than to chart the whole mind of god ... and from that chart to show the origin both of the world's beauty and of its imperfection.''
Resisting the idea of a good God
Indeed, Layton says that the gnostics rebelled against the idea of the goodness and omnipotence of the Old Testament creator: ``gnostics believed that satan made the world.'' Is this one reason gnostic writings click with some people now? In the rubble of the world wars and the anxiety caused by man's inhumanity to man, the dualism behind the gnostic rejection of the world for another, superior realm is tempting.
Before it was outlawed, and even after, gnosticism was a sect with members from Gaul to the Persian Gulf. Close study of ``The Gnostic Scriptures'' suggests the basis for considering gnosticism as an enduring mentality, a ``syndrome'' or mind-set, involving escape from nature, society, the natural world, and God. Such an escape, it seems to some students, is common to a number of peculiarly modern phenomena.
As a diagnostic term, gnosticism was made popular among students of political science in 1952 by Eric Voegelin in his little book, ``The New Science of Politics: An Introduction,'' now reissued with a new foreword.
Voegelin's book is based in part on the German scholarship that got a boost in 1945 when a pottery jar near Nag Hammadi, south of Cairo, yielded an unprecedented 13 codices - including ``The Gospel of Thomas'' - dating from the mid-4th century.
According to Voegelin, there's a perennial tension between the desire for certainty about the meaning of history and mankind's role in it. Western thinkers try to give history a clear direction and act as if world history is evolving toward democratic, free society, or the worker's paradise. Opposed to this kind of intellectual or gnostic certainty, Voegelin argues, is the cognitio fidei, or knowledge under faith, and the resolution of the mysteries of time worked out in the New Testament.