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Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?

  • Edwin M. Yamauchi (a1)

One of the most important and controversial issues in Gnostic studies is the age of Gnosticism. Was it a post-Christian heresy? Was it roughly contemporaneous with the rise of Christianity? Was it Christianity's twin, as someone has called it? Or was it a fully developed movement preceding Christianity and influencing it? Ingeneral, German New Testament scholars, under the influence of Rudolf Bultmann, have assumed a pre-Christian Gnosticism as the basis for their interpretation of the New Testament. Other scholars such as Charles H. Dodd and Robert M. Grant have questioned their heavy reliance upon late Mandaean texts to support such a conviction. With the recovery of the Coptic Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi a number of scholars, most notably James Robinson, have hailed these new materials as evidence for Bultmann's hypothesis:

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1. Robinson, James M., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (New York, 1977), hereafter NHL, pp. 24–25.

2. Bultmann, Rudolf, “Die Bedeutung der neuerschlossenen mandäischen und manichäischen Quellen für das Verständnis des Johannesevangeliums,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 24 (1925): 100145. For a critique of the works of Reitzenstein and Bousset, see Colpe, Carsten, Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule (Göttingen, 1961).

3. Yamauchi, Edwin, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (Grand Rapids and London, 1973), hereafter PCG, pp. 170–184. Cf. Green, H. A., “Gnosis and Gnosticism,” Numen 24 (1977): 95134.

4. Malcolm Peel, a member of the Nag Hammadi translation committee, in a letter written on August 17, 1971, responded to my query as follows: “I have recently read through the whole of Nag Hammadi (that so far done and at my disposal) and cannot at the moment add anything further to your list of non-Christian tractates.” Reviews of PCG include those by: MacRae, George W., Catholic Biblical Quarterly 36 (1974): 296297;Peel, Malcolm, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43 (1975): 329331;Quispel, Gilles, Bibliotheca Orientalis 32. 34 (1975): 260;Turner, John D., Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974): 482484; and Wilson, Robert McL., Expository Times 84 (19721973): 379.

5. MacRae, George W., “Adam, Apocalypse of,” The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, ed. Crim, Keith, et al. (Nashville, 1976), hereafter IDBS, p. 9.

6. Böhlig, Alexander and Labib, Pahor, Koptisch-gnostische Apocalypsen aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi (Halle-Wittenberg, 1963); see also Böhlig, Alexander, “Jüdisches und Iranisches in der Adamapokalypse des Codex V von Nag Hammadi,” Mysterion und Wahrheit (Leiden, 1968), pp. 149161. Böhlig later explained that by “pre-Christian” he did not mean a Gnosticism before the birth of Christ, but a Gnosticism Out of which developed the Christian Gnosticism of the second century. See Bohlig, Alexander, “Christentum und Gnosis im Agypterevangelium,” in Eltester, Walther, ed., Christentum und Gnosis (Berlin, 1969), p. 2, n. 5.

7. Robinson, James M. and Koester, Helmut, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia, 1971), p. 234, n. 4.

8. Robinson, James M., The Nag Hammadi Codices: A General Introduction (Claremont, 1974), p. 13.

9. Pearson, Birger, “Nag Hammadi Codices,” 1974 Yearbook of the Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1974), p. 246.

10. MacRae, , IDBS, p. 10; cf. MacRae, George W., “The Coptic-Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam,” Heythrop Journal 6 (1965): 2735.

11. MacRae, , IDBS, p. 10;idem, “The Apocalypse of Adam Reconsidered,” SBL Book of Seminar Papers, ed. Lane C. McGaughy (Missoula, 1972), p. 573; idem, “Seth in Gnostic Texts and Traditions,” SBL 1977 Seminar Papers (Missoula, 1977), p. 21.

12. Cf. the reviews by Daniélou, Jean, Recherches de science religieuse 54 (1966): 285293;Haardt, Robert, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 61 (1967): 153159;Orbe, Antonio, Gregorianum 66 (1965): 169172.

13. The Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptisch-gnostische Schriften in Troger, Karl-Wolfgang, ed., Gnosis und Neues Testament (Berlin, 1973), hereafter GNT, p. 46, comments: “They were instructed by him (the author) about the true redeemer, whom the highest God ‘had chosen from all eons’ and ‘upon whom the Holy Spirit had come,’ –Jesus.”

14. Böhlig, Alexander, “Die Adamsapokalypse aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi als Zeugnis jüdisch-iranischer Gnosis,” Oriens Christianus 48 (1964): 47.

15. Unlike MacRae I can see no reference to a Pais or Servant in the text, or to the suffering of a Messiah who vicariously expiates the sins of Israel before the establishment of his rule. Cf. Zimmerli, Walther and Jeremias, Joachim, The Servant of God (Naperville, Illinois, 1957), pp. 7778.

16. Krause, Martin in Foerster, Werner, Gnosis II: Coptic and Mandaean Sources (Oxford, 1974), p. 15;idem, “Zur Bedeutung des gnostisch-hermetischen Handschriftenfundes von Nag Hammadi,” in Martin Krause, ed., Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts tn Honour of Pahor Labib (Leiden, 1975), hereafter ENHT, p. 82: “All of these texts, which go back to the first or second century A.D., are on account of their age and the absence of Christian concepts of extreme importance for a non-Christian Gnosticism, which (texts), however, do not thereby have to be pre-Christian at all.”

17. MacRae, George W. in Robinson, , NHL, p. 256. Speaking of non-Christian works in the Nag Hammadi Library, MacRae echoes the judgment of Krause: “To conclude that these are pre-Christian Gnostic works would be unjustified, especially in view of the relatively late date of the collection.” IDBS, p. 618.

18. Böhlig, and Labib, , Koptisch-gnostische Apocalypsen, p. 95;Böhlig, , “Die Adamsapokalypse,” p. 46.

19. Cf. Drower, Ethel S., The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Leiden, repr., 1962), pp. 100101. Kurt Rudolph, “Coptica-Mandaica,” in Krause, , ENHT, p. 215, also notes the contrast between baptism in the Mandaic literature and the Nag Hammadi texts: “Also the connection between the reception of gnosis and baptism is only poorly developed in the Mandaica, a fact which leads us to conclude that here the old cultic basis remained dominant, in contrast to the Gnostic Coptica.” Cf. Morard, Francoise, “L'Apocalypse d'Adam de Nag Hammadi,” in Krause, Martin, ed., Gnosis and Gnosticism (Leiden, 1975), pp. 4142: “We believe that we can propose that this editor belonged to a Sethian Archontic milieu, and that he maintained a position of opposition with regard to the traditional conception of baptism, whether this conception had been that of his original sect, whether it had been that of a baptist group of the period (Elchasaism, for example), or whether finally it had been that of Christianity.” Cf. note 48 below.

20. Though such scholars as Ethel S. Drower, Rudolf Macuch, and Kurt Rudolph believe that Mandaeanism is pre-Christian in origin, the objective evidence indicates a date no earlier than the second century A.D. See Yamauchi, Edwin, Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).

21. The Berliner Arbeitskreise in Tröger, , GNT, p. 47, comments: “As against other theories, The Apocalypse of Adam is perhaps an example of that phase of Gnosticism in which Manichaeism had already influenced existing systems.”

22. MacRae, , “The Apocalypse of Adam Reconsidered,” p. 577.

23. Henrichs, AlbertMani and the Babylonian Baptists,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973): 44. Cf. Henrichs, Albert and Koenen, Ludwig, “Eine alte griechische Mani Schrift,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 5 (1970): 97216.

24. lrmscher, Johannes, “The Book of Elchasai,” in Hennecke, Edgar and Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, eds., New Testament Apocrypha (Philadelphia, 1965), 2: 747.

25. Robinson, , NHL, p. 262.

26. Vermaseren, Maarten J., Mithras, The Secret God (London, 1963), p. 75.

27. Yamauchi, Edwin, “The Apocalypse of Adam, Mithraism, and Pre-Christian Gnosticism,” Études Mithriaques, Textes et Mémoires (Acta Iranica), ed. Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques (Teheran-Liège, 1978), 4: 537563.

28. Cumont, Franz, “The Dura Mithraeum,” Mithraic Studies, ed. Hinnells, John R. (Manchester, 1975), 1: 161.

29. Hopfe, Lewis M. and Lease, Gary, “The Caesarea Mithraeum,” Biblical Archaeologist 38 (1975): 110.

30. Robinson, , NHL, p. 259.

31. Goedicke, Hans, “An Unexpected Allusion to the Vesuvius Eruption in 79 A.D.,” American Journal of Philology 90 (1969): 340341.

32. Perkins, Pheme, “The Genre and Function of The Apocalypse of Adam,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (1977): 384.

33. Beltz, Walter, Die Adam-Apokalypse aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi (Berlin, 1970) as reported by MacRae, , “The Apocalypse of Adam Reconsidered,” p. 576.Wilson, Robert McL., “Jewish Gnosis and Gnostic Origins,” Hebrew Union College Annual 45 (1974): 179, n. 7, remarks: “The Apocalypse of Adam has been claimed by its editor, Alexander Böhlig, as evidence for a pre-Christian Gnosis, but I should assign it to a later date.” Kasser, Rodolphe, “Bibliothèque gnostique V: Apocalypse d'Adam,” Revue de thêologie et de philosophie 16 (1967): 317318, thinks that the work may go back to the end of the first or the beginning of the second century. Luise Schottroff, “Animae naturaliter salvandae,” in Eltester, , Christentum und Gnosis, p. 83, holds that the apocalypse is non-Christian but not pre-Christian.

34. Robinson, , NHL, p. 7.

35. Translated by Krause, Martin in Christentum am Roten Meer, ed. Altheim, Franz and Stiehl, Ruth (Berlin, 1973), 2: 2105.

36. Robinson, , NHL, p. 308.

37. Wisse, Frederik, “The Redeemer Figure in the Paraphrase of Shem,” Novum Testamentum 12 (1970): 137.Betz, Otto, “Das Problem der Gnosis seit der Entdeckung der Texte von Nag Hammadi,” Verkündigung und Forschung 21 (1976): 70, remarks, “But as the writer (Wisse) himself observes, this tract contains many Jewish and also Christian elements.”

38. Bertrand, Daniel A., “Paraphrase de Sem et Paraphrase de Seth,” in Ménard, Jacques-E., ed., Les Textes de Nag Hammadi (Leiden, 1975), pp. 149 ff.

39. Wisse, Frederik, “The Sethians and the Nag Hammadi Library,” SBL Book of Seminar Papers, ed. McGaughy, Lane C. (Missoula, 1972), 2: 604.

40. Cf. George W. MacRae, “Nag Hammadi,” IDBS, p. 616. The Berliner Arbeitskreise in Tröger, , GNT, p. 59, concludes: “What may be positively asserted is that the source of Hippolytus and our text belong to the same Gnostic school Nevertheless a literary relationship, in our opinion, is ruled out.”

41. Robinson, , NHL, p. 312.

42. Sevrin, Jean-Marie, “À propos de le Paraphrase de Sem,” Le Musèon 88 (1975): 87. The Berliner Arbeitskreise in Troöger, , GNT, p. 57, asks: “Is it a matter of a secret name for Christ?”, and answers, p. 59, “The revealer of the faith, however, is Jesus.” Karl-Martin Fischer, “Die Paraphrase des Seem,” in Krause, , ENHT, p. 266, comments: “Though there are images, where one cannot find any relationship between the otherwise typical Gnostic Christ and Derdekeas, there are other passages, above all in the section on Soldas, with whom Derdekeas is related, where one can trace the thematic influence of the Christian Gnostic Christ figure. Soldas seems once again to be a code name for Jesus, with whom the heavenly Christ (Derdekeas) is associated.” Of this passage (37,14–25) Sevrin, p. 90, declares: “It is at this level that it is without doubt making an allusion to the baptism of Jesus.” Kurt Rudolph, “Coptica-Mandaica,” in Krause, , ENHT, p. 210, likewise observes: “Among the tractates, which express in detail and explicitly a denigration of water baptism, belongs the ParShem (VII,1). Above all this is illustrated by means of John's baptism, that is, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (30–32; 37f.)…”

43. Robinson, , NHL, p. 324.

44. Wisse, , “Redeemer Figure,” p. 137.

45. Cf. Thomas, Joseph, Le mouvement baptiste en Palestine et Syria (Gembloux, 1935);Klijn, Albertus F. J. and Reinink, G. J., Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden, 1973).

46. Fischer, , “Die Paraphrase des Sēem,” pp. 260261; Berliner Arbeitskreise in Tröger, , GNT, pp. 5859.

47. Sevrin, , “À propos de le Paraphrase de Sem,” p. 95: “The violent polemical character of the passage and the fact that it seems to oppose a movement of some importance would incline one to think of the Christian baptism or the baptism of the Elchasaites: the latter, as is well known, had extended their influence upon a number of other sects. Certain details would seem to favor the Elchasaite baptism.” See note 19 above.

48. Robinson, , NHL, p. 324.

49. Cf. Pagels, Elaine, “A Valentinian Interpretation of Baptism and Eucharist,” Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972); 153170, especially p. 158 ff.

50. Krause, Martin, “Das literarische Verhältnis des Eugnostosbriefes zur Sophia Jesu Christi,” Mullus (Festschrift, T. Klauser) (Münster, 1964), pp. 215223; translations of the two works are set forth in parallel columns in Robinson, , NHL, pp. 207 ff.

51. Wilson, Robert McL., Gnosis and the New Testament (Philadelphia, 1968), p. 117, cf. Yamauchi, , PCG, p. 106. Krause refused to accept such ideas as the Son of Man, the Savior, and the church in Eugnostos as Christian elements “since these terms, however, are not exclusively attested in the New Testament.” Krause, in Foerster, , Gnosis, 2: 26. Betz, “Das Problem,” queries: “M. Krause maintains that The Letter of Eugnostos is a pre-Christian text: but how then should such concepts be used in it as ‘the kingdom of the Son of Man.’ ‘savior,’ ‘church’?”

52. Robinson, , NHL, p. 205.

53. Doresse, Jean in Bleeker, Claas J. and Widengren, George, eds., Historia Religionum I: Religions of the Past (Leiden, 1969), p. 549, suggested the fourth century A.D. as the period when Eugnostos was adapted for the Sophia of Jesus Christ. Cf. Yamauchi, , PCG, p. 182.

54. Schenke, Hans-Martin, “Nag Hammadi Studien II: Das System der Sophia Jesu Christi,” Zeitschrift für Religions-und Ceistesgeschichte 14 (1962): 266.

55. Robinson, , NHL, pp. 272273.

56. Gilles Quispel, “Jewish Gnosis and Mandaean Gnosticism,” in Menard, , Les textes de Nag Hammadi, p. 82.

57. Ibid., p. 86.

58. Ibid., p. 89.

59. Ibid., p. 95. Cf. the speculations of Patai, Raphael, The Hebrew Goddess (New York, 1967). Quispel argues that “holy prostitution” was unknown to the Egyptians, and derives the figure of the Prostitute Anath/Astarte/Wisdom from Syrian-Israelite traditions. He is not well informed on the Egyptian situation. Cf. Yamauchi, Edwin, “Cultic Prostitution,” in Orient and Occident, ed. Hoffner, Harry (Kevelaer, 1973), pp. 216218;Helck, Wolfgang, Die Beziehungen Ägyptens zu Vorderasien im 3. und 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr. (Wiesbaden, 1962), pp. 482514;Stadelmann, Rainer, Syrisch-palästinensische Gottheiten in Ägypten (Leiden, 1967), pp. 110122.

60. MacRae, George W., “Discourses of the Gnostic Revealer,” seminar paper, SBL Conference, Chicago, 11 1973, p. 9. Cf. Birger A. Pearson, “The Thunder: Perfect Mind (CG VI, 2),” a paper given at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, March 1973. Pearson speculates that The Thunder may be associated with Simonian Gnosticism, and may therefore be evidence of early if not pre-Christian Gnosticism. Recent studies, however, have reconfirmed Lucien Cerfaux's scepticism about the patristic accounts of Simon Magus. See Meeks, Wayne A., “Simon Magus in Recent Research,” Religious Studies Review 3.3 (1977): 137142.

61. Arbeitskreise, Berliner in Tröger, , GNT, p. 47: “Is this text a witness of an original, pre-Christian Gnosticism as it relates no myth and betrays no demonstrable Christian influences, or is it, in contrast, a late philosophical composition, which presupposes the myth of the Fall and the Redemption of Sophia? The latter is, in our opinion, the correct interpretation.” On Quispel's thesis, Unger, Rüdiger, “Zur sprachlichen und formalen Struktur des gnostischen Textes ‘Der Donner: der volkommene Nous”,” Oriens Christianus 59 (1975): 106, comments: “Furthermore I can also not agree with the proto-Gnostic and pre-Christian thesis of Quispel, since I believe that I have been able to ascertain some biblical citations (out of the New Testament) and am of the conviction that still further examples could be added.”

62. Robinson, , NHL, p. 8.

63. Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptisch-gnostische Schriften, , “Die drei Stelen des Seth,” Theologische Literaturzeitung 100 (1975): 571580.

64. Robinson, , NHL, p. 362;Tardieu, Michel, “Les Trois Stèles de Seth,” Revue des sciences philosophiques et thélogiques 57 (1973): 558. Other tractates impregnated with Neoplatonic concepts include: Zostrianos (CG VIII, 1):Marsanes (CG X, 1); and Allogenes (CG XI, 1).

65. In this regard, Colpe, Carsten, “Die Thomaspsalmen als chronologischer Fixpunkt in der Geschichte der orientalischen Gnosis,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 7 (1964): 9293, cites the Manichaean and Mandaean texts. For the non-Christian, quasi-Gnostic Hermetic texts, see Edwin, Yamauchi, “Hermetic Literature,” IDBS, p. 408.

66. Robinson, , The Nag Hammadi Codices, p. 7;idem, NHL, p. 7.

67. Townsend, John T., “Seth in Rabbinic Literature,” Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, 12 1977, p. 1.

68. Dennis, Berman, “Seth in Rabbinic Literature,” Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, 12 1977.

69. MacRae, George W., “Seth in Gnostic Texts and Traditions,” SBL 1977 Seminar Papers (Missoula, 1977), pp. 1724;Klijn, Albertus F. J., Seth in Jewish, Christian and Gnostic Literature (Leiden, 1977).

70. E.g., Dart, John, The Laughing Savior (New York, 1976), an ably written popular exposition of the Nag Hammadi texts by a journalist from The Los Angeles Times.

71. James M. Robinson, in a paper read at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in New Orleans in November 1978 which noted the parallels between the Trimorphic Protennoia (CG XIII. 1) and the Prologue of the Gospel of John, hailed the former as revealing the Vorlage of the latter. In taking this position, Robinson follows the views of the Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptisch-gnostische Schriften, an East Berlin group which also includes the West Berlin scholar, Carsten Colpe. Cf. Schenke, Gesine, “Die dreigestaltige Protennoia,” Theologische Literaturzeitung 99 (1974): cols. 731–746. Pitted against this position are the arguments of other scholars whose analyses lead them to conclude that the Trimorphic Protennoia is secondary to John's Prologue: Janssens, Yvonne, “Le Codex XIII de Nag Hammadi,” Le Musêon 87 (1974): 341413;McL, Robert. Wilson, , “The Trimorphic Protennota,” in Krause, Martin, ed., Gnosis, and Gnosticism, (Leiden, 1977), pp. 5054;Helderman, Jan, “‘ In ihren Zelten …’ Bemerkungen bei Codex XIII,” in Baarda, T., Klijn, Albertus F. J., and van Unnik, Willem C., eds., Miscellanea Neotestamentica I (Leiden, 1978), pp. 181211.

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