You are on page 1of 12

JEWISH CHRISTIANITY AND GNOSTICISM

by R. McL. WILSON

University of S t . A n d r e w s , Fife

T h e p r o b l e m of gnostic o r i g i n s r e m a i n s o n e of t h e g r e a t
e n i g m a s of early Christian h i s t o r y . I n d i v i d u a l s c h o l a r s , of
c o u r s e , a n d g r o u p s of s c h o l a r s , h a v e t h e i r o w n solutions, b u t
t h e y differ widely, a n d n o o n e suggested s o l u t i o n h a s , i n a n d
b y itself, c o m m a n d e d g e n e r a l a g r e e m e n t . W e a r e faced w i t h
a multiplicity of h y p o t h e s e s , all carefully a r g u e d a n d all s t o u t l y
defended b y t h e i r a d h e r e n t s . I t is n o t s u r p r i s i n g t h a t s o m e
h a v e b e e n t e m p t e d t o follow t h e e x a m p l e of Alexander t h e
G r e a t a n d c u t t h e G o r d i a n k n o t , b y a d v a n c i n g a s i m p l e clear-
c u t h y p o t h e s i s a n d refusing t o c o u n t e n a n c e a n y o t h e r . The
q u e s t i o n i s w h e t h e r s u c h a p r o c e d u r e is u l t i m a t e l y a d e q u a t e .
I n p a r t a t least, t h i s diversity of o p i n i o n is d u e t o variety
of definition, t o differences i n m e t h o d a n d a p p r o a c h , t o diffe-
r e n c e s of i n t e r e s t a n d c o n c e r n o n t h e p a r t of t h e s c h o l a r s
involved. T o t a k e t h e last p o i n t first, it is a l m o s t inevitable
t h a t specialists s h o u l d b e s t r u c k b y t h e similarities b e t w e e n
g n o s t i c t h o u g h t a n d t h e i r o w n fields of i n t e r e s t . S o s o m e
s t r e s s t h e G r e e k e l e m e n t , o t h e r s m o r e vaguely t h e " o r i e n t a l " .
A m o n g t h e l a t t e r , s o m e a r e m o r e specific, a n d t r a c e b a c k t h e
origins of gnostic i d e a s t o E g y p t , I r a n o r M e s o p o t a m i a . I n
recent years there has been a marked tendency to emphasise
the Jewish contribution: Qumran, Rabbinic sources, the
w o r k s of Philo, all p r e s e n t c e r t a i n p o i n t s of c o n t a c t , a n d t h e
p l a c e o c c u p i e d in v a r i o u s g n o s t i c s y s t e m s b y r e i n t e r p r e t a t i o n
of t h e Genesis creation-story is b e y o n d d i s p u t e . C o n c e n t r a t i o n
o n t h e similarities h o w e v e r h a s s o m e t i m e s led t o a neglect of
t h e differences — w h i c h m a y b e equally i m p o r t a n t . D o these
similarities entail d e p e n d e n c e , o n o n e side o r t h e o t h e r — a n d
262 R. MCL. WILSON

o n w h i c h s i d e ? Are the y s u c h t h a t t h e i d e a s i n q u e s t i o n m u s t
h a v e c o m e from this o n e s o u r c e and no other ? A j u n g l e m a y
h a v e n o t o n e b u t m a n y t r a c k s leading t h r o u g h it, a n d s o m e
of t h e m m a y intersect.
Again, s o m e s c h o l a r s h a v e t r a c e d b a c k p a r t i c u l a r ideas t o
t h e i r u l t i m a t e origin in s o m e m o r e p r i m i t i v e s t a g e of t h o u g h t ;
b u t they h a v e n o t always c o n s i d e r e d t h e f u r t h e r q u e s t i o n s
( a ) of t h e p r o c e s s b y w h i c h a n d t h e c h a n n e l s t h r o u g h w h i c h
t h e s e ideas p a s s e d o n t h e i r w a y f r o m t h e u l t i m a t e s o u r c e t o
t h e i r p l a c e in t h e d e v e l o p e d gnostic s y s t e m s , a n d (&) of t h e
possibilities of modification a n d a d a p t a t i o n w h i c h this p r o c e s s
involved. T h e s a m e imagery, t h e s a m e terminology, m a y t a k e
o n a c o m p l e t e l y n e w m e a n i n g in a different context . Moreover,
t h e p r e s e n c e of p a r t i c u l a r i d e a s does n o t necessarily g u a r a n t e e
t h e existence of t h e fully developed s y s t e m s of w h i c h they
l a t e r f o r m a p a r t . A failure t o n o t e t h i s p o i n t h a s s o m e t i m e s
led t o t h e discovery of " g n o s t i c m y t h s " a t a m u c h earlier
stage t h a n is objectively justified b y t h e evidence a t o u r
disposal.
Thirdly, t h e r e is t h e w i d e r a n g e of m e a n i n g a c c o r d e d t o s u c h
t e r m s a s gnosis, gnostic a n d gnosticism. At t h e o n e e x t r e m e ,
t h e r e a r e t h o s e w h o s e i n t e r e s t lies in t h e second-century
C h r i s t i a n heresy, w i t h i n t h e c o n t e x t of t h e h i s t o r y of C h r i s t i a n
doctrine, at the other, those w h o are concerned with the wider
gnostic p h e n o m e n o n , i n all its ramifications — b r o a d l y spea-
king, t h o s e w h o s p e a k of G n o s t i c i s m o n t h e o n e h a n d , a n d
t h o s e w h o talk in t e r m s of Gnosis o n t h e o t h e r ; n o t to
m e n t i o n t h e a t t e m p t s t o achieve s o m e g r e a t e r degree of p r e -
cision b y t h e u s e of t e r m s like pre-gnostic, proto-gnostic o r
gnosticising. T h e very v a r i e t y of u s a g e leads t o divergent
r e s u l t s , b u t a n y satisfactory s o l u t i o n m u s t t a k e d u e a c c o u n t
of all p o i n t s of view. T h e validity of t h e i n s i g h t s gained along
v a r i o u s lines of a p p r o a c h m u s t b e recognised, b u t n o o n e of
l
t h e v a r i o u s " s p h e r e s of influence to use van Unnik's p h r a s e ,
c a n b e identified a t t h e m o m e n t as the exclusive s o u r c e a n d
origin of t h e gnostic m o v e m e n t . W h e t h e r in t h e f u r t h e r c o u r s e
of r e s e a r c h it will b e p o s s i b l e t o n a r r o w d o w n t h e r a n g e of
possibilities to a single o n e , w h i c h can b e confidently identified
a s the s o u r c e of t h e m o v e m e n t , r e m a i n s t o b e seen.

1. Newly Discovered Gnostic Documents ( E T L o n d o n , 1960) 35.


JEWISH CHRISTIANITY AND GNOSTICISM 263

A m o r e profitable line of a p p r o a c h m a y b e t o recognise a t


t h e o u t s e t t h e f u n d a m e n t a l l y syncretistic c h a r a c t e r of all
2
gnostic t h i n k i n g . As v a n U n n i k again h a s p u t i t , t h e gnostics
often a c t e d o n t h e p r i n c i p l e « J e p r e n d s m o n b i e n o u j e le
t r o u v e » — a n y t h i n g they c o u l d t u r n t o a c c o u n t w a s utilised
in t h e i r s y s t e m s , biblical t r a d i t i o n , G r e e k m y t h o l o g y a n d phil-
osophy, e s o t e r i c s p e c u l a t i o n of o n e k i n d o r a n o t h e r . T h i s does
n o t h o w e v e r entail a n identification of gnosticism, o r gnosis,
with syncretism — that would be merely another attempt at
3
c u t t i n g t h e G o r d i a n k n o t . W h a t it d o e s e n t a i l is, first, t h e
r e c o g n i t i o n t h a t affinities a n d p o i n t s of c o n t a c t b e t w e e n gnostic
thought on the one hand a n d various other systems on the
o t h e r w e r e b o u n d t o a p p e a r . T h e gnostics w e r e m e n of t h e i r
t i m e , j u s t a s m u c h a s J e w s o r " o r t h o d o x " C h r i s t i a n s o r any
other group, and used the language a n d concepts and thought-
f o r m s of t h e p e r i o d . B u t , secondly, w h i l e m a n y of t h e ideas
a n d m u c h of t h e t e r m i n o l o g y a r e s h a r e d w i t h J u d a i s m o r
Christianity o r w i t h s o m e f o r m of c o n t e m p o r a r y Greek philo-
sophy, g n o s t i c i s m a s a w h o l e is different f r o m all of t h e s e .
T h e q u e s t i o n t h e n a r i s e s : w h a t is i t t h a t is d i s t i n c t i v e a b o u t
gnostic t h i n k i n g ? W h a t f a c t o r s a r e c o m m o n t o all t h e gnostic
s y s t e m s , b u t n o t s h a r e d b y o t h e r m o v e m e n t s of t h e p e r i o d ?
4
H a n s J o n a s , for e x a m p l e , h a s singled o u t " t h e tragic split in
t h e d e i t y " : " a G n o s t i c i s m w i t h o u t a fallen god, w i t h o u t
b e n i g h t e d c r e a t o r a n d s i n i s t e r c r e a t i o n , w i t h o u t alien soul,
c o s m i c captivity a n d a c o s m i c salvation, w i t h o u t t h e self-
r e d e e m i n g of t h e Deity — in s h o r t : a Gnosis w i t h o u t divine
t r a g e d y will n o t m e e t specifications
S u c h a definition n e c e s s i t a t e s a d i s t i n c t i o n b e t w e e n Gnosti-
c i s m s o defined a n d a w i d e r , v a g u e r Gnosis, for w h i l e t h e r e
is n o evidence for s u c h a G n o s t i c i s m in d o c u m e n t s p r i o r t o
t h e s e c o n d C h r i s t i a n c e n t u r y it is a b u n d a n t l y c l e a r t h a t t h e r e
w e r e t r e n d s in this direction even earlier. T h e d i s t i n c t i o n
s h o u l d n o t h o w e v e r b e m a d e s o rigid a s t o involve a separa-

2 . Op. cit. 9 1 .
2
3 . Cf. JONAS, Gnosis und spatantiker Geist ( G o t t i n g e n 1 9 5 4 ) I , 7 7 ff.
4 . The Bible in Modern Scholarship ( e d . J . P . HYATT, N a s h v i l l e 1 9 6 5 ) ,
2 8 6 , 2 9 3 ; cf. a l s o h i s c o n t r i b u t i o n t o t h e M e s s i n a C o l l o q u i u m v o l u m e
Le Origini dello Gnosticismo ( e d U. BIANCHI, L e i d e n 1 9 6 7 ) 9 0 ff.
264 R. MCL. WILSON

5
t i o n — t h e r e is difference, b u t t h e r e is also c o n t i n u i t y . Some-
w h e r e i n t h e c o u r s e of t h e first c e n t u r y , a t t h e l a t e s t i n t h e
e a r l y d e c a d e s of t h e second, s o m e t h i n g h a p p e n e d w h i c h h a d
t h e effect of crystallising w h a t h a d b e e n t r e n d s a n d t e n d e n c i e s
i n t o Gnosticis m p r o p e r . T h e p o i n t t o b e n o t e d h e r e is t h a t
t h e t r e n d s a n d t e n d e n c i e s , t h e affinities w i t h g n o s t i c t h o u g h t ,
w h i c h c a n b e d e t e c t e d for e x a m p l e i n t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t o r
i n Philo a r e in t h e m s e l v e s n o g u a r a n t e e t h a t G n o s t i c i s m a s
a b o v e defined w a s a l r e a d y p r e s e n t . O n e p r o b l e m i s t h a t it
is a l m o s t i m p o s s i b l e t o give a n y s h a p e o r f o r m t o t h i s v a g u e r
Gnosis except in t h e light of developed G n o s t i c i s m — w h i c h
m a y m e a n t h e r e a d i n g of first-century t e x t s t h r o u g h second-
c e n t u r y spectacles. W e c a n n o t exclude t h e possibility t h a t
t h e r e w a s s o m e t h i n g like a full-scale G n o s t i c i s m o u t s i d e of,
a n d p e r h a p s even p r i o r to, t h e classical C h r i s t i a n G n o s t i c i s m —
the Corpus Hermeticum must b e taken into consideration h e r e ;
b u t w e c a n n o t s i m p l y t a k e t h i s possibility for g r a n t e d , a s if it
w e r e e s t a b l i s h e d fact. W e m a y s u s p e c t non^Christian docu-
m e n t s u n d e r l y i n g s u c h t e x t s a s .the A p o c r y p h o n of J o h n , b u t
suspicion is n o t proof. T h e fact t h a t w e c a n e l i m i n a t e
C h r i s t i a n e l e m e n t s a n d still b e left w i t h a fairly c o m p l e t e a n d
c o h e r e n t s y s t e m does n o t necessarily m e a n t h a t s u c h a s y s t e m
e v e r existed. Once a g a i n t h e possibility r e m a i n s , b u t it c a n n o t
be taken for granted.
O n s u c h a line of a p p r o a c h t h e q u e s t i o n of u l t i m a t e origins
is n o longer of c e n t r a l i m p o r t a n c e . W e c a n r e c o g n i s e several
" s p h e r e s of influence without the need t o claim a dominant
p l a c e for a n y o n e of t h e m . T h e r e is r o o m a l s o for recognition
of t h e effects of m u t u a l i n t e r a c t i o n , of c o n v e r g e n c e of ideas,
of t h e a s s u m p t i o n t h a t w h a t i n a n o t h e r t r a d i t i o n is s i m i l a r is
i n fact t h e s a m e . N o r is i t u r g e n t for t h e m o m e n t t o identify
t h e p r e c i s e p o i n t a t w h i c h Gnosis p a s s e s i n t o Gnosticism,
a l t h o u g h t h a t m a y b e c o m e c l e a r e r w i t h t h e p r o g r e s s of r e s e a r c h .
F o r t h e p r e s e n t w e c a n p l o t fairly a c c u r a t e l y t h e u p p e r a n d

5. K. R u d o l p h ( T h . R . 36 (1971) 18 ff.) o b j e c t s t o t h e Auseinanderreissen


o f G n o s i s a n d G n o s t i c i s m , a n d l e g i t i m a t e l y if w h a t b e l o n g s t o g e t h e r w a s
b e i n g " r e n t a s u n d e r " . B u t J o n a s (The Bible in Modern Scholarship,
291) h a d a l r e a d y p r o t e s t e d a g a i n s t t h e i d e a o f a s m o o t h " t r a n s i t i o n "
rather than a decisive break. There is a continuity i n the ideas and
terminology employed, b u t there is also a difference i n the u s e that is
m a d e of t h e m .
JEWISH CHRISTIANITY AND GNOSTICISM 265

l o w e r l i m i t s ; it is a q u e s t i o n of closing t h e g a p , a n d if n e e d
b e b r i n g i n g d o w n t h e l o w e r l i m i t a s n e w evidence is p r o d u c e d .
The m o r e immediate concerns should be on the one h a n d to
e v a l u a t e t h e available g n o s t i c d o c u m e n t s i n t h e i r c o n t e x t , t o
u n d e r s t a n d t h e m e a n i n g t h e y h a d f o r t h e gnostics, t h e signi-
ficance i n a gnostic c o n t e x t of t h e t e r m s a n d c o n c e p t s e m p l o y e d ,
a n d t h e differences w h i c h t h i s c o n t e x t i m p o s e d ; a n d o n t h e
o t h e r hand, to explore t h e proximate channels through which
such ideas passed from other sources into gnosticism.
I t is in this latter perspective that Cardinal Danielou's theory
of a link b e t w e e n J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n i t y a n d G n o s t i c i s m finds its
p l a c e . As a l r e a d y n o t e d , c o n s i d e r a b l e a t t e n t i o n h a s of late
b e e n d e v o t e d t o t h e J e w i s h e l e m e n t in t h e g n o s t i c s y s t e m s —
b u t w h a t d o e s t h i s i m p l y ? Origin within Judaism, a pre-
C h r i s t i a n J e w i s h gnosticism, a m o v e m e n t s t a r t e d b y a n d a m o n g
J e w s ? If so, w a s it P a l e s t i n i a n o r D i a s p o r a J u d a i s m — o r w a s
it s o m e f o r m of h e t e r o d o x J u d a i s m ? O r again, w a s i t some-
w h e r e in p r o x i m i t y t o J u d a i s m , u n d e r s o m e d e g r e e of J e w i s h
influence, b u t n o t w i t h i n J u d a i s m itself ? H e r e of c o u r s e t h e
S a m a r i t a n S i m o n M a g u s , t r a d i t i o n a l l y " t h e f a t h e r of all here-
sies", comes into the picture. On t h e other side H a n s Jonas
has raised s o m e very relevant questions on t h e subject, and
w h i l e s u c h a w r i t e r a s P h i l o s h o w s affinities w i t h g n o s t i c i s m
6
t h e r e a r e also differences t o b e t a k e n i n t o a c c o u n t .
7
O n e of J o n a s ' c r i t i c i s m s of " t h e J u d a i s t i c t h e s i s " m a y b e
s u m m e d u p i n a single s e n t e n c e : " S a m a r i t a n s h a d r e a s o n s
for k i c k i n g a g a i n s t official J u d a i s m , for a n a n t a g o n i s t i c p o s t u r e ,
8
which those in the main branch h a d n o t " . The point here
is t h e anti-Jewish a n i m u s w h i c h m a r k s so m u c h g n o s t i c think-
ing — t h e d e p r e c i a t i o n of t h e God of t h e Old T e s t a m e n t , t h e
r a d i c a l r e - i n t e r p r e t a t i o n of Old T e s t a m e n t m a t e r i a l , especially
t h e e a r l y c h a p t e r s of Genesis, a n d s o o n . I t m a y b e l e g i t i m a t e
e n o u g h t o s p e a k of J e w i s h gnosis, in a b r o a d sense, a n d even
to include under this head the Hekhaloth mysticism explored
9
b y G e r s h o m S c h o l e m , b u t w h i l e t h e r e is a c e r t a i n c o n t i n u i t y

6. S e e The Bible in Modern Scholarship, 286 ff., a l s o The Gnostic Reli-


gion ( B o s t o n 1958) 33 f. F o r P h i l o , cf. M. S i m o n i n he Origini, 359 ff.
7. T h e p h r a s e c o m e s f r o m The Gnostic Religion, 33, n . 1.
8. The Bible in Modern Scholarship, 292.
9. E . g . Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition
( N e w Y o r k 1960); b u t cf. J o n a s , op. cit. 290 f.
266 R. MCL. WILSON

of d e v e l o p m e n t f r o m this gnosis to gnosticism, t h e r e is n o


s m o o t h t r a n s i t i o n , b u t also a d i s c o n t i n u i t y , i n d e e d a r a d i c a l
b r e a k . This is, incidentally, o n e of t h e a d v a n t a g e s of m a k i n g
a d i s t i n c t i o n b e t w e e n Gnosis a n d Gnosticism.
T h e p o i n t s m a d e b y J o n a s , a s h e himself recognises, d o n o t
a b s o l u t e l y r u l e o u t t h e possibility of a J e w i s h origin, b u t the y
d o p l a c e it very m u c h i n q u e s t i o n . It may be that some Jews
r e a c t e d violently t o t h e c a t a s t r o p h e of A.D. 70, s o violently
1 0
indeed as t o t u r n their ancestral traditions upside d o w n ;
b u t this is p r o b a b l y n o t t h e w h o l e story. O n e m i g h t t h i n k
a l s o of Gentiles w h o h a d suffered a t t h e h a n d s of t h e i r J e w i s h
n e i g h b o u r s d u r i n g o n e o r o t h e r of t h e risings of t h e p e r i o d ,
a l t h o u g h t h i s possibility m u s t b e c o n s i d e r e d distinctly m o r e
r e m o t e , since it w o u l d n o t explain o t h e r e l e m e n t s s u c h a s t h e
assimilation of C h r i s t i a n i d e a s . B u t J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n s also
suffered a t t h e h a n d s of J e w s , if w e m a y believe t h e evidence
of Acts a n d o t h e r s o u r c e s , a n d t h e y c o u l d c e r t a i n l y h a v e p r o -
n
v i d e d a c h a n n e l for t h e t r a n s m i s s i o n of J e w i s h ideas .
O n e difficulty is t h e fact t h a t gnostic u s e of t h e Old Testa-
m e n t is c o m p a r a t i v e l y r e s t r i c t e d — a l m o s t as if t h e p e o p l e w h o
developed t h e gnostic s y s t e m s k n e w little m o r e t h a n t h e b o o k
of Genesis. Yet it m a y b e t h a t a b s e n c e of r e f e r e n c e s h o u l d
n o t b e t a k e n t o i m p l y i g n o r a n c e — t h e b o a s t of t h e D e m i u r g e
i n t h e A p o c r y p h o n of J o h n is after all t a k e n f r o m D e u t e r o n o m y
5:9 a n d E x o d u s 20:3,5, w h i l e t h e Valentinians expressly say t h a t
h e s p o k e t h r o u g h t h e p r o p h e t s ( I r e n . 1.5.4, q u o t i n g I s . 45:5,
46:9). Possibly, t h e n , t h e c o n c e n t r a t i o n o n Genesis m e r e l y
reflects t h e i n t e r e s t of t h e gnostics c o n c e r n e d , a n d n o t t h e
12
e x t e n t of t h e i r k n o w l e d g e of t h e Old T e s t a m e n t . W h a t they
w e r e i n t e r e s t e d in w a s simply t h e cosmogony, t h e s t o r y of h o w
t h e h u m a n s i t u a t i o n as t h e y s a w it c a m e a b o u t . O t h e r a s p e c t s
of t h e Old T e s t a m e n t l i t e r a t u r e h a d n o t t h e s a m e relevance
for t h e i r p u r p o s e .
Investigation of t h e gnostic p r o b l e m , a s a l r e a d y n o t e d , h a s
long b e e n c o m p l i c a t e d b y variety of definition, a n d b y t h e fact
t h a t t h e s a m e t e r m s h a v e t o serve t w o functions. As Cardinal

10. T h e v i e w a d v a n c e d b y R. M. GRANT, Gnosticism and Early Chris-


tianity ( L o n d o n a n d N e w Y o r k 21966).
11. Cardinal D a n i é l o u (Aspects du judéo-christianisme, P a r i s 1965, 146)
m o d i f i e s Grant's t h e o r y t o r e l a t e specifically t o J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n i t y .
12. Cf. J o h a n n e s M u n c k ' s q u o t a t i o n f r o m M a c a u l a y , c i t e d b e l o w , p . 269.
JEWISH CHRISTIANITY AND GNOSTICISM 267

Daniélou observes, I r e n a e u s refutes " t h e falsely so-called


gnosis ", a n d b y t h a t very fact recognises t h e existence of a
13
t r u e g n o s i s . C l e m e n t of Alexandria's " t r u e Gnostic " is n o t
a h e r e t i c , b u t a C h r i s t i a n w h o h a s p e n e t r a t e d m o r e deeply into
t h e m y s t e r i e s of t h e faith t h a n t h e o r d i n a r y believer. M o r e
14
r e c e n t l y R. P. C a s e y , o p p o s i n g t h e " g e n e r a l a n d generalised
i m p r e s s i o n t h a t gnosis a n d G n o s t i c i s m w e r e significant factors
i n t h e o r i g i n s of Christianity ", s p e a k s r e p e a t e d l y of a C h r i s t i a n
gnosis — w h i c h t o t h e u n w a r y m i g h t s e e m t o p l a y i n t o t h e
h a n d s of h i s o p p o n e n t s . O n t h e o t h e r h a n d , B u l t m a n n , in
t h e section of his Theologie d e v o t e d t o Gnostische Motive,
w r i t e s : " Soweit die christliche V e r k ü n d i g u n g d e r a l t t e s t a m e n t -
lich^jüdischen u n d u r g e m e i n d l i c h e n T r a d i t i o n t r e u blieb,
1 5
s i n d e n t s c h e i d e n d e Gegensätze z u r Gnosis sofort d e u t l i c h " .
S u r p r i s i n g l y little c o n s i d e r a t i o n h a s y e t b e e n given t o t h e possi-
bility t h a t i t w a s n o t a c a s e of Gnostics b o r r o w i n g f r o m
" o r t h o d o x " , o r t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t f r o m a vaguely defined
" G n o s i s " , b u t t h a t b o t h " o r t h o d o x " a n d Gnostics (in t h e
n a r r o w e r sense) w e r e d r a w i n g u p o n t h e s a m e o l d e r t r a d i t i o n .
H e r e again Cardinal Daniélou's t h e o r y is m u c h t o t h e p o i n t .
1 6
I n a p a p e r delivered in S t r a s b o u r g h e w r i t e s : « J ' e n t e n d s
p a r g n o s e u n e c o n n a i s s a n c e é s o t é r i q u e p o r t a n t s u r les h a b i t a t s
célestes e t infernaux, les n o m s des anges, l e s h y p o s t a s e s divi-
n e s . » T h e s e speculations a r e found b o t h i n d o c u m e n t s of t h e
C h u r c h a n d in t h o s e of h e t e r o d o x g r o u p s , especially gnosticism,
a n d t h e a r g u m e n t is t h a t t h e y a r e of J e w i s h origin, m o r e p a r t i -
cularly f r o m J e w i s h apocalyptic. Consequently, gnosis h a s its
Sitz im Leben in a C h r i s t i a n milieu i n s p i r e d b y Jewish-Christian
a p o c a l y p t i c , w h i c h is w h a t h e calls a Jewish-Christian milieu.
T h e c a s e is p r e s e n t e d i n t h r e e stages, first t h e a s s e m b l i n g of
t h e s o u r c e s in w h i c h this t r a d i t i o n m a y b e found, t h e n a n
e x a m i n a t i o n of its c o n t e n t t o e s t a b l i s h i t s J e w i s h c h a r a c t e r ,
a n d finally t h e d e m o n s t r a t i o n t h a t this gnosis is a c o n t i n u a t i o n

1 3 . I t i s s t r i k i n g t h a t s o m e o f t h e c l o s e s t p a r a l l e l s t o t h e G o s p e l of
Philip o c c u r in the w o r k s of Irenaeus, n o t w h e r e h e is q u o t i n g gnostic
m a t e r i a l i n t h e Adversus Haereses but in his o w n Demonstratio.
1 4 . The Background of the New Testament and its Eschatology (ed.
W . D . DAVIES a n d D . DAUBE, C a m b r i d g e 1 9 6 4 ) 5 2 ff
1 5 . Theologie des Neuen Testaments ( T ü b i n g e n 1 9 4 8 ) 1 6 7 . Cf. a l s o DODD,
According to the Scriptures ( L o n d o n 1 9 5 3 ) 1 3 6 f., q u o t e d b e l o w , p . 2 6 8 .
1 6 . Aspects du judéo-christianisme, 139.
268 R. MCL. WILSON

of a n o l d e r speculative exegesis of t h e Old T e s t a m e n t a n d in


p a r t i c u l a r of t h e e a r l y c h a p t e r s of Genesis. I t s h o u l d b e
a d d e d t h a t t h i s p a p e r i s i n s o m e s e n s e a distillation a n d refi-
n e m e n t of views a l r e a d y s k e t c h e d s o m e y e a r s e a r l i e r i n Théo-
11
logie du judéo-christianisme .
B r o a d l y s p e a k i n g , t h i s t h e o r y h a s m u c h t o c o m m e n d it. T h e
earliest Christians were Jews t o a m a n . Whatever the degree
of t h e i r e x p o s u r e t o hellenistic influences, t h e i r r o o t s w e r e in
t h e Old T e s t a m e n t a n d J e w i s h t r a d i t i o n , a n d t h e i r earliest
v e n t u r e s i n t o t h e r e a l m of C h r i s t i a n theology c o n c e r n e d t h e
r e l a t i o n of t h e i r n e w faith t o t h e old. Inevitably the y c a r r i e d
o v e r m a n y e l e m e n t s f r o m t h e o l d faith t o t h e n e w , a n d in
c o n s e q u e n c e they gave to C h r i s t i a n t h i n k i n g a distinctive
" b i b l i c a l " s t a m p w h i c h it h a s n e v e r entirely lost. On the
o t h e r h a n d it w o u l d b e a m i s t a k e t o t h i n k of this Jewish-
C h r i s t i a n t r a d i t i o n p a s s i n g t h r o u g h a sealed t u b e , isolated f r o m
a n d unaffected b y t h e ideas of t h e w o r l d o u t s i d e . W i t h t h e
s p r e a d of t h e C h r i s t i a n m i s s i o n o u t s i d e of Palestine, even
J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n s w e r e c o n f r o n t e d b y t h e p r o b l e m of m a k i n g
t h e i r faith intelligible t o m e n of different b a c k g r o u n d a n d
e n v i r o n m e n t . Y e a r s ago, F. C. B u r k i t t w r o t e t h a t t h e b e s t w a y
t o u n d e r s t a n d s o m e s e c o n d - c e n t u r y G n o s t i c s w a s t o t h i n k of
t h e m a s C h r i s t i a n s w h o s o u g h t " t o set f o r t h t h e living essence
of t h e i r Religion i n a f o r m u n c o n t a m i n a t e d b y t h e J e w i s h
envelope in w h i c h t h e y h a d received it, a n d e x p r e s s e d in t e r m s
m o r e s u i t e d ( a s t h e y m i g h t say) to t h e c o s m o g o n y a n d phil-
1 8
o s o p h y of t h e i r e n l i g h t e n e d a g e . " F r o m this p o i n t of view
t h e gnostic c o n t r o v e r s y is a n early e x a m p l e of t h e p r o b l e m
t h a t c o n f r o n t s t h e C h u r c h i n every a g e — h o w t o m a k e t h e
faith relevant in a changing situation, without making such
c o n c e s s i o n s t o " m o d e r n i t y " a s t o d e p r i v e it of its distinctive
1 9
c h a r a c t e r . As D o d d p u t s i t , " in t h e c o n t r o v e r s y w i t h Gnos-
t i c i s m . . . t h e m a i n p o i n t a t i s s u e w a s w h e t h e r t h e Christian
faith could b e d e t a c h e d f r o m its biblical a n d h i s t o r i c a l basis
a n d p r e s e n t e d a s a f o r m of Hellenistic t h e o s o p h y . " Victory

17. T o u r n a i 1958.
18. Church and Gnosis ( C a m b r i d g e 1932) 27 ff. D o d d finds B u r k i t t ' s
vindication of t h e essential Christianity of Valentinus " c o n v i n c i n g * '
(Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, C a m b r i d g e 1953, 101, n . 4 ) . B u t
w h a t is true of Valentinianism d o e s n o t necessarily hold for other groups.
19. According to the Scriptures, 136 f.
JEWISH CHRISTIANITY AND GNOSTICISM 269

lay w i t h t h o s e w h o r e j e c t e d t h e Gnostic p r o p o s a l s for t h o r o u g h


hellenisation — " t h i s biblical s u b s t r u c t u r e is so firmly b o n d e d
i n t o t h e w h o l e edifice t h a t n o a m o u n t of Hellenizing ever
d e s t r o y e d , o r ever c o u l d d e s t r o y , i t s b a s i c c h a r a c t e r . " I n d e e d ,
t h e evidence of s o m e of t h e N a g H a m m a d i d o c u m e n t s i s e n o u g h
t o s h o w t h a t even t h e gnostics c o u l d n o t entirely get rid of
it — in t h i s r e s p e c t B u r k i t t ' s view n o w r e q u i r e s s o m e m o d i -
fication.
A s e c o n d p o i n t w h i c h calls for m e n t i o n is t h e d a n g e r , u n d e r -
2 0
lined b y J o h a n n e s M u n c k , of so e x t e n d i n g t h e c o n c e p t i o n of
J e w i s h Christianity a s t o m a k e everything Jewish-Christian.
There have been periods in New Testament study at which
t h e influence of P a u l w a s d e t e c t e d i n s o m a n y places t h a t
o n e could j u s t l y s p e a k of a n " a l l - p e r v a s i v e P a u l i n i s m " , a n d
a s M u n c k himself o b s e r v e s t h e r e is a parallel i n r e s e a r c h i n t o
gnosticism, " w h e r e insufficiently defined limits allow everything
t o b e i n c l u d e d a s g n o s t i c . " M u n c k i n t h i s c o n n e c t i o n h a d his
o w n p o i n t of view, w h i c h h a s n o t w o n t h e g e n e r a l a s s e n t of
s c h o l a r s , b u t t h e q u e s t i o n s h e raises d e s e r v e c o n s i d e r a t i o n .
H o w far, for example, a r e t h e J e w i s h o r Jewish-Christian
f e a t u r e s d u e t o a d i r e c t c o n t i n u i t y w i t h t h e earliest C h r i s t i a n
c o m m u n i t y , a n d h o w far a r e t h e y t h e r e s u l t of a J u d a i s i n g
p r o c e s s a t a l a t e r stage, a m o n g Gentiles ? T h e c a s e of t h e
E a r l of C r a w f o r d , w h i c h M u n c k q u o t e s f r o m M a c a u l a y ' s His-
21
tory of England, p r o v i d e s food for t h o u g h t .
J e w i s h Christianity, t h e n , s h o u l d p r o b a b l y n o t b e c o n s i d e r e d
t h e only factor, t h e only c h a n n e l t h r o u g h w h i c h s u c h ideas
w e r e h a n d e d d o w n ; n o r s h o u l d i t b e t r e a t e d a s if t h e s e i d e a s
w e r e , i n t h e c o u r s e of t r a n s m i s s i o n , c o m p l e t e l y sealed off
f r o m o t h e r influences. T h e c o u r s e of h i s t o r y w a s p r o b a b l y
r a t h e r m o r e c o m p l e x t h a n t h a t . T h e p r e s e n c e of J e w i s h a n d
Jewish-Christian e l e m e n t s i n s o m e gnostic d o c u m e n t s f r o m

20. New Testament Studies V I (1960) 113.


M
21. Op cit. 1 1 0 : H e had a text from the Pentateuch or the Prophets
r e a d y f o r e v e r y o c c a s i o n . H e filled t h e d i s p a t c h e s w i t h a l l u s i o n s t o
Ishmael a n d Hagar, H a n n a h a n d Eli, Elijah, N e h e m i a h a n d Zerubbabel,
a n d adorned his oratory with quotations from Ezra a n d Haggai. It is
a c i r c u m s t a n c e strikingly characteristic of t h e m a n , a n d t h e s c h o o l i n
w h i c h h e h a d b e e n trained, that, i n all the m a s s of t h e writing w h i c h
h a s c o m e d o w n t o us, there is not a single w o r d indicating that h e had
e v e r uv h i s l i f e h e a r d o f t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t . "
270 R. MCL. WILSON

22
N a g H a m m a d i h a s b e e n d e m o n s t r a t e d b y Alexander B ò h l i g ,
a n d s o m e of t h e o t h e r c o n t r i b u t i o n s t o t h e M e s s i n a Colloquium
o n t h e origins of Gnosticism h a v e also u n d e r l i n e d t h e J e w i s h
e l e m e n t . S o m e of t h i s m a t e r i a l m a y h a v e c o m e direct f r o m
J e w i s h s o u r c e s , a t o n e s t a g e o r a n o t h e r in t h e p r o c e s s of
d e v e l o p m e n t ; b u t J e w i s h Christianity m u s t also b e consi-
d e r e d as a possible c h a n n e l for t h e s e ideas. I n e i t h e r c a s e
t h e m a t e r i a l h a s b e e n s u b j e c t e d to s o m e d e g r e e of t r a n s m u -
tation.
T w o corollaries w h i c h w o u l d s e e m t o b e i m p l i e d a r e (a)
t h a t t h e " t r a g i c s p l i t " d o e s n o t b e l o n g i n t h e earliest Jewish-
C h r i s t i a n s t a g e of t h e d e v e l o p m e n t , w h i c h w o u l d p l a c e t h e
decisive t u r n to t h e distinctively Gnostic a t t i t u d e ( i n t h e
n a r r o w e r s e n s e of t h e t e r m ) fairly late in t h e first c e n t u r y ,
if n o t i n t o t h e s e c o n d ; a n d , p e r h a p s m o r e i m p o r t a n t , (b)
t h a t if m a t e r i a l c o m m o n t o " o r t h o d o x " C h r i s t i a n i t y a n d
G n o s t i c i s m h a s b e e n m e d i a t e d from J u d a i s m t h r o u g h J e w i s h
Christianity, t h e s e w o u l d b e a m o n g t h e oldest e l e m e n t s of all.
Moreover, t h e fact t h a t s o m e of Bôhlig's p a r a l l e l s a r e f r o m
R a b b i n i c s o u r c e s w o u l d suggest t h a t a t t h e s e p o i n t s all t h r e e —
" o r t h o d o x " Christianity, Gnosticism a n d R a b b i n i c t r a d i t i o n -
h a v e d r a w n u p o n m u c h o l d e r m a t e r i a l w h i c h goes b a c k a t least
t o t h e earliest days of t h e C h r i s t i a n era. B u t t h i s o p e n s u p
a field w h i c h h a s yet t o b e fully explored.
O n e final q u e s t i o n r e l a t e s t o t h e definition of J e w i s h Chris-
tianity. M u n c k , a s a l r e a d y n o t e d , expresses h i s d o u b t s a b o u t
t h e c r i t e r i a e m p l o y e d , a n d w a r n s against t h e d a n g e r of m a k i n g
everything Jewish-Christian. A case i n p o i n t is t h a t of Paul.
Cardinal Daniélou j u s t l y w r i t e s : « s'il n'est p a s j u d é o - c h r é t i e n
a u s e c o n d s e n s q u e n o u s a v o n s d o n n é a u m o t (i.e. a s belonging
t o t h e J é r u s a l e m c h u r c h ) , (il) l'est d a n s c e t r o i s i è m e sens
(i.e. of a f o r m of t h o u g h t " q u i s'exprime d a n s d e s c a d r e s
2 3
e m p r u n t é s a u j u d a i s m e " ) . » N o w Paul w a s a J e w b y b i r t h ,
a P h a r i s e e of t h e P h a r i s e e s , a n d therefore c o u l d legitimately
b e called a J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n ; yet it is p r o b a b l e t h a t m o s t
24
people, like R. N . L o n g e n e c k e r , will w i s h t o m a k e s o m e dis-

22. Le Origini, 109 ff ; a l s o ( a s t w o s e p a r a t e p a p e r s ) i n Mysterion una


Wahrheit ( L e i d e n 1968) 80 ff.
23. Théologie, 19.
24. The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity ( L o n d o n 1970).
JEWISH CHRISTIANITY AND GNOSTICISM 271

t i n c t i o n b e t w e e n P a u l i n e a n d J e w i s h Christianity. I n d e e d in
25
h i s p a p e r i n Aspects du judéo-christianisme M. l e C a r d i n a l
a p p e a r s t o m a k e s o m e concessions t o this v i e w : " t o u t e sa
vie il a c o m b a t t u l a gnose j u d é o - c h r é t i e n n e , d a n s la m e s u r e
o ù celle-ci m e t t a i t l'accent s u r la c o n n a i s s a n c e d e s s e c r e t s d u
m o n d e céleste, en m o n t r a n t q u e l'essentiel é t a i t la foi a u C h r i s t
m o r t e t ressuscité... Mais e n m ê m e t e m p s P a u l d é c l a r e lui-
m ê m e qu'il n ' i g n o r e p a s les s e c r e t s célestes. " Paul's p o s i t i o n
" r e s s e m b l e à celle d e s m y s t i q u e s a u t h e n t i q u e s q u i m e t t e n t e n
g a r d e c o n t r e la m y s t i q u e à c a u s e d e s a b u s q u i p e u v e n t e n ê t r e
faits. " T h e esoteric gnosis w a s n o t t h e essential t h i n g ; w h a t
w a s essential w a s t h e saving event in Christ.
L o n g e n e c k e r o n t h e o t h e r h a n d w o u l d set J e w i s h Christia-
n i t y a p a r t " as a n e n t i t y a b l e t o b e d i s t i n g u i s h e d f r o m b o t h
J u d a i s m a n d P a u l i n e Christianity ", a n d lists " a t least t h r e e
w a y s " in w h i c h t h e J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n s w e r e d i s t i n c t i v e f r o m
26
t h e P a u l i n e . T h e difference h e r e is q u i t e clearly o n e of
definition — Longenecker i s . t h i n k i n g i n t e r m s of a h i s t o r i c a l
e n t i t y w i t h a definite history, w h e r e a s Cardinal Daniélou's
original definition w a s in t e r m s of a f o r m of t h o u g h t e x p r e s s e d
in categories derived from l a t e J u d a i s m .
E a c h of t h e s e p o s i t i o n s h a s its o w n validity i n t e r m s of t h e
definition p r e s e n t e d in e a c h case. T h e q u e s t i o n is : t o w h a t
e x t e n t a r e they m u t u a l l y c o m p a t i b l e ? Is t h e r e a d a n g e r of
confusion if J e w i s h Christianity is seen o n t h e o n e h a n d a s
a historical entity f r o m w h i c h Paul is excluded b e c a u s e of t h e
k n o w n differences b e t w e e n Pauline Christianity a n d J e w i s h
Christianity as m o r e n a r r o w l y defined, a n d o n t h e o t h e r a s a
f o r m of t h o u g h t b y w h i c h P a u l i n e Christianity also is m a r k e d ?
I t m i g h t m a k e for clarity if w e w e r e t o r e s t r i c t t h e t e r m
J e w i s h Christianity m o r e closely t o t h e h i s t o r i c a l p h e n o m e n o n ,
recognising a t t h e s a m e t i m e t h a t P a u l a n d Pauline Christianity
r e p r e s e n t o n e p a r t i c u l a r off-shoot, still m a r k e d a t m a n y p o i n t s
b y t h e original J e w i s h C h r i s t i a n c h a r a c t e r b u t developing in
i t s o w n way. P e r h a p s s o m e s u c h c o m p r o m i s e w o u l d d o j u s t i c e
t o t h e valid insights o n b o t h sides.
T o s u m u p , t h e r e s u l t a n t p i c t u r e w o u l d b e o n e of a v a r i e t y
of f o r m s of t h o u g h t , of t r e n d s a n d t e n d e n c i e s , w h i c h m a y b e

25. Aspects, 143 f.


26. Op. cit. 6.
272 R. MCL. WILSON

generally s u b s u m e d u n d e r t h e r a t h e r v a g u e h e a d i n g of Gnosis.
O n e o u t c o m e of t h i s variety, i n t h e c o u r s e of t h e h i s t o r i c a l
d e v e l o p m e n t a n d u n d e r t h e influence of f a c t o r s w h i c h a r e n o t
always o p e n t o o u r investigation, w a s t h e " c l a s s i c a l " Gnos-
t i c i s m of t h e s e c o n d c e n t u r y , a n d o n e of t h e c h a n n e l s a l o n g
w h i c h ideas w e r e t r a n s m i t t e d f r o m e a r l i e r s o u r c e s i n t o t h e
developed g n o s t i c s y s t e m s w a s early J e w i s h Christianity. I t
w a s n o t t h e only c h a n n e l , a n d it d o e s n o t p r o v i d e a final a n s w e r
t o all t h e q u e s t i o n s p o s e d b y t h e G n o s t i c p r o b l e m , b u t i t w a s
o n e c h a n n e l , a n d it is o n e s m a l l p a r t of o u r d e b t t o C a r d i n a l
Dan&lou's r e s e a r c h e s t h a t h e h a s d r a w n o u r a t t e n t i o n t o it.