The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) ISBN 0-8070-5801-7
Hans Jonas (10 May 1903 – 5 February 1993) was a German-born philosopher who was, from 1955 to 1976, Alvin Johnson Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
Jonas's writings were very influential in different spheres. For example, The Gnostic Religion, first published in 1958, was for many years the standard work in English on the subject of Gnosticism.
THE NAME "GNOSTICISM"
Turning to Gnosticism in particular, we ask what the name means, where the movement originated, and what literary evidence it left. The name "Gnosticism," which has come to serve as a collective heading for a manifoldness of sectarian doctrines appearing within and around Christianity during its critical first centuries, is derived from gnosis, the Greek word for "knowledge." The emphasis on knowledge as the means for the attainment of salvation, or even as the form of salvation itself, and the claim to the possession of this knowledge in one's own articulate doctrine, are common features of the numerous sects in which the gnostic movement historically expressed itself. Actually there were only a few groups whose members expressly called themselves Gnostics, "the Knowing ones"; but already Irenaeus, in the title of his work, used the name "gnosis" (with the addition "falsely so called") to cover all those sects that shared with them that emphasis and certain other characteristics.
In this sense we can speak of gnostic schools, sects, and cults, of gnostic writings and teachings, of gnostic myths and speculations,even of gnostic religion in general.
THE ORIGIN OF GNOSTICISM
Asking next the question where or from what historical tradition Gnosticism originated, we are confronted with an old crux of historical speculation: the most conflicting theories have been advanced in the course of time and are still in the field today. The early Church Fathers, and independently of them Plotinus, emphasized the influence upon a Christian thinking not yet firmly consolidated of Plato and of misunderstood Hellenic philosophy in general.
Modern scholars have advanced in turn Hellenic, Babylonian, Egyptian,and Iranian origins and every possible combination of these with one another and with Jewish and Christian elements. Since in the material of its representation Gnosticism actually is a product of syncretism, each of these theories can be supported from the sources and none of them is satisfactory alone; but neither is the combination of all of them, which would make Gnosticism out to be a mere mosaic of these elements and so miss its autonomous essence.
THE NATURE OF GNOSTIC "KNOWLEDGE"
"Knowledge" is by itself a purely formal term and does not specify what is to be known; neither does it specify the psychological manner and subjective significance of possessing knowledge or the ways in which it is acquired.In the gnostic context, however, "knowledge" has an emphatically religious or supranatural meaning and refers to objects which we nowadays should call those of faith rather than of reason.
"knowledge" is not just theoretical information about certain things but is itself,as a modification of the human condition, charged with performing a function in the bringing about of salvation. Thus gnostic "knowledge" has an eminently practical aspect. The ultimate "object" of gnosis is God: its event in the soul transforms the knower himself by making him a partaker in the divine existence (which means more than assimilating him to the divine essence). Thus in the more radical systems like the Valentinian the "knowledge" is not only an instrument of salvation but itself the very form in which the goal of salvation, i.e., ultimate perfection, is possessed.
SURVEY OF SOURCES
1. The struggle against Gnosticism as a danger to the true faith occupied a large space in early Christian literature, and the writings devoted to its refutation are by their discussion, by the summaries they give of gnostic teachings, and frequently also by extensive verbatim quotation from gnostic writings the most important secondary source of our knowledge.
2. After the third century the anti-heretical writers had to concern themselves with the refutation of Manichaeism. They did not consider this new religion as part of the gnostic heresy, which in its narrower sense had by then been disposed of; but by the broader criteria of the history of religion it belongs to the same circle of ideas.
3. In a qualified way, some of the mystery-religions of late an tiquity also belong to the gnostic circle, insofar as they allegorized their ritual and their original cult-myths in a spirit similar to the gnostic one: we may mention the mysteries of Isis, Mithras, and Attis. The sources in this case consist of reports by contemporary Greek and Latin, mostly pagan, writers.
4. A certain amount of veiled information is scattered in rab'binical literature, though on the whole, unlike the Christian practice, silence was there considered the more effective way of dealing with heresy.
5. Finally, the branch of Islamic literature that deals with the variety of religions, late as it is, contains valuable accounts, especially of the Manichaean religion but also of some more obscure gnostic sects whose writings had survived into the Islamic period. In language these secondary sources are Greek, Latin, Hebrew,Syriac, and Arabic.
Primary or Direct Sources
1. Of inestimable value for the knowledge of Gnosticism out side the Christian orbit are the sacred books of the Mandaeans, a sect which survives in a few remnants in the region of the lower Euphrates (the modern Iraq).
2. A constantly growing group of sources is constituted by the Christian Coptic-gnostic writings, mostly of the Valentinian school or the larger family of which this school is the outstanding member.Coptic was the Egyptian vernacular of the later Hellenistic period,descended from the ancient Egyptian with an admixture of Greek.
Until recently, the bulk of the Coptic-gnostic writings in our possession, such as the Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu, represented a rather low and degenerate level of gnostic thought, belonging to the declining stage of the Sophia speculation. But lately (about 1945) a sensational find at Nag-Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Upper Egypt has brought to light a whole library of a gnostic community, containing in Coptic translation from the Greek hitherto unknown writings of what may be termed the "classical" phase of gnostic literature: among them one of the major books of the Valentinians, the Gospel of Truth—if not by Valentinus himself, certainly dating back to the founding generation of the school—of which the mere existence and title had
been known from Irenaeus. With the exception of this one part of one codex, just published in full (1956), and some excerpts from other parts, the remainder of the extensive new material (thirteen codices, some fragmentary, some almost intact, totaling about 1000 papyrus pages and presenting about forty-eight writings) has not yet been made known. On the other hand, one codex of the older Coptic discoveries, after sixty years in the Berlin Museum, has recently (1955) for the first time been published in its gnostic parts,of which the most important is the Apocryphon of John, a main work of the Barbelo-Gnostics already used by Irenaeus in his account of this second-century system. (This and another writing of this collection, the somewhat later Wisdom of Jesus Christ, are also found in the unedited part of the Nag-Hammadi library—the Apocryphon in no less than three versions, evidence of the esteem it enjoyed.
3. Also in the Coptic language is the library of Manichaean papyri discovered in Egypt in 1930, the editing of which is still in progress. Dating back to the fourth century A.D., the very badly preserved codices, estimated at about 3500 pages, have so far yielded one of Mani's own books, known before by title and, like all his writings, believed irretrievably lost: the Kephalaia, i.e., "Chapters"; a (the?) Psalm-Boo^ of the early Manichaean community; also part of a collection of Homilies (sermons) from the first generation after Mani. Barring the Dead Sea Scrolls, this find is easily the greatest event for the history of religion which archaeology has provided within this generation.
4. Another group of original, though later, sources for the Manichaean religion, this time in its Eastern form, is the so-called Turfan fragments in Persian and Turkish, found in explorations at the oasis of Turfan in Chinese Turkestan at the beginning of this century; to which must be added two Chinese texts also found in Turkestan, a hymn scroll and a treatise quoted by the name of its discoverer and editor Pelliot. These documents—also not yet edited in full—are evidence of the flowering of a gnostic religion so far away as central Asia.
5. Longest known to Western scholars has been the corpus of Greek writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and often quoted as Poimandres, which strictly speaking is the name of the first treatise only. The extant corpus, first published in the sixteenth century, is the remnant of an Egyptian Hellenistic literature of revelation, called "Hermetic" because of the syncretistic identification of the Egyptian god Thoth with the Greek Hermes. A num ber of references and quotations in late classical writers, both pagan and Christian, add to the sources for Hermetic thought. This literature, not as a whole but in certain portions, reflects gnostic spirit. The same goes for the closely related alchemistic literature and some of the Greek and Coptic magical papyri, which show an admixture of gnostic ideas. The Hermetic Poimandres treatise itself, in spite of some signs of Jewish influence, is to be regarded as a prime document of independent pagan Gnosticism
6. There is, finally, gnostic material in some of the New Testament Apocrypha, like the Acts of Thomas and the Odes of Solo mon—in both these cases in the shape of poems which are among the finest expressions of gnostic sentiment and belief.
In terms of language, these original sources are Greek, Coptic,Aramaic, Persian, Turkish, and Chinese. (The term "original" does not here exclude ancient translations, like the Turkish and Chinese and most of the Coptic documents.)