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  • The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity
  • Birger A. Pearson
The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. By David Brakke. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2010. Pp. xiii, 164. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-674-04684-9.)

In this book the author takes up the issue of diversity in early Christianity, with special attention to a group that he identifies as "Gnostics." In the first chapter ("Imagining 'Gnosticism' and Early Christianities") he discusses the current controversy on the use of the term Gnosticism and adopts the position of some scholars that there was no such thing. In his surveys of the history of scholarship on Gnosticism he takes strong issue with historians of religions who claim that Gnosticism can be seen as a religion that originated independently of Christianity. I am one of his favorite targets ("easiest to criticize," p. 25), especially because of my inclusion of the Mandaeans in my delineation of ancient Gnosticism. David Brakke erroneously dates the origin of Mandaeans to the fifth century—Jorunn Buckley has dated the earliest Mandaean colophons to the second century—and overlooks the strong correspondences [End Page 753] between the Mandaean texts and some of those of the Nag Hammadi corpus, as pointed out by Kurt Rudolph.

In chapter 2 ("Identifying the Gnostics and Their Literature") Brakke adopts the position of Bentley Layton (to whom he has dedicated the book) that there was a special group of Christians known to Irenaeus (Haer. 1.29-31) who called themselves Gnostics. Some of their writings are preserved in the Nag Hammadi corpus. Brakke identifies as Gnostic the writings that belong to a group identified by some scholars (such as Hans-Martin Schenke) as "Sethian." Brakke argues that the Gnostic myth reflected in those texts was "one distinctive attempt to tell the story of God and humanity in the light of the Jesus event" (p. 42). At the end of the chapter Brakke provides a list of the surviving works of the Gnostics and various ancient testimonia. As is well known, some of the "Gnostic" texts have no Christian elements in them at all.

Chapter 3 ("The Myth and Rituals of the Gnostic School of Thought") is the central chapter of the book. Brakke discusses what he sees as the essential features of the Gnostic myth: "God and the Divine Realm;" and "The Material World, Biblical History, and the Possibility of Gnosis" (pp. 53-70). He rightly regards the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John (NHC II.1, III.1, IV.1, BG 2) to be of central importance. Although he observes that Ap. John and other Gnostic texts "do not explicitly claim that Jesus is the embodied incarnation of the savior" (p. 68), he insists that the Gnostics based their myth on salvation through Jesus. He ignores the arguments of some scholars (including myself) that the only Christian elements to be found in Ap. John occur in its secondary "Christianizing" framework featuring the risen Christ in dialogue with his disciple, John. In his discussion of Gnostic ritual Brakke acknowledges that Gnostic baptism "appears to have shared few features with the versions of baptism found in other early Christian sources" (p. 77). He rightly argues that the Gnostics did not observe a Eucharist or other ritual meals. Surprisingly, he gives no attention at all to the Ascent ritual discussed by Schenke and others, for which the Three Steles of Seth (NHC VII.5) provides attestation.

Chapter 4 is devoted to "Unity and Diversity in Second-Century Rome"and includes discussions of Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr. In the final chapter ("Strategies of Self-Differentiation") Brakke argues that there was no single church that could accept or reject anything, even if Irenaeus and other bishops laid the basis for the "catholic church" at the end of the second century. He ignores the work of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who provides the earliest attestation to the "catholic church" and the monarchical episcopacy.

It unfortunately must be concluded that Brakke's book is disappointing, especially in its treatment of ancient Gnosticism. [End Page 754]

Birger A. Pearson
University of California, Santa Barbara


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