Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism (review)
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Reviewed by
Guy G. Stroumsa. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Studies in the History of Religions (Numen Series) 70. Leiden: Brill, 1996. Pp. xii + 195. $71.00.

In a book that takes its title from 1 Cor. 2:6, Stroumsa shows that secret doctrines were not confined to Gnostics, with whom they are often exclusively associated, but played a neglected role in the development of Christian mysticism. He identifies three venues for such esotericism: “esoteric texts, such as the apocalyptic literature, secret oral traditions, and esoteric biblical exegesis” (p. 109). In his preface, Stroumsa describes his ten essays as “forays—or Vorarbeiten—to check the terrain” rather than the synthetic study of ancient esotericism for which, he argues, the time is not yet ripe. Nine of Stroumsa’s ten essays, originally published separately, sketch the history of esotericism in early Christianity. The tenth is a fascinating study of mystical descents in paganism, Judaism and Christianity.

Stroumsa argues that early Christian esotericism derives from Judaism rather than the pagan mystery cults because in contrast to the esotericism of the mystery cults which is concerned with dromena, both Christian and Jewish esotericism are fundamentally concerned with legomena. He also demonstrates historical connections between Jewish and Christian esotericism. Unlike Jewish esotericism, however, Christian esotericism proved relatively insecure and short-lived. One reason for this is that “esotericism is inherently prone to instability: if the secret is disclosed, it is no longer a secret; if it is not divulged, it loses its power and impact, and eventually disappears” (p. 6). Stroumsa adduces three more reasons for the demise of esotericism: “The legal prohibition against any secret gathering, the violence of the gnostic challenge, and . . . the tension between the very idea of esotericism and the catholic ethos inherent in the logic of Christianity” (p. 44).

Esotericism, however, does not disappear without a trace. In a process of [End Page 300] interiorization characteristic of Late Antiquity, he traces from Clement to Origen to Augustine the stages by which esotericism becomes mysticism and “mystery” is transformed from a secret that should not be revealed to those outside into an openly proclaimed message that cannot be understood without an inner, spiritual experience. Stroumsa’s detailed study of Augustine’s position in Tractates on John 96–98, is particularly valuable. By this process esotericism was, in his view, an indispensable step in the development of Christian mysticism. While Stroumsa evinces little regret for the disappearance of Christian esotericism, he suggests that the struggle against Gnostic esotericism had a heavy hidden cost alongside its arguably more positive legacy in Christian mysticism; Augustine’s condemnation of curiositas, prematurely seeking the secrets of God, a condemnation originally prompted by a reaction to Manichaean esotericism, contributes to a deep-rooted Medieval suspicion of seeking the secrets of nature.

Stroumsa demonstrates an admirably balanced scholarly temperament and full command of the relevant sources as he effectively opens up a much-neglected aspect of early Christian thought. Unfortunately his format entails, on the one hand, a tantalizingly summary treatment of certain figures and, on the other, frequent repetitions. One would have liked to see him, for example, clarify the contrast between the views of Irenaeus and Tertullian, for whom the Old Testament is an enigma fully solved by the New, and those of Clement and Origen, for whom the New Testament does indeed reveal the hitherto hidden meaning of the Old, but must itself in turn be superseded. Occasionally he overstates his case, as when he suggests the “memoirs” (apomnemoneumata) of the Apostles in Justin Martyr’s famous description of Christian worship in his First Apology may have been oral (p. 87) when it is clearly stated that they are “read” (anagignosketai). More seriously, one might ask if the interiorization of esotericism is not a longer and more complicated process than Stroumsa indicates. He gratefully makes use of Arthur Darby Nock’s seminal article, “The Question of Jewish Mysteries” (reprinted in Essays on Religion in the Ancient World, 1:459–68 [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972]). This makes the point that, in the writings of Philo, terminology borrowed from the mystery cults via Plato does not...