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M.A. Williams: Hellenism and the Category 'Gnosticism'87 The Harvest of Hellenism and the Category 'Gnosticism' Michael A. Williams Among the various forms ofreligious expression attested in die early Roman Empire mere is one assortment ofphenomena that modern scholarship of die past two hundred years or so has come to group togetiier under the label "gnosis" or "gnosticism."1 Many scholars today would locate die origins of "gnosticism" in preChristian circles of the late Hellenistic period-for example, widiin late Hellenistic Jewish circles. A majority of the surviving sources, however, are either Christian or "Christianized," focusing on and interpreting central elements in Christian tradition (Christ as Savior, traditions from Christian gospels, etc.), or at least incorporating some Christian elements (e.g., vocabulary, ritual). The classic sources describing "gnosis" or "gnosticism" are in fact writings by ancient Christian heresiologists, from as early as the second century CE., who catalogued many such traditions and treated diem as deviant forms or corruptions of Christian truth, "heresies." The lists of ancient "heresies" provided by the heresiologists include sects associated widi die names of various individual teachers, such as die Christian teachers Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, or Satomil, but also groups that are labeled by die heresiologists based on some element of their alleged teaching (e.g., "Sethians," because of dieir mytiis about die biblical figure Setii). We also have a certain number of surviving original writings from some of these alleged "heretics" themselves. This year in fact marks the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of die largest single body of such original writings, a group of a dozen or so fourdi-century CE. codices, written in Coptic (though almost all of the writings in them are arguably translations from earlier Greek works), and found in 1945 near die Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.2 The discovery and publication of the Nag 1 For a general treatment, see K. Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History ofGnosticism, trans. R.McL. Wilson (San Francisco 1983). 2 For a one-volume English translation of the texts, with a general introduction about the discovery and nature of the collection, see J.M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, rev. ed. (San Francisco 1988). Jn what follows I refer to tractates from the Nag Hammadi collection using the titles for them as found in the Robinson volume. Citations from Nag Hammadi tractates here follow the convention of giving Coptic codex page and line numbers (e.g., Testimony ofTruth 58.2-4). For a few tractates there are multiple copies, in different codices, and in those cases the citation also includes a Roman numeral indicating which codex version is being citated (e.g., 88Syllecta Classica 6 (1995) Hammadi codices has stirred a twentieth century revival of interest in "gnosticism," as the nature and significance ofdiese new sources has begun to be evaluated.3 It is not uncommon to find attention to "gnosticism" in modern treatments of Hellenistic religion. In a recent introduction to Hellenistic religions, Luther Martin devotes me last of his five chapters to die subject of "Late Hellenistic Gnosis." However, Martin argues that this "gnosis" involved a "complete revaluing and reversal of the assumptions ofHellenistic religion."4 There is a long background to diis sense diat "gnosticism" constitutes a fruit from the harvest of Hellenism that nevertheless involved a radical mutation of values from the heritage of Hellenistic culture. Many years ago, in his classic study Five Stages of Greek Religion, G. Murray found in "gnosticism" die most striking instance of that "Failure of Nerve" which he felt had emerged as die distinctive new quality in Mediterranean religions during die Hellenistic period.3 Murray commented tiiat this new quality was hard to describe, though he made a stab at it6 It is a rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God. It is an atmosphere in which the aim of the good man is not so much to live justly, to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5157
Print ISSN
1040-3612
Pages
pp. 87-104
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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