Genesis 2-3, Canonical Interpretation and the Challenge of ”Gnosticism” [Paper]

This is a paper from a few months ago. Writing on the (academic) study of ”Gnosticism” was challenging, especially because I barely knew anything about the field when I started my research. The final effort still contains some flaws that I’m well aware of – specialists will certainly be able to spot them, which is also one of the reasons I ultimately didn’t succeed in publishing the paper. It’s interesting to reread and to see how quickly views can change and evolve – my thought experiments on the subject matter were different from how they are now. Still wanted to publish it though, it might be an interesting trip for those of you who are interested.

Towards an intertextual Eden?
Canonical interpretation, Genesis 2-3 and the challenge of Gnosticism

Tim Bouwhuis

Biblical scholars and exegetes, both in faculties of Religious Studies and Theology, face serious challenges when determining the boundaries of their research.[1] Any exegesis of a biblical text corpus demands proper historical contextualization, but it is never self-evident where this framework of interpretation begins and where it stops. Moreover, the researcher will always have to ask succinctly defined questions that match his or her theoretical and methodological qualifications. What to do, however, with perspectives which are supposedly external to the fixed texts and set canons of Christian denominations? How to negotiate the boundary marks between ex-and inclusion? And which complications and misconceptions can arise from drawing them? 

In this article, I embark upon the discursive interplay between biblical and ‘gnostic’ exegesis. Inspired by a case study on Genesis 2-3, I will elucidate and question some of the boundaries that separate and complicate scholarship on both canonical and gnostic text sources. The article consists of three sections. In the first section, I confer my understanding of ‘canonical interpretation’, explaining how it has framed and convoluted the study of non-canonical text corpora from the first centuries CE onwards. I explicate how the study of some of these corpora, collected under the discursive header of ‘Gnosticism’, has been heavily burdened by the implication that they only served to convey protest exegesis or oppositional readings of canonized biblical texts.

Several scholars involved in the contemporary study of Gnosticism have attempted to outmaneuver this scholarly obstruction, precisely by studying relevant ‘gnostic’ (con)texts on their own terms. Their efforts, however, are complicated by recurring disagreements on the terminological barriers of the category. In the section part of my paper I concisely discuss some of these issues, which will ultimately lead me to my main question: how can we move from confined understandings of gnostic difference towards a more inclusive and intertextual study of both biblical and proclaimed ‘gnostic’ literature? An answer to that question will be given on the basis of the case study that compiles my final section. 

In this section, I first discuss a set of exegetical questions and observations that Dutch scholar Ellen van Wolde (1954) brought up in a book chapter on Genesis 2-3 (1997). I then turn to the Apocryphon of John, a text that has often been mentioned as one of the most striking examples of early Christian Gnosticism.[2] I invoke the Apocryphon to ask a specific comparative question: to which extent do van Wolde’s key observations on Genesis 2-3 align with the exegetical twists that we find in the Apocryphon? Through this case study, I hope to demonstrate how an intertextual ‘gnostic’ perspective on biblical content can actually enrich, rather than undermine, our conceptions of the canonized source texts. 

I

Canonical interpretation and discursive power

In The Bible As It Was (1997), James Kugel states that the Bible as we now know it in its canonical formats has been implicitly rewritten through the act(s) of biblical interpretation. Exegetes that were able to situate themselves in an authoritative tradition all tended to distort and transform the apparent (meaning of the) texts, because they read them from the preliminary perspective of sacred truth.[3] Their fixed interpretations ultimately required a process of actual canonization to flourish. This process unfolded primarily from the fourth century CE onwards.

As Moshe Halbertal argues (1997), canonization steers a particular reading of a (biblical) text, and it is this reading, rather than the text itself, that becomes canonical.[4] One significant consequence of this process is the need to silence or reject those readings and interpretations that do not fit the framework of canonical interpretation. The polemicists of the early Christian period, most notably Irenaeus (130-202) and Tertullian (155-240), branded other readers and interpreters as heretics in order to define what they were not. Their efforts are so important because we know with hindsight that they succeeded: their canonical interpretations of biblical texts developed into a definitive canon for the New Testament and a more uniform Christianity in the fourth and fifth century CE.[5]

In the preceding centuries however, when the catholic canon had not been completely set yet, there were plenty of people who questioned the meaning of texts that were later canonized, and expressed their own theological understandings in literature that alluded to content that would ultimately become biblical. It is to these so-called ‘Gnostics’ and to the related category of Gnosticism that I now turn.

Defining ‘Gnosticism’

The American historian Karen L. King opens her 2003 monograph on the historiography of Gnosticism with the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary’s definitions of gnosis, gnostic and Gnosticism. We find the meaning of the Greek word gnosis, knowledge, in the dictionary definition of Gnosticism: ‘’the thought and practice esp. of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis’’.[6] If there is one thing we take from the rest of the book, it is the fact that gnostic and Gnosticism defy such straightforward definitions. King convincingly argues that ‘Gnosticism’ is actually a modern term, probably coined in the eighteenth century as a terminological aid in defining the boundaries of early normative Christianity.[7] Hence the central bias of Webster’s definition of Gnosticism: it confuses a rhetorical term with thorough historical contextualization.[8]   

The direct result is that Gnosticism was (and is still often) constructed in the terms and ideas of the people who actually opposed gnostic thought. Our knowledge about presupposed Gnostic ideas from the first centuries BCE is mainly derived from polemicists (Irenaeus, Tertullian) discussing these ‘heretic’ perspectives on [now] biblical text interpretations, which they already considered sacred and authoritative. Thus, and I quote, ‘’although the early Christian polemicists never used the term ‘’Gnosticism’’[9], their detractions not only supplied most of the information about what we call ancient Gnosticism, but also established the strategies for defining and evaluating it’’.[10] One of Kings aims is to demonstrate how many elements of the polemicists’ discourse have been thoroughly interwoven in twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism.[11]

In fact, we have considerably little information with regard to the question who these ‘Gnostics’ actually were and how they discussed and evaluated their ideas themselves. Scholars even disagree on their ideological position, which automatically problematizes the prevailing umbrella term, even from the polemicists’ point of view.[12]

Gnostic exegesis as protest exegesis

The sensational findings of several supposedly gnostic texts (classified as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts) in 1945 indicated that the Christian movement of the first two centuries CE had been much more diverse than we conceived before.[13] How to read and assess these texts? Narrow understandings of Gnosticism, that means, the ones criticized and deconstructed by King, might feature reinvented discussions of Christianity’s distant Other.[14] To a certain extent the Nag Hammadi Library indeed contains ‘opposite’ readings of Biblical texts. Its index of exemplary texts features, among many others, the Testimony of Truthand the Apocryphon of John, the last one being my upcoming case study subject.[15] Generalized conceptions of the gnostic library often indicate that ‘’the true God did not create world and humanity; that the world creator of Genesis was an ignorant pretender; that Christ never truly took on flesh and died, but only appeared to do so in order to fool the lower God and his angels (…and) that one should love the spirit and hate the flesh’’.[16] From there we can understand why Halbertal uses the principle of uncharitable reading to describe ‘the’ gnostic account of the creation stor(y)(ies), and why gnostic exegesis has often been framed as protest exegesis.[17]

There are two significant reasons, however, why this idea of protest exegesis does not help (and even distorts) the study of gnostic text sources. Using Halbertal’s preconceived notion of uncharitable readings would mean that we adopt the polemics that frame canonized and non-canonized interpretations – uncharitable undeniably bears a negative connotation. This negative connotation prevents a more outbalanced view on the actual exegetical strategy of many gnostic texts: they set out to solve, twist or enlighten particular gaps in the values and events of the biblical text and its canonical interpretation.[18] The second reason is more straightforward but no less true: the gnostic sources that we have are simply too diverse, and its value reversals are too inconsistent to speak of canonized readings turned upside down.[19]

II

Dismantling Gnosticism?

An idealistic and yet logical response to this rhetoric of differentiation could be the following: let us then try to read these supposed Gnostics on their own terms, rather than through the lens of Irenaeus and other early Christian polemicists that, following King, implicitly instructed the modern historiography of Gnosticism.[20] The problem here is that the study of ‘Gnosticism’ currently[21] finds itself in a confusing impasse.[22] In Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (1996), Michael Allen Williams heavily critiqued modern scholarly approaches to the study of Gnosticism. According to him, the stream of references to ‘’the Gnostics’’ and ‘’Gnosticism’’ as a religion have created the illusion of a concrete sociohistorical unity, for which no evidence exists.[23] Whereas I do not question his well-constructed critiques, his own proposal for a substitute category, ‘biblical demiurgical’, strikes me as no less artificial than the idea of a ‘gnostic’ religion. The consideration that is at stake here concerns the strong scholarly demand for a coherent category, one that is able to assemble a variety of texts and steer a better understanding. By now we can conclude that it will be very hard, if not impossible, to perpetuate any categorization that is founded on concrete sociohistorical rather than discursive traces. Thus, I take it that the best way to re-engage with the involved corpora of sources is to sustain a category that, as we are aware now, is imperfect and distorted by modern scholarship.[24] I wholeheartedly agree with Williams that the problem lies not with the data, but with the category.[25] I have strong doubts, however, as to whether the solution to the problem could be to dismantle the category altogether.

The alternative development that I see is that scholarship on gnostic texts could [hypothetically] perish a significant decrease. Since there is an ongoing need for researchers to define and theorize their subject matter, the current impasse in the study of Gnosticism could generate a further dispersion and dissimilation of gnostic sources. Since my analysis in the next section only deals with one gnostic text, I will not further elaborate on the issue of similarity versus difference in the context of diverse gnostic text corpora. I do think, however, that is important to keep this current nodus in mind continuously, for it is the debate on the category of ‘’Gnosticism’’ that either provides or deprives the heuristic tool that could steer and streamline future scholarly efforts, my third section being one of them.

III

Questioning the meaning(s) of Eden

I now turn to Ellen van Woldes 1997 study of Genesis 2-3 (the book as a whole is on Genesis 1-11) to discuss three exegetical questions that arise from her reading of the text. I will subsequently introduce the Apocryphon of John, which I have studied through the lens of a comparative question: to which extent does van Woldes exegetical reading of Genesis 2-3 align with the interpretative framework that is offered by the Apocryphon?

Why did God himself decide to plant the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge?[26]

Van Wolde points out that God himself installs the first negative element in the Garden (a creation followed by a prohibition).[27] The prohibition is an alienating one for humankind: Adam and Eve will die if they eat from the Tree of Knowledge, however, at this moment in biblical time they do not know yet what dying is. This lack of knowledge makes it less likely that the prohibition is meant to be a threat. Instead, says van Wolde, the Tree of Knowledge can be approached and conceived of as an instrument to initiate humankind’s first rite of passage: she connects the essential act of consumption with the accompanying ability to discern ‘good and evil’, that is, not in a moral but in a practical sense.[28] ‘Death’ is no expression of punishment but a consequence of the fact that humankind chose mortality above eternal life.

Why did God forbid Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Life after they already ate from the Tree of Knowledge?

The Tree of Knowledge has given Eve – as the Mother of all mothers – the ability to bear children and to multiply. The status quo complicates the idea of eternal life (through the Tree of Life), because the earth would quickly overpopulate if the basic growth of humankind would coincide with the ability of all these people to live forever.[29] This observation makes perfect sense if our understanding of God’s intentions is earth-centered rather than human-centered. It is this consideration that I evaluate in the third and final question. 

Was the departure from Eden a punishment or a necessity?

The Hebrew word adama (earth or soil) is a cognate of adam (human – Adam).[30] According to van Wolde, the Garden story of Genesis 2-3 demonstrates that the earth needs humankind to cultivate her soil for the sake of vegetation.[31] Since we are used to human centered-readings of the text, we are in need of a change of perspective to realize that God created all conditions that were necessary for Adam and Eve to ultimately leave the Garden.[32] Is it not palpable, then, to assume that a down to earth-necessity rather than a divine punishment drove humankind towards the gates of Eden?

While the focus of this article is not on canonized or ‘accepted’ readings (in this case I mainly refer to Augustine’s understanding of the Fall[33]) of Genesis 2-3 (at least, not content-wise), it must be duly noted that Van Wolde’s exegetical answers firmly diverge from preconceived ideas about original sin and humankind’s exile from Eden.

The Apocryphon of John

The Apocryphon of John is often considered to be one of the most important textual examples of Sethianism, a strand in Gnosticism that is named after the biblical figure of Seth, Adam’s third son.[34] The terminus ante quem of the original Greek manuscript is 400 CE, the terminus post quem cannot be established with certainty. Its author and place of composition are unknown.[35] I consider the Apocryphon particularly apt for a comparative take on van Woldes Genesis exegesis, because its sequence of events follows that in Genesis. As Ismo Dunderberg has noted, however, each passage involves a substantial amount of creative mythmaking. New figures and events are introduced, and old ones are interpreted from a new perspective.[36]

For considerations of scope and length, my summary of the Apocryphon of John mainly entails the narrative chain of events.[37] It reads as follows:

One day, John – the brother of James, the son of Zebedee – is visiting the temple when he is approached by a Pharisee. The Pharisee claims that John has been deceived by the Nazarene who has ‘gone to the place from which he came’.[38] The accusation leads John away from the temple into a desert place, where he grieves while he asks questions concerning the nature of the Father and the appointment of the savior. It is in this context that the heavens open and the savior himself appears, not as one entity but as a transformative ‘likeness with multiple forms in the light’.

The appearance says that he has come to teach and reveal, appointing John as a mediator to inform his fellow spirits. This is when the story begins.

Before and beyond everything else there is the invisible Spirit, who is ‘more than a god, since there is nothing above him’. This perfect and immaculate Spirit produces with his mind a visible image of his invisible own. The image is a ‘She’, the womb of everything, the one ‘prior to them all’. She asks the Spirit, who is also identified as ‘Barbelo’, to obtain foreknowledge, indestructibility, eternal life, and truth. He consents. By now the image of the Spirit is the ‘Mother-Father’, a creation that is both ‘male’ and ‘female’. The Mother-Father brings forth a child, an only offspring: the pure Light. The Light is blessed with a fellow worker, the mind, thus completing a trinity of Barbelo, Light (who is then identified as Christ) and mind.

From this trinity different lights and powers appear, and the lights are placed over different aeons (spiritual realms). Different ‘lights’ (angels?) are mentioned, the most important ones being the perfect Man (or Pigera-Adamas), and the Sophia of the Epinoia, who is paradoxically identified both as an aeon and as an active spiritual agent. Sophia is the first entity that acts against the consent of the Spirit; she wants to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the approval of the Spirit. The resulting creation turns out to be imperfect and yet invincible. When Sophia sees the consequences of her desire, the creation morphs into a lion-faced serpent. She names him Yaltabaoth. He is the first archon (demon).

Yaltabaoth declares himself God, proclaiming that he is a jealous God, and (yet) that there is (also) no other God beside him. He creates his own aeons where he reigns over other archons. There are seven archons or powers who represent the sevenness of the week; and these powers have their own angels who make the number 365.  

The mother regrets that she created Yaltabaoth. She petitions the Mother-Father, who then tricks Yaltabaoth to blow breath or spirit into the natural body of the man who would become Adam. Thus Yaltabaoth provides the natural body which his own divine power, which he initially received from his mother. The archons are jealous, because Adam is more intelligent than his creators and [than] Yaltabaoth. They decide to throw Adam, the luminous one, into the lowest region of all matter, the material earth.

Here the Mother-Father sends a helper to Adam, who is Epinoia, or Eve, and she comes out of him. Epinoia is hidden in Adam to correct the deficiency of the mother. She came to awaken the thinking of Adam, who was brought into the shadow of death by the archons. They invited Adam to eat from the Tree of Life, which was the tree of the archons. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil had to remain hidden, for it was the tree of Epinoia and the tree of illumination. However, when Adam has his first look on Eve, a likeness of (the spiritual and intangible) Epinoia, created by Yaltabaoth, Epinoia lifts the veil from his mind and he recognizes Eve as his wife. Here Michael Williams notes that the moment of this first look is interlaced with the revelation of the forbidden fruit in Genesis.[39]

When Yaltabaoth noticed that Adam and Eve recognized their own nakedness, he cursed his earth and cast them out of paradise. To undermine their superiority, he finds a way to control them: he ‘invents’ sexual intercourse. He impregnates Eve with Kain and Abel. And later it is Yaltabaoth who repents his creation. He plans a flood, but then ‘the light of the foreknowledge’ (Christ) interferes: he informs Noah and his offspring, and they hide, not in an ark but in a ‘luminous cloud’. After the flood, Yaltabaoth finds a way to enslave human kind forever: he lets his angels become likenesses of the daughters of men, and they deceive the people, who die without knowing the truth.

In the end, the hope for salvation is encapsulated into the savior’s revelation to John, who tells his disciples what he has heard.

An intertextual Eden

We see how The Apocryphon of John takes the notion of the evil demiurge to explain how God (Yaltabaoth) created Man to enslave and dominate him. The archons prohibit Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge, because it is the tree of spiritual illumination. This provides us with a commentary that enlightens one of the central exegetical problems of the text itself; since there is no ‘good God’ introducing a negative element (‘the forbidden tree’), the paradox that van Wolde mentions in her exegesis is no longer at play.

The Apocryphon further twists the notion of original sin by delineating Eve’s ‘deception’ by the snake (identified as the devil in canonical interpretation) with the actual need to free Adam from his spiritual sleep.[40] The subtility (Gen. 3:1) of the snake thus gets a positive rather than a negative connotation; in the Apocryphon, the subtly deceiving snake subtly lifts Adam’s veil.[41] The ‘snake’ is now Epinoia, and although she is associated with the same Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the function of this tree is radically differs. If we would assume for a moment that Genesis 2-3 centers around the notions of sin and its temptation, the Apocryphon uses the same key events in the myth to initiate Adam’s deliverance.  Here it is striking that van Wolde discusses the Hebrew word aroem (smart ór knowing) to match the central characteristic of the snake with the nakedness (the need to awaken!) of Adam and Eve (nakedness= aroemmim, plural of aroem). Her understanding of humankind’s awakening as a practical step in God’s earth-centered plan is much closer to the gnostic idea of spiritual awakening than it is to moral deception.

There is an interesting roleplay between van Woldes exegesis and the Apocryphon: both readings of Genesis 2-3 free its protagonists from what I call a ‘burden of punishment’. In van Wolde, humankind’s ‘exile’ from Eden is freed from the burden of punishment, because it fits God’s plan to have humankind cultivate the earth. Here, the proclaimed canonical interpretation predominantly shifts on the level of the reason for Adam and Eve’s departure from the garden. The event signifies a new beginning, an earth-centered necessity that can be understood in a particularly positive light.

In the Apocryphon, the same departure still carries a negative meaning, because it signifies Yaltabaoth’s failure to perpetuate Adam’s ignorance. On the other hand, his initial moment of spiritual awakening is disconnected from the doctrine of original sin. Both the exegesis and the gnostic text thus provide their subject matter with a crucial twist: they each take an event with a negative connotation and turn it into something positive.

Although van Wolde never uses the term gnostic in her text, it is not that difficult to develop a gnostic argument on the basis of her thought-provoking exegesis. Her notion of awakening features on a mundane rather than a spiritual level; yet, both frameworks of interpretation allow the inception of knowledge to be a necessity rather than a tragedy. Thus, the boundaries of interpretation turn out to be blurrier than one might suspect: after all, van Woldes questions arise from the text itself, rather than from a ‘gnostic’ agenda. Yet the conceivable similarities between her exegesis and the Apocryphon are much more visible than the differences.

This observation demonstrates that we do not strictly need particular texts that are framed as gnostic or even concrete historical groups of likeminded exegetes to read Genesis in a gnostic way; that is, a reading that either affirms or questions its gnosis of the text rather than a tradition of canonical interpretation. Unorthodoxy and uncharitability are never determined by the text itself. Instead, we can understand and unpack the prevalent variety of readings and interpretations within the discursive framework of intertextuality, where ‘’new texts appropriate previous material, establishing a complex system of relationships of opposition, agreement (…) and reformulation’’.[42] To conclude with another note on textual ambivalence, the questions that are asked by van Wolde neatly align with a later conception of Religious Studies scholar Elaine Pagels regarding the first chapters of Genesis: ‘’gaps and unexplained leaps in both (creation) stories leave huge spaces in which the imagination may roam; thus each may open up for the hearer more questions than it claims to answer.’’[43]

Conclusion

Pagels’ quote touches upon the exegetical interplay that I evaluated in this article. In the realm of biblical exegesis, standards of canonical interpretation have often clashed with texts and readings that got assembled under the headers of heresy, opposition and protest. This article particularly dealt with scholarly discourse on Gnosticism. I have elaborated on the difficulties that are involved in defining the category, using the work of King and Williams as entry points to terminological discussions that will probably continue to underpin future research in this field. Whereas it has not been my goal to critique the current impasse in the study of Gnosticism, I do think that scholars can justify the use of Gnosticism as an heuristic tool, precisely because there appears to be no solid alternative that accounts for the pluriform and indistinct sociohistorical contexts of gnostic text corpora. This theoretical choice can help to exempt the study of these corpora from its continuous emphasis on difference, which does not contradict the data but does not help it forward either.

This article is an attempt to demonstrate that an intertextual take on the biblical material (in this case, Genesis 2-3) can also invite a more inclusive discourse on both canonical and non-canonical (con)texts, in which exegetical differences are allowed to either dissolve or sustain. I have argued that van Woldes key observations on Genesis 2-3 align with the exegetical twists of the Apocryphon to a considerable and significant extent. Both readings of the canonical text present a crucial shift in perspective, one that alters the negative connotation of a biblical event and turns a tragedy into a necessity. Van Wolde provides an earth-centered explanation of humankind’s departure from Eden. Eve’s consumption from the tree of knowledge is encapsulated into a coming of age-process that defies the doctrinal conception of original sin. The Apocryphon presents the same moment of consumption within a context of spiritual or divine awakening. Adam and Eve’s departure from the garden signifies Yaltabaoth’s initial loss of control over humankind. Both readings of Genesis 2-3 fit perfectly within the domain of the canonical text itself. They are not predetermined to undermine prevalent understandings of the canon and its contexts; in fact, they provide us with more perspectives than their canonical interpreters were either willing or able to take.

Bibliography

Dunderberg, I. ‘’Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis’’. In The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible. Edited by M. Lieb, E. Mason, J. Roberts and C. Rowland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Halbertal, M. ‘’Canon and Meaning’’. In People of the Book: Canon, Meaning and Authority. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

King, K.L. What Is Gnosticism?. Cambridge MA: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Kugel, J. The Bible As It Was. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Luttikhuizen, G. Gnostic Revisions of Genesis Stories and Early Jesus Traditions. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2005.

Marjanen, A. ‘’Gnosticism’’. In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Edited by S.A. Harvey and D.G. Hunter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Pagels, E. Adam, Eve, And The Serpent. New York: Random House, 1988.

Plese, Z. Poetics of the Gnostic Universe: Narrative and Cosmology in the Apocryphon of John. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Scholz, S. and C. Vander Stichele., eds., Hidden Truths From Eden: Esoteric Readings of Genesis 1-3. Williston: SBL Press, 2014.

Van Wolde, E. Verhalen Over Het Begin: Genesis 1-11 en andere Scheppingsverhalen. Baarn: Uitgeverij Ten Have, 1997.

Williams, M.A. Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Williams, M.A. ‘’Sethianism’’. In A Companion to Second-century Christian ‘’Heretics’’. Edited by A. Marjanen and P. Luomanen. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 32-63.

Source texts

The Apocryphon of John (The Secret Book of John – The Secret Revelation of John). Translated by Frederik Wisse. The Gnostic Society Library: The Nag Hammadi Library. http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apocjn.html. Accessed March 30th, 2019.

The Testimony of Truth. Translated by Søren Giversen and Birger A. Pearson. The Gnostic Society Library: The Nag Hammadi Library. http://gnosis.org/naghamm/testruth.html. Accessed January 21st, 2019.

This paper was originally written in the context of a UU Research Master course on Religious Texts and Interpretative practices. Instructor: Christian Lange.

The revised version was finished on the 13th of April, 2019.


[1] I am well aware that my superficial distinction between Religious Studies and Theology might raise some critical questions here; my actual intention is to state very clearly, i.e. from the beginning, that my understanding of Biblical scholarship does not adhere (at least, not intentionally) to a normative stance on insider/outsider debates or discussions that touch upon the differences between Religious Studies and Theology.

[2] M.A. Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 8.

[3] J. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), XIV, 28. One of Kugels main efforts is that he sets out four assumptions that, so he argues, steered most ancient Biblical interpretation.

[4] M. Halbertal, ‘’Canon and Meaning’’, in People of the Book: Canon, Meaning and Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 26-27.

[5] K.L. King, What Is Gnosticism? (Cambridge MA: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 22.

[6] Quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism?, 5.

[7] See also: Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’, 7.

[8] King, What Is Gnosticism?, 1-2.

[9] Occasionally some of the polemicists used the term ‘Gnostics’ to refer to groups of people they disagreed with.  King, What Is Gnosticism?, 26.

[10] King, What Is Gnosticism?, 20.

[11] King, What Is Gnosticism?, 52.

[12] The Dutch scholar Gerard Luttikhuizen elaborates on this discussion in his book Gnostic Revisions of Genesis Stories and Early Jesus Traditions (2005). He mentions the German philosopher Hans Jonas, who was convinced that Gnostic myth was heavily anti-Jewish, and even used the term ‘(metaphysical) anti-Semitism’ to characterize the Gnostic treatment of Jewish tradition. Luttikhuizen himself considers it most probable that we are dealing with ‘’non-Jewish intellectuals with a background in Hellenistic schools of thought who evaluated Biblical and other non-Gnostic traditions in the light of their own religio-philosophical worldview.’’ This could possibly mean that the Gnostics were Christians who negotiated their alternative understanding(s) of Tanakh, or the Old Testament. Jonas quoted and discussed in G. Luttikhuizen, Gnostic Revisions of Genesis Stories and Early Jesus Traditions (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2005), 8-9. Luttikhuizens perspective mainly on pp.10-11.

[13] E. Pagels, Adam, Eve, And The Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 151-52. The standardized translation (into English) of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts was edited by James M. Robinson (1977).

[14] ‘’It is the proximate, not the distant, other who most urgently provokes the language of differentiation’’. Jonathan Z. Smith quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism?, 24.

[15] The Apocryphon of John (The Secret Book of John – The Secret Revelation of John). Translated by Frederik Wisse. The Gnostic Society Library: The Nag Hammadi Library. http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apocjn.html. Accessed March 30th, 2019. The Testimony of Truth. Translated by Søren Giversen and Birger A. Pearson. The Gnostic Society Library: The Nag Hammadi Library. http://gnosis.org/naghamm/testruth.html. Accessed January 21st, 2019.

[16] King, What Is Gnosticism?, 8. I am well aware that I bring a couple of pressing ideas to the fore here, but I do not see any possibility to discuss all of them within the scope of this paper.

[17] Halbertal, ‘’Canon and Meaning’’, 40-44.

[18] Take, for instance, the plural verb [‘let us make’] that is used to indicate the creation of man in Genesis 1:26. As we will see in the Apocryphon, ‘us’ becomes concrete once we understand that the creators are Yaltabaoth and his archonts.

[19] Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’, 57-63.

[20] See also: Pagels, Adam, Eve, And The Serpent, 60-61.

[21] I am aware that I will quote a text from 2008 here – in my research I did not find any scholarship on the status quo in the field that is considerably more accurate than the situation I am sketching here.

[22] A. Marjanen, ‘’Gnosticism’’, in The Oxford Handbook for Early Christian Studies, ed. by S.A. Harvey and D.G. Hunter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1-2.

[23] Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’, 5.

[24] Here I also follow Antti Marjanen, who argues that Williams’ critiques do not take away the fact that there are significant similarities that these texts share, which also inspire Williams’ own umbrella term (biblical demiurgical). ‘’Without positing the existence of a distinct ‘gnostic’ religion or a common social context which would account for the origin of the texts’’, he proposes, ‘’the texts can still be classified as ‘gnostic’’’. Marjanen, ‘’Gnosticism’’, 8.

[25] Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’, 28.

[26] E. Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin: Genesis 1-11 en andere Scheppingsverhalen (Baarn: Uitgeverij Ten Have, 1997), 53-54.

[27] Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin, 53.

[28] Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin, 58-59.

[29] Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin, 59.

[30] Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin, 51, 53. Note that Adam is also created from adama.

[31] Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin, 55.

[32] Van Wolde, Verhalen Over Het Begin, 56-57.

[33] Pagels, Adam, Eve, And the Serpent, xxvi.

[34] Among other examples of Sethianism are The Revelation of Adam, The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit and The Nature of the Rulers. When Williams (2005) discusses ‘Sethianism’, he mainly underlines its typological qualities as agreeable stakeholders of comparison and unity. Whereas his argument support the idea that it is possible to track sets of identifiable ‘Sethian’ themes in gnostic literature, Williams questions simplistic reconstructions (see: John D. Turner, 2001) of the social contexts in which these themes supposedly originated. I. Dunderberg, ‘’Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis’’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible, ed. by. M. Lieb, E. Mason, J. Roberts and C. Rowland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’,  8. M.A. Williams, ‘’Sethianism’’, in A Companion To Second-century Christian ‘’Heretics’’ , ed. by. A. Marjanen and P. Luomanen (Leiden: Brill, 2005) 36, 52, 54,  57. As Williams points out in his article, the Apocryphon does not single out Seth as a central agent of spiritual revelation, but he still occupies the same significant position in the divine genealogy that connects the revelations in several gnostic-Sethian texts. Williams, ‘’Sethianism’’, 43-44.

[35] Z. Plese, Poetics of the Gnostic Universe: Narrative and Cosmology in the Apocryphon of John (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 1.

[36] Dunderberg, ‘’Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis’’, 8.

[37] The reader is encouraged to read the whole text before he or she continues reading.

[38] This is a reference to the ascension of Jesus Christ (Luke 24).

[39] Williams, Rethinking ‘’Gnosticism’’, 12.

[40] On the snake as the devil: Kugel, The Bible As It Was, xiv.

[41] See the formulation ‘But the serpent was wiser than all the animals that were in paradise’ in the Testimony of Truth.

[42] Quoted in: Dunderberg, ‘’Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis’’, 2.

[43] E. Pagels, ‘’Strategies in Esoteric Exegesis’’, in S. Scholz and C. Vander Stichele, Hidden Truths from Eden (Williston: SBL Press, 2014), 237.

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