Esoteric Traditions: Gnosis and Gnosticism
Dr. John C. Reeves
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“Who were we? What have we become? Where were we? Into what place have we been cast? From what are we rescued?”
– Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus 78.2.
“He (i.e., Jesus) only spoke to them (i.e., the crowd) in parables, but he explained everything secretly to his disciples.” – Mark 4:34.
“At last Jesus said to the teacher: ‘If you are truly a teacher and indeed know the letters, tell me the power of “A” and I will tell you the power of “B”!’ Then the teacher was filled with indignation and struck him on the head. But Jesus was angry and cursed him, and suddenly he fell down and died. And Jesus returned home from school.” – Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Latin) 12:2-3 (adapted from the translation of Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924], 64).
An introductory survey of certain types of esoteric religious literature generated by and about so-called ‘gnostic’ sects that flourished during late antiquity and the early medieval era in the Mediterranean world and the East under Roman, Sasanian, and Islamicate rule. After some initial orientation, the bulk of the course will concentrate upon a close reading and analysis of a variety of literary remains, including (but not necessarily limited to) portions of Bible; the Dead Sea scrolls; apocryphal gospels, acts, and apocalypses; reports from Christian and Muslim heresiologists, the Nag Hammadi corpus of biblically affiliated Coptic works, Graeco-Egyptian hermetica, Manichaean writings and testimonia, Mandaean writings, and Jewish esoterica. Should time permit, we will also contemplate the reputed survivals (or resurgence?) of classical ‘gnostic’ motifs within certain medieval Christian and Muslim groups.
Warning: In this class you will hear or read ideas which may disturb, shock, dismay, or outrage you, and you will be compelled to think using methodological paradigms which you may deem troubling, wrong-headed, blasphemous, or even sacrilegious. If you think you might be uncomfortable in this situation, then this is definitely not the class for you. On the other hand, if you think you can suspend your uncritical attachments to certain notions about scriptures, their meaning, and the circumstances surrounding their production, then you will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the historical and cultural matrices betwixt which religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam arose and flourished.
The following textbooks are required for this course:
Bentley Layton and David Brakke, The Gnostic Scriptures, Second Edition (Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).
Web links to many of the primary texts we will read are available on the course website. Other texts will be distributed by the instructor electronically on Canvas as needed.
a. Readings. The nature of this course entails a significant amount of close reading and reflection. Students are responsible for anticipating and completing the reading assignments (outlined below) in a timely manner. Every student is expected to read and critically engage substantial portions of Bible, parascriptural works, commentaries, testimonia, and lengthy examples of esoterica which have been englished from Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Mandaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Arabic, Persian, and Ethiopic. Critical engagement with a select set of secondary readings authored by modern theorists, analysts, and historians is also required.
b. Take-home written exercises. An indeterminate number of written exercises (usually one per week; optimally one per class) will be prepared and submitted for in-class discussion and out-of-class evaluation. These exercises vary in length from less than one (1) to a maximum of five (5) typewritten or electronically printed pages. All of these exercises will be announced and explained by the instructor during the course of or at the conclusion of a class meeting. The instructor’s evaluation of the student’s collective written exercise performance (using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D) will comprise 75% of the course grade.
c. Final take-home essay. Instead of an in-class three-hour final examination, you will prepare a final essay wherein you will be expected to synthesize many of the major issues and themes discussed in class and in the required readings, as well as to demonstrate your knowledge of the specific source materials and facts which pertain to those issues and themes. Once its topic is assigned (on the final class meeting day), this essay will be delivered to the instructor before the date and time officially mandated for the final examination of this course by the UNC Charlotte administration. The final essay is worth 15% of the course grade.
d. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion and analysis comprise a significant portion of every class meeting. Preparation for every class usually involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or short written assignment(s). Students are expected to contribute in an informed manner to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic, and the instructor reserves the right to administer occasional unannounced oral ‘pop-quizzes’ should he deem the situation so warrants (grades for such quizzes are averaged with those of the take-home exercises). The instructor’s assessment of one’s attendance, apparent class preparation, and informed oral contributions will constitute 10% of the final course grade.
e. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur.
f. While the state of emergency procedures regarding COVID-19 have been lifted, I have decided to continue to wear my face mask when leading class and meeting with you individually in my office. I will leave it up to you to monitor your own health and to act responsibly should you happen to fall ill during the course of the semester.
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-100 A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some demonstrable proficiency in control of material & analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable work
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk, wi-fi, and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) There is no such thing as a ‘make-up pop quiz.’ No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) Homework exercises fall due on the date announced by the instructor in class. They must be typed and submitted by email to me in either Microsoft Word or Adobe format prior to the start of the class for which they have been assigned. No physical copies of homework will be accepted or returned. Since we will normally discuss these exercises together in class on that date, it would clearly be unfair to those who submitted their work on time for me to accept ‘late’ work from those who were privy to our in-class discussion. Hence I will not accept ‘late’ homework submissions (even from those of you who may be physically absent during our discussion); however, ‘early’ submissions (i.e., before the start of class) are always welcome and will receive full credit. These exercises are graded using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D; failure to submit = 0.
3) For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; A-=92; B=85; C+=78; C=75; D=65; F=30. A paper or written exercise that is not typed automatically receives the grade F, as do any typed papers which violate the required formatting parameters or which the instructor deems physically unacceptable and/or grammatically incomprehensible.
4) Since your diligent physical participation is critical for the success of this course, attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One or two absences are regrettable; three absences are the limit of tolerability. Each successive absence lowers this portion of your course assessment by one letter grade; seven (7) or more results in an automatic F for the course. Please note that—with the exception of religious holidays—the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
5) Policy regarding Audits: the instructor expects auditors (whether formally enrolled as such or not) to meet the same attendance, preparation, and oral participation standards as those students who are taking the course for credit. The instructor does not expect auditors to prepare and submit any written assignments.
6) I do not post grades on Canvas or use it for grading. You can easily determine your own course progress (or lack thereof) by paying attention to the number and quality of the grades you earn over the course of the semester and performing the simple arithmetic required (using the equivalency tables listed above) to generate a ‘rough’ grade average.
c. There will be no class meetings on the following days:
Monday, September 5 (Labor Day)
Monday, September 26 (Rosh Hashanah)
Wednesday, October 5 (Yom Kippur)
Monday, October 10 (Student Recess)
Wednesday, November 23 (Thanksgiving)
Thursday, November 24 (Thanksgiving)
d. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
e. The standards, requirements, and procedures set forth in this syllabus are subject to modification at any time by the course instructor. Notice of such changes will be by announcement in class, or by email, or by changes to this syllabus posted on this course website.
Rough course outline
1. A terminological & historical introduction
Meet the sources
What is ‘gnosis’?
The esoteric mentality: ‘public’ and ‘hidden’
The secrets of writing: the ‘wise child’s alphabet’
The writing of secrets: the ‘cached book’
Layton-Brakke, pp. ix-xlvii; 5-12.
4 Ezra 14:38-50 (Latin, Syriac, Arabic).
Irenaeus on the Marcosians (Adv. haer. 1.13-22); Shahrastānī on the ‘god of Mazdak.’
Lalitavistara sutra chap. 10; Pseudo-Ben Sira; Umm al-Kitāb
Sefer Yetzira; Sefer ha-Bahir (excerpts).
2. Types of classical gnosis, historically and/or discursively attested
Predecessors and congeners: Qumran; ma‘aseh bereshit; Simon; Basilides
Sethians, Ophites, Valentinians, Thomasines, etc.
Ibn al-Nadīm’s ‘Chaldean dualists’
Layton-Brakke, pp. 209-636 (excerpts).
1QS 3:13-4:26; m. Ḥag. 2.1; Acts Thom. ‘Wedding Hymn’ and ‘Hymn of the Pearl’ (Layton-Brakke, pp. 543-54); Pseudo-Clementine Homil. 2.22-32.
Gospel of Thomas (Layton-Brakke, pp. 555-88).
Theodore bar Konai on Syro-Mesopotamian ‘gnostic’ groups.
3. The ‘gnostic’ mythos
Cosmogony, anthropogony, cult, soteriology, eschatology
Layton-Brakke, pp. 13-23.
The Secret Book According to John/Apocryphon of John (Layton-Brakke, pp. 25-61).
The Reality of the Rulers/Hypostasis of the Archons (Layton-Brakke, pp. 93-107).
The Revelation of Adam/Apocalypse of Adam (Layton-Brakke, pp. 77-92).
The Gospel of Judas (Layton-Brakke, pp. 62-76).
The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit/Gospel of the Egyptians (Layton-Brakke, pp. 137-61).
‘Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice-great Hermes ….’ – Milton, Il Penseroso
Layton-Brakke, pp. 639-60.
C.H. 1 (Poimandres); Asclepius
5. Mani and Manichaeism
A Babylonian prophet founds the first ‘world religion’
Theodore bar Konai on Mani & Manichaeism
Ibn al-Nadīm on Mani & Manichaeism
Other Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Middle Iranian, & Chinese sources
Theodore bar Konai on Mandaeism
Bīrūnī on the ‘real Ṣābians’ (= Mandaeans)
Mandaic sources (excerpted)
In response to student requests for recommendations regarding useful and enlightening discussions of certain topics, themes, and personalities that are presented in class and/or readings, I offer the following suggestions for further study at the student’s leisure. I confine myself in the first two paragraphs to materials which I myself have used with profit and which are currently available at Atkins Library.
It is often helpful for the student to begin with appropriate articles in the standard Bible dictionaries. The latest and best are Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009) and The Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1992). Still reliable are The Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible (4 vols.) and its Supplementary Volume (ed. George A. Buttrick; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962 & 1976), and the Harper’s Bible Dictionary (ed. Paul J. Achtemeier; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985). Highly recommended are the relevant articles in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2d ed.; 22 vols.; ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik; Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007) and the Encyclopaedia of Islam (new ed.; 12 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1960-2002).
The bibliographies supplied by articles consulted in the above reference works should suffice for initial study. Of well nigh unparalleled importance for the history of Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretation are the notes volumes in Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (7 vols.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1909-38).
Note also the following more specialized studies, not all of which are available in Atkins Library:
David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Roelof van den Broek, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Dylan M. Burns, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
Jean Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics: An Introduction to the Gnostic Coptic Manuscripts Discovered at Chenoboskion (trans. Philip Mairet; New York: Viking Press, 1960).
Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism (trans. Anthony Alcock; Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).
Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity (2d rev. ed.; Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).
Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
Nicola Denzey Lewis, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Birger A. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).
______, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
John C. Reeves, “Gnosticism,” in John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 678-681.
______, “Questions of Gnostic Influence on Early Islam,” in Garry W. Trompf, ed., The Gnostic World (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 307-20.
Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (trans. Robert McL. Wilson; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).
Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology (NHS 24; Leiden: Brill, 1984).
Michael A. Williams, Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times (trans. David Lorton; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007).
Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West (trans. David Lorton; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).
M. David Litwa, Hermetica II: The Excerpts of Stobaeus, Papyrus Fragments, and Ancient Testimonies in an English Translation with Notes and Introductions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Kevin van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Taylor & Francis, 1964).
Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu, eds., Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).
Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (2d ed.; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992).
John C. Reeves, Heralds of That Good Realm: Syro-Mesopotamian Gnosis and Jewish Traditions (NHMS 41; Leiden: Brill, 1996).
______, Prolegomena to a History of Islamicate Manichaeism (Sheffield and Oakville: Equinox, 2011).
Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
______, The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2010).
E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cult, Customs, Magic, Legends, and Folklore (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937).
Charles G. Häberl, The Book of Kings and the Explanations of This World: A Universal History from the Late Sasanian Empire (TTH 80; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022). See especially pp. 4-31.
Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics (trans. Charles Hindley; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002).
Some medieval ‘gnostic’ currents
Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
______, Primeval Evil in Kabbalah: Totality, Perfection, Perfectibility (New York: Ktav, 2020).
John C. Reeves, Shades of Light and Darkness: Chaldean Dualism, Gnosis, and the Islamicate Milieu (in progress).
Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947).
Gershom G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (2d ed.; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1965).
______, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d rev. ed.; New York: Schocken, 1961).
______, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah (trans. Joachim Neugroschel; New York: Schocken Books, 1991).
______, Origins of the Kabbalah (trans. Allan Arkush; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
Yuri Stoyanov, The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy (rev. ed.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
Garry W. Trompf, ed., The Gnostic World (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).