The Veil : Contemplating the Christian Tradition


Position of the Problem

Jean Borella

Gnosis has had a bad press in Christianity. By instinct, it is reputed to be the worst enemy of the true religion. It is, then, somewhat paradoxical to speak of a Christian gnosis, and this is what I would like to respond to in the following reflections. At a time when the current of ideas sometimes seems to be making a return to a pagan and anti-Christian Gnosticism, it is perhaps not useless to show that a true Christian gnosis does exist, a gnosis more profound and more radical than the one which some are attempting to resurrect.

In general, religious and philosophical doctrines can be defined on the one hand historically: who was it that professed them? when did they live? was the name given to them a fitting one? etc.; and on the other speculatively: what were the doctrines involved? their Contents? These demands are not easily satisfied in the case of what they have agreed to call: gnosis. The object of my study is inseparable from the various perspectives by which it has been viewed. The history of gnosis (and Gnosticism) is the history of its historiography. Until fairly recently, in fact, this cosmological-religious conglomeration was known only through the refutations of its Christian (and Neoplatonist) adversaries. 'Heresiologist' are the ones chiefly involved, that is to say those Christian writers (Irenaeus, Justin, Hippolytus, etc.) who, around the second and third centuries combated Gnosticism in works of sometimes vast proportions, works which included lengthy citations from the adversaries to be refuted. These citations form the greater part of our documentation, and it is these citations that were studied by historians from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

But, in 1945, a Gnostic library, dating most likely from the fourth century after Christ, was discovered near Nag Hammandi in Upper Egypt. With respect to gnosis, it was the most important discovery in the history of Christianity; this library included thirty volumes (under the form of codices or notebooks) comprised of texts and text fragments either straight-forwardly Gnostic or utilized by the Gnostic community. The problems raised by these texts are far from being resolved, and it does not even seem that the historical knowledge of Gnosticism, by becoming more extensive, has become any clearer. What, then, are the theses raised by this religious movement, whose historical and geographical importance should not be exaggerated? (Here I will chiefly follow H.C.Peuch and Jean Doresse.)



Historians first saw in Gnosticism a purely Christian heresy. And since, as Tertullian says, heresy comes after orthodoxy, Gnosticism can only be, then, posterior to the formation of Christian doctrine, or, at the very least, almost contemporary. Therefore it would date from the first and second centuries. However, historians have not agreed on the meaning of this heresy. For some — principally Harnack — Gnosticism is a "radical and premature hellenisation" of a religion of eastern origin, a hellenisation at which the Church will succeed with more moderation and less haste to become Christianity such as we know it. For the others — and especially for the German Bousset — Gnosticism would have been, to the contrary, an attempt to make a religion regress towards an oriental source, a religion which, quite normally, would have assumed a Greek form.



A second stage in the historiography of Gnosticism was reached when, as a result of the just mentioned Bousset's works, it became more and more obvious that this current was not tied exclusively to Christianity, and that it there existed, prior to Christianity, religious groups (the Mandeans in particular) which incontestably gave rise to Gnosticism, even if they did not use the term 'gnosis' to define themselves. These groups would be encountered in numerous cultural regions: the Jewish apocalypses of the first century before Christ (this is Cardinal Daniélou's thesis), Iran and Egypt (the current of Hermetism in particular). This thesis is nearly indisputable and today seems to be quite well established, at least in its general framework (although, for my part, I am quite wary about the significance of the Gnostic phenomena and the various interpretations given it by historians). But, if true, if it is exact that Gnosticism possesses nothing specifically Christian, what has to be explained, then, is why the previous thesis seemed so obvious and how, in fact, Gnosticism could have been so closely blended with Christianity that it was been asked whether some of the greatest Gnostics, such as Valentinus, were not rather in truth sincere Christians whose Gnosticism would only have been superficial! Or do we have to admit that the encounter of Gnosticism and Christianity is only due to historical chance? Having come into contact with a young and dynamic religion, did Gnosticism think to use this strength for its own ends?



I would like to propose a third thesis: a somewhat ambitious attempt, but nothing ventured nothing gained! This thesis seems to correspond to the historical data recalled above. It is this: Christianity is a gnostic religion. It is even true gnosis, gnosis in all its purity. Before justifying this statement, let me quickly point out how it enables us to account for this historical data. If pre-Christian Gnosticism had, in coming into contact with the Christian revelation, somehow 'recognized' something in it, if it had the impression of discovering something not without rapport with its own vision of the divine and of the sacred, thus is explained its desire to use it for its own advantage and so benefit from its dynamism. We can also understand why so many historians could so aptly contend that Gnosticism was a properly Christian heresy; and even why Gnostics, like Valentinus, might ultimately appear more Christian than Gnostic. Doubtless, in order to admit my hypothesis, one needs to rise above strictly historical categories and admit that everything is not to be explained in terms of marked and observable influences, especially with respect to religious factors. But, for me, this is a proof. If, then, Gnosticism seemed so specifically Christian, and if, however, its origin is incontestably pre-Christian, this is because Christianity itself displays the characteristics of a truly authentic gnosis, or rather that, within it, gnosis attains to its purity and its truth, while the immediately pre- or para-Christians Gnosticisms offer only deformed or deviated aspects.

Gnosis and Gnosticism