Religious Studies 535 (University of Pennsylvania) 19 April 2005


Review by Carl Pfendner of


Turner, John D., and Ruth Majercik, eds. Gnosticism and Later Platonism: Themes, Figures, and Texts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.


This text is divided into multiple papers presented together as the result of a symposium for the Society of Biblical Literature, thus there are multiple authors, styles, and formats. I will briefly assess the character of each style and format for each paper after first describing the content.


The Derivation of Matter in Monistic Gnosticism

Einar Thomassen, University of Bergen (Religion), pp. 1-18


Thomassen breaks down the elements of the universe as described in Gnosticism, at least as it is described in what he sees as Valentinian Gnosticism. He matches these concepts to those developed in a Neopythagorean or Platonist tradition and explains the connections between the traditions. He identifies “Audacity” (1), “Extension” (2), “Passion” (3), “Otherness” (4), “Movement” (5), “Formlessness” (6), “Division” and “Separation” (7), “Shadow” (8), and “Limit” (9) as the primary means by which matter comes forth in Gnostic theory. “Audacity” is used to describe an emanation from a higher hypostasis to a lower one as it inherently expresses “a dyadic aspect.” “Extenstion” is used to describe the action of Sophia as she extends herself “indefinitely” in an unfulfillable desire for the Father. “Passion” is used to describe the generation of a son by Sophia in the myth. The term “otherness” is used to describe the nature of the higher Sophia while the lower Sophia is ascribed with “contrariness,” a distinction that bears fruit in their actions. “Movement” is ascribed to the projection of the Son and to the passion of Sophia and it stands in contrast to the immovability of the Monad. “Formlessness” is a characteristic ascribed to the suffering Sophia, the Dyad, and Matter. “Division” and “Separation” are seen as the characteristics of Sophia who breaks away from the standard series of emanations. This can be seen as a major break from a Plotinian system which relies on the continuity of the emanation. “Shadow” is used to describe any material that is purely negative and cut off from the pleroma. “Limit” is used to describe the inherent nature of matter as it takes its form in the physical realm. Each of these terms is compared and contrasted with its use in Platonic and Neopythagorean philosophical traditions and it becomes clear that Gnostic description of the derivation of matter is at least influenced by, if not derived from, Platonism and Neopythagoreanism.


This paper relies on specific philosophical terminology to make many of its arguments and thus can seem a bit plodding at times. The author does not make it any easier to read the terminology though as he frequently refers to an entire idea in Greek thus making the reader translate the section for him- or herself before being able to come to the conclusion that the author wants. Although this approach is technically more exact in its description, it disrupts the flow for anyone not well extremely versed in either Greek or Gnostic/Platonic language. This paper is not for popular reading. The author does make a thorough and reasonable description of the connections between the language of the Gnostic and Platonic/Neopythagorean texts though so if one can work through the technical language the argument is convincing.


Positive and Negative Matter in Later Platonism: The Uncovering of Plotinus’s Dialogue with the Gnostics

Kevin Corrigan, University of Saskatchewan (Philosophy), pp. 19-56


Corrigan here compares and contrasts Plotinus’ approach to the generation of matter with that of the Gnostic tradition. Plotinus has a much more positive view on matter than the disrupted view the Gnostics seem to take. He refutes the notion that one can be initially relegated to a totally corrupt material existence and come out of it in some way without any initial connection to it in the first place. Plotinus also seems to reject the elitist notion that only a select few can ever transcend this material existence. Furthermore Corrigan suggests that Plotinus not only attempts to refute the Gnostic negative view on matter with his own line of reasoning that leads to positively derived physical existence, but his own viewpoint is influenced by the pre-existence of this group and its negative view on matter.


This paper concentrates primarily on the Plotinian perspective rather than a Gnostic one. The author even starts his treatise with an admission that most of his thoughts here came from puzzles within Plotinus to begin with and later found Gnosticism to be helpful in explaining some of these issues. This paper gives significant insight into the nature of Plotinus’ arguments and how they rely on a reaction against the Gnostic viewpoint. Although at points it seems to be bogged down by specific terminology, this is at least partially due to the nature of Plotinus’ argument rather than the author’s inability to communicate the material. Corrigan makes a good case for his thesis and supports it well with examples of specific word-choice, development in Plotinus’ argument, and the philosophical context out of which Plotinus’ ideas arose.


After Aporia: Theurgy in Later Platonism

Gregory Shaw, Stonehill College (Religion), pp. 57-82


This paper deals primarily with the development of theurgy in Iamblichean Neoplatonism. In a move away from contemplation- and rationality-based Platonic systems, Iamblichus develops the idea that the One cannot be “known” in that same way that other things can be and thus rejects Plotinian and Porphyrian attempts to gain rational understanding of the One. Instead, he develops an alternative means by which one can achieve some level of sympathetic participation in the forms and ultimately the One itself. Most importantly, this technique also maintains the sense of “aporia,” or a lack of knowledge to which Plato and Socrates ascribed themselves, among its adherents which seems to become further and further removed in the rationalist tradition as thinkers became more and more confident in their own knowledge. Here Iamblichus makes a system that requires the adherent to go through an “aporetic” state in order to gain any sort of understanding. In the process of ritual in Iamblichus’ system of theurgy, the adherent attempts to summon forth eros, a superhuman and super natural essential force, in himself so that he might gain access to that which is beyond conventional understanding. Although Iamblichean techniques might have been used by other traditions, they were not necessarily but it seems to fit with the Gnostic standpoint of an unknowable superior being.


This paper was extremely easy to understand and seemed to be quite well written. It summarized Iamblichus’ ideas well and placed them in the social context in which they likely arose. The explicit relevance of the paper to the subject of Gnosticism is quite limited as the author concentrates on Neoplatonic texts and interpretation all the way through but its implicit relevance to the Gnosticism is clear to even those with a relatively small understanding of the subject. Shaw shows that Iamblichus provides a philosophical framework in which a Gnostic could feel comfortable performing physical (and therefore corrupted) actions while still maintaining a connection to a more essential truth.


Ritual in Gnosticism

John D. Turner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Classics, Religion), pp. 83-140


Turner summarizes the major forms of ritual in Gnostic tradition and the various types of interpretations they have had. The primary forms are baptism, investiture, chrismation, the sacral meal, the sacral marriage, sexual sacramentalism, verbal performances, and ascensional and contemplative practices, each of which is the subject of a section of the work. He covers Sethian and Valentinian interpretations of the practices and those of other less-unified forms of Gnosticism. In each case, he places the ritual in a textual context and determines the philosophical or religious rationale behind the ritual.


Turner’s work is very thorough in its description of ritual practice in Gnosticism. He covers all the major examples and even some of the minor details that only seem to occur in one version of the tradition. He also develops the views of each tradition on each practice well and makes the distinction between them reasonably clear. This was an extremely interesting paper given our brief discussion of ritual practices in Gnosticism in our previous class.


Platonism and Gnosticism. The Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides: Middle or Neoplatonic?

Kevin Corrigan, University of Saskatchewan (Philosophy), pp. 141-178


In this paper, Corrigan attempts to place the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides in a historical and philosophical context that had not been previously accepted before. By showing that certain concepts, ordering, and phrases are consistent with a Middle Platonic, rather than Plotinian, perspective, one can take seriously the claim that the Commentary was is not dependent on Plotinus. In fact, Corrigan suggests that it is actually more reasonable to treat the Commentary as Middle Platonic instead of post-Plotinus, contrary to Pierre Hadot’s generally accepted stance. In the second part of this treatise, Corrigan examines several Gnostic texts and compares it with the Commentary. Here he determines that the specific Sethian Gnostic texts he was working with (Allogenes and Zostrianos, in particular) are in fact dependent on the Commentary and that we must embrace a broader understanding of what defines middle Platonism than previously supposed. Furthermore he concludes that, based on his previous arguments, Plotinus must have had them when composing the Enneads.


This paper provides a useful insight into the placement of this enigmatic Commentary within the history of Platonism. Furthermore it helps us to place certain Gnostic developments within the context of contemporary philosophical movements. The paper is generally well-written but is occasionally bogged down with terminology. One of the nice parts of this paper is the appendices, where Corrigan summarizes the interpretations of Hadot and others concerning the texts he discusses in the actual body of his paper. This helped me considerably to understand the material he discussed in his paper.


The Setting of the Platonizing Sethian Treatises in Middle Platonism

John D. Turner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Classics, Religion), pp.179-224


Here Turner examines the nature of the “Platonizing Sethian Treatises” (Allogenes, Zostrianos, Three Steles of Seth, and Marsanes) within Sethianism and Middle Platonism. He examines the similarities between these texts and concludes that there is a common thread of Middle Platonic thought that runs between them. Such ideas as the nature of the Invisible Spirit, Barbelo Aeon, and Triple-Powered One run through each of the texts and Turner compares and contrasts their treatment. Furthermore, Turner supports Corrigan’s work earlier in the collection where he places these Sethian treatises after the Commentary and before Plotinus. Turner thus concludes that the four Sethian treatises are Middle Platonic and that Plotinus even had Zostrianos (most likely) and probably Allogenes in mind when writing his work against the Gnostics (Enneads, II.9).


This treatise is quite thorough and is not quite as caught up in the terminology trap that dulls the other papers. As some of his arguments were seen earlier in the book, one sees the consensus and communication between the authors but at the same time it appears to be slightly repetitive. His conclusions are generally reasonable and can be seen from the evidence he cites.


Iamblichus, the Sethians, and Marsanes

John F. Finamore, University of Iowa (Classics), pp. 225-258


Finamore attempts to break down the metaphysical systems of the four works listed above, Allogenes, Zostrianos, Three Steles of Seth, and Marsanes, with an emphasis on examining the nature of Marsanes and it context in Iamblichean and Sethian traditions. Finamore, in examining these metaphysical systems concludes that, unsurprisingly, the four works are seen as similar in nature to each other and that they are all pre-Iamblichean. He concludes that it appeared that Plotinus had successfully refuted the Gnostics in the best way possible and Iamblichus saw no reason to further refute their claims.


This tract was generally quite clear in its presentation of the material. The only exception was the outline of the metaphysical systems but the author includes a very handy chart at the end of the paper to demonstrate the system and to compare each one with the others. Thus this supplement greatly enhanced my understanding of the argument and clarified much about that basis of the comparison.


Ancient Apophatic Theology

John Peter Kenney, Saint Michael’s College (Vermont) (Religion), pp. 259-276


Kenney discusses the nature of apophatic theology in the Greco-Roman world here particularly with Platonism. He discusses the development of a unified godhead out of the archaic polytheism of the region and then demonstrates the necessity of negative theology in determining the nature of this unified form, being a first principle, god, or indescribable “entity.” With respect to Gnosticism, Kenney suggests that Gnosticism drew upon this tradition of negative theology that had developed with Greek philosophy in their own explanations of the nature of the divine. Furthermore he suggests that comparing this framework of general approach to theology might give us better insight into the dialogue between Gnostics and Platonists.


This paper is generally very straightforward and easily understandable. Its arguments do not generally rely on terminology and thus the argument is made more historical and conceptual than textual. This quality made the paper one of the easiest to read but it also made support for the argument more difficult to determine.


Negative Theologies and Demiurgical Myths in Late Antiquity

Michael A. Williams, University of Washington, Seattle, pp. 277-302


In this paper, Williams examines the development of negative theology through the demiurgical myths present in the Gnostic tradition, although he consciously avoids using Gnosticism as a general category and prefers to simply examine demiurgical myths that contain a negative theology. He includes in among these the Apocryphon of John, the Letter of Eugnostos, Allogenes, Zostrianos, and the Tripartite Tractate. In these texts, Williams traces the commonality in the descriptions of the first principle or first god, e.g. illimitable, unexaminable, immeasurable, etc., and that these patterns indicate an intentional structure rather than simply negative terms (alpha privatives). In the end Williams shows that although it has traditionally been taken that the negative theology present in “Gnostic” texts is a move away from rationality, the intention and systematization of these descriptions indicate a rational motive at work but that as a religion, this system of negative theology often comes into conflict with images and attempts to “know God.”


This argument of this paper was quite well developed and the exegesis of the texts is not particularly confusing. The conclusion is reasonable and the author presents the reasonable objections to his thesis by other scholars as well. Overall this paper provided an excellent analysis of negative theological demiurgical myths in the context of “Gnosticism.” The only issue it fails to touch on fully is the comparison between these negative theological myths and the “more rational”tracts by the Neoplatonic philosophers.


Aseity and Connectedness in the Plotinian Philosophy of Providence

Frederick M. Schroeder, Queen’s University, Kingston (Classics), pp. 303-318


This paper attempts to examine the nature of independence or “aseity” and connectedness with the Plotinian framework. These ideas are generally seen as critical to a Neoplatonic perspective in that the intelligible world depends on aseity while the material world relies on connectedness. Schroeder argues that in the world of forms, independence and connectedness are not seen as contrary to each other but that this opposition only comes into play in the material world. He goes on to use this argument to explain that providence in a Plotinian perspective represents the form, and thus the aseity, of the occurrence in the material world while the web of cause and effect represents that connectedness. Thus the two exist, in a way, in the material world while but they come into conflict because they become connected in a way themselves where providence determines each state but each state also leads up to the next state. Plotinus’ opinion on the Gnostic interpretation of this connectedness is that because the essence of connectedness and aseity exists here already, it would be folly to ignore this and concentrate only upon a savior figure that is an incomplete representation of the connectedness and independence inherent in the cosmos.


This paper was generally easy to follow. The arguments are well founded in Plotinus’ writings and seem to well describe his position against the supposedly misguided interpretations of the Gnostics.



There are a few issues with this text and its accessibility to the reader.


1) Divided Approaches

Due to the nature of the Symposium, the book tries to weave together two strains of thought: Platonic Philosophy and Gnostic Religion and Philosophy. Although they are almost assuredly connected, different authors take drastically different approaches to the material, coming in one instance from a philosophical perspective and in another from a more practice-oriented religious perspective. Unfortunately this distinction gives the book a very disjointed feeling, where one feels at first as if one is reading a philosophical analysis on the one hand, and then, in the next paper, a description of a religion. Unfortunately this is to be somewhat expected due to the fact that various authors come from various backgrounds (Philosophy or Religion) and it is difficult to weave together the works of such a variety of people. Fortunately the middle sections of the book weave the threads of Platonism and Gnosticism together more thoroughly and this division diminishes.


2) Dense Terminology

All too frequently in this text, I found that an argument hinged on specific ideas and terminology that were not really described in the introduction. Several authors seem to take for granted that the reader knows Greek and/or Coptic and that the reader also knows enough about Neoplatonism to know all of the terms. Occasionally these terms such as “being-life-mind” are explained to some degree but all too frequently they are not and the reader is left only with an impression of what is going on in the paper. This dependence on specific terminology is in some part due to the nature of Neoplatonic and Gnostic argumentation, where there is a difference between “existence,” “existing,” and “existed,” but the authors frequently make no attempt to alleviate any of the burden this puts on the reader and thus some of the papers come across as incredibly dense and unable to be understood by anyone without a doctorate in philosophy.


3) Summary

Overall this book provides a generally good overview of the issues surrounding Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism and their overlap and conflicts. While some of the texts are difficult to work through without a strong background in Neoplatonic philosophy, many of the articles are quite accessible and can been seen as representative of the issues concerning these traditions. The book gives a relatively consistent view of these historical conflicts and describes extremely well the effects of these issues in understanding many aspects of Platonic and Gnostic practices and doctrines.