Religious Studies 535: Varieties of Early Christianity -- with a Focus on "Gnosticism(s)"

Robert Kraft (, University of Pennsylvania, Spring 2005
227 Logan Hall; tel. 215 898-5827
Instructor's home page and 2004 class home page, plus pre 2004 class home directory 


Aims of the Course:

The main objective of this course is to become acquainted with the early "Gnostic" Christian movements within the context of development of the various threads that together came to be known as "Christianity" during the formative period prior to the official recognition and consolidation as a religious option under Constantine (ca 325 CE). There will be a strong emphasis on "methodological selfconsciousness" in a historical framework -- that is, how do we know what we think we know about the period and its participants, and especially those associated with "Gnosticism"? What is meant by the use of such terminology as "gnosis," "gnostic," "gnostical," and "Gnosticism"? Familiarity with the surviving literature and other historical artifacts from the period will be basic to the investigation, as well as an attempt to understand these materials from the perspectives of the people who originally produced them.


In addition to regular class attendance and participation, including assisting with class minutes/notes and attention to email communications, students taking the course for credit will
(1) submit a research paper (about 15 old-style pages = 5000 words) on an approved topic (choice of topic by mid-term, completed paper or full draft by the final exam period);
(2) participate in the class project (electronic summaries of early texts relevant for the study of "Gnosticism") or present an in-class review (also to be submitted in writing) of an approved modern publication on the subject; and
(3) sit for a one-on-one comprehensive oral "exit interview" with the instructor (about half an hour in length) after the research paper has been evaluated and returned and all other required work is finished.

NOTE: supplementation and/or revision and resubmission of problematic work is encouraged (no penalty) when appropriate. Preliminary drafts may be submitted for the instructor's comment. Electronic submission ("text only," not attachments) is also acceptable.

Survey Oriented Primary/Secondary Ancient Sources:

[NOTE: as representatives of their respective periods, they are"primary" sources, but in what they report they are "secondary"]

Collections of Ancient Primary Sources:

(see also the larger collections in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ancient Christian Writers, and similar series; online see especially the Early Christian Writings page, the Early Church Fathers site, and the Additional Texts -- also the Tertullian site)

Modern Secondary Surveys and Syntheses (recommended for background study):

Anthologies of Secondary Treatments (recommended for guidance):

Overview of the Sources and their Geographical Distribution

The Spread of Early Christianity (see especially Bauer, Orthodoxy; Harnack, Mission 2) -- see also Maps (also here)

Classification of Extant Sources (Primary, Secondary)

Selected Problems Confronting Early Christianity

What Happens When the Expected End Fails to Arrive? [see week 9]
How is Authority Constituted, Recognized, Enforced, Transmitted? [see week 10]
Belief and Conduct in Christian Communities [see week 11 and week 12]
Relationships to Surrounding Societies [see week 13]

Synthesis: Types of Varieties of Early Christianity (see week 14)

Focus Questions, by the week = class meeting

1. Getting Oriented to the Sources and Terminology

Read at least two Encyclopedia articles on "Gnosis" and/or "Gnosticism" and be prepared to compare them. Identify four different COLLECTIONS (groupings; e.g. "New Testament") of early Christian Literature and be able to give at least one in-depth example from each. How does each collection relate to "Gnostic" materials (if at all)?

[Suggestion: look at tables of contents of Primary Source Collections]

Further questions of definition:
* What does the Greek word "gnosis" mean?
* Was the term used in favorable as well as unfavorable ways in the early period?
* What are the main ideas associated with "Gnosticism" by modern scholars?

2. Getting Oriented to the Participants

Identify four different sub-GROUPS within early "Gnosticism" and be able to describe in some detail at least one representative of each sub-group.

[Suggestion: work from tables of contents of Secondary Syntheses, with help from Secondary Anthologies and general definitional articles as necessary]

Further questions of identification:
* In what ways do early "Gnostic" groups or representatives differ from each other?
* Are there particular locations in which "Gnosticism" seems to have flourished more than in others?
* Do you think the idea of "Jewish Gnosticism" is tenable?

3. Getting Oriented to the Significant Events

Identify four different key EVENTS that helped shape the development of early Christianity and conjecture how that development might have affected "gnostical" followers of Jesus.

[Suggestion: look for turning points suggested by the organization of the Secondary Syntheses]

Further questions of historical development:
* How did "Gnostics" deal with the Jewish calamaties of the first two centuries?
* How did "Gnostics" react to persecution of Christians by Rome?

4. Getting Oriented to the ONLOOKERS and OPPONENTS

Identify four types of non-"Gnostic" contemporaries (at least two of which are also non-Christian) in the early period (up to about 306 CE) and describe each position vis-a-vis "Gnostic" Christianity. Do the same for four specific individuals.

[Suggestion: pay special attention to "backgrounds" treatments in the Secondary Syntheses (e.g. on Greco-Roman and on Jewish aspects), and follow up in the Secondary Anthologies; e.g. familiarize yourself with
the philosophical schools and religious options, as well as such sources as:
Pliny the Elder,
Philo (Hypothetica, on Human Freedom and on the Contemplative Life),
Josephus (selection on Honi, on Palestinian Jewish groups [see also]) ,
Pliny the Younger (to Trajan on the Christian problem [Latin text]),
Galen the physician (see quotations on Christians and Jews),
Lucian of Samosata (on Alexander of Abonoteichos and Peregrinus),
Philostratus on Apollonius of Tyana (also here)]

Some further observations and questions:
* Why did the "neo-Platonists" have such objections to "Gnosticism"?
* How appropriate was the attempt by certain anti-Gnostic Christian authors to identify "Gnosticism" with Greek philosophy?

5. Concepts of Jesus and his Origins

Identify four different early Christian explanations of who Jesus is and how he is related to the domain of humans. To what extent do the "Gnostic" sources exhibit similar variety of understanding?

[Suggestions: consider such passages as
GJohn 4.1-42,
GMk 12 and parallels in GMt 21-22 and GLk 20,
Paul/Rom 1.1-4,
Hebrews 6-7,
"GHebrews" Coptic fragment,
Ascension of Isaiah 11,
GLk 7.1-35 and parallels in GMt 11;
see also Kraft articles on Joshua-Messiah and on "Gnostic Gospels"]

6. Jesus as Revealer

Identify four different ways in which Jesus is depicted as a "revealer" of special "knowledge" and/or material to his disciples (pay attention to chronological [i.e. at what point in his career, broadly speaking] and geographical/physical issues [where, in what forms] as well as to audience and content).

[Suggestions: compare the approaches in such sources as
Paul (Gal 1.16, 2 Cor 12),
GThomas (and "Q"),
Revelation 1-3,
Epistle of the Apostles (see 2 Pet 1.16-18),
Dialogue of the Savior (NHL),
Sophia of Jesus Christ (NHL),

Gospel of Judas,
Clement of Alexandria --]

7. Besides Revealing, what does Jesus do for Humankind?

What else, besides revealing hidden knowledge, does Jesus do on behalf of the dependent followers according to early Christian sources? Identify four different ways in which Jesus is depicted as an "intermediary" between humans and the divine (pay attention to what is at stake in his filling such a role) and/or four different functions attributed to Joshua/Jesus in this context. What is the typical "Gnostic" reaction to each role or function?

[Suggestions: explore such passages as
Paul/1 Cor 15(end time victor),
Paul/Rom 5-8(victor over sin),
Paul/Gal 2("in me"), 3(curse);
?Paul/Phlp 2.1-13("mind");
"Paul"/1 Tim 1.12-2.7,
"Paul"/2 Tim 2.8-13,
"Paul"/Tit 2.11-14;
1 Pet 1;
1 Jn 1.5-2.17;
Heb 1-2(pioneer), 5, 7.20-8.13, 12.1-11;
GJn 1.1-18(logos), 6.35-65(nourishment), 17(model?), 19(kingdom);
Rev (lamb);
ApcrJn start (NH -- and other materials mentioned above under #6);
1 Clem 36;
Barn 8(scapegoat);
2 Clem 3-4; Irenaeus (on substitution and ransom to devil)]

8. Joshua/Jesus as Possesor of Special Powers (Miracle/Magic)

Identify four distinguishable types of extraordinary actions performed by Joshua/Jesus on his surrounding world (or four types of mastery, in relation to the perceived source of the problem, attributed to Jesus -- over nature, over sickness, over satan/demons, over human opposition, over death, over sin, over historical circumstance, etc.) and name four other such "miracle workers" from the same period, including two that are not his own followers and two that are. How do "Gnostics" view such activities?

[Suggestions: compare various relevant stories in the gospel traditions, look for claims regarding any "competitors"; note similar activities by early Christians (e.g. in canonical and apocryphal Acts accounts),check encyclopedia articles on (ancient) magic, miracle, healing, etc.]

9. Institutionalizing/Domesticating the Apocalyptic Impetus

Explore the use and meanings in early Christian writings of such terms as "kingdom of God/Heavens," "parousia," "second coming" or "return" of Christ, "last days/times," "antichrist" and related imagery, "day of the Lord" (or "of judgment"), and the like. How do the "Gnostic" sources handle such terms and ideas?

[Suggestions: use a concordance for NT and Apostolic Fathers;
look at Paul/1 Cor 7, 15;
?Paul/1 Thess 5;
GMk 8.34-9.1 (and parallels);
"Paul"/1 Tim 4;
2 Pet 3; Heb 1;
Rev 22;
Didache 16;
2 Clem 17;
Diognetus 5]


Identify four instances in which apparent frustration of apocalyptic hopes led to the modification of existing ideas/practices or the development of new ideas/practices in early Christian circles, including at least one "Gnostic" representative.

[Suggestions: explore the implications of the synoptic "transfiguration" accounts (compare 2 Pet 1),
Paul/1 Cor 15 (resurrection past),
?Paul/1 Thess 4-5 (end anticipation),
1 Jn (antichrist),
2 Pet (delay of end);
consider how early Christians related "kingdom of God" to human institutions or to citizenship ideals]

10. Patterns of Authority and Structure

Identify four different existing institutions in the early Christian period that influenced Christian language and perceptions about authority, directly or indirectly; and/or describe four different patterns in which early Christian groups organized themselves with reference to authority structures, including at least two "Gnostic" representatives.

[Suggestions: consider models from Political, Economic, Religious, Social, Intellectual (academic), and Aesthetic spheres -- note the useful mnemnotic acronym PERSIA;
for some specific passages, see
Paul/1 Cor 12,
?Paul/1 Thess 4-5,
?Paul/Eph 4-6 (Col 3.18-4.6),
Heb 8.1-10.25,
GJn 18.33-38, 3 Jn,
Acts 1-5,
1 Clem 40-43,
Ignatius, Smyrnaens 8-9 (and in general),
Did 11-15,
Hermas Parables/Similes 9 (browse)]

11. Patterns of Liturgy/Cult

Identify four different early Christian community practices or ritual developments, and be prepared to discuss the background of at least one of them and their use in "Gnostic" circles.

Paul, 1 Corinthians 5, 8-11,
Paul, Romans 6.1-11,
Didache (entire -- see also its relationship to Barnabas),
Hebrews 3.13 and 10.25 & Barnabas 4.10 (avoid isolation),
Pliny to Trajan (what Christians actually do),
1 John 1.9 (confession?) and passim, on (not) sinning ,
James 5.13-20,
Justin, Apology 61-67,
Gospel of Philip [Nag Hammadi] 64-71,
synoptic sending out of the 12 (GMark 6.7ff and parallels) and/or the 70 (GLuke 10),
GMatthew 28 "great commission"]

12. Patterns of Study, Connectedness, Rationalization

Early Christians imitated, adapted and created various approaches and arguments in defense and/or explanation of their positions. What patterns and principles of interpretation and presentation are recognizable in the following examples (focus especially on "Gnostic" approaches):

Paul, Romans 9-11 (what about Judaism, finally?)
GMatthew 1-2 (fulfilment texts), 5.17-48 ("fences" around the laws)
Revelation/Apocalypse 13 (compare 4 Ezra [2 Esdras] 11-12) (Jewish apocalyptic traditions)
1 Clement 7-12 (heros of the Jewish tradition as models)
Barnabas 7-8 (Jewish liturgy typology), 9-10 ("real" circumcision), 18-20 ("Two Ways" ethic)
Didache 3 ("fences" around the laws)
Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 1-7 (searching for "truth")
Origin of the World [Nag Hammadi] (start) (cosmogeny through philosophical mythology)

[Suggestions: Be alert to patterns that might suggest educational influences, "school type" activities, philosophizing commonplaces, scriptural associations/allusions, and the like]

13. Patterns of Social Involvement and/or Withdrawal

In what ways, and for what reasons, did early "Gnostic" Christians attempt to distance themselves from the world in which they found themselves and in what ways did they acknowledge and affirm it? Pay attention to attitudes regarding social contacts and meetings, citizenship, military service, attendance at theater and/or the games and banquets (note accusations of misanthropy, atheism, secret orgies, and the like).

Paul, Galatians 5-6.10 (eschatological mysticism and ethical admonition)
Paul, 1 Corinthians 7 (marriage advice in the last days)
Paul, Romans 13 (don't rock the boat -- obey the civic authorities, pay taxes)
"Paul," 1 Timothy 4-6 (too much of too little is too bad -- practice community order)
Hebrews 13 (show hospitality, live orderly and restrained)
1 Peter 1-4 ("Haustafel" ethics, in and out of the community; see also "Paul's" Colossians-Ephesians)
1 John 4-5 (avoid deception, overcome the world)
Revelation/Apocalypse 22.6-21 (the time is at hand -- how to act)
Didache (a handbook of basic ethics, liturgy, end time expectation)
Justin (accusations) (Christian atheism, cannibalism, sexual excesses, etc.)
2 Clement 5-7 (exhortations in the shadow of the end)
Diognetus 5-6 (Christianity within the ordinary world)
see also Marcion (following the God of love, not the God of justice),
Tertullian (and Montanism) (radical living awaiting the radical end),
"encratism" (Tatian) (avoid anything beyond the bare necessities)]

14. Synthetic Overview

Reconstruct four different types of "Gnostic" Christianity in the early period and show how each has its own identity/personality in relation to the others, to non-"Gnostic" Christian groups, and to the extra-Christian worlds. Try to choose varieties sufficiently different from each other that they probably would have argued (or did argue) strongly (or at least loudly) against each other.

[Suggestion: review all the relevant materials and imagine how each position would relate to the others.]

Selected Bibliography:

The number of writings on "Gnostics" and "Gnosticism" (variously conveived) is extensive, as a web search will amply illustrate. An interesting, and generally reliable seemingly "popular" web site to visit has been created by the "Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance" (with various health related sponsors!), and includes useful information, bibliography and links. Similarly useful are "The Gnostic Archive" and "The Gnostic Society Library" with their various links (from The Gnostic Society). See also the Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics edited by Charles S. Clifton (ABC-CLIO 1992).

* Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity (Beacon 1963)
* Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis : The Nature and History of Gnosticism (Harper 1983 [2nd German ed 1980])
* Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton University 1996)
* Holroyd, Stuart. The Elements of Gnosticism (Element Books 1994)
* Logan, Alastair H. B. Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy : A Study in the History of Gnosticism
* Markschies, Christoph. Gnosis: an Introduction (T&T Clark 2003) [translated from the German] -- see the review by Michael A. Williams (2004, RBL).
* Merkur, Daniel. Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions (SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions)
* Roukema, Riemer. Gnosis and Faith in Early Christianity: An Introduction to Gnosticism (Trinity Press International )
* Filoramo, Giovanni and Anthony Alcock. A History of Gnosticism (Blackwood 1990 [translated from the Italian])
* Hoeller, Stephan A. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing (Quest Books 2002)

* Doresse, Jean. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics: An Introduction to the Gnostic Coptic Manuscripts Discovered at Chenoboskion
* Robinson, James M. The Nag Hammadi Library in English: Revised Edition (Harper 1988 [original edition 1977]
* Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures : Ancient Wisdom for the New Age -- A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions (The Anchor Bible Reference Library; Doubleday 1987)
* Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels (Random House 1979)
* Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Paul (Fortress 1975)
* Meyer, Marvin (translator). The Secret Teachings of Jesus : Four Gnostic Gospels (Random House1984)
* Wucherpfennig, Ansgar. Heracleon Philologus: Gnostische Johannesexegese im zweiten Jahrhundert [Heracleon as Philologue: Gnostic Exegesis of the Gospel of John in the Second Century] -- see the review by Michael Kaler (2004, RBL)