Religious Studies 535 (University of Pennsylvania) 15 March 2005


Review by Thomas Curley of




The Search for Gnostic Origins



Carl B. Smith II



Released September, 2004 by

Hendrickson Publishing

Peabody, MA

336 Pages


About the author:

Carl B. Smith II, PhD, is currently, since 1998, the Associate Professor of History and Religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where he has also served as Dean of Campus Ministries and Associate Dean of the School of Ministry. Between 1989 and 98 he served as pastor for Fairhaven Community Church in Fairhaven, OH, and between 1985 and 89 he was the Associate Professor of Biblical Studies for Baptist Bible College East in Boston, MA.

He received his PhD in 2001 from Miami University in Ohio. This book is based on his doctoral dissertation, which was originally entitled: "'No Longer Jews:' Gnostic Origins and the Jewish Revolt Under Trajan (115-17 CE)" His advisor was Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, Senior Professor of History. He received his Master’s Degree in 1991 from the same University under the same advisor, with his thesis addressing "Mark the Evangelist and His Relationship to Alexandrian Christianity in Biblical, Historical, and Traditional Literature". Dr. Smith also holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Temple Baptist Theological Seminary, Chattanooga, TN (1983), and a BA in Biblical Studies from Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga (1979). He is an active member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute of Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature.

His other publications of note include: Review of Joseph Fitzmyer, “Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls” (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), in Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 39-40 (1995): 123-24; and Review of Michael A. Williams “Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), in Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.4 (1998), 684-85.

Dr. Smith’s website:'s%20Site/index.html


About the publisher:


Hendrickson Publishers describes itself as a service that “seeks to meet the publication needs of the people of God and the religious studies academic community worldwide by publishing outstanding reference, academic, and pastoral books at a reasonable price. Our academic books include works on the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language, ancient Near Eastern studies and archaeology, New Testament and Greek language, biblical theology, Judaism, patristics, church history, historical theology, practical theology, and religion and culture.”






The introduction is an imperative segment to review. Here the author outlines the intention of the work marked by delineation of presentation format. As a background;

  • He begins by citing the importance of the Nag Hammadi codices versus prior dependency on the virtual exclusivity maintained in the polemic writings of early church fathers
  • He summarizes a “narrower and more useful” understanding of the most definitive elements of Gnostic faith as a systematic philosophy of anti-cosmic dualism (material as evil versus spiritual as good)
  • He points out the presence of a basic belief of ethical dualism (light vs. darkness generally accepted in its broadest context) was common in the ancient world religions of Iran and Palestine, and notes that Gnosticism departs from Platonic systems due to its extreme adherence to dualistic understanding.


As a beginning platform, the author outlines three issues he defines as being critical in the search for Gnostic origins:

1)      The religious and intellectual context out of which Gnosticism emerged

2)      Its primary geographical setting; and

3)      The chronology of its development


He cites that despite varied arguments for the intellectual and religious roots of Gnosticism, “The number of historians who identify the Judaism of late antiquity as the primary soil out of which Gnosticism grew is increasing.”[1]

Following this statement, he cites some of the stronger opposing viewpoints to this theory, such as those arguing for Egypt as a possible point of origin (page 3), which are complemented by his simple assessments of the weaknesses of those specific arguments.

On page three he then cites Robert Grant’s “bold” 1959 hypothesis that Gnosticism arose as an intellectual and religious crisis within Judaism, specifically in conjunction with the first Jewish revolt in Judea between 66-74 C.E., a view which Grant would later abandon. A revisit to Grant’s hypothesis in 1983 by Edwin Yamauchi in his work Pre-Christian Gnosticism offered a modification of Grant’s theory by asserting that the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135 C.E. marked “the end of Jewish messianic speculations and the context out of which Gnosticism grew.”[2]

It should here be noted that, when reviewing the author’s curriculum vitae, I learned that Yamauchi was Carl Smith’s academic advisor for both his Masters Thesis and Doctoral dissertation on this material.

The author, then, is offering in this work a challenge to his own advisor’s work by suggesting that, based on evidence of the rise of Gnosticism in the Jewish intellectual centers of North Africa – which he describes as “one of the largest and most intellectually active and religiously diverse of the Diaspora”[3] – that Gnosticism originated out of a lesser known revolt originating in Cyrenaica and Egypt in 115-117 C.E. during the reign of Trajan.

The author admits that such an assertion is no “smoking gun”, and that a specific conclusion is difficult to determine, but, adds: “the clear historical chronology of teachers, writers, and conceptions certainly supports this thesis.”[4] This latter evidence is specifically what the author delivers.



The introduction also features the author’s own summary assessment of each chapter. In the section below, I will quote the author’s summary and follow by offering my assessment as to whether or not his stated goal is successfully achieved.


Chapter 1: Definitions of Gnosticism and Theories of Gnostic Origins


Dr. Smith: “The first chapter of  this book presents a definition of the Gnostic religion and an overview of the various theories of Gnostic origins, outlining the major proponents, merits and weaknesses of each.”


I found this chapter to be extraordinarily informative in its “no frills” directness and overall objectivity to presenting every possible known perspective (to me) on Gnosticism, which he explains through strategic use of scholarly sources. He offers concise, conclusive descriptions, hallmarks, and the specific philosophical schools of Gnosticism that I would find useful as a quick summary reference point on, for example, Iraneus’ delineation of heretics from Simon Magus to Saturninus (pg.20), which is only further accented by the views of various scholars on such a topic. The footnotes also offer more information.

As an example of inclusion of brief critiques of the work of other scholars, on page 26 he points out weaknesses in the work of Kurt Rudolph, such as Rudolph’s insistence on Eastern origins of Gnostic dualistic philosophy while evidence reveals an ethical dualism in 1st Century Judaism, and particularly in Qumran.


Chapter 2: Gnostic Origins: Jewish Social and Political Crisis


Dr. Smith: “The second chapter presents in fuller detail the theories that define Gnosticism as rising out of the diverse crises experienced by the Jewish people during this time period, including socioeconomic, political, and religious factors.”


This chapter takes an in depth look at some of the contextual arguments referenced in both the Introduction and Chapter One, and is broken into specific, encapsulated summaries of the work and hypothesis of acknowledged scholars in Gnostic studies which are specifically relative to the dissertation presented. The author brilliantly defines the strengths and weaknesses in each case. Featured is the work of numerous scholars addressed in our own seminar, including: Douglas Parrott, Kurt Rudolph, Robert Grant, Edwin Yamauchi, Stephen Wilson, Alan Segal, Birger Pearson and Henry Green.

Again, an excellent reference source for a summarization of the work of each. I particularly enjoyed this chapter for this reason.


Chapter 3: The Jewish Revolt under Trajan: A Historical Reconstruction and its Implications


Dr. Smith: “A historical reconstruction of the Jewish revolt under Trajan is the focus of the third chapter. Particular emphasis is given to the forces that caused the revolt, with special attention granted to the socioeconomic and political situation of the Jews of North Africa, especially in relation to the native, Greek, and Roman populations. The chapter concludes with a summary of the devastating consequences of the revolt for the various parties involved.”


Relying on the work of historians from antiquity as well as that of modern scholars, the author moves through a timeline accented by brief details of the regional socioeconomic and political climate. Not a word is wasted nor a footnote or reference unused to drive the reader through a brilliant summarization of what otherwise would likely require volumes of material to find even the shortest passages and references. Such an example is his citation of Corpus papyrorum judaicarum as source of the earliest datable reference to the revolt between Romans and Jews in Egypt in 115 C.E.[5] CPJ[6] contains the papyrus of an edict written by the Roman prefect in Egypt at the time, in which a small segment makes reference to a skirmish. The author deduces this as the advent of what evolved into full-fledged revolt. Other papyri and historical sources are cited throughout.

The chapter paints a vivid picture of the situation and climate with information I personally found illuminating and successfully offers a compelling argument for the author’s primary thesis.


Chapter 4: Chronological and Geographical Considerations for Gnostic Origins


Dr. Smith: “The fourth chapter sets forth the essential thesis and primary evidences of the book. The chapter closely examines the theological systems of the first individuals identified by the early church fathers as Gnostics, evaluating especially their dualistic tendencies and attitudes toward Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and, to a lesser extent, Middle Platonism were seeking self-understanding in this period of religious ferment. Individuals within each of these movements were defining themselves in opposition to others. Determining precisely when a polemic against Gnostic conceptions of dualism appears is significant in determining its point of origin. What is discovered is that anti-Judaism was becoming progressively more pronounced, but a rejection of the Jewish God or his creative work was not a point of discussion prior to the 120s C.E.”


Thus is an extremely important segment of the book, and needs to be discussed in context with the next chapter. See notes on this under next heading.



Chapter 5: Sethian Gnosticism, the Geography of Heresy, and a Proposal for Gnostic Origins


Dr. Smith: “The fifth chapter continues with further evidences, particularly examining what is often posited as the earliest Gnostic system: Sethian Gnosticism. What is found is that Sethianism itself is at the earliest a second-century development, and one that has close connections to Egypt. This section is followed by a survey of the geography of the Gnostic heresy, ending with an examination of the religious context of Egypt, particularly Judaism and Christianity, just prior to the Jewish revolt of that region. The chapter ends with several scenarios regarding “how it might have happened,” suggesting that Gnosticism was birthed in the aftermath of the revolt.”


Chapters four and five serve a sumptuous and detailed listing of chronological, geographical, historical and religious contexts offered as hard evidence for the overall argument. Like the preceding chapters, these two segments are so densely packed with details and source references that it required numerous rereads by myself. The scenarios offered are thought provoking, and the author openly acknowledges the flaws in his assorted assertions. To challenge this information would require extensive research by a novice, or a general survey by an established scholar. This was made evident in the concluding remarks of the book’ s introduction (review ‘Introduction’ notes on Page 3 of this report).


Bibliography; End notes


The work is followed by an extensive Bibliography of papers and books that is 34 pages long! This is followed by a detailed Index of Modern Authors, within which our illustrious Dr. Robert Kraft is referenced four times.

A generous and thorough Subject Index follows, with a concluding segment – Index of Ancient Sources, which is a wonderful addition for research purposes, citing only references to subject matter pertinent to Gnostic studies and history, and specifically in the context of the author’s stated goal in the book. I want to highlight this particular feature of the book for its uniqueness. Included here are Indexes of correlating passages from the Old and New Testaments, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Codices, Ancient Greek and Latin Works as well as Apostolic and Church Fathers, Hermetic Literature, a section called “Papyrus Collections” and “Various Papyri” which includes the Berlin Coptic Codex, and finally “Other Sources”.


Summary remarks


One of my concerns with the work of any author whose work in which I elect to engage is to determine if a biased agenda is present. By acquainting myself with the author’s curriculum vitae I especially noted his impressive academic credentials and his background as Pastor of a Baptist Christian congregation. What impressed me most of all was an evident lack of bias of any kind. I found the work to offer a comprehensive summary of almost all aspects pertinent to an in-depth study of Gnosticism, highlighted by painstakingly thorough use of bibliographic references. It is clearly demonstrative of an exemplary scholarly grasp gained only through years of research.

At numerous points throughout the book I noted the author approaching topics much in the same manner as has Dr. Kraft has led us in our own seminar, such as illustrated in the following, as extracted from the text:

“The term “Jew” is found twice in The Gospel of Philip [with one ‘L’!], [while the plural] appears three times in three codices [which are designated in footnotes], “Hebrew” is found five times in three tractates [also designated in footnotes], and “Hebrews” is found four times in three texts [designated in footnotes].”[7]


This specific approach is repeated throughout the book, further evidencing the author’s detail oriented presentation. Such detail easily distinguishes the work from one that might appeal to the casual reader. From a scholarly perspective the book may be appreciated as a true service to Gnostic studies as well as religious and biblical studies in that any potential area of negligence simply doesn’t exist in this volume. The author has created an admirable text worthy of inclusion in the syllabus of any University survey course on the historical background of Gnosticism. Indeed the work struck me as the embodiment of a course in itself, and a most informative and excellent course at that. A worthy addition to any personal library, and certainly for a University.




While I continue to retain some hesitance to wholeheartedly embracing the author’s explication, I have no ground to presently stand on to argue otherwise. Personally I don’t agree with the author’s core summary that Gnosticism grew out of a political skirmish in the early 2nd century as too many allusions to other sources and influences from regional religious traditions continue to “pop-up” with ongoing research. Such instances arose in this week’s (03/15/05) reading assignment ie: in The Apocryphon of John, in sections 15 through 20, the author of AoJ details anthropomorphized angelic creative powers that correspond strikingly to Vedic and later Tantric cosmology, and in section 16, verse 10, a specific reference to ‘the book of Zoroaster” as an authoritative source for deepened understanding is made, thus asserting an earlier influence.

But these are my personal considerations. While I find it impossible to overlook such correlations, the question about an accurate definition for Gnosticism is raised, which has been an ongoing discussion since the Messina Colloquium of 1966. To the author’s credit, he cites this on the very first page of this work by saying: “Much of the difficulty with determining the origins of Gnosticism centers on the problem of definition.”[8] By isolating the context of this dissertation within Jewish history, entertaining possible connections outside of geographic areas relative to the Jewish Diaspora are rendered extraneous.

To conclude, as someone new to the specific nuances relative to Gnostic studies and with regard to the historical data offered as foundation for the author’s argument, I found myself presently unqualified to take any opposing or critical stance. Any contention to this work would clearly be best served by contemporary scholars in the field of Gnostic studies.

[1] Page 2

[2] Page 4

[3] Ibid

[4] Page 6

[5] Page 98

[6] An abbreviation key is found in the beginning of the book

[7] From Chapter Four, Page 206, in the sub-section “The Chronology of Polemical Works Related to Gnosticism”

[8] Page 1