Review of

A Separate God, The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism, by Simone Pétrement (HarperSanfrancisco, 1990)

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In my review of 38 items accessible on
page 4 of the Early Christianity series items 22 (Jenkins), 9 (Couliano) and 7 (Churton) were quite adamant about Gnosticism being a heresy with its roots in Christianity. I was critical of their attitude. I noted with approval that several scholars were critical of the "no documents, no history" basis for judging that there was no Gnosticism before Christianity. I also noted that several scholars had a different vision of Gnostic history, and saw traces of Gnostic thought in pre-Christian Judaistic and pagan sources.

These scholars saw non-Christian Gnostics as being naturally attracted to the Christian story, because it illustrated a way to transcend and escape the natural world in which we, they believed, are held captive. Converted Gnostics made Christianity more Gnostic, and finally expanded Christianity beyond its natural bounds and created schisms. These became organized schools within Christendom that were eventually excommunicated and later persecuted. I signed up for that view.

Then comes this book by Pétrement, and I must say she does a very convincing job of showing that all the Gnosticism we know of has roots in Christianity. More importantly, the key beliefs of Gnosticism fail to make sense outside of Christian belief.

I originally picked up the Pétrement book and saw that its theme was similar to items 22, 9, and 7, and hesitated purchasing it. Then I looked into a few pages and saw unexpectedly well-stated and downright convincing arguments. So I bought, and read, and marked. And here I am, writing about how my mind has been changed.

The first part of Pétrement's book is devoted to a painstaking elucidation of key Gnostic beliefs and searching for its roots. In almost every case those roots are not only found in Christianity itself, but they really fail to make sense outside of a Christian context. Her arguments come down to this: Gnosticism was a development from inside Christianity. I marked hundreds of pages in her book because they gave me new insights. After reading this book, I now also believe (as contrasted with my conclusions embedded in Item 2 for 2003) that Gnosticism as a distinctive belief system, albeit with many variants, is a Christian heresy. It is a heresy, if one accepts normative Christianity as defining what is orthodox.

I could tell you all about the minutia of what I found quite fascinating about Gnosticism, now that I clearly see it as a development that came along after the first, Jewish, Christians had lost their prominence. But my purpose in Item 2 as well as here, in Item 2a for 2003, is to provide insight into the nature of the earliest form of Christianity.

Pétrement on aspects of the nature of Early Christianity

I will cite several statements in Pétrement's book that basically confirm, and in some cases shed additional light on, things already discussed in the reviews linked on page 4 of the Early Christianity pages.

Page 35 has a discussion of what changed in Christianity toward the latter part of the first century in terms of breaking with the Old Testament and thus setting in place the basis for the Gnostics to take this a step further and declaring that the creator, the Demiurge or Artisan, was less than God.

But if it is natural that Christ's teaching appeared fundamentally new, if, in any case, Paul and John's teaching on the cross of Christ could be deemed absolutely new, was this really the case to such an extent that Christians believed they ought to break so completely with the Old testament? Neither Paul nor John went that far. The early Christians, those of the first century, all seemed to have regarded the God of the Old Testament as the true God. Why should some Christians do what the early Christians did not do, only a little while after, around the end of the first century or the beginning of the second? What had changed?

What had changed, at least, was this, that the gap between Christianity and Judaism had grown deeper and that, on both sides, some people were conscious of it. The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, who had thought that they could remain faithful Jews even in becoming Christians, had been the victims of the growth of national sentiment that had preceded the revolt against Rome. Their head, James, had been put to death, and a large number of them, perhaps most of them, had had to flee Jerusalem. The fall of Jerusalem in 70 had in no way diminished the intensity of the religious and national fervor that inflamed the Jews, or the animosity among many of them toward Christianity. From about 80, Christians were excluded from the synagogues, and curses were pronounced against them there. The author of the Fourth Gospel makes an allusion to this excommunication when he represents Christ as saying to his disciples, "They will exclude you from the synagogues, and the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he renders service to God" (John 16:2).

On the Christian side also, some hardened themselves against Judaism. The author of the Fourth Gospel, indeed, is one of them. . . .

Pétrement goes on to show that even though John had turned more fully against the Jews than Paul, still they both preserved the Jewish respect for the Creator God. But it was during the time of this 'bad blood' between the two religions that Gnosticism, according to Pétrement, that Gnosticism appear in definite and clear form (p. 36).

On page 36 Pétrement continues this theme by observing that the focus on the cross, in Paul and John, was a significant break with the Old Testament's vision of the world: the Old Testament is focused on justice in this world and is optimistic about the world; the New Testament move justice to a new world and is pessimistic about this world. This pessimism becomes expanded into deep loathing in Gnosticism. But the part of the discussion that bears on the nature of the earliest Christianity is this:

Jewish Christians were those who wished to maintain their Jewish observances (circumcision, food laws, the Sabbath, etc.). Moreover, many of them, even though they venerated Christ, did not consider him absolutely divine or consubstantially united with the one God.

On page 46, Pétrement makes the case for it being a small step from seeing the New Testament as a superior revelation to the Old, to seeing the revelator of the New as superior to the Old, hence Gnosticism is but an expansion on what is logically encouraged by the Pauline and Johannine visions.

But my interest is not with the Pauline and Johannine Christians, it is with the first Christians, the Jewish-Christians. It appears that Freke and Gandy (see my Early Christianity pages) were not the only scholars to see Gnosticism in Jewish-Christian beliefs. Pétrement goes into these allegations in great and convincing detail: Jewish-Christians and Gnostic-Christians interpreted Christianity very differently (p. 468). Her arguments cover pages 468 through 476 and cover 9 distinct arguments (note that these numbered paragraphs are not quotes, but are my summary interpretations of statements on each point in the book itself):

1. Jewish Christians felt Christ had . . . "simply brought certain modifications of the Law of Moses in order to make it purer and more perfect." Baptism replaced offering of sacrifices. By contrast, Gnostics asserted that that God of the Old Testament was not a god, and the Law was a creation of this inferior craftsman.

2. Gnostics thought the world was made by this 'artisan' or Demiurge, created by or emanated from God. Jewish Christians believed the Creator was God. Gnostics felt eternal life was a spiritual existence; Jewish-Christians believed in a physical resurrection, some believed even God was a bodily being.

3. Gnostics felt Christ was God. Jewish Christians were not of that opinion, though they saw him as a person with the Spirit that made him a "true prophet," the first of the created beings, one who became the Son of God through his life actions. It is a foreshadowing of the fight in the later Church whether Christ was God incarnate or grew into Godhood through his ministry.

4. Jewish Christians felt salvation came by obedience; Gnostics were in the Pauline camp, seeing grace and election, even predestination, as playing the key roles in bringing salvation.

5. Jewish Christians saw no saving role for the cross; Gnostics, though they felt it was not what it seemed, saw it as central to salvation: Christ illustrated the victory over earthly powers that comes through 'gnosis.'

6. Gnostic dualism is a distinction between the earthly, physical world and a purer, transcendent world. Jewish-Christian dualism is the recognition that there is opposition in all that exists. In human existence, the male and female opposites were expanded upon. Both derive from God, but one is superior, the other inferior.

7. Both Jewish Christians and Gnostics displayed anticosmic attitudes. In the latter it was a stratification of existence into different levels of being; in the former it was a time-dependent eschatological belief in the final victory of good over evil. Pétrement calls the Gnostic approach a 'realized eschatology' sine it is time independent.

8. Morality was defined by strict rules among Jewish Christians. Among Gnostics morality was a natural consequence of faith or 'gnosis.' Gnostics were very Pauline in this regard.

9. Jewish Christians had their own Gospel, based on Matthew. Gnostics were students of Paul and John. Jewish Christians were negatively disposed toward Paul. Strongly so.

Pétrement concludes from this, again on page 471 as on page 468, that these were very different interpretations of Christianity. She continues for several pages to discuss items in Jewish-Christian writings sometimes taken as evidence for Gnostic leanings and shows such an interpretation is wrong in some cases, and simply unnecessary in most cases.

The bottom line is that when it comes to seeing Jewish Christians as the first Christians, she is very much in tune with Daniélou (see page 4 of the Early Christianity series of pages for a review). In fact she calls him by his title of Cardinal Daniélou (p. 83), a title I was not aware of though I knew he was a Catholic priest-scholar. In some ways she sees more of a difference between Paul and the Jewish Christians than Daniélou sees. I think Daniélou is right to see that there are bridges between the two belief systems that diminish the gulf sensed to exist between them by the Jewish Christians. But esoteric insights that unite are not what comes into the minds of those seeking to establish their own, unique, religio-political identity.

Pétrement's description of the earliest Christians suggests they were believers in the Law and in Christ as the 'true prophet' who overcame the powers of hell and evil by living a blameless life and being placed at the right hand of God. They were not Gnostics.