Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 10: Eastern Gnosis

Much of our Gnosticism course to date has focused on western forms of gnosis (well, more westerly, I suppose), but this week we moved east for a look at Manicheism, Mandaeism, and Hermeticism. We were flying without a net for much of the discussion, as Nicola Denzey Lewis’ textbook has a chapter on the Nag Hammadi Hermetic texts but nothing on the Manicheism and Mandaeism. As I have said before, the textbook is self-consciously an introduction to the Nag Hammadi library and strays little from that corpus; the only exception is a chapter on the Gospels of Judas and Mary, which we will turn to next week.

We began the class with a summary of the rediscovery of the literary sources for Manicheism and Mandaeism, noting the Manichean documents discovered in Turfan in the early twentieth century, the Cologne Mani Codex in 1970, and the Mandaean literature that began to appear in the late nineteenth century. Then we focused on Manicheism with some basic introductory material on the life of Mani, a description of the Manichean cosmogony, anthropology, social hierarchy, literature, and dispersion. I find the Cologne Mani Codex particularly interesting as an artifact because of its size—at 3.5 cm high and 2.5 cm wide it is one of the smallest books from the ancient world yet holds 23 lines to a page. I illustrated how little the codex is by having the class take out a 5, 10, or 20 dollar bill (this doesn’t work with loonies and toonies) and fold it once, twice, and three times. It is quite an effective, and tactile, method of showing just how astonishing the book is. We finished our discussion with a look at the Manichean art found in Turfan and demonstrated its affinities with Buddhist iconography, showing how malleable Manicheism could be in its missionary efforts, though noting that this is a missionary strategy common also in Christianity even today.

For Mandaeism we covered much of the same topics as for Manicheism (cosmogony, literature, etc.). There was some confusion about their identification with the Sabians of Islamic literature. Looking at the identification again, it seems that there are two groups that have been called Sabians: one is the Mandaeans and the other is a group with Hermetic affinities. So, Mandaeans are Sabians but not all Sabians are Mandaeans. We looked also at a news story describing the difficulties experienced by Mandaeans in the diaspora as a result of unrest in Iraq. We finished with a discussion of the origins of Mandaeism, juxtaposing the early theory of Palestinian baptismal origins (reflected in their own literature) with the more recent theory of Christianization of an Oriental form of Gnosticism in the third century.

After the break we looked briefly at the Hermetic texts from Nag Hammadi covered in the textbook: the Prayer of Thanksgiving, Asclepius, and the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth—all three found in Codex VI along with the extract from Plato’s Republic, but packaged along with the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, Thunder: Perfect Mind; Authoritative Teaching, and the Concept of Our Great Power. We watched a Youtube video on the history of Hermeticism and then read through Asclepius as a group noting both its affinities with gnostic thought and its differences.

The class finished with a discussion of the origins of Gnosticism, beginning with the views of the heresiologists (who claimed it was brought into Christianity by arch-heretic Simon Magus), then turning to looking at two possible separate generations, one in the east growing out of Zoroastrianism, and the other in Egypt with a blend of Zoroastrianism (via post-exilic Judaism), Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, mystery religions, and Hermeticism—noting too, of course, that there would have been cross-pollination between east and west. We also considered the socio-economic model of origins which theorizes that Gnosticism grew out of the meeting of the Hellenistic ideas of the poleis with the native religions of the surrounding countrysides, and articulated through the politically impotent but educated middle class reacting against Greek and later Roman rule.

On the whole, it was an uneven class. I don’t have the expertise in any of these areas to comment on them in any great detail and struggled to respond effectively to students’ questions. I suspect this is a problem for many of us teaching Gnosticism; our knowledge is deep about the Christian texts, but shallow about the eastern forms of gnosis—indeed this may be part of Denzey Lewis’ motivation to leave much of it out of her textbook. The other textbooks I have used in past incarnations of the course—Rudolph’s Gnosis and Pearson’s Ancient Gnosticism—provide much more information, but even these are not terribly deep. The students were quite interested in the Mandaeans, wondering why they had heard so little about them; so I certainly want to fill in these gaps in my knowledge before the next time I mount the course. Hopefully, it won’t be another five years before I get that chance!

One response to “Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 10: Eastern Gnosis

  1. Tony

    We know the Manichaeans took a deep interest in the figure of the anthropos but do we have any idea what term was used in Syrian Manichaean texts?

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