Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christoph Markschies - Gnosis: An Introduction

Gnosis: An Introduction
Christoph Markschies
(Image from

I mentioned that I finally found the time and opportunity to read Gnosis: An Introduction (London: T&T Clark Ltd., 2003), a concise little book at only 145 pages written by Christoph Markschies.

As I noted previously, Markschies and I were not well-aquainted, but we certainly knew each other after several years in Tübingen attending Martin Hengel's Friday seminars, which stretched from 8 to 12 p.m. with only a single break for sparkling apple juice and bretzels (a large German-style, soft pretzel). The first time that I heard Markschies speak, I realized -- despite my poor German -- that he was brilliant. He seemed to recall everything that he had read, could cite it to chapter and verse, and was able to evaluate its significance for some argument or other.

I asked another student about him, and she told me that Markschies was very good at reading books but less good at reading people. I don't know if that was correct, but I did note that when I once brought along to Alexander Böhlig's seminar on Gnosis an offprint of my article "Gnostic Liberation from Astrological Determinism: Hipparchan 'Trepidation' and the Breaking of Fate" (Vigiliae Christianae , Vol. 51, Nr. 4, 1997, E. J. Brill: Leiden, 359-373) and was showing it to the Austrian scholar Michael Waldstein, Markschies also looked at it and kept it for himself, apparently assuming that I was offering him that particular copy when Walstein asked Markschies if he had seen my publication. I was happy to provide him a copy, of course, for I had enough offprints for the seminar's participants, but I don't know if Markschies ever read the article, for he never mentioned it to me after that. Böhlig, for his part, requested a copy and later told me that it was "very interesting."

Well, I find Markschies's little introduction to Gnosis 'very interesting' and have very little disagreement. I had at one time read about every Gnostic text known, including ancient reports on Gnostics and even all of the Manichaean fragments -- expecting to pursue a career religious studies (but life got in the way) -- so I am satisfied that Markschies knows what he is talking about even though he acknowledges that his book is merely "a short survey . . . and not a developed argument with all the evidence, together with a critical discussion of the secondary literature" (Markschies, Gnosis, p. ix). Perhaps, however, we simply share the same prejudices.

I like that Markschies provides a typological model for his conception of Gnosis:
[B]y 'gnosis' I understand those movements which express their particular interest in the rational comprehension of the state of things by insight ('knowledge') in systems that as a rule are characterized by a particular collection of ideas or motives in the texts.
1) The experience of a completely other-worldly, distant, supreme God;

2) the introduction, which among other things is conditioned by this, of further divine figures, or the splitting up of existing figures into figures that are closer to human beings than the remote supreme 'God';

3) the estimation of the world and matter as evil creation and an experience, conditioned by this, of the alienation of the gnostic in the world;

4) the introduction of a distinct creator God or assistant: within the Platonic tradition he is called 'craftsman' -- Greek demiurgos -- and is sometimes described as merely ignorant, but sometimes also as evil;

5) the explanation of this state of affairs by a mythological drama in which a divine element that falls from its sphere into an evil world slumbers in human beings of one class as a divine spark and can be freed from this;

6) knowledge ('gnosis') about this state, which, however, can be gained only through a redeemer figure from the other world who descents from a higher sphere and ascends to it again;

7) the redemption of human beings through the knowledge of 'that God (or the spark) in them' (TestVer, NHC IX, 3, 56, 15-20), and finally

8) a tendency towards dualism in different types which can express itself in the concept of God, in the opposition of spirit and matter, and in anthropology.
This typological model, which is used as a basis here, corresponds, moreover, to the concept of 'gnosis' depicted by many ancient Christian theologians and non-Christian thinkers. (Markschies, Gnosis, pp. 16-17)
Some might consider this to be question-begging, setting up a model of Gnosis and then going forth into the ancient texts to find confirmation, but I think that what Markschies means to say is that this typological model of Gnosis expresses its most interesting complex of characteristics because these are precisely the ones that lie at the heart of whether Gnosticism as a system is pre- or post-Christian.

I agree with his assessment that Gnosticism developed from Christianity, not vice-versa.

By the way, John Bowden's translation -- or perhaps the original German -- is generally clear enough but occasionally odd. I wonder, for example, about the following remark concerning the Manichaen text Xuastvanift:
In this work, . . . unwitting sins against human beings animals, birds, fish and reptiles are addressed. (Markschies, Gnosis, p. 107)
Animals? Shouldn't that be "mammals"? People back in the Ozarks of my childhood used to say "animals" when they meant "mammals," but a scholarly translation should be more precise (or is British English different on the meaning of "animal"?).

Also, I think that the following distinction could have been better expressed:
The system of the later so-called 'Barbelo-gnostics' would thus belong, like the systems of Simon, Menander, Saturninus or Basilides, with the presuppostions of the great synthesis of the 'Valentinians', and the clear differences would be explained by a reduction and correction of the wealth of mythology.
I think that this means that the Barbelo-gnostics shared the same presuppositions as the Valentinians but had developed a far more elaborate mythological system . . . yet, I am not entirely certain. Perhaps this is less a translation oddity on Bowden's part and more an obscure manner of expression on Markschies's part.

Despite the occasional oddities of expression, the book is generally clear and accessible for the non-expert and even for the non-scholar, and I found it especially useful for refreshing my knowledge of a field in which I once worked.

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