“The Gnostic Bible” Edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer

Read The Gnostic Bible

The Gnostics were mystics, mostly Christian, who believed that direct, personal experience of the divine, or knowledge, was the way to salvation. The early church, who regarded it’s own intervention and hierarchy as the means to salvation, viewed the freedom and independence of the Gnostics as a threat. In a relatively short time, the Gnostics disappeared. However, with the discovery of the “lost” texts in the Nag Hammadi library and the publication of Elaine Pagels’ definitive works, Gnosticism is currently enjoying a renaissance.

For those interested in the Gnostics and their actual beliefs and mysteries, as well as the early history of Christianity, The Gnostic Bible is a welcome resource. As a matter of fact, The Gnostic Bible is quite possibly the most comprehensive collection of Gnostic materials ever gathered in one volume.

The Gnostic Bible collects a wealth of primary sources, Gnostic texts from a wide variety of sources, including three continents and spanning more than 1300 years. The expected texts are present, of course, including the famous Gospel of Thomas, along with some unexpected resources. Making the volume especially useful to students of Gnosticwisdom traditions, the texts are well-organized into distinct movements of Gnostic tradition: Sethian, Valentinian, Syrian, Hermetic, Mandaean, Manichaean, and even, surprisingly, later Islamic and even Cathar texts.

I was especially surprised to find the Cathar material. Despite an amateur enthusiast’s fascination with the Cathars, I had no idea that such material existed. Until a “Nag Hammadi” or Dead Sea scroll” find of Cathar material is discovered, this is the best insight into their mysteries we are likely to find. Each section of texts is preceded by a brief but insightful introduction to that particular section’s brand of Gnosticism.

One thing The Gnostic Bible makes clear is that encapsulating Gnostic belief is a lot like summarizing Native American belief. Some themes and motifs seem to be consistent, but sweeping generalizations simply don’t do justice to the diversity of thought. The Gnostic Bible does an admirable job of expressing the surprising scope and breadth of Gnosticism, and the diverse traditions upon which it drew. The Gnostic Bible makes apparent the tremendous diversity of thought that exists under the broad category of Gnosticism, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, Zoroastrian and Greco-Roman influences.

Most of the translations are newer (and presumably more accurate and complete) than those in earlier collections, such as The Other Bible (itself edited by Willis Barnstone, one of the editors of The Gnostic Bible) and The Nag Hammadi Library. I am not qualified to judge the authenticity or accuracy of the translations, when the collection has earned praise from such luminaries as Elaine Pagels and Richard Smoley, it’s hard not to take their word.

In addition to the original sources themselves, The Gnostic Bible contains an introduction summarizing current debates about gnosticism (by Meyer) and a truly fascinating overview of the issues of translation (by Barnstone). But perhaps the best editorial feature are the extensive notes that illuminate each text, enriching the experience by defining terms, providing historical and cultural context, and comparing especially puzzling passages to others for clarification. Many of the texts are being published here in English for the first time, making this a valuable resource for students, scholars, and anyone interested to one of Christianity’s most fascinating mystery traditions.


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