In any conflict it is the victorious party that writes the history, and, particularly if the issue is religion, the record of the opposition is either wholly effaced or survives only in the aspect given it by its enemies. So it has been with the Gnostics, whose doctrines could be reconstructed only from attacks made upon them by certain Church Fathers who wrote while Gnosticism was a present danger. After the 4th century when victory was complete the movement was ignored, until 19th-century scholars began to study it, mainly from the viewpoint of Protestant apologetics. In the 20th century new discoveries have made a fuller and more objective appreciation possible.
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In any conflict it is the victorious party that writes the history, and, particularly if the issue is religion, the record of the opposition is either wholly effaced or survives only in the aspect given it by its enemies. So it has been with the Gnostics, whose doctrines could be reconstructed only from attacks made upon them by certain Church Fathers who wrote while Gnosticism was a present danger. After the 4th century when victory was complete the movement was ignored, until 19th-century scholars began to study it, mainly from the viewpoint of Protestant apologetics.
In the 20th century new discoveries have made a fuller and more objective appreciation possible. Particularly valuable is the extensive Manichaean library in Coptic found in Egypt in and not yet fully published. Study of Gnostic teachings is therefore not merely the intellectual pastime of solving a particularly knotty puzzle but relevant to a fuller understanding of the orthodoxies which rejected it.
But knowledge has been difficult to come by. The ancient sources are elusive passages in esoteric books the ordinary student never encounters, and secondary treatments are fragmentary and recondite. It is at once a work of original scholarship by an acknowledged authority in its field, and so lucid in its presentation that the enormous learning which it exploits is never obtrusive. It is a feat of imaginative scholarship to combine scattered and tangled threads into a unified texture with patterns clearly revealed in their dark side and in their light, and it is no less a feat to clarify the strange patterns by relating them to more familiar ones.
Actually only a few groups called themselves Gnostics, but the complex of ideas which characterized these groups were characteristic also of many other groups, and the Church Fathers and modern scholars after them have correctly applied the term gnostic to the ideas wherever they occurred.
The most striking element in the system was a stark dualism, so radical that it regarded everything outside the unknowable and alien God as the realm of the adverse forces. This meant that not only the world and man but the teachers and scriptures of current orthodoxies were devices to keep sparks of the divine in perpetual bondage.
There is a fascination in the ruthlessness of the central conception and the uncompromising consistency of some of its ramifications, and there is a welter of fabricated and therefore absurd mythology. Professor Jonas wishes neither to praise nor to condemn but to facilitate understanding.
He opens his book with a discussion of the intellectual and religious climate of the Hellenistic and imperial Roman world, with particular attention to modes of thought, East and West, and to the basis of their fusion in gnosis. A final section pinpoints the distinctive Gnostic views by contrasting them with traditional classical theory in such items as the cosmos, virtue, and the soul. There can be no question that Judaism was in fact involved, both in cause and effect.
If nevertheless the Gnostics expressed hostility to orthodox Judaism, so they did to orthodox Christianity also, and so did Christianity whose debt to Judaism is indubitable express hostility to Judaism.
But precise distribution of credit or debit in such a matter as this is, in the judgment of this reviewer, footless. Influence between East and West in the Hellenistic age worked like a pendulum; at each swing, as can be demonstrated in fields other than religion, the pendulum received in altered form matter which it had itself brought in on the previous swing. Indeed from one point of view Gnosticism is another instance of the centripetal forces of society which are purposefully made centrifugal by organized authority.
But the disparate fragments of what was once an amalgam may still be traced, whether in the Cabbala or in the legend of Perceval and the Holy Grail.
For example, The Gnostic Religion, first published in , was for many years the standard work in English on the subject of Gnosticism. The Imperative of Responsibility German , English centers on social and ethical problems created by technology. Jonas insists that human survival depends on our efforts to care for our planet and its future. He formulated a new and distinctive supreme principle of morality: "Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life". While The Imperative of Responsibility has been credited with catalyzing the environmental movement in Germany, his work The Phenomenon of Life forms the philosophical undergirding of one major school of bioethics in America. Heavily influenced by Heidegger, The Phenomenon of Life attempts to synthesize the philosophy of matter with the philosophy of mind, producing a rich existential understanding of biology, which ultimately argues for a simultaneously material and moral human nature. His writing on Gnosticism interprets the religion from an existentialist philosophical viewpoint.
The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity
In front of the house, two Stolpersteine were installed in Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in , which may have disturbed Jonas, as he was Jewish and an active Zionist. Certainly, in Jonas would repudiate his mentor Heidegger, for his affiliation with the Nazis. There he met Lore Weiner , to whom he became betrothed. He was sent to Italy , and in the last phase of the war moved into Germany. Thus, he kept his promise that he would return only as a soldier in the victorious army.