Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Kenneth Rexroth on Gnosticism

Kenneth Rexroth's 1960 introduction to G.R.S.Meade's Fragments of a Faith Forgotten.

About Gnosticism as such, as it is revealed in the documents which survive to us, it is not necessary to correct George R.S. Mead. Since he gathered his anthology and commented upon it, sixty years of research and new discoveries have gone by, but his picture is still, in its essentials, correct. In recent years we have learned a great deal about one sect of heretical Judaism from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the Scrolls we can trace various germinal ideas that the Gnostics were to develop. It was not until 1955 that the Berlin Papyrus, Mead’s Akhmin Codex, was published in its entirety in a critical edition, but Mead’s summary of it is still sound. In 1945 a whole library of Gnostic books was discovered at Nag-Hammadi in Upper Egypt, thirteen volumes, forty-eight treatises, more than seven hundred pages. Unfortunately, economic and political vicissitudes have kept most of these from publication. So far only the Gnostic books which are contained also in the Akhmin Codex of Berlin, the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas, have appeared. We know the others only through summaries by Jean Doresse. Our knowledge of Gnosticism has been deepened and enriched, but has not been changed in any fundamental way since Mead wrote. And nobody since has better understood what we know.

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten is a masterpiece of lucid, or as lucid as might be, exposition of an unbelievably complicated and difficult and ambiguous subject. Once in a while Mead’s sympathies for the Gnostics make him a little sentimental, but he never permits his sympathies to destroy his objectivity. After sixty years he is still the most reliable guide to the corpus of Gnosticism that we have."


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