Nicola Denzey Lewis’ Textbook On the Gnostic Literature Is Really Useful (Or: Why I’m Glad My Class Failed Before It Got Off the Ground)
A few weeks ago I had a package in my campus inbox from Oxford University Press. I figured it was a book and honestly, I’m always a bit like a kid on Christmas when I know a new (and free) book has been sent to me. I’m even happier when the book is useful, as was the book wrapped in that oh-so-sweet-but-bland OUP mailer. The book I pulled out was Nicola Denzey Lewis’ new textbook, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (OUP, 2013). Before I even opened the book, the title told me something of the book’s approach. I get asked a fair amount by students about the enigmatic moniker, “Gnosticism,” about which I usually comment that the idea of a generic “Gnosticism” is largely a contemporary scholarly fiction. We have evidence of Valentian Gnosticism, Sethian Gnosticism, etc., but the idea of garden variety “Gnosticism” is problematic (and goes back to theologically conservative attempts to discredit the material discovered at Nag Hammadi, and thereby privilege the canonical gospels). The quotation marks around the word “Gnosticism” in the book’s title instantly made me feel safe and warm, and beckoned me to read further and discover that I had nothing to fear.
I won’t provide a full-scale review, but let me briefly point out four things about this book that I really like. The first three praise authorial issues while the last lauds editorial decisions:
(1) First, Lewis writes in a style that is accessible for undergraduate students. As a professor who teaches undergraduates exclusively, I am always looking for material that I can use, with success, in helping my students understand some of the more complex developments in early Christianity. Really good writers can take the most complex material and make it accessible for students. In my opinion, this book does an above average job of providing an avenue for the uninitiated.
(2) Lewis majors on the major issues. She is not concerned to cover every jot and tittle of the Nag Hammadi Library. She focuses on covering major themes and works that are demonstrably related (or seemingly related) to one another. Were I reviewing a scholarly monograph, I would insist that she ferret out every detail of the NHL, but in a book aimed at students, I think her approach will prove useful.
(3) I know nothing of Lewis’ religious background and/or any faith commitments and this book gets me no closer to knowledge of those. What I mean is that I did not feel that Lewis was either Christianizing Gnosticism or Gnosticizing Christianity. While she is clear in her introductory chapter that she understands much of the NHL to either affirm, challenge, or respond to much in the NT, her treatment struck me as “non-partisan” and fair. I particularly like Lewis’ refrain that knowledge of Plato is more important to our understanding of the NHL than most concede. Especially in Gospel of Thomas studies, there has been renewed interest in that work’s supposedly Platonic background.
(4) As to presentation: As a writer and researcher I LOVE footnotes, but when it comes to texts aimed at students, I generally like it when footnotes are either completely absent or sparingly used. The book does not use footnotes and includes numerous text boxes, images, lists of key terms, and questions at the end of each chapter. I also like the use of boldface type for key terminology used throughout the book.
In the fall of last academic year I was slated to teach a special topics course entitled, “Non-Canonical Writings and Biblical Interpretation.” I was going to spend the semester focusing on the NHL and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was unable to find a viable course text for the NHL and was forced to require numerous books. As it happened, what started out as a small class eventually dwindled to an enrollment of 4 students, which meant that the class did not happen. While I was disappointed at the time, I’m now gratified that if the class runs in the future, I will have a go-to textbook.
I do have one complaint to which Lewis MUST attend in her second edition. Noticeably absent from her bibliography on the Gospel of Thomas was this important and authoritative little primer on Thomas scholarship. Until she includes this incredibly well-written and useful student text in her otherwise helpful bibliography, I will not consider her work complete. Seriously though, if you are interested in this material as a layperson or are planning a course on the NHL or Gnosticism, you need to give this book a try.