Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas by Professor David Brakke (2015)

, 15 Oct 2016

This is 12-hour University Course on Gnosticism prepared and narrated by one of the scholars who knows most about Early Christianity and Gnosticism, David Brakke, a Yale PhD recipient and professor of the State of Ohio University. He has the  virtue of knowing what teaching is. It is not that he has plenty of knowledge, is that he is able to convey the  knowledge he has in ways that are understandable, engaging and entertaining without being informal or too formal.

The Recording

This is an excellent audio recording, great sound, well-structured and narrated, with musical clues that indicate the end of a chapter, and headings by a radio-voice presenter at the beginning of each chapter.

Brakke's narration is excellent. The modulation and inflection of his voice and tone are easy to follow without getting bored or sleepy, even when Brakke gives details about the myths of the different Gnostics. He is able to be rigorous about what he says but also flexible, not dogmatic, he doesn't present his opinion as Universal if it is not, he is humble but assertive. He does what true scholars do, they know a lot but know what they don't know so they don't fake what they don't or add on anything. Brakke's knowledge on the subject is exhaustive.

The Lectures

 The course is made of 24 lessons, each of about 30 minutes and we are taken through the main schools of Gnosticism, the main sources and philosophers, giving a detailed account of each document discusses or branch of Early Christianity examined in the course. Brakke also shows the points that those branches and texts share and those on which they differ, and digs into what the life was for Christians in the three first centuries of the Christian Era. Brakke also gives some sketched information about related beliefs that span through the Middle Ages and to this very day.

The list of lessons  is as follows:
1- Rediscovering Gnosis. 2- Who where the Gnostics? 3- God in Gnostic Myth. 4- Gnosticism on Creation, Sin and Salvation. 5- Judas as Gnostic Tragic Hero. 6- Gnostic Bible Stories. 7- Gnosticism Ritual Pathway to God. 8-  The Feminine in Gnostic Myth.9- The Gospel of Thomas’s Cryptic Sayings. 10- The Gospel of Thomas on Reunifying the Self.11- Valentinus, Great Preacher of Gnosis. 12- God and Creation in Valentinian Myth.13- “Becoming Male” through Valentinian Ritual. 14- Valentinian Views on Christian Theology. 15- Mary Magdalene as an Apostle of Gnosis. 16- Competing Revelations from Christ.17- The Invention of Heresy. 18- Making Gnosis Orthodox. 19- Gnosticism and Judaism. 20-  Gnosis without Christ.
21- The Mythology of Manichaeism. 22- Augustine on Manichaeism and Original Sin.23- Gnostic Traces in Western Religions. 24- “Gnosticism” in the Modern Imagination.

Companion Book

You can download the book on PDF from your library (in your member area), potion the cursor on the PDF link and let clink and select save link as, and it will

The audio-book comes with a companion book, of about 185 pages. The text is mostly what Brakke narrates, but not strictly so, no to the letter, as he adds things that aren't in the book. The book contains very helpful illustrations and figures, a list of recommended reads at the end of each chapter and some questions to ponder on it on your own. The book also includes a very up to date bibliography, and each chapter offers a list of suggested readings and makes some questions for the readier/student to ponder on.

My Main Takings from the Course

I have learned many things about Gnosticism and Early Christianity in this book. However, a few points have a special relevance for me, and they are the points that make me wonder, ponder and reflect. The eye-openers. These are my personal nuggets from the book:
~~ Gnosticism is a clear example of the many factions, chaos, and ways of dealing with Jesus' message in the first centuries of Christianity. Nothing was set on stone, so all Christians had to make sense of the differences between the God depicted in the Old Testament and the message brought by Jesus. Those first centuries saw different approaches, some of them considered heretic, but they were never so, they were mostly not dominant because even among mainstream Christianity, if such thing existed, nothing was set on stone either. Gnosticism sheds light on the richness and confusion with which early Christians looked at the world of Spirit.
~~ I found amazing how contemporary and relevant the Gospel of St Thomas is for modern spirituality and how, despite being discarded as being an  apocrypha, the message is perhaps the closest to that of Jesus. The Kingdom of God is here and now, inside you, the inner and outer are a reflection of each other. So very Jungian, as well!  It has made it to my must-read text. I wonder why never made it to the New Testament. 
~~ I find really surprising the influence of Plato in many of the Gnostic myth, but with a layer of spirituality added onto it. 
~~ Despite what many Gnostic aficionados say, the role of women in Gnosticism was not that different from the role that  women had in Early Christianity. Yes, there are more women or female figures in the Gnostic writings, even the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, but women were considered derivative imperfect souls and copies of their male counterparts, from whom they need permission to act in the world. 
~~ The Gospels weren't written by the apostles and are not contemporaneous of Jesus. I think that needs to be reminded. It is OK to believe, to believe in Jesus and to be Christian, but one should be aware of what one is swearing on.
~~ Mythical narratives need to make sense; otherwise, the faithful will adjust the narrative until it does. The example of the nativity scene Brakke gives is brilliant! Early Christians didn't have the set of dogmas or unquestionable "truths" we now have, as most of them are a historical construction,  but we all want to make sense of religious texts, understand their lack of congruencies or things that seem not to depict God in ways that are unflattering. The Gnostics, perhaps more than anybody else, were able to address those hot-potato points and deal with them in very creative ways. 
~~  Early Christians seemed to be more interested than contemporary Christians in understanding what they believed. These Christians sought direct knowledge of God not just to feel him in their hearts or to follow Jesus' teachings. They had a faith that was less blind, and part of spirituality was "to know" not just to believe, to interpret and not just to be lectured. Those Christians who declared the Gnostics heretics, tried to do the same and provided explanations to address the same quest for knowledge of God, the connection between the Old and New Testament, and offered stories about salvation that would resonate with Christians that also  seemed to seek answers not just dogma.  
~~ Gnosctic, Valentiniana, Mandeans, Manichaeans, the Kabbalah, Hermetism and Neoplatonism, among many other creeds and philosophies examined in this course, which go from Early Christianity to the modern day, show that humans have always had a need to approach God and the Spirit in ways that aren't simplistic or literal, that humans need of myths and symbols to go deeper into the understanding of the world and Spirit to give meaning to their lives.
~~ Believers, or some ranks amongst them, have always aimed to make sense of the Biblical Genesis, almost a need to know how the world and the Universe came to be, and the position of humans and the human soul in it. Have you ever wondered why Einstein is so "revered"?
 ~~ Coptic Christianity is such an important part of Early Christianity that this should be more commonly acknowledged and frequently taught in school. All the Coptic texts Coptic Christianity of the past are an heritage of Humanity, at least of Christian Humanity, aid we should aim to protect modern Copts, their churches and their Museums from the abuses and destruction they are suffering in modern Egypt.  



The CD is about 70+ bucks, but if you get the audible version you will paying half that price. However, if you are an Audible subscriber you will get it with one credit, and if you join just to try it. You can do, as I have done just to get this course, join Audible and have month-free trial and get two book or courses for free. Yet, even if I had paid a full price for this course, I would be happy! 



Brakke is very balanced on his discourse, so I think nobody will get offended by anything he says. However,I you take the Bible and the New Testament to the letter, if you are conservative or very conservative Christian, this is not a book for you. This is a historical course, by a professional scholar who has no interest on doing anything that is not teaching a subject on which he is an expert. If you decide to go on and get offended, you are the only one to blame.

A Wish

I would love Brakke to offer another course on any of the subjects he is expert on! He is just a fantastic teacher and perfect for this sort of recording.

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