Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.15

Augusto Cosentino, Il Battesimo Gnostico: Dottrine, simboli e riti iniziatici nello gnosticismo. Hierá: Collana di studi storico-religiosi 9.   Cosenza:  Edizioni Lionello Giordano, 2007.  Pp. vii, 357.  ISBN 978-88-8691923-4.  €30.00.  

Reviewed by Ellen Muehlberger, DePauw University (
Word count: 1475 words

This monograph aims to explore the complex intersection of gnosticism and ancient forms of baptismal rituals, and attempts to define the character of "gnostic baptism" in a way that argues for its derivation from proto-orthodox Christian baptism. It is extremely broad in its scope, moving from discussions of, at the earliest, first century Jewish rituals of washing to, at the latest, the medieval Cathars. As this sweep indicates, the work is structured by a phenomenological perspective on what gnosticism might be; the preface to the volume underscores its commitment to walking on the "path opened by" the 1966 Messina conference on The Origins of Gnosticism. For scholars who find the phenomenological approach still fertile, this book will be a suggestive and exciting tour of multiple kinds of water rituals in a variety of religious groups, which are linked by their status as outsiders to the "Great Church." For those who accept the criticism of the phenomenological approach put forth by scholars like Michael Williams and Karen King, this book will frustrate: it is vexed by many of the same problems of methodology and historiography that continue to trouble the loose field of gnostic studies as a whole.

The distinction between those two types of scholars is important, for Williams and King have exhumed in detail the latent and all-too-frequent accompaniments of phenomenological approaches to finding "gnosticism." To look for what is essentially "gnostic" frequently means looking for the origins of this phenomenon, as Cosentino also acknowledges (43-44). That search itself is often, but not always, driven by a notion of gnosticism framed in the same way that early Christian heresiologists framed it: an outside invasive force, never truly Christian even in its more Christian forms, it is something that perverts Christianity in a hostile and irreverent fashion. The purpose, then, of figuring out the beginning of "gnosticism" is to provide an explanation: if gnosticism has a clear place outside Christianity from which it originates, then it cannot have been an integral part of Christianity at its very start, or one form of Christianity among many in time, nor might those thoughts so often classified as "gnostic"--that is, dualistic thoughts, thoughts of a world created by a god unattached to the highest divinity, a world flawed and misdirected--be latent within Christianity proper.

This is not to say that a phenomenological approach in itself is flawed or misdirected. One can imagine how, with the caveats raised by Williams and King in mind, a scholar might argue for a fruitful return to the approach by looking comparatively at individual characteristics in a particular study. This book, however, does not undertake that task. Cosentino frequently nods to the caution that scholars have adopted with respect to positing historical connections between groups that appear, from certain perspectives, to have similar systems of thought, yet he forges ahead to morph the phenomenological into the historical. There are a number of examples of this pattern in Cosentino's exposition, but the passage in which he offers his definition of gnosticism is an exemplar.

We can, in fact, speak of gnosticism in a wide sense, as a phenomenon with well-defined characteristics, the first of which is dualism. However, in a historical sense, it is better to speak of gnosticisms, inasmuch as that phenomenon exhibits beliefs that are not only extremely diverse in their characteristics, but extremely distant in space and especially in time. In this sense it is possible to comprise within the phenomenon medieval gnosticisms or mandaeism. It is not a matter of looking for a non-existent "gnostic spirit," physically detached from history, which manifests itself here and there in various places and times. It is a matter, instead, of reconstructing, if possible, the thin weft that connects the diverse manifestations of gnosticism, and to reconstruct from them the origins, going back to the original background in which gnostic thought developed (42, translation and emphasis mine).1

Cosentino is here advocating a correlation between a phenomenological correspondence and a historical one, the two marked as the "thin weft" into which are woven the strands of history--however long, however fragile, however thin--that, for him, connect the dualism he sees in, say, the Sibilline Oracles with the texts of Nag Hammadi, "medieval heresies," and the Mandaeans. By locating and teasing out the threads of that weft, Cosentino hopes to lay bare the "original background" of gnostic thought.

The purpose of this search for the original background of gnosticism becomes clear when Cosentino defines "baptism." A progressive growth has taken place, he argues, from the "ablutions" of Judaism, aimed at purification, to the "baptism" of Christianity, done once and for all for the purpose of initiation and adherence to a new faith. The shift from Jewish ablution to Christian baptism Cosentino locates in the first century: the baptisms of the New Testament, including that of Jesus, have lost their Jewish character because they take place as an initiatory rite for a new sect. Given this location of baptism uniquely within Christianity, it is natural then to compare other forms of ritual immersion to this one original archetype. While Cosentino at times acknowledges the fact that baptism in proto-orthodox Christian tradition developed only in fits and starts, contemporaneous with other non-orthodox baptismal traditions (257), at other times he confidently declares "gnostic baptism" to be a pale, secondary derivative of Christian baptism. In his conclusion, he writes:

As we have seen, gnostic baptism is a rite which the gnostic derives by passive imitation, in its liturgical forms, from the Christian baptism of the Great Church. The reinterpretation that the gnostics make of baptism. . .transforms Christian baptism into gnostic baptism. It is improbable that gnostic baptism was borne of a pre-Christian baptism, developing parallel to the baptism of the Great Church. Non-Christian forms of baptism. . .are clearly distant from the development of the true and proper baptism (263-64).2

Here is revealed Cosentino's purpose: to make clear that Christian baptism is unique, not just among the multiple Christianities scholars now acknowledge in the first few centuries of this era, but rather among all religious forms of water rituals. Thus, Cosentino argues, "sacred immersion assumes in Christianity significance, symbolism, and a centrality completely unseen in every other religious environment" (31, emphasis mine).

Cosentino makes his case in the course of an introduction and 12 chapters. The introduction comprises Cosentino's detailed definitions of "baptism" and "gnosticism," as I have described them above. Chapter 1 treats "baptism in the Great Church," while the remaining chapters each deal with a particular tradition or set of texts that have been identified as gnostic. In four early chapters, Cosentino parses water rituals as discussed in several environments that are roughly contemporaneous with early Christianity, widely defined: texts from "the Syriac church," including The Odes of Solomon, Acts of John, Acts of Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Christian Sibilline Oracles (chapter 2); the hermetic corpus (chapter 3); those baptist sects that are "not strictly gnostic," by which Cosentino means the Ebionites discussed by Epiphanius and the Elchasaites discussed by Hippolytus (chapter 4); and the "Samaritan gnosticism of Simon Magus and Menander" (chapter 5). In a trio of chapters at the middle of the work, Cosentino relates his views of baptism as it appears in Sethian and Valentinian works, incorporating into these "gnostic" interpretations of the New Testament (chapters 6, 8, and 7, respectively). Chapter 9 traces baptismal elements in the Pistis Sophia and The Second Book of Jeu. Chapter 10 discusses "gnostic groups who reject baptism," mainly by treating those groups described by Epiphanius, Theodoret, and Tertullian--the Archontics, the Ascodrutians, and Tertullian's baptismal abolitionists from de baptismo. A pair of chapters at the end of the book discusses "medieval heresies," including the Bogomils and the Cathars (chapter 11) and what Cosentino names the modern "fossilized survival" of gnosticism, Mandaeism (chapter 12). Scholars interested in the water-based rituals of any of these groups--historical or heresiological in their origin--might profit from reading Cosentino's discussions, but in many cases other works are more analytical and ultimately more useful. For example, with respect to the Nag Hammadi literature, John Turner's discussion of the Sethian baptismal rite in Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition or Einar Thomassen's description of Valentinian initiation in The Spiritual Seed offer more to the specialist looking for sources and commentary on the ritual life of these specific traditions.

Indeed, at a time when many scholars of gnostic studies, like Turner and Thomassen, are focusing their work on much smaller parts of the field that Gnostic Baptism attempts to survey, Cosentino's work appears to be orphaned by its expansive claims. It speaks to a very particular audience, one which looks for "gnosticism" in the interstices of history and outside the limits of Christianity. Once located, this "gnosticism" and its rituals of water can serve to defend the primacy of baptism in the proto-orthodox Christian movement.


1.   Possiamo infatti parlare di gnosticismo in senso lato, in quanto fenomeno con caratteristiche ben precise, prima fra tutte il dualismo. Ma in senso storico è più opportuno parlare di gnosticismi, in quanto quel fenomeno contempla credenze non solo diversissime tra loro nelle caratteristiche, ma lontanissime nello spazio e sopratutto nel tempo. In questo senso è possibile comprendere nel fenomeno gli gnosticismi medievali o il mandeismo. Non si tratta di cercare un'inesistente "spirito gnostico" disincarnato dalla storia, che si manifesta qua e là in diversi luoghi e momenti. Si tratta invece di ricostruire, per quanto sia possibile, la sottile trama che lega le diverse manifestazioni dello gnosticismo, e di ricostruirne le origini tornando indietro al background originario in cui il pensiero gnostico si è sviluppato.
2.   Il battesimo gnostico è un rito ch lo gnostico deriva pedissequamente, come abbiamo visto, nelle sue forme liturgiche, dal battesimo cristiano della Grande Chiesa. La rilettura che gli gnostici fanno del battesimo. . .trasforma il battesimo cristiano in battesimo gnostico. Ci sembra improbabile l'ipotesi alternative della nascita del battesimo gnostico da un battesimo pre-cristiano, parallelamente al battesimo cristiano della Grande Chiesa. Le forme battesimali non-cristiane. . .sono evidentamente lontane dallo sviluppo liturgico del battesimo vero e proprio.

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