Dulles gave us models of the Church, and Shea gave us models of Jesus. Markschies now gives us (in an expanded English version of a 2001 German original) models of Gnosticism, giving us the deficiencies of the ones he rejects and the strength of the one he champions. He also gives us much information on the sources for Gnosis, its pre-history and history and 'post-history' in Manichaeism, worthwhile tables and a bibliography, and provocative comments on the relation, real or imagined, of ancient Gnostic thought and contemporary New Age thought.
Markschies announces in the preface that this book represents his epitome on Gnosis (magnum opus to follow at an unspecified date)—movements particularly interested in creating theological systems for "insight" (Greek gnosis) into the state of things. He finds eight ideas/motives to be characteristics of these systems, including the 'usual suspects': a distant supreme god, a distinct creator god, a descending redeemer figure, dualism and myth.
Markschies's examination of the sources—he places them in four categories—helps to make clear why those of us whose major training came a number of years ago may be lost in discussions of the Gnostic movement: so many original texts are only recently available. He also gives a lucid discussion of the shortcomings of previous scholarship and the main problems in recent discussion.
His approach mainly limits Gnosticism to a Christian movement, with a 'pre-history' in the First and early Second Centuries CE, and a "real history" beginning with the three great Gnostic schools of the late Second and early Third Centuries CE.
Markschies connects ancient Gnosis with recent New Age thought only in terms of their mutual vagueness and syncretism; in fairness, I report that my New Age informants reject the negatively-loaded term 'syncretism' for the more positively-charged 'eclecticism'—but they do tend to be vague about terminology.
Yet he also points out that Gnosis continues to fascinate because it grapples with questions that still oppress us. And I am intrigued by an "existential starting point" for Gnosis advanced by Hans Jonas (and rejected by Markschies): the experience of solitude, of feeling exposed and vulnerable in an inhospitable world. Scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures exploring the "Theology of Exile" may want to follow up on this point, along with fans of the poet Houseman who talked of "being alone and afraid/ in a world I never made." I would also like to see discussions of the relations of Gnosis and the material from Qumran. These discussions would not fit easily into Markschies's typology, but we live in a Postmodern Age that often blurs convenient boundaries.
I agree with the blurbs on the back cover of this book. Maurice Wiles finds that the Gnostics presented here are neither bizarre eccentrics nor evil enemies of Christianity, but rather credible participants in ancient dialogue about meaningful Christianity. Gerd Theissen lauds the book as an introduction to an ancient movement and a balanced summary of recent scholarship on that movement.
I too recommend this book to anyone interested in early Christian history and ancient intellectual history.