This book, initially published in German in 1977, was one of the first comprehensive treatments of antique Gnosticism to take into account the evidence of the Nag Hammadi discoveries of the 1950s. The opening section of the book, on “The Sources,” capably details the state of the field of research at the time it was written.
Rudolph insists on using the word “Gnosis” only as an interchangeable designator for “Gnosticism,” in keeping with the precedents in German scholarship, and in aversion to what he sees as a derogatory tone in the French Gnosticisme. This lexical choice is not exactly optimal for Anglophone readers, who will often encounter the difference in common use between Gnosticism as a religious movement in antiquity, and gnosis as an esoteric apprehension of divine realities. Rudolph prematurely pronounced the death of this distinction as a “rending apart of two terms which historically and in the history of research fundamentally belong together [that] is however not very meaningful and also has generally not prevailed.” (57)
The preceding quote gives a representative taste of the writing style. Whether due to the team of three translators, or to the author’s own disposition in composing a textbook for formal study, the result is often rather clunky prose. Still, the treatment is reasonably comprehensive and well-organized. The book is amply furnished with relevant plates and illustrations. The index is a little sparse, but marginal topic indications are a great help to the reader.
After thirty years, Rudolph’s volume is no longer cutting-edge, but neither is it obsolete. It expresses what is now a basically conservative view of ancient Gnosticism still held by many scholars. As a treatment of ancient heterodoxy, it insufficiently problematizes the concept of orthodoxy, often taking for granted the existence of a “proper” non-Gnostic Christianity prior to the period for which good evidence can justify such a claim. Rudolph says that Gnosis developed “from a relatively independent Hellenistic religion of later antiquity to a Christian ‘heresy’.” (276) One might equally opine that Christianity developed from such a Hellenistic cult into a scripture-based establishment–the internal historical claims of Christians notwithstanding.