Sam Peppers RELG316 Paper Wolverton Few topics in the history of early Christianity invite as much controversy as the emergence of Gnosticism and its tumultuous relationship with the establishment of the mainline church
Sam Peppers RELG316 Paper Wolverton
Few topics in the history of early Christianity invite as much controversy as the emergence of Gnosticism and its tumultuous relationship with the establishment of the mainline church. While relatively ambiguous in origin and teachings, its heavy emphasis on individualism, salvation via knowledge, and rejection of the physical world starkly contrast with what would become the core tenets of mainstream Christian doctrine. Left largely forgotten until the 20th century, Gnostic ideals were isolated from the evolution of greater Christian thought yet have experienced somewhat of a resurgence in popularity in the contemporary era.
Linguistically the term Gnosticism finds roots in the Greek word “gnosis”, meaning knowledge (Britannica.) It is aptly named as the philosophy is at its core based on the concept of receipt of secret knowledge regarding the nature of the divine and man. While the exact origin of Gnostic movements is often hotly contested amongst scholars, it is often surmised that elements of the Gnostic belief system existed prior to the dawn of Christianity in forms of mystic Judaism, Persian Zoroastrianism, and Hellenistic beliefs, though what is commonly thought of as Gnosticism in relation to the Christian church likely significantly developed in the first century parallel to the spreading of the teachings of Christ.
From a geographical perspective, Gnostic movements first gained traction in Syria and Palestine and gradually spread to eventually become prominent throughout Alexandria and the greater Roman Empire within the second century It is within this context, an uncertain era in which Christianity functioned with a lack of an official defined orthodoxy, that Gnosticism reached the apex of its popularity (Smith 8.)
While lack of definition surrounding Gnosticism’s origins exists, the high level of obscurity surrounding specific Gnostic customs and rituals makes the process of accurately defining the Gnostic belief system even more daunting. The movement functioned under a large umbrella of diversity and lacked the general sense of homogeneity commonly associated with established religious practice today. With the exception of a small number of late Gnostic texts and the negative remarks of prominent early Christian orthodox figures, Gnosticism was virtually wiped from the pages of history and ignored due to lack of contributing materials and new information.
However, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in December of 1945 reversed this and succeeded in providing modern scholars with an infinitely more thorough and unified understanding of Gnostic theology. The haphazard nature of the excavation, in which Egyptian camel driver Muhammed Ali Al-Summan unearthed a jar of papyrus in the ground and burned a portion of the codices for kindling, shows the degree to which all-encompassing knowledge of Gnostic theology has been lost with time (Remnick). However, the 52 remaining Coptic-Greek texts (including not only gospels but myths, chants and poems as well) illustrate remnants of a fiery ancient theological debate and provide evidence of a contradictory Gnostic belief system that both reaffirms and opposes tenets of the synoptic gospels on several fronts.
Gnosticism fundamentally perpetuates the notion that “humans are stranded in matter yet each of us has a spark of divinity within, which can be fanned into a fire through which we can partake of the nature of the true and highest god (Smith 10.)” There exists a clear and unmistakable line of demarcation between the physical and spiritual realms, which is emphasized to a far greater degree than in traditional Christian teachings and symbolizes a differing overall concept regarding morality.
Many historians separate Gnostic sects into two over-arching schools of thought, labelling them the “Sethians” and the “Valentinians “(King.) Sethians derived their namesake from an apparent idealization of the third son of Adam and Eve (Seth) and believed that the creation of matter can be attributed to the works of a lower “creator god” deemed the “demiurge”, who with his “archon” minions designed all forms of physical existence in response to a spiritual loss of wisdom (King.)
This belief system completely rejects the idea of a monotheistic deity as presented in traditional Christianity (in addition to the Holy Trinity) in favor of a duality between the lowly “demiurge” and an unknown, ruling creator. Not only this, but it depicts the physical world as a direct result of sin itself rather than an inherently good creation. Valentinian Gnostics (led by theologian Valentinus who nearly became Bishop of Rome) aligned more symmetrically with Judeo-Christian faiths and often relied upon the Hebrew bible as supplementary instruction (Britannica). Nevertheless, both schools of thought emphasize the notion of physical existence as a form of shackle that the spirit within must transcend, in comparison to the orthodox belief that creation itself is inherently moral and created by a single deity.
It is in relation to the strict separation of physical and spiritual and the supposed immorality of the physical that the concept of docetism gains relevance and connection with Gnostic philosophy. Finding origin in the Greek word of “dokein” (meaning “to seem”), docetism refers to the theory that Christ did not in actuality inhabit a physical body during his time on Earth but rather simply put forth a supernatural illusion of possessing one(Britannica.) In accordance to the idea that matter is without exception evil, this theory makes an allowance for a mergence of Gnostic thoughts on the morality of physicality with the teachings and holiness of Christ.
However, it is thought that Peter, Paul, and John repeatedly and explicitly underlined the humanity of Christ partly in response to docetist thought. Luke 2:7 directly states “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger”, insinuating that Jesus had a biological birth. Luke also describes Jesus’ routine circumcision at eight days old, again implying the existence of a Christ with a corporeal existence (Blue Letter Bible.) Jesus is described as bleeding when pierced by spears in John 19:34, and refers to himself as a human man in John 8:40. His emotions, physical needs, and perception of pain are described throughout the synoptic gospels time and time again. Perhaps the most direct blow to docetism comes in the form of 2 John 7, which states “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist (Daily Verses.)”
By denying his human nature one directly contradicts the synoptic gospels and denies the value and necessity of his physical sacrifice and resurrection. This Gnostic devaluation of Christ’s human experience connects to a greater division between Gnostic and orthodox thought on the topic of salvation and the methods through which it is ultimately attained.
As previously referenced Gnosticism is at its core a knowledge-centric philosophy, emphasizing the notion that knowledge of one’s true spiritual existence (referred to as the “pneuma”) will ultimately allow for salvation upon death (Christian History Institute.) However, it is worth noting that some Gnostic sects emphasized exclusivity via implication that the existence of divine pneuma was not universal amongst human creation but relegated to a select few. Both existence of pneuma within an individual and obtainment of gnosis were necessary to escape the dungeon of physical existence upon death and return to an original holy state of spiritual being.
This emphasis on secret knowledge can be interpreted as contradictory to the inclusive nature of the message of Christ, which offered salvation (with less direct distinction between physical and spiritual) to all with a contingency on belief in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Salvation was presented as an opportunity available for all individuals, with zero distinctions made between supposed inner spiritual qualities in different types of people. Mark 16:16 proclaims “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned(Daily Verses.)” John 3:16 shows that Jesus’ sacrifice, rather than attainment of knowledge regarding the nature of spirituality or creation nor an elusive divine inner spark, is responsible for salvation and an eternal afterlife. Once again, a core belief of Gnostic tradition directly contradicts what is repeatedly stated throughout the orthodox synoptic gospels.
Of the codices located at Nag Hammadi, the most prominent Valentinian texts were the Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Truth. Despite the titular usage of the word gospel, neither of the texts truly center on describing Christ’s life or teachings. The former describes a distinction between “pneumatic” humans capable of spiritual advancement, and those of the “hylic” or material variety for whom salvation is impossible. It also describes humans as being a dualistic mixture of male and female spiritual elements, and is famous in some circles for its vague implications of a romantic relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene (Opus Dei.)
The latter Gospel of Truth includes mentions of several canonical scriptures and acknowledges Jesus’ role as a shepherd among men, however takes on a greater theme of identifying Christ as a figure sent to Earth with the main purpose of sharing spiritual knowledge with men. Like the apparent majority of Gnostic texts, it appears to be a peculiar amalgamation of normative canon and contradictions, with an overall increased emphasis on obtainment of knowledge.
Popular Sethian texts took more of an obscure path in comparison to Valentinian alternatives, continuing the general trend of greater consistency between both the Hebrew bible and the Valentinian Gnostic approach. Works such as the Apocryphon John, Thought of Norea, and Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit devoted a considerable amount of time in explaining Gnostic creation myths and the many supposed nuances of the spirit world (Gnosis.) .
Authorship and dates of origin of the above-mentioned works as well as the more famous Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas is unknown, a contributing factor amongst many others to the eventual rejection of the materials from traditional canon by prominent early Christian theologians and the Council of Nicea in the year 325 AD. (Sabriel.)
Often contemporary critics attempt to identify the Gnostic gospels as wrongfully shunned lost books of the Bible, conjuring an image of a power-hungry church stifling individualism out of desire for power via uniformity. However, there is an undeniably large number of discrepancies between the Gnostic gospels and what is presented in both the Old Testament and accepted New Testament canon.
Unsurprisingly, prior to the Nag Hammadi finding Gnosticism was generally acknowledged exclusively via the hostile criticism it received by early orthodox Christians. Early second century opponent Irenaeus famously branded Gnosticism as blatant heresy. While he specifically identified many subgroups and sects of Gnosticism in his writings, he criticized overarching Valentinian philosophy in his work Refutation of Heresies, identifying it as wrongfully exclusive on the topic of soteriology and heretical in its rejection of Christ’s corporeal existence(Teahan.)
He was also struck by an apparent arrogance of Gnostic adherents, comically writing “As soon as a man has been won over to their way of salvation, he becomes so puffed up with conceit and self- importance that he imagines himself to be no longer in heaven or on earth, but to have already passed into the fullness of God’s power…With the majestic air of a cock he goes strutting about, as if he had already embraced his angel (Teahan.)”
Irenaeus defended the notion of apostolic succession and rejected the theory that the Apostles made a deliberate decision to withhold vital spiritual information from those who would go on to form the early church (website) . Such a notion was inconsistent with what Irenaeus and most Christian scholars viewed as the sacredness of evangelism and how the purposeful spreading of Christianity differentiated it from other opposing faiths. The above-mentioned quote draws attention to the fact that upon obtaining sacred knowledge, Gnostics place far less of an emphasis on spreading this knowledge to others throughout life on Earth (Theologians.)
Furthermore, Irenaeus directly refuted Gnostic assumptions denoting the importance of oral tradition in interpreting Christianity, another suggestion of the passing of “secret” knowledge purposefully and rightfully kept from all believers. While some Gnostic cults infamously condoned and engaged in contextually liberal sexual practices, Irenaeus was quick to relate this behavior to the fact that the bulk of Gnostic theology focuses not on establishing a clear-cut moral code of conduct and allows man to decide for himself what is ultimately right or wrong in the majority of instances (Teahan.)
Irenaeus was one of the first individuals recorded as referring to an overall “Catholic” or “universal” church. His religious views held the universality of Christ’s message in high regard. He aggressively defended the early church from the influence of Gnosticism and was far from alone in his view of it posing a major internal threat to the survival of the Christian faith and church.
Ultimately the lack of consistency amongst Gnostic material and the high likelihood of accepted canonical scripture being significantly older than the Gnostic gospels lead to the eventual rejection and non-inclusion of the text in established universalized Christian canon come the Nicene Creed of the early 4th century (Vanderbilt.) .
While Gnosticism in the many forms it took during the days of early Christianity is for the most part dead in practice, the rise of contemporary New Age movements and the Church of Scientology has launched concepts such as individual divinity and secret spiritual knowledge back into the public consciousness to some degree.