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Gnosis and the New Testament: Introduction

Gnosis is an English transliteration of the Greek word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis), meaning “knowledge”. This series of articles and notes will approach the New Testament from the standpoint of the relationship between (early) Christianity and gnosticism. This approach is useful and important for several reasons:

  1. It helps to bring into focus several aspects of early Christianity which cannot be explained entirely from the background of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish tradition.
  2. It brings greater clarity as well to the religious-cultural background of the New Testament, both from a Jewish and Greco-Roman viewpoint. The importance of a proper view of the ancient way of thinking, as opposed to assumptions based on a modern-day mindset, for interpreting Scripture, must always be stressed.
  3. Much of the religious self-identity of early Christians was formed in the context of disputes involving gnostic (and/or Gnostic) ways of understanding Scripture and religious tradition. This can be seen, to some extent, and at various points, already in the New Testament writings—especially the later texts from c. 60-90 A.D.

To begin with, it is important to consider the term “gnosticism”, one of the most problematic and ill-defined in Christian and religious studies (on this, see especially my earlier article). The word itself is, of course, derived from gnosis (gnw=si$). “Gnostics” (gnwstikoi/, gnœstikoí) are literally the “ones who know, knowing ones”, i.e. those possessing knowledge, or who have come to be so. Much of the confusion surrounding the terms “Gnostic, Gnosticism,” etc, stems from the fact that there are, properly, two fundamental ways they can be used or understood: (1) as a phenomenon of religion, or (2) as a specific historical religious development in the first centuries A.D.

In 1966, an important scholarly conference (the Messina Colloquium) was held which specifically addressed the subject of “Gnosticism”. It was deemed advisable to use the term “Gnosis” for the wider religious phenomenon (1), while reserving “Gnosticism” for the historical phenomenon of the 1st-2nd century (2). In the subsequent decades, a number of scholars have retained this distinction; it is useful enough, from a practical standpoint, and is part of the reason I have used the word “Gnosis” in the title of this series. However, as I discussed in my earlier article, I believe it is better (and more precise) to distinguish between the more general and specific senses of the word “gnosticism” itself. Indeed, I prefer to make the distinction with lower and upper case letters—”gnosticism” (little g) for the general religious phenomenon, and “Gnosticism” (big G) primarily when referring to the (heterodox/heretical) quasi-Christian groups and beliefs from the first centuries A.D.

Definition of Terms

Drawing from my earlier article, here is the basic definition I will be using in this series—gnosticism is:

A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize salvation, as well as other fundamental aspects of religious identity or status, in terms of knowledge.

Often this will take the place of, or take priority over, ceremonial, ritual or cultic means. As such, it is similar in certain respects to the phenomena of mysticism and spiritualism. There are two main components, or aspects, to this knowledge:

  1. A person comes to know or realize his/her true nature (religious/spiritual identity), of which, in ignorance, he/she had previously been unaware or only glimpsed in part.
  2. This knowledge (salvation) comes only through special revelation not normally accessible to people at large.

With regard to this last point, special (divine) revelation is typically considered necessary due to the evil/fallen condition of the world around us, with the result that humanity has been ‘lost’ in ignorance. The presence of a “savior figure”—a divine being or representative—is required to bring knowledge.

Perhaps the most common and distinctive aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is the way it is expressed in markedly dualistic language and vocabulary, emphasizing conflict or contrast—light vs. darkness, true vs. false, knowledge vs. ignorance, mind/spirit vs. body/flesh, etc. In gnosticism, such basic religious pairings become more prominent, used with greater consistency, often reflecting a particular worldview or cosmology. For more on a definition and explanation of the term “dualism”, cf. the associated article here.

The Gnosticism which is attested in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., as reported by (proto-orthodox) Christian authors, as well as found in a number of surviving texts, may be defined this way:

Groups, individuals, and writings which reflect strongly gnostic beliefs and/or a gnostic worldview (cf. above), and which are characterized by a blending of Christian and other religious/philosophical components; this syncret(ist)ic character results in a (heterodox) form of Christianity which differs in many respects from the theology, tradition, and interpretation of Scripture found in the (proto-)orthodox writings of the period.

The Issue of Salvation

The above definition of gnosticism emphasizes soteriology—that is, salvation in terms of knowledge (gnosis). This is one of the key topics that will be discussed in this series. However, by way of introduction, it may be helpful to consider the basic understanding of “salvation” assumed by early Christians. In modern times, when Christians speak of being “saved”, it is typically understood in terms of individual, personal salvation, specifically a person’s fate after death. A careful reading of the New Testament, however, shows that this was not a major component of what early Christians had in mind when using the words sw/zw (sœ¡zœ, “save”) and the related noun swthri/a (sœt¢ría, “salvation”). The relevant passages will be discussed in an upcoming article (Part 2), along with several supplemental notes, but the results of this study may be previewed here, as indicating two main aspects of the early Christian understanding; fundamentally, salvation relates to:

  • Being saved from the end-time Divine Judgment that is about to come upon the world (and humankind)
  • Being delivered from the sin and evil that dominates and controls the world (and humankind)

The first aspect was more or less inherited from Jewish eschatology of the period, but sharpened among early Christians (as in the Community of the Qumran texts) with their distinctive religious identity. It gained special prominence with the belief that Jesus Christ, as the Anointed One (Messiah) and “Son of Man”, was God’s end-time representative who will appear to usher in the Judgment. The belief that this Last Judgment was imminent—about to occur within the lifetime of most believers—was shared by nearly all Christians at the time, as the New Testament writings amply attest. Only at the end of the New Testament period (c. 80-100 A.D.) does this strong eschatological emphasis begin to disappear somewhat.

The second aspect is best known from Paul’s letters, frequently described in terms of release and freedom from bondage—that is, bondage to sin, and the power of evil. His unique handling of the relation of believers to Judaism and the Old Testament/Jewish Law resulted in a parallel formulation: freedom from bondage to the Law—for believers the normative, guiding religious principles now come from the presence of the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ. Occasionally, in both Pauline and Johannine thought, we also find the wider idea of believers being transferred from one domain or kingdom (that of darkness and evil) to another (of God, light and truth, etc). This particular way of describing salvation is, on the whole, closer to the Gnostic approach.

Outline of Topics

Here is a preliminary outline of the articles for this series:

  • Part 1: The word gnwsi$ and related terms in the New Testament
  • Part 2: Knowledge and Salvation
  • Part 3: Revelation: The Gospel and Early Christian Identity
  • Part 4: Revelation: The Establishment of Tradition
  • Part 5: Predestination: Christians as the Elect Community
  • Part 6: Dualism

 

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