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Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 2 – Knowledge and Salvation

A fundamental aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is soteriological—that is, salvation in terms of, or by way of, knowledge. This aspect, however, is hardly unique to the quasi-Christian religious groups of the first centuries A.D. (i.e., what is usually labelled “Gnostic” [cf. Part 1 & my article on Gnosticism]); it can be found, in various forms, all throughout the New Testament. Even so, there may a wide range for what is meant, or assumed, with regard to the nature and object of this “knowledge”. It is important, then, to examine the various passages in the New Testament carefully. This I will do in the present article, providing a survey and summary for the most relevant passages, while giving more details exegesis of several key verses in the separate daily notes.

The Terminology

The basic word rendered “save” in New Testament Greek is sw|/zw (sœ¡zœ), occurring more than 100 times. Its fundamental meaning is to make or keep (someone) safe. It can refer to any form of physical protection (esp. in battle), usually with the idea that serious harm (or death) threatens. Sometimes it has the specific sense of rescuing someone (i.e. bringing them to safety), and, in a medical context, can also refer to healing from disease. Naturally, it could be used in a religious context as well, in several ways: (a) protection by the divine powers from harm or loss, (b) deliverance from personal sin and its effects, often through ritual means, and (c) passing through the divine/heavenly Judgment after death. When dealing with this word-group, Christians tend to have (c) in mind, but this is not always the sense which is meant, and this can cause considerable confusion among readers and commentators; the context of each reference must be examined closely. Several important words are derived from the verb sw|/zw: (i) swth/r (sœt¢¡r), “one who saves, savior” [24 times]; (ii) swthri/a (sœt¢ría), “safety, saving, salvation” [46 times]; and (iii) swth/rio$ (sœt¢¡rios), “(adj.) saving” [4 times], used as a substantive “(means of) salvation/protection”. The compound verb diasw/zw (“bring through safely, to safety”) also occurs several times.

There are a number of other words, some partly synonymous, which can relate to the idea of salvation or being saved:

  • r(u/omai, lit. “drag (to safety)”, i.e. rescue, deliver
  • lu/w, “loose”, and esp. the compound a)polu/w, “loose from (bondage, etc)”, i.e. from prison or debt; the related verb lutro/w, with the nouns lu/tron, lu/trwsi$, etc, refers to providing the means for release (from prison, slavery, etc), i.e. ransom, redemption
  • a)fi/hmi, with the noun a&fesi$, “release, loose”, in particular from sin—so used frequently in the NT
  • dikaio/w, “make right, make just, do justice”, with the related noun dikaiosu/nh, adjective di/kaio$, etc.
  • zwopoie/w and zwogone/w, “make alive”, “give/preserve life”, etc
  • words related to healing, health and wholeness: i)a/omai, qerapeu/w, u(giai/nw, etc

In addition there is some vocabulary and idiom which is distinct to early Christian and Jewish thought of the period, such as, for example:

  • the idea of entering or inheriting the kingdom (of God)
  • the way leading toward God
  • finding (eternal) life
  • the words related to resurrection

Concept and range of meaning

Quite often in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel and book of Acts, the verbs sw|/zw (with the noun swthri/a) and r(u/omai refer either generally to saving/protecting a person from physical harm or specifically (in the case of sw|/zw) to healing from disease—cf. Mk 3:4; 5:23, 28; 6:56; 10:52; 13:20; 15:30-31 pars; Luke 1:69, 71, 74; John 11:12; 12:27; Acts 4:9; 14:9; 27:20; Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:10; 2 Thess 3:2; Heb 11:17; James 5:15; 2 Pet 2:7-9; Jude 5, et al. If we exclude these references, we are left with the idea of salvation in the deeper religious (and/or metaphysical) sense—of the soul, or of the person in an eschatological (final) sense. The sifting of these references must be done carefully, since there are a number of passages which are ambiguous or which make use of wordplay with different (levels of) meaning, such as Jesus’ famous saying in Mark 8:35 par, or the shipwreck scene in Acts 27 (cf. vv. 20, 31). However, it is possible to isolate two main ways salvation is expressed, from a religious/metaphysical standpoint, in the New Testament and early Christian tradition:

  • Salvation from sin—either: (a) from the effect of personal sins, or (b) from the power and control of sin
  • Salvation from the end-time Judgment by God, often described in terms of being saved from the anger/wrath of God which is about to come upon humankind

Interestingly, the aspect of salvation which is probably most commonly in mind with people today—that of the individual’s personal salvation following death (i.e. from the punishment [of Hell])—is not emphasized particularly in the New Testament. This, of course, was a popular way of thinking even in ancient times, usually depicted in some manner as the person standing before a divine/heavenly tribunal after death to be judged according to his/her deeds and actions while alive. The background of this idea is retained in early Christian thought, as for example, in the Beatitude form (Matt 5:3-12 / Lk 6:20-26) and the image of entering/inheriting the Kingdom (i.e. of the heavenly/eternal life), cf. Mk 9:47; 10:23ff; Matt 5:20; 7:21; 25:34; Jn 3:5; Acts 14:22; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:21, etc. However, specific references to the traditional (afterlife) scene of Judgment are somewhat rare in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6ff; 14:10-12; also Matt 10:32-33; 12:41-42 par; 25:31-46). This is largely due to the fact that the eschatological emphasis has shifted to the (imminent) coming of the end—that is, the coming of God’s Judgment upon the earth, expected to occur soon, within the lifetime of most people. Early Christians widely shared this expectation, along with many Jews of the period; the distinctly Christian component was the role of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ) of God and heavenly “Son of Man” whose coming (back) to earth from Heaven would usher in the Judgment. Thus the idea of salvation meant being saved from the Judgment (the anger/wrath of God) about to be visited upon sinful, wicked humanity (cf. the “day of YHWH” motif in the Old Testament Prophets). Christ, as the divine representative of YHWH, oversees the Judgment, but also acts as savior and deliverer of the Elect—that is, of God’s faithful people, the believers. This eschatological context for salvation is found all throughout the New Testament; of the many passages, I would note the following:

A similar (generalized) sense of eschatological salvation is found widely in early Christian thought—e.g., Luke 3:6 [Isa 40:5]; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47; Romans 10:9; 11:14, 26; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:15; 9:22; 10:33; 15:2; Phil 1:6, 9-10; 2:16; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Thess 2:10; 2 Tim 2:4, 10, (15); 4:16; James 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20; 1 Pet 1:5, 9-10; 4:18? [Prov 11:31]; (2 Pet 2:9); (Jude 23); Heb 1:14; (7:25); 9:28. Virtually the entire book of Revelation deals with this theme.

With regard to the second main aspect of salvation—that of being saved/delivered from sin and its power—this is likewise expressed frequently, and in a number of ways, throughout the New Testament. Salvation from sin, either in a general sense, or in terms of (the effect of) personal sins, is commonly described in terms of “release” (a&fesi$), as of from a debt, bond, or burden. Baptism was originally seen as symbolizing the washing/removal of sin, when it was preceded by genuine repentance. This is the primary sense expressed in the Gospels, with the movement from baptism (as administered by John) to “release” being announced/declared by Jesus (and the apostles) through the authority of his word. Only rarely, however, are the words sw|/zw and swthri/a connected explicitly with salvation from sin (cf. Matt 1:21; Luke 7:50; 19:10 [par]; also James 5:20; Jude 23); even more rare is the direct connection of salvation with repentance (cf. Acts 2:40; 2 Cor 7:10), though the idea of repentance is common enough in the New Testament. Along a similar line, in the apostolic teaching (in the Pauline writings, etc), ethical instruction and exhortation, while frequent, is generally not described in terms of salvation from sin. Much more common is the idea of being loosed or freed from the power and dominion of sin, as from bondage to a wicked and oppressive ruler. This view is central to the theology (and Christology) of the Pauline letters:

sw|/zwRomans 8:24; 1 Cor 1:18, 21; (15:2); 2 Cor 2:15; 1 Thess 2:16; 2 Thess 2:10; Eph 2:5, 8; 1 Tim 1:15; 2:4; (2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5)
r(u/omaiRom 7:24; (11:26 [Isa 59:21]); (2 Thess 3:2); Col 1:13; 2 Tim 4:18

It also underlies the Pauline language of purchase/redemption out of slavery (i.e. bondage to sin)—cf. 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; Gal 2:4; 3:13; 4:4-5; 5:1, 13; Rom 3:24; Col 1:14; Eph 1:7; Tit 2:14. This emphasis on freedom from bondage (to sin) is also found in the Johannine writings, including the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel. It often includes the specific motif of being delivered out of one domain (of sin and darkness) and into another (of truth, light and [eternal] life). These references will be discussed in more detail in a separate article, but it is important to note here that they have a good deal in common with the gnostic viewpoint; and is also expressed variously by Paul in his letters (cf. Gal 1:4; Col 1:12-14; [2 Tim 2:26], and note the entire discussion in Rom 5:12-8:2ff).

Salvation as knowledge

In turning to the idea of salvation specifically in terms of knowledge, we must keep in mind the two primary aspects of salvation outlined above—being saved (1) from the end-time Judgment, and (2) from the power (and domain) of sin. It is the latter aspect which is tied most directly with knowledge (gnw=si$), both in the New Testament and in gnostic thought. The terms “save/salvation” (sw|/zw/swthri/a) and “knowledge” (gnw=si$) appear together in several key passages:

  • Luke 1:77—part of the hymn/oracle of Zechariah, which moves from the deliverance of God’s people from the power of their (historical) enemies (vv. 71, 74) to deliverance from the power of sin. In verse 76 it is prophesied of John that he will act as the messenger of Mal 3:1, who will make ready the way for the Lord when he comes. The main purpose of John’s ministry will be “to give knowledge of salvation [gnw=si$ swthri/a$] to His people”; this knowledge will be disclosed and made manifest in the “release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”, which is symbolized in the ritual act of baptism. In verse 79, this knowledge is described using the image of light—”to shine upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death”.
  • 1 Cor 1:21—”For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through the wisdom, God considered (it) good, through the ‘stupidity’ of the proclamation [i.e. of the Gospel], to save the (one)s trusting”. I have discussed this verse as part of a series of notes on 1 Cor 1:18-2:14.
  • 2 Cor 2:14ff—For this important passage, cf. my recent notes on 2:14 and 4:6.
  • 2 Pet 2:20-21—Again salvation is described as deliverance from sin, but with a slightly different nuance, emphasizing the action of those who come to faith (“fleeing from the defilement of the world”); this action, however, occurs strictly according to the knowledge of the Lord—that is, in our coming to know [e)n e)pignw/sei] him (Christ), who is identified as our savior (“the Savior Yeshua [the] Anointed”). This is personal knowledge of Christ—who he is and what God has done through him—but it is also, in verse 21, connected in religious terms to “the way of justice/righteousness”.

Elsewhere, this soteriological aspect of knowledge is expressed a number of ways, as:

As indicated previously, the motif of knowledge is fundamental in the Johannine writings; even though the noun gnw=si$ does not appear, the verb ginw/skw (“know”) occurs 86 times (56 in the Gospel), while the largely synonymous ei&dw (oi@da, “see, know”) occurs 113 times (85 in the Gospel). These passages will be surveyed in a separate article, but several key verses should be noted here, which strongly express the idea of salvation by way of knowledge:

  • John 4:22—”you worship what you have not seen/known, we worship what we have seen/known—(in) that [i.e. because] salvation is out of the Jews”. This saying reflects the wordplay and dual-meaning typical of the discourses of Jesus in John. On the one hand, he seems to be expressing simply the traditional religious (and nationalistic) view that the Jews, rather than Samaritans, have preserved the true faith. However, according to the deeper spiritual meaning of his words, we have the idea that salvation comes “out of” (from) the Jews in the sense that Jesus himself came to be born and appear among the people, though without their knowing/realizing it. This true religious knowledge only comes by way of the Spirit (v. 23, cf. 3:3-8).
  • John 8:32—”and you will know the truth and the truth will make/set you free”. I discuss this verse in a separate daily note. For the idiom of knowing the truth, cf. above.
  • John 14:4-7—all of the important terms and motifs of knowledge and seeing, the relation between Father and Son (and the believer), etc., are encapsulated in this sequence of verses, centered around Jesus’ famous declaration: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life—no one comes toward the Father if not through me”. Knowledge of the way (o(do/$) which leads to God and (eternal) life involves knowing/seeing the Son who manifests the Father.
  • John 17:3—the declaration by Jesus in this verse is perhaps the most explicitly “gnostic” soteriological formulation in the New Testament (cf. the separate note):
    “And this is the life of (the) Ages [i.e. eternal life]: that they should know You the only true God and the (one) whom You se(n)t forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed”.
  • 1 John 4:7—I include this verse because of the close connection it gives between knowing God and coming to be born from Him, drawing upon the distinctly Johannine relationship between spiritual birth (regeneration) and salvation (cf. John 1:9-13; 3:1-21, etc).

A gnostic approach in the New Testament?

Based on a number of the passages cited and discussed above, a strong argument can be made that there is, indeed, a gnostic component to the view of salvation expressed in the New Testament, especially within the Pauline and Johannine writings. At the same time, however, several other aspects of early Christian thought serve as a check or counterbalance toward the development of any (exaggerated) gnostic tendencies. Here, in conclusion of this article, I highlight what are probably the three most important elements in the New Testament in this regard, each of which will be discussed at different points in the remaining notes and articles of this series:

  • The emphasis on trust/faith—Much moreso than knowledge, salvation is expressed in terms of trust (pi/sti$), specifically trust in Christ as the means and embodiment of the (way of) salvation provided by God. When Jesus speaks of being “saved” by trust, it is usually in the context of physical healing (i.e., trust that Jesus has the power to heal); but, occasionally, the reference is to salvation from sin or eschatological salvation (Lk 7:50). In the early Gospel preaching and in the subsequent writings, it is trust/faith in the person and work of Jesus which is in view. This is especially prominent in the Pauline writings—cf. 2 Thess 2:12; 1 Cor 1:21; Gal 2:16ff; Rom 3:21-22; 10:9-13; Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 3:15; 1 Tim 4:10—and is ultimately expressed through the developed Pauline concept of “justification” by faith (Gal 2:16-21; 3:6-14, 21-22ff; 5:4-6; Phil 3:9; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-7, and frequently throughout Romans). Ephesians 2:8 provides the most explicit statement:
    “For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s (who) have come to be saved, through trust; and this (comes) not out of you (yourselves), but (is) the present/gift of God…”
  • The person of Christ, and the believers’ union with him—While a central savior figure, who reveals the knowledge of salvation, is common to gnostic (and Gnostic) thought, the primacy and centrality of Christ in the New Testament and early (orthodox) Christianity is especially significant. Salvation comes through knowing Christ, as poignantly expressed by Paul in Phil 3:8-10 (cf. the note on this passage). An even stronger Christological aspect of salvation is found in Col 1:26-27 and 2:2-3 (also discussed in a separate note). This orientation is still more pronounced in the Gospel and letters of John, as will be discussed in a separate article. It is no coincidence that the disputes between (proto-)Orthodox and Gnostic Christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries tended to be christological in nature—that is, precisely how one should properly regard Jesus Christ as the Savior. The presentation of Jesus in the Pauline and Johannine writings could easily be interpreted in a decidedly gnostic manner. It is possible that 1 John already shows this dynamic at work (cf. 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:6-12), and the attempt to combat it.
  • The emphasis on love—The “love command (or principle)” is fundamental to early Christianity, normative for guiding behavior and relationships within the Community. It derives from Jesus’ teaching and has special prominence even in those writings (i.e. the Pauline and Johannine) which exhibit the greatest affinity with gnostic thought. In 1 Corinthians, Paul goes out of his way to set love over against any exaggerated sense of (spiritual) knowledge—cf. 8:1ff; 12:31b-14:1a; 16:14. Here he is referring to knowledge as a (prophetic) gift of the Spirit, not in the fundamental sense of knowing Christ. Indeed, Paul would surely say that knowledge of Christ, for the believer, means being guided by his presence (through the Spirit), following his example, which is epitomized and demonstrated perfectly through love.

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