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Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 6 – Dualism

In this final part of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, I will be discussing the aspect of Gnosticism that is perhaps best known to people generally—their dualistic worldview and mode of expression. In an earlier article defining and explaining the term (cf. also the main article on “Gnosticism“), I outlined the four main kinds or types of dualism:

  1. Cosmological—There are two opposing principles which control and govern the world.
  2. Metaphysical—There two contrasting (and opposing) principles which make up the structure of the universe.
  3. Anthropological—The human being is made up of two contrasting principles.
  4. Ethical—The human being chooses (and must choose) between two contrasting/opposing principles.

When we turn to the dualism that exists in early Christian thought, and in the writings of the New Testament, it is the first and last of these types which are most common and widespread. For the most part, such early Christian dualism was simply inherited from the language and imagery of the Old Testament Scriptures and subsequent Jewish writings—especially from the (later) Prophets and Wisdom tradition. In the Gospels, and the earliest strands of Christian tradition, we can isolate two areas of dualistic thought and expression:

  • The conflict between God and the Devil (Satan), which can be understood as a kind of partial or qualified cosmic (cosmological) dualism. There is a sense in which the current (fallen) order of creation has come under the control or dominion of the Devil—cf. Matt 4:1-11 (esp. verse 8); Mk 3:26ff; 4:15; Lk 13:16 etc, and pars, along with the overall context of the many healing (exorcism) miracles narrated in the Gospel (and Acts). This means that the world is controlled by evil and darkness, and is generally in conflict with, and opposed to, the ways and things of God (Mark 8:33 par). Jesus’ presence on earth reflects this sense of conflict against the forces of sin and evil, etc (cf. Lk 10:18; Heb 2:14), a struggle which is continued in the lives of believers (James 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8, etc).
  • More common is the ethical dualism such as we see in the sayings and teachings of Jesus, expressed in language and images largely inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Sayings such as Matt 6:24; 7:13-14, 17-20, 24-27 par, or the Lukan form of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26), as well as the contrasting figures and settings in a number of the parables (e.g., Matt 13:24-30, 36-43; 21:28-32 par; chap 25; Lk 16:19-31; 18:9-14), present two different (opposite) “paths” or examples a person may follow. Under the direct influence of Jesus’ teaching, this developed into the so-called “Two Ways” conceptual framework in early Christianity, preserved within several different lines of tradition (cf. Didache 1-16; Epistle of Barnabas 18-21). The earliest Christians, like the Qumran Community, understood their identity in light of Isa 40:3ff and apparently referred to themselves as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). On the expressions “way of truth”, “way of God”, etc, see Acts 16:17; 18:26; 2 Pet 2:2, 15, 21. The ethical instruction in the letter of James is almost entirely dependent on the teaching of Jesus as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul draws upon this as well, though he also expresses the “two ways” in the traditional language of the “virtue and vice” lists from Greco-Roman (and Jewish) tradition.

Both of these aspects—cosmological and ethical—are found blended together in Jewish writings roughly contemporary with the time of Jesus, especially in the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls). The Community represented in these texts had a strongly dualistic worldview, best expressed in the so-called Community Rule (1QS) 3:13-4:26, a section often referred to as the “treatise of the Two Spirits”. There are two Spirits at work in the world—one of Truth and one of Falsehood, of light and darkness, God and Belial. Human beings are characterized by one of these two “worlds”, ultimately choosing the follow the path of one or the other. The Elect or faithful ones, the true believers, are the “sons of light”, while those who refuse (or are unable) to join the Community remain among the “sons of darkness”. Needless to say, as has been amply documented, in spite of many differences, there is a good deal in common between early Christians and the Community of the Qumran texts.

The most pronounced dualism in the New Testament is found in the letters of Paul and the Johannine writings, respectively. As we shall see, the dualism expressed in the latter is closer both to that of the Qumran texts, and to gnostic modes of expression.

Pauline Dualism

In Paul’s letters, we see very distinctive forms of both cosmological and ethical dualism (on these in the New Testament generally, cf. above).

Cosmological

Paul has more or less inherited the Christian worldview outlined above—that there is a fundamental conflict between God and the Devil, with the current condition/order of the world being under the dominion of sin and evil. Paul’s direct references to Satan or the Devil are relatively rare; indeed, the term dia/bolo$ (i.e. devil) does not occur in the undisputed letters (only in Eph 4:27; 6:11; 1 Tim 3:6-7; 2 Tim 2:26). The transliterated Semitic title Satan[a$] (/f*C*h^, ha´´¹‰¹n, “the adversary, accuser”) is the term Paul regularly uses (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18; 2 Thess 2:9; also 1 Tim 1:20; 5:15). Though he does not often state it directly, there can be no doubt that Paul believed that the current age or “world” was wicked and corrupt, under the effective control of evil (2 Cor 4:4; Gal 1:4, also Eph 2:2; 3:10; 6:12), characterized by a definite (cosmological) structure and hierarchy (Gal 4:3, 9 [Col 2:8, 20]; Col 1:16; 2:15). For more on Paul’s understanding and use of the term “world” (ko/smo$), cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:16; 3:19; 6:2; 7:31; Gal 6:14; Rom 12:2, etc. The most distinctive Pauline teaching is that the world—and, in particular, humankind—is under the dominion of sin, in bondage to it. This theme is most prominent in Romans (3:9, 19-20; 5:12-21; 7:7-24; 8:18-22; 11:32) and Galatians (3:19-24; 4:1-3, 21ff, etc); for the relation between sin and the Law in Paul’s thought, cf. my earlier articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”. God, through Christ, has freed us from this bondage; occasionally this is expressed in terms of being delivered out of the world of sin and darkness (Col 1:13; 1 Thess 5:4-5, and note Eph 5:8). However, it is only at the end of this current Age that God will finally destroy the power of evil (Rom 16:20).

Ethical

As noted above, Paul occasionally draws upon the “two ways” tradition, usually expressing it in the “virtue/vice list” format known from Greco-Roman philosophy and also found frequently in other early Christian writings—cf. Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-23, etc. Paul’s unique contribution is in his frequent contrast between “flesh” and “(the) Spirit”. Read carelessly, in a superficial manner, one might think that Paul is espousing a kind of metaphysical dualism, such as is known from certain Gnostic writings and teachings, whereby the good spiritual realm is contrasted with the evil material world. He is, perhaps, somewhat closer in thought to the anthropological dualism in some version of Greek ascetic philosophy. The key to Paul’s Spirit/Flesh contrast is found in a careful reading of Romans 5-7. The “flesh” (sa/rc) represents the aspect of the human soul (i.e. the human being or person) that is under bondage to the power of sin. Even after the believer in Christ is freed from this power, he/she is still prone to the old, habitual patterns of thought and behavior (i.e. the “flesh”, or the ‘impulse[s]’ of the flesh). Thus the believer must consciously allow him/herself to be guided by the (Holy) Spirit, rather than by the impulses of the flesh. In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul applies this Spirit/Flesh contrast to the “two ways” ethical tradition, describing the “works” (or “fruit”) of the flesh and the Spirit, respectively. His ethical instruction is summed up in verse 25: “If we live in/by the Spirit, we must also walk [lit. step in line] in/by the Spirit”. The Johannine idiom (cf. below) would be “walk in the light”, but it has much the same meaning.

Rather more difficult is Paul’s contrast between the Law and the Gospel, letter vs. Spirit, etc., which is perhaps best described as a kind of religious dualism, whereby the religious identity of believers in Christ (the new covenant) is contrasted with the old ethnic-religious identity of Israelites and Jews (the old covenant). Much of Paul’s writing and teaching on this point is rooted in the specific historical circumstances and background of the early Christian missionary work, but remains important for us to consider and study today. I have dealt with it extensively in the articles on Paul’s view of the Law in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Perhaps the most dualistic portion of ethical teaching in the Pauline corpus is 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, which has many points of contact with the language and imagery of the Qumran texts. The precise relationship of this section with the surrounding material in 2 Corinthians remains a matter of considerable discussion and debate among commentators. It appears suddenly, and seems very much to interrupt the train of thought. Many scholars consider it to be an interpolation, or part of a composite document (i.e. portions of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence collected together). However, there has never been any convincing explanation as to how such a fragment came to be inserted between 2 Cor 6:13 and 7:2; nor, for that matter, as to just why Paul (as the author) would have ‘interrupted’ his address to include it as he does. It remains one of unexplained ‘mysteries’ of New Testament and Pauline studies.

Johannine Dualism

There are three main themes or motifs by which a dualistic contrast is expressed in the Gospel and letters of John. So distinctive was the dualism of the Johannine writings that an earlier generation of scholars (prior to the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls) could theorize that these writings were influenced by a primitive form of Gnosticism, or by way of similar dualistic tendencies in Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. The Qumran texts have since made abundantly clear that commentators need not look further afield for the background of this dualism than to the Old Testament Scriptures and subsequent Jewish tradition (on this, cf. above). However, in at least two of three themes discussed here, very distinctive theological (and Christological) elements have been incorporated into the mode of expression. As in the Qumran texts, there is a blending of cosmological and ethical dualism.

Light/Darkness

The first theme is the contrast between light (fw=$) and darkness (skoti/a). It is a natural contrastive pairing, and can be found in many religious and philosophical traditions, including the Old Testament Scriptures—of the numerous passages, cf. Gen 1:4ff; Job 17:12; 29:3; 30:26; 38:19; Psalm 18:28; 112:4; 139:12; Eccl 2:13; Isa 5:20; 9:2; 42:16; 58:10; Mic 7:8; Dan 2:22; Matt 4:16; Lk 1:79. This dualistic motif is quite prominent at several points in the Gospel and Letters of John, and carries a theological (and Christological) meaning. In the Prologue of the Gospel (1:4-9), the pre-existent Christ (the Word) is the Light which shines into the darkness of the world (cf. below). Jesus applies the image to himself in the discourses—he is the light, and those who come to him are in the light, while those who do not remain in darkness (3:19-21; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46). Since he is the true, eternal light which shines in the darkness of the world, Jesus identifies himself as “the light of the world” (11:10), including in two famous “I am” declarations (8:12; 9:4-5). This is related to the Johannine motif of seeing (and not seeing, i.e. blindness, cf. chap. 9), along with the idea of revelation as bringing light, causing to shine, etc. On this, see the article “Knowledge and Revelation in the Gospel of John”.

An interesting detail in the Gospel narrative is the night-time setting of the Passion scene (the Last Supper and arrest/trial of Jesus). After Satan enters Judas and he departs from the disciples, the author states simply “…and it was night” (13:30). A similar description of Peter warming himself in the cold darkness occurs in 18:18. Again, when the women come to the tomb the morning after Jesus’ death (20:1), the setting is described as “it being still dark [skoti/a]”. These are basic narrative details of the Gospel, but in the Johannine context they almost certainly carry a deeper symbolism as well.

In the First Letter, this same light/darkness contrast occurs in two key passages—1:5-7 and 2:8-11. If we count the book of Revelation among the same Johannine writings, then we may have the motif in the vision of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21, where the very glory/splendor of God and the Lamb (Christ) gives continual light and “there will not be (any) night there” (vv. 23-25).

According to a common Gnostic way of understanding, Jesus brings knowledge and awareness to believers of their (true) identity as offspring of the Divine, eternal Light. This is similar to the teaching in John, only in the Gospel the emphasis is squarely on Christ as the light—believers come to the light, walk in the light, and come to be “sons/children of light”.

Above/Below

The second dualistic theme is spatial, drawing upon the ancient cosmological pairing of heaven and earth—heaven above, earth below. This conceptual framework had already been given a theological interpretation in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, which early Christians inherited; but in the Johannine discourses of Jesus, it has an even more distinctive Christological emphasis. The fundamental dualism is: God above, the World below. Christ comes from God, from above (a&nwqen), while the world is in darkness below (ka/tw). He has come down into the world, as light shining in the darkness (cf. above), one sent by God, come to show people (believers) the way out of darkness, back to the Father. The main passages illustrating this spatial dualism are: 3:13f, 31; 6:33, 38, 50-51, 58, 62; 8:23, (28); 10:17f; (12:32ff); 20:17. Those (believers) who come to Jesus and trust in him, are also born a&nwqen (“from above”, cf. 3:3ff), and thus are, or come to be, from above, just as he is; on the other hand, those who refuse to trust in him remain below (8:23, etc).

Closely related to the spatial motif is the specific idea of Jesus descending from the Father, and ascending back to Him. This is expressed through the use of the verbs katabai/nw (“step down”) and a)nabai/nw (“step up”). This ascent/descent theme is introduced in the description of the Baptism scene (1:32-33) and again with the vision of the Son of Man promised by Jesus in 1:51. In the discourses, these verbs are used in 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58, 62; 10:1; 20:17. The verb a)nabai/nw is common in narration, used for a person “going up” (to Jerusalem, etc), but because of the special meaning elsewhere in John, it is possible that the references to Jesus “stepping up” to Jerusalem may carry a deeper significance (cf. especially in 7:8ff). In the great Last Discourse (chaps. 13-17), Jesus expresses the idea of his going away (back to the Father), and then coming again to his disciples—cf. throughout ch. 14, 16 and again in the prayer-discourse of chap. 17. His reason for coming to his disciples is to bring them with him back to the Father (14:1-4; 17:24, etc); at the same time, in Jesus’ absence, the Spirit comes to reside in and among believers—a ‘realized’ union with God the Father, prior to the (final) ascent with Jesus at the end-time.

The World

The term ko/smo$ (kósmos), usually translated “world”, refers to the visible universe, in the sense that it is “decorated”, but also in its apparent and structured “order”. Often, in the New Testament, it would be fair to render ko/smo$ as “world order“—i.e., how things are ordered and arranged. This can have a decidedly negative connotation, as a (dualistic) term set in contrast with God (his will, ways, Kingdom, etc). On this cosmological dualism, cf. above.

In the Gospel of John, ko/smo$ (“world”) occurs 78 times, with another 24 in the Letters—the 102 combined representing more than half of all occurrences in the NT (186). There are two main aspects to its usage in the Gospel: (a) in reference to Jesus coming into the world (i.e. the Incarnation, etc), and (b) as the domain of darkness, etc, which is hostile and opposed to the Light. Both of these aspects can be seen already in the Prologue:

  • “the light shines in the darkness
    …and the darkness did not take down (hold of) it” (1:5)
  • “he was the true light coming into [ei)$] the world…he was in [e)n] the world…
    …and the world did not know him” (1:9-10)

For the specific connection between the world (ko/smo$) and the light/darkness motif, cf. 3:19ff; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9; 12:46. This aspect of opposition is found throughout the Gospel, though occasionally the word is used in the more general (neutral) sense, for humankind (and, specifically, believers), cf. 3:16-17; 6:33, etc. The “world” is associated with sin in 1:29 (cf. also 16:8, etc), but more commonly we find a direct contrast between Christ and the world. Jesus comes into the world bringing judgment and to testify against it (3:19; 7:7; 8:26; 9:39; 12:31, etc., but see also 3:17; 12:47); and, because he (the Light) shines into the darkness, the world, which loves the darkness, hates him (3:19; 7:7). Even more fundamental is the idea that the “world” can have no part of Christ, since he is not “of the world” (8:23ff).

As the death of Jesus approaches in the Gospel narrative, the motif of opposition and conflict with the world becomes more prominent, even drawing upon the more traditional dualism of God vs. Satan (the “ruler” of the world). This begins with the declaration in 12:31, and runs through the Last Discourse (chaps. 13-17), in which the word ko/smo$ occurs no less than 38 times. Jesus’ closing declaration in 16:33 provides a suitable parallel to that in 12:31:

  • “Now is the judgment of this world, now the chief (ruler) of this world will be cast out” (12:31)
  • “…have courage! I have been victorious (over) the world!” (16:33)

This harkens back to 1:5 in the Prologue and the ambiguity of the verb katalamba/nw, which means literally “take down”, but which, however, can be understood in several possible ways, in the sense of: (a) “bring down, overtake, overcome”, (b) “take down, grasp [with one’s mind]”, i.e. “understand, comprehend”, or (c) with kata/ as an intensive, “take/receive fully, eagerly”, etc. The statement in 1:5 thus can mean: (a) “the darkness did not overcome it”, (b) “the darkness did not understand/recognize it”, or (c) “the darkness did not receive it”. The immediate context of the passage suggests some combination of (b) and (c), but the theme of opposition which runs through the Gospel also makes (a) a possibility.

What is true of the conflict between Christ and the world, also applies to the Spirit, and to those who follow Christ (believers). These two points are important themes in the Last Discourse—cf. 14:17; 15:18ff; 16:8, 11, 20, 33. Especially significant is the emphasis on Christian identity—that believers, like Jesus, are not “of the world”. The preposition involved is e)k, literally “out of”, which can indicate one’s origin (being from), but also that to which one belongs (being of). The birth motif (3:3ff, and frequently in 1 John) uses the concrete sense of the preposition—i.e. born out of another. This specific theme is introduced in 15:19 and then becomes a major point of emphasis in the prayer-discourse of chapter 17. I have discussed this in earlier notes, as well as in Part 5 of this series.

Jesus’ final reference to the “world”, in the dialogue with Pilate, brings together both the dualistic contrast, as well as the theme of the believer’s identity as being “of God” (and not the world):

  • 18:36: “My kingdom is not of [e)k] this world…”
  • 18:37: “…I have come into the world that I might bear witness to the truth; everyone being [i.e. who is] of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”

In Gnostic thought, there is a similar negative sense of the “world”, but typically with a more pronounced metaphysical dualism (cf. above). In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls believers “out of” the world, in a manner similar to the role of Jesus as Savior in certain Gnostic systems. There can be no mistaking, however, the Christological emphasis in John—it is not that believers are “not of the world” because they are offspring of the divine Light, but because they belong to Christ.

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