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As I will be referring to “Gnosticism” in a number of upcoming notes and articles, I thought it worthwhile to introduce the topic here, by way of definition. The word is derived from the Greek gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis) and the root verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ), meaning “knowledge, to know”, often with the specific sense of possessing or gaining knowledge. “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. Some modern scholars, aware of this problem, have suggested using the term “Gnosis” for the former, and “Gnosticism” for the latter. It might be better (and simpler) to make a distinction using upper and lower case, as far as possible—gnosticism for the general religious phenomenon, Gnosticism as an umbrella term for specific religious groups in the early Christian period.

The religious phenomenon of gnosticism

In terms of the phenomenology of religion, I would define gnosticism as:

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.

Gnostic thought is often expressed in dualistic language and vocabulary, emphasizing conflict or contrast—light vs. darkness, true vs. false, knowledge vs. ignorance, mind/spirit vs. body/flesh, etc. Such pairings are, of course, basic to much religious thought, but in gnosticism they tend to be more pointed, prominent, and used with greater consistency, often reflecting a particular worldview or cosmology (cf. below). From the standpoint of organized religion, such dualism, coupled with the gnostic idea of salvation through special revelation, may easily serve to enhance a specific group identity (i.e., as the ones who know the truth, who truly know), resulting in sectarian religious groups with a strong gnostic character.

Gnostic tendencies in Christianity

As a religious phenomenon, gnostic tendencies may be seen in many different religions, ancient and modern. They are attested, or can be claimed, in certain Greco-Roman religious contexts (such as Orphism and the “mystery” cults), as well as in Greek philosophy. There are major gnostic aspects within Hindu thought, and certainly are central to Buddhism. It should be no cause for surprise that one can find them in early Christianity as well. The basic thumbnail provided above accords generally with the Christian construct—of the Gospel message (in the person of Christ) bringing the knowledge of salvation to humankind lost in the darkness and evil of the world. However, certain other Christian ideas or beliefs temper any tendency toward gnosticism:

  • The theological emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ as the way to God—with God understood primarily according to the outlook of the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion.
  • The eschatological focus, i.e. on the resurrection and end-time Judgment by God—what believers understand or experience here and now will only be realized completely at the end.
  • In the New Testament, salvation and religious identity are described in terms of trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ rather more frequently than of knowledge (gnw=si$).
  • Religious identity ultimately is understood in terms of spiritual union with Christ—this is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters, and is expressed more in mystic terms, rather than gnostic.

Admittedly, Paul does occasionally strike a gnostic tone, as for example in 1 Corinthians 1:182:16; and cf. also the discussion running through Romans 5-8. Perhaps the strongest gnostic portions of the New Testament are the discourses of Jesus in John, along with similar passages in the Gospel (1:1-18; 20:31) and First Epistle. One may note the strong dualistic language, as well as the many references to knowledge, knowing, etc (more than 100 in the Gospel and another 30+ in the First Epistle). An even more distinctly gnostic early Christian writing, expressing similar thought and imagery to that of John, is the so-called Odes of Solomon—a collection of 42 truly beautiful and evocative poems, probably dating from the late 1st- or early 2nd-century A.D.

A special kind of (orthodox) Christian gnosticism developed in the 2nd century, influenced by Greek (and Jewish) philosophical thought and interpretive trends. It is best known from the major early center of Christianity in Alexandria, with theologians and scholars such as Clement and Origen. There were two primary aspects to this kind of gnosticism:

  • The tendency to downplay or disregard the literal-historical sense of Scripture (especially the Old Testament), in favor of an allegorical and/or spiritual interpretation that located a deeper (and specifically Christian) meaning to the text. It was, in part, the result of a long history of interpretive scholarship at Alexandria, as represented famously by the Jewish commentator Philo (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.).
  • This corresponded with the localization of levels of understanding (knowledge) among human beings (and believers)—some could only grasp the literal/conventional sense of things, while others (the spiritual/gnostics) were able to understand and realize the deeper meaning.

On close examination, one detects a very particular dynamic at work—an attempt to combine Christian belief and the truth of Scripture with the philosophical ideals and worldview of the time. This also applies to the heterodox (or aberrant, “heretical”) Gnostic groups of the period; Origen fiercely opposed and wrote against a number of these Gnostics, but, in certain respects, they had religious tendencies in common with him.

Heterodox/heretical Gnostics

When most scholars use the term “Gnosticism” they are usually referring to a variety of quasi-Christian groups or sects which are known (or thought to have existed) in the 2nd-4th centuries A.D. Most of the available (surviving) information comes from authors writing from the “orthodox” (or Proto-orthodox) point of view, against the beliefs and teachings of these groups. The principal authors are Irenaeus (his work Against Heresies, c. 180), Tertullian (c. 150-230), Hippolytus (c. 170-235), Origen (185-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), and Epiphanius (c. 315-403). Though clearly a hostile witness, Irenaeus’ information on the Gnostics of the 2nd century seems to be reasonably reliable, certainly more so than that of Hippolytus or Epiphanius. As for the actual writings of the Gnostics themselves, very little survived prior to the discoveries (in Egypt, etc) of the late 19th and 20th centuries, especially the collection of works found at Nag Hammadi. While it is not always certain or clear that these texts are specifically Gnostic, many do show features and characteristic beliefs associated with the groups (the Valentinians, etc) mentioned by Irenaeus and others.

Even in this narrow sense, the term “Gnosticism” still covers a wide and disparate range of thought and belief; however, a set of more or less common characteristics may be identified. I would begin by offering a definition of this quasi-Christian Gnosticism in the early centuries A.D.:

Groups and individuals who formed or adopted a system of syncretic religious and philosophical beliefs, blending Christian with Jewish and/or Greco-Roman (or other non-Christian) thought, and which evinces, or is characterized by, strong gnostic tendencies (cf. above).

Central to nearly all such Gnostic thought is a pronounced dualism—that is, a dualistic worldview—that goes far beyond anything we find in the New Testament. While Judaism and early Christian held to the idea that the current world was in a “fallen”, sinful state (Gen 3; Rom 5:12ff), this was understood primarily in terms of the condition of humanity; only occasionally do we find it applied to the created order as a whole (cf. Rom 8:18-25). Most Gnostics of the period seem to have taken a wider cosmic view—i.e. that the created (material) world itself was fallen, corrupted and trapped by powers of sin and evil. So influential was this worldview that it forced people to try to explain just how this condition came to be. The creation account of the Old Testament was deemed insufficient, and various sorts of constructs using the language and imagery of cosmologic (cosmogonic) myth were adopted, involving the generation (birth), coupling, and fall of various divine (or semi-divine) powers. In some of these (pagan) mythic structures, Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions were blended in—Wisdom (hm*k=j*, sofi/a) being the only female manifestation or personification of God and his attributes found in Scripture (cf. Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31).

In addition, the dualistic worldview of most Gnostics resulted in the creation or adoption of an elaborate “salvation history” construct, which sought to explain and expound the nature and work of Christ. For Christians, of course, the savior figure (cf. above) who brings knowledge of salvation to humankind (or to the Elect) is Jesus Christ, though the revelation could also come by way of his followers and other messengers as well. A fundamental difficulty involved the fact that, according to the Gospels, Jesus had been born as a human being, i.e. into the fallen/evil (material) world. It proved hard to reconcile this with the over-arching worldview (how could God become enmeshed in evil this way?), and a variety of interpretations—i.e., heterodox Christologies—developed in response; the most commonly attested would seem to involve some variation on the following two themes:

  • That Christ, in manifesting himself to human beings, only seemed or appeared to be human—this is usually referred to as Docetism or a Docetic view of Christ (from the Greek doke/w, “think, suppose, seem, appear”, etc).
  • That the divine being Christ was joined temporarily to the human Jesus (e.g., at the Baptism), separating again at the time of his death—i.e. a Separationist view of Christ.

Proto-orthodox writers such as Irenaeus found all of this truly baffling—not to say repellent—contrary to what they saw as the clear sense of Scripture and the received Tradition. In his five books Against Heresies (really against Gnosticism), Irenaeus tries to give some semblance of coherence to all of the many different groups and beliefs, which he ultimately traces back to Simon Magus (I.23, cf. Acts 8:9-24). There is little historical basis for such a reconstruction, but it provides a convenient (Biblical) starting-point to trace the various Gnostics, through Simon’s supposed followers (Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, etc) on through the various sects—Cerinthians, Nicolaitans, Marcionites, Ophites, et al (I.23-31). His main interest is in the Valentinians (i.e. followers of Valentinus), from whom Ptolemy and Marcus (and their own sects) are said to have come. Most of what follows in books II-V relates to the Valentinians, and corresponds, to some extent, with the theology and thought in several of the texts from Nag Hammadi (such as the “Gospel of Truth” [NH I.3/XII.2]).

Perhaps the most famous “Gnostic” writing to come down to us today is the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas [NH II.2], also preserved in Greek fragments. It lacks the elaborate mythological and theological/Christological elements of Gnostic systems, being simply a collection of short sayings by Jesus, some matching those in the canonical Gospels, and others with a more pronounced gnostic (if not Gnostic) flavor. Many of the surviving texts can be characterized as “Gospels”, reflecting teaching by Jesus, often in the context of special revelation vouchsafed only to his closest followers (cf. above). The clear implication is that these teachings have not been generally transmitted to the mass of “ordinary” Christians, but are intended to be communicated to the Elect (the gnostics). This is part of a wider pseudepigraphic tendency in early Christianity—writings attributed to, or presented as, the work of prominent early figures (apostles, etc).

We may conclude this discussion by outlining several other characteristics which may fairly be said to apply for many, if not most, Gnostic groups:

  • Asceticism—Most Gnostics appear to have followed and affirmed a strong ascetic ideal. This accords with general Greco-Roman (ascetic) philosophy of the period—the goal being to transcend the material condition through strict self-control (and self-denial), accompanied by knowledge, wisdom and the cultivation of virtue. A similar ascetic tendency can be found in early Christianity proper (even in the New Testament), though not nearly as prominent, it would seem, as among the Gnostics; it would increase notably within orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries. Hostile witnesses (such as Irenaeus) have claimed that Gnostics were (sexually) licentious; but this is rather doubtful, and reflects a prejudice (and presumption), repeated often through history: that heretics must be immoral. Most of the available evidence points in the opposite direction—if they erred in their ethics, it was in overemphasizing an ascetic ideal.
  • Sexual/female imagery—Many Gnostic writings and beliefs are noteworthy in their use of female figure-types and sexual imagery, which appears more prominently than in the New Testament and early (proto-)Orthodoxy. Such imagery is intrinsic to the use of cosmological myth—the generation/propagation of the divine powers, with their fall (also described via sexual motifs), which led to the created material world. The personification of Wisdom (female/feminine) also plays a role in the ‘birth’ of Christ and the process of “salvation history”. Birth and bridal imagery also feature in a number of texts. Natural (physical/biological) childbirth was repellent to many Gnostics (or at least appears in a negative/ambivalent light), as was everything associated with sexual intercourse and propagation; there was a strong tendency to spiritualize (or intellectualize) childbirth, sexuality and sexual distinction. A number of sayings/teachings (by Jesus) in Gnostic works emphasize the elimination of childbirth and sexuality (“male and female”). We should also mention the prominence given to female apostles—presented as equal, or superior, to men—such as Mary Magdalene, in several surviving texts (the “Gospel of the Egyptians”, “Gospel of Mary”, etc).
  • Election—Gnostic groups tended to stress the idea of election, i.e. that they were the chosen ones, having received special knowledge and understanding. Such a belief is common among many sectarian religious groups—it reinforces the group identity, and all the more so for those sects which emphasize the transmission of special revelation. It also provides a convenient explanation as to why the majority of people do not accept the group’s teachings—they are incapable of doing so, since the revelation can be accepted only by the chosen few, i.e. the gnostics or “spiritual” ones. Perhaps even more significant in this regard is the basic gnostic idea that saving knowledge involves recognition of one’s true identity (cf. above). Almost by definition, a Gnostic (one who comes to know the truth) has to be such by nature, from the very beginning; awareness of this identity had simply been lost, through ignorance associated with birth and entanglement within the corrupt material world.

Gnostics in the New Testament

Previously, I mentioned certain elements of the Gospel and the New Testament writings which could be considered “gnostic”, in the general religious sense of the term (cf. above), especially in the letters of Paul and the Gospel and First Letter of John. However, a number of scholars have felt that early forms of some of the aberrant/heterodox Gnostic groups being discussed here may also be present in the later writings of the New Testament (cf. 60-90 A.D.). Already in 1 Corinthians (mid-50s), Paul seems concerned to check or moderate certain marked gnostic tendencies (cf. 1 Cor 1:17, 18-31; 2:1ff; 3:18-20ff; 7:1ff; 8:1ff), though there is little, if any, evidence of true Gnostic thought. More notably, there are three “heresies” in the later New Testament (after 60 A.D.) that are often identified with Gnosticism:

  • The so-called “Colossian heresy”
  • False teaching described in the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), and
  • The separatist Christians mentioned in 1 John

1. Paul’s discussion in Colossians 2:8-23 has been thought to relate to a specific teaching (or group of teachings) sometimes referred to as the “Colossian heresy”. In verse 8, the author refers to filosofi/a (“fondness for wisdom”, i.e. “philosophy” [used only here in the NT]), but a wisdom so-called, according to deceitful human understanding (“empty deception/delusion according to thing[s] passed along by men”). From the Pauline standpoint, this could refer to virtually any sort of non-Christian religious or philosophical belief, whether Jewish or pagan—the contrast is between teaching/belief which is (a) according to the order/elements of the world, and (b) according to Christ (v. 8b). The similarity with the line of argument running through Galatians (see esp. Gal 4:1-11) strongly indicates a Jewish Christian context (cf. also the various references in 2 Cor 10-13). Apparently certain Jewish believers (or groups of believers) were influencing the Christians of the region (Colossae) in ways that were contrary to the truth of the Gospel, as understood by Paul. Several elements are specifically mentioned: (1) circumcision (vv. 11-13), (2) dietary regulations (v. 16a, 21), (3) observance of the Sabbath and other (Jewish) holy days (v. 16b). Also to be noted are the difficult phrases in verse 18, which seem to refer generally to religious identity/status based on certain visionary experiences (involving Angels, etc). The only detail which can be related, in any meaningful way, to gnostic/Gnostic belief is the ascetic emphasis in vv. 21-23, but this can be explained just as well in a Jewish or Greco-Roman philosophical context.

2. The various kinds of false teaching mentioned in Pastoral letters (1 Timothy especially), can be related more plausibly to early Gnosticism. 1 Tim 6:20 is specifically combating beliefs or claims which emphasize knowledge (gnw=si$) and presumably make use of the term. In addition, several descriptive phrases are worth noting:

  • “endless tales and accounts of coming-to-be [i.e. ‘genealogies’]” (1 Tim 1:4)—this could refer to the cosmological myths and mythic language adopted by many Gnostics (cf. above); however, the use of genealogi/a in Tit 3:9 rather suggests a more distinctly Jewish context (as does the immediate context of 1 Tim 1:3-11).
  • “hindering [i.e. forbidding] (people) to marry, (requiring them) to hold [i.e. keep] away from (certain) foods” (1 Tim 4:3)—this reflects an ascetic ideal common to most Gnostics, but is found in many other religious groups and traditions as well; the anti-sexual tendency was certainly a significant element in Gnostic thought, and may relate to the author’s emphasis on childbearing in 1 Tim 2:13-15 (and cf. 5:14-15).
  • “counting [i.e. saying] the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] already to have come to be [i.e. come to pass]” (2 Tim 2:18)—Paul (or the author) says this of Hymenaios and Philetos (v. 17), and it has been thought by some (critical) commentators to be related to Gnostic thought (cf. Justin Martyr 1 Apology 26.4 and Irenaeus Against Heresies I.23.5 regarding the early “Gnostic” Menander). Certainly Gnostics, more so than other early Christians, would have been inclined to adopt a “realized” eschatology and reinterpret the resurrection as a spiritual (rather than bodily) event. However, questions and various views regarding the resurrection seem to have been relatively common in the early Christian period (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18ff; 2 Thess 2:1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:12-57), especially when the first generation of believers began to pass away without the return of Christ and the end having come.
  • 2 Tim 3:1-9ff—on the assumption that the Pastorals address some form of early Gnostic heresy, a number of commentators would read it in here as well; Justin and Irenaeus refer to Gnostics such as Marcus as gaining female followers and exerting influence over women (1 Apology 26.3; Against Heresies I.13.3, 23.2, etc), but this could simply be part of the author’s bias and polemic. For a bit more on the relation of the Gnostic groups to women, cf. Part 9 in the series Women in the Church.

3. The First Letter of John appears to refer to believers who have separated themselves from the wider Community (2:19, etc); it is sometimes claimed that these separatists either represent early Gnostic groups, or helped to form the basis for such groups in the 2nd century. 1 John 4:2 suggests a kind of docetic view of Christ (cf. above)—”every spirit which does not give account as one [i.e. confess] Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ} to have come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] is not from God” (cf. also 2 John 7). The false doctrine referenced in 1 John 5:6ff is more complex and difficult to intepret. However, apart from 1 John 4:2, there really is little evidence of Gnostic thought among the separatists or the false teachings opposed by the author. The Johannine writings (especially the Gospel) do seem to have been popular among the Gnostics; cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies III.9, 16. The earliest known commentary on John is by Heracleon [c. 170-180], whose work is referenced/refuted by Origen in his own massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel. Whether or not the Johannine “separatists” joined/formed the later Gnostic groups cited by Irenaeus et al, it is likely that Ignatius of Antioch knew of them (or persons like them) in the early 2nd century (c. 110), as he makes virtually the same declaration in Philadelphians 7:1 as the author of 1 John does in 4:2; moreover, in Smyrneans 1-5ff, he is clearly combating a docetic view of Christ, which could conceivably provide a link between 1 John and the later Gnostics.

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