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Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 5 – Election/Predestination

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An important aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is the idea that believers come to know their true identity—that is, what they already are in truth, but of which they have lost awareness through ignorance in the world of sin and darkness. In many Gnostic texts, this (the believer’s identity, or “soul”) is expressed as a divine spark (of light) or seed that has become trapped in the (fallen) material world. The saving knowledge Christ brings is of the believer’s true nature and identity (the light), which leads to the way out of darkness. The New Testament writings share certain soteriological elements in common with the Gnostic viewpoint, though, in many ways, the fundamental differences of outlook (and expression) are even greater. One common element is a belief in what we would call Election—that believers (i.e. the ones who will come to believe and know the truth) belong to God even before they actually come to faith and awareness in their lifetime. However, on the whole, early Christian belief is more closely rooted to the traditional religious understanding of election, as found in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Election—The Terminology (“choose, call,” etc)

The two main aspects of this view may be summed up by the verbs choose (Hebr. rjb) and call (arq, etc). In the New Testament, the first aspect is expressed through several different verbs:

  • e)kle/gw (eklégœ, “gather out”), along with the derived adjective e)klekto/$ (eklektós) and noun e)klogh/ (eklog¢¡)
  • ai(re/w (hairéœ, “take [up]”) and the related ai(reti/zw (hairetízœ), which relates more properly to the decision to take or choose, along with the reasons involved. This latter verb occurs only in Matt 12:18.

The second aspect is represented almost entirely by the verb kale/w (“call [out/aloud]”), and its compound forms—e)kkale/w (“call out [of]”), proskale/w (“call toward”), and e)pikale/w (“call on”). The verb e)kkale/w is represented in the New Testament only through the related noun e)kklhsi/a (ekkl¢sía), which early on came to be used in the technical sense of a congregation or assembly of believers, i.e. those called out (of their homes, etc) to assemble together. It often carried a (theological) connotation similar to e)klekto/$—believers as the ones “called/gathered out” from the rest of humankind. The noun klh=si$ (“call[ing]”) and adjective klh=to$ (“called”), were both applied to believers as important religious terms, derived from the verb kale/w. Several other verbs and related terms are worth noting:

  • ti/qhmi (“set, place, put”) and i(sth/mi (“make stand”), both of which can be used in the sense of “appoint”.
  • ta/ssw (“arrange, put in order”), sometimes meaning “appoint”, i.e., put things (or a person) in a certain arrangement.
  • o(ri/zw (“mark [out]”), in the sense of appointing or determining something; cf. below on Predestination
  • xeirotone/w, which refers to making a choice, etc (i.e. voting), by stretching/raising the hand; cf. also on Predestination below.

The Scriptural Concept of Election

In the Old Testament, the primary idea was God’s call/selection of Israel as his chosen people. This is found frequently in the Scriptures, especially as a Deuteronomic theme (Deut 4:19-24; 7:6-11; 10:14-22; 14:2; 26:18-19) and a key motif in the Prophets (Isa 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:5, etc). Israel would remain God’s chosen people as long as they were faithful in observing the covenant agreement God established with them (reflected in the Torah). The tragedy of the conquest and exile meant that this idea of election had to be given a new and distinctive interpretation; and, in the Prophets, we regularly find the motif of the remnant—i.e. the chosen ones were those who remained faithful and obedient to God (cf. Isa 4:2-4; 6:13; 10:20-23; 65:9ff; Mic 2:12; Amos 9:11-15; Zeph 3:12-13; Ezek 11:16-21; Zech 13:9, etc.). The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christian Community both drew upon this remnant-motif to express their own religious identity as the elect/chosen people of God.

Occasionally, the Scriptures refer to Israel as the “son” of God, in a symbolic or religious/spiritual sense (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:9), and the faithful Israelites as “sons” (cf. especially in Wisdom tradition, Wis 2:16-18; Sir 4:10, etc). It is appropriate to refer to this as a kind of “adoption”, that is, God chose Israel to be his son. The same relationship is found in Israelite royal theology, which draws upon Ancient Near Eastern tradition; the king is God’s “Son”, the one chosen to represent God for the people (cf. Psalm 2:7; 89:27-29; 2 Sam 7:14; Isa 9:6). Both of these concepts—the people Israel and the king as God’s chosen “son”—were fundamental to the Messianic thought and expression which developed in Judaism, as seen both in early Christianity (applied to Jesus) and in the Qumran texts. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed“. The idea of one chosen and anointed by God could be understood of king, priest, and prophet alike—three Messianic roles and “offices” ascribed to Jesus. In addition, we find the tradition of the “Son of Man” (cf. Daniel 7:13-14), a heavenly/divine being (identified with Jesus) who is appointed by God to oversee the end-time Judgment and the deliverance of his people.

When we consider the various verbs and terms related to the idea of election in the New Testament (cf. above), these can be divided between: (a) Jesus as the Elect One, and (b) Believers as the Elect Ones.

Jesus as the Elect One

The verb e)kle/gw (e)kle/gomai), and the derived noun e)klekto/$, are applied to Jesus in a number of passages, marking him as one who is specially “gathered out” (i.e. chosen) by God—Luke 9:35 v.l.; 23:35; 1 Pet 2:4, 6 (citing Isa 28:16); cf. also Matt 12:18 (Isa 42:1ff), where a different verb (ai(teri/zw) is used. These verses certainly are dependent upon Messianic tradition and imagery which have been applied to Jesus. In the Gospels and early Christian thought, they cannot be separated from the idea of Jesus as God’s Son, which likewise has a strong Messianic context—especially Ps 2:7, suggested by the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism/transfiguration (esp. Lk 3:22 v.l.), and cf. Acts 4:25-26; 13:33; Heb 2:5; 5:5. The Lukan version of the Transfiguration scene is particularly significant, since here (in the more probable original reading) the divine/heavenly voice refers to Jesus as “the one gathered out [e)klelgme/no$]”, i.e. “Elect/Chosen one”, parallel to “my Son”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find the idea of Jesus being set/appointed/marked beforehand as God’s Chosen One; these references apply different verbs (cf. above) to Jesus:

Occasionally, the specific idea of foreknowledge—that is, God knowing/appointing Jesus beforehand, before his appearance on earth (indeed, even before creation)—is emphasized, as in 1 Peter 1:20, using the verb proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”). Cf. below on Predestination.

Believers as the Elect

More commonly in the New Testament, it is believers (Christians) who are said to be chosen or called by God. Quite often, this implies foreknowledge and/or predestination (cf. below), but more significant is the emphasis on the choice being made by God. I divide the most relevant passages according to the two aspects—called/chosen; for an interesting combination of both aspects, cf. Matt 22:1-14 (v. 14).

CalledActs 2:39; 15:17 (Amos 9:12); Rom 1:6-7; 8:28-30; 9:11, 24ff; 11:29; 1 Cor 1:2, 9, 24, 26; 7:15-24; Gal 1:6, 15; 5:8, 13; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:7; 5:24; 2 Thess 1:11; 2:14; Phil 3:14; Col 3:15; Eph 1:18; 4:1, 4; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 3:1; 9:15; James 2:7; 1 Pet 1:15; 2:9, 21; 3:9; 5:10; 2 Pet 1:3, 10; Jude 1; Rev 17:14. To these may be added instances of God calling believers to specific ministry, to preach the Gospel, and so forth (Acts 13:2; 16:10; Rom 1:1, etc).

In the Gospel of John, we find the distinct motif of Jesus calling believers. This, of course, reflects the historical facts and setting of the Gospel narrative (Mark 1:20; 3:13 par, et al), but it takes on special significance in John. Note, in particular, Jn 10:3—this is connected with the related motif of hearing the voice of Jesus (3:29; 4:42; 5:25ff, 37; 11:43ff; 12:29f; 18:37; 20:16). Important also is the close association of calling with the name—for the intimate personal knowledge and relationship which is implicit in knowing and calling/hearing the name, cf. the recent note on this motif in John. In 1 Jn 3:1, calling is also related to believers’ identity as “children of God” (on this, cf. the recent daily note on Jn 1:12-13).

Chosen—Here we should consider first the references using the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out [of]”) and related words:

This choice of persons by God is depicted dramatically in the Gospel narrative through Jesus’ choosing of the disciples to follow him (Luke 6:13, and pars; Acts 1:2). He also ‘appointed’ them to be his special representatives (apostles)—this designation (Mark 3:14ff; Lk 10:1, etc) becomes the pattern and paradigm for Christians being appointed to positions of ministry, using the verbs ti/qhmi (“set, place, put”) and i%sthmi (“[make] stand”), etc (Acts 6:3; 1 Cor 12:28, etc). Jesus’ choosing of his disciples is given special theological significance in the Gospel of John (cf. below). For the use of the compound verb kaqi/sthmi (cf. above) in a soteriological context, see Rom 5:19, and note also Matt 25:21ff; Lk 12:42ff.


I will not deal here with the complex and longstanding theological and philosophical issues which have surrounded this topic for centuries, except to point out that the main problem for (modern) Western Christians—how the Divine determination and control of events and human decisions conflicts with the ideal of individual freedom—does not seem to have been a significant issue for ancient Christians (nor, indeed, for devout Jews and Greco-Roman pagans of the period). The New Testament authors, and other early believers, like the Jews in the Community of the Qumran texts, were perfectly able to hold up the principles of Divine control and human responsibility side-by-side; and, much to the surprise of many modern scholars, they scarcely felt the need even to note a possible contradiction (Rom 9:19ff is one of the few exceptions, but even here Paul does not devote much attention to it). That God (or the Gods, in a polytheistic context) exercised sovereign control over the world and human affairs, determining their course and destinies, was a basic and well-established religious belief in the ancient world, and required no real explanation or proof. The specific aspect of predestination—of God determining things beforehand—is expressed at numerous points throughout the New Testament writings, usually through verbs which contain the prepositional element pro/ (“before[hand]”). Romans 8:28-30 uses several of these in a sequential chain, with a definite soteriological context:

  • proti/qhmi (“set before[hand]”)—this verb does not always indicate action beforehand, since the preposition pro/ can simply imply something “before” (i.e. in front of) a person, etc. The derived noun pro/qesi$ (used here in Rom 8:28) can refer to a person’s plan or purpose (to do something), and is used, in a theological sense, for the plan of God. Here, believers are referred to as “the (one)s called according to His purpose [lit. the thing set before{hand}]”. We see the same context in Rom 9:11; Eph 1:9-11; 3:11; 2 Tim 1:9. Cf. also the adjective proqe/smio$ in Gal 4:2.
  • proginw/skw (“know beforehand”)—that is, foreknowledge, properly speaking; it also occurs in Rom 11:2 and in 1 Pet 1:20 (applied to God’s foreknowledge of Jesus).
  • proori/zw (“mark [out] beforehand”)—on the use of the simple o(ri/zw to indicate God appointing, designating, etc., Jesus as the Anointed One, cf. above; the compound form also occurs in Acts 4:28; 1 Cor 2:7, and Eph 1:5, 11. These two pro- verbs are followed in v. 30 by:
  • kale/w (“call”)—for the calling of persons to be (and become) believers, cf. above
    dikaio/w (“make right/just”)—this verb has special meaning in Paul’s letters, referring to salvation in terms of being “made right” with God; it carries a strong legal sense in his thought
    doca/zw (“give honor/esteem”)—that is, believers are glorified, made to share in the honor and splendor (do/ca) of the Father and Christ the Son; primarily, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (vv. 18-23)

Several other pro- verbs are used to express the idea of foreknowledge and predestination—proetoima/zw (“make ready beforehand”, Rom 9:23; Eph 2:10), proxeiri/zw (“take in hand before, hand forth”, Acts 22:14), proei/dw (“see before, foresee”, Acts 2:31; Gal 3:8, of the inspired Prophets [in Scripture]); proble/pw (“look/see before”, i.e. look ahead, Heb 11:40).

The main Predestination passages in the New Testament (the Pauline letters) are Romans 9-11 (along with 8:28-30, cf. above); Gal 1:15; Eph 1:3-14; 2 Thess 2:13, though certainly many of the other verses cited above should be consulted as well. Of special significance is the way the idea is expressed—theologically, and in Christological terms—in the Gospel of John.

The Johannine Discourses

In the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, we find a sense of election and predestination, which, in certain respects, comes close to the gnostic understanding. A number of the key passages have already been discussed in the notes and articles of this series (cf. the note on Jn 1:12-13, etc), but it will be helpful to summarize and outline them here.

In three passages, Jesus refers to his choosing the disciples (using the verb e)kle/gomai, “gather out”, cf. above)—Jn 6:70; 13:18, and 15:16, 19. In 13:18, the choosing is related to his knowing them (“I have seen/known [oi@da] any [i.e. all] of [the ones] I gathered out”); moreover, the selection comes from Jesus’ initiative—it is not the disciples’ decision (15:16, cf. also 5:21). The aspect of foreknowledge and predestination in this choice is demonstrated and prefigured in the narrative, cf. 1:48—”I saw you…before his calling you”. Throughout the discourses, this sense of the believers’ identity (in Christ) is expressed in two primary ways:

1. God the Father has given believers to the Son (Jesus), who, in turn, keeps them safe and guarded (from evil) during his time on earth. We find this idea in 6:39ff and, more prominently, in the great prayer-discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 6-8, 11ff, 24). It is connected with the motif of the believer remaining/abiding (the verb me/nw) in Christ, and Christ in the believer. From a temporal standpoint, in the context of the Gospel narrative, believers first come to Jesus (and he comes to them), and, receiving him, they remain with him (and he with them). However, from the eternal standpoint, this aspect of remaining takes on a slightly different sense—believers are already in Christ, since they have been given to him by the Father, but must continue to remain in him (cf. 8:31-32; 15:1-11, etc). After Jesus’ departure (back to the Father), this situation will continue through the presence of the Spirit (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7ff); indeed, 14:17 suggests that the Spirit is already with the disciples, but will come to be in them after Jesus’ departure. That all of this takes place under the Father’s full control and direction is clear from the statement by Jesus in 6:44: “No one is able to come toward me, if the Father…does not draw [lit. drag] him”.

2. Believers belong to God, come from Him, are born out of Him, etc, even before they actually come to faith in Christ. In fact, in a number of places, Jesus makes it clear that the reason people are able to come to him is that they (first) come from God. I summarize here the most relevant passages:

  • 3:3-8—one cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God, unless first having been born “from above [a&nwqen]” and “out of [e)k] the Spirit”. Traditionally, this birth is thought to take place following one’s acceptance of Jesus (and baptism, etc); however, in the Johannine idiom, to see almost always means seeing Jesus (the Son), that is, coming to know him, to have faith in him. It is thus possible to understand this saying in the sense of spiritual birth preceding the believer’s recognition of Christ.
  • 3:19-21—In verse 21, Jesus states that “the (person) doing the truth comes toward the light”. On the surface, this suggests that a person who is living a good, righteous life will recognize Jesus and come to trust in him; indeed, this would be the conventional religious understanding. However, in the Gospel of John, “doing the truth” essentially means trusting and believing in Christ (who is the truth), as stated clearly in 6:29. In other words, a person is, in a sense, a believer even before actually coming to faith in Christ. Much the same is indicated in 7:17; for a more precise formulation, cf. 18:37 (below).
  • 8:47—”the one being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] God hears the words of God; through this [i.e. for this reason] you do not hear, in that [i.e. because] you are not out of God”. Along with 18:37, this is the clearest theological statement to the effect that only those who are from [e)k, “out of”] God can hear/recognize the word of God, and thus come to Jesus.
  • 10:3-5ff—The idea of believers hearing the voice of the Son (Jesus) who speaks with the words and voice of his Father is an important theme in the Gospel of John. In the parable of chapter 10, the sheep hear (i.e., know, recognize) the voice of the shepherd because they (already) belong to him (he knows them), vv. 14, 26-29.
  • 15:19—Here Jesus tells his disciples “you are not out of the world, but I gathered you out of the world”, playing on the double meaning of the idiom “out of [e)k] the world”. On the one hand, Jesus chose them “out of the world” (that is, from the rest of the people); on the other hand, the disciples are “not of the world” since they come from God and do not belong to it. The statement in 17:16 is even more striking: “they [i.e. the believers] are not out of [e)k] the world, even as I am not out of the world”.
  • 18:37—”…I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth; every one being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”. Only the person (already) belonging to the truth, that is, to God, is able to hear the voice of Jesus and come to faith in him.

On the textual variant in 20:31, the closing words of the Gospel proper, and a possible way to interpret it, cf. the separate note.

Special Note: On the noun “knowledge” in John

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As part of my analysis of knowledge and revelation in the Johannine writings (cf. the current article), I pointed out that, while the verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ, “know”) is found quite often, the noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) does not occur at all. Compare this with the relatively frequent use of the noun in Paul’s letters (esp. 1 and 2 Corinthians). Some commentators have theorized that the Christian communities which produced (and used) the Johannine Gospel and letters were combating an early form of Gnosticism (with a docetic Christology, cf. 1 Jn 4:1-6, etc). The persons or groups referred to in 1 John may be related in some way to those mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (Smyrneans 2-5, Trallians 9-10) in the early 2nd century (c. 110 A.D.). There is a good discussion of this topic, for example, in R. E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press: 1979), especially pp. 103-23. According to this basic theory, the author(s) of the Gospel and letters may have intentionally avoided use of the noun gnw=si$. For a possible similar phenomenon in the Pastoral letters, cf. my recent note on 1 Tim 6:20-21. However, there are several other explanations which do not require any relationship to Gnosticism or anti-gnostic tendencies:

  1. The Gospel and Letters of John have a much simpler vocabulary than, for example, the letters of Paul. Related to this is a marked tendency, in many instances, to prefer the use of verbs rather than nouns to govern the basic mode of expression. Just about anything that one might say about “knowledge” could easily be expressed through use of the verbs ginw/skw (“know”) and ei&dw (“see, know”). This dependence on the verb also tends to emphasize Jesus Christ as the means and instrument of knowledge, rather than the knowledge per se. This differs in certain respects from Paul, who frequently emphasizes the message (the Gospel) itself.
  2. The Gospel (and Letters) also seem to rely upon a relatively small set of descriptive nouns to refer to the revelation which comes in the person of Jesus; these include—light (fw=$), truth (a)lh/qeia), life (zwh/), word (lo/go$, r(h=ma), way (o(do/$), splendor/glory (do/ca), and so forth. A number of these convey in the popular mind a more immediate and dynamic sense of the divine presence and activity than would the word gnw=si$. That these can be seen as interchangeable with gnw=si$, to some extent, is indicated by the statement in Jn 1:17: “…the favor [i.e. grace] and truth (of God) came to be through Jesus Christ”. Paul, on the other hand, could say much the same thing using the word “knowledge”—”in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away” (Col 2:3), “…the light of the knowledge of the splendor of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), etc.
  3. As noted above, while Paul has a strong sense of knowledge in terms of the message about Christ (i.e. the Gospel), which could effectively be summarized by the noun gnw=si$, the Gospel and Letters of John emphasize a different aspect of revelation—the person of Christ, the Son of God. This would be natural enough within the Gospel narrative, since it deals primarily with the words and actions of Jesus, along with the people’s response to them; but the same emphasis continues in 1 John as well. Indeed, the noun eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. Gospel) does not occur at all in the Johannine writings (unless one includes Rev 14:6), an omission almost unthinkable for Paul in his letters. Instead, the emphasis is decidedly on having seen and heard Jesus himself (1 Jn 1:1-3)—his words, etc.—and, in particular, the great commandment to love one another. For a full list of the relevant passages, see the current article. Within early Christian thought, the Gospel message is, of course, directly related to the person of Christ; it is really a question of which aspect of the Christian faith one seeks to emphasize.

Note of the Day – November 3 (1 Tim 6:20-21)

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1 Timothy 6:20-21

“O Precious-to-God {Timothy}, you must keep watch (over) th(at which is) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] (you), turning out of (the way) the free [be/bhlo$] (and) empty voices, and the (thing)s set against (it) from the falsely-named ‘knowledge’ [gnw=si$], which some (person)s, giving a message upon (themselves) about the (Christian) faith, [pi/sti$] were without (true) aim.”

This is perhaps the only passage in the New Testament which can truly be called anti-gnostic—i.e., opposed to gnostic teaching. Whether the author of 1 Timothy (whether Paul or pseudonymous) is addressing an early form of the Gnosticism known from the 2nd century A.D. is a separate question. If the letter is Pauline and/or relatively early (c. 60-65 A.D.), then this is highly unlikely. However, things have clearly moved a step or two beyond Paul’s concern to check the Corinthians’ emphasis on spiritual knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:16ff; 8:1-3ff). There is conceivably a connection with the Jewish Christianity represented by the opponents Paul addresses in 2 Cor 10-13, but this could only be called “gnostic” in a very loose sense. It can be no coincidence that 1 Tim 6:20 is the only occurrence of the word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) in the letter—indeed, within the Pastoral letters as a whole—while it is relatively frequent in the undisputed letters (21 times, including 16 in 1 & 2 Corinthians), often in a positive sense. Here, it is entirely negative, marked by the qualifying adjective yeudw/numo$ (“falsely-named”), to distiguish it from true religious knowledge. At the very least, the author is referring to Christians who claim to have a certain knowledge, and, presumably, rely upon the use of that word—which would explain why the author does not otherwise use it himself. The noun is also absent entirely from the Johannine writings, even though the related verb ginw/skw (“know”) is used quite often (82 times). Some commentators have thought that the Christians who produced these writings were combating an incipient form of Gnosticism (cf. 1 John 4:1-6, etc).

Especially significant is the use of the word paraqh/kh, derived from the verb parati/qhmi (“set/put along[side]”), and which I discussed briefly in the last section of the recently-posted Part 4 in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. In the Pastoral epistles the verb and noun are both used in the special (figurative) sense of the collected body of Christian teaching—of Gospel and Apostolic traditions—which have been passed down (from Paul and the first Apostles) and put into the care of trustworthy ministers (such as Timothy). It is this “trust”, this carefully preserved Tradition, which is set against the so-called “knowledge”. Actually, there appear to be two forces against which the minister must contend; he is to “turn out of [the way]” (i.e. “turn aside”, the verb e)ktre/pw):

  • “the free/loose ’empty voices'” and
  • “(thing)s…of the falsely-named ‘knowledge'”

Possibly these are a hendiadys, two expressions for a single concept, or two labels referring to a single group. The first phrase makes use of two words. The first (a) is be/bhlo$, “free”, in the sense of “freely accessible”, and, in a religious context, often indicating something that is “profane”; it is certainly used in a pejorative sense here, perhaps with the connotation of “loose-lipped”, i.e. freely and carelessly uttered. The second (b) is kenofwni/a, “empty voice”, i.e. empty or hollow sounding, but probably best taken literally here—the voices of the people who say these things are “empty”, void of anything true or real. This same expression, using both words, also occurs in 2 Tim 2:16:

“But stand about [i.e. away from] the free (and) empty voices, for (more) upon more they cut (the way) toward a lack of reverence (for God)”

It follows directly after the expression “the account of truth” in v. 15, with which it is set in contrast. The adjective be/bhlo$ also occurs in 1 Tim 1:9 and 4:7.

The second phrase includes two elements: (a) the noun a)nti/qesi$, derived from the same verb as the base of parati/qhmi, only instead of something put alongside (into one’s care), it signifies the opposite, something set against it (in opposition to it); and (b) the expression “falsely-named knowledge”, with the adjective yeudw/numo$. Those who are characterized by these descriptions, and who oppose or threaten the true faith and tradition, are defined further in 1 Tim 6:21:

  • tine$ (“certain, some”)—that is, some Christians
  • e)paggello/menoi (“giving a message upon [themselves]”)—middle voice (reflexive) participle of the verb e)pagge/llw; these people announce (lit. give a message) concerning themselves
  • peri\ th\n pi/stin (“about the faith”)—the word pi/sti$ usually means specifically trust (or faith/belief) in Christ, but here it would seem to signify more properly the Christian faith (religion); however, it may also indicate the profession of faith in Christ by these persons
  • h)sto/xhsan (“they were without [true] aim”)—the verb a)stoxe/w is derived from the adjective a&stoxo$ (“without aim”), i.e. a bad shot, missing the mark

In other words, these people claim to be Christians, professing Christ and speaking about the faith, but are actually in error and ‘miss the mark’. From the standpoint of the author (Paul), it is a matter of the entire Christian faith being at stake, and an urgent need to preserve the true faith and (apostolic) tradition. The comprehensiveness of this understanding is indicated by an brief examination of the other occurrences of the verb parati/qhmi and noun paraqh/kh:

  • 1 Tim 1:18:
    “This message given along (to me) I place alongside (for) you, dear offspring [i.e. child] Timothy, according to the (thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies] brought out before(hand) upon you, that you might fight as a soldier in them, (doing) the fine work of a soldier”
  • 2 Tim 1:12, continuing on from v. 11, speaking of the “good message”, i.e. the Gospel (“unto which I was set” as a preacher, apostle and teacher…)
    “…through which cause I also suffer these (thing)s—but (yet) I do not have (any) shame brought upon me, for I have seen [i.e. known] the (one) in whom I have trusted and have been persuaded that he is powerful (enough) [i.e. able] to keep/guard the (thing) set alongside (for) me unto [i.e. until] that day”
  • 2 Tim 1:14 (note the connection between the paraqh/kh and the Spirit):
    “you (too) must keep/guard th(is) fine (thing which has been) set alongside (us), through the holy Spirit housing [i.e. dwelling] in us”
  • 2 Tim 2:2:
    “and the (thing)s which you have heard alongside me through many witnesses, these you must place alongside trust(worthy) men who will be capable/qualified to teach others also”

The chain of transmission is clear: to Paul, then to Timothy, and then, in turn, to other trustworthy ministers. Timothy himself has received the tradition not only from Paul (“the whole/healthy accounts which you heard [from] alongside me”, 2 Tim 1:13), but from “many witnesses” (2:2). This emphasizes that the tradition has been transmitted within the Community of believers as a whole (on the motif of witnesses to the Gospel, cf. Lk 1:2; 24:48; Acts 1:8, 22; 5:32; 10:39ff; 13:31, etc., and note Heb 12:1).

Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 4 – Religious Identity and Tradition

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Closely tied to a gnostic understanding of salvation (cf. Part 2) is the sense of religious identity being defined in terms of knowledge. This was discussed to some extent in Part 3, but it requires further elaboration and examination of some of the key New Testament passages. According to the gnostic (and Gnostic) viewpoint, the (elect) believer comes to know, that is, to become aware, of his/her true identity in relation to God (or the Divine). Among certain Gnostic groups we find the idea that a spark or seed of the Divine has been ‘trapped’ within the fallen material world or sin and darkness. Knowledge of salvation comes—proclaimed and revealed by the Savior (and/or his messengers)—to believers trapped so as to have been ignorant of their true identity as offspring (sons/children) of God. There is, indeed, something of this religious worldview reflected in the New Testament Scriptures, but not quite in the manner expressed by many Gnostics. It is in the Pauline and Johannine writings that we find the closest parallels. A number of the most relevant passages are summarized here:

The Pauline letters

1 Cor 2:6-16—I have discussed the entire section 1:18-2:16 in an earlier series of notes. The logic of Paul’s theology can be described this way:

  • The Gospel contains the secret, hidden wisdom of God
  • This is conveyed to the apostles and preachers of the Gospel through the Spirit
  • Those who receive/accept the Gospel receive the Spirit which is at work in them, allowing them to understand
  • The Spirit instructs and guides believers so they can discern the wisdom of God—we thus have “the mind of Christ”

From a theological standpoint, there is some question as to what extent God—specifically the Spirit—is present and at work in believers prior to hearing the Gospel and coming to faith. Given Paul’s statement in verse 11, how do people respond in faith the Gospel without the work of the Spirit? Paul typically employs the language and image of a favor (xa/ri$) or gift—i.e., the Spirit as a gift given, presumably at the time one receives the Gospel, though it may also be connected with the moment of baptism. However, the quotation in verse 9, apparently citing loosely and adapting Isa 64:4, adds an interesting dimension to this; consider the last portion of the quotation:

“…the (thing)s God prepared for the (one)s loving him”

In the context of 1 Cor 1:18-2:16, these “things” are the hidden things of God, the wisdom of God, which, according to Paul’s way of understanding it is: (1) manifest in the person of Christ, (2) revealed in the Gospel, and (3) made available to believers through the Spirit. Yet these things were prepared or made ready by God ahead of time (in the past), for those in the present who are already loving Him. This same idea is suggested in 1 Cor 8:3—”if any (one) loves God, this (person) has been known under [i.e. by] Him”. Here the sense of predestination is stronger: God has known the believer ahead of time, the perfect tense indicating past action which continues into the present. Cf. also 1 Cor 13:12.

Rom 7:7-25—Paul frequently uses language and imagery expressing the idea that God, through Christ, has delivered humankind from bondage to the power of sin (cf. above for this same idea from a Gnostic standpoint). It is described in almost cosmic terms in Rom 5:12-21, while here in 7:7-25, we see it presented from the vantage-point of the individual believer. Paul sets himself, rhetorically, in place of this representative human being, using the first person (“I”). This person could be identified with those who are “loving God” (prior to receiving the Gospel), desiring (in his spirit) to fulfill the Law of God, but unable to do so because of the power of sin residing in the “flesh” and controlling it. Uniquely Pauline is the idea that revelation—in the Law (Torah), prior to encountering the Gospel—brings a kind of preliminary saving knowledge, in that it brings knowledge (i.e. recognition, awareness) of sin. But Paul’s understanding in this regard is two-fold: (1) the Law brings (saving) knowledge, but at the same time (2) through the Law God has imprisoned all human beings (including believers) under sin (Gal 3:22-24; Rom 11:32). For more on Paul’s teaching on the Law, cf. the articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Rom 8:19-25—Here we find the cosmic image of creation groaning and suffering in bondage. Again, we have the idea that God is the one who has set it under bondage (to sin and death). Admittedly, the reference in verse 20 is somewhat ambiguous, where it states that the thing formed (creation, collectively) was set under the order of (i.e. subjected to) sin and death “not willingly, but through the (one) putting it under (this) order”. Commentators debate just who “the (one)” is, but, in my view, based on the context in Romans, and other passages in Paul’s letters, it should be understood as referring to God the Father (the Creator). In certain Gnostic systems, the Creator—that is, the one who fashioned the fallen and sinful material condition—was a kind of inferior divine Being (a Demiurge). This is foreign to Paul’s thought, but the idea of God setting Creation (and humankind) under bondage to the power of sin has certain points in common with Gnostic theology. The eschatological theme in Rom 8:19-25 involves the eventual deliverance of creation from this condition of bondage, and is tied directly to the presence (and identity) of the elect believers (the “sons/offspring of God”). Indeed, this is specifically described in terms of revelation—the earnest expectation and hope of creation is to receive (from God, or from heaven) “the uncovering (a)poka/luyi$) [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God”. This could be understood in the sense that the sons of God (believers) are already present in creation, but that creation is unaware of their true identity. In verse 21, the future hope for creation is defined as being “set free from the slavery of decay, into the freedom of the honor/splendor of the offspring of God”. The implication is that all of creation will be renewed in the same way that believers in Christ are renewed—in particular, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (v. 23).

Col 1:12-13—As part of the great declaration in vv. 9-20, describing the person and work of Christ, the author (Paul) states that God the Father is the one

“who (has) made us able (to come) into the portion of the lot [i.e. the inheritance] of the holy ones in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the authority of darkness and made us stand together (away from there) into the kingdom of the Son of his love”

There is, in this description, language and imagery that is similar to gnostic modes of expression—the dualism of light and darkness, the idea of being rescued out of a realm of darkness, believers as “sons of light”, believers as heirs of God, the kingdom of the Son, etc. Of course, these can be found at various points throughout the New Testament, but their combination here, within two short verses, is what gives the passage a “gnostic” ring. The deliverance out of darkness is tied directly to the work of God through the person of Christ; elsewhere in Paul’s writings, it is connected more properly with the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:4-6). The idea of believers being called out of darkness is found in 1 Pet 2:9, and goes back to Old Testament imagery, preserved within the early Gospel tradition—Matt 4:16; Lk 1:78-79, etc, and cf. 2 Pet 1:19.

Eph 5:13-14—Here, in connection with the same light/darkness dualism we find the additional idea of the soul “awaking” to its true nature. This is expressed in the quotation (possibly from an early hymn) in verse 14:

“Rise, (you) the (one) going down to sleep, and stand up out of the dead, and the Anointed (One) will shine (light) upon you!”

This line itself suggests the initial conversion of a believer—i.e., of responding to the Gospel and coming to faith. It may originally have been associated with the ritual of Baptism. However, here Paul (or the author) cites it as part of ethical instruction (exhortation) directed to believers. The context clearly has to do with abandoning sinful behavior and associations, and walking according our true nature, that is, as “offspring (i.e. children) of light”. The image of the soul waking to its true nature and identity is a common gnostic motif, though here the orientation is ethical rather than soteriological. The exhortation “walk according to the light, as you are in the light” is stated in a similar context in Galatians 5:16-25, but in terms of the Spirit: “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also step in line (i.e. walk) in/by the Spirit”.

Other passages could be added to these mentioned here, but those above give a suitable number of representative examples from the Pauline writings.

Johannine writings

These will be discussed further in the supplemental article on knowledge and revelation in the Gospel and letters of John. Here I will simply list some of the more notable references:

In the Gospel1:9-13; 3:5-8, 18-21; 5:37-43; 6:44-47; 7:17, 28-29; 8:12, 31-38ff; 10:3-9, 14-16, 27ff; 11:25-26; 12:35-36; 14:21-24; 15:3ff, 15-16, 19; 17:6-26; 18:37

In the Letters1 John 1:5-7; 2:5-6, 19-20ff; 2:29-3:2; 3:10, 19; 4:2-6, 9-10; 5:1ff, 10-12, 18-19; 3 John 11

The strong dualism running through the Gospel and letters of John will be discussed in the last part (Part 6) of this series.

Other aspects of Christian Identity

There are other important aspects of Christian identity—that is, of the believer’s religious identity in Christ—which serve to counteract or counterbalance any gnostic tendencies, such as could be drawn from the language used in the passages cited above. Again, we are best informed about early Christian tradition and instruction in this regard from the Pauline letters. Here are some of the more notable aspects:

  • Paul’s use of the expression “in Christ” (e)n xristw=|), and the related idea of belonging to Christ, which can be called mystical and spiritual(istic), rather than gnostic. That is to say, we are united with Christ, both symbolically, and through the presence of the Spirit, and participate in the power of his death and resurrection. The expression is so common in Paul’s writings that it functions virtually as a title for believers, a religious identification. Of the many references, cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 15:18-23; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:4; 3:26-28; Rom 3:24; 6:11; 8:1f; 12:5; Phil 2:5; 3:8-12; Col 1:28; 3:1-4; Eph 2:6ff. It is rare in the New Testament outside of Paul (1 Pet 3:16; 5:10, 14, and note Heb 3:14).
  • The idea of believers as a “new creation”, may seem, on the surface, to have a gnostic tinge to it, but it can just as easily be understood in the opposite sense—believers in Christ come to be completely different than they were before. The main passages utilizing this expression, or varying forms of it, are: 2 Cor 5:16-21; Gal 6:15; Col 3:9-11ff; and Eph 2:14-18. The Johannine idea of the “new birth”, of believers born out of God, is perhaps closer to gnostic patterns of thought.
  • The symbolism of the rite of Baptism was important for Paul, in that it symbolized the believer’s identification and union with Christ, specifically in the sense of participating in his death and resurrection—cf. 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Rom 6:3-4ff; Col 2:11-12; 3:9-11. Paul inherited the ritual motif of “putting off” the old, sinful way of life, and “putting on” the new life in Christ. The various Gnostic Christian groups seem to have retained Baptism, along with other rituals, though certainly giving to it a somewhat different meaning and significance, even as Paul may have done. He perhaps was the first to connect baptism specifically to the idea of believers sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The emphasis on the real, physical death (the crucifixion) of Jesus as central to the Gospel message, would separate Paul from many of the Gnostic groups known in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Gnostics, with their strong (metaphysical) dualism, especially when assuming the evil of the material condition, appear to have struggled greatly with the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, and attempted to explain or interpret it in various ways (some less plausible than others). In 1 and 2 Corinthians, where he may be combating certain gnostic tendencies, Paul sets the message of the cross in direct contrast to the (supposed) wisdom and knowledge of the world. Cf. especially 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 and my earlier notes on this passage.
  • Likewise Paul’s teaching on the presence and role of the Spirit in (and among) believers also distinguishes his understanding of Christian identity from that of the later Gnostics. While most Gnostics emphasized the invisible and eternal world of the Divine (against the evil physical/material world), they, for the most part, do not seem to have been Spiritualists—that is, they do not define and understand their religious identity and experience predominantly in terms of the (Holy) Spirit. For Paul, on the other hand, the Spirit was fundamental to his thinking and teaching; even when referring to knowledge and revelation, he almost always qualifies and connects it in relation to the Spirit. Of the many relevant passages, cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20; 12:13ff; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 3:17-18; 5:5; 11:4; Gal 3:2-3; 5:16-26; Rom 5:5; 8:9-12; Eph 4:30.
  • In his emphasis on Christian love, Paul draws on early Gospel tradition going back to Jesus’ own words. The so-called “love command (or principle)” was fundamental to Paul, especially in his ethical teaching—cf. Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 8:1ff; 12:31-14:1; 16:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; 1 Thess 4:9; Col 3:14. In 1 Corinthians, Paul sets love against (spiritual) knowledge, arguing that love is far superior and necessary for governing all aspects of Christian behavior, especially for our relationships to others in the Community of believers.
  • Paul repeatedly mentions the suffering of believers—their endurance of hardship and persecution, etc—as an important mark of Christian identity. For Paul, it was closely tied to the idea of our participation in the death of Jesus (cf. above). The experience and endurance of suffering also served as a example to other believers, and as a witness to the Gospel. Cf. 1 Thess 2:14ff; 2 Cor 1:6f; 2:14-17; 4:7-12; 6:3-10; Gal 4:19; Phil 1:12-14ff; Col 1:24, etc. Gnostic groups also experienced persecution—including, sadly, at the hands of other “orthodox” Christians—but they would not have ascribed much importance to (physical) suffering in this life.

Some of these points can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, including the Johannine writings. However, there are several other aspects of Christian identity expressed in the Gospel, and especially, the letters of John, which are worth noting briefly:

  • The overwhelming primacy of the person of Christ. In Paul’s writings, the Christological emphasis is usually put forward in connection with: (a) the message of the Gospel, (b) the believer’s union with Christ, and/or (c) the ecclesiastical aspect of the Community of believers as the “body of Christ”, etc. In the First letter of John, on the other hand, following along the lines of the great discourses of Jesus in the Gospel, Christian identity tends to be aligned more directly with the person of the Son (Christ) himself. Ultimately, this extends to what may be properly called orthodoxy—i.e. correct belief about Christ; on this, cf. below.
  • Love in the Gospel and letters of John takes on a somewhat different sense; while continuing the tradition of the “love command/principle”, it is given a centrality to the identity of believers that is really not found anywhere else in the New Testament (Paul’s great chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians being the closest). In 1 John, the presence of love in the believer is virtually synonymous with the presence of Christ, and indicates that the believer is “out of (i.e. from) God” and has been born from Him. Cf. 1 Jn 2:5, 10, 15; 3:1, 10-18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:1-3; 2 Jn 5-6.
  • Compared with Paul’s use of baptism symbolism, in the Gospel of John there is a different kind of imagery used to described the believers union with Christ and participation in his death, etc. It is found in the drinking/eating and water/bread symbolism in the great discourses of Jesus—Jn 4:7-24, 34; 6:22-59; 7:37-38f. If baptism is implied in the water imagery of 3:5ff, it has a different sense than in Paul. Jn 19:23 and 1 Jn 5:6-8 have water (and blood) connected more closely with the death of Christ.

One unique feature of the Gospel and letters of John is the way it establishes a correct belief about Jesus—who he is, where he came from, etc—as essential to the Christian identity. This is indicated in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel (3:18; 8:23-24; 14:10-11; 17:3, 20-21; cf. also 20:28, 31), and takes on greater significance in the letters, where incorrect belief regarding Christ marks those who have separated from the Community and also the “spirit of antichrist”—cf. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:1-5, 6-12ff; 2 Jn 7ff. For more on the Johannine writings, cf. the supplemental article in this series.

Revelation and Christian Tradition

One other topic which needs to be addressed here is the early Christian understanding of revelation in terms of tradition—that is, of (apostolic) teaching and instruction, going back to the words of Jesus, which has been preserved and transmitted to believers. Paul frequently refers to his own apostolic authority as a minister who proclaims the Gospel (as revelation) and gives instruction for the congregations under his charge. At several points, he ties his own commission and ministry to specific revelations he received from Jesus (Gal 1:12, 16; 2:2, etc; cf. also Eph 3:1-6ff). By the time of the Pastoral letters (whether or not one regards these as authentically Pauline), as also in the letters of Jude and 2 Peter, in particular, there had developed a strong sense of a collected body of Gospel witness and (apostolic) teaching which was being threatening by false and aberrant Christian ‘leaders’, and which had to be safeguarded by the faithful minister. Jude summarizes this as “the trust [i.e. faith] given along at one (time) [i.e. once] to the holy ones” (v. 3); it was to be “fought/struggled over”, i.e. the minister should contend and fight to preserve it. The clear context of 2 Pet 1:16-21 is that this tradition (lit. that which is given along, passed down) goes back to the apostles, the eye-witnesses of Jesus, including Peter himself. It is no coincidence that the Transfiguration scene is mentioned, as it is a powerful example of divine revelation—God manifesting his presence and glory in the person of Jesus.

Interestingly, this same aspect of revelation—the words of Jesus and the Divine Truth manifest therein—passed on to the apostles, etc., was an important element of Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Many of the (apparently) Gnostic writings, such as those preserved in the texts from Nag Hammadi, are couched as pseudepigraphic “Gospels”—that is, as teaching by Jesus, usually set after the resurrection, given to select disciples. The Gnostic texts frequently suggest that this teaching reflects special revelation to which other Christians are not privy. Clearly, it was a way to ensure that the distinctively Gnostic approach to the Gospel and interpretation of the Christian message, had apostolic authority, being connected to the eye-witnesses of Jesus, just as we see in Lk 1:2; 2 Pet 1:16ff. Other (proto-)orthodox Gospels and writings use the same (literary) method of pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity. Many critical scholars would claim that at least several of the New Testament writings (e.g., the Pastoral letters, Ephesians, 2 Peter) are also pseudonymous; the weight and quality of the evidence for these claims varies, and, in any event, remain controversial in more traditional-conservative circles. Admittedly, the emphasis on tradition is strongest in the later writings (those likely written after 60 A.D.)—the Pastorals, 2 Peter, Jude, the Lukan prologue, etc. Two verbs tend to be used to express the idea of revelation passed down from the apostles, from the first generation(s) of believers down to the next:

  • paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), with the derived noun para/dosi$ (parádosis). More commonly used in reference to the betrayal of Jesus (in the sense “give/hand over”), it also carries the figurative meaning of passing along teaching, instruction, etc. from parents to children, and from one generation to the next, including within a religious setting (cf. Mk 7:13; Acts 6:14). A specialized sense of this latter meaning was used in early Christianity—for use of the verb, cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 16:4; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; 2 Pet 2:21; Jude 3; for the noun, 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, and note the negative sense in Col 2:8. It continues to be used in early Christian writings (cf. 1 Clement 7:2; Diognetus 11:6; Irenaeus 3.3.3).
  • parati/qhmi (paratíth¢mi, “set/put along[side]”), with the derived noun paraqh/kh (parath¢¡k¢), used in the concrete sense of placing an object (food, etc) before someone, often in the sense of providing help or assistance; figuratively, it can used with the meaning of entrusting something (or someone) into the care of another. A specialized sense of this latter meaning developed in early Christianity. These are the words used in the Pastoral letters—1 Tim 1:18; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2; they do not occur in the undisputed letters of Paul, certainly not in this sense (cf. 1 Cor 10:27). Cf. the separate note on 1 Tim 6:20-21.

By the later part of the 2nd century, Gnostic groups and teachings had become widespread and influential enough that Irenaeus felt the need to write his five-volume work Against Heresies, to defend his (proto-Orthodox) position as representing the true Apostolic Tradition. The interpretation and application of Scripture was employed more regularly to demonstrate this, since both “sides” could lay claim to the Apostolic heritage. However, many Gnostics proved to be quite adept and incisive as commentators of Scripture (cf. Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, preserved by Epiphanius). Since various passages in the New Testament could, conceivably, be interpreted various ways, and plausibly so, depending upon one’s expectations and presuppositions, it was difficult, at times, to rely on the Scripture itself to provide decisive proof. Origin’s massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel of John was begun, in large part, as a response to the Gnostic Heracleon’s own commentary (the earliest such NT commentary known to us). The main problem, of course, was that Gnostics worked from a religious/theological worldview which was markedly different, in certain respects, from that of the proto-Orthodox; as a result, they were bound to see the same passage of Scripture in a somewhat different light.

Note of the Day – October 31 (Col 2:2-3)

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Colossians 2:2-3 (continued)

In the previous daily note, I explored the context and setting of Col 2:2-3 in the letter, examining the structure, language and imagery being employed. Today, I will look more closely at these specific verses.

“…being lifted [i.e. brought/joined] together in love and into all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind), into the (full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away.”

As I discussed previously, the language used here echoes and repeats that of the exordium (introduction), especially in the first sentence (spanning vv. 9-20), which is sometimes referred to as the “Christ hymn” of Colossians. Let us begin by comparing 2:2-3 with 1:9.

Col 1:9 opens with an expression of Paul’s wish (and prayer) for the Colossians, and similarly in 2:1:

  • “Through this [i.e. for this reason] we…do not cease speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying]…over you” (1:9)
  • “For I wish you (could) have seen [i.e. could know]…” (2:1)

His wish is expressed through the subjunctive, involving the word “fill, fullness”:

  • “that [i%na] you might be filled [plhrwqh=te]…” (1:9)
  • “that [i%na] their [i.e. your] hearts might be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted]…into…the full [plhro-]…” (2:2)

In 2:2, he uses the word plhrofori/a, which is somewhat difficult to translate. Literally, it indicates something which is carried or brought out fully, often in the sense of something being demonstrated convincingly; it thus connotes the idea of confidence or assurance i.e., that something is true or will be accomplished, etc. This “fullness” Paul wishes for the Colossians is defined and qualified with prepositional phrases and genitive chains using the key words gnw=si$/e)pi/gnwsi$ (“knowledge”), su/nesi$ (‘comprehension’) and sofi/a (“wisdom”).

  • “{filled} (with) the knowledge [e)pi/gnwsi$] of His will in all wisdom [sofi/a] and spiritual comprehension [su/nesi$]” (1:9)
  • “{into…full} understanding [su/nesi$], into knowledge [e)pi/gwsi$] of the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One)” (2:2)
    “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom [sofi/a] and knowledge [gnw=si$] hidden away” (2:3)

The word su/nesi$, which I here translate as “comprehension” and “understanding”, literally means the putting together of things, i.e. in the mind. In 2:2 the use of this noun together with plhrofori/a (cf. above), functions as a kind of hendiadys (two words for a single concept). They form a genitive chain modifying the noun plou=to$ (“rich[ness], riches, wealth”)—plou=to$ th=$ plhrofori/a$ th=$ sune/sew$. My attempt to capture something of the literal meaning (cf. the translation at the top of this note) is:

“(the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind)”

As always, the parentheses indicate glosses which make the translation more readable. From the standpoint of the Greek syntax, a better rendering would be:

“(the) rich(ness) of the full conviction and understanding (given to us)”

In terms of hendiadys, the translation might be:

“(the) rich(ness) of the full understanding (we have)”

I would suggest that each of these translations captures aspects of what the author (Paul) is genuinely saying. Another important point of syntax in 2:2 is the use of parallel prepositional phrases governed by ei)$ (“into/unto”), indicating the goal for believers as they are “lifted/joined together in love”:

  • “into [ei)$] all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind)”
  • “into [ei)$] (true/complete) knowledge of the secret of God”

These two phrases are parallel and apposite (placed side-by-side), the second explaining the first—that which is fully brought together in the mind of believers is the knowledge of the secret of God. This begins with the hearing of the Gospel, but continues through the Christian life, through the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned here in 2:2-3, but it may be inferred from the wording of 1:9 where the comprehension/understanding (su/nesi$) is characterized as pneumatiko/$ (“spiritual, of the Spirit”). In 2:2 (as in 1:9-10) the word translated “knowledge” is e)pi/gnwsi$ rather than the simpler gnw=si$ (which is used in 2:3). The compound form often signifies a more thorough, complete, or intimate knowledge about something (or someone). It can also carry the sense of recognition or acknowledgment. The distinction and range of meaning can be difficult to translate effectively in English without losing the etymological connection.

Of special importance is the expression “secret [musth/rion] of God”. Often in Paul’s letters this secret is identified with the Gospel; here, however, it is more properly identified with Christ himself. The syntax and word order caused some difficulty for scribes copying Colossians, as there are a number of variant readings at this point among the manuscripts, which attempt to clarify the (presumed) meaning. Along with most commentators and textual critics, I assume the reading of Ë46 B as original. The words “God” and “Christ” follow after each other, both in the genitive case (qeou= xristou=). There being no punctuation in the earliest manuscripts, the syntax was somewhat ambiguous; we can approximate this in English translation as “the secret of God of Christ”. The word xristou= (“of [the] Anointed”, “of Christ”) is best understood as being apposite the expression “of the secret of God”, with “Christ” related to “the secret” rather than “God”. In other words, Christ is the secret, hidden away from the ages and generations past, but now revealed through the proclamation of the Gospel (1:26-27). Verse 3 provides an interesting parallel use of the verb a)pokrup/tw (“hide [away] from”)—while Christ is the secret hidden away, at the same time, God has hidden away in him “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. The parallel expressions in vv. 2 and 3 are clear enough:

  • “all [pa=$] the riches [sing.]…of understanding…knowledge of the secret” (v. 2)
  • “all [pa/nte$] the treasures [plur.] of wisdom and knowledge hidden away” (v. 3)

For another parallel to the syntax of verse 3, we must turn again to the exordium (introduction), to 1:14, where the Son (Christ) is described with the following phrase: “…in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the release of sins”. Note the formal similarity:

  • “in whom [e)n w!|] we hold [e&xomen]…” (1:14)
  • “in whom [e)n w!|] are [ei)sin]…” (2:3)

If we press the parallel further, it is possible to tie the verses together conceptually. In other words, the things that are in Christ are those things which we have/hold in him (and vice versa). This would mean that the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” can, and perhaps should, be identified with the saving work of Christ referenced in 1:14, which is again described by two phrases set in tandem:

  • “loosing from (bondage)” (a)polu/trwsi$)
  • “release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins” (a&fesi$ tw=n a(martiw=n)

This association would tend to negate any sort of markedly gnostic interpretation of the Christian message, by connecting knowledge with the sacrificial death of Christ. Though this particular soteriological aspect is not brought out in Colossians until the main portion of the letter (see vv. 8-15), it is central to Paul’s own understanding of the Gospel. One need only consult the discussion and line of argument in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 to find this expressed most vividly—that it is in the Gospel as the “word of the cross” that God’s wisdom is most perfectly conveyed, destroying the empty and inferior “wisdom” and “knowledge” of the world.

Note of the Day – October 30 (Col 2:2-3)

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Colossians 2:2-3

“…being lifted [i.e. brought/joined] together in love and into all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind), into the (full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away.”

Col 2:1-3 concludes with a powerful Christological statement that uses both the noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) and the compound e)pi/gnwsi$ (epígnœsis, “knowledge upon/about”); as such, it is an important reference related to the idea of knowledge in the New Testament. It also contains the words musth/rion (“secret”) and the adjective a)po/krufo$ (from a)pokru/ptw, “hide [away] from”), which connotes the aspect of revelation tied to the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“take the cover [away] from”, “uncover”). All of this is centered in the person of Christ, making it one of the strongest Christological statements regarding knowledge and revelation in the New Testament. For more on these points, cf. Part 3 of my current series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

In order to understand better the context of this reference, it will help to summarize the structure of Colossians, from a rhetorical and epistolary standpoint. After the opening prescript (greeting) in 1:1-2, and the exordium (introduction) of 1:3-23, we have the narratio (narration) in which the author (Paul) presents a personal, autobiographical address to his readers, emphasizing his labor and concern as a minister of the Gospel. It may be divided into two parts—a statement of his work (1:24-29), and its application for the believers of Colosse (2:1-5); the statement of 2:1-3 belongs to this latter portion. The central proposition (propositio) of the letter occurs in 2:6-7, followed by the main probatio (2:8-3:4), utilizing three arguments or illustrations meant to convince and encourage his readers. Then comes the exhortatio (3:5-4:6), with ethical and practical instruction, presented in three parts, and the final conclusion or postscript (4:7-18).

Let us consider the narratio more closely. The first part (1:24-29), describes the work of Paul as minister of the Gospel, written as a single sentence in Greek. Two themes or aspects of the Gospel ministry are brought forward:

  • Paul’s suffering for the sake of the church—”I rejoice in the sufferings over you…over his [i.e. Christ’s] body…” (vv. 24-25); the goal and purpose of this suffering and labor is two-fold:
    (1) to “fill up” (i.e. complete) the affliction which Christ experienced in the flesh (i.e. in his body), and
    (2) to “(ful)fill” the account (lo/go$) of God (i.e. the Gospel) which was given to him as a servant of Christ and of Christ’s “body” (the Church)
  • The Gospel of Christ as a secret (musth/rion) which is now being revealed by ministers such as Paul (vv. 26-29)

Note the important wording in vv. 25-27:

“…to fulfill the account of God, the secret th(at) has been hidden away from the Ages and from the (generation)s coming-to-be, but now is made to shine (forth) [e)fanerw/qh] to His holy (one)s, to whom God wished to make known [gnwri/sai] among the nations what (is) the rich(ness) of the splendor of this secret, which is—(the) Anointed in you, the (very) hope of splendor…”
On the verbs fanero/w and gnwri/zw, and the two different aspects of revelation conveyed by them, cf. Part 3 of “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

There is considerable similarity of vocabulary and phrasing here with 2:2-3, which is understandable, since in the second part of the narratio (2:1-5), Paul’s work as minister of the Gospel is applied to the believers he addresses. Here is how this portion begins:

“For I wish you (could) have seen (what a) big struggle/fight I hold over you, and (over) the (one)s in Laodicea, and as (many) as have not looked (on) my face in the flesh, (so) that their hearts might be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted], being lifted together in love…” (2:1-2a)

Paul’s labor and suffering (i.e. his struggle) is related specifically to the believers in Colosse, Laodicea, and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Before examining 2:2-3 again a bit more closely, it will be helpful to consider the structure of the preceding exordium (1:3-23), since it establishes the key themes of the letter, and leads into the narration (cf. especially the transitus [transition] in v. 23). After the thanksgiving in vv. 3-8, the remainder of the introduction functions as a statement (and exposition) of the causa, or reason/purpose of the letter (vv. 9-23). It is comprised of two sentences in Greek, the first of which is extremely long and developed, spanning 12 verses (vv. 9-20). The theme of knowledge again is central to the purpose of the letter: “…that you might be filled (with) the (true) knowledge of His will, in all wisdom and spiritual comprehension” (v. 9b). This first sentence emphasizes the person of Christ, as the chain of (relative) pronouns and prepositional phrases makes clear in impressive fashion. This complex syntax is generally lost in translation, but it is important to be aware of how it functions. The knowledge (e)pi/gwsi$) mentioned in verse 9 is clarified in v. 10 as “the knowledge of God“, that is, of an intimate knowledge and awareness of Him. In verse 12, the character and work of God is applied more closely to believers with the use of the term “Father”, which is the reference point for the syntactical chain that follows in vv. 13ff:

  • “…to the Father…”
    • who [o%$] rescued us out of the authority of darkness and making us stand together (away from there and) into the kingdom of the Son of His love”
      • “in whom [e)n w!|] we hold the loosing from (bondage), the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”
      • who [o%$] is the image of the invisible God…”

This chain continues on, emphasizing: (a) the Son as head/first of all creation [vv. 15b-17], (b) the head of the Church [v. 18], and finally (c) embodying the fullness of all [v. 19]. Verse 20 summarizes the saving work of Christ, which is the theme of the second sentence (vv. 21-23). When looking at the specific wording and structure of 2:2-3, there are two verses from the first sentence of the exordium which ought to be examined especially for comparison—v. 9 and 14. This I will do in the next daily note.

Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 3 – Revelation

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According to the basic outlines of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought, because human beings are trapped within the evil (material) world of sin and darkness, it is necessary for a divinely appointed savior-figure to bring knowledge of salvation. In customary theological language, we would refer to this as divine revelation—that is, something made known specially to believers by God Himself. In the New Testament, there are a number of specific words and concepts which refer to revelation, of which I list the three most important here:

  • gnwri/zw (gnœrízœ), “make known”—this verb is derived from ginw/skw (“know)”, on which see Part 1 of this series.
  • fai/nw (phaínœ) and fanero/w (phaneróœ), “shine, make (to) shine (forth)”, specifically of light, but often figuratively in the sense of “appear, be/make visible, (make) manifest/apparent”—this includes a variety of compound and derived words.
  • a)pokalu/ptw (apokaly¡ptœ), “take (the) cover from, uncover”.

Each of these carries a different image or nuance, and will be discussed in turn. Following this, I will discuss two distinctly Christian aspects of revelation which are vital for a proper understanding of the relationship between knowledge and salvation (cf. Part 2): (a) the proclamation of the Gospel, and (b) the person of Christ.

gnwri/zw (“make known”)

This verb occurs 25 times in the New Testament, primarily in the Pauline Letters (18 times). It refers to the aspect of revelation which is directly connected with knowledge. Before one can know something, it first has to be made known by some means, all the more so when dealing with divine and heavenly matters. The verb is rare in the Gospels and Acts, but it occurs in two important contexts which are seminal to the Gospel message, and which specifically frame the (Lukan) narrative:

  • The Birth of Jesus:
    Lk 2:15—God makes it known to the shepherds through an Angelic announcement
    Lk 2:17—The shepherds, in turn, make the news known to others
  • The Resurrection of Jesus:
    In Acts 2:28, Psalm 16:11 is applied to Jesus—”you have made known to me the ways of life

Elsewhere, in Paul’s letters, the verb is used more precisely in reference to the proclamation of the Gospel; two key passages in Romans express this in slightly different ways:

  • Romans 9:22-23—God has worked to make known: his power (v. 22), and the riches of his glory/mercy (v. 23). The eschatological (Judgment) setting here reflects a two-fold aspect of the Gospel which Paul expresses more directly in 1 Cor 1:18ff and 2 Cor 2:14-4:6—the Gospel for those perishing and for those being saved.
  • Romans 16:26—the secret hidden by God is uncovered (cf. below) and made known, through the Scriptures (Prophets), and, by implication, the proclamation of the Gospel (in which the Scriptures are interpreted).

In Col 1:27 and also Eph 1:9, the verb is again used in a similar context. Paul himself, as an appointed, authoritative minister of the Gospel, is said to make known this “secret” of the Gospel—cf. Eph 3:3, 5, 10; 6:19. The verb becomes part of Paul’s rhetorical and didactic approach in his letters:

Similarly, in 2 Peter 1:16, the apostles are described as eye-witnesses making known the power and presence of Christ. In the Gospel of John (15:15; 17:26), it is Jesus (the Son) who has made God the Father known to his followers (cf. the recent notes on Jn 8:32 and 17:3), who (like the Lukan shepherds) will do so in turn for others.

fai/nw, fanero/w, etc (“shine [forth]”)

The verbs fai/nw and fanero/w are related to the word fw=$ (“light”), and are often used (figuratively) to refer to revelation under the image of shining forth light. This motif goes back to Old Testament tradition, including the creation narrative (Gen 1:3ff), the Exodus narrative (Exod 10:23; 13:21), the priestly blessing (Num 6:25), and frequently of God in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and Prophets. God’s word is described as light in Psalm 119:105, 130, and light is associated with God’s salvation for his people in Ps 27:1; Isa 9:2; 49:6; 60:1ff; Mic 7:8-9, etc. This Old Testament imagery was applied to Jesus in the Gospel tradition—cf. Luke 1:79; 2:30-32 (Isa 49:6; 52:10); and Matt 4:16 (Isa 9:2). Christ is the light (or sun) shining on those in darkness; by implication, the message of Christ (the Gospel) is also to be understood as light shining in the same way. Light is an especially important motif in the Gospel of John, where Christ (the Son and living Word) is identified with the divine, eternal light, and where there is a strong (dualistic) contrast between light and darkness—Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, etc.

fai/nw, e)pifai/nw, e)pifanei/a

Here we have the straightforward image of light (or the sun, etc) shining; the compound forms with e)pi specifically refer to light shining upon someone or something. In its more concrete sense, fai/nw is used in the Gospel for the appearance of a heavenly being (Angel), especially in the context of the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:20; 2:7ff) and at the resurrection (Mark 16:9). Similarly, it is used of the end-time heavenly appearance of the “Son of Man” (Matt 24:27, 30), while the compound a)nafai/nw refers to the eschatological appearance of the Kingdom of God in Luke 19:11. For the appearance of a wondrous, miraculous event in general, cf. Matt 9:33. Throughout the New Testament, these words tend to be used in a metaphorical, figurative sense in several primary ways:

In Rom 7:13, the verb is used (uniquely) in the sense of gaining knowledge and awareness of sin; while in Titus 2:11 and 3:4, the compound e)pifai/nw refers more abstractly (in Pauline language) to salvation coming through the appearance of the grace and love of God, the person and work of Christ being understood. The related noun e)pifanei/a came to be used specifically for Christ’s future appearance on earth (i.e. his return)—2 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; Tit 2:13. Eventually, it was used in early Christianity as a technical term for the incarnation of Christ (i.e. his first appearance), suggested already in 2 Tim 1:10.

fanero/w, etc

The verb fanero/w more properly means “make (light) to shine forth”, i.e. “make visible, cause to appear, make manifest”. It is frequently used in a revelatory sense in the New Testament—that is, of something coming to be made visible, or made known, by God. For the general sense of making known something secret or hidden, cf. Mark 4:22 par; Eph 5:13-14; in the Gospel tradition, there are the notable reference to the so-called “Messianic secret”, whereby Jesus wishes to keep his identity (as Anointed One and Son of God) from being made known publicly, until after the resurrection (Mk 3:12; Matt 12:16; cf. also Jn 7:10). For the verb fanero/w, and the related words fanero/$ and fane/rwsi$, we can isolate the same three ways it is applied in the New Testament as mentioned above for fai/nw, etc:

Somewhat unique is the idea of natural revelation expressed in Rom 1:19—that is, of the knowledge of God which is evident in creation, but which humankind, in bondage to sin, cannot truly recognize.

Other words

There are a number of other similar verbs and terms which describe revelation in terms of light, vision, seeing, etc. The most significant will be mentioned briefly here:

  • fwti/zw (“give light”) and la/mpw (“give a beam [of light]”), which are related to the words fw=$ and lampa/$ (cf. also lu/xno$) respectively [to distinguish between these, verses with la/mpw or its compound forms are marked by an asterisk (*)]. These words can refer:
    • To the heavenly appearance of God, Christ and Angels (Lk 2:9*; Acts 12:7*; Rev 18:1; 21:23; 22:5); with which we should include the transfiguration scene (Matt 17:2*), and the future appearance of the Son of Man in Lk 17:24*.
    • Figuratively, in a theological/christological sense, to Jesus as light (Jn 1:9); for other light-references in John, cf. above.
    • To the revelation of God/Christ in the Gospel, with its proclamation (Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 10:32); cf. especially 2 Cor 4:4-6 (which uses both verbs) and my earlier note.
    • To the heart, etc., being enlightened by God (1 Cor 4:5; Eph 1:18; Heb 6:4)
    • To the shining forth of believers (and their works), cf. Matt 5:15-16*; 13:43*
  • e)mfani/zw (“shine forth in”)—there are two important references to this compound verb which are relevant here:
    • John 14:21-22—of Christ’s manifestation in/to the believer
    • Heb 9:24—of Christ’s appearance in heaven before God
  • o)pta/nomai (lit. “look with, use the eyes”, “perceive, see”)—the (aorist) passive of this verb is used frequently for something that comes to be seen, i.e. made visible to the eye, especially in the case of a divine/heavenly being, such as an Angel or the resurrected Christ. Of the many references, cf. Mk 9:24 par; Lk 1:11; 24:34; Acts 9:17; 13:31; 1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 Tim 3:16. The future form can also be used in the context of a promise to see the heavenly/divine (cf. Jn 11:40), and several occurrences are significant in connection with the Gospel message (Matt 28:7, 10; Lk 3:6). Note also the important use of the verb in John 3:36 and Rom 15:21.

a)pokalu/ptw (“uncover”)

This verb literally means “take the cover (away) from”, and represents the third aspect of revelation to be discussed in this article—that of uncovering something hidden or secret. I have dealt with the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament in an earlier series of notes, which ought to be consulted, since the passages are relevant to the idea being discussed here. For the verb and the related noun (a)poka/luyi$), we may isolate the way they are used in the New Testament as follows (passages with the noun are marked by an asterisk):

The Gospel and Christian Identity

Careful study of the references cited above, will show, as I have demonstrated in several places, that there are three main aspects or strands which relate to the idea of revelation, and which may be labeled as follows:

  1. The proclamation of the Gospel
  2. The person of Christ, and
  3. The religious identity of believers in Christ

The last of these is closest to a gnostic point of view—that is, of our religious (Christian) identity being defined in terms of knowledge and revelation. However, it is in the first two aspects that any aberrant or exaggerated gnostic tendency is checked. These two points require a bit more explanation:

(a) The proclamation of the Gospel

A large percentage of the passages listed above are connected to some degree with knowledge and revelation that is expressed and determined by the proclamation of the Gospel. This especially the case in the Pauline letters, where salvation is directly connected to the Gospel message (and its proclamation)—cf. 2 Thess 2:14; 1 Cor 1:21; 9:14-23; 15:2; Gal 1:6-9; Rom 1:16-17; 10:14-21; 15:18-20. I have discussed the important passages 1 Cor 1:18ff and 2 Cor 2:14-4:6 in earlier notes. Paul had a very definite sense of what the Gospel was, and what it was not (cf. Gal 1:7-9ff), and, especially, how it could be distorted or rendered ineffective in its proclamation (1 Cor 1:17; 2:1-5). For early Christians, it was unquestionably the death of Christ (and his subsequent resurrection/exaltation) which was the central element of the proclamation (Acts 2:23; 3:13-15; 4:10, 26-28; 5:30, etc). In Paul’s letters, one may say that the crucifixion (the cross) of Christ receives even greater prominence. In 1 Cor 1:18 the Gospel message is referred to specifically as “the account [i.e. word] of the cross”. It is just at this point—the death and crucifixion of Christ—that many Gnostics struggled with the Gospel, as Paul surely would have predicted. He understood well the difficulty of this message, for Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike (cf. Gal 3:10-13; 5:11; 6:12, etc). In 1 Cor 1:18ff, he sets up a direct contrast between the cross (as an expression of the wisdom of God) and the wisdom of the world—that is, of human wisdom, which includes religious knowledge and wisdom, apart from Christ. Moreover, in several places, Paul centers the (Christian) religious identity of believers squarely on the death and crucifixion of Christ. This is expressed most powerfully in Gal 2:19-20; 6:14-15, and also in the baptismal symbolism of Rom 6:3-11, as well as in other key passages (cf. Rom 8:3-4; Col 2:11-15).

(b) The person of Christ

The centrality of Christ in the New Testament and early Christian thought scarcely requires comment. However, believers often struggled (and continue to struggle) with exactly how one is to understand: (1) the special (divine) nature of Christ, and (2) the believer’s relationship to him. We may look to the Pauline and Johannine writings for powerful and distinctive teaching on both counts. Interestingly, both branches of early theology (and Christology) have a number of key points in common.

  • The parallel concept of believers being “in Christ” and Christ being in the believer
  • Both express the idea of believers in Christ as reflecting a “new birth” or “new creation”, including the expression “sons/children of God”, “sons of light”, etc
  • Both give strong emphasis to the role of the Spirit as the abiding presence of Christ in and among believers, and the point of union with God in Christ
  • Christ is seen as manifesting and embodying the character and nature of God—his love, truth, righteousness, power, etc.

This will be discussed further in Part 4 of this series, as well as in a separate article discussing knowledge and revelation in the Gospel of John.

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

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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.

Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 1 – “Gnosis” and related terms

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This article will explore the usage of the word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis) and related terms in the New Testament. The survey will be divided as follows—

  • The verb ginw/skw
  • The noun gnw=si$
  • The Pauline usage
  • gnwri/zw and other terms
  • The Johannine usage

with certain verses discussed in more detail in separate notes.

The verb ginw/skw

The verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ) has the basic meaning “(to) know”, generally corresponding to the Hebrew ud^y` (y¹da±). It often carries a very specific Christian (theological) sense in Paul’s letters, as well as in the Gospel and letters of John—which will be discussed in separate sections below. We can see something of this already taking shape in the early Christian tradition preserved in the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts. Apart from generic use of the verb in the narrative context, the following passages and occurrences may be noted:

  • Mark 4:13; 8:17; 13:28f par—Jesus’ disciples are to know (that is, understand) the truth of his teaching “hidden” under the parables. This is emphasized especially in the saying in Matt 13:11 (par Lk 8:10):
    “To you [pl., i.e. the disciples] it has been given to know (gnw=nai) the secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given”
    This indicates that knowledge has been revealed specially to Jesus’ followers, but not to the rest of the people (indeed, to them it has been hidden). I have discussed this passage in an earlier note.
  • Mark 5:43; 7:24; 9:30; Matt 9:30; 12:15f; Lk 18:34, pars—Similarly, on a number of occasions, Jesus seeks to keep his presence, his miracles, and/or the truth of his identity, from being known to people at large. This is sometimes referred to as the “Messianic secret”, as it is emphasized, in particular, in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9, etc).
  • This idea is built upon in Luke-Acts, where the people do not recognize (know) Jesus, and even the disciples truly understand only after it has been revealed to them following the resurrection—Lk 18:34; 19:42, 44; 24:35, cf. also 2:43, 50; 9:45; 17:20-21; 18:34; 22:34, 67-69; 24:16, 31ff, and note also the usage in Acts 19:15. Related to this is the important motif of the disciples coming to understand who Jesus is from the testimony of the Old Testament Scriptures (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-45f; Acts 8:30, etc).
  • The image of the disciples (believers) being known by Jesus and by God the Father (Matt 7:23; 12:33 par). With regard to the latter, early tradition draws upon the older concept of God knowing the heartLk 16:15; Acts 1:24; 15:8, cf. also Mk 2:8; 7:6 par; Matt 15:8; Lk 24:38. Jesus’ special knowledge regarding his followers takes on distinctive meaning in the Gospel of John (cf. below), but it is suggested also at many points in the Synoptics.
  • The reverse image, of believers knowing God and His will, is mentioned several times, though in rather conventional terms (Lk 12:46-48; Acts 22:14, etc). More significant is the idea of knowing God the Father as manifest in the person of Jesus. This is stressed frequently throughout the Gospel of John; less so in the Synoptics, but cf. especially the saying in Luke 10:22, which I discuss here in a separate note.

As far as the remainder of the New Testament writings, the significant occurrences of the verb are: Heb 3:10 (LXX); 10:34; and Rev 2:23-24. Especially worth noting is the citation of Jer 31:34 in Hebrews 8:11, since it gives expression to the distinctive Christian interpretation of the “new covenant”—that believers will be taught by God himself through the presence of the (Holy) Spirit.

The noun gnw=si$

The noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) is derived from the verb ginw/skw (above). Of the 29 occurrences of the noun in the New Testament, 23 are found in the Pauline letters (cf. below). Interestingly, though the verb is prominent in the Johannine writings, the noun gnw=si$ does not occur. If the Gospel and letters are combating some form of gnostic (or Gnostic) tendency, as many commentators suggest, the absence of this word could be intentional. Here is a brief summary of the relevant occurrences (the Pauline passages will be discussed in context further below):

  • Rom 2:20—the Old Testament Law (Torah) is said to contain “the shape/form of knowledge and truth”
  • Rom 11:33—”the deep(ness) of the wealth and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!”; this is part of the doxology that serves as the climax of chapters 9-11, drawn from Old Testament passages such as Isa 40:13 and Job 41:3(?) [cf. also Job 9:10; Ps 77:20; Prov 25:3]. I discuss this in a separate note.
  • Romans 15:14—Paul expresses confidence that the believers in Rome are “soaked (full) of goodness, having been filled with all knowledge, and able to bring things to mind (for) each other”. A similar idea is found in 1 Cor 1:5; 2 Cor 8:7; 11:6; almost certainly this knowledge is to be understood as something given to believers specially through the presence of the Spirit. It may also reflect the prophecy of the “new covenant” in Jer 31:34 (cf. Heb 8:11).
  • 1 Cor 8:1, 7, 10-11—Paul’s argument is based on the statement in v. 1, presumably reflecting the conviction of many in Corinth, that believers “all hold knowledge”. Again, this should be understood as a ‘gift’ of the Spirit for those in Christ. Paul, however, makes clear that knowledge (and the expression of it) should be guided by love (i.e. the ‘love command’).
  • 1 Cor 12:8—Here knowledge is specifically described as something given (as a favor/gift) by God through the presence and work of the Spirit in and among believers (cf. also 14:6). It is paired with wisdom (sofi/a).
  • 1 Cor 13:2, 8—Paul uses gnw=si$ is a comprehensive sense, comprising both ‘ordinary’ human knowledge and divine/spiritual secrets that have been revealed to Christians. All of which is far surpassed by, and subordinate to, the principle of love in Christ.
  • 2 Cor 2:14; 4:6—believers are given the knowledge of God through Christ, and, in turn, reflect the glory of God (and Christ); cf. 3:12-18. I discuss these two passages in a daily note.
  • 2 Cor 10:5—worldly attitudes and ‘wisdom’ are contrary to the knowledge of God (and Christ, i.e. the Gospel). This is parallel to the important line of argument Paul develops in 1 Cor 2-3 (cf. below).
  • Phil 3:8—again, the knowledge of Christ surpasses worldly/religious experience and status; this verse is also treated in a daily note.
  • Col 2:3—Christ is referred to as “the secret of God”, in whom “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away” (cf. the daily note). This verse stands between the important Christological section in 1:9-19, the summary of the Gospel in vv. 23-29, and the section 2:8-18ff where Paul contrasts the knowledge believers have in Christ with worldly/religious thinking (cf. also 1 Tim 6:20).
  • Eph 3:19—Here it is said that the love of Christ surpasses all knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 13, etc).
  • 2 Pet 1:5-6—Knowledge is treated as a spiritual virtue/characteristic of believers (cf. 2 Cor 6:6).
  • 2 Pet 3:18—Believers are called to “grow in (the) favor and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed”.

The Pauline Usage

In addition to the noun gnw=si$ (cf. above), the verb ginw/skw occurs frequently in the Pauline letters, usually with a definite theological and/or ethical sense. The significant occurrences may be outlined as follows:

Knowing God and his will

  • Rom 1:21: context of “natural revelation”—i.e., knowing something of God’s nature and character from what is manifest in creation (cf. the use of noe/w in v. 20)
  • Rom 2:18: context of God’s will as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah) (cf. 7:1)
  • Rom 3:17: part of a sequence of Scripture citations (Isa 59:7-8 etc) indicating that human beings, under the power of sin, are unable to know and understand God properly (cf. also 7:7, 15, including the idea that one comes to know/recognize sin as such through the Law); for more on “knowing” sin, cf. 2 Cor 5:21 (with regard to Jesus)
  • Rom 11:34 (Isa 40:13): the inability of created human beings to know/understand the mind (nou=$) of God; cf. 1 Cor 2:16
  • 1 Cor 1:21: the world did not (was not able to) know God through its (own) wisdom and/or as part of God’s own wisdom (cf. Rom 1:21); I have discussed this verse in an earlier note
  • Gal 4:9: the two-fold aspect of knowing—believers knowing God, and being known by Him (cf. the note on 1 Cor 13:12)

Knowing, specifically in the sense of recognizing/accepting Christ (the Gospel)

Knowing God through the presence/work of Christ and the Spirit

  • 1 Cor 2:11, 14, and v. 16 (“we have the mind of Christ”)
  • 1 Cor 8:2: the importance of knowledge being guided/moderated by the principle of Love (cf. 13:9, 12, discussed in a separate note)
  • Phil 3:10: “(my) knowing him and the power of his resurrection”
The specific idea of knowing Christ
  • Phil 3:10 (cf. v. 8)
  • Eph 3:19: knowing the love of Christ (which surpasses all knowledge)

God knowing the hearts/minds of human beings (and his people)

  • 1 Cor 3:20 (Ps 94:11); cf. also 2 Tim 2:19 (Num 16:5?)
  • 1 Cor 8:3: connected to the love of believers for God/Christ (and each other)
  • 1 Cor 14:7, 9: knowing in terms of understanding what is said/spoken among believers through the Spirit (importance of order and proper exercise of spiritual gifts)
  • Gal 4:9: being known by God, with the implied sense of election/predestination

Believers’ faith, attitude and behavior being known (to Paul and others, etc)

Knowing another person (believer), in terms of Christ, Christian love, and/or the Spirit

For more on Paul’s use of other, related terms, see the next section below.

The verb gnwri/zw and other terms

The related verb gnwri/zw (gnœrízœ, “make known”) is occasionally used in reference to God’s manifesting or revealing himself (“making himself known”), closely connected with the idea of the proclamation of the Gospel. Of the 25 occurrences in the New Testament, 18 are in the Pauline letters. It is often used by Paul as a rhetorical phrase to place emphasis on a specific point of teaching or instruction—”let it be known to you, I make known to you, etc” (1 Cor 15:1; 2 Cor 8:1, etc). More substantially, it is used of God in two basic senses:

  1. God making known his nature, character, power, etc to human beings or in creation—Rom 9:22-23; also Eph 1:9
  2. God making himself known in the person of Christ and the Gospel, which has been kept hidden until now—Rom 16:26; Col 1:27; also Eph 1:9; 3:5. Specifically it is referred to as a “secret” revealed to Paul (Eph 3:3; 6:19), manifest further, through believers, to the heavenly ‘rulers’ (Eph 3:10)

Outside of the Pauline writings, the verb is found in Luke 2:15, 17; John 15:15; 17:26; Acts 2:28 (citing Ps 16:11); and 2 Pet 1:16. There are several important compound forms of ginw/skw and gnwri/zw which are used on occasion:

e)piginw/skw (with the derived noun e)pi/gnwsi$)

The verb e)piginw/skw essentially means to have knowledge about [lit. upon, e)pi] (someone or something). It can be used in the sense of (a) gaining knowledge, (b) recognition, understanding, or acknowledgement, or (c) having thorough or intimate knowledge. The verb is used with some frequency in the New Testament, often in the context of recognizing Christ—Matt 11:27 par (cf. the earlier note); 14:35; 17:12; Mk 6:33, 54; Lk 24:16, 31; cf. also Lk 7:37. On occasion, we also read of Jesus (and others) gaining knowledge of someone’s thoughts, or other ‘hidden’ information (Mk 2:8; 5:30; Lk 5:22). The idea of knowing and/or acknowledging the truth of the Gospel and Christian teaching is expressed in Lk 1:4 and 2 Pet 2:21, and frequently in the use of the noun e)pi/gnwsi$. The verb occurs 12 times in the Pauline letters, and the noun 15 of the 20 instances in the New Testament; this usage may be summarized:

  • Rom 1:32—knowledge of the Law of God (especially in the ethical/moral aspect)
  • 1 Cor 13:12—to know God fully (at the end time), even as believers are fully known by him (cf. the note on this verse)
  • 1 Cor 14:37—to know/recognize the inspired/authoritative character of (Paul’s) apostolic instruction (cf. 2 Cor 1:13)
  • 1 Cor 16:18—believers are to acknowledge/recognize those who minister in Christ faithfully (cf. 2 Cor 1:14, also 6:9)
  • 2 Cor 13:5—believers should (be able to) recognize the presence of Christ in/among them
  • Col 1:6—believers recognize the grace/favor of God shown to them
  • [1 Tim 4:3—believers characterized as those with knowledge of the truth]

The Noun—

Elsewhere, the noun occurs four times in 2 Peter (1:2-3, 8; 2:20), always referring to believers’ knowledge of God and Christ.


The verb noe/w (noéœ) means to have (something) in one’s mind [nou=$], often in the sense of perceiving, comprehending, or understanding. It is used 14 times in the New Testament, including five important occurrences in the Pauline letters (but apart from Rom 1:20 [cf. above], only in the disputed letters):

  • Eph 3:4—Paul’s insight/understanding (along with the noun sunesi$) of the “secret” of God; cf. also 3:20
  • 2 Tim 2:7—believers given understanding from God/Christ (cf. 1 Tim 1:7)

In Hebrews 11:3, it is connected specifically with the faith/trust (pi/sti$) of believers. The verb a)gnoe/w indicates the opposite, i.e. being without knowledge. It is used specifically by Paul (16 of 22 occurrences in the NT), often as a rhetorical phrase:”do you not know”, “I do not want you to be ignorant (of)…” More substantive (theological) use is found in Rom 10:3; 1 Cor 14:38.

suni/hmi and su/nesi$

The verb suni/hmi means to bring (things) together [sun], i.e. in one’s mind. It likewise refers to someone perceiving and understanding (or his/her failure to do so); in the Gospels it relates to the people’s response to the things Jesus said and did (Mk 4:12 par [LXX]; 7:14; 8:17, 21 pars; Lk 18:34; 24:45, etc). The related noun su/nesi$ is more common in Paul’s writings, in a specifically Christian sense, though, apart from 1 Cor 1:19 (citing Isa 29:14), only in the disputed letters: Col 1:9; 2:2 (rel. to the knowledge of Christ as God’s “secret”); Eph 3:4 (the “secret” of Christ); 2 Tim 2:7. The verb is used in Rom 3:11; 15:21 (both citing Scripture), and in 2 Cor 10:12 and Eph 5:17. The verb sunei/dw (su/noida) has a similar meaning (“see [things] together”), but is rare in the New Testament (the noun sunei/dhsi$ being much more common). However, frequently knowledge is described in terms of sight and seeing, the Greek language coming to use forms of the verb ei&dw (oi@da) interchangeably with ginw/skw; this will be discussed in an upcoming article (Part 3, on Revelation).


The verb e)pi/stamai literally means “stand upon”, usually in the sense of “set (one’s mind) upon”, and thus come to know and understand something, i.e. specifically to know something well. It is typically used in an ordinary sense in the New Testament (narrative); but note Heb 11:8; Jude 10, and the Pauline 1 Tim 6:4.

The Johannine Usage

The verb ginw/skw is used most frequently in the Johannine writings: 57 times in the Gospel, 25 in the first letter, and once again in the second letter—83 in all, with the Gospel and first letter accounting for more than a third of all occurrences in the New Testament. The related noun gnw=si$, so important in Paul’s letters, and in much of early Christian thought and expression, does not appear in the Johannine writings at all (on this, cf. above).

It may also be significant that a number of the other compound or related words discussed above likewise occur only rarely (or not at all) in the Johannine writings. For example, e)piginw/skw (and the related noun e)pi/gnwsi$) does not appear, nor does suni/hmi (and su/nesi$), etc; the verb gnwri/zw (“make known”) occurs only three times, though these instances are important (Jn 15:15; 17:26 [twice]). All of this is surely due, in large part, to the relatively simple (and repetitive) vocabulary used in both the Gospel and the letters—the basic verb ginw/skw (“know”) serves to cover virtually the entire semantic range. In the case of the Gospel, of course, it is impossible to separate such usage from the complicated question of the relationship between the developed discourses of Jesus in John, and the generally simpler sayings, parables, and discourses in the Synoptics. The consistent vocabulary could reflect the original (Aramaic) of Jesus himself, or a layer of interpretive translation and editing by John (and/or the Johannine writer[s]). Given the close similarity between the language of the Gospel and the letters (esp. 1 John), the latter seems far more likely.

Supplementing the verb ginw/skw is the important use of verbs related to sight and hearing. Jesus in the Johannine sayings and discourses, repeatedly connects knowledge with seeing and hearing the Son, who, in turn, is faithfully presenting what he has seen and heard from the Father. This is a vital aspect of Johannine portrait of Jesus—the theology (and Christology) expressed in these writings—and will be addressed in detail, and with considerable care, through the articles in this series.

Gnosis and the New Testament: Introduction

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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