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Gnosticism

Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28, part 2)

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Galatians 3:28, continued

This is the second of three daily notes on Galatians 3:28 and the declaration that “in (Christ) there is no male and female”.

  1. The background and significance of the statement
  2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
  3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

For the first topic, cf. yesterday’s note.

2. The consequences and possible interpretation/application

In the previous discussion of the declaration in Gal 3:28 (cf. the prior note, along with Part 3 of the series “Women in the Church”), I pointed out the connection with the creation narrative in Genesis, and that the believer’s new identity in Christ essentially represents a “new creation”. This means that the old created order has been transcended and/or transformed, including the social and biological distinction of “male and female”. Any proper interpretation of Gal 3:28 is made more difficult by the fact that, of the three distinctions—Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female—Paul really only discusses the first extensively in his letters. He says relatively little about the elimination of socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions, and even less about the socio-biological (gender-based) distinction. His instruction in 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35 (not to mention 1 Tim 2:11-15) suggests that he was not inclined to pursue the declaration of Gal 3:28c to what might seem its natural fulfillment—the elimination of sexual/gender distinction in Christian life and worship. Some commentators consider Paul to be inconsistent in this regard, and I will discuss this point in the next day’s note. It is perhaps significant that, in the passages parallel to Gal 3:27-281 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:9-11—there is no mention of the male/female distinction.

There were, however, other early Christians who did apply Gal 3:28c (and/or its underlying thought) more thoroughly from a religious standpoint. We find this, especially, among the Gnostic groups and writings from the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. my articles on “Gnosticism” and “Women in Gnosticism“). For example, in the so-called “Tripartite (Three-Part) Tractate” from Nag Hammadi [NH I.5], there is a similar declaration, blending (it would seem) Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11, but with a decidedly Gnostic interpretation:

“For when we confessed the kingdom which is in Christ, we escaped from the whole multiplicity of forms and from inequality and change. For the end will receive a unitary existence just as the beginning, where there is no male nor female, nor slave and free, nor circumcision and uncircumcision, neither angel nor man, but Christ is all in all.” [132, lines 16-28] (transl. by Harold W. Attridge and Dieter Mueller, NHL p. 95 [italics mine])

This particular interpretation, very much of a piece with Gnostic thought of the period, seems to recognize a tradition, well-known from ancient myth and religion, that humankind originally—and in its ideal/pristine state—was essentially sexless or androgynous (i.e. male-female). In the Greco-Roman world, this tradition is most famous from the myth narrated by Plato in his Symposium 189D-193D. That it was known by Greek-speaking Jews at the time of the New Testament, is attested by Philo of Alexandria (On the Contemplative Life §63; On the Creation §§134ff, 151-2); a similar idea is preserved in Rabbinic tradition as well (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). We should not, however, confuse the myth with the way that myth was used by Gnostics and other early Christians. Its primary purpose was to affirm an ascetic (and mystic) ideal—human beings (that is, believers or gnostics) must transcend the bounds of the material world, as defined largely in terms of sexuality and (physical/biological) generation. This is perhaps best expressed in the Gnostic (Valentinian?) writing, the so-called Gospel of Philip, which makes heavy use of sexual (nuptial) motifs to describe salvation (and Christian/Gnostic identity) in terms of a re-union of male/female back into an original unity (cf. my earlier survey of this work).

One might be inclined to dismiss such apparently heterodox emphases out of hand, were it not for two important facts: (1) there is an extra-canonical saying of Jesus along these lines, and (2) there were strong ascetic and mystical tendencies in Christianity even in the early period of the New Testament. With regard to the first point, a saying ascribed to Jesus (i.e. a Jesus tradition), dating from at least the early 2nd century, has been preserved in two (or three) separate sources (note the common elements [italics mine]):

2 Clement 12:2 Gospel of Thomas log. §22 “Gospel of the Egyptians”
Clem. Alex. Miscellanies [Stromateis] 3.92-93
For when the Lord himself was asked by someone when his kingdom would come, he said: “When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female neither male nor female.” (transl. Kirsopp Lake, LOEB edition) When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male be not male nor the female female…then you will enter [the Kingdom].” (transl. Thomas O. Lambdin, NHL p. 121) …when Salome asked when the things she had asked about would become known, the Lord replied: “When you trample on the shameful garment and when the two become one and the male with the female is neither male nor female.” (transl. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford: 2003], p. 16)

The form of the saying in 2 Clement 12 is more likely to be authentic (the others showing more obvious “Gnostic” coloring); the author gives a relatively straightforward interpretation in vv. 3-5:

  • “the two are one” = “when we speak with one another in truth, and there is but one soul in two bodies…”
  • “the outside like the inside” = “i.e., just as your body is visible, so let your soul be apparent in your good works”
  • “the male with the female neither male nor female” = “when a brother sees a sister he should have no thought of her as female, nor she of him as male”

This interpretation reflects a fairly conventional (and orthodox) ethical approach. The last point brings out something of the ascetic emphasis shared by Gnostics, as well as other early Christians—believers (men and women) should interact without any sexuality (esp. sexual desire) being present and active. Paul generally shared this ascetic outlook, though he did not go nearly so far as most Gnostic groups. Especially instructive is his guidance regarding marriage and sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7 (cf. below). Regardless of whether the saying in 2 Clement 12, etc (or anything like it) actually comes from Jesus, it raises some interesting questions in light of Galatians 3:28. How should believers—men and women—interact as believers in Christ? How far should believers continue to identify or think of themselves specifically as “male” or “female”? Paul offers relatively little instruction in this regard; however, there are three areas which effectively counterbalance the approach taken by other early Christians (and Gnostics):

1. Marriage and the family unit—In the undisputed letters of Paul, his teaching regarding the place and importance of marriage is surprisingly slight. Apart from the use of marital imagery for the purpose of illustration (Rom 7:2ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Gal 4:27, etc), his direct instruction is virtually limited to the discussion in 1 Corinthians 7, which may be summarized as follows:

  • Some believers in Corinth were of the mind that sexual contact should be avoided (v. 1ff), even for those who are currently married
  • Paul argues that husbands and wives should not deny each other (vv. 2-4), except on a temporary basis, for the purpose of prayer (vv. 5-6)
  • Those who were married when they came to faith should remain so (general prohibition of divorce), even if one is currently married to a non-believer (vv. 10-16)
  • Similarly, those who are engaged, or for whom there are plans for marriage, they may fulfill the obligation now that they are believers, without fear of sin (i.e. marriage itself is acceptable and not sinful) (vv. 28, 36-39)
  • However, Paul makes clear his preference that believers remain single and unmarried (vv. 6-9, 26-27, 28b-35, 38, 40); this is often glossed over or mitigated by commentators today who wish to emphasize marriage as the accepted norm for Christians

The situation (or, at least the emphasis) is somewhat different in the letters where Pauline authorship is questioned; there we find sections which affirm specific and traditional (gender) roles in the family and marriage bond—Col 3:18-19ff; Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim 2:11-15; (3:11); Tit 2:4-5. Compare these passages with the seemingly more egalitarian (reciprocal) language used in 1 Cor 7:2-4ff. Even so, regardless of the authorship of Ephesians (and/or Colossians), that Eph 5:22ff reflects genuine Pauline teaching would seem to be confirmed by 1 Cor 11:3-10; and similarly 1 Cor 14:34-35 in the case of 1 Tim 2:11ff.

2. Respect for social custom and convention—It was a point of considerable importance for Paul that the newly-founded Christian communities do nothing which might cause offense or bring scandal (unnecessarily) in the eyes of outside observers. This emphasis runs through much of the ethical and practical instruction in 1 Corinthians and Romans, and can be glimpsed variously in the other letters as well. Though he does not specifically state it, I believe this has a significant impact on his concern for preserving gender roles and distinctions in the Church (in spite of Gal 3:28c). If we had more information regarding the situation he addresses in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (the use of headcovering for women who speak/preach publicly in the meeting), we might have a clearer example of this principle at work. Similar concern for social (and religious) custom may also underlie the controversial instruction in 1 Cor 14:34-35.

3. Roles in the (organized) congregation and public worship—This has been the subject of various articles and notes in the current series Women in the Church. The key passages which indicate restrictions on the participation of women in the congregation, or which define specific (and/or subordinate) roles, are:

These references, however, should also be compared with passages where Paul refers to women as ministers, co-workers, or otherwise as leading figures in the churches, without any apparent distinction—Rom 16:1-7ff; 1 Cor 16:19 (also 2 Tim 4:19); Phil 4:2-3; Col 4:15; and, with regard to the congregation and worship meeting, note the overall context of 1 Cor 11-14.

A strong argument could be made that the Pauline concern to preserve socio-religious custom and order in the congregation, which includes the preservation of traditional gender-distinction, in many ways violates the very substance of the declaration in Gal 3:28c. Paul has, in fact, been charged with inconsistency in this regard, that his practical instruction and ministry methods are at odds with the ideal expressed in Gal 3:27-28. This will be explored in the next daily note.

Women in Gnosticism

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This supplemental article deals more directly with the question of women and female imagery in the Gnostic writings and teachings from the early centuries A.D. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of this subject (cf. the discussion in Part 9, and also my article on Gnosticism), I felt it worth devoting a separate short article to explore it further. While it is not possible to say whether, or to what extent, women had greater freedom of participation among the supposed Gnostic groups (described by Irenaeus, et al), when reading the actual writings which survive—primarily in the collection of texts from Nag Hammadi [NH]—one is struck by certain language and imagery that is often quite different from what we find in the New Testament and early Church Fathers, and which makes significant use of female symbolism. I would isolate four main aspects or components to Gnostic thought in this regard, which may also be grouped together in related pairs:

  • (1) Inclusion of female disciples alongside the male
    (2) The goal for the disciple to “transcend” the duality/multiplicity of the created order (male-female), reuniting that which has been separated
  • (1) The process of creation/fall, described in the mythological (and sexual) language of birth/generation/propagation, involving the interaction of male and female powers
    (2) Birth and sexual imagery is also applied to the believer (gnostic), at the intellectual and spiritual level, who ultimately seeks to transcend these powers and return to the Eternal Father

I begin the discussion with reference to the the role of female disciples of Jesus in the Gnostic traditions, and two in particular—Mary Magdalene and Salome.

We know from Mark 15:40-41 par and Luke 8:1-3 that a number of women followed along with Jesus and the other disciples; they served and ministered in their own way, though there is no indication that they were ever sent out to preach and work miracles (Mark 6:6b-13 par; Luke 10:1-12). Some of these women made the last journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and were standing by watching at his death; Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned prominently among them in Mark 15:40 par. All four Gospels attest to the core tradition that women were the first to see the empty tomb, hear the Angelic announcement of the resurrection, and see/meet the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-11, 22-24; John 20:1-2, 11-18). Though the names and combinations of women differ slightly, Mary Magdalene appears in all the accounts; this is rather remarkable (and absolutely reliable), considering the fact that she otherwise scarcely appears at all in Gospel tradition, nor in the New Testament (apart from Luke 8:2-3). She does, however, play a larger role in Gnostic traditions; her position, along with Salome, is due to several factors:

  • She experienced the reality of the resurrection before any other (male) disciples
  • According to Gospel tradition, the men were unwilling to accept her witness (i.e., revelation through the women)
  • She received direct communication (revelation) from Jesus which other disciples were (or may not have been) privy to
  • Her intimate relationship to Jesus, suggested by John 20:11-18 (and/or underlying traditions)

In several Gnostic texts, Mary (and/or Salome) is counted among the closest disciples of Jesus, to whom he gives special teaching and insight. There are three illustrative passages from the so-called Gospel of Thomas—a collection of more than 100 sayings by Jesus (many similar to those in the canonical Gospels), probably dating from the early 2nd century, preserved in Coptic (from Nag Hammadi, NH II.2) as well in several Greek fragments. Here are the passages, listed by logion (saying) number and NHL reference:

Log. §§21-22 [37]—Two partially related sayings are joined together. The first (21) begins with a question by Mary: “Whom are Your disciples like?” Jesus responds with an agricultural illustration similar to a number in the Synoptic Gospels: “They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs…” (italics mine). There is a definite gnostic (and Gnostic) sense to this saying—the field is the fallen (material) world in which the disciple (the Soul) is trapped. There is danger and testing until the time of the harvest, which is probably to be understood in negative terms, as a warning—i.e., do not let yourselves be caught up in the way of the world, lest you be plucked away by those (powers) which belong to it. The second saying (22) is again similar to several in the Synoptics, in Jesus’ use of children to illustrate entrance into the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15 par; Matt 18:3-4). Jesus states that infants being suckled “are like those who enter the Kingdom”. When the disciples ask if they will, or should, enter the Kingdom as children, Jesus responds:

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female… then you will enter [the Kingdom].”

There are two main points to Jesus’ instruction here, which again has a very gnostic sound to it: (1) the need to transcend the dualistic character of the created order (which includes gender distinction and sexuality), and (2) the importance of interpreting the material, conventional aspects of the world in an intellectual and spiritual sense. A similar saying by Jesus is attested in at least two other early sources (early/mid-2nd century)—2 Clement 12 and the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians” (for more detail, cf. my note on Galatians 3:28).

Log. §61 [43]—A curious (and provocative) episode involving Salome is narrated here, a kind of mini-dialogue with Jesus, which seems to build upon an earlier (authentic?) saying:

(Saying): “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live” (cf. Matt 24:40-41 par)
Salome: “Who are You, man, that You {…} have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
Jesus: “I am He who exists from the Undivided. I was given some of the things of My father.”
Salome: “I am Your disciple.”
(Saying): “Therefore I say, if he is <undivided>, he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.”

The concluding saying, perhaps also inspired from Synoptic tradition (cf. Matt 6:22-23 par), is more decidedly Gnostic (cf. below), and probably is intended here as a kind of commentary or interpretation on the first saying. In between is the mini-scene with Salome, which might suggest the conversion of a sinful woman (a prostitute?), along the lines associated with Mary Magdalene in later tradition (blending Lk 7:36-50 and 8:2). However, in the immediate context, it more likely symbolizes Jesus’ rescue of the disciple from the divided material world, back to the undivided Eternal light.

Log. §114 [50]—This saying concludes the Gospel and well reflects the uniquely Gnostic use of women (and Mary Magdalene) in their traditions. It begins with a very ‘orthodox’ (in the worst sense) and sexist-sounding declaration by Simon Peter: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life”. To which Jesus responds:

“I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This gender-based language is strange (and repellent) from our standpoint today, and can be easily misunderstood. The statement really is another way of approaching the same issue addressed in §22 (cf. above)—that the disciple must transcend the fallen material condition of the world, which is bound by dualistic categories, including male-female (i.e. gender distinction and sexuality). Gnostics, like many other Christians of the 2nd century, espoused a strong ascetic ideal, which involved celibacy and the renunciation of sexuality, marriage and childbearing. All such gender-based distinctions are to be reinterpreted spiritually. For women, to become “like a man” is different terminology for bridging the same gulf, based on the male-dominated mindset of the period (cf. below).

To see how some of these themes play out in other Gnostic writings, I offer here a brief survey of three specific texts, followed by a concluding note.

The Dialogue of the Savior [NH III.5]

Mary (Mariam) is among the disciples (along with Matthew and Judas) who ask questions of Jesus [126, 131-2, 134-5, 137, 139, 140ff], and, at one point, is marked as having special insight—”(she) spoke this word as a woman who knew the All” [139.10]. However, it is important to realize that the three disciples in the dialogue, even more so than in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. above), essentially symbolize the Soul of the believer (gnostic), who is brought to saving knowledge of his/her true (spiritual and religious) identity by the Redeemer Jesus. Several passages are worth citing:

  • It is said that the disciple(s)—i.e. the divine Soul—will rule over the powers/archons of the world, transcending the material condition, described in evocative symbolic language: “when you remove envy from you, then you will clothe yourselves with the light and enter into the bridal chamber” [138.15ff]
  • This imagery of “clothing oneself” draws upon early Christian metaphor, especially connected with the ritual of Baptism (Gal 3:27; cf. also Rom 13:12-14; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2ff; Col 3:10ff; Eph 4:24). Similarly here—disciples (gnostics, the Soul) are to strip themselves of the earthly/material and “clothe themselves” with garments of light (i.e. reveal the divine light) [143.20]
  • The recognition of one’s true identity (the light) frees one from bondage to the fallen material world and eliminates the distinctions associated with it, often described in gender-specific terms (male-female)—”Pray in the place where there is no woman”, “Destroy the works of womanhood”, “The works of womanhood will dissolve” [144-146] (cf. above on Gosp. Thom. §114).
The (First) Apocalypse of James [NH V.3]

This text offers a relatively clear presentation of Gnostic symbolism, describing the return of the Soul to the pre-existent Father. “Femaleness” is specifically tied to the generation/propagation of the powers and the universe (the created world) [24.25]. Twelve hebdomads (sevens)—that is, the archons or powers—are parallel to the Twelve disciples. James is instructed on how to transcend the powers and return to Him (the Father). We also read of women (seven or four?) who have been Jesus’ disciples [38-41], especially Salome and Mary (Mariam)—on these two, cf. above. Here, again, the inclusion of women is necessary to symbolize the transcending of the material condition, marked by gender-distinction—i.e. the ascent of the Soul: “the perishable has gone up to the imperishable, and the female element has attained to this male element” [41.15].

The Gospel of Philip [NH II.3]

The Gospel of Philip is one of the best known texts from Nag Hammadi, often attributed to Valentinian Gnostics and dated to mid-3rd century. The work abounds with male-female and sexual imagery, which is interpreted and applied spiritually, according to Gnostic principles. The basic principle involves the resolution of duality back to the original unity [53.15ff]. Much use is made of the Genesis Creation account to illustrate this. The (apparent) multiplicity in creation is marked by names (Gen 2:19-20), which are necessary in order to teach the Truth. The envious Powers took the names and bound Man (to the worldly order of things). Jesus came to undo this, bringing saving knowledge out of this condition, as described pictorially in the episode of Jesus at the dye-works of Levi: the 72 colors come out all white by Jesus [63.25]. Or, stated another way, “The children of the bridal chamber have just one name” [72.20]. A distinctly Gnostic view of this process of salvation is detailed in 56-58: the Soul is a precious thing which came to be in a contemptible body [56.25]—the light/spirit in the flesh (invisible in the visible) was rescued by Christ and will ‘rise’. This essentially involves a docetic view of Christ [57-58]. For the purposes of our discussion here, the following images should be noted:

  • Believers are begotten spiritually, symbolized by the kiss [58-59]
  • Three women walked with Jesus, all named Mary—his mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene (his companion/lover) [59.5-10]
  • The true Mother is Wisdom (Sophia) [59.25-30; 63.20]
  • Mary was Jesus’ companion, whom he loved [63-64], parallel to Mary the mother (Wisdom)—Jesus’ relationship with Mary symbolizes the wisdom/understanding which the other disciples still lack

Especially significant is the nuptial imagery—marriage and the “bridal chamber”—used prominently in the second half of the text. For believers (gnostics), it is all to be realized spiritually, connected with the symbolism of the baptism rite and chrism (anointing)—light/fire (soul/spirit) come into being in the water [67]. This bridal chamber belongs to the “free men and virgins”. The ritual (baptism/bridal-chamber) symbolizes the spiritual (re)union of that which was divided (just as Eve was separated from Adam). The Divine joined with the man Jesus to effect this reunion [68-71]. True marriage (and sexual intercourse) is not fleshly—but “husband and wife” symbolize Spirit uniting with Spirit [82]. The bridal chamber remains hidden in the current order of creation [84.15-20]. “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light” [86.5].

Conclusion

Whatever oddities and/or errors one may find in these Gnostic writings, there is a certain appeal (for many modern readers at least) in their extensive use of female types and symbols. The use of the figure of Mary Magdalene, in particular, has caught the fancy of the popular imagination, and well demonstrates, I think, how little the ancient Gnostic way of thinking relates to the modern. I believe the examples cited above show clearly enough two main points: (1) how and why characters such as Mary and Salome functioned, as disciples receiving special insight (revelation) from Jesus, and (2) that the inclusion of female disciples was essential to Gnostic symbolism and interpretation. It is not a matter of merely recording historical traditions about Mary and Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2; Jn 20:11-18); rather, any core traditions have undergone an elaborate (and often radical) re-interpretation. The outlines of this process can be glimpsed in the surviving pieces of the writing known as the Gospel of Mary (Coptic version in the Berlin Gnostic codex, along with another Greek fragment), dated perhaps as early as the latter part of the 2nd century. A Gnostic revelation regarding salvation, i.e. of the Soul from the powers of the world, is couched in the context of Mary’s post-resurrection announcement to the disciples (Peter, Levi, etc)—cf. Lk 24:10ff; [Mark 16:10f]; John 20:18. As in the Synoptic narrative, many of the disciples are unwilling to accept Mary’s word (“I at least do not believe that the Savior said this… Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge… Did he prefer her to us?”). Peter, at first wants to hear Mary (“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you… tell us the words… which you remember, which you know but we do not…”), but, upon listening to her, doubts that she brings genuine revelation. It is the disciple Levi who offers (the pro-Gnostic) support for Mary’s words:

“…I see you [i.e. Peter] contending against the woman like the adversaries (do). But if the Savior has made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel…”

How far did these Gnostic groups go in the inclusion of women as equals, such as the text itself suggests? This is difficult to say, as we have very little direct evidence on the matter, one way or the other. There is at least one Gnostic writing which was addressed to a female believer—Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, surviving only in fragments, preserved in book 33 of the Panarion by Epiphanius. It deals primarily with a specific (Gnostic) approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. What is particularly worth noting, however, is the nuanced, relatively sophisticated (and semi-critical) treatment of the material. Flora must have been an educated and religiously astute person, who, one may assume, wished to know more about such questions, from the “Gnostic” point of view. It is to be regretted that more such writings—whether Orthodox or Gnostic—from this period have not come down to us.

The quotations and short extracts of Gnostic writings, included above, are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson (Brill: 1978), translating from the Coptic:
“The Gospel of Thomas”, transl. by Thomas O. Lambdin, pp. 117-30
“The Gospel of Philip”, transl. by Wesley W. Isenberg, pp. 131-51
“The Dialogue of the Savior”, transl. by Harold W. Attridge, pp. 229-38
“The First Apocalypse of James”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 242-8
“The Gospel of Mary”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 471-4

Women in the Church: Part 9 – Early Christianity

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It now remains to examine, however briefly, the extra-biblical evidence for the role and position of women in the Church during the early Christian period—the period spanning roughly from 90 to the mid-3rd century A.D. Before proceeding, it will be good to point out several New Testament passages which have not yet been mentioned in this series:

  • 1 Peter 3:1-7—Instructions for husbands and wives, generally similar to that found in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:21-33; Tit 2:4-5.
  • Hebrews 11—The famous chapter on faith, in which examples from Israelite history and tradition are cited; women play a small but significant part in the list, cf. verses 11-12, 31, 35.
  • 2 John—If the “chosen Lady” (v. 1) is a particular person rather than a symbol for the Church/congregation as a whole, then she would presumably be a woman of some prominence, such as Chloe, Phoebe, Prisca, etc., in Paul’s letters (cf. Part 4).
  • Revelation 2:20-25—There was apparently an influential female prophet(ess) among the believers in Thyatira who is here regarded (by the author/oracle) as a false prophet and teacher (“Jezebel”). On the tradition of female prophets, both in the Old and New Testaments, cf. Parts 7 and 8.
  • Revelation 12 and 17—In these two chapters we find contrasting female figures—one women is virtuous (representing righteous Israel and believers) and attacked by the evil beast (chap. 12), the other a sinful prostitute seated on the evil beast and representing Babylon/Rome and the wicked (nations) of the world (chap. 17). On the Old Testament basis for these two contrasting types, cf. the discussion in Part 8.

The Apostolic Fathers

The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” represent many of the earliest surviving Christian writings (outside of the New Testament), from the period c. 90-150 A.D. The view and role of women is similar to that expressed in the New Testament letters, and especially the Pauline Pastorals (1 Timothy & Titus). 1 Clement 1:3; 21:6ff, and the Letter of Polycarp 4-5 draw upon traditional language and ethics, emphasizing the role in the family and marriage bond (cf. also 1 Clement 6:3; Ignatius to Polycarp 5). Scriptural examples of women are cited, such as Rahab (1 Clement 12 [cf. James 2:25]), Esther and Judith (1 Clement 55:3-6)—these last two present women in leading/heroic roles (“like men”, cf. below). As in the Pauline letters, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) mentions women who may have had some measure of prominence in the churches—Tavia and Alce (Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 8:3, cf. also the Martyrdom of Polycarp 17). The Pseudo-Ignatian writings include letters to and from Mary “of Cassobele” (cf. Ps-Ignatius to Hero 9), and one addressed to the Virgin Mary. Hermas also mentions a female leader named Grapte (Vision 2.4.3), who apparently oversaw instruction of women (widows) and children.

As in 1 Timothy 5:2-16, these writings give evidence of a distinct role (and position) for widows in the Church, beyond simply the need to care for them—e.g., Ignatius Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 4:1; 8:2; Letter of Polycarp 4:3 (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). In Smyrneans 13:1, Ignatius mentions virgins together with widows as two special groups—i.e. the unmarried women, young and old(er) respectively; cf. also the Letter of Polycarp 5:3. Virgins are referenced more frequently in the (later) Pseudo-Ignatian letters (Philadelphians [long text] 4; Antiochians 8, 12; Philippians 15; Tarsians 9; Hero 5), as, indeed, virginity becomes more prominent as a Christian ideal in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. below). In the Letter to Diognetus 12:8, the Virgin Mary especially reflects this ideal for women, a theme which will be repeated frequently (along with a developing veneration of Mary) in writings of the period (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 100; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.22.4; V.19.1; Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ 17, etc).

Interestingly, the Didache (“Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]”), which provides the most detail on organized Church life and worship, says virtually nothing about the role of women. The instruction regarding traveling teachers and prophets in chapters 11-13 uses language that may (or may not) be gender-specific—i.e., “the one coming”, “the one teaching” (the grammatical gender is masculine throughout). The references to the roles/offices of “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$) and “servant/minister” (dia/kono$, ‘deacon’) in chap. 15 almost certainly assume they will be men, as in the (earlier?) Pastoral Letters.

Apostolic traditions (from the 2nd century)

Women feature in a number of apostolic traditions (i.e. stories and teachings of the Apostles) from the second century, occasionally preserved in later writings and Christian tales (“romances”). The most notable tradition is that of Thecla, best known from the developed legendary account in the early medieval (5th-6th century?) “Acts of Thecla”, derived from an earlier collection of Pauline traditions (so-called “Acts of Paul”). According to the later tale, Thecla was the wife (fiancée) of a prominent citizen of Iconium (in Asia Minor), who was converted by the preaching of Paul (cf. Acts 16:13-14; 17:4, 12; 18:34). Central to the narrative is the renunciation of her marriage obligation (for the sake of following Christ), which leads to her arrest and (miraculous) deliverance from death. Sexual temptation and persecution continue as a main theme in the story, during the time in which she accompanies Paul on his missionary journeys. She is separated from him, but then eventually reunited (ch. 40); Thecla ultimately decides to return to Iconium to preach the word of God there, and Paul commissions her to do so (“Go and teach the word of God”, ch. 41). Thecla may indeed have been an actual disciple and ministry companion of Paul, as were a number of other women mentioned in his letters (Prisca, Phoebe, etc., cf. Part 4 of this series). The core tradition dates back at least to the mid-late 2nd century, since Tertullian refers to it (c. 200) in his work On Baptism §17. This reference is significant, as Tertullian argues forcefully (against the Montanists [cf. below]) that women are not permitted to teach and baptize; he regards the Thecla tradition as spurious or falsely attributed to Paul.

Women in “Gnostic” writings and tradition

Women and female imagery played an important part in the so-called Gnostic sects and writings known (or presumed to exist) in the second century (cf. my article on Gnosticism). Our evidence for Gnostic beliefs is two-fold: (1) the (Proto-)Orthodox authors in the 2nd-4th centuries (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Epiphanius) who wrote in opposition to their teachings, and (2) surviving texts written (presumably) by the “Gnostics” themselves, especially those recovered from Nag Hammadi in Egypt (4th century copies). Based on the “heterodox” views of the Gnostic groups, as well as the prominent feminine/female elements in some of the texts and teachings, it is often thought that they may have been more open to women participating in leadership/ministry roles; however, this is extremely speculative, and the actual evidence on the matter (either way) is extremely slight. I will summarize here several of the more important aspects of Gnostic thought in relation to women:

  • An emphasis on female disciples of Jesus—especially Mary Magdalene and Salome—in a number of texts
  • Frequent use of sexual imagery, with two key points of emphasis:
    (1) The fallen (material) world described in terms of sexual intercourse, marriage and propagation (childbirth)
    (2) All of this is spiritualized for believers (gnostics)—i.e. all such language and terminology relates to the union of the divine Soul/Spirit with the Spirit (i.e. of the Pre-existent Father)
  • Nuptial imagery is specifically made use of (i.e. the Bridal Chamber), and may involve certain rituals (Baptism, Chrism [Anointing], the “holy kiss”) which have been given a new interpretation.
  • Ancient Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions have been blended together with Christian ideas and various mythological traditions. Wisdom is typically personified as a woman, and so prominently in Gnostic thought.
  • A core principle in Gnostic thought is the (re-)union of that which has been separated/divided within the current material world. Primarily, this refers a union of the divine light in the human Soul (i.e. of the gnostic believer) with the Eternal Light (of the true God). But this is often described in terms of transcending the dualism/duality (and multiplicity) of the created world, and is expressed, with regard to sexual or gender-based language, two ways:
    (a) Elimination of the distinction between “male” and “female”, or
    (b) The “female” becoming like the “male”

Due to the complexity of this subject, and for those who are interested, it is discussed further in a supplemental article.

Montanism

Montanism was a prophetic (charismatic) movement that developed in the late 2nd century A.D. in the territory of Phrygia (Asia Minor). It was named after Montanus, the putative founder, who claimed to speak under the direct influence of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit). Women prophets, such as Prisc(ill)a, Maximilla, and Quintilla, were prominent, leading figures in the movement—in some ways, it would seem, better known than Montanus himself. It is perhaps best described as a reforming movement, which sought to realize (and recapture) the charismatic vitality of the early (apostolic) churches, as described in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians 11-14. The daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) seem to have served as a Scriptural pattern for Montanist female prophets; Tertullian also mentions an unnamed woman who received prophetic revelations from the Spirit (On the Soul §9). The movement was characterized by a strong ascetic orientation, emphasizing strict fasting and celibacy.

A number of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the 2nd-4th centuries wrote against the Montanists. Clement of Alexandria mentions them (“Phrygians”, in Stromateis [Miscellanies] 4:13, cf. also 1:17), and may have written more about their “false prophecy”, as Melito also may have done. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History, cites several anti-Montanist works, including writings by Caius (against Proclus, 2:25; 3:28, 31), Asterius Urbanus, Miltiades, Apollonius, and another anonymous writer (cf. 5:16-18). Tertullian opposed the Montanists at first (cf. On Baptism), but later (c. 200) aligned himself with the movement (as did several Popes and leaders in the Roman church of the period). Several of his ethical, ascetic writings clearly show this affiliation (On Fasting, On Monogamy, Exhortation to Chastity), as well as numerous references in other works (e.g., Against Praxeas §§1, 13; Against Marcion 1:29; 4:22; On the Resurrection of the Flesh §§11, 63; De Corona §§1, 11; On the Soul §§9, 58). Montanism was treated as a regular “heresy” among most orthodox writers and Church leaders, continuing to be condemned in various synods and councils; however, by the mid-4th century the movement had more or less died out.

Proto-Orthodoxy and early Catholic Tradition

Tertullian represents the developing (orthodox) Church Tradition of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in his view of the role and position of women. His work On the Dress of Women draws heavily upon the contrast (well-established in the Old Testament and Wisdom traditions) between the modest, virtuous woman and the sinful (pagan) one. The introduction of sin into the world, through Eve (Gen 3; 1 Tim 2:13ff), is closely connected with sexuality. Virginity and celibacy (cf. below) take on much greater emphasis (On the Veiling of Virgins, Exhortation to Chastity, On Modesty, On Monogamy, etc), with virgins and widows holding prominent positions in the Church. At least three official (canonical) positions would seem to be established—deaconess (i.e. female deacon), widow (female elder [“eldress”]) and virgin. Tertullian forcefully argues that women should not teach doctrine or baptize (On Baptism 17), though in siding with Montanism (cf. above), he fully accepted the idea of inspired female prophets. Within certain limitations, women could engage in a relatively active ministry and service within the congregation. In the writing To His Wife, largely an exhortation to celibacy (and women as celibate widows), Tertullian mentions some of these ministerial duties (cf. 2:4). Though not allowed to administer baptism, it would seem that a key role of widows and other female ministers (deaconesses) was to assist women who were preparing for baptism (e.g., canon 12 related to the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage).

This basic outlook gradually gained official expression in the Canons (Rules) and Church Orders composed during the 3rd and 4th centuries, such the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum, cf. chap. 3, 14-16), the Apostolic Church-Order (§§20-22, 25-28), the “Apostolic Tradition” and Canons of Hippolytus (16-18, 32, 35), the Apostolic Constitutions (I.8-9; bk III; VI.17; VIII.16-28, etc) and Canons, and the so-called Testament of the Lord (Testamentum Domini, cf. I.23, 29ff, 35, 40-43, 46; II.19). However, in the imperial period (mid-4th century and following), more precise restrictions on the roles for women were established in the various Church Councils, which eventually became fixed as part of Catholic “Canon Law”. Women were barred from being appointed as presiding “elders” [presbytides] (Council of Laodicea, canon 11), and were not to approach the altar (Laodicea, canon 44); in the canons associated with the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage (397/398 A.D.), it is officially stated that women are not to baptize nor teach among men (canons 99-100). With regard to the position of deaconess, the 19th canon from the Council of Nicea indicates they were not (to be) ordained in the same manner as bishops, deacons and other male clergy (cf. also Chalcedon, canon 15). Eventually, female deacons were barred altogether—in the first and second Councils of Orange (441 A.D., canon 26; 529 A.D., canons 17-18), confirmed by subsequent synods.

Female Saints and Martyrs

Women feature prominently among the stories and traditions of saints and martyrs from the early centuries, including the extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles, and other tales of the period, which often stressed the ideal of virginity and celibacy (cf. below, and above on Thecla). Believers who suffered during the periods of persecution, as witnesses (i.e. martyrs, Grk ma/rtu$) for the Faith held a special place—either as “confessors” (those tortured) or “martyrs” (those put to death). For women, persecution in the martyrdom narratives often involve some form of sexual temptation or molestation. Prior to the imperial adoption of Christianity, there were various periods of anti-Christian persecution in the Roman empire, usually being of limited extent and tied to specific regions; the most notable (outside of that by Nero, c. 64 A.D.) occurred during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (esp. in Gaul, 177-180), briefly under Septimus Severus (c. 202), the major outbreaks under Decius (249-251) and Valerian (257-260), and finally the great persecution in the reign of Diocletian (303-305). Of the known female saints and martyrs, most are presumably historical figures, though the narratives which came to surround them in the Medieval period have certainly been filled out with various legendary (and often fabulous) details. I list here some of the notable names:

  • Flavia Domitilla—niece of the emperor Domitian, and married to the emperor’s cousin (Flavius Clemens); according to Roman writers such as Cassius Dio, Domitian eventually put Clemens to death and exiled Domitilla. There is no certain evidence that either Clemens or Domitilla were believers, but this came to be accepted in Christian tradition; to add to the confusion, some sources refer to Flavia Domitilla as the niece of Flavius Clemens, and it is possible that two different women are involved.
  • Petronilla—the daughter of Peter, according to tradition, and so indicated by a tomb inscription in the Christian cemetery (catacombs) associated with Domitilla; she is the subject of a number of (later) legends which do not seem particularly reliable.
  • Blandina—a woman named prominently among the martyrs of Lyons (177), cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.1.
  • Perpetua and Felicitas—women named among the martyrs of Carthage (c. 202); a vivid (and popular) account of their martyrdom survives from the early period, and they are mentioned by both Tertullian (On the Soul §55) and Augustine (Sermons 280-82).
  • Agatha, of Sicily—suffered martyrdom either during the Decian (251) or Diocletian persecution.
  • Cecilia of Rome, whose martyrdom is dated variously during the second and third centuries (c. 230?).
  • Agnes of Rome—martyred at Rome under Diocletian (cf. Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy 1:41 [213]; Jerome Letter 130.5, etc).
  • Catherine of Alexandria—one of the best-known and revered of the female martyrs, though there is little reliable information regarding her life or death (cf. Eusebius’ Church History VIII.14); her martyrdom is dated in the early 4th century under Maximin.

In discussing the most famous women from early Christian tradition, one may also mention the Veronica-legend, which blends together at least two different strands of tradition—(1) a woman (Berenice) who offered her veil (or cloth) to Jesus on the way to the cross, and (2) a miraculous (and miracle-working) image of Jesus on a cloth (“true icon”, vera icon), best known from the Abgar legend in the Syrian Church (Edessa).

Asceticism and the rise of Monastic Tradition

The word monasticism ultimately derives from the Greek mo/no$ (mónos, “single, alone”). A “monk” is a monachós (monaxo/$)—that is, a person who keeps himself (or herself) alone, single, solitary, etc. The general religious phenomenon is more properly called monachism, whereby persons withdraw from ordinary society (including family, professional occupation, etc) and live apart, following a special religious lifestyle. Such a way of life is almost always associated with a strict, and rather rigorous, asceticism (from Greek a&skhsi$)—an intense practice or training (such as for an athlete), which, from an ethical and religious standpoint, involves renunciation of worldly things, self-denial, and, most notably here, sexual abstinence (celibacy). From the beginning, early Christianity had an ascetic emphasis, found in the teaching and practice of Jesus (Mark 1:12-13, 35, 45; 6:8-9; 8:34ff; 9:42-50; 10:21-31 & pars [but note the contrast with John the Baptist, Mk 1:4-6; 2:18]; and cf. Lk 6:20-26; 9:57-62; 16:19-31; 20:34-36 pars; Matt 19:10-12, etc), but also shared by certain Jewish and Greek philosophical traditions of the period. By all accounts, Jesus never married, and Paul also, at least at the time of his missionary journeys and letters, was single (and thus celibate). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly expresses his wish that all believers would follow his example, as long as they were equipped by God (i.e. with the maturity and mindset for it) to do so faithfully. There is certainly an ascetic streak in Paul, though he is quick to rebuke or condemn any sort of exaggerated asceticism which distorts the Gospel or disrupts Christian unity—cf. 1 Cor 7:1-5ff; Rom 14:1-4ff; Col 2:21-23; and note, in the Pastoral letters, especially 1 Tim 4:3 (also the earlier article and notes on 1 Tim 2:11-15).

As discussed above, by the middle of the second century, asceticism—especially in the form of sexual abstinence (celibacy)—came to have far greater emphasis in the Church as a whole. The ideal of virginity was widespread and highly praised. In the Syrian Churches, a distinct tradition of celibate marriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:5) developed, known by the term encratism, from a Greek word (e)gkrate/w) meaning “to have power/control” over, e.g. one’s fleshly (sexual) impulses.

Monasticism (monachism) as a specific religious (and ascetic) movement began to develop by the end of the third century, primarily in Egypt, where it took root in a number of locations, spreading rapidly. Of the pioneering figures, Anthony was by far the most famous, due in no small measure to the early biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria. It is hard for Christians today to appreciate the tremendous influence and appeal of the monastic and anchorite (hermit/solitary) way of life on believers of the period. It offered a way for Christians, disillusioned with the world and the traditional (institutional) Church structure, to live out a more intense, creative, and dedicated form of Christianity—a life of prayer and devotion, engaged in spiritual warfare, apart from, and on behalf of, the world at large. While some monks chose to remain solitary, others banded together to form communities (i.e. monasteries) which often developed into religious organizations (orders), a kind of separate Church structure within the wider Church. Throughout Church history, the monastic and religious orders were at the forefront of reform and renewal movements; Luther, along with many other leaders of the Reformation, came out of the monastic traditions.

From a very early period, women participated in the monastic movement, living a solitaries or in separate communities, similar to that of male believers. Female monks are typically referred by the word “nun” (Latin nonna), an honorific title indicating age and respect. Prominent theologians and leaders such as Augustine and Jerome (in the West) and Basil (in the East) were enthusiastic champions of monasticism—for men and women both. Jerome counted among his close friends a number of noteworthy Roman women—such as Melania the elder, Melania the younger, and Paula—who were important figures and founders of monastic houses. Since, by the fourth and fifth centuries, women had been increasingly excluded and restricted from any sort of official (ministerial) position in the Church, the monastic movement functioned as a kind of early “liberation”, providing women with opportunities for participation and expression of their faith which was otherwise unavailable (outside the traditional setting of the family), giving them a distinct and empowering religious identity of their own. By the time of the high Middle Ages, a complex and rich religious culture had developed, in which women contributed variously as authors and poets, prophets and doctors, even political leaders and consultants, leaving their mark unmistakably on both the Church and society at large for generations to come. I will touch on this a bit further in the concluding article of this series.

Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 6 – Dualism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauline Dualism

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

Cosmological

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

Ethical

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

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

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

Johannine Dualism

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

Light/Darkness

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

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

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

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

Above/Below

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

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

The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Predestination

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 “name” of the Father

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As I discussed in the previous daily note on John 17:8, the “name” (o&noma), and, in particular, the name of God the Father, is vital for an understanding of the person and work Christ as presented in the Gospel of John. I will be discussing the name (and names) of God in some detail in a series of notes and articles to begin in December during Advent/Christmas season. Here, I will focus on the use of the concept, and expression, in the Gospel of John. It should be pointed out, as I have done on several occasions in the past, that names and naming in the ancient world had a very different significance than in modern (Western) society. To know a person’s name was essentially the same as knowing the person. In the ancient way of thinking, there was a kind of magical quality to the name—it communicated and encapsulated the nature and character of the person. The sacredness and efficacy of the name(s) and epithets applied to God is well established in the Old Testament and Jewish religious tradition, especially with regard to the name signified by the tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh). In early Christian tradition, the name Yeshua/Jesus also had an efficacious quality similar, and parallel, to YHWH. Jesus and God the Father (YHWH) could both be called by the title “Lord” (Ku/rio$), almost interchangeably, giving a dual meaning to Scripture passages such as Joel 2:32 (cf. Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). Calling on the “name of Lord (Jesus)” for early Christians was the same as accepting Jesus, trusting/believing in him, and so the common use of the expression “trust in(to) the name of Jesus”, which we also see in the Gospel of John (1:12; 2:23; 3:18). For early Christians, prayer (for healing, etc) was done “in Jesus’ name” (cf. Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26, and frequently in the book of Acts, etc). From the standpoint of the theology (and Christology) of the Johannine Gospel, trusting the name of Jesus truly meant trusting in the person of Jesus—who he is (Son of God) and where he came from (the Father); cf. especially 3:18; 17:3; 20:31.

The idea of Jesus coming “in the name of the Father” (5:43; 10:25) derives from early Gospel tradition and the application of Psalm 118:26 to Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and coming (Davidic) Ruler expected by many Jews and Israelites of the time (cf. Matt 21:9; 23:39; Mark 11:9; Luke 13:35; 19:38; and John 12:13). The association was given a new interpretation by early Christians, and, in the Gospel of John, the meaning has deepened still further. In the Johannine discourses, we find frequent references to Jesus as the one who comes from the Father, sent by Him, doing and saying what he sees/hears from the Father—on this, cf. the recent article on “Knowledge and Revelation in John” and the previous note on Jn 17:8. Moreover, we also find the distinct Christological view expressed that Jesus (the Son) was with (alongside) the Father in eternity (cf. the Prologue, 1:1-18); this is also indicated throughout the discourses, where Jesus identifies himself, in various ways, with God the Father. This is best seen in the “I am” sayings of Jesus, which use the 1st-person pronoun (e)gw/, “I”) + the verb of being (ei)mi)—e)gw\ ei)mi (“I am”). These all-important sayings punctuate the discourses, often most dramatically—cf. 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 24; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 13:19; 15:1, 5; 18:5; and note also the foreshadowing of the expression in 1:20ff; 3:28, and the distinctive use of the verb of being (ei)mi) in 1:1-15. Cf. also 7:33ff and my earlier note on 14:4-7. It has been suggested that the “name” of the Father in the Johannine discourses is actually e)gw\ ei)mi, “I AM” (cf. Brown, pp. 755-6); if so, it still should be understood in relation to the tetragrammaton (hwhy/YHWH, cf. Exod 3:6, 13-15).

In the Gospel narrative, Jesus’ references to the Father’s name begin to gain prominence following the triumphal entry (in which Jesus comes “in the name of the LORD”, 12:13). Soon after, it is mentioned in verse 28:

“Father, honor/glorify [do/cason] your Name!”

This request echoes the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in the Synoptics (Matt 6:9 par), only here it is associated specifically with the impending death of Jesus. This connection between the Father’s name, the divine glory/splendor/honor (do/ca), and the death (and resurrection) of Jesus, is strengthened, expanding and developing throughout the great Last Discourse of chapters 13-17 (cf. 13:31-32; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14, etc). As Jesus (the Son) was sent in the Father’s name, so, too, the Spirit will be sent by the Father (in the name of the Son)—cf. 14:6, 26; 15:26; 16:7. It is in the prayer-discourse of chapter 17, that the name of the Father becomes a major theme, occurring at three points—at the beginning of the main section (v. 6), at the midpoint (vv. 11-12), and again at the end (v. 26). The first and last (framing) references should be considered in tandem:

  • V. 6: “I made your name (to) shine forth to the ones whom you gave me out of the world”
    —connection with the word [lo/go$] God has given (through Jesus), which believers have kept/guarded (i.e. abides in them)
  • V. 26: “I made known to them your name, and I will make (it) known…”
    —connection with the love which God has for Jesus, and which is in believers

Clearly, this is not a matter of Jesus giving his disciples factual information about the name Yahweh; rather, according to the ancient way of thinking, making the Father’s name known means making the Father Himself known (cf. Exod 23:20-21; Ps 9:10; 22:22, etc). This takes place through the person of the Son, who represents and reflects the Father, and makes Him manifest to believers. The association between the word and love of God naturally brings to mind the “love command” of Gospel tradition (13:34-35, etc), representing the word[s] (lo/go$/r(h/mata) of God which Christ speaks. But it goes deeper than this, for the word (lo/go$) is Christ himself (1:1ff), and, likewise, God’s love is identified with the person of Christ (17:26, cf. also 3:16, etc). This brings us to 17:11-12, where the emphasis is on Jesus keeping/guarding his disciples “in the name” [e)n tw=| o)no/mati] which God gave to him. For the idea of God giving this name to Jesus, cf. the early Christian tradition expressed/preserved by Paul in Phil 2:9-11. In the Philippians hymn, Jesus receives the name following his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of the Father); however, in the Gospel of John, he was given this name even before, and certainly should be so understood in relation to the Son’s pre-existence (and pre-existent glory) shared with the Father. Upon his coming to earth, he was “given” this name, in order to make it known to his followers. It is important to keep in mind the twin aspects of knowing and seeing expressed in 17:6, 26, since, in the Johannine discourses, to know Jesus is the same as seeing; and, if one sees Jesus (the Son) then the believer has also seen the Father. This important chain of logic is best expressed in 14:1-14 (cf. the notes on 14:4-7).

This Johannine understanding of the “name of the Father”, and the relationship between Jesus and the Father, was given a distinctive interpretation in several key Gnostic writings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The Gospel of John appears to have quite popular in many Gnostic groups. The earliest NT commentary known to us is the Commentary on John by the Gnostic Heracleon, which, in large part, inspired Origen to embark on his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary. Of the numerous references to the Gospel in the surviving Gnostic texts, two passages are especially relevant and may be cited here—from the so-called Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip (cf. Brown, p. 755):

“Now the name of the Father is the Son. It is he who first gave a name to the one who came forth from him, who was himself, and he begot him as a son. He gave him his name which belonged to him; he is the one to whom belongs all that exists around him, the Father. His is the name; his is the Son. It is possible for him to be seen. But the name is invisible because it alone is the mystery of the invisible which comes to ears that are completely filled with it. For indeed the Father’s name is not spoken, but it is apparent through a Son.” (Gospel of Truth, translation by G. W. MacRae, NHL I.38.6-24, p. 47)

The remainder of the text (39-43) develops the ideas and theology of this passage. The Son speaks of the Father from whom he came forth, and the true believers (Gnostics) respond likewise, recognizing their true nature as having come from God:

“They are the ones who appear in truth since they exist in true and eternal life and speak of the light which is perfect and filled with the seed of the Father…and his children are perfect and worthy of his name, for he is the Father: it is children of this kind that he loves.” (43.9ff)

And, here is a passage from the “Gospel of Philip”:

“One single name is not uttered in the world, the name which the Father gave to the Son, the name above all things: the name of the Father. For the Son would not become Father unless he wears the name of the Father. Those who have this name know it, but they do not speak it. But those who do not have it do not know it.” (translation by W. W. Isenberg, NHL II.54.6-13, p. 133)

A long discussion follows regarding names—hidden and revealed—drawing heavily upon Scripture and various images in the Old and New Testament. It also gives a distinctive interpretation to Baptism and other Christian rituals, using the motif of marriage and the “bridal chamber”. The believer (Gnostic) who “enters” the water and the bridal chamber becomes a “son of the bridal chamber” and will “receive the light”—that is, will experience the mystery, the hidden reality that is revealed in the Son.

Clearly, these Gnostic texts have gone considerably beyond the Old Testament and early Christian tradition regarding Jesus and the “name of the Father”. They draw equally upon ancient religious (and mythological) tradition related to the secret, hidden name of God. The true name and nature of the Deity cannot be spoken or expressed in ordinary human terms. From the Gnostic standpoint, it comes to be known in a spiritual (and mystical) manner—through the saving knowledge (revelation) brought by Jesus to the believer. Through the experience of this revelation, the believer becomes aware of his/her true identity as the offspring of God.

In the references above, “NHL” refers to The Nag Hammadi Library (in English), James M. Robinson, General Editor (Brill: 1978). References marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29/A.

Note of the Day – November 6 (John 14:4-7)

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John 14:4-7 (continued, v. 6)

In response to the disciples’ question in verse 5 regarding where Jesus is going (v. 4, cf. the previous day’s note), he answers with the declaration of verse 6, one of the most famous statements in the New Testament:

“Yeshua says [le/gei] to him {Thomas}, ‘I am [e)gw\ ei)mi] the way, and the truth and the life—no one comes toward the Father if not [i.e. except] through me.”

Both the statement in v. 4, and the question of v. 5, use the word o(do/$ (“way”) with an adverb/particle (of place) derived from the pronoun po/$ (“who/what/which”):

  • “the (place) which/where [o%pou] I am going…you have seen/known the way [o(do/$]” (v. 4)
  • “we have not seen/known what(ever place where) [pou=] you are going…how can we see/know the way [o(do/$]?” (v. 5)

It seems to suggest a specific location with a distinct path that leads to it (cf. Jesus’ illustration in Matt 7:13-14 par). However, Jesus’ response in verse 6 makes clear that he himself (emphatic pronoun e)gw/, “I”) is the path or way (o(do/$). This point of emphasis is all the more solemn in its use of the pronoun + verb of being (e)gw\ ei)mi, “I am”), with its Johannine connotation of identifying Jesus with God the Father (YHWH). For other “I am” sayings of Jesus in John, cf. 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 24; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 13:19; 15:1, 5; 18:5; and note also the foreshadowing of the expression in 1:20ff; 3:28, and the distinctive use of the verb of being (ei)mi) in 1:1-15. Especially worth noting, is the parallel with 14:4-5 in 7:33ff, where Jesus says:

“(It is only) a little time yet (that) I am [ei)mi] with you, and I go away [u(pa/gw] toward the (one who) sent me. You will seek (for) me and you will not find [me], and the (place) where [o%pou] I am [ei)mi] you are not able to come (there).” (vv. 33-34)

There is an interesting parallelism within this saying:

  • ei)mi (“I am”)—Jesus’ presence with the people (i.e. his disciples)
    u(pa/gw (“I go under/away”)—his departure back to the Father
    o%pou (“the [place] where”)—where he is, with the Father
  • ei)mi (“I am”)—His presence with God the Father (1:1ff)

The statement that Jesus goes “toward” (pro/$) the Father is important, and the basic expression occurs numerous times in Gospel of John. In the prologue, the orientation of the eternal Word (Lo/go$) is toward (pro/$) God the Father (1:1-2), and the Son ultimately goes back toward Him (13:1, and throughout the Last Discourse). Similarly, the preposition is used for people (believers) who come to Jesus—toward him, toward the light, etc., as in 3:20-21; 5:40; 6:35, 37, 44-45, et al. It is only in coming toward the Son (Jesus), that is, by believing/trusting in him, that one is able to come toward the Father. This dynamic is not spelled out in detail, but the basic image in the Last Discourse is that Jesus will return (future eschatology) to bring believers with him to the Father (14:3; 17:24, etc). However, at the same time, in a different sense (‘realized’ eschatology), the Father (with the Son) is already present with believers, residing in them (14:23, etc). Both aspects are found in chapter 14, and both should be understood as relating to the idea of Jesus as the way to the Father. That he is the only way was expressed already in the parable/illustration of the shepherd and sheep-fold in chapter 10 (vv. 1-5)—Jesus is both the door leading into the sheepfold (vv. 7-9) and the shepherd who guides the sheep into the fold (vv. 11-16). Something of the same image of the door is certainly implied in 14:6, since Jesus speaks of believers as coming to the Father through (dia/) him.

The motif of the way (o(do/$) was extremely important in the earliest Christian tradition, though, without the book of Acts, this fact would have been almost completely lost to us. One of the earliest names or labels for Christians and Christianity was, collectively, “the Way” (o( o(do/$)—cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. This is perhaps the most distinctive and precise parallel between early Christians and the Community of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), since both referred to themselves this way. Both traditions would seem to derive from an interpretation of (and identification with) Isaiah 40:3ff, which, in combination with Mal 3:1ff, would be associated with the early Gospel traditions regarding John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—cf. Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 1:16-17, 76ff; 3:4; Jn 1:23. For Isa 40:3 and the religious identity of the Qumran Community, cf. especially the ‘Community Rule’ [1QS] 8:12-16.

Jesus’ declaration in Jn 14:6 expands upon the identification of Jesus with “the way”:

“I am the way, and the truth [a)lh/qeia] and the life [zwh/]…”

Both words are important and occur frequently in the Gospel (and First Letter) of John. Probably here they are best understood as epexegetical, qualifying and characterizing Jesus as the Way—i.e., the “way of truth“, “way of life“—though certainly they can also be viewed as separate (related) “I am” declarations. For the idea of a way leading to life, see Gen 3:24; Psalm 16:11; Prov 6:23; 15:24; 16:17, as well as Jer 21:8 (also Ezek 3:18; 13:22) which prefigures Matt 7:14 and the “Two Ways” religious-ethical tradition that developed in early Christianity (Didache 1-6; Barnabas 18-21). Similarly, the “way of truth” has its background in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—cf. Psalm 86:11; 119:30; Tob 1:3; Wisdom 5:6; 1QS 4:15-16, etc.; the expression is found in 2 Pet 2:2 (cf. also v. 15). The Gospel message is called the “way of salvation” in Acts 16:17; cf. also 18:25-26. There is an echo of Jn 14:6 in the Gnostic text known as the Gospel of Truth (mid-2nd century?):

“This is the gospel of the one who is searched for, which was revealed to the ones who are perfect through the mercies of the Father—the hidden mystery, Jesus, the Christ. Through it he enlightened those who were in darkness. Out of oblivion he enlightened them, he showed (them) a way. And the way is the truth which he taught them.” (translation G. W. MacRae in the Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson)

Here we see one of the clearest differences between the Gospel of John and the Gnosticism of the 2nd century A.D. In the Johannine Gospel, Jesus himself (i.e. the person of Christ, the Son) is the way. By contrast, in the ‘Gospel of Truth’, the way is the gospel (message), the revelation of truth which Jesus brings to the Elect (believers). This is a seemingly small, but very significant difference, and it thoroughly colors how one understands “knowledge” (gnw=si$) from a Christian (and Christological standpoint). The emphasis on knowledge will be addressed in relation to the final verse (14:7) to be discussed here, in the next day’s 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.