What Is Gnosticism?
Early Christianity, particularly from the first century up until the fourth century, went through immense conflict. The issues that the early church fathers and the church had to face were many. Persecution under both Nero and Diocletian were just one phase of major conflicts attacking faithful believers.
Another dilemma in which occurred in those early periods in the history of Christianity included dealing with believers who sinned against the church. During these two coinciding conflicting events came other matters that needed to be settled.
In a time when the canonization of the New Testament was in the beginning stages of formation on the basis of apostolic teaching. So was the rise of heretical movements. One of these movements was known as Gnosticism. This is the heretical view that will be focused upon. The five topics of this heresy will cover the meaning, origins, beliefs, texts and the falsified views concerning Christ.
What scholars of today wrestle with is the understanding of who the historical Jesus really is.
The conception of truth has its basis and grounding among different sources that are relevant to the history of Christianity. Does Matthew, Mark, Luke and John portray the authentic Jesus? Or is it the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts that give valuable insight to who Jesus really was? This subject matter, as extensive as it is, will not be the main premise for which the audience will draw a conclusion. Instead the reader should identify this important truth based on facts presented concerning Gnosticism and the role that the early church fathers played in defending their positional beliefs against Gnostic heresy.
If one is to look up the term “Gnosticism” in The American Heritage desk dictionary, the definition would ascribe as follows; ‘The doctrines of various esoteric sects in the ancient Near East, teaching that the soul can transcend material existence’ .
The late 2nd century was not attributed to Gnosticisms’ early beginnings, but Gnostic belief was a system of belief that had its influences traced back in time. The Kabbalah, which was ancient writing that claimed esoteric revelations from God, seems to have some similarity to Gnostic belief.
The Zohar is a book connected to the religion of Zoroastrianism. One can simply discover more knowledge concerning these conceptual beliefs. Resources and material are exhaustive. In Bruce L. Shelley’s book CHURCH HISTORY, she states that “The term Gnosticism is an umbrella term used to identify a variety of movements, each one offering some way of enlightenment prescribed by a guru, a philosopher who possessed the gnosis or the knowledge of the way of life. This special knowledge of the spiritual world posed a major threat to apostolic Christianity” .
What did the Gnostics really believe? In the book GETTING TO KNOW THE CHURCH FATHERS by Author Bryan M. Litfin the following information is given to us:
“Irenaeus records the doctrines of one particular brand of Gnosticism taught by a teacher named Valentinus (or more precisely, by his disciple Ptolemy). The Valentinian Gnostics believed there was a heavenly ‘Fullness’ which consisted of thirty angelic beings called Aeons. The Aeons always came in male-female pairs. (It is a common feature of Gnosticism that divinity consists of both genders, so that male Aeons. The Aeons require female consorts or counterparts.) These conjugal pairs emitted lower Aeons, and the last of these emissions was Sophia (Wisdom). But Sophia became passionate and wickedly longed for the highest Father apart from her own consort. Though she was eventually healed from her grievous action, her evil “Thought”, which had given rise to her sin, was cast out of the Fullness like an aborted fetus. This shapeless Thought took on a personified form named Mother Achamoth. She was in a hopeless state until “Christ” came to her and enabled Achamoth to bring forth substances from within herself. One of the beings she brought forth was Demiurge. He was the ignorant creator of the entire physical world in which we live. In many Gnostic of the Old Testament, who foolishly thought he was the on true God. Only the enlightened Gnostics “knew” he was actually a corrupted being, far inferior to the goddess Sophia” . Gnosticism also believed that salvation was obtained by knowledge. They believed that Jesus body was not made in real flesh, but His body appeared as an illusion to people.
Gnostic manuscripts were discovered in upper Egypt in a town called Nag Hammadi around 1945. Therefore, the terms given to the Gnostic writings are the Nag Hammadi documents. Papyrus codices were buried in a sealed jar. The Coptic language was the original language of these documents. The Nag Hammadi codices today are kept in the Coptic Museum of Cairo, Egypt. The Dead Sea Scrolls were known to be found in the year 1947. Propaganda would suggest to the public that these Gnostic gospels or such codices could change historical Christianity or shift its core tenets of faith in another direction. The interesting thing about these two given dates is that 2 years later from 1945 the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls would shed light to introduce the elements of truth concerning Christianity over Gnostic Christianity. The Codices found are, the Jung codex which is The Prayer of the Apostle, The Apocryphon of James, The Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the Resurrection, and Tripartite Tractate. Under Codex II are the Apocryphon of John, Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Phillip, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, The Exegesis on the Soul, and Book of Thomas the Contender. This list is just a few on the many codices that were discovered. There is believed to be twelve codices discovered.
Luke Timothy Johnson is the Author of the book titled THE REAL JESUS. In this book, he contrasts the Gnostic gospels from the Canonical gospels. In this informative read he states “We notice first that in contrast to the canonical Gospels, the Gnostic gospels are conspicuously lacking in narrative structure. The Gospel of Thomas is a loose collection of sayings; the Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Truth are rather more meditative or hortatory; the Dialogue of the Savior is a conversation between Jesus and his followers. The lack of narrative is, I think, not accidental, but corresponds to the deepest perceptions of the Gnostic movement” . In the same book the Author says; “Even more strikingly, the Gnostic gospels lack passion accounts. The death of Jesus is either omitted or touched on only lightly. Their emphasis is on the revelation of the divine. In the canonical Gospels, as we have seen, the passion accounts play a central and climatic role. The emphasis of the canonical Gospels is on the suffering of the Messiah. The difference in emphasis might again be connected to perceptions of the compatibility of the divine with material reality. But more than that, it has to do with perceptions of how divine power works in the world. In Gnostic Christianity, the enlightenment of the mind enables the avoidance of suffering. In classical Christianity, the gift of the Holy Spirit leads one through the same path of suffering that was followed by the Messiah” .
In the scriptures can be found letters to warn the Church against Gnostic belief just as the early church fathers opposed the same heresy even after the Apostles. In concluding thoughts, the Christian can have confidence and security in the belief of classical and historical Christianity. All one has to do is weigh the evidence.
Never should one rely on the bias of media or look to specific scholarly sources, but should look to all scholarly source material. Gnosticism denies the main tenets of Christian faith.
The doctrinal views concerning Christ are not consistent neither are they biblical in the matters of Apostolic teaching. The Gnostic Gospels are not consistent with the canonical Gospels. There are more historical facts to be found in the eyewitness accounts of the disciples concerning Christ than there are in the philosophical assumptions passed down to Gnostic Christians deriving some of their beliefs from Greek mythology. The true Christ has been revealed in the canonical gospels but in Gnosticism, Christ is still trying to be understood.
1. Fifth Edition, The American Heritage Dictionary. (Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013) pg. 362
2. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History: In Plain Language: (Nashville, Tennesse: Thomas Nelson Publishing Company, 2012) pg. 54
3.Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007) pg. 84
4. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996) pg. 150