Tuesday, May 6, 2008

To what extent is Gnosticism evident in the writings of the NT?

By Xavier

The ascetic notion of immediate revelation through divine knowledge sought to find an absolute transcendence in a Supreme Deity. This concept is very important in identifying what evidence there is pertaining to Gnosticism
[1] in the NT, which would go on to influence Christian orthodox teaching[2]. Main Gnostic beliefs that differ from Biblical teachings include:
  • the creator as a lower being [‘Demiurge’] and not a Supreme Deity;
  • scripture having a deep, hidden meaning whose true message could only be understood through “secret wisdom”[3];
  • Jesus as a spirit that “seemed”[4] to be human, leading to a belief in the incarnation[5].
The traditional “formula which enshrines the Incarnation…is that in some sense God, without ceasing to be God, was made man…which is a prima facie [‘at first sight’ a] contradiction in theological terms…the [NT] nowhere reflects on the virgin birth of Jesus as witnessing to the conjunction of deity and manhood in His person…the deity of Jesus was not…clearly stated in words and [the book of] Acts gives no hint that it was”[6]. This philosophy[7] was known by the so-called “Church Fathers” such as Origen, Irenaeus, and Tertullian[8].

At its core, Gnosticism formed a speculative interest in the relationship of the oneness of God to the ‘triplicity’ of his manifestations. It seems to have taken Neoplatonic metaphysics of substance and hypostases [“beings”][9] as a departure point for interpreting the relationship of the “Father” to the “Son”[10] in its attempt to define a new theology[11]. This would point to the infamous theological controversies by Arius[12] against followers of the Greek Alexandrian school[13], headed by Athanasius[14].

The discovery of the ancient Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt in the 1940s shows how varied this movement was. The writers of these manuscripts considered themselves ‘Christians’, but due to their syncretistic believes, borrowed heavily from the Greek philosopher Plato. The find included the hotly debated Gospel of Thomas, which parallels some of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic Gospels. This may point to the existence of a postulated lost textual source for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, known as the Q document[15]. Thus, modern debate is split between those who see Gnosticism as a pre-Christian form of ‘theosophy’[16] and those who see it as a post-Christian counter-movement.

NT scripture was largely unwritten, at least in the form of canon, existing in the practices, customs and teachings of the early Christian community. What largely was communicated generation to generation was an oral tradition passed from the apostles to the Bishops and from Bishops and priests to the faithful through their preaching and way of life[17]. Constantine’s call for unity in the building of the new Roman Church led to his request for Eusebius to produce some 50 copies of manuscripts. These were approved and accepted by the emperor, which later influenced the final stages of canonization[18].

The best known origin story in the NT comes in the person of Simon the ‘mage’ [Acts 8:9-24]. Although, nothing is historically known about this figure, his first disciple is said to have been Basilides[19].

Paul’s epistles to Timothy contain refutations to “false doctrine [and] myths” [1 Tim 1:3-5]. The importance placed here, as in most NT scripture, is to uphold the truth since through such knowledge God hopes for “all men” to be saved [1 Tim 2:4]. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians has a lot to say regarding false teachers (2 Co 11:4), “spiritualists” [pneumatikos1 Co 2:14-15; 15:44-46] and their gnosis [knowledge]. Warning against the “wisdom of the wise” and their “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (1 Co 1:19; 2:5—NIV; cp. Col 2:1-10; 2:8). These are seen as the clearest texts to early Gnostic evidence. Likewise, the book of Jude contains scripture exhorting believers to seek the true faith (Jude 3) and it is nowhere more influential than in telling us who Jesus was.

But the writings attributed to the Apostle John contain the most significant amount of content directed at combating the progenitors of heresies[20]. Most Bible scholars agree that these were some of the last parts of the NT written and as such, can offer the most insights into a 1st century perspective[21]. The writer’s repeated adherence to true knowledge (“hereby we know”—inherent in Jesus’ ministry) and nature[22] seem to challenge other speculative and opposing believes.

The 2nd epistle of John is only 13 verses long but it makes strong emphasis on Christological matters[23]. From its context we see the importance placed on “knowing…walking” and loving the truth (v. 1-4), on the humanity of the man Jesus (v. 7-11) and adherence to “teaching [the doctrine] of Christ” [cp. John 7:14-18]. These point to false teachers who claimed to bring some supposedly "higher" teaching [gnosis] than what the apostles taught[24].

From the evidence at hand, it seems that early Christian apologists used their biblical faith to teach a pagan audience how best to adopt the new religion. Wrapping their understanding of scripture and worldly wisdom in the process and taking their lead from such Jewish apologists like Philo of Alexandria. Whether even without Philo the ‘Fathers of the Church’ would have attempted to harmonize scripture and philosophy is a plausible assumption. Whether the result of their harmonization would have been the same as it is now is a matter of conjecture. But it happens that Philo came before them and it also happens that all kinds of evidence show the influence of Philo upon early Gentile-Christian churches[25].

It is hard to sift through what actual evidence there is regarding Gnosticism in the NT due to their historical synchronicity. The Hammadi library find contains Pagan, Jewish, Greek and early Gnostic influences[26], further reinforcing the need to tread lightly. The antiquity of the find being of utmost importance since it shows primary evidence of texts that may also have influenced the process of NT canonization[27].

If any conclusion is to be made at this point is that Gnosticism was considered a real enough threat by the apostles themselves, showing us how early it started to infiltrate the Church, through which several of its undercurrents were to strongly influence later ‘orthodox’ doctrine[28].


[1] First coined in Plato’s Politikos [‘Statement’] as gnostikoi [‘those capable of knowing’], and linking it with knowledge [episteme] (Introduction to Politikos; Cooper, John M. & Hutchinson, D. S. [Eds.] (1997)

[2] What is understood as “orthodox” and “Gnostic” teachings in this early period [1st-2nd century] needs to be redefined due to the complexities now unfolding regarding their historical and doctrinal similarities. Ed. Note.

[3] The terminology has ties to the passage in Pro 8:23, taking a well known Hebraic-concept of ‘personification’ and applying it to Christ as the “wisdom of God” [1 Co 1:24]. This metaphor was common and understood by most church fathers like Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Epiphanius and Cyril. (Racovian Catechism, pp. 73-75)

[4] From the Greek dokein, hence Docetism (Dictionary of the Later NT & its Developments, Intervarsity Press, 1997)

[5] Jesus was Sui Generis, the doctrine of the “pre-existent” Christ accepted by some Gnostics and ‘orthodox’ Christians. Hanson R. P. C, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 A.D. Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1988.

[6] New Bible Dictionary, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., Grand Rapids, MI, 1975), pp. 558-560. Furthermore, scripture teaches that this is not in line with Hebraic [Rabbinic] teaching, something Jesus himself adhered to [Luke 2; John 4:24; Phil 3:3-4]. Also see, Nuesner, Jacob, The Modern Study of the Mishna, 1997; & Mishne Torah.

[7] In Platonism the soul [psuchē] was self-moving, indivisible; degenerated and eternal, existing before the body which housed it, and longing to be free from its earthly imprisonment, leading to the Docetist-dualist concept of ‘good’ & ‘evil’ matter. Ed. Note.

[8] Their own ‘heresiology’ would later be attacked as heretical. See, Holt, Reinhard, The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason, Winston N.Y., 1971), p. 382; Alastair H. B. Logan, Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1996)

[9] “Was the Lord’s prayer addressed only to the hypostasis of the Father as ‘our Father’ and the Father of the Son, or to the entire ousia of the Godhead?” Pelikan, Jaroslav; The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. 1, the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1971.

10] A new theological vocabulary capable of explaining this doctrine was created [e.g. homoousios = same essence]. Adopting an idea of Origen’s that easterners would appreciate in their own Sabellianism. Hanson, Search, pp. 687-688.

[11] The crisis of the later Roman Empire and move towards the east brought a “new realism” which may have inclined Christians to accept the new theological doctrine. Ed. note

[12] Arius preached that, “before Christ, God was not yet a Father…there was a time when he [Jesus] was not.” Since most of his works are lost, the accounts are based on reports of others. Hanson, Search, pp. 5-8.

[13] Alexandria had long been a hotbed of theological innovation and debate where high ranking Christian thinkers used methods from Greek philosophy as well as Jewish and Christian sources for their teachings. Ed. note

[14] Although, he took his monotheism seriously, he later taught that the only way to save mankind from moral and physical extinction was for God to do the unthinkable, descend into human flesh. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the World”, in Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 4, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994)

[15] See Goodacre, Mark. The Case against Q: Studies in Marcan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002); Robinson, James, M. The Nag Hammadi Library, HarperOne, 1990.

[16] The word becoming familiar to Greeks in the 3rd century with Ammonius Saccas and the Alexandrian Neo-Platonists [or Theurgists] and was adopted in 1875 by H. P. Blavatsky and others associated with the Theosophical Society (Blavatsky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine, the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, Theosophical Uni. Press, first published 1888)

[17] Its formulation coinciding with the period most strongly associated with Gnosticism [4th-6th centuries]. See, Eusebius Hist. Eccl; McDonald, L. M, The Formation of the Biblical Canon (rev. and exp, ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).

[18] Dictionary of the Later New Testament, pp. 135-143.

[19] One of the earliest & best known Gnostics (Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Intervarsity Press, 1993, pp. 350-351)

[20] Even though the author makes it clear why the gospel was written in John 20:31. Ed. Note.

[21] Scholarly debate lies in placing the letters between 70-90A.D. & 90-110A.D. (Dictionary of the Later NT & its Developments, Intervarsity Press, 1997)

[22] “In the beginning the Word existed. The Word existed in the presence of God, and the Word was a divine being.” John 1:1. A Contemporary English Translation of the Coptic Text, late 2nd century C.E based on the texts of George William Horner. The Coptic version of the NT in the southern dialect, otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, 1911.

[23] The Apostle states that in light of the continual battle by Satan against God and His Christ, it’s not surprising that “our gospel is veiled…the god of this world” blinding people, as per 2 Co 4:3-4 (NRSV)

[24] It is not surprising to see that John is in harmony with Paul’s own teachings regarding the “true doctrine” in his pastoral letters (cp. 1 Tim 6:3-4; 2 Co 11:4). Ed. Note.

[25] H. A. Wolfson, ‘Notes on Patristic Philosophy’, Harvard Theological Review 57, no. 2 [Apr. 1964] p. 124.

[26] “Both pagan mythologies and Platonic philosophical traditions…extensive use of the early chapters of Genesis…the obvious centrality of Jesus Christ [and apostolic figures] in many texts.” Dictionary of the Later New Testament, p 410

[27] See Everett Ferguson, "Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon," in The Canon Debate. eds. L. M. McDonald & J. A. Sanders (Hendrickson, 2002); Lindberg, Carter (2006) A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing

[28] The Council at Nicaea [325 A.D.] went on to condemn “those who say…that He [Jesus] came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance…these, the Catholic Church and apostolic Church anathematizes”. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp. 215-216. Kelly translates ousia as “substance” here, and the creed as recited today translates homoousios as “consubstantial”—of the same substance.

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