Skip to comments.The Origins of Gnosticism
Posted on 10/27/2018 2:15:25 PM PDT by pcottraux
The Origins of Gnosticism
By Philip Cottraux
At the end of last weeks blog I mentioned the Christian supernova, a period roughly between 100-200 AD when Christianity exploded rapidly across the Roman Empire. The movement became more diverse as it grew. Orthodox and Coptic Christians divided into more and more complex subgroups. Unfortunately, some got more radicalized until they became isolated cults with teachings directly contradicting the gospel. Perhaps the most infamous of these were the Gnostics.
Gnosis is Greek for received knowledge or secret wisdom. However, Gnostic is a modern term; there was no actual group that called themselves that. Gnosticism was mostly unified by a single set of esoteric beliefs that mixed Christian theology with paganism.
Although its history is complicated and its origins mysterious, historians believe that Gnosticisms roots were in Ephesus, a Greek seaport in Asia Minor with a large, wealthy population. Ephesus was most famous for worship of Diana; its magnificent temple to her, the largest in the world at the time, was 220 feet by 425, supported by 127 columns, and built of pure white marble. Paul planted the first Christian church here in AD 54.
After writing his first letter to the church seven years later (AD 61), which is our New Testament book of Ephesians, Paul sent one of his best assistants, Timothy of Lystra, to lead the church. The typical false doctrine Paul combated involved the role of the Old Testament law in the New Testament age. Jewish Christians insisted Gentile converts practice Judaism, including circumcision and total obedience to the Mosaic Law, which is the main reason he wrote books like Romans and Galatians.
But two years later, Timothy sent word to Paul that a new form of super false doctrine was spreading in Ephesus like a cancer. A message of female empowerment, influenced by Diana worship, had infiltrated the church. Christian women were embracing it in droves. It taught:
1. Marriage is a sin.
2. Eating meat is a sin.
3. God created Eve first.
4. Eve was actually the heroine of Genesis; by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she had introduced cosmic knowledge (gnosis) to the human race.
5. Women were called to dominate men, following in Eves footsteps. Because of Christ, women were now free to lead people to this secret knowledge.
I believe modern feminism, while claiming to seek equality among the sexes, actually has a disastrous effect on the nuclear family as well as womens long-term health and stability (there is solid scientific data demonstrating that girls raised in single-mother households have higher risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life). Women at Ephesus were abandoning their husbands and children, dressing like prostitutes, and committing adultery with strangers. Outside of raising families, their chief role at Ephesus was to care for elderly widows. This was a sacred responsibility in ancient Christian communities; but now the new freed women were leaving lonely older women to neglect and starvation.
Adorning oneself with jewelry, piercings, and gold plating was a sign of devotion to Diana. This, along with the fact that these women were introducing false doctrine to the church, explains two of Pauls most controversial verses: In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; (1 Timothy 2:9). Many churches in the Pentecostal movement declared it a sin to wear jewelry or makeup because of this verse. But though dressing modestly is clearly universally godly, placing this scripture in its proper historical context makes it problematic to say that its actually sinful to wear makeup or jewelry. In verses 11-12 Paul says Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. A literal reading of this seems to support women not preaching or teaching, but remember that Paul was speaking to a specific issue regarding Ephesus, compounded by the fact that in the very next verse, he addresses the false doctrine head-on: For Adam was first formed, then Eve (verse 13). This specifically confronted the early Gnostic lies about Genesis. Verse 14: And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
Paul ominously predicted this would become a bigger problem over the years (1 Timothy 4:1-2). As Christianity grew, Gnosticism only grew with it. The church fathers (who took over after all the original apostles had died) wrote extensively about this heresy, though these writings are heavily biased, to say the least. We do, however, have an extensive collection of Gnostic texts at the Nag Hammadi library to shed light on what exactly these early heretics believed.
Some time in the second century, a controversial church figure named Marcion gained a large following in Rome. Marcion would make the largest contribution to Gnosticism, ditheism (two-god theology). To say that the church fathers despised him would be an understatement. Tertullian (160-220 AD) said of him More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of the barbarous homeland.
Marcion had read over the New Testament and found a loving God who sent His Son to die for humanity. However, the Old Testament seems to depict an angry God who destroys with fire and judgment. Seizing on the classic Gnostic tradition of misrepresenting Genesis, Marcion saw a god who had created a world full of pain and suffering and decided that the Old Testament deity was an impostor. He concluded that the original supreme God (called the Monad) was replaced by an evil impersonator (the Demiurge).
By the third century, the Gnostics had given the Demiurge a name, Saklas. They rejected the idea of Jesus dying and rising again and instead portrayed Him as a secret agent of the Monad, sent to bring secret knowledge (gnosis) to free humanity from the spell of Saklas. Marcion even released his own butchered version of some of the New Testament books, heavily editing out scriptures that quoted the Old Testament. Irenaeus (104-202 AD) said of his work: Beside all this, Marcion mutilated the gospel according to Luke, discarding all that is written about the birth of the Lord and discarding also many of the Lords discourses containing teachings in which it is most clearly written that the Lord confessed His Father as the Maker of the universe.
Gnosticism eventually died, but not before producing scores of ancient texts that have been discovered in recent years. Sadly, critics of Christianity have pointed to these as evidence that the New Testament is incomplete and that a sinister council must have met to ban these alternative gospels because they were dangerous. These include the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Peter, Allogonese, the apocryphon of John, and the most infamously, the gospel of Judas.
A careful study of these so-called banned texts, however, reveals that they are far removed from the historical birth of Christianity. The gospel of Judas, for example, is a product of a Gnostic subgroup called the Cainites who identified with villains from the Bible. Furthermore, their contents are bizarre; the gospel of Peter features Jesus head so big on the resurrection morning that it reaches into the clouds and a talking cross emerging from the tomb. Contrary to popular belief, there was no sinister council of bishops that conspired to canonize certain books while leaving out others, though it could be argued that the Council of Laodiceas publishing of 26 New Testament books (364 AD) was one of the first considered definitive. Canonization was an organic process that had more to do with the popularity and rapid reproduction of books than a shady group of conspirators protecting their own power. Most of the 27 books had been canonized long before either the Laodicean or Nicene councils. Copies have been plentiful among the New Testament papyri discoveries while Gnostic texts have been rare and in poorer condition, indicating that they simply werent well-respected among early church Christians.
Gnosticism itself never completely died away, though. Many of its ideas live on in modern New Ageism.
For more information, Im including links to videos from Andrew Mark Henrys YouTube channel, Religion for Breakfast. Andrew is a religious scholar who doesnt promote the truth of one religion over the other but provides objective academic studies. I highly recommend checking out his videos on this is enormously fascinating topic.
-Viola, Frank. The Untold Story of the New Testament. Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, PA, 2004, pages 158-160.
-Strobel, Lee. The Case for the Real Jesus. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007, page 55.
-Religion For Breakfast: What Did Gnostic Christians Believe?
-Religion For Breakfast: What Did Marcion Believe?
-Religion For Breakfast: Gospel of Judas: What Does it Really Say?
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Sounds like a form of Christian liberalism to me.
Gnosticism essentially had three elements that combined to form it: Eastern dualism from Persia, Jewish esotericism (e.g. qabbalah), and neoplatonism.
Thank you for posting this enlightening piece on Gnosticism.
It never ceases to amaze me that there have been so many false prophets making up their own versions of new-and-improved religion: Gnostics, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, “Christian Scientists” Jehovah Witnesses, etc.
Craven jealous, hell bent to become independent messiahs.
Gnosticism was more than Christian heresy. There was other non-Christian variations of it. Having read a lot of these texts, especially the Nag Hammadi library, it is very bizarre to say the least. The general consensus was the material world was evil and a prison of the spirit created by a malevolent entity.
I personally don’t see how someone who is skeptical of the Bible can view any of these texts as being more credible.
From the Catholic Dictionary:
The theory of salvation by knowledge. Already in the first century of the Christian era there were Gnostics who claimed to know the mysteries of the universe. They were disciples of the various pantheistic sects that existed before Christ. The Gnostics borrowed what suited their purpose from the Gospels, wrote new gospels of their own, and in general proposed a dualistic system of belief. Matter was said to be hostile to spirit, and the universe was held to be a depravation of the Deity. Although extinct as an organized religion, Gnosticism is the invariable element in every major Christian heresy, by its denial of an objective revelation that was completed in the apostolic age and its disclaimer that Christ established in the Church a teaching authority to interpret decisively the meaning of the revealed word of God.
I recently took a course in Gnosticism. The professor, an Eastern European immigrant, is a Gnostic bishop in LA. (We had class discussions online.) It was quite interesting.
Much of this article matches what he is saying. Some doesn’t quite match Gnosticism as I understand it. For example, you did not even discuss Sophia and Gnosticism.
I find Gnosticism fascinating. Apparently, Carl Jung was influenced by Gnosticism. I don’t know a lot about psychology, but I consider myself a Jungian. I’m certainly not a behaviorist.
Don’t liberals, more or less, believe the same thing? They think capitalism and material goods is an evil of the world and, if everybody lived like communists, where we gave up material goods and we live as complete equals?
Every movement of liberalism today involves purity. If you’re not pure, you’re going to be exorcised from society.
I think it’s what Bible prophecies as the power of God, but lacking the morality of God.
The theory of salvation by knowledge.
1 The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel;
2 To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding;
3 To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity;
4 To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
5 A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:
6 To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
8 My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:
9 For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.
Seeking direct knowledge of God is discouraged by way of the scary, pagan-esque word gnosticism, that way the folks defer to the self-appointed keepers of knowledge who are threatened by independent-minded students. The Establishment scam is up across the board, regardless of the particular man-made Establishment. "D.C." has been connected to "David's Capital" for a reason.
The Bible describes a simple, kind, industrious Messiah who has a broad every-man knowledge-base of practical skills, a righteous work ethic, and a vast capacity to love. He's the blueprint of salvation.
Like he cares about all the bling and blather that has been generated "in Jesus' name" for Jesus. Materialists giving gifts to a materialistic Jesus, not the real one who just wants to love and heal people. Worship of superficial nonsense has got to be right up there on the list of the social diseases that he needs to cure. There's the salvation by knowledge. It's not a theory.
3. God created Eve first.
Did this give rise to the Lilith myth?
Knowledge is truth. Jesus is The Word. He IS, or “I Am” the information creation consist of. He IS The Way, The Truth and The Life. He IS God. No one can be what He IS and not be God. He is not merely a saviour, He iS God who IS our one and only Saviour.
Everything about Jesus IS God, who loved us so much He become flesh to become our unblemished lamb of God 5sacrifice, dying to pay the horrific price of our sins. He isn’t just a blueprint, He IS our salvation, our LORD, Saviour and God.
He IS everything we need, but without Him, the true Him, not just a happy, benign, humanistic version of Him, painted by our own desire for an imaginary super friend, we will surely die in our sins. We will be unclean eternal exiles, unfit to live in God’s eternal Kingdom, existing separated from God, tormented in the lake of fire and brimstone forever.
John 3:16 - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Matthew 28:19 - Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the HolyGhost:
Don't know, but that's an interesting observation.
I've made some Mormon friends on social media and have had interesting Bible studies with them. Some are unbelievably nice people.
That said, I can't fathom how anyone can believe Mormonism. Everything about it is either bonkers or obviously shady. Joseph Smith especially strikes me as a snake oil salesman of his day. Not entirely unlike an L. Ron Hubbard of the 19th century.
Craven jealous, hell bent to become independent messiahs.
If you're interested in seeing the dark side of Mormonism firsthand, I highly recommend Irene Spencer's books. She grew up in a Mormon polygamist cult and was the second wife of eight. It's very eye-opening how manipulative, deceitful, and oppressive that kind of fundamentalism is.
I especially recommend Cult Insanity, one of the disturbing books I've ever read. Irene was a survivor of the reign of terror of Ervil LeBaron, also known as the "Mormon Manson" (he was her brother-in-law).
Ervil went berserk and had at least 40 members of his own family brutally murdered. The scary part is that every gruesome act he committed was justified by scriptures in the book of Mormon or in the writings of the early Mormon church.
It's really just for the sake of time and space. I try to limit my blogs to about 1,500 words or less (any longer and people tend to lose interest). I could have gone into much more detail but had to keep this as a "basic history" article.
Apparently, Carl Jung was influenced by Gnosticism. I dont know a lot about psychology, but I consider myself a Jungian.
Everything I know about Jung I've learned from Jordan Peterson. ;-)
That said, from my understanding Jung got a lot more right about psychology than Freud so I definitely have him on my reading list.
You’re welcome! I love talking about this sort of stuff.
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