Gnostics were Christian mystics who emerged between around A.D. 100 in Egypt and christianized a pagan sun festival around A.D. 120-140. Influenced by Plato and other Greek philosophers, they viewed things in dualistic terms such as between the goodness of the spirit and the evil of the earth and between a real world and false world. Gnosticism may have originally been a Christian adaption of the Greek philosophy. “ Gnosis”is the Greek word for knowledge. Much of what we know about the Gnostics comes from the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.
Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “The term gnosticism is often used as a sort of umbrella term to cover the people that the leaders of the church don't like. It covers probably a huge variety of points of view. And yet there is a theme; the way I connect text that we think of as gnostic is the sense that the divine is to be discovered by some kind of interior search, and not simply by a savior who is outside of you. [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
Carl A. Volz wrote: “The name, derived from gnosis (knowledge) given to a complex religious movement which in its Christian form comes into clear prominence in the 2nd century. It is now generally held that Christian gnosticism had its origins in trends of thought already present in pagan religious circles. In Christianity, the movement appeared at first as a school (or schools) of thought within the Church; it soon established itself in all the principal centers of Christianity; and by the end of the 2nd century the gnostics had mostly become separate sects. In some of the later books of the NT (e.g. I John and Pastorals) forms of false teaching are denounced which appear to be similar to, though less developed than, the gnostic systems of teaching of 2nd C. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu]
“Gnosticism took many different forms, commonly associated with the names of particular teachers, e.g. Valentinus and Basilides. A central importance was attached to gnosist the supposedly revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and destiny of mankind, by means of which the spiritual element in man could receive redemption. The source of this special gnosis was held to be either the Apostles, from whom it was derived by a secret tradition, or a direct revelation given to the founder of the sect. The systems of teaching range from those which embody much genuine philosophical speculation to those which are wild amalgams of mythology and magical rites drawn from all quarters, with the most slender admixture of Christian elements. The Old Testament books were used and expounded, together with many of the New Testament books, and a central place was assigned to the figure of Jesus, but on a number of fundamental points the interpretation of these features differed widely from that of orthodox Christianity.” /~\
The “Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels of Princeton University (1979) was awarded a National Book Award and was a surprise bestseller.
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ;
Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex
Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “Many, many Christians, who are not appreciated by many of the leaders of the church, believed that spiritual awakening was demonstrated in one's capacity to speak in either revelation or dream visions.... Such Christians often spoke in poems, in songs, in stories that we would say come out of the creative imagination or the religious imagination. Fathers of the church objected and said, "Well, they're just making up a lot of garbage. It's a ridiculous thing that they are just inventing themselves out of their own feelings." But as they saw it, the sense of an original voice, an original insight, is as we would see it, say, in a creative writing class today, was evidence that that person has discovered his or her genuine voice. [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]
Did the gnostics see themselves as being outside? “The people who wrote and circulated gospels like the Gospel of Thomas certainly didn't think they were heretics. They thought of themselves as Christians who had received, in addition to the other gospels, secret teaching. For example in the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Mark says that Jesus taught certain things privately to the disciples. And Paul too says that he had secret teaching. And these claim to give some of the secret teaching of Jesus. Whether he actually did teach secretly or not, we don't know otherwise. But the Gospel of Thomas claims to be this kind of secret teaching.
“A spokesman for the orthodox church called certain other Christians gnostics. We don't know quite what they mean by that except that they didn't like their viewpoints. The people whom they called gnostics would have called themselves Christian. And they were Christians of very diverse viewpoints. I mean, we think today Christianity looks diverse. If you look from Pentecostal churches to Roman Catholic Churches, to orthodox churches, to every kind of Protestant Church one can imagine, we think that's diversity. But actually most Christians today share a common list of New Testament writings, they share a certain kind of structure of church, and a certain core of beliefs. But back then there was no list of agreed gospels. There was no list of agreed doctrines. And there was no agreed upon structure. So actually the early Christian movement was much more wildly diverse. And perhaps that's why that part of the movement in fact couldn't survive.
Impact of the Gnostics on Christianity
Gnostic views were a little too bizarre and mystical for most Christians. As a reaction to them, the Christian majority adopted a more down to earth and flesh and blood conception of Jesus and Christianity. Ultimately Gnostics were condemned as heretics by the early Christian church and later by the Catholics. In A.D. 367, Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria, provider of the first list of the 27 books that would ultimately become the New Testament, called the Gnostic texts “illegitimate and secret.” The 2nd century heresy hunter, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, said these works of “so-called gnosos” were “full of blasphemy.”
Why were the Gnostics received with such hostility? Princeton Biblical scholar Elaine Page has suggested that it was because they undermined the underlying basis for church structure: the belief that Jesus bestowed ecclesiastical authority only on the male apostles who saw him after his resurrection, thereby establishing the one of succession running from his inner circle of disciples.
Many people with a fascination with mysticism, New Age spiritualism, and eastern philosophy and religion have taken an interest in Gnosticism. One American-born Zen priest jokingly told Time, “Had I know the “Gospel of Thomas”, I wouldn’t have become a Buddhist.” The Gnostic view that world is a place of suffering is similar to the view that Buddhists have.
The premise of the Matrix series of films — that the world we live in an illusion created by an evil power — comes from the Gnostics. At one point in the film Morphepus tells Neo, “The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
Development of Gnosticism
Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “Gnosticism is a term that's etymologically connected with the word "to know." It has the same root in English, "kno" is related to "gno" the Greek word for gnosis. And Gnostics were people who claimed to know something special. This knowledge could be a knowledge of a person, the kind of personal acquaintance that a mystic would have with the divine. Or it could be a kind of propositional knowledge of certain key truths. Gnostics claim both of those kinds of knowledge. The claim to have some sort of special knowledge was not confined to any particular group in the second century. It was widespread, and we have such claims being advanced by fairly orthodox teachers such as Clement of Alexandria, we have similar claims being advanced by all sorts of other teachers during that period. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“It's difficult to know with precision how gnosticism emerged. Because the way we use the term today is as a cover for a variety of phenomena during the course of the second century. One main strand of gnosticism seems to have emerged as a way of reflecting on Jewish scripture and reflecting on Jewish traditions about the descent of the angels to beget children by human beings. Using that old tradition as a way of reflecting on why there's evil in the world. So in one way, gnosticism is a movement that has a philosophical or a theological dimension that's wrestling with the problem of theodicy. And many gnostics solve that problem by saying there's a sharp dichotomy between the world of matter and the world of spirit, and they're very much interested in getting into the world of spirit, removing themselves from the world of matter. They explain that dichotomy with elaborate theories about how spirit got involved with matter and then with practices, usually ascetical practices, to enable spirit to return to its own place.
Myth of Origins, Non-Canon Heretics and Gnostics
Karen King at Harvard Divinity School is a critic of what she calls the “master story” of Christianity: a narrative that casts the New Testament as divine revelation that passed through Jesus in “an unbroken chain” to the apostles and their successors—church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carried its truths into the present day. Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: According to this “myth of origins,” as she has called it, followers of Jesus who accepted the New Testament canon—chiefly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written roughly between A.D. 65 and A.D. 95, or at least 35 years after Jesus’ death—were true Christians. Followers inspired by noncanonical gospels were heretics hornswoggled by the devil. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, October 5, 2015 /~/]
“Until the last century, virtually everything scholars knew about these other gospels came from broadsides against them by early Church leaders. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, France, pilloried them in A.D. 180 as “an abyss of madness and of blasphemy”—a “wicked art” practiced by people bent on “adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.” A challenge to Christianity’s master story surfaced in December 1945, when an Arab farmer digging near the town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, stumbled on a cache of manuscripts. Inside a meter-tall clay jar containing 13 leatherbound papyrus codices were 52 texts that didn’t make it into the canon, including the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Philip and the Secret Revelation of John. /~/
“As scholars translated the texts from Coptic, early Christians whose views had fallen out of favor—or were silenced—began speaking again, across the ages, in their own voices. A picture began to take shape of long-ago Christians, scattered across the Eastern Mediterranean, who derived sometimes contradictory teachings from the life of Jesus Christ. Was it possible that Judas was not a turncoat but a favored disciple? Did Christ’s body really rise, or just his soul? Was the crucifixion—and human suffering, more broadly—a prerequisite for salvation? /~/
“Only later did an organized Church sort the answers to those questions into the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. (Some scholars prefer the term “Gnostic” to heretical; King rejects both, arguing in a 2003 book that “Gnosticism” is a construct “invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity.”)” /~/
"Heretics" Defined in Response to Persecution
Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “As far as we can tell, the earliest Christian communities had an enormous variety of viewpoints and attitudes and approach, as we've said. But by the end of the second century, you begin to see hierarchies of bishops, priests and deacons emerge in various communities and claim to speak for the majority. And with that development, there's probably an assertion of leadership against viewpoints that those leaders considered dangerous and heretical. One of the issues that polarized those communities, perhaps the most urgent and pressing issue, was persecution. That is, these people, all Christians, belonged to an illegal movement. It was dangerous to belong to this movement. You could be arrested, if you were charged with being a Christian, you could be put on trial, you could be tortured and executed if you refused to recant. And with that pressure, many said, "We want to know when a person joins this movement if that person is going to stand with us or is going to pretend they're not with us. So let's clarify who belongs to us...." [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]
“The Bishop Irenaeus was about 18 to 20 years old when his little community was absolutely decimated by a devastating persecution. They say that 50 to 70 people in two small towns were tortured and executed. That must have meant hundreds were rounded up and put in prison. But 50 to 70 people in two small towns executed in public is a devastating destruction of that beleaguered community. And Irenaeus was trying to unify those who were left. What frustrating him is that they didn't all believe the same thing. They didn't all gather under one kind of leadership. And he, like others, was deeply aware of the dangers of fragmentation, that one community could be lost. And so it is out of that deep concern, I think, that Irenaeus and others began to try to unify the church, and, and create criteria like, you know, these are the four gospels. These are what we believe, these are the rituals, which you first do. You're baptized and then you're a member of this community. It would be absurd to suggest that the leaders of the church were out to protect their power.
“Because to become bishop in a church in which the 92 year old bishop had just died in prison, which is what Irenaeus did as a very young man, he had the courage to become bishop, is to become a target for the next persecution. This is not a position of power, it's a position of danger and courage. And those people were concerned to try to unify the church. So it would be ridiculous to tell the story of the early Christian movement as though the orthodox were, you know, power mad, and trying to destroy all diversity in the church. It's much more complicated than that. The sociologist Max Weber has shown that a religious movement, if it doesn't develop a certain institutional structure within a generation of its founder's death, will not survive. So it's likely, I think, that we owe the survival of the Christian movement to those forms that Irenaeus and others developed. You know, the list of acceptable books, the list of acceptable teachings, the rituals.”
Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism
Much of what we know about gnosticism comes from the Nag Hammadi library, writings found near the Nile River in central Egypt in 1945 that illustrate the great diversity in the religious speculation and communal piety of early Christian groups. Along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, they helped historians understand the religious context out of which the earliest Christian traditions emerged.
According to Time magazine: “Gnosticism is the object of renewed interest among scholars, owing largely to the publication of a remarkable library of Gnostic scriptures. Known as the Nag Hammadi Codices, for the town in southern Egypt near the site of their discovery, the Library consists of twelve 4th century papyrus books containing 52 texts that are thought to have been translated from the original Greek into Egypt's ancient Coptic language. Many scholars believe that it will become as important to understanding the early Christian era as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the library of a Jewish Essene community that was discovered in 1947. [Source: Time, June 9, 1975 ++]
“The Nag Hammadi texts are already adding new fuel to a longstanding debate over the relationship between Gnosticism and early Christianity. Scholars have long believed that some New Testament passages attack incipient forms of Gnosticism. The traditional explanation is that Gnosticism matured after the birth of Christianity and became its archenemy, not only as a separate religion but also as a heretical wing within the early church. Yet some experts, among them Germany's New Testament Critic Rudolf Bultmann, are persuaded that Gnosticism was a full-fledged, working religion even before the arrival of Christ. ++
“In any case, it was largely the threat posed by the Gnostics that forced the early Christian church to codify its beliefs and fix the list of authoritative Bible books. As orthodoxy won out, Gnostic scriptures were destroyed, and for centuries the religion was known chiefly from church attacks against it. The Nag Hammadi texts, says New Testament Scholar James M. Robinson, who led the team that has compiled them, offer the first comprehensive view of Gnosticism as "a religion in its own right." That view is startling indeed. The Gnostics were imaginative religious scavengers who borrowed freely from various sources to furnish their own scriptures. But they evidently felt a particular need to co-opt and corrupt elements of their rival, Christianity. Typically, two of the best-known tracts from the Nag Hammadi library, the previously published Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Philip, contain sayings of Jesus purportedly collected by two of his Apostles but often twisted by the Gnostics to fit their own radically ascetic, relentlessly spiritual outlook. ++
Nag Hammadi Library
According to Time magazine: “The Nag Hammadi texts were packed away 16 centuries ago, perhaps to protect them from book-burning Christian opponents... Most of them ended up in Cairo's Coptic Museum. Yet because of scholarly rivalries and unsettled political conditions in Egypt, no comprehensive study of the entire find was undertaken until 1970, after Presbyterian Robinson, director of Claremont (Calif.) Graduate School's Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, got UNESCO to assemble a team for the painstaking process of piecing together and editing the 1,191 surviving pages. The first of eleven volumes of an English translation appeared” in 1975. [Source: Time, June 9, 1975 ++]
Elaine H. Pagels wrote: “There were 52 texts altogether, apparently, unless some of them were burned that we don't know about. And they contain, some of them, secret gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a similar text that was found separately. They also contain conversations between Jesus and his disciples.... All kinds of literature from the early Christian era, a whole discovery of text rather like the New Testament but also very different. [Source:Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
Mariane Bonz wrote: “The collection, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, is of great importance for the understanding of the development of early Christian communities because it presents the social and religious perspectives of groups of Christians who did not prevail in the battles that eventually resulted in the formation of a single, unified church. Their differences with more orthodox Christians covered a wide range of issues, including whether Jesus' death on the cross was either real or relevant, and whether women were among Jesus' true disciples and, therefore, had the authority to teach and to baptize. [Source: Mariane Bonz, managing editor of Harvard Theological Review, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“Before the emergence of the Nag Hammadi texts, the views expressed in such early Christian writings as the Gospel of Mary, the Apocryphon (secret teaching) of John, and the Dialogue of the Savior were known only from the distorted descriptions found in the writings of their opponents. Since these opponents were famous church leaders such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, it is not surprising that their writings were not preserved by the church. Because of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, modern Christians have a much more complete picture of their spiritual family tree.
“The common thread that unites the disparate writings of the Nag Hammadi collection is an emphasis on secret, saving knowledge (gnosis), as well as an other worldly estrangement from human society in general and a desire to withdraw from the corruption of the material world. James Robinson likens the spirit of these writings to the counter-culture movements begun in the 1960s: disinterest in the goods of a consumer society, withdrawal into communes of the like-minded. . . sharing an in-group's knowledge, both of the disaster-course of the [mainstream] culture and of an ideal, radical alternative. . . .This is the real challenge rooted in such materials as the Nag Hammadi library.
Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
Gnostic text Apocalypse of PeterMariane Bonz wrote: “As was the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery of the literary treasures of Nag Hammadi was largely accidental. Several hundred miles south of Cairo, where the Nile River bends sharply east, beyond the ancient monastery of Pachomius at Chenoboskion, a group of local farmers were digging up the rich soil surrounding the river bed to use as fertilizer for their crops. One of these farmers, Mohammed Ali, happened upon a large storage jar. Hoping that it might contain gold or an equally precious coin hoard, he broke open the jar. Out tumbled twelve large, leather-bound codices. The year was 1945, two years before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. [Source: Mariane Bonz, managing editor of Harvard Theological Review, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “Mohammed Ali going with his brothers on an ordinary errand. They saddled up their camels and they rode out from their village, a small town in the barren stretches of upper Egypt. They took their camels and rode up to a cliff nearby, which is honeycombed with thousands of caves. These caves were used as burial caves in antiquity, thousands of years ago. But they were digging under the cliffs for fertilizer, that is, for bird droppings which fertilized the crops. And Mohammed Ali said he struck something when he was digging underground. And, curious, he kept digging, and he was startled to find a six foot jar sealed. And next to it was buried a corpse. [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
Mohammed Ali said he hesitated to break the jar because he thought there might be a jinn in it. But hope overcame fear; he said he picked up his mattock and smashed the jar, and saw particles of gold fly out of it, much to his delight. But a moment later he realized it was only fragments of papyrus. Inside the jar were 13 volumes, bound in tooled gazelle leather. Thirteen volumes of papyrus text. Now Mohammed Ali could not read these texts. He doesn't read Arabic, which is his own language. And these texts were in some strange archaic language. They were actually Coptic, which is the Egyptian language of 1400 years ago. But he nevertheless put them in his backpack, slung them along and took them home and threw them on the ground in his house near the stove. Later his mother said that she took some of them and threw them into the fire for kindling when she was baking bread. What we didn't know until much later is that these contained some of the most precious texts of the 20th century. That they have uncovered for us a whole new way of seeing the early Christian world.
Bonz wrote: “Mohammed gave one of the books to his brother-in-law Raghib, who eventually sold it to a Cairo museum. Of the remaining eleven books, one was partially burned by Mohammed's wife, and the rest fell into the hands of local merchants. It took over thirty years for the Nag Hammadi codices to be recovered, collected, and edited for the public. They were finally published in English translation in 1978, thanks to the tireless efforts of James M. Robinson of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California.
“Unfortunately, we know nothing of the history of the group who gathered together this particular collection of writings. We know only what we have been able to learn from the writings themselves. The twelve original codices each contained a number of shorter compositions or tractates, fifty-two in all. They are Coptic copies of writings that were originally composed in Greek. (Coptic is a version of the ancient Egyptian language adapted to the Greek alphabet that was in use in Egypt during the early Christian period.) These writings cover a wide variety of subjects, and they seem to have been composed originally by a number of different authors, at different times, and in a variety of locations.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018