The Role ​of Gn​osticism in Postapostolic Christianity

By Leslie Ann Olsen

Leslie Ann Olsen, “The Role of Gnosticism in Postapostolic Christianity,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 3–16.

The Role ​of Gn​osticism in Postapostolic Christianity

Lesli​e Ann Olsen​​

It is a great blessing to live in an age of the Church when President Thomas S. Monson holds the keys to preside in the name of Jesus Christ. When he is no longer with us, the keys will remain with his successor. It was not always so, for the Church in the Old World came tumbling down tragically soon after the death of Christ. Corresponding to that fall we see a proliferation of false teachings and false writings that splintered what remained of the Church body into fractious entities. We have a unique opportunity to faithfully examine the decomposing early Christian Church and the movements which characterized the Church’s development in the centuries that followed. Such a study is relevant to an understanding of the Apostasy’s effect on Christianity and of the needs of society which were left unfulfilled in the absence of the complete gospel. In this paper I will canvass one particular movement called Gnosticism, beginning with a survey of Gnostic background and beliefs and continuing to an analysis of why Gnosticism was so successful in the centuries following the death of Christ.

Gnosticism, whose name is derived from the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge,” is a controversial subject among scholars of early Christianity. Indeed, one source calls it “the label for an ill-defined category” that is “under heavy criticism.”[1] Much of the controversy is drawn from the fact that the ancient sources are so widely variant that Bart D. Ehrman suggests we “speak of Gnosticisms rather than Gnosticism,”[2] while Michael Williams recommends that the label be done away with entirely and replaced by the phrase “biblical demiurgical traditions.”[3] The trouble with Gnosticism is that set-in-stone answers are few and far between, and discussions rarely yield resolutions pleasing to all parties. In order to render existing resolutions more malleable, I will outline and clarify the origins of Gnosticism, the Gnostic creation myth, and the role of Jesus Christ in Gnostic salvation.

The Theological Origins of Gno​sticism

As indicated above, the conditions surrounding the birth of Gnosticism are not definitively known (even early proto-orthodox heresiologists couldn’t agree on them).[4] Some clues are contained and expressed in the texts but are inconsistent and inconclusive. In the words of Marvin Meyer, “Most of the [Nag Hammadi] texts are Christian texts of one sort or another, but a number of the texts exhibit few Christian features and some no Christian features at all. Those that are marginally Christian or non-Christian may show Jewish, Greco-Roman, Platonic, or Hermetic characteristics, often in fascinating combinations.”[5] Though some of the texts found in the Nag Hammadi library are non-Gnostic, “many . . . are gnostic or gnosticizing.”[6] It is possible that one or more of the theological elements found in the texts, the three most apparent being Christianity, Judaism, and Greek philosophy, may be the origin from whence Gnosticism sprung, but it is necessarily true that some of these elements were secondary influences which either supplemented or supplanted the originals.

It was the Gnostic Christians who made Gnosticism famous; the bitter polemics of proto-orthodox and, later, orthodox Christians made sure of that. The Christian Gnostic sect called the Sethians was one of the few sects whose members actually described themselves as Gnostic. It may seem reasonable to attribute the beginnings of Gnosticism to Christianity. Bentley Layton states that the “distinctively Christian features” which “appear both in classic gnostic scriptures and in the ancient summaries about the gnostics” make it “undeniable that the gnostics were a sect or movement of Christianity.”[7] Layton explains the existence of Gnostic texts missing obvious links to Christianity by pointing out the possibility that although the texts themselves may not appear Christian, the people who used them may have been, and may have intentionally written texts sans Christian influences to counter the book of Genesis, which, although lacking any “explicit reference to Jesus Christ or to other distinctive marks” of Christianity, was used by many Christians in the early centuries AD as it is still used by Christians today.[8] Ehrman corroborates that Gnostic Christians were remarkably skilled at taking sermons and texts unintended for their use and allegorically applying to them their own “deeper, more spiritual, secret understanding[s],”[9] so symbolically understanding Christ’s presence in an apparently Christ-less document may not have troubled them much. There are marks of Judaism in Gnosticism, but Thomas Wayment suggests that “the Jewish element” could have been inserted at a later time to help disaffected Jews “who couldn’t bring themselves to follow Christianity” identify with the doctrines.[10]

On the other hand, Judaism is sometimes cited as the original source of Gnosticism. It is the source to which the proto-orthodox heresiologists Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 200) traced Gnosticsm.[11] Some experts emphasize the existence of the previously mentioned non-Christian Gnostic texts as confirmation of the “independence of gnostic from Christian writers,” and a corroboration of the “thesis of the non-Christian origin of gnostic teaching.” Furthermore, the “strong connection with Jewish traditions, especially apocalyptic and extrabiblical,” suggests that “Gnosis germinated on the margins of early Judaism.”[12] Kurt Rudolph even goes so far as to assert, “There is no doubt that the cultural and religious-historical background of Gnosis is closely tied to Judaism.”[13]

The most visible link from Judaism to Gnosticism is the sect of Jewish apocalypticists which emerged in the second century. Apocalypticists believed that “God had ‘revealed’ to them the ultimate secrets of the world.”[14] The revelation of heavenly secrets is crucial to apocalypticists because, as with the Gnostics, “cognition or wisdom is the basis for future salvation.”[15] Another tie between Jewish apocalypticists and the later Gnostics is the prevalence of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings in both schools of thought.[16]

However, if Gnosticism does indeed stem from apocalypticism, it is through rejecting some of the most fundamental tenets of apocalypticism while retaining some of that sect’s characteristics, including those discussed above.[17] Apocalypticists believed God had an enemy who was the cause of human suffering and that the end would soon come in which God would intervene on behalf of the vindicated elect,[18] the forces of evil would be overthrown in a “cataclysmic show of force,” and the elect would be brought to a new kingdom where “there would be no more sin, suffering, evil, or death.”[19] The devout waited for their glorious retribution, but it never came. The Lord’s chosen people struggled to explain the fact that the wicked prospered while human suffering continued unchecked. It is possible that some of them grew tired of waiting for divine intervention and decided that this life must not, after all, be part of any plan. Perhaps this life was a mistake and our creator was either foolish or wicked; if so, then this life must be evil and we must use our spirits and our minds to escape its fetters.[20] Considering that all of these beliefs are characteristic of Gnosticism, and keeping in mind the fact that both groups espoused wisdom-based salvation and predominantly produced pseudepigraphical writings, as discussed above, there is speculation that Gnosticism was a dissatisfied outgrowth of Jewish apocalypticism.

Whether Gnosticism originally hails from the followers of Christ or of Abraham, the presence of Hellenistic philosophy is unmistakable, particularly Platonic and Middle Platonic philosophy. The proto-orthodox heresiologists Hippolytus of Rome and Clement of Alexandria both traced Gnostic origins to a Greek philosophical source[21] and Kurt Rudolph writes that “without the presupposition of Greek . . . philosophy, Gnosis is unthinkable.”[22] The extreme duality of Gnosticism (i.e., the belief that the physical world is evil and the spiritual world divine) is firmly reminiscent of Plato’s own duality of “shadow and reality,”[23] and the Gnostic perceptions of God and Heaven are clearly derived from Platonic ideals. The Gnostic myth of creation seems to have been created by drawing “on Platonist interpretations of the myth of creation in Plato’s Timaeus, as combined with the book of Genesis.”[24]

The Gnostic Creation ​​Myth

The Gnostic creation myth could be called the foundation of all Gnostic thought, which makes it all the more interesting that the Gnostic myth as recorded in the sources available to us is dependably bizarre and obscure, brimming with mazelike constructs and circuitous contradictions. The forms of the myth remaining today share in common a number of traits, including the themes of deceit and seizure of power, but “all show great variation in detail and structure.”[25] Our discussion will be based around the form of the myth found in The Secret Book of John (also called The Apocryphon of John).[26] Understanding the myth is an important step towards understanding the Gnostics. It tells of a majestic God whose universe is far removed from ours, of a misbegotten, degenerate creator who maliciously stuck each of us within the cage of a mortal body, and of the existence of secret knowledge upon which escape from present misery is predicated.

The myth begins with the existence of “the One.” The One is described as, among other things, invisible, illimitable, unsearchable, unnameable, and ineffable. In a lengthy passage wherein the author of The Secret Book attempts to describe the great being that cannot be described, the One is encapsulated thus: “He is not corporeal [nor] is he incorporeal. He is neither large [nor] is he small. [There is no] way to say, ‘what is his quantity?’ or, ‘What [is his quality?’], for no one can [know him].”[27] The One and other highly ranked aeons are frequently attributed with such supreme illustriousness that they can in no way be grasped, viewed, understood, or depicted. The title aeons comes from the Greek aiones, meaning “‘realms,’ ‘eternities,’ ‘ages,’ or ‘eternal realms;’ [they] are at once places, extents of time, and abstractions,” as well as personifications.[28]

The next stage in the myth is the emanation of the second principle. Characters in the myth are often given long lists of interchangeable names, which can make reading the texts perplexing. This particular principle is called by many names, including Barbelo. She was produced by the thought of the ineffable being and is the first of many emanations to come. She praises her creator and proceeds to request the creation of prior acquaintance, incorruptibility, eternal life, and truth, who, together with forethought, make up the androgynous quintet of aeons, or decad of aeons if you count the masculine consort of each of the grammatically feminine aeons.[29]

Then follows the divine conception and birth of the self-originate, called Autogenes, Christ, and the only begotten. He is perfected and enlightened by the Father and then creates and organizes the Entirety. The resultant web of emanations is essential to the Gnostic myth as it “forms a thick and almost inscrutable barrier between the human world and god, shutting off god from humanity by alienating human beings from the knowledge of the divine.”[30] It is the successful penetration of this barrier and ensuing reconciliation to the Fullness that is the object of every good Gnostic.

The history of humanity really starts rolling when the aeon Sophia (“wisdom”) creates through thought an offspring independent of her male consort and without the approval of the Father, which turns out to be imperfect and misshapen. In shame, Sophia casts it out and surrounds it in a cloud so none may see it except the mother of the living and names it Yaldabaoth, known alternatively as Demiurge, the God of Israel, and Satan. Yaldabaoth is entirely ignorant of the realm from whence he came but is able to establish a network of creations similar to that of the One because of the shadow of power he seized from Sophia when he was “born.” He and his angels labor to create a human being, instilling the many virtues and vices of humanity, though the body remains immobile and immaterial. Meanwhile, Sophia has repented of her mistake and begs Barbelo to take the power away from her arrogantly undeserving son. Barbelo sends luminaries to tell Yaldabaoth that if he blows part of his spirit into the body it will arise. Yaldabaoth follows these instructions, not knowing that doing so will give all his power to the man, leaving him with nothing. In jealousy and rage, Yaldabaoth’s angels cast the man (named Adam) down to the realm of matter and create for him the bond of a physical body to make him mortal. Eve is created by Yaldabaoth trying to seize Epinoia (“afterthought”) who had hidden inside Adam to help him ascend back to the Pleroma (the Fullness of the Father), but instead seizing a part of Adam’s spirit and putting it inside a female body. Yaldabaoth then rapes Eve, producing Cain and Abel and inventing human sexual intercourse as a means to perpetuate the folly of the human race. Before long, Adam and Eve give birth to Seth, the father of Gnosticism. Yaldabaoth curses the humans with forgetfulness so they will not know who they are, where they came from, or how to get back. Fortunately, Sophia sends her spirit to reside with Seth and his posterity and guide them unto gnosis. Thus it is only the descendants of Seth who have the spirit which allows them to be saved. All others are left to the prison of reincarnation until they are born with the spirit requisite to obtain salvation.

The Role of Jesus ​​Christ in Gnostic Salvation

Another account of the Gnostic myth is found in a text called First Thought in Three Forms.[31] This account focuses on the deeds of Barbelo, here called First Thought, who has evidently been promoted since the last telling of the story. She recounts her own glorious deeds, which she performs in three manifestations. In each form, First Thought’s mission is to teach the mysteries of secret knowledge to those who are worthy of it (her brethren), and she finally promises freedom from the power of the Archons (Yaldabaoth and the rulers he created) to those who know something called the Five Seals. First Thought’s last mission to mankind is in the form of Jesus Christ. According to First Thought, “put[ting] on Jesus” and appearing as the Archons’ Christ, the Son of the Archigenitor (Yaldabaoth), was a trick she played in order to move amongst the people to teach them the things of the Spirit.[32] This account of a heavenly being “putting on” the man Jesus, rather than Jesus being a god in his own right, is not unique among Gnostic Christian literature. Gnostics, who believed that physical matter was in every way corrupt, reasonably objected to the thought of their Savior being tainted by a body.[33]

Assuming this docetic Christology, who, then, is Jesus Christ, and how do we define His earthly ministry? While some Gnostics believed that Jesus was not connected to a physical body at all but was a spirit who only appeared to have a body, others were of the idea that Jesus was a man who was, for lack of a better word, possessed by Christ. Christ enlightened the man Jesus, led Him through His mortal life, then abandoned Him at the cross, leaving Him to die miserably alone, though presumably headed for salvation as part of the Fullness.

Not only does this void Christ’s death and resurrection as part of His heavenly mission (recall that the purpose of being saved in Gnosticism is to escape the captivity of a material body and reside as a spirit in the Pleroma and that in The Secret Book of John, reincarnation is reserved only for those who have not been saved), but even Christ’s Atonement for our sins becomes a nonissue due to the absence of sin from the Gnostic equation. Some Gnostics accounted for this in ways to still discourage sin,[34] but for Gnostics the meaning of salvation was “not a matter of deliverance from sin and guilt, as in orthodoxy, but of the freeing of the spirit from matter.”[35] The only way to be freed from matter is to gain the essential knowledge of ourselves and of our original home. In the words of Marvin Meyer, “Gnostic religion is . . . a religion of knowledge, mystical knowledge.”[36] Salvation is gained by insight, not purity. Moreover, the saving knowledge is not obtainable by empirical means, but is only received by divine revelation to those who have the spark of light which enables them to fully grasp the knowledge they are given.[37] Christ is the Savior of Gnostic Christians because He revealed to them heavenly truths, not because He atoned for their sins.

Why Was Gnosticism So Succes​​sful?

The image of Gnosticism we are left with is a strange one—an almost repugnant one, due especially to the debunking of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—yet one scholar has posited that for a period of time there were more Gnostics than there were mainstream, proto-orthodox Christians.[38] What was it that made Gnosticism so alluring? What facets of Gnosticism were able to meet the needs of society well enough to have caused Christians to begin entertaining Gnostic thought and to eventually join the Gnostic movement? The characteristics of Gnosticism which would have been most attractive to early Christians sprang from the group’s elite status, its anti-Jewish reactionary tendencies, and its emphasis on knowledge of truths. Additional attractions may have arisen from the myth of creation and Christ’s role in Gnostic salvation.

Christianity as a whole altered course dramatically after Peter’s vision in Acts 10 instructing him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. With the help of Paul and other missionaries, the flood of Gentile converts soon surpassed the number of Jewish ones. This should have been great news for everyone because it meant that the gospel was being taken to those who were willing to accept it and that more of God’s children were being reached. But some may have felt the missionary work was pandering to a lower set of people. This elitist viewpoint need not be exclusive to Jews; it is just as possible for one Gentile to believe he or she is far above another Gentile as it is for a Jew to believe he or she is far above any Gentile. As the opportunity to be welcomed into the fold became more widely available, it is likely that standing members may have felt like the men in Christ’s parable of the laborers who wanted a reward for being better than the latecomers because they had been laboring longer. Christians who felt that their worth was being lessened by having so many members on equal standing may have sought evidence that they were at a higher level of righteousness. According to Gnosticism, if they were able to receive gnosis, they were guaranteed a higher level that was inaccessible to many.

Another catalyst for the desire of some Christians to be affiliated with an elite group was the fact that Jewish Christians, the ofttimes bitter rivals of Gentile Christians, belonged to a permanently superior class. In order to combat the exclusive ascendancy of the Jews, Gentiles would have needed a way to argue their own supremacy, and membership in a sect for the elect would have serviced that need quite nicely.

The ability of Gnosticism to compete with Judaism on an elitist level was not the only attraction for Christians embittered toward Judaism. The conflict between Christianity and Judaism can be thanked for much of Gnosticism’s popularity. The tenets of Gnosticism were largely unfavorable to Jewish sentiment and may have appealed to a number of people, including those who had grown frustrated with the Jewish Christian debates. There also may have been those who believed that rejecting anything related to Judaism was necessary to follow the teachings of the Savior and other Church leaders whose recorded sayings and writings could have been interpreted as antagonistic toward the Jews (see Matthew 6:2, 5; Galatians).

In consequence of the expansive missionary work that took place during and after the first century, it surely wasn’t uncommon for teachings to be misunderstood, truths to be misquoted, and doctrines to be watered down or altered. In general, if there is no one to preserve the original state of a teaching, it will certainly be lost. Christians who were concerned by the adulteration of Church doctrine, especially in the absence of authorized Church leaders during the Apostasy, may well have sought a group dedicated to the preservation and understanding of divine knowledge. Such Christians would have found Gnostic teachings to be just what they were looking for.

Until now I have presented each of the allurements of Gnosticism by examining social movements of the time and identifying the Gnostic characteristics that were aligned with them. Now I will turn it around by first examining prominent and unique attributes of Gnosticism and then identifying the human mindsets to which they might have spoken. The two attributes I will examine are the Gnostic creation myth and the role of Christ as prophet instead of Savior.

The Gnostic creation myth contains some of the deepest mysteries for social historians of early Christianity to solve. What was it about the infamous myth that would have attracted members? It serves to distance humanity from God and turns heaven into something so foreign that we can’t even fathom it. Who would be attracted to the belief that God is nothing like us and that heaven is nothing like life? Perhaps someone who was so disillusioned with life that the thought of living forever in an existence resembling this one could only be punishment. Therefore, God and heaven must be such a far cry from us and our world that they cannot even be described in terms familiar to us. The myth was a lure to people who were sick of suffering and struggling to harmonize what they knew of life with what they hoped for in the hereafter—people who, like the hypothetical disaffected apocalypticists discussed earlier in this paper (among others), could no longer bring themselves to believe that this life had been the intention of a good and benevolent being.[39]

Finally, what was it about the revision of Christ from Redeemer to revealer that might have been attractive to people living in the first four centuries AD? One of the effects of the revision was that there was no longer a mediator between mankind and salvation. Having a mediator, a very Old Testament concept, would not have been attractive to individuals who wanted to hold the power of their salvation in their own hands. If they could do that, then there would be no need to rely on anyone else. By turning Christ into no more than either an enlightened man or an enlightening being, Gnosticism potentially placed each one of its “enlightened” members on equal standing with the Only Begotten of the Father. If these were indeed people searching for proof that they were at a higher level of righteousness, they could hardly have gotten any higher than that.

Conclusio​​n

Gnosticism is a complex and engaging study in early Christianity whose esotericism can be as much an obstacle to outsiders today as it was nearly two thousand years ago. Simple questions such as “What was Gnosticism?” lose their clarity so swiftly that more delving questions such as “What role might Gnosticism have played in society?” are often never broached. In order to overturn that barrier, I have tried to set forth in an intelligible way definitive issues such as the origins of Gnosticism, the meaning of the Gnostic myth, and the role of Christ in Gnostic salvation. From time to time the study of these matters may seem fruitless due to the fact that they are not generally resolved. However, such study remains essential for developing a deeper understanding of Gnosticism’s success in the post-apostolic community, much of which relied upon Gnosticism’s elitist and anti-Jewish disposition and gnosis-driven salvation, and the cryptic myth and the altered depiction of Jesus.

N​o​tes


[1] Paul Mirecki, “Gnosticism, Gnosis,” in D. N. Freedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 508.

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 122.

[3] Michael A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 51–53.

[4] Kurt Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” in D. N. Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:1035.

[5] Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 46–47.

[6] Meyer, The Gnostic Discoveries, 48.

[7] Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 20.

[8] Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 21.

[9] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 126.

[10] Personal correspondence with Professor Wayment, July 22, 2007.

[11] Mirecki, “Gnosticism, Gnosis,” 509.

[12] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1035.

[13] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1036.

[14] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 118.

[15] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1036.

[16] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1036.

[17] They specifically rejected the characteristics related to the apocalyptic expectation of God’s final intervention. Although length restrictions prohibit a full discussion of apocalyptic thought in this paper, the following list of defining apocalyptic characteristics, compiled by Dr. Alonzo Gaskill, should give the reader a basic understanding.

·         Seemingly ordinary men are called by God from among their peers to wear the mantle of prophet.

·         The seer or prophet is visited by one or more angels.

·         As part of those visitations, the seer is shown in vision the heavenly realms.

·         During his encounter the prophet receives new information—things theretofore unknown.

·         Much of what is learned by the seer cannot be conveyed to mankind, but rather must be hidden from all but a select few.

·         That which the prophet learns in his visionary encounter is often couched in very symbolic language.

·         Much of the message given to the revelator is eschatological.

·         At the conclusion of the seer’s revelatory experience he is traditionally left physically weak or exhausted.

·         The prophet is usually commanded to establish a new order of society.

·         The seer is frequently depicted as learning that some degree of suffering or persecution will come to those who accept the message of the vision.

·         Through the vision the revelator is often given the commission to speak words of encouragement to his people regarding their need to endure and their need to trust that the era of persecution and trial—good versus evil—now upon them will shortly come to an end.

·         That which is revealed to the seer in his apocalyptic vision sometimes requires additional revelations to interpret or understand.

·         When reporting his experience, the visionary often offers a brief autobiographical account as an introduction to the visionary encounter.

[18] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1036.

[19] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 118.

[20] Ehrman, Lost Christianites, 119; Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1033.

[21] Mirecki, “Gnosticism, Gnosis,” 509.

[22] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1036.

[23] Ehrman, Lost Christianites, 119.

[24] Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 5, 8.

[25] Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 14.

[26] Translations by Bentley Layton and Frederik Wisse (Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 28–51) in Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 298–306.

[27] Wisse, trans., in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 299.

[28] Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 14.

[29] Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 32, note 6c.

[30] Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 23.

[31] Translations by Bentley Layton and John D. Turner (Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 89–100) in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 316–323.

[32] Turner, trans., in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 322–323.

[33] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 124.

[34] Personal correspondence with Professor Thomas Wayment, September 20, 2007.

[35] Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1034.

[36] Meyer, The Gnostic Discoveries, 113.

[37] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 114, 124.

[38] Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 1–43.

[39] Others have published similar conclusions about the Gnostic demographic. For example, see Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 119, and Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” 1033.