Ever since my undergraduate years, I have been interested in early Christian history and Gnosticism. In the next few posts, I will talk about some of the things I have learned about Gnosticism, why it is so important, and some of the areas I am still trying to explore in my present book project. Here, I will just define my terms, and identify my main questions.
Every history of early Christianity talks about Gnostics, who were so important between the second and fourth centuries. Gnostic thinkers wrote extensively, including many works presented as gospels and expansions of the canonical scriptures. Most are lost, but many selections have been preserved in the controversial works of early Fathers like Irenaeus and Epiphanius. Other Gnostic writings have been rediscovered in modern times. The 1945 find of the library at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, was very important, although several other major works were discovered both before and afterwards. Elaine Pagels’s book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) did much to bring these writings to public attention.
Some important works challenge the whole scholarly construction of Gnosticism. I am thinking of Michael Williams’s Rethinking “Gnosticism” (1996) and Karen King’s What is Gnosticism? (2003). King, for instance, rightly points out that the whole category of Gnosticism is quite new historically, dating to the seventeenth century. Critically, she also stresses the diversity of texts we broadly label as Gnostic, showing that some make statements quite at odds with what we assume to be “Gnostic orthodoxy.” These are all excellent points.
While accepting the caveats about generalizing, I believe we can see enough common features to make the category worth analysis.
Gnostic ideas were very diverse, but fundamental was the idea that human beings are exiled in the material world. One common version of the Gnostic myth (and I stress, one of many) goes like this. We can understand the divine world as the Pleroma, the Fullness, which emanated from one absolute God. The Pleroma includes many different entities or Aeons with such names as Depth and Silence, Mind and Truth. In some systems, the Aeons appeared in balanced pairs, syzygies. Through ignorance and delusion, one of those entities created the flawed material world, and proclaimed himself its God. This is the vain, angry and judgmental deity described in the Old Testament, and he is sometimes called Ialdabaoth or Sakla. Sometimes, he is accompanied by other lesser deities called Rulers, Archons.
Sophia or Wisdom was the last Aeon to be created. She suffered a Fall into this flawed world and forgot her divine nature. Another Aeon, Christ, came to re-enlighten and redeem her, to wake her from her sleep. Through this process of fall and redemption, sparks of the divine were left scattered in the material creation. Gnostics often described human experience in terms of sleep and forgetting, through which people lost contact with their divine origins. They needed to be awoken, to overcome their amnesia.
The details of the myth scarcely matter, and they are certainly not intended as a historical narrative. It is meant to explain how human beings found themselves in this evil material world, from which they can be liberated or redeemed. They do this through knowledge, gnosis – knowledge of the nature of the universe, knowledge that they have sparks of the divine light within them, which can be restored to primal splendor. A Gnostic is one who knows, and who yearns to ascend to the divine realm. Often, that ascent is framed in mythological terms as a path through successive heavens.
Or as I once wrote in Christian History,
This world is not my home. As it stands, that statement reflects the views of a great many orthodox Christians, but a Gnostic would take it much further. From that perspective, the material world is not just fallen but an utterly flawed creation, beyond redemption. God – or at least, the good, true, God – certainly does not work in history. Escape is only available to the small minority who know, who recognize the need for liberation, which lies within. Wisdom, Sophia, is for the spiritual, the elite, and distinguishes them from the gullible herd of humans enmired in the material, the victims of cosmic deception. They will remain asleep, while the true Gnostic is awakened.Gnosticism has proved attractive to modern thinkers, partly because its ancient leaders were so at odds with what is presented as a repressive orthodox church structure. Gnostic leaders are commonly seen as daring free-thinkers, who included many women. Also, Gnostics understood the New Testament narrative more as an internal psychological process rather than as sober history. Crucifixion and resurrection were events that occurred within the individual believer, and the suggestion that Christ might have taken material form struck them as blasphemous. They absolutely rejected complex Christian ideas of Incarnation and physical Resurrection. For good or ill, they took the Christian story outside history. A Gnostic belief in reincarnation made it easy to reconcile with Asian religions such as Buddhism.
Modern fans tend to underplay unattractive aspects of Gnosticism, including its basic anti-Judaism and its condemnation of that religion. Also, in practice, its rejection of sexuality and reproduction made it deeply hostile to women.
At least under that name, Gnosticism faded by the fifth century, but those basic ideas carried on for a millennium afterwards in the form of the Manichaean religion, and the Christian Dualist sects found through much of Europe and the Middle East. They did not share the elaborate mythology, but offered a similar view of the Creation and the relationship between material and spiritual worlds. I usually characterize these movements as Dualist/Gnostic. They persisted alongside Orthodox/Catholic Christianity for three-quarters of the Christian story.
Although the Gnostics have attracted a lot of scholarly attention, a couple of pressing issues demand notice:
*The relationship between Gnosticism and orthodox (small-o) Christianity. Gnosticism is usually seen as a Christian heresy, but until quite recently, scholars drew a sharp line between the two strands, seeing Gnosticism as so radically distinct that it almost constituted a separate religion. Today, Gnostic ideas are usually seen as part of the broad spectrum of thought within the Jesus movement and Christianity, ideas that were only gradually labeled as monstrous and unacceptable heresy.
Complicating this issue, we also find Gnostic texts and ideas that are clearly non-Christian, particularly Jewish. This raised a further critical question, namely,
*Did Gnosticism precede Christianity? This was a common idea in early twentieth century scholarship, but it has become much less popular. The older theory went like this: Gnosticism was a pre-Christian system, deriving perhaps from Neoplatonism, mystery religions, Persian religion, even Buddhism. It included a heavenly Redeemer myth, and that in turn likely influenced the theology of the emerging Christian church. The problem is that it is exceedingly hard to find any evidence of such a Redeemer myth that is clearly earlier than the rise of Christianity, or wholly separate from it. Dylan Burns has written aptly of “the old red herring of pre-Christian Gnosticism.”
*What inheritance, if any, did Gnosticism leave in other, later, systems? I have already pointed out the strong continuities to Manichaean and Dualist movements, where the chronological sequence is clear. Much more intriguing, if less celebrated, is the Jewish side of the story. The Qabalistic tradition has many aspects that recall Gnosticism, not least the idea that the world was created through the fracturing of the vessels into which the divine goodness was poured. Resulting flaws in the Creation left shards of divine light scattered through the material universe, until they were once more collected and restored. In addition to seeking their own mystic ascent to God, believers also pledge themselves to achieving tikkun olam, the restoration of the broken world. Also very familiar is the idea of creation as a process of emanation from the one absolute God, which strongly recalls Neoplatonism, possibly received via Gnostic channels. Most of the texts that present these views, though, were written down long after the probable disappearance of active Gnostic communities. There almost certainly is a connection – there has to be – but it is not easy to trace.
For present purposes, though, I will be focusing on one basic question, namely where did Gnosticism come from? Beyond doubt, Gnostic thinkers were active no later than the early second century AD, the time of such Egyptian thinkers as Basilides and Valentinus, and they claimed a direct inheritance from St. Paul, or from one or other of Jesus’s own disciples. But how much earlier can we trace these ideas?
That’s the subject of my next post.