In recent posts on Gnosticism, I have been tracing possible linkages with older Jewish movements. To understand some of these connections, it helps to have a chronology of Gnostic ideas and movements, something which is not as straightforward as we might think. And if we don’t know when these ideas arose, then it is very difficult to say too much about how and why they originated.
Through rhetorical necessity, Gnostics had to present their religious systems as at least as authoritative as those of the mainstream churches, rather than as later innovations. They therefore claimed links with the apostles or their immediate successors, usually via some secret tradition. For similar reasons, early dates are also favored by modern writers who are sympathetic to the Gnostics, or anxious to advocate the historical value of alternative scriptures. Yet in fact, it is not easy to find much evidence of Gnosticism before about 100 AD. (I am summarizing a complex scholarly debate here!)
Our earliest systematic survey of Gnostic schools and teachings is Irenaeus’s Against the Heresies, written around 175 AD (Book I, 22-31). He avowedly aims “to give an account of their source and root, in order that … you may understand the nature of the tree which has produced such fruits.” Despite that assertion, he is rarely concerned about dating his subjects too precisely. At best, we hear that a given thinker taught under a particular Roman emperor, or came to Rome during the time of a certain bishop.
The earliest heretical thinker he mentions is Simon Magus, who emerges as the “source and root.” Irenaeus identifies this man with the Simon mentioned in Acts 8, who claimed divine or messianic status. Simon’s “successor” was Menander of Antioch, another Samaritan. Irenaeus then continues “Arising among these men, [my emphasis] Saturninus (who was of that Antioch which is near Daphne) and Basilides laid hold of some favorable opportunities, and promulgated different systems of doctrine— the one in Syria, the other at Alexandria.”
In the following sections, Irenaeus proceeds to list (and denounce) thinkers like Carpocrates, Cerinthus, Cerdo, Marcion and Tatian. These accounts follow a rough chronological sequence, with most attention devoted to Valentinus, whose ideas were such a pressing danger in Irenaeus’s own day.
In the fourth century, the great Church History of Eusebius built these various statements into a kind of anti-apostolic tradition. Beginning with Simon Magus, Gnosticism then evolved into the reality we know in later centuries.
Taken together, this would give floruits roughly as follows (and I stress roughly):
Simon Magus 35-55
All these names are documented by various sources, so we can say they really existed, but our knowledge of their activities and beliefs is slight. The recurrent problem throughout involves chronology.
This is especially true of Simon Magus. He is described in the work of Justin Martyr (fl. 130-160), who makes him a wonder-worker with divine pretensions, whose ideas have little in common with anything we know about Gnosticism. A little later, Irenaeus fleshes out a much more Gnostic-sounding system, but there are problems here. Simonians certainly existed in the mid-second century, and may well have followed these ideas, but it is an open question just when the actual theories emerged, and whether they were retrojected into Simon’s own time. On balance, the simpler account found in Acts is much earlier than that offered by Irenaeus, and has a far greater claim to credibility. (See the discussion by Edwin Yamauchi in his essay Pre-Christian Gnosticism, the New Testament and Nag Hammadi in Recent Debate). If the Simon described by Irenaeus really was such a key innovator, we must ask whether he was in fact the same as the character in Acts, or whether a proto-Gnostic thinker from a generation or so later has been merged with the earlier leader.
We are on rather firmer ground with Menander, and Justin had actually met some of his aged disciples. As with Simon, Menander had messianic ambitions, but we do hear some Gnostic-sounding language. Menander is reputed to have believed, for instance, that the world was in subjection to angels, from whom believers needed to be liberated. But dating his career is not easy. If he actually was the mentor for those second century thinkers, then he can scarcely have begun his career early enough to be “successor” to Simon Magus, in the sense of an immediate heir. In fact, Menander’s activities would more likely date to the end of the first century, rather than the middle.
Drawing on the work of Justin, Irenaeus and others, Eusebius leaves no doubt that Gnostic teachers abounded in the early second century, especially after 120, and theological debates were raging on all fronts by 150 or so. Yet grounding these thinkers in the previous century is very difficult, as are attempts to blame the whole movement on Simon. Orthodox students of heresy happily claimed that teacher X was a follower of Simon Magus, but the chronology is hard to reconcile. Irenaeus, for instance, writes that “Cerdo was one who took his system from the followers of Simon, and came to live at Rome in the time of Hyginus [c.140].” He could well have learned from “Simonians,” but Simon himself would have been a distant memory by that point.
It is tempting, then, to see Gnosticism as a product of the late first century, with no obvious precursors to Menander.
Assume for the sake of argument that Simon Magus is the Simon of Acts, and we date his activities roughly to 35-55. That means that for the lengthy period 55-100, later writers tell us of basically two Gnostic thinkers or teachers, namely Menander and Cerinthus – and that might even be putting Cerinthus a little too early. While the church may have wished to condemn the memory of its enemies, second century polemicists like Irenaeus devoted a great deal of attention to listing and denouncing anyone deemed a heretical leader. If in fact Gnostic heresiarchs had been numerous in, say, the 70s AD, it is very odd that they are not commemorated and condemned.
Although the New Testament does name and stigmatize some enemies, such as the Nicolaitans of Revelation, in few cases do we have any evidence to suggest that they taught anything resembling Gnosticism. The New Testament also tells us about Docetists, those who believed that Christ had not appeared as a human being rather than a spiritual entity, but again, that falls far short of full Gnosticism. The best example of an anti-Gnostic polemic is in 1 Timothy 6, where the writer urges staying far away from what is falsely called knowledge or gnosis (pseudoymou gnoseus), but that is almost certainly a second century text.
Obviously, arguing from silence is risky. The account I have given here is drawn from Irenaeus, who was widely traveled and well-connected, but who did not necessarily know everything that was in progress in every corner of the Christian world. He knew Asia Minor, Rome and Gaul at first hand, but might not have had such good connections elsewhere. As I have remarked, such early accounts of Gnosticism are curious in their geographical emphasis. They focus on Alexandria and Antioch, with much commuting to and from Rome. Few pay much attention to the quite intense activity that seems to have been in progress in Mesopotamia, where Jewish Christian, baptismal and Gnostic sects were highly active no later than the early second century. Perhaps Irenaeus was simply missing some key events and activists.
Alternatively, perhaps Irenaeus really was depicting historical reality, in which Gnosticism really was an innovation of the late first century, at least a generation or two after Jesus’s time. And at least in its early days, it was strictly confined to Syria, even to Antioch itself.
The question then arises: why then, and why there?