It is very difficult to find much evidence of Gnosticism before the start of the second century, and the earlier traces seem strictly confined geographically. In admittedly simplistic form, I want to explore some of the implications of this. (For present purposes, I am taking a very broad definition of Gnosticism).
A Christian Heresy?
Early Christian writers argued that Gnosticism grew out of Christianity itself, a theme personified by the stress of Acts’ Simon as the movement’s source and root. It was thus a heresy, a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian truth. We can argue about which side in these debates actually had the greater share of truth, but the chronology does suggest that Gnostic schools usually saw themselves as part of the Christian spectrum.
The problem here is in defining Christianity at this very early point. Before about 120, it is exceedingly difficult to draw sharp lines between the Jesus movement and Judaism broadly defined, and examples of hostility and excommunication on one region did not necessarily apply elsewhere. Judaism also covered a broad spectrum, with a very wide range of attitudes to issues like the centrality of the Temple, and to the universality of the message. If they were not actually proto-Gnostics, then particular groups held many ideas that would later coalesce into Gnosticism. Some groups gave a special role to Jesus or John the Baptist, without necessarily fitting into what later historians would classify as Christianity.
We should rather say that Gnosticism emerges from these Jewish-Christian borderlands. It did not exist as a free-standing pre-Christian movement rooted in pagan or Hellenistic ideas.
The New Testament?
For perhaps 150 years, scholars have claimed to find traces of Gnosticism, and debates over Gnosticism, in the New Testament itself. Even with all the manuscript discoveries in recent times, those attempts seem quite tenuous. Where we do find links and parallels between Gnostic texts and the New Testament, the influence always stems from the latter. If Gnostic texts sound like, for instance, the canonical Christian gospels, there is a simple reason for that, namely that the Gnostics emerged at a time when the New Testament was already coming into existence, and the Gnostics know those documents.
It might be futile to wish this, but let me express the hope that this fact will condition any future discussions of newly found alleged lost gospels.
Out of Samaria?
The well-informed Irenaeus gives a doubly surprising picture of the geography of Gnostic origins, and one we would not imagine if we lacked his account. His first two heretical leaders, Simon and Menander, both derive from Samaria. Also, he places the movement’s early rise in the Syrian city of Antioch, with an expansion into Egypt only around 110 or so.
The Samaritan link has inspired some scholarly discussion. Later sources tell us about individuals and movements said to have been active in Samaria, leading scholars to suggest that Gnosticism emerged from these sects, like the Dositheans, who supposedly influenced Simon. Most of these alleged movements, though, are very hard to date.
If we knew more about what Simon actually taught, we could say more about the possible relationship to distinctively Samaritan ideas of the time.
Irenaeus suggests that Gnostic thought developed in Antioch in the late first century. That would have been a wonderfully appropriate setting, as the city was a junction for so many different influences, including Jews, Christians, and pagan Greeks.
As the former capital of the Seleucid kingdom, it was a major center of Hellenistic learning. Naturally, it had a Jewish population, in its Kerateion quarter, and it was, famously, the place where Jesus’s disciples ere first called Christians. Confirming the city’s close link to Palestine, after the first Jewish war of the 60s AD, Antioch became the stronghold (claustrum) over Judea, the base from which future risings could be prevented. (Antioch stands about 450 miles from Jerusalem).
In the 70s, after the Jewish War, the inhabitants petitioned the Emperor to expel its Jews. We also hear, though, that Antioch’s Christians were slow to detach themselves from Judaism, provoking furious sermons by John Chrysostom as late as the fourth century.
Because of its role in the spice routes and the Silk Road, its connections even stretched deep into Asia. Around 13 AD, we even hear of an Indian monk visiting the city.
Already in the first century, Antioch had become one of the great centers of the Eastern Mediterranean, surpassed only by Alexandria. The history of the Church in the late Roman Empire revolved around the complex and conflicted relationship between those two cities.
In my next post, I will suggest why Gnostic ideas became so common and so influential in the first quarter or so of the second century. I’ll suggest that this period was uniquely hospitable to such ideas, and that political factors contributed substantially to the movement’s rise.