Pre-Christian Gnosticism and Christology

Pre-Christian Gnosticism and Christology September 20, 2013

Larry Hurtado posted recently about his talk on “fallacies and fashions” in New Testament studies. One fashionable fallacy he focused on is the notion of a pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer myth, as was posited by the History of Religion School in the 20th century. As Hurtado mentions, Carsten Colpe (in Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule: Darstellung und Kritik ihres Bildes vom gnostischen Erlosermythus) offered very important and powerful critiques of Richard Reitzenstein’s claims, which were widely accepted at that time.

But if there is an older fashionable view that has rightly been rejected, the question of whether there was pre-Christian Gnosticism is a broader one than the question of whether that particular depiction of a pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer myth was correct. While it is clear that some scholars in that period combined later texts into a system of thought that may never have existed as an ensemble (much less pre-dated the beginnings of Christianity), the question of whether there was any sort of pre-Christian Gnosticism remains an open one. What we know is that, by the second century, there were teachers who were connected with a form of religiosity that is directly related to that expressed in the later Nag Hammadi texts. That they were not all offshoots of Christianity is indicated both by the content of the later texts and the people to whom these views are attributed in the writings of Christian authors such as Justin Martyr.

One such individual is Simon Magus, who is also mentioned in Acts, the date of which is disputed. This Simon is the only person in the entirety of Luke-Acts about whom we encounter claims that he is the incarnation of a pre-existent divine entity! Outside of the NT, Simon is associated with one Dositheos, who is supposed to have been a disciple in turn of John the Baptist, and both of the latter have associations with the Mandaeans. What the historicity of such information is is hard to determine.

But the question of whether a text like the Gospel of John could be drawing on already-existing ideas (even if not in order to approve of such ideas but to say polemically “Jesus is better than what you offer”) is not settled by any means. Even if Gnosticism was not the source, the possibility that there was a pre-existing (pun intended) religious framework that inspired both Johannine Christology and Gnosticism is a view that some scholars find persuasive. And just recently, Crispin Fletcher-Louis uploaded an abstract of a book he is working on to, in which he will be making a case for that view. I feel honored to be mentioned in it alongside Adela Yarbro Collins and James D. G. Dunn, and look forward to reading it and interacting with it when it is published!

These questions are complex, and the evidence less than clear cut. And hence the ongoing vibrant discussion of these matters among scholars!


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  • I think the Johannine Christology was much inspired by “to the Hebrews” epistle, in turn borrowing from Philo of Alexandria writings. The likely author of “to the Hebrews”, Apollos of Alexandria, had a lot of influence in his time, including on Paul.
    Cordially, Bernard

    • Hello James.

      If it turns out there really were influential Gnostic movements before and during the emergence of the early Church, could that end up undermining the arguments against the Pauline authorship of certain letters?

      By the way what is your personal opinion on Gnosticism as a worldview?

      I reject the word “Heresy” as being unhelpful (due to the presence of contradictions in the very Biblical texts we are supposed to consider as our foundation).
      Yet I do believe that there are many teachings which are spiritually, morally and intellectually harmful. And I’m under the strong impression that Gnosticism belongs to them.

      Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      • I am both appreciative and critical when it comes to Gnosticism. It was (or could be in some instances, and in some ways) quite progressive, both with respect to challenging traditional authorities and in terms of gender equality. And yet it also (again, in at least some major expressions) has quite a bit of mumbo-jumbo and of negativity and escapism in its view of life in this world.

        • Gary

          I hate to say it, but I think I could say the same about the bible. At least the Gnostics had a better imagination. Certainly more entertaining, in my opinion.

  • I’m puzzled by Hurtado’s use of the term “fallacy” here. I gather that there are still a lot of open questions concerning pre-Christian Gnosticism as well as pre-Christian ideas of a heavenly Jewish Messiah. That a specific hypothesis had been found wanting wouldn’t necessarily render the broader concepts fallacies.

    What Hurtado really seems to be upset about is that people keep looking for precedents for those concepts in the New Testament that he would like to believe originated either with Jesus or as a response to Jesus.

  • redpill99

    Is Johannine Christology similar to Gnostic redeemer myths? How does Johannine Christology compare to Christology of Paul?

    • There are certainly parallels between what we find in the Gospel of John and Gnostic texts – but that may be due to the influence of the former on the latter, in at least some instances. There are debates about whether Paul thought of Jesus as pre-existent, and if so whether he took such language literally. My book John’s Apologetic Christology is actually about how the Gospel of John’s Christology relates to earlier Christian writings, and so may be of interest.