As we continue our discussion on a spiritual awakening that establishes justice, in Jewish apocalypticism, proto-Christian Gnosticism, and Christian Gnosticism, dualistic cosmology explains why our world looks the way it does. This dualistic cosmology is often expressed in binary contrasts between good and evil, darkness and light, the flesh and the spirit, earthy forces and celestial “powers,” and so on.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
The gospel of John is believed to be written during the time of proto-Christian gnosticism, and was the canonical gospel that later Gnostics favored. Early church father Irenaeus wrote in his book Against Heresies that the Ebionites favored Matthew only, while Marcionites favored Luke. A third group that questioned how humanity and divinity combined in Jesus favored Mark’s gospel, and according to Irenaeus, some Gnostics favored the gospel of John (Against Heresies, chapter 11, paragraph 7).
Scholars debate the connection between the gospel of John and early Christian Gnosticism. Those who have a high view of scripture and its authority say that John was written in the language of Christian Gnosticism so that it could address and combat Christian Gnosticism. But this claim fails to explain why a gospel that was meant as a response to Gnosticism predates that Gnosticism. Even the latest possible dates for the writing of John’s gospel place it in the era of proto-Gnosticism, late Jewish apocalypticism, and early Christian apocalypticism.
I side instead with those who view the author of John as sharing many of the explanations of our world that would later develop into Gnosticism. This idea explains for me why John’s version of the Jesus story is so unique and why the language used to tell this version of the story is so vastly different from the other canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke).
There is a second binary in our reading this week between the flesh versus the spirit. Certain sectors of Christianity today teach that we need to born again because we are born as human beings either evil (at worst) or at least broken (at best). This is not the reason John’s gospel gives. For the Johannine community out of which the gospel was written, the reason is the binary of flesh and spirit. It’s an example of proto-Gnosticism. In this way of explaining our world, the material universe is negative and keeps our good souls or spirits trapped in our physical bodies. Our spirits are imprisoned within this material world that’s characterized by pain and suffering. Salvation, then, is when our spirits are at last liberated from our fleshy housing to live eternally in a state free from pain and suffering. A lot of Christianity today still teaches this way of looking at the world.
In our story for this week, the Johannine community makes the ritual of baptism, being born of water and spirit, a way to show that the one being baptized has experienced a paradigm shift. This person will now live according to the spirit in the hope of being liberated from the flesh in the future, and no longer live “according to the flesh.” If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the New Testament scriptures are chock-full of this way of explaining the world.
And yet this way of understanding our world has not historically birthed good fruit. It tends to create humans who have less regard for people’s concrete, material, bodily experiences than for either experiencing a spiritual high now, or their soul’s salvation in the future. We’ll unpack a possible alternative, next.
(Read Part 3)