I’ve long wondered about gnostics and gnosticism, an early rival movement to Orthodox Christianity. Numerous passages in the New Testament epistles refer to it obliquely (and condemn it harshly). So I sought out Pagels’ books, as well as other sources, to understand the controversy, and to understand Gnosticism. This post is the state of my (possibly flawed) understanding at this point. A more thorough and academic (though biased) treatment is found here.
How many Christians today know their own religion’s early history, that beyond the apostolic acts and the persecution of converts? It’s a fascinating and complex story. Christ brought about a seismic shift in human culture. But people reacted as people do in such movements once their leader is gone: with competing ideas and interpretations and directions, and with arguments and infighting and denunciations. So, the first four centuries of Christianity were marked by dispute, power struggles, and political intrigue.
In effect, the new movement struggled on two fronts. Externally, the Roman government distrusted Christians and used them as scapegoats and diversions for various political ends. It’s largely from this that we get the persecution stories of the early saints. But the early Church faced an internal struggle as well, as converts fragmented into hundreds of competing sects, each derived from a particular interpretation of Christ’s message, many producing their own sacred texts and narratives.
Had it not been for the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in the early 4th Century, both the Gnostic movement and orthodox Christianity might well have dissipated into a historical footnote. Constantine, however, changed the playing field. First, he legitimized Christianity (via the Edict of Milan in 313 CE), thus ending Roman persecution. But, by responding to powerful political voices within the early Church, he also convened an ecumenical council to resolve disputes around competing interpretations of Christ’s message. The council consolidated the movement around a fixed Biblical Canon and the basic tenets upon which the Christianity we know today finally solidified. Christians affirm these beliefs each time they recite the Nicene Creed.
This First Council of Nicea (named for the city where it occurred, in what is today Turkey), was held in 325 CE. By defining the basic tenets of what would become orthodox Christianity, the council had a peripheral effect: It also created a definitive basis for heresy within the Church. The term “heretic” was no longer a subjective accusation tossed about by competing theologies (much as was “atheist” prior to the 1600’s). Heresy was now anything not in conformance with the new Canon. Thus begins the story of Pagels’ 1979 book “The Gnostic Gospels.”
The book is Pagel’s analysis of dozens of texts found in a meter-high jar unearthed in 1945 near Naj ‘Hammādī, a town in Upper Egypt. It appears these were documents hidden by gnostic Christian monks about 375 CE, in response to the a new decree of heresy against all non-Canonical teachings. They include dozens of gospels and other texts written by the losers of the Council of Nicea: the “Secret Book of James,” the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Gospel of Philip,” the “Apocalypse of Paul”, the “Apocalypse of Peter,” the “Gospel of Mary” (Magdalene), and the “Letter of Peter to Philip,” among many others. There were fifty-two, in all.
Gnosticism was, in effect, a competing movement that paralleled what we think of today as traditional Christianity. It was rooted in early Greek philosophy, with dashes of Indian Buddhism and Persian Zoroastrian tossed in. It offered a melange of competing interpretations of Christ and his message, many of which were derivations of early Hellenistic thinking. But despite their diverse beliefs and practices, there are some consistent ideas to be found within these early texts, and we can identify certain recurrent themes:
- Gnostics believed that God of the Old Testament, the “creator,” was not the ultimate, true god, but an imperfect, jealous and even malicious emanation of the true God. This idea derives from the dualistic ideas in platonic philosophy, wherein matter was evil but the spirit good. The philosophical term for this malicious creator is a “demiurge” (derived, I believe, from the early Greek for “craftsman”). Via the proclamations he makes in the Old Testament (“I am the one God, thou shalt not place others before me.”), the demiurge seeks to keep humans from finding and reaching the true God, the Ultimate, the one who gave rise even to this creator himself.
- True salvation was to be found in reaching the true God, and this was to be obtained by going inwards, on a solitary journey of seeking. The tools were generally meditation, mysticism, and a turning from material things. It paralleled Buddhism in this sense. Unfortunately, such independent, individual practice is antithetical to any organized structure. This is why the orthodox Church, having quickly evolved an administrative power structure even then, ultimately prevailed in the political arena.
- Since the material world created by the demiurge is imperfect and evil, the world and material things are distractions. They are obstacles in the path to enlightenment, the reaching of the true God. This belief often resulted in a shunning of the material world and of bodily pleasures, in effect, to asceticism. Early hermits and ascetics who (in stereotypical retellings) retreated into the desert for seclusion, prayer and contemplation were possibly Gnostics. So were some founders of the early monastic movement, later co-opted by the canonical Church.
- Salvation for Gnostics consisted in uniting the self with the Ultimate, the true Divine, the One beyond the imposter demiurge of the Old Testament. The way to doing so was by turning inwards and finding the Divine where it dwelled, deep within each individual. Understanding of these things, and how to follow this path to salvation, was a secret knowledge (i.e., gnosis) to be shared by only a few ‘mature’ individuals. It was passed on by teachers who had achieved it to adherents they felt were ready.
- In Gnosticism, evil was not a moral issue (as in traditional Christian teaching) , but an emotional one. It was more akin to the “suffering” of Buddhism. Evil constituted the emotional and sensory distractions of the material world that hindered the path to salvation. In orthodox Christianity, itself dualistic (think God vs. Satan), evil is essentially the moral opposite of good, as in the Jekyll and Hyde story.
- Gnostics did not believe Christ’s resurrection was a historical event. They argued against a literal interpretation of this story in favor of a metaphorical one, that Christ’s “resurrection” was symbolic of an individual’s ability to be “resurrected” as well from their unconscious submission to the material world. They believed the resurrected Jesus was not a physical person at all, but merely consisted of spiritual visions experienced by the apostles after his death.
- Unfortunately (for the Gnostics), the resurrected Jesus became the centerpiece around which orthodox Christianity developed. The Church claimed its authority from the concept of apostolic succession. The resurrected Jesus, over the course of his final forty days on earth, delegated his authority for the Church on earth only to the apostles and successors which they ordain. When Gnostics rejected the literally resurrected Jesus, they put themselves in direct opposition to the orthodox power structure….tsk, tsk. Not wise.
In sum, the early orthodox Church survived and thrived because it was able to suppress non-Canonical ideas and rally adherents around a fixed doctrine and rituals, thanks largely to the political patronage it received from Constantine and his successors. Gnosticism ultimately failed as a movement because of it’s diffuse theology and it’s implicit lack of organization. Its message, focused on independent contemplation and inward turning towards the Divine, invited adherents to salvation without going through the newly developing power structure of the sanctioned Church. This was a political strategy designed for failure. While it continued to surface in various philosophies and forms of mysticism throughout history, it died as a serious contender to the power that developed around orthodox Christianity.