Gnosticism and the Rise of Early Christianity

February 3, 2008
Gerd Lüdemann


Early Christianity did not develop along a single track. Alongside the catholic church of the second century, from which the New Testament ultimately derives, there were Christian groups whose literature has been preserved only in scraps, because of the concerted efforts of Christian bishops to obliterate it. Among these groups were those called Gnostics, who were branded heretics, suppressed and exterminated.

The term “Gnosticism” refers to a religious current that reached a climax in late antiquity. The Greek word gnôsis means “knowledge.” For the Gnostic, knowledge is primarily self-knowledge: the human soul is of heavenly origin. The world, like all material phenomena, faulty or even corrupt; it came into being as the result of a false step by a divine power. Each of us consists of a divine soul imprisoned in a material body and therefore we have forgotten our true homeland. By the call of the Savior, whom Christian Gnostics identified with Jesus, the soul awakens from its sleep and its drunkenness. It is instructed about its origin and its fall. This knowledge brings salvation by reuniting it with the fullness, the heavenly world, from which it comes.

A Gnostic programmatic formula runs like this: “Who were we? Into what have we been thrown? Whither are we hastening? From what are we saved? What is birth? What is rebirth?” (Excerpta ex Theodoto 78.2). The Gnostic attempt to find an answer to these questions did not involve abstract intellectual exercises or theoretical systems. Rather, in unsurpassed religious creativity they depicted the history of the human self, which in the Gnostic texts is often identified with the human soul or with a spark of light. Thus narrative myths with powerful imagery became the means by which Gnosticism was expressed.

Elements from Judaism, from Greek religion and philosophy, from Near Eastern thought and Iranian religion found their way into these myths. Anything that could provide a plausible explanation of the origin and situation of human beings in the world and their return to their origin found a place in the Gnostic belief system.

Understandably, therefore, Gnosticism is not a uniform current. While the question of the true identity of human beings is common to all Gnostic groups, the particular elaboration of the Gnostic myth differs.

Gnosticism is not limited to Christianity. Jewish, Iranian, Egyptian, and philosophical variations are reflected in existing texts. But my reflections will be limited to the rise of Christian Gnosticism and its relationship to the rise of early Christianity. The first section sketches the main differences between Catholic and Gnostic Christianity, while the second traces the trajectory from the creed of Jesus’ resurrection to Christian Gnostic faith.

The main differences between catholic and Gnostic Christianity

Let me say at the outset that catholic or proto-orthodox Christianity arose around 80 CE. The time before that date belongs to the prehistory of Christianity, when doctrines and definitions of faith were fluid, and nobody was excluded from the church for incorrect belief. It was a time of enthusiasm and ardent expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus, and believers did not pay much attention to matters of doctrinal purity. Even issues like the full humanity of Jesus or his fleshly coming to this world and his physical resurrection – which created disputes between Gnostic and catholic Christians in the second century – had no place in Christianity before 80 CE. Take Paul as an example: He denied that flesh and blood will inherit the kingdom of God and in describing Jesus’ nature said that he had taken on the form of a human being. Furthermore, he spoke of Satan as being the God of this world and thus left room for the Gnostic distinction between a creator God and a saving God.

Resistance against Gnostic tendencies came from Christian leaders of the third generation and beyond. Witnessing the dramatic growth of Christianity, they wanted to give the new religion a uniform faith and organization. Hand in hand with this they felt compelled to demonstrate that their faith was not only reasonable but involved no disloyalty to the government. This was consistent with what Paul had already written about the government having been instituted by God. Further, Christian apologists like the author of Luke-Acts, an admirer of Paul, wanted to emphasize that Christianity was not the product of some exotic corner of the world, but represented an integral part of Roman culture and the Roman Empire, and was thus a public matter. For that reason Christians bishops needed a transparent organization and a clear definition of faith, the more so since the one God whom Christians worshiped was both creator and lord of the whole world. These theologians soon equated “correct” belief with obedience, projecting onto the screen of heaven a social fabric based on subordination, and at least amenable to cultural suppression of dissent.

There are two major theological differences between Gnostic and orthodox thought.

First. Gnostics distinguished between the creator god of the Old Testament and the redeemer god while orthodox Christians identified both. Among the Gnostic Christians, the redeemer and the members of the human fellowship who profess him (“those who know”) were seen as more powerful than any of the pseudo-gods or heroes of the Bible – figures who deserve nothing but scorn. Indeed, Gnostic initiates even surpassed the highest God of the Bible, who was variously called Jaldabaoth, Samael, or Archigenitor. That deity was guilty of arrogance and blindness, and thus, of course, unable to compete with the Father of the All to whom the Gnostics give praise. Conversely, such scripturally accursed persons as the Sodomites receive all the more honor. In New Testament texts we encounter allusions to this side of Gnosticism in such words as “blaspheme,” “godlessness,” “denial,” “only god,” and “unique god.”

Second. While the orthodox Christian Jesus died a bloody death on the cross the Gnostic redeemer – who bears more than one name – has remained undiscovered by the forces of darkness and has not really died. This negative feature had the paradoxical effect of giving the redeemer and his knowing flock additional strength, for henceforth they are no longer subject, but rather superior to the rule of the creator god and his heavenly entourage, and so are able to destroy the hostile powers. Moreover, having spiritually distanced themselves from the material aspects of creation, the Gnostics abstain from certain foods and in many cases from procreation in order to overcome any tendency toward physical regeneration that might redound to the benefit of the creator god.

From the creed of Jesus’ resurrection to Christian Gnostic faith

After 2000 years of orthodox Christianity, it may seem strange to hear that the Christian Gnostics had much in common with Earliest Christianity as modern scholarship has reconstructed it. In particular, the visionary nature of Gnostic spirituality recalls the Easter enthusiasm of the first Christians, which derived from visions not of the fleshly Jesus, but of the spiritual Lord. Therefore one may say that the same logic of the resurrection creed of the earliest Christians led to both Gnostic faith and orthodox belief. Newly discovered Gnostic writings from Nag Hammadi allow us to better understand that faith. I begin with the Gnostic understanding of resurrection:

Those who say that the Lord died first and (then) rose up are in error, for he rose up first and (then) died. If one does not first attain the resurrection, that person will die. [Gospel of Philip, Logion 21]

The author first criticizes the orthodox dogma of death and resurrection of Jesus as an error and reverses its sequence. It is through knowledge that the Christian Gnostics become what they are, for the resurrection has already happened here and now. Whoever does not know this will suffer spiritual death.

According to the Christian Gnostic viewpoint, resurrection is the transition to a new being:

What, then, is the resurrection? It is always the disclosure of those who have risen. For if you remember reading in the Gospel that Elijah appeared and Moses with him, do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth! Indeed, it is more fitting to say the world is an illusion, rather than the resurrection which has come into being through our Lord the Savior, Jesus Christ.

But what am I telling you now? Those who are living shall die. How do they live in an illusion? The rich have become poor, and the kings have been overthrown. Everything is prone to change. The world is an illusion! – lest, indeed, I rail at things to excess!

But the resurrection does not have this aforesaid character, for it is the truth which stands firm. It is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness. For imperishability descends upon the perishable; the light flows down upon the darkness, swallowing it up. [Letter to Rheginos 48]

The author opposes two realms to one another: the world, which is subject to eternal change, and the realm of immutability. The world is an illusion for it changes constantly and thus is unable to remain stable. The resurrection, the truth, and the new Being, however, are stable, unchanging, and eternal; and for that reason they cannot be illusions.

Many Gnostic writings regard resurrection as the person’s return to his or her true self. In it Christians receive themselves as they were at the beginning. Thus resurrection becomes the realization of an ultimate reality. It is enacted through knowledge of what a person was from the beginning. Whoever wants to know the real meaning of resurrection must therefore move from the mere name to the real existence it represents. One Gnostic text says it thus:

Names given to the worldly are very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is correct to what is incorrect. Thus one who hears the word “God” does not perceive what is real, but perceives what is unreal. So also with “the Father” and “the Son” and “the Holy Spirit” and “life” and “light” and “resurrection” and “the Church (Ekklesia)” and all the rest – people do not perceive what is real but they perceive what is unreal, unless they have come to know what is real. The names which are heard are in the world and deceive. [Gospel of Philip, Logion 11]

Another passage from the same writing expresses the discovery of one’s self and of truth in the following way:

It is not possible to see anything of the things that actually exist unless one becomes like them. This is not the way with human beings in the world: they see the sun without being a sun; and they see the heaven and the earth and all other things, but they are not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself – and what you see you shall become. [Gospel of Philip, Logion 44]

What kind of people stand behind these and like texts that so powerfully stress the experience of faith and describe resurrection as a return to one’s origin? At various places they call themselves the immovable race. Their faith, which they consider identical with knowledge, aims at a total fulfillment of life, and is shaped by the realization of their own potential. Indeed, as a consequence of its devotion to knowledge, Gnostic faith is inspired by a divine power. Compare this witness from another Gnostic text:

My soul went slack, and I fled and was very disturbed. And I turned to myself and saw the light that surrounded me and the Good that was in me, I became divine. [Allogenes 52]

Henceforth Gnostics are open to new experiences that they previously had tried to thwart. Yet, they are able to do so only because they have learned to distinguish between what is stable and what is unstable – for the latter only deceives people. Gnostics discover this deception in all things related to creation and this world, which they see as the work of an arrogant creator god. Yet, Gnostics have learned to recognize who he really is and thereby have become stronger than he. By knowing their real origin they surpass any god.

Therefore, if people have knowledge, they are from above. If they are called, they hear, they answer, and they turn to him who is calling them, and ascend to him. And they know in what manner they are called. Having knowledge, they do the will of the one who called them, they wish to be pleasing to him, they receive rest. … They who have knowledge in this manner know where they come from and where they are going. They know as people who, having become drunk, have turned away from drunkenness, (and) having returned to themselves, have set right what are their own. [Gospel of Truth 22]

This text impressively shows the rediscovery of the subconscious self, which is identical with the divine from above. Thus self-knowledge leads to a strengthening of one’s self. This was thought to be possible because, having regained a clear vision previously lost due to drunkenness, the Gnostic believer finally woke up. On this compare another Gnostic text:

For they who have not known themselves have known nothing, but they who have known themselves have at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all. So then, you, my brother Thomas, have beheld what is obscure to people, that is, what they ignorantly stumble against. [Book of Thomas the Contender 138]

To repeat, the Gnostics are called “the ones who know themselves” (ibid.). Their way of living is described by another Gnostic scripture:

No one knows the God of truth except solely the people who will forsake all of their things of the world, having renounced the whole place of the world. … They have set themselves up as a power; they have subdued desire in every way within themselves. … They began to keep silent within themselves until the day when they should become worthy to be received above. They reject for themselves loquacity and disputations, and they endure the whole place; and they bear up under them, and they endure all of the evil things. And they are patient with every one; they make themselves equal to every one, and they also separate themselves from them. …

They bore witness to the truth [...] the power, and they went into Imperishability, the place whence they came forth, having left the world, which resembles the night, and those in it who cause the stars to revolve. This, therefore, is the true testimony: When people come to know themselves and God, who is over the truth, they will be saved, and they will crown themselves with the crown unfading. [Testimony of Truth 41–45]

One may give the following headline to this text: “How people become themselves and attain maturity.” Yet, this process of self-discovery can be successful only if one develops an inner calm and patience. Then the process will move by itself. This self-discovery is rewarding, for it presents human beings an imperishable crown, that is illumination granting them imperishability and access to a divine power.

This gain of additional power as a consequence of self-knowledge and its ecstatic character is the topic of one of the sayings of “Jesus” in the Gospel of Thomas:

Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [Logion 2]

As the last text let me quote another saying of “Jesus” from the same gospel that stresses the identity of knowledge of God and of oneself.

If your leaders say to you, “Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty. [Logion 3]

These original Gnostic texts that we have surveyed derive from people who focused their thought on the powers inherent in spiritually awakened human beings. These Gnostics avoid a dualism of God and human beings and use mythic and mystic language to express processes of the inner self. Since self-knowledge is the way to healing and to salvation, traditional Christian statements about Jesus’ death as atonement for our sins, the judgment at the end of time, and the church as the ordained institution of salvation are rejected. These Gnostic texts prepare the way for the insight that in the religion of the future – if indeed religion has a future – the focus must be on human beings and the spiritual powers that devolve to them as Children of the Light.


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