Positive Case for Christ: Who were the Gnostics?

We’ve come around the corner, and we’re, discussing the claims that the earliest Christians were from a group known as the gnostics. But who exactly were these gnostics? Perhaps more important for our purposes, what is our earliest, reliable historical reference to the gnostics? What are their probable origins? Gnostics were a sect that we know best from the second century church father known as Ignatius. In his work, Adversus Heresies, he describes them in detail. One of the interesting things about Ignatius is that recent archeological works have verified his accuracy.

When we are discussing the gnostics, we are not referring to a purely Christian tradition, though Christianized Gnosticism is our central concern. The gnostics were related to the mystery religions that were incredibly popular in the period and were connected with Greek, Egyptian and other mythological systems. In a sense, the gnostics and the mystery religions formed something akin to the New Age movement of their day. The precise origins of the mystery religions/gnostics are unknown, though there are various guesses. Likely, this is related to one phenomenon that is common to the gnostics: They seem to have borrowed ideas from various sources. To explain who they were, and when they began, we will begin by looking at a few of their beliefs, which will help us to date them.

Basics of the Gnostic Worldview
The Gnostics believed that in the beginning there was only the pleroma, a Greek term meaning “fullness,” which in their mythology is similar to the force in Star Wars. The Pleroma spawned a number of angel like beings, known as “aeons,” that spawned more Aeons, who form a progression between man and the Pleroma, and these aeons are usually given Greek names for character qualities. The final Aeon is the Demiurge, who either became evil, or insane because of the distance between the Demiurge and the Pleroma. As a result, the Demiurge created matter, the ultimate source of evil and suffering in humanity. The Demiurge is sometimes associated with Satan in the New Testament.

Gnostic Christology
The Gnostics believed that matter was inherently evil. This led to a serious issue with regards to Jesus Christ, who clearly had a body. There were several solutions given to this problem. One solution, known as Doceticism, claimed that Jesus only appeared to have a body. Another solution was the idea that “Christ” and “Jesus” were separate entities, with the Christ spirit (an Aeon) who joined with the mortal Jesus. Christ came not to redeem men on the cross, but to provide estoric knowledge (or gnosis, the basis of the name Gnosticism) to men. This knowledge was secret, and usually was given to a particular disciple. The four canonical gospels were merely the first, preparatory step to understand the greater gnostic “truths.” The ultimate goal of Gnosticism was to rejoin with the Pleroma.

Gnostic Practices
Gnostic practices were varied. Gnostics were broken into a number of sects, all of whom had a differing formula for rejoining the Demiurge. Because they believed matter was evil, some practiced asceticism – hoping to lessen the affect of the body on the spirit. Others went to the opposite extreme and practiced licentiousness, believing that the physical body was of no consequence. All gnostics considered relationships with the Aeons (who were usually related to character qualities, and might be named such things as patience), as a ladder that was to be climbed to draw closer to the Pleroma.

Gnostic Origins – What is known
Ignatius stated that the gnostics followed Simon Magnus. We have no means of evaluating whether this claim is true or false.

The earliest clear reference to the gnostics is the epistle of 1 John, written around AD 85. Some writers have seen elements of Gnosticism in other works, particularly claiming that they are addressed by Paul in several of his epistles. Gnosticism is variously connected to numerous references in Paul, and some are simply ridiculous. To begin discussing a date for the existence of Gnosticism we need a literary reference to a belief that was held by “Christian” gnostics, bearing no similarities to other groups. Of the various Pauline epistles tied to Gnosticism, the most compelling is the book of Colossians. However, even this reference is highly questionable – the elements of Colossians that are used to assert a connection to Gnosticism apply equally as well to Jewish traditions, and thus he was as likely (I believe more likely) to be addressing a group advocating Gentiles be required to adopt the OT Law. As we know that there was an early Christian Heresy in Paul’s time connected with Judaism. It is difficult to use this as a marker to indicate the existence of Gnosticism at this time. 1 Corinthians, likewise, has elements that are tied to Gnosticism, but these elements were also common to Greek philosophy. Thus, the elements asserted to connect Gnosticism to 1 Corinthians to Gnosticism could equally indicate influence by Grecian metaphysics, a trap that many of the latter father fell into.

However, 1 John’s regular references, to Christ coming in the flesh does seem related to Docetism, a gnostic belief. This is, historically, the oldest reference to something that is distinctive to Gnosticism. It should be emphasized that we have not proven that Gnosticism did not exist before this time period, but rather that there is no unambiguous evidence of Gnosticism before this point. While some have posited Gnosticism as existing beforehand from potential references to Gnosticism, this is ultimately speculation.

When John wrote against the gnostics, he attacked a central doctrine, the doctrine that Christ did not come in a physical body, but only appeared to have a body. Likely, if Paul’s were writing about gnostic beliefs, he would also attack the these beliefs more directly, and unambiguously. While this supposition is by no means unassailable, when combined with the possibilities noted above, it indicates that the theories noted above are more likely correct than the theory that implies the early existence of gnosticism.

There is an additional argument about dating the gnostics to the first century, but we will use that argument when we complete this study. What we can say is that no one can argue dogmatically that the gnostics existed in any form before the last quarter of the first century. With that fact in mind, we have our first “uncertainty” in the gnostic origin theory. In our next issue, we will discuss the issue of the gnostic gospels, an element that is included in some versions of the gnostic origin myth, but not in all.

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