Overview

Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”) is the term given to a philosophical movement that flourished between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE. Gnosticism placed the emphasis of life and salvation upon the obtaining of knowledge (Greek gnosis), which was deemed Truth, and removing ignorance or error. The movement itself was very splintered and had multiple schools: Gnostic groups incorporated Platonic and Zoroastrian philosophies, and in the late first century CE, many of these groups incorporated Christian and Jewish thought and practice into their philosophies. For the purposes of our discussion, we will concentrate on “Christian” Gnosticism, or, those Gnostics who believed in Jesus Christ in some form or another.

This “Christian” Gnosticism is known for its multiple divisions, with some groups practicing certain elements of Christianity, and others forsaking such practices. With all the division in Gnosticism, it is exceedingly difficult to make general statements that will be universally accurate, but it can be said that Gnostics attempted to incorporate many facets of Christian belief into the philosophical beliefs of the Greeks. Many Gnostic groups attempted to remove Christianity from its Judaic foundation, rejecting the God of the Israelites as an arrogant, presumptuous deity, one out of many. It is for this reason that Gnosticism represents the opposite pull from the “Judaizers” on the early church: as the “Judaizers” attempted to make Christianity into a form of “fulfilled Judaism,” so the Gnostics attempted to meld Christianity into Greek philosophy. True Christianity emerged out of this conflict as neither Judaic nor Hellenic, but as what it really is, a new covenant between God and all people on earth through His Son Jesus Christ.

Let us now examine the forms of Gnosticism that we see discussed in the Scriptures, and then examine the points in which Gnosticism attempted to place Christ in a Hellenic philosophical mold.

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Paul: Proto-Gnosticism in Colossae and Hymenaeus and Philetus

The philosophy of Gnosticism existed before Christianity, dating back to the last centuries before Christ, as a philosophy incorporating the Greek philosophy of Plato and others along with the Persian philosophy of Zoroaster. It did not take long after the Hellenistic world was exposed to Christianity for many groups of Gnostics to begin to incorporate Christ into their philosophy. The first such example may have been in the church of Colossae, to which Paul writes the following in Colossians 2:8-9:

Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.

This text would demonstrate to us that a form of Gnosticism, probably a proto-Gnosticism, had come forth in the church of Colossae, for Paul does give a hint of what this “philosophy” entails: the concept that Christ did not come in the flesh. Many Gnostic groups, following after the dualism of flesh and spirit of Plato, accepted the idea of Christ but not that He came to Earth in the form of a man. They believed that He came in the appearance of a man, what we would call today a hologram, but could not have possibly humiliated Himself to the point of becoming human. We see, however, that Paul affirms this very thing, here and also in other places, especially Philippians 2:5-10.

The other possible demonstration of Gnosticism becoming apparent in the churches in Paul’s writing concerns two individuals, Hymenaeus and Philetus, of which the following is written in 2 Timothy 2:16-18:

But shun profane babblings: for they will proceed further in ungodliness, and their word will eat as doth a gangrene: or whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; men who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already, and overthrow the faith of some.

We do see that there were many forms of Gnosticism that recognized that the “resurrection” occurred at the moment that one recognized his mortality and thus transcended it1. It could very well be that Hymenaeus and Philetus accepted this belief and left the faith for a form of Gnosticism.

John: Adversary of Gnosticism

The Gnostic form of Christianity is considered to be “proto-Gnostic” in the time of Paul because the evidence that we have demonstrates that the belief system was only beginning to take form during his years of service, between 41-67 CE. We can see from the writings of John in the latter part of the first century CE that by this time “Christian” Gnosticism had taken root and was probably one the largest sources of doctrinal disputation at that time. This is made evident by the large number of references to the bodily existence of Jesus (John 1:1-18; 1 John 1:1; 1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 1:7-11), a good example of which is 2 John 1:7-11:

For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even they that confess not that Jesus Christ cometh in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that ye lose not the things which we have wrought, but that ye receive a full reward. Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son. If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house, and give him no greeting: for he that giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works.

Here John refers to those of the Gnostic persuasion as the “deceiver” and the “antichrist,” and true Christians should provide no greeting or blessings for such persons. We see, therefore, that John did not mince words concerning the fruit of the Gnostics, and refuted them in his works.

Gnosticism versus Judaism

Unlike the “Judaizers”, who faded from history after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Gnostics remained and even grew after the time of the Apostles, going fully underground only in the fourth or fifth centuries CE and active in other belief systems until the thirteenth century CE. Therefore, much of the information that we have about the Gnostics came from sources who lived after the apostolic era, mostly by those generally deemed the “church fathers.” In 1945, however, a discovery was made in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, of twelve codices containing many Gnostic works. These works have helped to illuminate many of the doctrines and beliefs held by the Gnostics.

One significant belief held by the Gnostics concerned the God of the Israelites, YHWH. The Gnostics developed a mythology concerning the creation of gods and of the world in which the Father is the “Spirit,” from whom emanated many other gods, known as aeons2. One of these aeons was known as Sophia, and when she created things with the Spirit, all was well. One day, however, she desired by thought to create a likeness of herself without the approval of the Spirit, and the thought became reality, and she called this likeness Yaltabaoth (or Yaldabaoth)3. This Yaltabaoth was hidden from the other aeons, and he began to establish authorities on his behalf and created the heavens and the earth4. He then in his “arrogance” proclaimed himself the only god and a jealous one at that5. It is also believed by the Gnostics that Jesus Christ was a spirit of a higher level of understanding and awareness than this Yaltabaoth, and thus superior to him. The allusions to the God of the Israelites cannot be ignored in this mythology, and it is made evident that the Gnostics desired to separate Jesus Christ from Judaism and to incorporate Him into the pantheism of the Greeks. This philosophy, however, has no place in the Scriptures, and it represents the lengths the Gnostics went to deny the mission of the Lord Jesus.

Greek Influences Within Gnosticism

Many of the departures of the Gnostics from the truth are derived from the Greek philosophical foundations of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were heavily influenced by Plato, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher. Plato’s philosophy was heavily dualistic, positing two opposing forces working within humanity: flesh and spirit. In Plato’s world, the spirit represented everything good and wholesome; the flesh, everything evil and degenerative. Gnosticism accepts this dualism wholeheartedly, yet within the movement there were divisions over how the dualism was applied. The majority of Gnostics accepted the fact that the flesh was evil and the spirit was good, and therefore took great pains to supplant all fleshly desires, even to the point of renouncing women and marriage6. There were other groups, however, who believed that since the flesh was inferior to the spirit, the deeds of the flesh were irrelevant as long as the spirit aimed for higher knowledge. This group was therefore known for its widespread immorality.

The Gnostics also accepted other tenets of Platonic philosophy, especially his attitude concerning women. Plato found little use for women since they lead men toward a family life, forcing the male to make a living away from the cultivation of his mind. The Gnostic attitude towards women, therefore, was exceedingly negative, portraying all forms of evil as “becoming female”7 and even going as far as the following from the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven8.”

These concepts are far from Scriptural and demonstrate the permeation of Greek philosophy into the Gnostic theological system.

Conclusion

We have seen that the Gnostics in many ways represented a pull on Christianity in the opposite direction of that of the “Judaizers,” away from the practices of Judaism (in fact, completely renouncing the God of the Jews as the only God) and toward the philosophies of the Mediterranean world, especially that of the Greeks. The “early church” was able to stand up to the forces of Gnosticism; today, however, many denominations have brought back many of the tenets of Gnosticism, including dualism and asceticism, and have incorporated these philosophies into their belief systems. We must recognize this neo-Gnosticism and be as diligent to refute it as Paul and John and others did all those centuries ago.

Other Resources

Notes

1: “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” from The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. by James Robinson, p. 56
2: “The Apocryphon of John,” p. 106
3: Ibid., p. 110
4: Ibid., p. 112
5: Ibid., p. 113
6: “The Testimony of Truth,” pp. 452-453
7: “The Dialogue of the Savior,” p. 254; “The Second Treatise of the Great Seth,” p. 369
8: “The Gospel of Thomas,” (114) p. 138

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  1. […] my assumption is correct that Paul is not the author, then the Epistle may date from as late as the early 80s. In other words, the Epistle is about a struggle between parties holding radically different views […]

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