The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

by Sean Martin

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Gnosticism is the name given to various religious schools that proliferated in the first centuries after Christ, nearly becoming the dominant form of Christianity, but was eventually branded as heretical by the emerging Christian church. The long and diverse history of Gnosticism is recounted here, as well as reasons for its continued relevance today. Although some Gnostic beliefs are close to mainstream Christianity, others examined here include that the world is imperfect because it was created by an evil god who was constantly at war with the true, good God; that Christ and Satan were brothers; that reincarnation exists; and that women are the equal of men. Also covered is the influence Gnostics had on the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, psychologist Carl Jung, the Existentialists, the New Age movement, and writers as diverse as William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Albert Camus, and Philip K. Dick.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842436943
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 08/01/2010
Series: Pocket Essential Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 787,419
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sean Martin's books for Pocket Essentials include Alchemy and Alchemists, Andrei Tarkovsky, The Cathars, The Gnostics, and The Knights Templar.

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The Gnostics

The First Christian Heretics

By Sean Martin

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2006 Sean Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-695-0


Gnosticism and Christianity

The term 'Gnostic' has traditionally referred to the various groups which flourished in the early centuries of the Common Era and which stressed the importance of gnosis – direct inner knowledge of God – above dogma. The early Church Fathers condemned them as heretics and, until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices, it was largely through their tirades against Gnosticism that the various Gnostic teachers and schools were known.

The word 'Gnostic' comes from the Greek word gnosis, 'to know'. The Greeks, however, differentiated between two types of knowing: one was an intellectual knowing, such as 'I know there is an Oracle at Delphi', where knowledge is garnered from sources outside oneself (for example, reading books or talking to other people and, in our era, watching television or using the Internet); the other type of knowing is of a direct, personal, intuitive kind, through which one could say 'I know what the Oracle at Delphi said to me', because you had actually gone to Delphi and had a direct encounter with the mysteries of the Oracle. It is this second type of knowing that is the hallmark of Gnosticism. The psychologist Carl Jung, who, as we shall see, was something of a Gnostic himself, put the Gnostic view very simply when interviewed for a BBC television programme in 1959, when he had had a lifetime's experience of studying Gnostic thought and texts. When asked whether he still believed in God, Jung replied, 'I could not say I believe. I know.'

Despite the writings of the early Church Fathers, most of whom were fanatics with an axe to grind, the term 'Gnostic' was not universally used by Gnostic teachers such as Valentinus and Marcion, who usually simply referred to themselves as Christians, nor by Church apologists such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, who often called them simply 'heretics'. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the Gnostics themselves were comprised of diverse groups which did not have a uniform set of beliefs; indeed, diversity is one of the hallmarks of Gnosticism. Furthermore, not all Gnostics were Christian – some were Jews, some Pagan.

Modern scholarship is divided over what is actually meant by the term 'Gnosticism'. In 1966, a colloquium of scholars met at Messina in Italy to establish exactly what is meant by Gnosticism and gnosis. They concluded that Gnosticism refers to the religious systems developed in the early centuries of the Common Era, while gnosis is the attaining of knowledge. One could therefore have gnosis, but not be a Gnostic. (For the present book, we will try to adhere to the Messina definitions.) The political theorist Eric Voegelin further muddied the waters when he attempted to define Gnosticism as being derived from a general feeling of alienation and disconnectedness with society. As a result, he detected Gnosticism in Marxism, Communism and Nazism, all of which, according to Voegelin, were movements which wanted to bring about apocalypse (he dubbed it 'immanentising the eschaton').

Gnostic tendencies have since been spotted in a wide variety of writers, thinkers, political and spiritual movements, and also across the spectrum of popular culture, from Hollywood movies to computer games and comics. This bewilderingly diverse group includes the likes of not only Jung, but also William Blake, Goethe, Herman Melville, Albert Camus, Hegel, Nietzsche, WB Yeats, Franz Kafka, Existentialists, all manner of Theosophists, Jack Kerouac, Philip K Dick, computer games such as the Xenosaga series, comics such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Alan Moore's Promethea and movies such as The Truman Show and the Matrix trilogy.

In order to understand what links all these people, we need to take a long, convoluted and sometimes fragmentary journey that starts with early Gnostic seekers living at the height of the Roman Empire and ends – if this journey ever has an end – with people in a darkened movie theatre watching Keanu Reeves see the words 'Wake up, Neo' appear on his computer screen. For 'waking up' – just like Jung's 'knowing' – is precisely what Gnosticism is about and is precisely why it remains relevant to us today, perhaps more so than ever.

The First Christian Heretics?

Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices, most of the information we had on the Gnostics was derived from the writings of the early Church Fathers, who regarded the Gnostics as heretics. The earliest Christian apologist to deride the Gnostics was Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 162), whose Second Apology condemns the figures of Simon Magus, Valentinus and Marcion as 'wicked and deceitful'. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon (c. 130–202), writing in the late second century, saw Simon Magus as the original Gnostic, the 'Father of All Heresy', and therefore as the emerging Church's primary enemy.

Like most Gnostic figures, little is known about Simon other than through the writings of his opponents – men like Irenaeus and Justin. Simon first appears in Acts 8.9–24, where he is depicted as a Samaritan magician who is converted to Christianity by the apostle Philip. When the apostles Peter and John confer the Holy Spirit upon believers through the laying-on of hands, Simon asks if they can sell him their power. Needless to say, Peter and John refuse Simon's request, and Simon's sin in trying to buy divine power subsequently became known as Simony. Although Simon's appearance in the New Testament is brief, he also figures in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, where he is depicted as engaging in a series of magical battles with St Peter and for attempting to get Peter to not believe 'in the true God but in a fallacious one', suggesting that Simon was trying to inform Peter that the true God and the creator God were not one and the same. (This is a central belief of Gnosticism, to which we shall return in due course.)

There were other aspects of Simon's life and teaching which were Gnostic, not least his claim to be God incarnate, which reflects the Gnostic belief that we all have a divine spark within us – we are literally part of the true God – and in his relationship with a woman named Helena, whom he had found in a brothel in Tyre. Simon had redeemed Helena and came to regard her as the human embodiment of Sophia, the divine wisdom. Needless to say, the early Church Fathers positively foamed at the mouth at the mere mention of Simon's name, especially as his teachings became more popular during the course of the second century. Indeed, Irenaeus felt that Simon's teachings had proliferated woefully and he mocked the Gnostics for the sheer number of tracts they wrote, claiming that they produced 'a new gospel every day'.

For Irenaeus, the teachings of the Gnostics were an 'abyss of madness' and texts such as the Gospel of Truth were 'full of blasphemy'. The Christian polemicist Hippolytus (d. 235) felt compelled to 'expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of the heretics' in his epic Refutation of All Heresies. Of the various heretical groups Hippolytus condemns, over 30 of them were Gnostic. Tertullian (c. 155–230) lambasted the Gnostics for their denial of the physical reality of Christ's resurrection, declaring that anyone who did not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave was a heretic, and famously declared that the resurrection 'must be believed, because it is absurd!'

To understand fully why figures such as Irenaeus took the positions they did, we need to set their remarks in the context of the time, which will show that there is a great deal more to the attacks on the Gnostics than is initially apparent, and which actually makes the emerging Church's position far less tenable.

The Origins of Christianity

Unlike today, Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era was a mixed bag of beliefs and practices. Immediately during and after Jesus's ministry (which is traditionally held to have occurred between the late twenties and mid thirties CE), his followers were a minority persecuted by both the Romans and the Pharisees alike. There is continuing controversy as to who was Jesus's successor in the movement. Peter is traditionally seen as the Rock upon which the Church was built, and from whom the Roman Catholic Church claims descent, holding Peter as the first Pope.

However, this is where problems set in. It has been argued that Jesus's brother James, known as James the Greater, was the head of the first post-Crucifixion Christian community in Jerusalem and it is thought that James's followers clashed with Christianity's most fervent missionary, St Paul. This becomes all the more important when one recalls that Paul's ideas played a large part – indeed, one of the largest – in forming the theology on which the Christian faith is based. And yet he remains a controversial figure: he only quotes Jesus on one occasion, and his letters – which form the largest part of the New Testament – are frequently addressed to other Christian communities clarifying points of doctrine or urging them to toe the line. Had early Christianity been a unified whole, there would have been no need for such letters. It would not be going too far to say that 'Paul, and not Jesus, was ... the Founder of Christianity' and therein lie the origins of Christian heresy: 'Paul is, in effect, the first "Christian" heretic, and his teachings – which became the foundation of later Christianity – are a flagrant deviation from the "original" or "pure" form.' He is the 'first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus'. Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, Paul preached Christ Crucified; there is a big difference.

Perhaps the next most seminal figure after Paul is Irenaeus, who was the first to preach the 'Four-formed gospel' of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as they were the oldest gospels and therefore seen as the most 'accurate.' Four was also a convenient number, as there were four winds and four directions on the compass. Unlike Paul, who initially persecuted Christians but was famously converted to the faith when he experienced a vision of Christ on the Road to Damascus, Irenaeus was born into a Christian family and remained a devout proselytiser all his life. He entered the Church in Lyon and was taught by St Polycarp, who had himself been a student of St John. Irenaeus, perhaps inevitably, became a fierce champion of the Fourth Gospel, and although he regarded Christian orthodoxy as being based on the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it was the latter that was 'the first and foremost pillar of "the church's gospel" ... because John – and John alone – proclaims Christ's divine origin'.

Irenaeus may have also been reacting against the Gnostic teacher Marcion, who argued that the Gospel of Luke was the only true gospel and even went as far as producing his own version of it. Another second-century Gnostic, Tatian, who had studied under Justin Martyr but then became a follower of Valentinus, rewrote all four canonical gospels into a single work, a text known as the Diatessaron. As we have seen, the Gnostics were mocked by the early Church Fathers for their ability to produce 'a new gospel every day', but this would appear to be a misunderstanding of the Gnostic position, which generally held that the writing of such texts was the proof that the true God was speaking through the believer and that what the true God had to say could never be confined to just four gospels, canonical or otherwise.

Generally speaking, each of the early Christian schools of thought would champion one gospel over all the others; even Irenaeus himself did so, as we have seen. Thus followers of Paul would hold that his writings were gospel, to pardon the pun, while the followers of Mary Magdalene would regard the Gospel of Mary as the main source of spiritual guidance. Still others would esteem the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth or the Gospel of Judas.

The Gnostic schools had other hallmarks in addition to their gospels. They were, in the main, anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical, with some, such as the Valentinians, taking it in turns to officiate during services. If that wasn't bad enough in the eyes of the Church Fathers, they also regarded women as the equal of men and had female priests. Women were therefore drawn to Gnosticism as it offered them a genuine chance to participate. Others who did not enjoy the status of first-class citizen, such as the poor and outcast, were also welcomed. Gnosticism drew those who were disaffected and appealed especially to city dwellers who felt that conventional forms of religious expression had little or nothing to offer them.

The Origins of Gnosticism

The Gnostics themselves kept no official histories – it was simply not of interest to them to document how and why their philosophy began, the main focus of their teaching being gnosis. Scholars are therefore still debating the origins of Gnosticism. It is traditionally thought to be a form of Christianity that flourished in the first centuries CE, and that is certainly the impression one gets from reading the Church Fathers. In fact, it is a slightly misleading assumption, as Gnosticism probably had its roots in – or at least was influenced by – Jewish, Pagan and Iranian traditions that predate Christianity.

Judea in the two centuries before Christ was a hotbed of political and religious fervour, with Judaism itself evolving during this time. Once the Babylonish Captivity had ended and the exiled tribes had returned home in the late sixth century BC, friction was generated between them and the tribes who had stayed. The exiles felt that they were the true children of God, as they had remained true to the Torah and had suffered the punishment of exile to prove it, while the tribes who had remained in Judea were felt to be collaborators. Matters came to a head in 168 BC, in what was known as the Revolt of the Maccabees, which was sparked off by the Seleucid ruler of Israel, King Antiochus Epiphanes, when he embarked on an anti-Semitic purge. Rebellion quickly spread, Antiochus's forces were defeated, and the hard-line descendants of the former exiles gained control of the Temple in Jerusalem. To them, the likes of the liberal pro-Hellenic Hasmonean dynasty were as much the enemy as the Seleucids, and the general air of political turmoil led to a growth in fanatical groups of various persuasions.

These groups were frequently ascetic and apocalyptic, standing at the fringe of Jewish life. Perhaps the most well-known of them were the Essenes, a radical group based in the caves of Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea. It has been suggested by various writers that both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself were at one time members of the Dead Sea community – or at least were influenced by it – before beginning their respective ministries. While this is debatable, it is known that the Essenes sought to establish a new covenant with God, as they believed that Israel's sins had all but invalidated the old covenant (given by God to Abraham). According to Roman historians like Josephus and Philo, the Essenes were divided between those who had taken full vows – which involved living at Qumran and adhering to a strict life of celibacy, prayer and ritual – and those who were associate members who, while believers, lived in towns, plied ordinary trades and married.

In further foreshadowings of Gnosticism, the world view of the Qumran Sect was essentially dualist, in that they saw the world as the battleground between the forces of heaven and hell, and that man himself is the microcosm of this war: 'the spirits of truth and falsehood struggle within the human heart ... According to his share in truth and right, thus a man hates lies; and according to his share in the lot of deceit, thus he hates the truth.' They also insisted that what mattered was not one's ethnic origin – be it Jewish or Gentile – but one's morality: only the pure of heart would be saved.

Like the subsequent Gnostic schools that grew up in their wake, the apocalyptic sects taught an 'esoteric, revealed wisdom, and the resulting knowledge has an immediate relation to redemption. The knowledge of God's mysteries guarantees salvation; knowledge, or cognition, and redemption are closely connected.'

Given that God's mysteries have to be worked for, the Jewish apocalyptic school was necessarily elitist; not everyone would be saved, but only those who were active on the spiritual path. The apocalyptics, like the Gnostics after them, regarded themselves as strangers in a strange land. They looked forward to the ending of historical time, at which point eternity and salvation would begin; the Gnostics, on the other hand, were in the main not so much concerned with the end of the world, as, for them, salvation occurred at the moment gnosis was achieved.

The Gnostics seem to have inherited a number of other beliefs from the Jewish schools. Both have a dualistic world view, as we have noted, which requires a belief in two gods rather than one. The god who created the world is not the same as the true God, who remains forever beyond the material plane. The creator God is often portrayed as at the very least incompetent, if not actually evil. His minions are known as archons, spirits who keep man in thrall to the material world and ignorant of his true nature.


Excerpted from The Gnostics by Sean Martin. Copyright © 2006 Sean Martin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents


1: Gnosticism and Christianity,
2: Beliefs and Myths,
3: Teachers and Traditions,
4: Gnostic Religions,
5: Texts and Gospels,
6: Influence and Legacy,
Appendix I: Glossary,
Appendix II: Gnosticism and Buddhism,
Appendix III: Gnosticism in the Canonical Gospels,
Suggestions for Further Reading,

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