Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Short History of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is a broad term given to a number of religious systems which thrived particularly in the second century and have been largely associated with Christianity though its roots extend back even further.

Gnosticism seems to have latched on to Christianity very early on but did not become popular until the early part of the second century. We can describe Gnosticism in very broad terms by saying this religion taught a world view in which the very creation of the world was part of the problem of evil. The creator-god (called the Demiurge) was responsible for creation of the physical universe (some Gnostic schools taught this was done by using an eternal matter) and was intrinsically part of that evil.

Of course, the term Gnosticism comes from the Greek – Gnosis meaning knowledge and holds the key to another and more prominent ideal of the various sects – a secret ‘knowledge’ that more or less explains this entrapment of human souls in an intrinsically evil – physical world.

Since the Gnostic communities sprang up in popularity around the middle of the 2nd century and the Christian rebuttals (for example Justin Martyr, Irenaeus) sprang up in the mid to late 2nd century and not earlier, it is obvious that the Gnostic material should not be dated in the first century. Secular scholars typically love (without good historical reason) to place Gnostic writings in the first century and sometimes even pre-dating the canonical New Testament as if the original Christianity were Gnostic and the New Testament authors thoroughly revised actual history by inserting their fabricated theology. This viewpoint (or something similar) is surprisingly held by a number of secular scholars.

Elaine Pagels in her book “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas” insists that the “doubting Thomas” story was invented by John in his gospel as a rebuttal to the Gnostic gospel of Thomas in order to prove an early date for the gospel of Thomas. I find this to be very weak evidence. It seems to me to be decidedly more likely that John is describing an event that actually took place. If we are to agree with tradition that John truly was the author of the gospel of John of course, it is inconceivable that this was a fabrication.

This is typical – anti-Catholic revisionist history. They start with a conclusion – Christianity is false (Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and miracles don’t happen) so how can we make sense of all the evidence that points to such things? We start by labeling all the Christian writers as dishonest apologists.

I suggest that the gospel of Thomas was forged somewhere around 110 - 120 AD. The Greek fragments of Thomas are usually dated between 140 & 200 AD but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t based off an original that predates those.

By the year 126 AD, Quadratus & Aristides had both written apologetic material for Christianity. Of Quadratus’ work, only a small fragment is still extant but Aristides doesn’t address the problem of Gnosticism which leads us to believe that it must not have been perceived as much of a threat to the Christian community at that time. I believe by this time, there were Gnostic writings in limited circulation (being recently written such as the Gospel of Thomas and possibly the Gospel of Matthias) but their communities were still in the stages of infancy.

Basilides was a Christian teacher in Alexandria who apostatized somewhere around this time and probably reached his height of popularity around the end of Hadrian’s reign (117-138 AD). None of his writings are extant now and his teachings are somewhat hard to pin down due to the conflicting reports from Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Clement of Alexandria.

Valentinus founded the most popular school of Gnosticism. He was a Christian priest (and possibly a bishop) born in Africa and trained in Hellenistic science in Alexandria. He came to Rome during the papacy of Hyginus (136 – 140 AD) and is reported by Tertullian to have been a candidate to be elected as bishop of Rome at one point. Like many other Christian-Gnostics, Valentinus taught that Christ did not have a real body and did not suffer and die.

This goes to show the utter necessity of Christian orthodoxy and an infallible Magisterium. Were it fallible, there is absolutely no guarantee that Christianity wouldn’t have fallen into Gnosticism or any of the many other heresies that abounded in the first few centuries.

In hindsight, it seems clear to us that orthodox got it right; the Catholic Church that emerged from this ancient doctrinal battle truly maintained the apostolic teaching handed down initially from Christ Himself. Of course, the victor writes the history books (which as I understand it is one of the premises behind ‘the Da Vinci Code’) so how do we know that the Catholic Church didn’t just invent history that would show herself in a good light?

That is a predicament for a non-orthodox Christian to answer. We orthodox Christians insist that the Church was founded by Christ, that her traditions and teachings are infallible and that God would not allow her to slip into heresy. We believe that the same Holy Spirit in active guidance portrayed in the New Testament (the One that descended at Pentecost, infallibly pronounced through St. Peter at the council of Jerusalem and wrote the New Testament through the apostles and their disciples) didn’t just stop His activities after St. John died. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit remained active! He did not allow His precious Church – the bride of Christ to slip into the heresy of Gnosticism, Marcionism, Montanism, Arianism or any of the others that would come later.

Some ‘Christians’ still hold to these heresies to this day. There are Gnostics who think that the Church ultimately got it wrong. There are those who think that the Arian Catholic Church is the true Church and Catholics went astray. There are those who follow the reformers and say that the Catholic Church fell into apostasy and even became “anti-Christ”. Take your pick – but the one true Church still stands firm by the grace of God.

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