January 3, 2017

The Gnostic Threat to 1st & 2nd Century Christianity

During Christianity’s developmental years, there were not only the now well-known persecutions and general discriminations to contend with for a fledgling religion, but there was also a significant amount of competition. This competition took many forms around the beginning of the common era--ancient systems like Greco-Roman polytheism becoming overladen with cross-cultural diffusion and Judaism slowly decaying under the weight of generations of foreign conquest and domestic schisms; as well as newborn religious movements bearing various telltale signatures of charlantry,1 amalgamations of alien beliefs2 from foreign trade and immigration; and, the stain of a hopeless despair from long-delayed apocalyptic hopes.3 Among the groups of newborn Christian factions there were, of course, missing elements and complications that needed swift resolution, lest momentum be lost. The incarnation of the Jews’ Christ gave many of them a unifying element4 to otherwise lackluster or incomplete cosmogonies. Thus, amidst the eagerly groping hands of a subjugated and uneducated people, the early Christian heresies were born from fertile ground--the emerging Gnostics proving to be the most significant rival of the time.

The first two centuries of Christianity’s Patristic Period provides us with the earliest explicit examples of heresy as a distinct threat (rivaled only later by the Arian grip on judicial Rome that would last through the fourth century proper)5; the early Church fathers had the monumental task of defining what would come to be known as orthodox Christian doctrine while simultaneously preventing any divergent and competing ideas from taking root that might threaten the integrity of the message. One must also keep closely in mind that the Council of Nicea is still nearly a century and a half away from even its first steps of definitive clarity of doctrine. Some heretical sects would prove to be far more formidable opponents than others, but ultimately their generally tenacious presence created the sense of urgency that compelled the early Church to more clearly and fervently define the fundamental tenets of Christian theology.

Among the many startup and offshoot sects and heterodox strains of thought to adopt Jesus as a figurehead (e.g., Docetism, Arianism, Montanism, etc.), one of the most varied and prominent of the first and second century was Gnosticism. The title of “Gnosticism” itself is deceptive in the perspective of history since few, if any, of the sects to be later termed “Gnostic” actually labelled themselves as such and sects that would be blanketed under the term were not of just one movement, but were so collectively labelled by their opponents.6 The Gnostic groups of the time (and that would survive in remnants for centuries, some even to this day) were of such a broad spectrum of philosophy, theology, and morality that they ranged from one extreme of nearly orthodox Christianity and Christian-Judaism7 (e.g., Christian Sethians and Ebionites) to another of such extremely opposing ideals of materialism and scriptural interpretation (e.g., Ophite Gnostics) that over time they would come to inspire what would later be medieval and twentieth century Satanist movements,8 as well as everything in between that would ultimately influence groups like the Cathars9 of the Middle Ages. This element of theological and communal disunity of the Gnostics, though obviously causing ripple effects for centuries, would ultimately lead to their overall downfall in the formative years by forcing an already growing unity of orthodox Christianity onto firmer political ground, which we will see in further development later in the essay.

In order to see the progression and interrelationship between the two schools, we must first examine (I) the Gnostics themselves, then ascertain (II) what structural threat they actually did or did not pose to Christianity, and finally (III) arbitrate the clash and rivalry that took place as they both grew, expanding into each other's theological, social, and political territories. In this essay, I present the facets of the various Gnostic sects of the first through second centuries A.D., comparing their similarities and differences, both with each other and with contemporary Christian orthodoxy, as well as articulating the theological factors and logistics at work in the outcomes of their clashes with their respective degradations and developments. Through these systematic examinations we will see how the timely emergence of Gnosticism was a singularly strong developmental factor for Christianity at large, nudging it into the structurally theological and institutional entity it is today.

I. The Gnostics

True as it is that the myriad groups that bore the label of Gnosticism hardly deserved to be collected under one doctrinal banner by their opposition, it remains a matter of understandable practicality that the Church fathers would have done so as would one facing down an army on the battlefield would scarcely take the time to catalog each individual advancement or single enemy soldier by name rather than to acknowledge the advancing force as a whole operative threat under the one enemy standard. Thus, we first have the task of delineating between the different groups based on their ideology and chronology, then addressing them likewise again as a comprehensive whole within the context of their opposition to Christian orthodoxy (i.e., deconstruct in order to reconstruct). While there were a great many varieties of the Gnostic sects, only a few of note will be referenced here which suitably demonstrate the diversity and commonalities that created the Gnostic body at the time (amorphous as it may have been). So too will be generally omitted (in contextual analysis) the groups that overtly denied communion or comparison with Christianity proper, vaguely akin to what remains of Gnosticism today, the tenants of which popularly deny such associations.10 Such groups, both then and now, are not heterodox by definition as much as a completely separate religion or philosophy in a like manner as Islam claims certain Judeo-Christian content and revelation, but makes no claims of communion or adherence with either of its predecessors.11

Although there has been a long standing question over the authentic preexistence of Gnosticism per se to Christianity, it is most likely that Gnosticism as we have come to know it had almost as many origins as it had manifestations and that the early Patristic Period development of both happened concurrently.12 While some of the Gnostic movements contemporary to Christianity revealed most of their roots in pre-Christian, Hellenistic philosophy,13 there is some conjecture that pre-Christian elements seem to have grown from roots in Egyptian traditions. If this is true, those elements may have been present in, or eventually would evolve into, Sethianism through cultural synthesis as indicated by Greek Trismegistus literature referencing older Egyptian-Gnostic doctrines from over a thousand years previous to the birth of Christianity14 (albeit, obviously, without the distinctively Christian components) Sethianism (so named as its members identified themselves as “sons of Seth,”15 i.e., the actual third son of Adam and Eve) would not reach the height of its Christianized form until sometime in the second century. In the meantime there is some confusion on the part of the outsider as to who “Seth” actually was to the Sethians. Most looking back simply take it at face value, with “Seth” being the Seth of the Israelites (Gen 4:25 RSV/CE), while taking a broader view of Sethianism and its cultural origins, we also see that the name “Seth,” to the pagan Egyptians, was also synonymous with the god “Set”16 just as linguistically the transliteration of the Hebrew name “Set” became “Seth” in biblical nomenclature. Since the Sethians were born out of Egypt, this could be far from insignificant to their theology. But, for our purposes such synchronicity may prove to muddy the waters and risk speculation that would exceed the scope of this essay. Unfortunately, we know little primary information of their dogma outside of the cryptic manuscript from the Nag Hammadi library and the polemical accounts in Irenaeus’ letters.

Irenaeus gives us an account of the semi-Christianized Sethian system in terms of a complex and pseudo-polytheistic structure with various angels, powers, dominions, and other intelligent emanations which were formed through procreative acts between a divine trinity of sorts, i.e., the uncreated “Father,” a created “Son,” and a feminine “Spirit.”17 The discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts would later shed more light on the intricacies of the Sethian beliefs and Seth’s place in their cosmogony, but a more interesting detail of what made them a Christian heresy, rather than a separate religion, was their adoption of Christ. “The Egyptian Gospel”18 states that Seth prepared for himself a body “begotten by the Word” (i.e., Jesus’ Logos-begotten, human body) “with whom the Great Seth has been clothed.”19 Though this unique approach to Christology, still maintaining that Jesus was both divinely begotten and born in mortal flesh, barely dodges the heretical notions of the Docetists it nonetheless falls painfully short of what would later be aptly called homoousian orthodoxy, even as more simply and vaguely defined by canon Scripture. Despite the various trinitarian features of the Sethians, which were many and diverse of cosmological functions in contrast to the Christian belief of a single Trinitarian Godhead, the most significant impact of their system was threefold: their complex emanationism, rigid dualism,20 and the belief that only an elect few were worthy of true divine knowledge (i.e., gnosis), as Jesus had only revealed the truth of himself and appeared after the resurrection to a chosen few disciples21 (John 20:19-23; 21:1-14). These three primary doctrines would be a constant thread among all Gnostic groups thereafter.

As previously mentioned, the Gnostic groups had among them a wide range of beliefs and structures, including views on asceticism which seemed to evolve from various interpretations of dualistic thought about the good/divine and the evil/material worlds. Around the same time as Christ was making himself and his teachings known, some of the Essenes, having already been flourishing for generations22 practicing a strict breed of monastic Jewish asceticism in groups spread across Judea, splintered off both theologically and geographically to become what would be later known as the Ebionites.23 It is likely that some of the individuals left under the pressures of the developments of their own doctrine, which was undergoing certain changes due to cultural exposure and diffusion from other neighboring belief systems like Zoroastrianism (presumably appealing because of its already similar edicts of personal discipline and a theology that uniquely combined monotheism and dualism)24 and possibly some residual Chaldean theurgical traditions bleeding in from nearby regional practice,25 though the latter is more doubtful due to the timing of both groups’ respective climaxes. In any case, it would seem that the newer ideas held by the Essenes encountered the teachings of Christ and his disciples, thus giving birth to the Ebionites as a sect of Jewish-Christians, still maintaining many old Mosaic practices (because they believed still that faith in Christ alone was not enough to save them26) as well as adopting several new Christian beliefs.27

Since only key points are exhibited here that contribute to the overall body of Gnostic ideology, there were perhaps two most significantly attributed to the Ebionites that we know of, both of which being indicative of their strict adherence to Mosaic Law.28 One is generally considered psilanthropism, i.e., that they refuted the virginal birth of Jesus29 as impossible; that he was born a mortal man of Mary and Joseph. This likely resulted from a similar mindset that we see in the Pharisees of the gospels, again in strict adherence to Jewish tradition, whereby neither they nor the Ebionites could accept that Jesus was the Son of God, with the difference being that the latter at least accepted him as a great prophet of “superior virtue”30 or sometimes ranked him among the archangels.31 The second, perhaps subsequent, doctrine was that Jesus became the “Christ” (i.e., a sort of anointed, messiah-to-be at the second coming),32 introducing a notion (adoptionism) embraced by many docetic and later gnostic groups, i.e., that the Logos descended upon Jesus, the man, at his Baptism33 in the visual manifestation of a dove; thereafter making him the Christ from that moment on. With other ideas brewing in Ebionite beliefs (e.g., emanationism and refutations of resurrection), we suffice to move on to other groups that would be characterized more heavily by the former notions.

Scarcely could the topic of Gnosticism be discussed without mention of Simon Magus, of whom we know little objective historical information but who holds a place of infamy in Biblical Scripture as the boastful sorcerer of Samaria (Acts 8:9). Although there have been debates of Simon Magus not being the same as the Simon of Acts, such propositions are difficult to verify in historical terms and it is generally accepted that the one and the same Simon was not only the founder of the Simonian sect, but ubiquitously thought to be the “author of all heresy”34 by the Church at large and that all other Gnostics proper sprang from him as their “progenitor.”35 Having mentioned the pre-Christian origins of the Sethians and the Essenes, it was possible that it was Simon Magus who imparted to them, whether directly or by indirect influence, their Christian elements and, as most of the polemics would say, their ideas on the deification of man.36 As Irenaeus tells us, Simon not only contended with the apostles after the legendary confrontation with St. Peter (Acts 8:18-23), but he also travelled a great deal while allegedly making grand claims as a rival messiah37 in an attempt to contend with the messiahship and divinity of Christ himself (i.e., that he himself was the “Son” here, the “Father” there, and the “Holy Spirit” elsewhere throughout his travels).38 To that end, he purportedly fashioned his own cosmology to support such claims39 which bore a striking resemblance to certain Gospel accounts from Jesus’ life, such as paralleling himself and his consort, a prostitute named Helena, with Jesus and Mary Magdalene40 while some of his other converts from Greek Hellenism thought of them as an earthly manifestation Zeus and Athena41 (owing this difference of relationship to Helen being a thought emanation of Simon as Athena was born from Zeus’ forehead); an idea he nonetheless likely made little attempt to dissuade.

While the heated stories about Simon’s arrogance make for a flamboyant portrayal of the iconically controversial magician, and most likely contain at least some truth, the overall validity of them falls into the obscurity of historical oppositions, e.g., while the polemics wrote of an account of Claudius Caesar honoring him with a statue as a god after witnessing his works of magic,42 later archaeological evidence of the supposed statue reveal that it was actually that of a pagan god with an inscription that was misinterpreted by the early writers.43 Nonetheless, if even only these rumors of Simon’s marvels and arrogance made it to the Church fathers, then they would have no doubt spread within his followers and outward to potential converts as well. With the sensationalism of his character aside, Simon’s alleged god-complex and the Simonians as a group established two major veins of belief: one that would be adopted by some sects and rejected by others, i.e., the total abandonment of moral rigidity and Mosaic code in defiant opposition the material world44 (which they believed was created by the evil Demiurge under the guise of Yahweh, rather than the Supreme God--dualism to the far extreme which would structurally undermine the fundamental teachings of both Christian and Jewish morality); and another that would run deeply through many Gnostic sects from then on, i.e., the focus on the deification of the individual over God, Christ, and the Church. This contribution would snowball to be a greater threat later to the Church and will be revisited later in the essay.

Tracing the line of succession in benchmarks of Gnostic development brings us to Basilides of Alexandria who followed Menander,45 a pupil of Simon Magus. While Basilides had his own flavor of doctrine, distinct yet developed from the evolving thought of his predecessors, it was with his movement that the Gnostics became less of an incubating group of small sects keeping to themselves and more of an outward threat to the development of the universal Christian Church. Basilides teaching his brand of Gnostic Christianity in the early second century made him one of the first to bring (a type of) Christ’s teachings to Egypt.46 With other sects being relatively isolated in both location and practice, and Simon Magus busy ingratiating himself (rather than his group, which Origen claimed was actually quite small)47 as something of a celebrity personality among the pagan community,48 this struck what would perhaps be the first significant wound to the Christian efforts of establishing their own correct doctrine as a universal Church and an accurate portrayal of orthodoxy to their detractors,49 potential converts,50 and the public eye in general.

With Basilides’ teachings, the concept of the Demiurge (i.e., the evil counterpart of the gnostic dualist philosophy that created the inherently evil material cosmos, as opposed to the Supreme God of the inherently good divine spiritual cosmos) became more solidified within a Hellenistic pantheon format51 that set a trend for other Gnostic systems, particularly with the figure of Abrasax as either the Demiurge, a lower angel/archon/god under the Demiurge,52 or even as the protective “power on high” supreme deity53 (depending on the region and time period of its use) figuring prominently on many diverse Gnostic talismans. Basilides’ “school” (at best) or “following” (at worst) was able to take advantage of the lack of orthodox Christian opposition and the already-present Hellenistic paganism of Roman occupation by setting up shop in the Alexandrian School,54 which we know to have been an academic lightning rod for contemporary scholars far and wide.55 This exacerbated the damage that could be done to Christian efforts, whether intentional or not, by exposure alone. Add to this fortuitous timing and placement (at least for Basilides) his alleged “audacity,” so named because of such maneuvers as writing his own gospel and even rewriting canonical Gospels to more favorably reflect Gnostic ideals.56 Little more need be said of Basilides here both because of our lack of sufficiently unbiased historical records and because the foregoing is of most interest to the current inquiry. Above all, it was in this perceivably aggressive advancement of heterodox teaching that we see the exteriorization of the Gnostic threat to Christianity as an encroaching hazard, as there is always a direct succession from heterodoxy to heteropraxy.57

Following from the teachings of Basilides during his time in Alexandria we come to Valentinus who, due to his influence and infamy in the second century, may have been the “greatest of the Gnostics” by culminating all of his contemporary heresies58 and making the first directly subversive move against Christianity by actually establishing a schismatic, competing church in Rome. Whereas Tertullian deemed the Valentinians to be one of the largest and most dangerous heretical sects of his time,59 Irenaeus had a more condescending opinion, claiming that with their diverse numbers and opinions there were seldom two of them who could agree with each other due to “discordant” and “inconsistent” arguments60 within their ranks. Therein we see the tip of the iceberg of the overall Gnostic weakness, which we will revisit in due course.

Of Valentinus’ teachings we know the usual Gnostic ideals of dualism (with the creator Demiurge and fallen state of matter),61 emanationism,62 elitism, and adoptionism,63 but more characteristic of his particular movement was his expansion of the advancements started by Basilides. As our most extant sources tell us, he was educated in Alexandria, during which time he claimed to be a follower of Theudas (previously a follower of St. Paul, the Apostle),64 supposedly making him privy to otherwise secret knowledge imparted by Paul and withheld from other disciples. Valentinus then travelled to Rome with ambitions to become a bishop, but was passed over and subsequently broke with the Church proper out of his “indignance”65 from the rejection. From here on the historical account becomes more heavily colored by the polemic writers, who referred to him in such terms as a “serpent” seeking “to exterminate the truth.”66 Although Tertullian may have been making overuse of polemical devices,67 he also may have been right, given Valentinus’ strategic movements. The breaking that Tertullian wrote of was in reference to Valentinus’ establishment of a rival church while still in Rome. Also, and perhaps as a result, until the end of the second century the heretical Christian groups had already come to outnumber those of orthodox groups, even in Rome.68 Due to the political climate of the time in all Roman territories (i.e., Christianity proper being illegal), Gnostic churches posed a more severe threat to orthodox Christianity since they could operate within the confines of Roman law in worship69 due to their dualism and Hellenistic interpretation of Christian doctrine70 (i.e., with all things material being evil and of little concern, it was no sin to make legally prescribed sacrifices to Roman gods, bribe Roman officials, or other such theologically illicit activities to avoid persecution).

Although a great many other diverse groups, contemporary to the foregoing and for centuries after, made more contributions to the Gnostic body of doctrine, let it suffice to use the general whole of what has been described thus far to loosely define the body of what will hereafter be simply referred to as “Gnostic” insofar as the timeframe and context in question. With this whole of diverse, and often discordant, parts we can move on to see the more direct effects and influences on its contemporary orthodox counterpart. Any apparent contradictions in theology or practice within the body would not lessen the cohesion of the term “Gnostic,” but rather serve to more accurately portray the body as a whole movement, such as it was (contradictions and all).

II. The Threat

There are a good many a priori inferences that can be made about the causes of the Christian-Gnostic clash based solely on the theological and social matrices of both groups and political backdrop of the time. Most of these inferences are related to the Christian message as a whole, as taught by the sayings of Jesus during his life. First and foremost (in a theological sense), whereas Jesus recapitulated the scriptural edict to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5) as the “great and first commandment,” (Matt 22:38) the Gnostic way of thoughts was, of course, gnosis above all else to save one from ignorance, rather than seeking God’s grace to save one from sin.71 This is quite simply addressed by St. Paul in his statement of “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” (1 Cor 8:1) which is one of many Pauline statements that are generally understood to be directed at the fledgling Gnostic thought and misunderstood orthodoxy of even his time.72

The ideals of Gnosticism also, whether purposeful or not, utterly opposed the conventional Christian message of “great joy which will come to all the people” (Luke 2:10) with its own underlying theme of elitism, beginning as early as the Sethians in development. Many Gnostic groups held the idea of stratifying all individuals into three castes: the unfortunate “somatics” or “hylics,” who were incapable of gnosis; the “psychics,” who were capable of gnosis through various mental and theurgical disciplines; and the blessed “pneumatics,” who were either naturally enlightened or easily capable of enlightenment through the attainment of gnosis.73 Such a worldview is reminiscent, though in an uncharacteristically discriminatory fashion, to eastern philosophical religions, but rather was likely owed to the Hellenistic Philosophy present in the Gnostic leaders’ educational backgrounds.74

But, if one requires gnosis for his own salvation, then whose system of gnosis must one subscribe to? To view the Gnostic climate in perspective of the time period, we would see a veritable buffet of choices. In the late first century we would have the choice between groups like the Ebionites, the Ophites,75 and the Simonians (depending also on one’s locale). Quite the choice that was, though, if we were to compare the gnosis of the Ebionites, i.e., strict asceticism and exhausted apocalyptic hopes born of an oppressed Jewish populace,76 with that of the Ophites and Simonians which advocated free (sexual) love and material indulgence as a means to properly defy the contrived material world77 (and, by default, the often “evil” Demiurge). If one lacking in formal theological education is to take seriously either tenant, then he might as well have been asked whether he prefer to walk to salvation over soft down pillows or crawl to the same over searing hot coals. The situation became no less confusing as developments progressed into the second century, with Valentinus and Marcion78 selling their products of an “easier” and “safer” Christian path to salvation without risking the death penalty under Roman law, while Saturninus79 launched yet another (obviously less popular) dualistic spin of rigorous asceticism into the mix.80 And, with all of these choices blossoming under the nose of Christian orthodoxy in its infancy, which was under constantly fluctuating degrees of Roman persecution, one would scarcely be able to know even the basics of moral right from wrong, much less any significant theological truths, amidst a cluttered religious turmoil that Tertullian would term “tiresome… utterly poor and weak.”81

When it came to justification of one over the other, though there was a healthy body of scriptural passages with which to form the basis of support for Gnostic doctrines, it would seem that there were an equal, if not greater, number which refuted such doctrines. To avoid an exhaustively lengthy account of the debate, a small few examples include: “many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matt 22:14) in favor of gnosis to the elect, while the more celebrated, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations” (Matt 24:14) hearkens more to Jesus’ overt message; another one of Paul’s alleged82 advocations of gnostic ideals, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11:33) while he more clearly condemns a Gnostic mindset in, “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition… and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8). As such, an argument can be made that both sides of orthodoxy and heterodoxy cherry-picked Scripture (as they were both apt to do in times of such dispute over doctrine) in order to support their respective positions of Christian doctrine, but the element of greatest value against gnosis through the leaders of the time was to be found in Jesus’ own words, “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27) whereby he was generally understood to have provided a clear path of thought for the Christian faithful and the philosopher alike to the “gnosis” of God as he intended it to be, rather than through Paul’s so accused “false apostles” and “deceitful workmen” (2 Cor 11:13), which he directed at the gnostic infiltrations of the churches in Corinth83 and Philippi.84

Regardless of the path to gnosis or faith, a greater threat to the very Christian way of life was the (at best) ambiguous state of Gnostic morality. This seems to have been started with the practices of Simon Magus and then later utilized by such successors as Menander and Valentinus, using immorality as an effective propaganda device;85 again, catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. All of this, of course, owed its origins to the signature Gnostic dualism, i.e., if all things material are bad, then how do we deal with right living while trapped in the material world? Do we embrace all things material because the material is irrelevant to and alienated from the divine (which is the first and highest calling), or do we eschew all things material from our lives as inherently evil in order to aspire only to divine things at the expense of all else? To add further complexity to the matter of dualism, many Gnostic interpretations (both ancient and modern) of the Genesis narrative of Eden parallel the fall of man through original sin with the temptation to earthly gnosis inciting a “fall” of primordial man’s “spirit” into “matter”86 which in turn parallels the more orthodox interpretation of the fall of Lucifer from heavenly grace to be “the god of this [material] world” (2 Cor 4:4). Now the inherent disunity of Gnosticism at large is evident when treated as a singular community or theology. Whether it stemmed from early misinterpretations of Scripture (both Old and New) or was born of the ambitions of charismatic men like Simon Magus, it would seem that the Gnostics, unlike the orthodox Christians, were quite scattered both doctrinally and socially.

If the Gnostics were of a house divided, then what threat did they really pose to Christianity? As previously mentioned, they could not only operate safely within the confines of Roman law but also boasted a public appeal that most pagans could easily conform to. However, all of this was coupled with the fact that they claimed “Christianity” as a title of growing faith and created a mass of confusion in their attempts to convert followers under said banner.87 While it succeeded in appealing the newest trend (i.e., Christianity) to pagan sensibilities, this ultimately discredited the orthodox Christians by proxy in the eyes of already critical pagans88 and Jews, who seldom cared (or knew) to make a distinction between the two groups. In fact, we see that most polemics of the time, like Irenaeus, often refrained from directly writing against the pagans in a political context because they opposed Christianity outright (and in his refrain risked less civil disruption to the Christian community),89 whereas the Gnostic movement subjugated Christianity by operating under similar titles and terminology.

III. The Rivalry

Given the confusingly similar outward presentation of the two groups (i.e., Gnostic-Christians and Christians), the Hellenistic aspects of Gnosticism became more subversive by allowing the ideology of hard (and in some respects semi-polytheistic) dualism to take a firm hold with pagan converts. With many of these converts having already been indoctrinated to the ideas of both good and evil gods in moral tension with each other, the so-called “Christian,” yet pagan flavored conversion of Valentinus, for example, was much easier to swallow. In fact, if the material world is evil and all that happens in it is secondary and base compared to the divine experience (which we as humans are so far removed from), not only are conventional understandings of morality in question, but sacraments such as baptism become merely superfluous90 and the honor martyrdom becomes altogether unnecessary.91 Obviously, the Gospels (both canon and many apocryphal) show us that these were two of Jesus’ greatest examples to his followers. However, to again question from the Gnostic perspective: Was Jesus indeed the savior, or was the savior one of these other, still living teachers with the keys of gnosis (e.g., Simon and Menander)?92 Furthermore, with so many saviors popping up touting their own magic powers and grand claims to make the individual god-like by teaching him the secret gnosis,93 what then was the value of a savior anyway? It would seem that the individual is paramount and that the most important aspect of the majority of the Gnostic-Christian groups available at the time was the enrichment of the personal experience.94 It is plain to see how this chain reaction of psychology could have quickly led people away from faith altogether and into such things as were abhorrent to the Christian institution (e.g., idolatry, adultery, apostasy, etc.; but, most of all the potential for what many would call unbridled pride in a fashion after men like Simon Magus himself).

It is likely that if we can see this pattern in retrospect, then pastoral men like Irenaeus, who were seeking a unity via the “simple faith”95 of the Church, would have practically felt Gnosticism’s hot, sulfurous breath right on the back of his neck at every turn; to that effect, his writings seemed most concerned with the Gnostic threat crashing against the very foundations of peace and unity of the Christian Church.96 At this point the battle was virtually at the gates as the dissension grew between the authorities of the Church and their Gnostic opponents, on both political and theological grounds. Politically, the elitist Gnostics would have rejected the Church as an organization, deeming the masses to be unworthy and ignorant by their very definition of the general populace (i.e., flocks of “somatics”) and deemed salvation (i.e., gnosis) to be reserved only for the elect. Theologically, they also questioned nearly every moral tenant, which in effect undermined the disciplines and teachings of Christianity and cast overall doubt on the whole universality of the Church,97 not to mention that some groups would challenge the very historical existence of Jesus by necessity of dualist philosophy98 (de facto Docetism). This, in an extreme way, mirrored the conflict between the traditionalist Jews and the emerging Christians during the time of Christ, as the Gnostics viewed Christianity in a similar light as the Christians viewed Judaism: incomplete99 and, as of yet, unfulfilled.

Contrary, though, to the presumed ease of Gnosticism as an alternative (and as well contrary to the aforementioned “easy” perspective of some ideas of Gnostic dualist morality), given the intellectual nature of most Gnostic ideology one can also say that such ideals were in fact a disadvantage to their popularity in light of the Christian message. On the one hand, the Church proper demanded certain standards of morality (albeit difficult for some pagans to adhere to and easier for some Jews)100 but made few intellectual demands on the individual, giving a solid (though simplistic) theology and system of religious ordinance. Christianity also offered the idea of a personal God (i.e., a “person,” although still pre-Trinitarian theology in its fullness) as one who cares about and loves the individual and by whose Son “the world might be saved through” (John 3:17). On the other hand, the Gnostics, some of whom went so far as to classify the individual in degrees of terminal capacities, doctrinally demanded certain insight and intellectual excellence from their adherents, lest they not be able to ascend from the material prison and evade its jealous archons101 to attain to the ultimate divinity. The Gnostics also saw God (i.e., the Supremely Divine God) as more distant and unconcerned with the material goings on of the physical cosmos,102 making moral life relatively lax for many. However, this idea made God just that--unconcerned--about the cosmos and all of mankind in it, which was far from a comforting belief for a populace having already been termed above as a “subjugated” and “hopeless” people.

Ultimately, this tension between the two extremes amounts to this in theological terms: while the Gnostics demanded “a mastery of oneself… to transcend all human limitations and become divine,”103 the Christian Church demanded only communion through belief in Christ and offered “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph 1:17). This Christian “gnosis” was, in theory, easily acquired since Jesus himself stated that, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).


As the essay comes to a close, we must wonder how it was that this dispute was ended, apart from the obvious, far-reaching end results. In reflection on the very mass of the body of works that were written by the furious hands of the polemic Church fathers, we see that this dispute with the Gnostic movement (perhaps above all others)104 was the inspiration that helped give the early Church its communal unity105 and political flavor. The rival Gnostic churches and their body of followers grew to the point of restricting the expansion of the Christian body in Rome and limiting its powers106 in an environment where persecution already made practicing the faith quite physically dangerous. An already clandestine and struggling Church body was frequently questioned and undermined by, not only local detractors, but outright rival characters like Marcion.107 So, it was clearly not sufficient for Christianity to let the aforementioned disunity run its course at the risk of more progressive unifications in the Gnostic community developing or, perhaps worse, more damage being done to the name of the Christian institution in the public eye on behalf of heretical groups, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

It was perhaps this constant volley of threats that was the mother of the Church’s invention as a governing institution. Exposure from pagan misunderstandings of Christian doctrine bred a real and justifiable fear in Christian followers and authorities alike and the creeping contamination of orthodox doctrine from Gnostic diffusion prompted precautions108 from the more activist Church fathers. Though there was no grand climax, like the later ecumenical councils against such figureheads as Arius and Apollinaris, the overall history does show us that tensions reached something of a subtle breaking point and Gnosticism receded slowly under a combination of the constant scrutiny of, and rejection by, the outspoken Christian polemics as well as their own internal doctrinal and organizational divisions. But, under the pressures of both an oppressive Roman monarchy and a spreading Gnostic subversion, the Church in Rome soon realized that, like the socio-legal structures of her (soon to be former) oppressors, a monarchical episcopate109 had the advantages it needed for not only survival, but prosperity. Thus, she began a structuring movement that would not fully bear fruit until Constantine’s time with the Edict of Milan and subsidization of the Church by the Roman Empire.

While it was perhaps ultimately the disunity of the various Gnostic schools that would deprive it of longevity, it was over this weakness that the Christian unity had the distinct advantage. One might say that the Christian Church turned the tables on the Gnostic advance that once moved about unfettered by gradually taking the position of authority to subjugate the Gnostics instead, using the establishment of its political predecessors (i.e., the Roman Empire). It was, in a way, because of facing the particular Gnostic threat that Christianity eventually orchestrated a prevailing culmination of organized infrastructure and institution that, through many more battles on similar fronts, matured into what would later become the Holy Roman Empire.

1. Alberto Ferreiro, Simon Magus in Patristic, Medieval, and Early Modern Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 48.
2. William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 135.
3. Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), 41.
4. Jean Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 61.
5. Heretical dogma in Rome was not dealt a wholly crippling blow until Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica in the fourth century, followed by the lethal blow of the Theodosian Code in the early fifth century, which would effectively illegitimize all non-trinitarian religion in the legal and cultural spheres.
6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, trans. Alexander Roberts (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1950), I.11.1.
7. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 14.
8. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 3rd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 274.
9. Peter Lock, The Routledge Companion to the Crusades (London: Routledge, 2006), 162-163.
10. Michael Cecchetelli, The Book of Abrasax (Timmonsville, SC: Nephilim Press, 2012), 3.
11. Henry L. Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries (London: John Murray, 1875), 3; 90.
12. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 308.
13. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 13.
14. G.R.S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (New York: University Books, 1960), 58-59.
15. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 26.
16. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 5. Mead briefly discusses this name synchronicity from his more diverse point of scholarship, but dodges it in full depth much the same as is done here, regrettably.
17. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.30.1-7.
18. This work is now more properly part of the larger work titled, “Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit.”
19. Marvin W. Meyer, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 265.
20. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 214.
21. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.30.13.
22. F.F. Bruce, Second Thoughts On The Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Paternoster Press, 1956), 113.
23. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 131.
24. James Boyd, “Is Zoroastrianism Dualistic Or Monotheistic?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, no.4 (1979): 558.
25. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 133.
26. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. C.F. Cruse (New York: Dayton & Saxton, 1842), III.27.
27. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 615.
28. There is also a third quite significant development thought to have begun in Ebionite tradition that would pervade other Gnostic controversies, i.e., the rejection of the apostleship of Paul based on his rejection of Jewish tradition. But, to include it in more that a mention would far exceed the expanse of this essay. See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.15.1-3.; Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 129.
29. Tertullian, The Veiling of Virgins, in The Faith of the Early Fathers. vol. 2, ed. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 6.1.
30. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III.27.
31. Wesley Carr, Angels and Principalities, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 131.
32. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 128.
33. Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries, 113.
34. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, II.13.
35. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.Preface.1.
36. Ibid., II.31.2.
37. Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries, 81.
38. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.23.1.
39. Ibid., I.23.2.
40. This association could have either owed some credit, or given some account, to the later discovered apocryphal Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Philip, which give a more detailed and acclamatory account of Mary Magdalene as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7).
41. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 74-76.
42. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, trans. Marcus Dods & George Reith (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1950), 26.
43. Philip Schaff, Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1950), 263.n1818.
44. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 51.
45. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV.7.
Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 232.
47. Origen, Contra Celsus, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, trans. Frederick Crombie (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1950), I.57.
48. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.31.1-2.
49. Gérard Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1981), 80.
50. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.15.2.
51. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 13.
52. (also “Abraxas” in some sources) Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 282-283.
53. Epiphanius, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book I (Sects 1-46), trans. Frank Williams (Leiden: Brill, 2009), I.24.8.3.
54. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 253.
55. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 111.
56. Tadros Y. Malaty, Lectures in Patrology: The School of Alexandria (Jersey City, N.J.:St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church, 1995), 138.
57. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 78.
58. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 284-285.
59. Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, trans. Alexander Roberts (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1950), 1.
60. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.11.1.
61. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 309-310.
62. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 58.
63. Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, 27.
64. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, trans. William Wilson (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1950),VII.17.
65. Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, 4.
66. Ibid., 4.
67. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 79.
68. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 612.
69. Ibid., 606.
70. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 51.
71. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 310.
72. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 70-71. Although 1 Cor 8:1 is fairly straightforward in regards to Paul’s opposition to Gnostic thought, we will later see how further readings of his letters were heavily (mis)interpreted by contemporary Gnostics.
73. Chas S. Clifton, Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998), 49-50. This simple entry provides a clean and concise overview of the caste system that was loosely defined by a variety of Gnostic groups.
74. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 57.
75. Ophites: An early Gnostic sect in Syria and Egypt with possible pre-Christian/Jewish origins that deified the serpent of Eden (Gen 3:3) and the Nehushtan (i.e., the bronze serpent erected by Moses in Num 21:9). See Epiphanius, Panarion, I.37.
76. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 41.
77. Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries, 97-98.
78. Marcion of Sinope: A mid-second century Gnostic leader in Rome often characterized by his denial of Christ’s humanity (i.e., docetism). See Tertullian, Against Marcion, III.11.
79. Saturninus: A Syrian gnostic leader known for advocating Christianized-Jewish dualism and extreme asceticism. See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.24.1.
80. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 178.
81. Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, 36.
82. Paul was often thrown under the proverbial bus by more zealous Gnostic leaders, like Valentinus, who drew several Gnostic exegeses from Paul’s writings. See Pagels, The Gnostic Paul.
83. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 312.
84. Pagels, The Gnostic Paul, 1.
85. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 79.
86. William Britten, ed., Art Magic (New York: Author, 1876), 66. This rather obscure work is briefly cited here due to its little known, yet distinctively pointed, summation of late eighteenth century spiritism, which is a far more modern specimen of the expression of the fundamental Gnostic approach to theology, preserved in a non-polemical (or at least less polemical) vacuum.
87. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.15.2.
88. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 613.
89. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 25-26.
90. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 56. 91. Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, 36.
92. Both Simon Magus and Menander (a student of Simon) were purported to claim that they themselves were “the” savior, while at the same time accepting Jesus as varying degrees of savior, messiah, or prophet. See Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 16-17.
93. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.31.2.
94. Ramsay McMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 68.
95. Benedict XVI, The Fathers (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2008), 26.
96. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 25.
97. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 51.
98. Given that dualism would have dictated that only the completely divine was “good” and that all material was “evil,” then there would have been varying degrees of docetic thought, such as Jesus not being a man at all, not having been born in a natural way, or even his human life being something of a myth simply to lead up to his divine presence.
99. Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries, 9.
100. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 614.
101. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 16.
102. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 64.
103. Cecchetelli, The Book of Abrasax, 83. Gnostic practices to this day, while typically in the currents of spiritism and occultism, still demand and center around (perhaps even more so than in times past) a mastery and transcendence of the individual will uncharacteristic of mainstream religious doctrine.
104. An obvious contender would be the later Arianism, although Arius seemed to have a far less subversive approach and sought to incorporate rather than contaminate or disseminate.
105. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 69.
106. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 106.
107. Vaillée, A Study in Anti-Gnostic Polemics, 28.
108. Guitton, Great Heresies and the Church Councils, 76.
109. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 114.