Gnosticism

I had not intended to spend much time researching or writing about Gnosticism.  But the subject just keeps coming up in my studies of early Christianity.  I have been learning more about the Gnostics, and just completed Stephan A. Hoeller’s book:  Gnosticism, New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.

Hoeller is a proponent of Gnostic thought, so his book needs to be considered in that light.  However, it is well researched and well written.  It contains a great deal of information as well as extensive philosophical (spiritual) discussion.  I won’t be able to cover all the topics here, but I will share the main points that stood out for me.

A religious cosmology is a belief system’s underlying understanding of the origin, history and ultimate fate of the physical and spiritual cosmos (universe).   Even though the Gnostics are often described as Christian, their cosmology is very different from that of any other branch of Christianity.   Compare the Gnostic principles quoted below from Hoeller’s book with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God and His creation:

“1- There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.

2- The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.

3- One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).”

Hoeller goes on to explain more about Gnostic dualism — that humans have an outer aspect that is the handiwork of the inferior creators, and an inner aspect that is a “fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity”.  There is also a discussion of Sophia, the personification of wisdom in divine feminine form, who participated in the creation of the world.

What struck me most about all this was not only how different the basic spiritual concepts are, but that there is never any reference to how or why they are believed to be true.  There is no reference to divine revelation or prophets or scriptures or any other authoritative source.  The Gnostics apparently just “know” by their own internal experience.  However, it is only fair to point out that Gnostics do not claim that their knowledge is objective and based on observable fact, but is more based on gaining understanding through myth and allegory.

The final point that I found to be significant is that the Gnostics view Jesus as the greatest Messenger of Light sent to us from the “ultimate unity” in order to impart to mankind the gnostic mysteries and instruct us in the way of gnosis.  They believe that salvation comes from that gnosis, apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection or our personal faith.  The bottom line is that Gnostics revere Jesus as a teacher, but in general do not align with either the Jewish scriptures or with the teachings of the apostles.  I would not include them under the broadest of “Christian” umbrellas, their own claims notwithstanding.

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Footnote:  The Gnostic gospels (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, etc.) claim that the apostles did receive secret gnostic teachings from Jesus.  These writings include many alleged sayings of Jesus that are not in the four canonical gospels, but even there I do not find any basis for the divergent Gnostic cosmology described above.

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The Cathars

Many religious groups have come and gone through the ages.  Some have been clearly Christian, many were obviously not, and some have been far enough on the fringes of Christianity to be rejected by mainstream believers.  One such fringe group was called the Cathars.

The Cathar religious movement flourished in southwestern Europe in the 11th through 13th centuries.  Although its adherents called themselves “Good Men” or “Good Christians”, they came to be known as Cathars (from the Greek word for “pure”).  They did not have church buildings, but they did have a religious structure including bishops and deacons.  Pentecost was a main festival for them because the Cathars were very devoted to the Holy Spirit.  For the most part, the Cathars were pacifists who lived lives devoted to spiritual practice and religious service, and who got along well with their Roman Catholic neighbors.

The issue with the Cathars was that their beliefs included strong dualistic and gnostic elements which were highly offensive to the Roman Catholic Church.  There were some attempts by the Church to send missionaries to “convert” the Cathars, but those attempts met with little success.  Ultimately, Pope Alexander III anathematized the Cathars in 1179.  The Albigensian Crusade was launched against them soon after.  This was the only crusade ever authorized by the Church against other Christians.  The Cathars were persecuted and massacred, and then the Inquisition was set up specifically to hunt them down and exterminate them.  After they were wiped out in their main regions in France some survived for a time in Italy.  There were probably some secret groups elsewhere in Europe as well, but there is no more history of them after the 13th century.

What was so offensive to the organized church that they would literally declare war on the Cathars?  It was gnosticism, which had been preached against as far back as the original apostles.  Stay tuned for my next post in which I will share my research on gnosticism.

The Da Vinci Code

I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code recently. It is a fascinating and fast paced book with a complex plot.  I enjoyed reading it.  The book is obviously a fictional story, but I was also intrigued by its many references to early Christian history.  It was often difficult to discern where the author had departed from real history and added his own spin to make the story line work.

A meaningful analysis of this topic is well beyond the scope of a blog post.  But I found in our local library a reference which interested persons might find useful.  It is Breaking The Da Vinci Code, by Darrell L. Bock, PhD.  This book is a thorough, academically based treatment of the main themes of Brown’s book.  It digs into much detail on early church history, the Council of Nicea, the Gnostics, and the person of Mary Magdalene.  Needless to say, it refutes the assertion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.  What I found more interesting and useful though, was the historical evidence that the divinity of Jesus and the prominence of the four gospels in our Bibles were well established and accepted throughout Christendom long before Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

Dan Brown seems to have been influenced heavily by contemporary writers who promote a modern version of Gnosticism.  Elaine Pagels and Stephan A. Hoeller are two of the most well-known authors.  On the other side of the discussion are a few authors who provide well-researched and well-reasoned responses.  One such author is Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has written an article entitled “What Heresy?”, among others.  You can read her article at http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2003/novdec/4.22.html .

Select the Bibliography link on the blog home page for more resources.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

My recent study of the history of the scriptures naturally led me to  the topic of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found that I had been confusing the discoveries at Nag Hammadi with those near the Dead Sea in the same general time frame.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 at the site known as Khirbet Qumran.  They were apparently produced by a group called the Essenes.  The Essenes were one of three leading Jewish sects mentioned by Josephus as flourishing in the second century BC., the others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  They were a hybrid sect with both Jewish and pagan traditions, and they had pretty much disappeared by the end of the first century AD.  Among the cache of scrolls are three distinct types of material. There are copies of the actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures, commentaries on the biblical texts, and writings about their own sect’s beliefs and practices.

The documents discovered near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in late 1945 were very different.  The authors were Gnostic Christians, and the writings were in codex form (books) rather than in scrolls.  There were written in Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians.  They date back to the second century AD.  The most famous of the discoveries is the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas.  It was bound into the same codex as the Gospel of Phillip, which is the Gnostic gospel that I purchased last week.

Most of the Nag Hammadi writings use Christian or Jewish terminology, but they usually offer a somewhat different view of Jesus than what the Church has established.  The writers are called Gnostics, which is a term derived from the Greek word “gnosis” (meaning experiential knowledge).   Something I read recently about the Gnostics referred to them as one of the three main branches of Christianity in the first centuries.  I have not yet discovered the names or descriptions of the other two branches.  Do any of you know what they were?

I expect that I will be writing more about the Gnostics in future posts.  There is much information about them and their writings and beliefs on the internet.   Author Elaine Pagels has written extensively on the Gnostics and the Church, but be prepared for controversy if you read her books.

All of the surviving 52 texts (1200 pages) found at Nag Hammadi have been public since 1975, and are available online.  The originals are currently conserved at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.