Early Gnostic Christianity

John Michael Wenzel

The gnostic movement of the first centuries AD manifested itself mainly, at least for the surviving historical record, in the form of heretical teachings within emerging Christianity; however, it had wider ramifications in the Hellenistic and Eastern world, and origins in part independent of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In applying the name, it is now usual to classify the Mandaean and Manichaean religions in the East and part of the Hermetic literature in the West as “gnostic.”

Gnosis, Greek meaning knowledge from which the name is derived, denotes in this context an initiation into the higher truths of religion that surpasses mere faith on the one hand and natural reason on the other. The main topics of this “knowledge” are the mysteries of the beginning, the genesis of the world, the transcendent origin and present condition of man, and the nature of salvation. These items are elaborated extensive symbolic myths, and in practical precepts for the securing of redemption. The possession of the “knowledge” itself, in its transforming effect upon the soul, is considered to be an essential factor toward the attainment of the ultimate goal. (Douglas, 358)

A cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism of God and world, correspondingly of man and world, and again of man within himself. The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine light, the cosmos is opposed as darkness. The world is the work of lowly powers which do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they rule. The transcendent God Himself is hidden from all the creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of Him requires supernatural illumination, and even then can hardly be expressed otherwise than in negative terms. (Freedman, 1033)

In gnostic thinking the world is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth. Around and above it the cosmic spheres, most often seven but sometimes multiplied to vast numbers, are ranged like concentric enclosing shells. The significance of the cosmic architecture lies in the idea that everything which intervenes between here and the beyond serves to separate man from God. The spheres are the seats of the Archons (rulers), which are the seven planetary gods borrowed from Babylonian astrology. The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world-rule, called Destiny, is physically the law of nature, morally the law of “justice” as exemplified in the Mosaic law which issued from the “world creating angels” for the enslavement of man. As guardian of his sphere, each Archon bars the passage to the souls that seek to ascend after death, in order to prevent their escape from the world. The Archons are also the creators of the world, except where this role is reserved for their leader, who then is called demiurge (artificer) and often painted with the distorted features of the Old Testament God. (Freedman, 1035)

Man, the main object of these vast dispositions, is composed of flesh, soul, and spirit. Of these, not only the body, but also the “soul” is a product of the cosmic powers, which shaped the body in imitation of the divine Primal Man and animated it with their own psychical forces: these together make up the astral soul of man, his psyche. Through his body and his soul man is a part of the world and subject to destiny. Enclosed in the soul is the spirit, or pneuma, a portion of the divine substance which has fallen into the world. In its cosmic exile, thus immersed in the soul and flesh, the alien element is unconscious of itself by the prison of the world: in brief, it is “ignorant”. Its awakening and liberation is effected through “knowledge.”

The goal of gnostic striving is the release of the “inner man” from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light. The condition for this is that he knows about the transmundane God and about himself. This knowledge, however, is withheld from him by his very situation, since “ignorance” is the essence of mundane existence. Hence the necessity of divine revelation. Its bearer is a messenger from the world of light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres, outwits the Archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge “from without.” (In the Christian systems, this savior-figure is identified with Christ.) Equipped with this gnosis the soul after death travels upward, leaving behind at each sphere the psychical “vestment” contributed by it: thus the spirit stripped of all foreign accretions reaches the God beyond the world and becomes reunited with the divine substance. (Eliade, 568)

In this life, the general principle of gnostic conduct is hostility toward the world. From this principle, however, two contrary conclusions could be drawn: the ascetic and the libertine. The former deduces from the possession of gnosis the obligation to avoid further contamination by the world and therefore to reduce its use to a minimum. The other derives from the same possession of the privilege of absolute freedom: to the pneumatic all things are permitted, since the law as representing the will of the demiurge does not obligate the pneuma, which is “saved in its nature” and can neither be soiled by actions nor frightened by the threat of archontic retribution. “In argument, this antinomian nihilism is sometimes curiously blended with the Pauline antithesis of works and grace” (Dart, 61).

Of major theological and philosophical significance is the gnostic division of spirit and nature, the radical projection of the divine from the universe, and the consequent distinction of an unenlightened creator of world cause from the true God. In the teaching of Marcion this anticosmic dualism became a particular challenge to the Church in that he denied the identity of the Father of Jesus Christ with the God of Moses and the prophets through not denying the latter’s reality. Later, he also strove to exclude the Old Testament from the Christian canon. Claiming to follow St. Paul, he thus separated and distributed to two mutually exclusive gods that polarity of justice and mercy whose very togetherness in one God determines the whole dialectic of Pauline theology. Crypto- Marcionite tendencies have been recurrent in the history of Christianity. “In modern times, a modified Marcionite dichotomy has become tempting to theology by enabling it to concede to natural science the complete autonomy of the physical realm and to retain a God dealing merely with the soul and no longer charged with the role of cosmic providence” (Pearson, 29). ____________________________________________________________ ____________ Work Cited Dart, John. The Laughing Savior. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Douglas, J.D. “Gnosticism.” New 20th-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. 2nd ed, 1991.

Eliade, Mircea. “Gnosticism.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. 1987 ed. Freedman, David Noel. “Gnosticism.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1992 ed.

Goehring, James E., et al. Gnosticism & the Early Christian World. 2nd ed. Sonoma: Poelbridge Press, 1990.

Hedrick, Charles W., and Robert Hodgson. Nag Hammadi Gnosticism, and Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Peabody: Hedrickson Publishers, 1986.

Pearson, Birger A. Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.


April 24, 1996
prepared for Intro. to the New Testament
by John Wenzel WenzelJ@albsun3.alb.edu