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Canon Part IV: The Gnostics

August 29, 2011
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Thanks in large part to The DaVinci Code, quite a lot of Americans are now vaguely familiar with the Gnostics.  The Gnostics are not a single group but a name for a religious trend which appears in various manifestations in early Christianity.  The Gnostics are also known for producing a large number of books, including the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Judas, all of which have had their moment in the spotlight in recent years1.  In fact, these days one of the major reasons laypeople want to know about how the canon was formed is because they wish to know if the Gnostic gospels were excluded from the canon for reasons that had nothing to do with historical accuracy.

The simple answer to this is “no”.  The Gnostic gospels were never part of the body of works that became the modern canon as I showed in two previous articles.  Instead, the Gnostic texts form at least one parallel body of work.  The Gnostic texts were always condemned by the orthodox, who argued about a different body of works entirely.  However, even given this the presence of the Gnostic texts presents a problem: who was right?  We can imagine three scenarios.  In the first, the orthodox are the original Christians and the Gnostics are a later heresy.  The second is that the Gnostics are the original Christians and the orthodox are the late heresy.  The third option has both groups arising simultaneously, arguing over Jesus’ teaching (which, of course, both groups could be wrong about).  Who later came to dominate is obvious but whether late dominance is actually connected to early origin is not so clear.  Did the orthodox canon triumph because the orthodox were the original Christians with deeper roots than the newcomer Gnostic heretics, or did the orthodox agenda merely fit the politics of the time better?

Again, the short answer is that one version of this story, Constantine steering the Council of Nicaea to create a canon list, is entirely without historical merit.  Nicaea never produced a canon list.  However, there’s a long answer as well.  The Gnostic texts are currently fragmentary (a result of being suppressed) and new information might always come to light but what we have now is most consistent with Gnosticism coming second as a merging of Greek ideas with an already-established Christianity.

First, there a simple matter of the dates of the texts.  Gnostic texts are commonly dated to the second, third, and fourth centuries.  Only one Gnostic text is regularly assigned to the first century.  This is the Gospel of Thomas.  However, this is a minority position amongst scholars (a second-century date is favored) and depends on connecting the Gospel of Thomas to an entirely hypothetical other document called Q (which, incidentally, is because Thomas is not all that different than the orthodox works).  Meanwhile, most New Testament texts are dated within the first century, necessitating that, at the very least, both orthodoxy and Gnosticism were early.  However, if Gnosticism was early we haven’t found the physical evidence of that yet.

Second, there’s a vast proliferation of Gnostic texts from the latter half of the second century on through at least the fourth century.  This is somewhat true of the orthodox.  However, the orthodox writings both start earlier and build on the early material.  The material orthodox writers are writing in the third century is commentary on that early material, not new Scripture.  What this really suggests is that Gnosticism was a movement where a lot of people were quite happy to make things up and write them down as Scripture.  Because people were doing this the gospels and apocalypses and secret letters didn’t stop.  Why write a commentary on a previous work when you could simply write another gospel with your opinions in it?

But let’s imagine for a second that you don’t buy any of the arguments about the dating of texts.  Perhaps you think that the real issue is simply that the orthodox got most of the early Gnostic texts and that it’s just an accident of history that makes it appear that the Gnostics wrote all their works quite late.  My next set of arguments will work from the nature of the texts themselves.

The first problem is that the earliest known Gnostic or semi-Gnostic canon list didn’t use any specifically Gnostic texts.  Instead this list, by Marcion, was composed of heavily-edited versions of canonical texts.  It included the Gospel of the Lord (Luke, heavily edited), Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Laodiceans (Ephesians), Philippians, Colossians, First and Second Thessalonians, and Philemon.  Why do this if you have your own texts?  Why, if there are Gnostic texts floating around quite early, would someone who is at least semi-Gnostic not include a single one in a canon list?  Slightly later Gnostics do cite specifically Gnostic texts but there’s something odd here, too: some of those texts use parts of orthodox works, sometimes in ways that make it clear that these Gnostic works are actually referencing the orthodox work.  Orthodox writers, on the other hand, reference Gnostic works only to condemn them.  Again, it would seem that the Gnostics came second and had to make do with the religious works that were available until they wrote their own.  Or, to put it another way, just as the Christians came after Judaism and used the Jewish books and more, the Gnostics, coming second, used the orthodox books and more.

Second, there’s the nature of the Gnostic arguments.  A lot of Gnostic texts are written in such a way that it is easy to claim that they are secrets.  For instance, some are visions that were supposedly revealed to only one apostle (First Apocalypse of James, the Apocalypse of Peter [although this Apocalypse of Peter is clearly different than the one the orthodox Fathers occasionally quote from]).  Other are letters that supposedly passed from one disciple to another (Secret James, Secret John [also known as the Apocryphons of these two men]).  Other mention that they are secret right up front, like The Book of Thomas the Contender, or mention that secrets were told to the author, like the Gospel of Thomas.  This makes a lot of sense if you’re writing these well after the supposed author has died: you need to explain why people haven’t already heard of this book.  It also makes sense if you are worried that people have already heard the gospel but that they’ve heard it wrong (compare this to the New Testament writings where the gospels are worried that you haven’t heard the gospel and any fighting with others is done in the open in the later epistles where the heretics are named and denounced).  In fact, this theme is worked out more fully in some works.  The whole point of the Gospel of Judas is that Judas is the one good apostle who gets what Jesus says while the remaining eleven don’t and so, of course, go on to start a false church.  In the Gospel of Mary this theme is buried a little better, but the book does depict Peter as being unwilling to listen to Mary’s special teaching from Jesus because he is hot-headed and doesn’t like being taught by a woman.  It’s not hard to see how that could be used against a church that claimed Peter as an early leader.  Simply put, you don’t fight with people who don’t exist.  If a lot of your writings bear witness to fighting some other group then a lot of your writings were written after the other group had appeared on the scene, and this gets us back to my objection about a late proliferation of Gnostic texts.

Third, there’s this issue of disagreeing texts.  For instance, the works that operate by suggesting that one disciple had the real message and the others didn’t cannot play nice with any work that invokes any other disciple.  So, for instance, the Gospel of Judas cannot be made to fit into a story with any other Gnostic gospel.  Other ones are just sloppy and don’t pay any attention to anyone else’s chronology, although the Gnostics seem to lack much of anything in the way of a traditional gospel with a full biography of Jesus or, really, anyone else.  It’s easier to fit these scattered visions and letters into some coherent whole when none of them seem to have taken more than a few hours out of any one disciple’s time but this itself makes you wonder: how would the Gnostics have even known who the disciples were without books like the canonical Gospels or Acts?  Again, this all suggests that the Gnostics arose after the orthodox were established and pirated liberally from them, making up stories as they went.

Finally, the Gnostics are very Greek in many ways.  They borrow extensively from Greek philosophical ideas and embrace non-Hebraic Greek concepts. One of the clearest markers of a Gnostic work is the discussion of Aeons.  The complex system of Aeons not only appears to draw on an older Greek meaning of aionos (as opposed to the meaning used in the Septuagint, the most natural one for a Jewish religious discussion) but it also bears some similarity to certain Greek philosophies.  In other places Greek ideas replace Hebraic ones in Gnosticism.  For instance, Jews during the first century generally looked for a physical resurrection of the dead (although a few Jewish groups denied the resurrection), while Greek philosophy held that the spirit or soul was immortal but that the body was both lesser and temporary.  You can see hints of the hostility Greek philosophers had towards the idea of a resurrection with material bodies in Acts 17:32 where Paul’s mention of the resurrection is what prompts the Athenians listening to him to start making fun of him.  Gnosticism clearly embraces the Greek ideas here – see The Exegesis on the Soul, The Book of Thomas the Contender, and Authoritative Teaching.

What’s more, some of the Gnostic groups reject not only any hint of Judaism but also the Old Testament.  Marcion is famous for this, but other works show evidence of it as well.  Secret John (also known as the Apocryphon of John) identifies various Old Testament quotations from God as coming from an ignorant and somewhat malicious being called Yaltabaoth.  The Gospel of Judas similarly identifies a similar being called Saklas as the creator of humanity and mentions Yaltabaoth (or Yaldabaoth) as an evil rebel.  Pistis Sophia and On the Origin of the World2 pick up on several of these names (another being Samael, the blind one) and, like both of the other texts, have a multitude of semi-divine or divine beings – a sharp contrast from Jewish monotheism.  The Tripartite Tractate and A Valentinian Exposition both call the creator the “demiurge”, a term lifted directly from Greek philosophy, in order to separate the creator of matter (which they see as evil or inferior) from God.

Jesus, of course, was a Jew.  Fitting Jesus within a Jewish context makes a great deal more sense than assuming that Jesus was a very non-Jewish ethnic Jew who was later re-Judiazed only to be exported to the non-Jewish world.

What we know of the history of Christianity shows us that the Gnostic texts were never accepted by the orthodox.  Instead, the orthodox disputes resulted in a divide between canonical texts and a group of non-canonical texts that orthodox bishops still thought their congregations should, or at least could, read.  The Gnostic texts remained outside this entire dispute as a separate stream of thought.  This stream of thought is characterized by non-Jewish thought and a lot of late writing that is clearly not what it claims to be.  It makes the most sense to assume that Gnosticism is a product of Greek thought invading early Christianity and changing it to suit Greek norms and not a witness to the historical Christ.


[1] Ironically, in the cases of the Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Mary their time in the spotlight has been without much cause.  Dan Brown used both to bolster his claim that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene but neither text supports this very well.  In the Gospel of Mary Peter says that Jesus loved Mary “more than the rest of women” but then treats her as if she was a favored disciple, asking her to recount Jesus’ words.  In the Gospel of Phillip Jesus both loves Mary more than the disciples and kisses her, but, unfortunately for Dan Brown, kissing was a fairly common greeting in the ancient world and not just a sign of romantic love.  In fact, several Epistles sign off with “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14).

[2] This text was subtitled “The Untitled Text” in the translation I read, so it may be hard to locate by name.

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