Closer Look Gnosticism Versus Christianity

by Lewis Loflin

Gnosticism (from gnostikos, "learned", from Greek: gnosis, knowledge) is a modern scholarly term for a set of religious beliefs and spiritual practices found among some early Christian and non-Christian groups called "gnostic" ("knowing") by Irenaeus and other early Christian leaders.

In my view and it seems also with big name scholars such as Elaine Pagels, the term gnostic like the term deism ends up as a dumping ground for various Christian heresies when in fact they are part of Christianity at its core. It simply confuses the issue and often has an underlying political agenda.

These type of terms can and do confuse the issue and create bias with the student. Just as early deism (in reality a poorly defined academic term) was at home with and co-existed with late Christianity, the same can be said about Gnosticism (another poorly defined academic term, not a religion) with early Christianity. We need to keep in mind Gnosticism-Christianity is a mystical belief system rejecting reason and science as we know it. Its emphasis is on the spirit, while rejecting anything of the material world as corrupt and fallen.

Look at Christianity as a yard stick. One the left end is deism (pure monotheism) and reason alone. This would be God the Father, a term missing from the Old Testament. On the right is Gnosticism as spiritualism/faith/knowledge alone. Gnosticism being pantheistic often splits God into parts where everything is God or part of God. The Holy Spirit is a prime example, a term also mostly absent from the Old Testament.

Christianity attempts to straddle this line somewhere in between. The real argument is where along this line does Christianity occupy? Where do we fit literal versus allegorical? It's better to allow the individual to decide that, something politicized religion won't have any part of. In the mind of Christianity's founder the Apostle Paul and the Christianity Gnostics alike, that mediator or link between man and "the Father" is Jesus Christ.

Then what of the nature of God? Is it pure monotheism on one end (Judaism, deism) or is it pure pantheism where "god" and creation/universe are one in the same? Classical Deism, Judaism assumes a transcendent God beyond space/time/matter. Christianity settled for panentheism defined as "the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it". I often refer to the Holy Spirit as pseudo-pantheism.

Does God allow the universe after creation to simply operate on its own (Aristotle/Voltaire's Blind Watchmaker) or does God (in my view has no gender as such) just a meddling puppeteer playing silly games with the lives of hapless humans whom He murders or rewards based on arbitrary rules, or no rules at all?

These are the questions that early Christianity in all its forms struggled with. Christians in particular Paulism and the heretics often called Gnostics today (they never called themselves that) tried to answer why there's so much misery in the world. They split over the answer.

Many of these sayings, myths, etc. were never intended to be taken literally, but as allegory for higher religious/spiritual concepts. Paul's many seeming misquotes of the Torah can be taken as ignorance of the texts, in which Paul implored his followers ignore a literal Torah, but instead they are to have "faith" in Paul's claims of "knowledge" imparted to him by a risen Christ that appeared in esoteric visions.

Ex. Romans 10:2, "For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.

Ex. Romans 15:14, "And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge..."

Ex. 1 Cor. 13:2, "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

Ex. 2 Cor. 4:6, "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

And so on.

This is not "knowledge" as related to reason, the senses, or science, but spiritual knowledge/insight it seems to me as more related to Buddhist' enlightenment or "esoteric or intuitive knowledge". Buddhism and related Eastern beliefs seemed to have moved West from Asia via the Conquest of Alexander the Great after 332 BC. To quote Wiki on the Third Buddhist Council:

It is not clear exactly how influential the interactions to Egypt and Greece may have been, but some authors have commented that some level of syncretism between Hellenist' thought and Buddhism may have started in Hellenic lands at that time. They have pointed to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world around that period, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria), and to the pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae (possibly a deformation of the Pali word "Theravada"), who may have "almost entirely drawn (its) inspiration from the teaching and practices of Buddhist asceticism" (Robert Linssen).

Possibly Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with what may be depictions of the Dharma wheel (Tarn, "The Greeks in Bactria and India"). Commenting on the presence of Buddhists in Alexandria, some scholars have even pointed out that "It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established" (Robert Linssen "Zen living").

In the 2nd century CE, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria recognized Bactrian Buddhists (Sramanas) and Indian Gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought...

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

Between Buddhism and Christianity there are a number of resemblances, at first sight striking. The Buddhist order of monks and nuns offers points of similarity with Christian monastic systems, particularly the mendicant orders. There are moral aphorisms ascribed to Buddha that are not unlike some of the sayings of Christ.

Most of all, in the legendary life of Buddha, which in its complete form is the outcome of many centuries of accretion, there are many parallelisms, some more, some less striking, to the Gospel stories of Christ.

They vehemently deny any connection to Christianity and I'm sure it's just another coincidence just like the similarity to Platonism. I for one don't think Buddha was Christ as many anti-Christian websites try to claim, but I do believe Eastern influences were present in the Eastern Mediterranean and well entrenched by the first century AD.

Another factor to consider is Greek Stoicism and Buddhism are similar. Buddha according many modern scholars died around 480 BC or according to others between 411 and 400 BC. Could Plato (424 BC - 348 BC) known of Buddhism? If Buddha died earlier around 480, perhaps. Otherwise, it's not likely Buddha's teaching had spread that far for Plato to have encountered.

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium. (334 BC - c. 262 BC) Zeno was born near the death of Alexander the Great. (356 BC - 323 BC) Alexander would certainly known the Buddhists from his Asian conquests. Could Buddhism have influenced Zeno? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Buddhism could have influenced later Stoicism as developed by others. A lot to think about.

To quote, "In the past many scholars believed that gnosticism pre-dated Christianity, but now it is generally accepted that gnosticism developed into a coherent movement only in the second century CE." I agree with this, but prior to the second century AD they existed together. Christianity has many things in common with Gnosticism in particular the Apostle Paul (Elaine Pagels 'The Gnostic Gospels') and the Gospel of John is certainly proto-Gnostic written just prior (90 AD) to the second century.

Paul, the true founder of Christianity had a number of Gnostic influences. In Pagels book The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters to quote Amazon (buy the book)

Elaine Pagels demonstrates how evidence from gnostic sources may challenge the assumption that Paul writes his letters to combat "gnostic opponents" and to repudiate their claims to secret wisdom. Drawing upon evidence from the gnostic exegesis of Paul, including several Nag Hammadi texts, the author examines how gnostic exegetes cite and interpret key passages in the letters they consider Pauline-1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Hebrews. Besides offering new insight into controversies over Paul in the second century, this analysis of gnostic exegesis suggests a new perspective for Pauline study...

The real reason for the attack of the Church on the Gnostics wasn't so much theological as political. To quote

Pagels argues in her 1979 book (The Gnostic Gospels) that the primary dispute between the orthodox Christians and the Gnostics was not necessarily theological but centered on the Gnostics' refusal to accept the hierarchy and authority of the church as an institution. Gnostics emphasized an individual's relationship with God and believed that self-knowledge was the key to understanding God. This concept undermined the authority and power of the orthodox church.

The Gnostics also rejected the literal death and resurrection of Jesus (note that Gnostics believed 'flesh' corrupt thus Jesus was a spiritual being), through which, Pagels argues, the orthodox church found its authority. As well, the orthodox church embraced nearly anyone who would profess faith in Christ, participate in the church's rituals, and recognize the church's authority; the Gnostics required a member to display signs of spiritual maturity and holiness, and, often, to undergo difficult and time-consuming initiations.

According to Pagels, the orthodox church's hierarchical structure and wide-spread acceptance helped it to surpass Gnosticism and remain a powerful force for many centuries.

If as Pagels argues the orthodox Church surpassed the Gnostics because it's so easy to join, then why resort to extermination and murder later on? The mass slaughter of the Cathers in France opened the door to the Inquisition, which later attacked Jews, Muslims, and all forms of heresy.

Gnosticism was primarily defined as "the acute Hellenization of Christianity" per Adolf von Harnack. (1885) Moritz Friedlander (1898) advocated Hellenistic Jewish origins (Philo of Alexandria, very highly thought of in Christian circles?), and Wilhelm Bousset (1907) advocated Persian origins.

Examples for Persian origins are Mandaeanism that revered John the Baptist while rejecting Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses. It survives in some areas of Iraq and Iran today. And second century Manichaeism, which was a full scale religion reaching all the way to China, but is now extinct. It was founded by the Prophet Mani (216-276 AD) and was followed for about nine years by St. Augustine until he turned on it after conversion to Christianity. Manichaeism to me came too late to have influenced early Christianity/Gnosticism.

Further, "Consequent discussions of Christian Gnosticism included pre-Christian religious beliefs and spiritual practices argued to be common to early Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, Zoroastrianism (especially Zurvanism), and Neoplatonism. The discussion of gnosticism changed radically with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (Egypt 1940s), and led to revision of older assumptions. Although some scholars still postulate pre-Christian gnosticism, no evidence has been found to date." *

As far as Christianity goes it co-mingled and later separated from Syrian-Egyptian Gnosticism.

The Syrian-Egyptian Gnosticism derives much of its outlook from Platonism depicting creation as a series of emanations (pantheism or deriving from the ONE or the Greek view of God), finally resulting in the creation of the material universe. Believing matter corrupt and spirit good, the idea was to escape the material world and rejoin God the source of "light" and "goodness".

Because all humans contain a "divine spark" or a little part of God, thus are all "sons of God" (John 1:12), which through a Divine Mediator serves as a bridge between God and man through esoteric "knowledge". To quote 1 Timothy 2:5, "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus..."

That creates real havoc by implying Jesus/God were not the same and that Jesus was human. In fact the Trinity is derived from Gnosticism in the second half of John removed by the Church and declared heresy. See Apocryphon of John.

The definition of Apocryphon is "secret writing". The official Gospel of John ended with Jesus promising John he would return in his lifetime. In the Apocryphon of John Jesus' spirit did return to consol John. The only difference between the official Trinity and the Gnostic Trinity is the Holy Spirit (the true Mother of Christ) was feminine or female that through God the Father produced Christ. (Not the Hebrew God or creator of the material universe called the Demiurge) Evil is simply the absence of light or "ignorance" of the divine.

In conclusion, my view is Christianity and Gnosticism formed together and later a more formal split occurred in the Second Century AD just as Paul split Christianity from Judaism around 50 AD. (See Galatians.) The term "gnostic" seems to me an arbitrary dumping ground for a number of Christian and related heresies from the First through Fifth Centuries. Both Robinson and Pagels are renowned scholars of the Nag Hammadi Gospels that have been dated between 120-250 AD.

Here is one of the rare examples of these works being found relatively intact. Church and later Islamic book burners and fanatics destroyed vast quantities of other texts of all kinds leaving mainly reliance on the biased writings of Church fathers and a few fragments. We can only hope for more finds elsewhere.

I'm well aware Wikipedia is hardly authoritative, it's a good starting point. I do consider Pagels an authority and have several of her books. I present a cross section of writings on this fascinating subject from both sides and encourage the reader to explore further this issue.

*At a major conference on gnosticism at Yale University, James Robinson, one of the foremost scholars on gnosticism, declared "At this stage we have not found any Gnostic texts that clearly antedate the origin of Christianity." (J. M. Robinson, "Sethians and Johannine Thought: The Trimorphic Protennoia and the Prologue of the Gospel of John" in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 2, Sethian Gnosticism, ed. B. Layton (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 662.)

All quotes KJV.