More on Gnosticism

In yesterdays post I broached the subject of Gnosticism. In particular their origins, influences and beliefs. After completing a summarization of Gnosticism I further noted the absurdity of modern skeptics (and radical NS scholars) that try and argue this movement once represented a legitimate form of early Christianity with an equal claim to orthodoxy (right belief). As was made evident from yesterdays post, please read before proceeding, this movement was completely subversive to both Judaism and Christianity, and rightfully labeled heretical by early Christians. Nevertheless, for anyone interested, in this post I will summarize some of the specific groups that comprised this movement.

First, as noted yesterday, there were many Gnostic groups dating from the 2nd to 5th centuries, and they did not all agree with each other. It would be too exhaustive an attempt to try and list all of them here, as many were splinter groups while others were hybrids and so forth — it can all become very complicated. That said, I have selected some of the more prominent (and earliest) Gnostic groups within this movement to discuss in more detail. See below:

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Sethian & Cainite Gnostics

Sethians were a major group of Gnostics that emerged in the second century AD. They attributed their gnosis (secret knowledge) as going back to Seth (3rd son of Adam/Eve), and Noah’s wife (Norea). This group viewed Christ as a second Seth, i.e. revealer of Gnosis. They do not appear to have had a single founder, but some speculate that Sethians may represent a Sect of Judaism that emerged in the mid second century after the fall of Jerusalem in 130 AD. This is when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, and expelled all the Jews from the city after the final (unsuccessful) Jewish Revolt. It is postulated that a sect of Jews had felt betrayed by the God of Israel and became entirely subversive to the Hebrew Bible i.e. everything that was good is now evil and vice-versa. Others argue that it was entirely a Greco-Roman response against Judaism & Christianity. I tend to favor the latter thinking on their origins to the former. Regardless, Sethian texts were primarily a radical reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible, mainly stories from Genesis, and also the Christian Gospels. All stories were retold to reflect Gnostic beliefs and are almost entirely subversive in nature. A group called the Cainites were also closely associated with Sethians. Cainites were a Gnostic sect that venerated Cain as the first “victim” of the Demiurge. In addition to Cain, they also venerated Esau, Sodom and Judas. In other words, they identified with the villains.

Irenaeus was among the first Christian leaders to speak out against them and their texts. They were naturally declared to be heretics. Other early Christian leaders would follow suit as Sethian and Cainite Gnosticism continued into subsequent centuries. They were primarily located in Egypt.

As referenced earlier, they produced many documents, of which most had been lost and only known through the writings of the early Church Fathers that wrote against them. However, many have since been unearthed e.g. a collection of various gnostic books was discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi (Egypt), and more recently the so called Gospel of Judas (also found in Egypt).

List of Known Sethian & Cainite Texts:

The Gospel of the Egyptians
The Gospel of Judas
The Apocalypse of Adam
The Apocryphon of John
The Trimorphic Protennoia
Allogenes
Marsanes
Zostrianos
The Three Steles of Seth
The Thought of Norea

Valentinian Gnostics

Valentinianism was a major Gnostic movement that was founded by a man named Valentinus in the second century AD. Valentinus (100 AD – 180 AD) for a time was once Christian, and even a candidate for Bishop of Rome. However, when he was not chosen as Bishop he became scorned and broke away from the Church and thereafter pursued a gnostic direction, starting his own group (or movement). Valentinus seems to have become influenced by Sethians, or at least their creation myth, and claimed the Christian Church and their teachings were wrong (or incomplete). He proceeded to amalgamate various pagan concepts and Greco-Roman philosophy with Christianity, along with his own fantastic ideas. His followers later claimed that he had been given this “secret knowledge” and “teachings” from a man named Theudas. Valentinus is reported to have professed that Theudas was a disciple of the Apostle Paul, whom conveyed these “secret teachings” to his inner circle in private. I should note that virtually all experts will not only attest that this alleged succession is highly improbable, but even if it was not, that these teachings most certainly did NOT come from the Apostle Paul. Paul’s character as derived from his letters was that of a man zealous for the scriptures (OT) and not one given to teach in secret, but rather was always getting into trouble for his very public and bold preaching of the Gospel – a Gospel that was at extreme odds with the message preached by Valentinus, e.g. Gods (plural), Aeons, Sophia & the Demiurge. Nevertheless, Valentinus offered to teach this “secret knowledge” of the universe (or “gnosis”) to anyone that would follow him. He started preaching in Rome near the mid second century, and was very successful at recruiting many disciples and followers to his cause in challenging the early Christian Church. This group came to view themselves in latter times as Valentinians, and they continued to flourish in parts of the Roman Empire long after Valentinus’ death.

Not surprising, many of the early Christian Fathers denounced both Valentinus and his followers as heretics. Tertullian’s description of the Valentinians founder is below:

“Valentinus had expected to become a bishop, because he was an able man both in genius and eloquence. Being indignant, however, that another obtained the dignity …, he broke with the church of the true faith. Just like those (restless) spirits which, when roused by ambition, are usually inflamed with the desire of revenge, he applied himself with all his might to exterminate the truth; (and) he marked out a path for himself with the subtlety of a serpent.” (Tertullian)

The Valentinians were among the more popular of the gnostic groups and were active from the second into the fourth century. They produced many documents, of which most are only known today through the writings of the early Church Fathers that wrote against them. However some of their texts have since been unearthed.

List of Known Valentinian Texts:

The Gospel of Truth
The Gospel of Philip
The Gospel of Mary
Epistle to Agathopous
Epistle on Attachments
Epistle on Friends
Sophia
On the Three Natures
Treatise on the Resurrection
The Interpretation of Knowledge
Acts of John
1 & 2 Apocalypse of James
Letter to Flora
Letter of Peter to Philip
Prayer of the Apostle Paul
The Dialogue of the Savior
The Psalm of Christ

Marcion Gnostics

Marcionism was a movement started by a man named Marcion around 145 AD. Marcion was an avid anti-Semite who despised both Jews and the God of the Hebrew Bible (OT). He is considered “quasi-gnostic” in that he based his theology on the gnostic dualist belief system, and accepted their beliefs concerning the God of the OT, but otherwise tried to use the Christian scriptures. However, he argued they had been corrupted by Jewish influence and needed to be purged. He separated Luke from the other Christian Gospels along with ten letters of Paul, and then systematically removed all references to the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) and Jesus’ humanity (because he was a docetist). Marcion called this work The Gospel and the Apostolikon.

Naturally the early Christian Fathers denounced him as a heretic for his views, tampering with the Christian texts, and also for rejecting the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). Christian leaders from Justin Martyr, to Irenaeus, to Tertullian all wrote against him and his subsequent followers. Marcionism continued for at least another 300 years after his death and was more popular in the East in its latter years.

List of Known Marcion Texts:

The Gospel of Christ
The Gospel and the Apostolikon
The Antithesis
Epistle to the Alexandrians
Epistle to the Laodiceans

Thomasine Gnostics

The Thomas tradition of Gnosticism goes back to the mid second century AD. They are often called “quasi-gnostic”, in that they do not have the developed mythology of the Sethian or Valentinian Gnostics, but still believed salvation came through secret knowledge. This group claimed to be followers of the Apostle Thomas, whom they actually regarded as Jesus’ twin brother. They produced a gospel in the late second century called Thomas. Thomas was a collection of 114 ‘sayings of Jesus’, some of which came from the four canonical gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke & John). However, it also contained several new sayings not from the four — most of which reflected a gnostic understanding of the universe — along with other sayings that were just plain weird and bizarre. Some of the more radical scholars of the NS claim it was a very early tradition. However, most scholars will attest that its origins are firmly in the second century. Mainly for the fact it follows the order of the Diatessaron in several places. The Diatessaron (means by the four) was written by a Christian named Tatian in 175 AD; and it blended the four canonical Gospels (M,M,L,J) into one document. Scholars in Textual Criticism have observed the Gospel of Thomas follows the Diatessaron forms in several places, thereby dating Thomas to the late second century (post 175 AD). Although some argue portions may be earlier. That said, taken with the other Thomas materials, the tradition of Thomasine Gnosticism can be dated safely to the mid second century, but not much earlier.

Not surprisingly, they too were regarded as heretics by the early Church, e.g. Hippolytus and Origen wrote against them (to name a few). The Thomasine Gnostics appear to have been located primarily out of Syria.

List of Known Thomasine Texts:

The Gospel of Thomas
The Acts of Thomas
The Apocalypse of Thomas
The Book of Thomas the Contender

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That concludes todays post. As stated previously, it is only natural that the beliefs of these various Gnostic groups were considered heresy by the early Christian Church. At its core, Gnosticism was completely subversive to both Judaism and Christianity. Christianity meanwhile is a faith that goes back to the Apostles and is solidly grounded in their monotheistic Jewish roots, it embraces the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and believes that Jesus Christ was (and is) the fulfillment of these scriptures. Whether it is intended to mislead the public, or is simply perpetuated out of ignorance, the characterization that Gnosticism once represented a form of early Christianity with an equal claim to orthodoxy is simply false. Therefore, I will close with some words from the Beloved Disciple and the Apostle Paul:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8)

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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