Who were the Gnostics? Other Gospels and early Christian history

In my previous post, I introduced “Gnosticism” with special emphasis on the discovery of the gnostic documents in a place called Nag Hammadi. I explained the major methodological problems Gnosticism bears. This post focuses on the major characteristics of gnostic beliefs. Also, I’ll note one notable gnostic community whose existence endangered the stability of the proto-orthodox Church.

Despite the many differences among the various Gnostic groups, most scholars agree that there are some basic ideological elements that all of the Gnostics shared.

  1. The divine realm is inhabited not only by one ultimate God (which was the view of the proto-orthodox Church), but also by a range of other divine beings, widely known as aeons.
  2. The physical world that humans inhabit was not the creation of the ultimate God but of a lower ignorant divine being who is often identified with the God of the Jewish Bible. Because the God who created this world is an inferior being, the material world itself is a miserable place from which only gnostic believers can escape.
    1. Furthermore, the creation of this world was not a deliberate plan made by the ultimate God. It came as consequence of a mistake that happened in the divine realm. So, for the Gnostics, this world has nothing to offer – it’s a quite different cosmology than the one proto-orthodox Church ascribed. As you are probably aware, early Church authors such as Justin or Irenaeus believed that this world is essentially good place made by God who loves humans.
  3. The ultimate reason there is evil in this world is related to the actions of one of the higher divine powers (aeons) that inhabit the spiritual realm. Usually, this divine figure is called “Sophia” or “Wisdom” – she made a mistake, and from that mistake material world emerged.
  4. Some human beings possess a spiritual element or an immortal soul that is connected with the divine realm. But because of their imprisonment in this world, these human beings have become oblivious of their divine origin.
  5. Salvation has been achieved because a divine being from the spiritual realm has visited this realm and awakened human beings endowed with the spiritual element or the immortal soul to the knowledge (gnosis) of their divine origin.
    1. It is this knowledge that saves Gnostic believers from this world. Salvation isn’t in the physical resurrection. Rather, it is conceived as an escape of the soul from the body and the material world itself.
  6. For Christian Gnostics, it is Jesus Christ who is that divine being from above who has come to provide the knowledge that brings salvation.
    1. Contrary to the claims made by Dan Brown, gnostic Christ isn’t a simple mortal. Quite the opposite: he is a divine being (one of the aeons) who comes from the spiritual to the material world to bring salvation in the form of special knowledge. Some gnostic groups openly rejected the idea that Christ had a body.

One of the most popular gnostic groups was the Valentinians. They were named after an actual person, Valentinus, the funder and original leader of the group who lived in the 2nd century. We know about Valentinus from the proto-orthodox authors who wrote against him and his beliefs, but also from the writings discovered in Nag Hammadi that almost certainly derive from his followers. Valentinus was born around 100 C.E. We don’t know for sure his place of birth, but we do know that he was raised in Alexandria. He moved to Rome in the late 130s and there became an influential teacher with a respectable number of followers. Eventually, he was declared a heretic by some of the proto-orthodox authors such as Justin and Irenaeus – both connected to a Roman community of Christians. Nevertheless, it seems that he wasn’t officially excommunicated from the Church itself. Rather, his followers participated in the weakly liturgical life of the community, but they simultaneously had their private meetings where they discuss basic elements of Valentinian ideology. In a nutshell, Valentinians combined the basic Gnostic elements mentioned above with Christian elements turned upside down. They believed that all humanity was divided into three categories:

  1. People who only had a body – they were material beings without a soul or a spirit.
  2. People who are psychic (i.e. “soulish” – these are the regular (proto-orthodox) Christians who can be partly saved if they have faith and do good works
  3. People who are pneumatic (i.e. “spiritual” – these are the Valentinians). Only they know the deeper truth and their destiny is to return to the divine realm. Their souls belong there. Full salvation is available only to them.

The Valentinian Gnostics not only worshiped in the proto-orthodox churches, but they also accepted proto-orthodox Scriptural texts. Moreover, they adhered to proto-orthodox doctrinal teachings – at least on the surface. What made them distinctive is that they interpreted both these writings and these doctrines in their own (unorthodox) way. So, for them, Jesus Christ brings salvation indeed, but not through his death and resurrection, but through the knowledge, he passes on to selected individuals. As one of the Valentinian teachers explained, the gnostic is one who has come to understand: “who we were, and what we have become, where we were… whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth.” Their perspective on spirituality and religion was much more personal and esoteric. They rejected the structure of the proto-orthodox Church (presbyters, bishops, and deacons) because they rejected the idea of intermediaries. Likewise, while they accepted the so-called canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John), boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. The Gospel of Philip (discovered at Nag Hammadi) probably originates from the Valentinian community. The only relationship they accept is the one between a gnostic (themselves) and the ultimate God.

Because they remained in the proto-orthodox churches, confessed the same doctrines, and read almost the same Scripture, they were seen by their opponents as a particularly nefarious group, hard to detect and difficult to root out. And they were thought to be dangerous to the communities in which they resided, as they taught their views as a kind of elitist understanding of the faith for those who wanted to advance to a higher level of spiritual knowledge. Eventually, because of the numerous complex reasons, the proto-orthodox Church manage to marginalize all of the Gnostic communities who became just a tiny spot in the history of Christianity. It is hard to know how much would our world be different if (for example) Valentinian communities triumphed against the proto-orthodox Church. Maybe the world we know would be totally different. Could you imagine the world without the belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection or the idea of martyrdom? Valentinians rejected the value of Christian martyrdom. Could you imagine a world that beliefs in the existence of two different deities or a world where there is a strict differentiation between three classes of humans (material, spiritual, and soulish)? What would our world look like? I guess we’ll never know.

Christmas is near, so in the next post, I’ll be dealing with an interesting question not related to Gnosticism: Why do Christians celebrate the birth of Messiah on December 25th?

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