“Revival of the Gnostic Heresy: Fundamentalism”
By Dr. Joe Ed Morris
Dedicated to Ted Runyon
In Memory of Hendrikus W. Boers, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
In listing acknowledgements, it has seemed customary over the years for authors to save their wives until last, an indication of special attention by that final placement. In this case, however, my wife Sandi deserves a higher ranking. In addition to her constant emotional support and encouragement she edited—line by line, word for word—reams of pages. To be successful, Stephen King states in On Writing, writers should stay healthy and married. I would add one more criterion: they should marry an English teacher. Nor does it hurt to have children who bring home theological books from college. Thanks to Jason who sparked this project with one he brought home from medical School. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilkin triggered a year of torrid reading and a pilgrimage back to my earliest religious origins, through seminary and doctoral studies, resulting in Revival of the Gnostic Heresy: Fundamentalism.
Ted Runyon, my professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, also deserves special recognition. Had it not been for him, my interest in theology might well have vanished in the tumultuous 60’s of cynicism, “death of God,” and nihilism. His lectures were clear, earnest, poignant, and always quietly uplifting. For this reason, and the many hours he, too, used critiquing and editing, this book is dedicated to him.
Roy H. Ryan, former editor of The United Methodist Publishing House, brought a depth that would have been missing without his touch. Several comments regarding inerrancy and literalism, the Apostle’s Creed, and right belief versus grace come straight from his marginal editorial comments: “One could make the case that “knowing Christ” and “knowing” and “believing” the Fundamentals are signs of comprehension…” He further commented: “This Word is the absolute Truth, letter of the law, binding for all time…completely closed to any further additions…Literal interpretation is the hermeneutic. We not only have no further additions, but also no further interpretations.” He also receives credit for the statement that exegesis is a hermeneutic not needed by those who take the scripture literally.
A special thanks to Dr. Julian Prince, writer and former Academic Dean of Students at Samford University, who served in the role of affiliate reader. At the request of Palgrave MacMillan, he read an early draft and offered constructive critique which led to the final acceptance of the manuscript for publication.
Others along the way were helpful. To determine the book’s readability for laity, members of the Book Club at St. Luke United Methodist Church—pastor Mike Hicks, Dr. John Vaughn, John and Mary Lee Reed, and Marvin Hurdle—all read early drafts and provided useful insights. Comments and critique by Drs. Gerald and Julie Waldon, retired professors from the University of Mississippi were invaluable. Linda Sands, fellow fiction writer, reviewed early chapters and put her effective literary scalpel to work.
Often, publishers receive acknowledgement from a sense of expected obligation. But Farideh Koohl-Kamali and Brigitte Shull of Palgrave MacMillan were true shepherds. Not once did I feel neglected, excluded, or abandoned in the intricate
and tedious process of publication. I am honored to be a part of their team; proud this book came to light under their guidance.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreword Theodore Runyon, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Systematic
Theology, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
PART I: GNOSTICISM
Chapter One: The Gnostic Gospels
Chapter Two: The Basic Tenets of Gnosticism
Chapter Three: The Origins of Gnosticism
Chapter Four: The Influences of Gnosticism on the Development and Growth of
Chapter Five: The Response of the Early Church to Gnosticism
PART II: FUNDAMENTALISM
Chapter Six: The Origins of Fundamentalism
Chapter Seven: The Basic Tenets of Fundamentalism
PART III: GNOSTICISM AND FUNDAMENTALISM
Chapter Eight: Revival of the Gnostic Heresy: Fundamentalism
Chapter Nine: The Differences between Gnosticism and Fundamentalism
Chapter Ten: The Case against Inerrancy
Chapter Eleven: Psychological Issues and Implications
Chapter Twelve: An Alternative to Dualism: Incarnation—The Word Made Flesh.
Chapter Thirteen: Gnosticism, Fundamentalism, and Orthodoxy: Where Do We Go From Here?
Appendix A: Glossary of Key Terms
Appendix: B: Glossary of Key Names
Appendix C: The Early Christian Fathers and Apologists
Appendix D: Christian Gnostic Leaders
Appendix E: Chronology of Key Events/Dates
Appendix F: Composition Chronology of New Testament Books
This book is the culmination of a long spiritual struggle that began over fifty years ago. When I was seven years old, my parents gave me an Egermeier’s Bible Story Book: A Complete Narration From Genesis To Revelation For Young And Old. In her “Preface” the writer states she endeavored to familiarize herself with the viewpoint of children and to adapt her language accordingly.” She succeeded with this young reader. The book launched a personal journey to the heart of Christian scripture, a near obsessional drive back to first principles, to the reasons we believe what we believe and the fundamentals of religious faith.
What was so captivating about this book? First of all, it had pictures. I only had to open the book to the first one, a black and white (lithograph) of Adam and Eve, the first humans, dressed in fur clothing covering them to their thighs. They were standing close together, beneath a palm tree, their hands folded in prayer, their faces glum with guilt. In a distant tree I could see a snake that appeared to be crawling away. Two pages later was the Ark Noah built, a huge box-looking ship in a storm. In the distance was a faint rainbow. From that point, all I did was flip pages and look at pictures: Abraham and Lot; Joseph finding his brothers; Moses and Aaron with the magicians; the Red Sea parting for the Israelites; David slaying Goliath, followed by more popular Bible stories. The pictures in the New Testament were not as exciting, not as heroic. They were too quiet. I quickly flipped back to the beginning and began again, this time lingering, absorbing the Old Testament pictures.
This early introduction to the Bible set the framework for my earliest understanding of scripture. For me, these were true stories. The characters were real. Once past the pictures I settled into reading, one story after another. After dinner each evening, I would go straight to bed, turn on my bedside lamp and read. By my ninth birthday I had read Egermeier’s Bible Story Book over ten times, though I must confess, the New Testament stories got left behind. I did read them, but only once; the resurrection story twice. But not the ten or more times I read about creation and Noah and the Ark, Joseph and his coat of many colors, Samson, Gideon, and so on. I was too impressed with a different type of power, one that colored my theology and my view of scripture for years to come. I believed these stories and all else I read, were literally true. No other interpretation was available to me. This was God’s word and God did not lie. Though I did not realize it until a half century later, a dualism was dominating my thinking. One Testament was becoming more important than the other. I did not become a Fundamentalist, as if there existed in that milieu other options to challenge my thinking. I was a Fundamentalist. I was born into that religious mindset.
At age twelve, after an eight week confirmation class, I joined the church and the pastor gave me a handsome, leather-bound King James Version of The Holy Bible. It had pictures. They were slick and colorful. There were maps in the back. When Jesus spoke, the letters were in red. This was all new and fascinating, but it was not the Bible. I put down the King James Bible and returned to my Egermeier Storybook.
As I grew older, I was forced to read the King James, the Bible everyone was reading. After all, it was the Bible Jesus used, or so one Sunday school teacher declaimed. Admittedly, it had some advantages. It had chapters and verses, which made it easier to find scripture and follow along, flip back and forth for references. The red letters helped distinguish the word of God through Jesus, versus the word of God through all the other words. The fact that one carried more weight than the others raised an early question. In my Egermeier they were all the same. God’s word was God’s word. Though I did not realize it, in my theologically immature groping mind, this was probably the beginning of my earliest glimpse of dualism. Later it would manifest itself in myriad ways and I would learn the name that went with it. Gnosticism.
I eventually left my revered Egermeier at home, but took its theological frame of reference with me. Everything I read in the King James Version became as real as the stories of earlier years. Nothing really changed. Same Bible, different book. Same theological framework. Everything happened as the first book had said it happened and was now repeated, and confirmed, though with different words. King James took over but the power and influence of Egermeier never diminished, never lost its magic. At age seventeen, following a terrific struggle, and with young Samuel clearly in mind, I knelt at the altar of my Methodist Church and dedicated my life to the ministry. The preacher that first January Student Sunday had been an influence. Only many years later did he emerge from the closet and announce he was gay, news that did not affect me adversely. He had played a role in my theological development and for that I was grateful. He had tried to get me to look at the scriptures differently, look at the New Testament and its different power, but I was too riveted on the Old Testament, on that God. The Old Testament was much easier to understand. The New Testament was too confusing. It lacked energy and excitement. Except for the resurrection of Jesus. Now, there was a touch of the Old Testament power and miracle, God’s hand reaching down and touching the earth. But the parables, the Sermon on the Mount were dry reading. I wanted more excitement and I learned I was in good company. When asked once if he read the Bible, Faulkner remarked he enjoyed the Old Testament; it was a book about people, the New Testament was one about ideas.
After graduation from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, a degree in Philosophy under my belt, I entered New College Divinity School at the University of Edinburg, one of the most noted theology schools in the world. T. F. Torrance, James S. Stewart, and other great theologians from around the world were there. Other great theologians from around the world came and spoke there. God was there. But only for a short while.
A pivotal moment occurred in James Stewart’s New Testament class. Someone had asked a question about a certain scripture and Stewart directed them to a Greek text. From studies at Millsaps I knew the New Testament had been written in Greek, not classical Greek but a form called koine. When he remarked, however, about lack of spacing and punctuation in the earliest texts, I became alarmed. A space here, period there, could change the entire meaning of a text, possibly a creed or entire theology. That was just the beginning of the end of my comfortable theology. My hand shot up. I rigorously protested. Dr. Stewart suggested, in gentle professorial tones, “Laddie, you might wish to visit the British Museum in London and the Vatican Museum in Rome and see for yourself.”
During spring break that year (1966) I did just that, via buses, trains, boats, hitchhiking, one conveyance or another, made the pilgrimage to see the ancient texts. Beneath their protected beveled glass casements, there they were. Ancient papyrus, block letters running together…no punctuation…no indication of when one sentence ended and another began. Stewart was nauseatingly, disgustingly right. My theological framework, developed from a literal and unerring Bible, collapsed.
Thus began my scholarly journey (I would like to think scholarly) to prove Professor Stewart wrong, to prove the Bible was without error and could be literally, word for word, believed. Egermeier, the storybook for young and old, was holding on, refusing to let go. Because there could be no either/or. One position was right and the other wrong. I was locked into dualism. The journey has taken over fifty years of preaching and pastoring, study and research, for me to understand that both perspectives share validity, that both voices have something to say.
The purpose of this book is to expand on a dialogue already opened and advanced by others. The worlds of religion and theology are particularly indebted to Bruce Metzger, Bart Ehrman, Martin Marty, Scott Appleby, Philip J. Lee, Harold Bloom, Fisher Humphreys, Philip Wise, and many others whose works and contributions will be cited along the way. In particular, Philip Wise in his scholarly presentation, Against the Protestant Gnosticism, issues a clear challenge “…to clarify the distinctions between Gnosticism and the faith of the Church…to make plain the differences between infinite claims and earthly gratitude, between gnosis and faith, between pilgrimage and escape, between self and community, between the exclusive and the inclusive, between the nebulous and the concrete.”
The attempt of this book is not to proselyte. The only agenda is to broaden and deepen the readers’ understanding of current theological issues with respect to the history behind those positions. Nor is it my purpose to negatively, or destructively, critique any particular theological approach. There are advantages and disadvantages in any posture of faith. As they surface they will be identified and evaluated. I began this study and research with a single primary hypothesis. But, as is typical of any research, before the experience was concluded not only had the hypothesis been altered but others surfaced. We learn and grow. Hopefully, the readers of this book will gain greater understanding of their own religious faith as well as that of others.
Today my Egermeier Bible Story Book remains within easy reach. Spineless and tattered, held together by large rubber bands, it rests prominently between a copy of Young’s Analytical Concordance of the Bible and a Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, on a bookshelf with H KAINH ΔIAΘHKH (The British and Foreign Bible Society’s text of the Greek New Testament with revised critical apparatus), a sixteenth century copy of a Geneva Bible, a Revised Standard Version, New International Revised Version, King James Version, J. B. Phillips New Testament translation, Cambridge New Testament (1847) New English Bible, and Harper Collins Bible Dictionary. On that same shelf are my old Greek, Latin and Hebrew language study guides, a shelf strategically positioned among others that hold volume upon volume of church history and doctrine and dogma, church organization and discipline and ethics, a wall as sacred and dear to me as one for others on the Temple Mount. A single book, though, the lynchpin, where it all began: The Egermeier Bible Story Book…For Young And Old. And today, as though time had not skipped a beat, I still get in bed each evening and read about God and his Creation, the Christ and his works of compassion, the Holy Spirit and its eternal presence. And sometimes it is the Egermeier Bible Story Book I read.
1. Elsie E. Egermeier, (Los Angeles: The Smithsonian Company, 1947).
2. Faulkner in the University. Eds. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), p. 167.
3. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 282-283.
“The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.”
Their name comes from a Greek word which means “know.” They became the first Christian heresy, a Greek word which means “choice.” They were deemed by their opponents to have made the wrong choice, chosen the wrong way, the wrong Christ, even the wrong God. Their “bad” theology was assailed in a scribal battle of pen and parchment, a fierce war of words and books the world may never see again. Their beliefs were scorned and maligned; their faithful excommunicated and run out of town; their books and writings banned and burned.
Because of the successful suppression and purge of their correspondence and writings, we know very little about them. What we do know is filtered mostly from the writings of their opponents, highly intelligent and rigorous Christian heresy-hunters or heresiologists, later to become more familiarly known as the “early church fathers.” We do know at one time, under the leadership of a man named Marcion, they were a strong presence in the Mediterranean world. They were a highly organized church complete with a hierarchy of bishops, elders, and deacons. This highly stratified ecclesia met regularly in sanctioned synods. They had their own bible and creed, their own liturgy and sacraments. Most of them called themselves Christian.
Then, during the third and fourth centuries C.E., out-numbered and out-organized, attacked on one side by the populist orthodox bishops and on the other by pagan(1) Greek and Egyptian Platonists, they vanished, faded eastward from the scene across the Syrian Desert toward Persia. So aggressive and thorough was the campaign against them, they were thought to have been permanently extinguished. Centuries later they were well outside the Byzantine Empire, but without their identity. Fragmented and spread over a large area (today’s Iraq and Iran), they had merged with the Mandaeans, a religion with shared beliefs.(2) Yet, over the centuries, under varying religious cloaks and guises, they have surfaced. They are the Gnostics. And they are back.
They are back full force, congregations of them, with their own churches, cathedrals, priests, liturgies, creeds, catechisms, lectionaries, web sites, and structure. Marcion would be proud. Their churches, much like those of mainstream Christianity, have their own names—The Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Ecclesiastica Gnostica, Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, The Apostolic Johannite. Their beliefs vary, but mostly follow those laid down by their forebears two millennia ago.
Some say Gnosticism is back because of the recent flurry over The Da Vinci Code and The Passion, that the accompanying media hype has created a renewed interest in Christianity, more specifically the history of the early church and its Gnostic challenge. Certainly, Dan Brown and Mel Gibson have contributed, but they scarcely get all the credit. Other less dramatic influences include the 1979 publication of Elaine Pagels’ best-selling The Gnostic Gospels,(3) a book, some have argued, paved the way for Brown’s astronomical success (4). But all of these knowledgeable and talented individuals are indebted to something which happened decades earlier. The Gnostic Gospels may never have seen the light of day without the 1945 discovery of 13 leather-bound books in the Egyptian desert: the real Gnostic gospels.(5) A century earlier was another startling discovery. At St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, a thirty-year old forerunner of Indiana Jones, Dr. Constantin von Tischendorf, came upon the now-revered Codex Sinaiticus. This fourth century volume, found in a wastebasket full of papers used to light the monastery oven, brings us closer than ever to the original New Testament. Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger has called it “the only known complete copy of the Greek New Testament in uncial script.” (6) Then there are the Dead Sea Scrolls, by now a story known to all of us, of the Bedouin shepherd boy while searching for a lost sheep cast a stone into a desert cave. Upon hearing something shatter, he explored further and stumbled over tall, slender jars containing scrolls of ancient manuscripts.
No single cause explains the Gnostics rapid and visible return. The mix of history, archaeology and fiction has always been a good combination for resurrecting old movements, spawning new ones. But it does not fully explain this sudden re-emergence. Why this rapid visible rise. Why does it seem we are hearing about Gnosticism as though it were some new religious kid on an already crowded ecclesiastical block?
There are some who say that Gnosticism simply never left, that the relatively recent discoveries of old books and publications of new ones had little to do with “jump starting” a movement that never died. Those confident of this belief are members of Ecclesia Gnostica and other Gnostic congregations like them scattered around America and throughout the world. They were here first, before James Robinson translated the ancient Nag Hammadi texts for the world to read and before Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published. These latter day Gnostics will direct your attention to history and point out that the Cathars, Rosicrucians, Knights Templar, Esoteric Freemasons, and Theosophists had roots in Gnosticism.(7) They will remind you the study of Gnosticism was thriving in the nineteenth century, championed by well-known scholars and writers such as William Blake (1757-1827), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Herman Melville (1819-1891, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), (8) and influenced in the 20th century by the likes of Carl Jung, Eric Voegelin, Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats and Hermann Hesse. With pride, they will tell you a Gnostic church was re-established in France in 1890 and is still active today. A well-informed member of the Ecclesia Gnostica will relate how a man named Stephen Hoeller came from England in the 1950’s and in the ‘70’s started the Ecclesia Gnostica Church and the Gnostic Society.(9) And there are others. In 1985 the American Gnostic Church in Texas began reflecting teachings of the 2nd century teachings of Basilides (10). In January, 1962, Tau Rosamonde Miller was contacted and offered ordination by emissaries of the bishop of the Mary Magdalene Order (Holy Order of Miriam of Magdala) in Paris, France, and became ordained in 1974 in her own church, The Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum in Palo Alto, California. Nor will these contemporary Gnostics omit, in their catalogue of modern influence and successes, the Ordo Templi Orientis, its international influence and rival claims to “apostolic succession.” (11)
On and on the new Gnostics could go, citing names and locations of Gnostic churches and organizations, as myriad now as in the first four centuries C.E. before they were drummed into the desert. In short, ancient manuscript discoveries, plus popular film and fiction, have surely had an accumulative effect in creating more visibility and name-recognition. But Gnosticism in this country was alive and well long before Dan Brown, Mel Gibson and Elaine Pagels; long before the 1945 discovery of ancient Gnostic texts in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi.
It is not a purpose of this book to resurrect old conflicts and question the presence and practice of Gnosticism in this country or abroad. Nor is there an intention to question the beliefs of Gnosticism or Gnosticism’s right to exist and worship peacefully. It is the objective of this study, however, to probe deeper into the culture of American religion and investigate further the Gnostic phenomenon, ask the question: Is that all there is? Are these the only manifestations of Gnosticism? Might there be one which has been around longer, covered more territory, attracted more converts? Is it possible another medium of Gnosticism exists today, one not on the fringes of society, but in its mainstream; one so ingrained and part of our culture we do not recognize it? One which is beamed electronically, daily, into our homes? One cloaked with all the righteous trappings of orthodoxy that we would never suspect, never pause and say, “Ah, now therein possibly lies a heresy.” One some of us grew up with, studied and would not see for forty years, even with theological credentials? “Is it possible,” asked Philip Lee in his groundbreaking work “that by identifying a Gnostic thought pattern with those outside the Christian community, we have failed to locate it in its natural habitat?” (12) Is Harold Bloom accurate when he states, “We live now, more than ever in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it?” (13)
Since the first pilgrim set foot on American soil, there has been a growing continuity of religious phenomena within this country that has no resemblance to the mother church from which it sprang. For over two hundred years the God most Americans have sought has little or no resemblance to the God of European Christianity, the God of the great Reformers. Doctrinally, the old continental faith and the more recent belief systems of which I speak appear similar; “appear” a key word. Theologically, superficially, they appear the same; but behaviorally they are different. They share and participate in similar liturgies—baptism and Holy Communion. They share the same source, The Holy Bible. But the interpretation and delivery of the more recent message parallels Gnosticism more than it does mainstream Christianity.
Though they are Gnostic cousins, I am not speaking of Jewish Kabbalists and Muslim Sufis, spiritualism and spiritualists. Nor am I am speaking of people with non-mainstream religious beliefs we hear about from time to time—the Scientologists, Moonies, Hare Krishna, Branch Davidians, the Rosicrucians, or Masons. Nor am I referring to New Age parodies of Shirley MacLaine and Arianna Huffington. Though there may be some resemblance to Gnosticism, this phenomenon is not inter-galactic thinking, UFOolgy, cosmogonist speculation, or orgiastic cult mentioned in the Da Vinci Code. Nor am I suggesting the “new Gnosticism” that questions the reliability and authenticity of the tradition and scriptures.
This religion of which I am speaking is a form of Gnosticism that is very much alive and active in today’s organized church, as it was in the early centuries after Christ. I am speaking of “Gnostics” who embrace the authenticity of tradition and scripture, worship every Sunday and attend Wednesday evening prayer meetings. On the surface, they are midstream, mainstream America. They sit on city counsels, administrative and corporate boards. They belong to the PTA, Garden Club, DAR and Junior Auxiliary. They volunteer for the United Way, Salvation Army, local hospital and library. They hold elected office, exercise considerable political clout and have been arguably credited with swinging national elections. They are groups and individuals we know by varying names and denominations, but who, in more recent times, have fallen under the label of “religious right.” According to Harold Bloom “they are scattered wherever our new southern and western Republican overlords worship: in Salt Lake City and Dallas and wherever else Mormon temples and Southern Baptist First Churches pierce the heavens. (14) These Gnostics of whom I speak are… the Fundamentalists.
Fundamentalism sounds…well…very fundamental. As its definition suggests, very basic, essential; nothing that would resemble anything unorthodox, nonessential, off the beaten path…heretical. With its emphasis on back-to-the-Bible theology and conservative values, one would not typically associate Fundamentalism with heresy. In fact, Fundamentalists would lead you to think the opposite: all others, except them, are the heretics.
But a closer examination raises the question: Are the basic tenets and practices of Fundamentalism not a mirror of those of ancient Gnostics? If they are not one and the same, are they not close enough to pass as branches from the same family tree? To answer these questions the first section of the book is devoted to a study and exploration of Gnosticism, followed by a second section of equal rigorous examination of Fundamentalism then concluded by a final segment in which the two are comparatively reviewed.
The primary aim of this work is to examine Gnosticism and Fundamentalism, make comparisons and draw perspectives that will help others understand their own religious beliefs, the origins of those beliefs and their implications for decisions in this modern world; to help members of local churches understand that documents buried in Egypt centuries ago, and the faith they represented, do have something to do with their faith. The hopeful result would be more dialogue within the diversity of those two religious movements, more flexibility between their camps.
A few explanations are in order. Throughout the book I will follow the practice of Humphreys and Wise (13), and others, by capitalizing Fundamentalism when referring to the original American movement and using fundamentalism (lower case) when referencing the more general religious movements which include other faiths such as Islam, Judaism, etc.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptural quotes are from the New International Version (NIV). (16)
Orthodoxy is defined as “the practice of being orthodox,” which means, “conforming to the usual beliefs or established doctrines, especially in religion.” (17) The definition for our purposes applies to those “beliefs or established doctrines” of the early Christian Church at the time of, and following, the formal acceptance of the Nicene Creed (325. C.E.) Because orthodoxy, or “right opinion” was not fully established in the Christian church until the fourth century, the early adherents or forerunners of those teachings are referred to by many scholars as proto-orthodox (before orthodoxy).
For the purposes of this study, Classical Gnosticism is included among the Gnostic variants, but our major concern and focus is Christian Gnosticism, the product of the former. This was the form of Gnosticism considered by the early church apologists to be most threatening and the recipient of their vitriolic attacks.
Because most of us are creatures of habit, another issue that generates some concern among Christians is the shift in dividing time from B. C. and A. D. to B. C. E. (Before the Common Era) and C. E. (Common Era). We Christians must realize, and rally understanding, that for those of other faiths—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.—Jesus is not Lord and the abbreviations which work well for us, lack meaning and relevance for them. For this reason, most scholars have begun using the more inclusive abbreviations. Therefore “Common Era” means common to all people of all faiths who use the calendar of Western civilization and “B.C.E.” means “Before the Common Era.” The newer trend will be followed in this book.
For those who wish to pursue the historical issues in greater detail, in addition to the “Bibliography,” there is a list of books for suggested reading. Due to the nature of the study, some of the terms may be new to even the scholarly/academic reader. Footnotes are available for definitions and interpretations and there is a glossary of key terms and names (Appendices A and B respectively). Additional appendices include a chronology of key events and brief biological sketches of important early Church Fathers and Gnostic Christian leader
1. In its original usage, the word “pagan” denoted someone who lived in the country, a “hillbilly” perhaps in our parlance. As Christianity became more and more urbanized, those living in the rural areas were considered non-Christian, thus pagan. Bart Ehrman, well-known religious scholar, presents another etymological theory: “…the term simply designates a person who subscribed to any of the polytheistic religions, that is, anyone who is neither a Jew nor a Christian. The term paganism then refers to the wide range of ancient polytheistic religions outside of Judaism and Christianity.” The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 20.
2. This geographical area would later become dominated by Manichaeism. Mani, who also called himself a disciple of Jesus Christ, is believed to have been a Mandaean, a sect that revered John the Baptist and rejected Jesus of Nazareth as a false prophet. He came from the region of Baghdad, had his first vision in 240 C.E. and constructed a universal religion along Gnostic and dualistic lines, but utilized also elements from Zoroasticism, Christianity and Buddhism. Mandaean is related to Marcionism in several ways. Mandaeanism and Marcionism are both characterized by dualism and belief in a Demiurge. Marcionism is extinct but Mandaeanism is not. However, some view Mandaeanism as a vestige of Marcionism. In that perspective, Marcionism lives on. In the 8th century there was a Manichean church in Peking. In the 9th century, Central Asia was Manichean. Until they were obliterated by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Manichees were strong throughout central and western Asia. St. Augustine, at one time, From 373 to 382, Augustine was a Manichee and “though he bitterly attacked his former faith he never entirely rid himself of its doctrines.” Michael Runciman, The Medieval Manichee, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 16.
3. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, 1979: New
4. Tolson, Jay, “U. S. News and World Report,” December, 18, 2006, Vol. 141, No. 23, p. 75.
5. The man responsible for their translation was James Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library in English, 4th rev.ed. Leiden, Brill, 1996.
6. Metzger, Bruce, The Text of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, p. 42
7. Cf. Hall, Manly P, Orders of the Quest, 1996; Orders of Universal Reformation, 1999; Orders of the Great Work, 1976) …all published Los Angeles by Philosophical Research Society. 8. Included in this list are lesser well known intellects such as Adolph von Harnack, Richard Reitzenstein, Walter Bauer and others who contributed to creating a change in Gnostic studies. This renewed interest in Gnosticism was also joined by Madam Blavatsky and her student G. R. S. Mead. French esotericists led by Gerard Encausse and Jules Doinel reestablished the Gnostic Church which, in various forms, continues today.
9. For more information on the Gnostic Socieity, go to their WEB site at gnosis.org/gnostsoc/gnostsoc/htm.
10. Basilides (117-138) was an early Christian teacher who may have studied under an alleged interpreter of St. Peter. His followers, Basilideans, formed a Gnostic sect. Very little is known about his teachings. He is alleged to have written twenty-four books on the Gospels, which, based upon the weight of criticism he received from Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. 130 CE), Clement of Alexandria (Bishop 190-203 CE) and Hippolytus (martyred 235 CE), this allegation could be true.
11. Cf. gnosis.org/gnostoc/gnostoc/htm.
12. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
13. Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection, (New York: River Head Books, 1980), p. 27.
14. Ibid, p. 31.
15. Fisher Humphreys and Philip Wise, Fundamentalism, (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2004).
16. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.
17. Webster’s, op. cit., p. 1035
The Gnostic Gospels
One event more than any other in the history of the Christian Church set the stage for the creation and preservation of the New Testament. That same event also spelled the beginning of the end of the early church’s key antagonist: Gnosticism. The event was the circulation and reading of the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (326-373). Earlier happenings also played an integral role—Pentecost, St. Paul’s mission work among the Gentiles, Constantine’s granting legitimate status to Christianity. But because of this one pivotal event, today we are reading the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John rather than the Gospels of Peter, Mary, Thomas, and Philip. Instead of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, we might be reciting other articles of faith from different books of worship. We might be worshipping a different Christ, a different God…or gods.
Athanasius was the one person responsible for the Church’s creed and dogma as we have it today. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., called by the Emperor Constantine, Athanasius triumphed over the Arians. The significance of this victory for contemporary Christians cannot be underestimated. Athanasius and the bishops siding with him believed Christ was of the same substance as God and eternal with God. A faction led by Arius of Alexandria proposed Christ was created by God and similar to him but not of the same substance. The result of Athanasius’ triumph was the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines as we know them today.
Athanasius was more than an experienced, seasoned bishop with a brilliant theological mind. He was the perennial come-back kid of early Christianity. Following Nicaea he fell into political disfavor and was exiled several times from Alexandria into the North African desert. Yet he kept coming back preaching his doctrinal word, striking fear in the hearts of the unorthodox, which usually meant the Gnostics. This time, his 39th Festal Letter put them on notice:
…since we have made mention of heretics as dead,
but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures
for salvation…Forasmuch as some have taken in
hand, to reduce into order for themselves the books
termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture…it hath seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by the brethren, and having
learned from the beginning, to bring before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may correct those who have led him astray; and that he who continues steadfast in purity, may again rejoice, having those things brought to his remembrance.(1)
Athanasius goes on to list the 27 books that were to be accepted as authoritative and divinely inspired, the same that would later become the established New Testament canon (2):
These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsteth
may be satisfied with the words they contain. In these
alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man
add to them, neither let him take aught from them. For on
this point the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, saying “ye
do err, not knowing the Scriptures.” And He reproved the
Jews, saying, “Search the Scriptures, for they testify of Me.” (3)
Athanasius left no doubt. He was not referring to just any apocryphal or unofficial texts. In the historical context, his reference to those who “mix them up with the divinely inspired Scriptures” would have been clearly understood. He was referring to the writings of the Gnostics.
At this point one can only speculate what happened next at a small Coptic monastery in Upper Egypt (some 500 miles down the Nile from Alexandria) when it received the Festal Letter.(4) The responsibility of translating, copying, and distributing the 39th Festal missive of Athanasius fell upon a monk named Theodore, the head of the monastery,. Perhaps this Theodore was keenly aware of his community’s vulnerability to the voice and weight of authority 500 miles away in Alexandria. (5) Maybe there were orthodox communities not far away that received the same letter, with the same instructions. Possibly, in one of his forced exiles, Athanasius had hidden out in this area and these monks knew he knew about them and an uncertain paranoia set in. Perhaps the inhabitants of this monastery interpreted Athanasius’ words as the warning shot of a heresy “clear-out,” and with all of their accumulated cache of heretical literature they had much to lose. We can only speculate.
What we do know is more significant. Athanasius’s festal letter either signaled the beginning of the end of Gnosticism or hastened a decline already in progress. We further know that someone or some group of monks inserted at least thirteen codices (6) into a red earthenware jar approximately one meter high and hastily, stealthily, buried it in a place where it would remain hidden for almost seventeen centuries.(7)
In 1945 in the Egyptian desert near a cliff called the Jabal al-Tārif, seven Bedouin laborers were digging for sabakh, a bird-lime fertilizer rich in nitrogen, to use in their gardens.(8) Jabal al-Tārif is located along a curve in the Nile near the village of Nag Hammadi, approximately three hundred miles south of Cairo, forty miles north of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. According to New Testament scholar James Robinson,(9) while digging one of the group struck something hard that turned out to be a human skeleton.(10) This sparked excitement and after more digging near the skeleton, next to a massive boulder, they unearthed “a large earthenware jar, about two feet high, with a bowl over the top, sealed with bitumen.” (11) Suspecting the jar might contain gold or some other precious commodity, they took their mattocks and broke it open. “A cloud of golden dust rose into the air and disappeared from sight,” one witness reported. (12) Instead, all they found was a collection of old leather books that turned out to be thirteen Gnostic codices dating back to the fourth century, the time of Athanasius’s Festal Letter. What followed was “an intriguing story of serendipity, ineptitude, secrecy, ignorance, scholarly brilliance, murder, and blood revenge” (13) that would rival any best-selling thriller.
The location of the discovery was just three miles from the site of the Chenoboskion compound founded by Saint Pachomius. Most scholars believe these ancient books were previously part of the monastery library and hastily whisked away to safety around 367 C. E. This is all conjecture. No one knows the reason the books were taken from the library. (14) The magical power radiated by these books is not conjecture. They were considered precious commodities of inestimable value, the most important assemblage of lost documents from early Christianity to surface in modern times. The thirteen codices included forty-six different treatises (15) with titles such as The Coptic Gospel of Thomas, The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, The Apocalypse of Paul, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Gospel of Phillip, The Gospel of Thomas. The end result of the find was a much clearer and expanded understanding of Gnostic thinking. (16)
Though written in Coptic, the manuscripts are believed to have been originally composed in Greek. Their dates of composition and publication can be established because their spines were strengthened with scrap paper receipts dated in the 340’s C.E. They were probably written and bound, therefore, before 350 C.E.
The entire Nag Hammadi Library, translated by James M. Robinson, is available in hardback and paperback versions and makes for interesting reading. In one treatise, The Testimony of Truth, the Garden of Eden story is told from the viewpoint of the serpent (17) that tempts Adam and Eve to partake of fruit from the tree of knowledge despite a threat from the Lord they would die. Among the collection is an interesting poem, Round Dance of the Cross, and another strangely titled Thunder, Perfect Mind, in which a feminine deity suggests she is the “whore and the holy one…the wife and the virgin…the silence that is incomprehensible.” (18) In some codices are secret gospels and stories of the origin of the cosmos; tales of myth, magic and mystical exercises.
Prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery, only a handful of Gnostic texts had been located and identified. None were published before the nineteenth century. In the Acts of John, found in only fragmentary form, (19) Jesus is not a human but a spiritual person. In 1896 in Cairo, a German Egyptologist purchased ancient texts that turned out to be the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) and the Apocryphon of John. Consistent with the Gospels of Mark (16:9) and John (20:11-19), the Gospel of Mary records Mary Magdalene as the first to see the resurrected Christ and describes his resurrection appearances as apparitions perceived in dreams or trances. Both were unacceptable to early church theologians. The former was considered a threat to the authority of the emerging fledgling church (an issue to be discussed more fully in Chapter Six) and the latter contradicted the physical nature of Christ. The Apocryphon of John, one of the treatises found at Nag Hammadi, included stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and the evangelist’s mystical vision of the Trinity.
Aside from these few manuscripts, the only documentary evidence available to us was the writings of the proto-orthodox opponents of Gnosticism who, when Christianity gained Empire dominance in the fourth century, denounced Gnosticism as a heresy and destroyed every Gnostic text they could find. The burial of documents at Nag Hammadi during the fourth century in all probability is a testament to that campaign against heretical teachings which was led primarily by the early bishops. Once hunted by the police, the bishops became the hunters. (20) Ownership of heretical books was condemned and became a criminal offense. Copies that could be found were destroyed. Those that were whisked away by a monk, or group of monks, from a monastery near Nag Hammadi were preserved.
The Nag Hammadi texts are a valuable resource on Gnosticism, or more accurately, Gnosticisms. The phenomenon was not a unified system of faith but widely diverse with many manifestations. “It is impossible to synthesize the views, presumptions, religious perspectives of these into one monolithic system,” states Ehrman. (21) The various origins and sources of Gnosticism will be discussed more fully in Chapter Three. (22) Its adherents represented multiple views. Many of its writers were Christian. They used Christian terminology, worshiped with Christians, and did not consider themselves to be heretics. Noted church historian Henry Chadwick, in his scholarly time-tested work, The Early Church, describes Gnosticism as a “generic term used primarily to refer to theosophical adaptations of Christianity propagated by a dozen or more rival sects which broke with the early church between A.D. 80 and 150.”(23)
Prominent New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger provides this summary:
“Gnosticism” refers to a diverse set of views, many of them
influenced by Christianity, that may have been in exis-
tence by the end of the first century but certainly by
the middle of the second. Our best evidence for specific
Gnostic groups comes from the second century, the
period in which the proto-orthodox opponents of the
Gnostics were penning their vitriolic attacks and many
of the documents preserved at Nag Hammadi were
originally produced. (24)
The Nag Hammadi discovery adds to our limited knowledge of the Gnostic phenomena. Yet among all the treatises unearthed none exists with a chapter heading “Basic Gnostic Beliefs.” No catalogue of Gnostic tenets is unveiled. In fact, some of the documents are decidedly Christian with clearly articulated proto-orthodox themes. The Christian documents that attack Gnosticism “do not spell out the Gnostic system (or the Gnostic systems), but appear to presuppose it.” (25) The principle tenets presented in the next chapter are based on inferences and presuppositions, which, in turn, are based on the contents of the Nag Hammadi texts along with other surviving ancient manuscripts that have survived.
One of the most significant events to occur in the history of the Christian church was the circulation in 367 C.E. of the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. The letter was the first widely accepted listing of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, but also called for the proscription and destruction of all writings not in harmony with the teachings of these twenty-seven books.
A secondary outcome of Athanasius’ declaration was an action at a remote Coptic monastery. To protect their valued manuscripts, they buried them in the desert. For seventeen hundred years, all we knew about Gnosticism was what scholars could glean from a handful of texts and filter through the heavily biased writings of the early church fathers. The discovery of thirteen codices at the foot of the mountain Jabal al-Tārif, near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, changed all that. These forty-six treatises, often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels (though some are more Christian than Gnostic), have shed considerable new light on Gnosticism, a very diverse phenomena represented by many groups with myriad religious beliefs and practices. The task at hand, based on this new knowledge, is to condense all of this data into a core of basic tenets.
1. Athanasius, Epistolae Festales, XXXIX), In Post and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. IV).
2. Athanasius’ list of 27 books were eventually accepted as canon by the Synods of Hippo Regius (393 C.E.) and Carthage (397 and 419, C.E.)
3. Athanasius, op. cit.
4. Historians and archaeologists place the Chenoboskian monastery near the small village of Tabinnisi. Its founder was a religious pioneer named Pachomius, who set up a code of solitary life, strict, militaristic discipline and strenuous labor. The monks there were ascetics who believed bodily needs and sensations interfered with communion with God. Any form of pleasure was questioned. A contemporary of Pachomius was a famous and noted ascetic monk named Antony who never strayed from orthodoxy and later achieve sainthood.
5. Tobias Churton, The Gnostics, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1987).
6. Codex is Latin for block of wood, or book. It contained separate pages bound together much in the way books of today are bound, only much less sophisticated. It is considered a Roman invention. The exact date is unknown, but during the first and second centuries C.E., the writers of manuscripts that would later make their way into the New Testament canon, shifted from using scrolls to using codices. Several reasons are conjectured. The codex was less cumbersome and more user friendly, especially for locating passages. Because both sides could be used, it was more economical. However, some scholars contend practicality and economics had nothing to do with the wholesale shift of Christian writers away from scrolls. They claim it was the intent of early Christians to distance themselves in every way possible from the Jewish religion, which used only scrolls. Cf. E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing, (Madison, Wisconsin: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
7. Bart Ehrman reports “the cache contained twelve leather-bound volumes, with pages of a thirteenth volume removed from its own, now lost, binding and tucked inside the cover of one of the others.” (Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 53.
9. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 4th rev. ed. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
10. Ehrman states this information came from the head of the
archaeological team involved in the exploration of the site. Cf. Ehrman, Bart. D. Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 192. Stephen Hoeller, in his introduction to Manly P. Hall’s classic The Wisdom of the Knowing Ones, points out the exact place of the discovery is unknown.
11. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, p. 37.
12. Manley P. Hall, The Wisdom of the Knowing Ones (Los Angeles: The Philosophical Research Society, 2000), p. 9
13. Lost Christianities, p. 51 In order to console his companions who helped him find the vessel, Muhammad, the leader, tore the codices apart and doled out a fair share to each man. Suspecting some evil magic at work, his co-workers gave them back so Muhammad stuffed them in his turban and took them home. Sadly, his mother eventually confessed she used some of the papyrus sheaths to kindle their fire. Afterwards, the story becomes complicated and involves a blood feud with a neighboring tribe triggered by the murder of Mohammad’s father, the mistaken revenge murder of a local sheriff’s son. Fearing his house would be searched by authorities, Mohammad gave one of the books to the cleric of a local Coptic church. The priest’s brother-in-law, an itinerant teacher, realized the value of the books. There would be further intrigue before the books became the possession of James M. Robinson, the head of an international team of scholars and researchers.
14. It is also conjecture that the Essenes of Dead Sea Scroll notoriety hid manuscripts in similar urns in caves, possibly due to fear of their destruction by advancing Roman legions.
15. There were actually fifty-two treatises among the volumes, but six are duplicates.
16. For a complete list of the entire library see James Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 4th rev.
17. The serpent appears throughout Gnostic literature as a voice of wisdom…cf. also Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
18. Thunder, Perfect Mind 13:16-14:18, in Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 411-412.)
19. Pagels, Gnostic Gospels.
20. “Gnosticism was the great heresy of the ante-Nicene period of church history. The fathers of primitive Christianity, having elected themselves the sole custodians of salvation, exercised their prerogative to stamp out all traces of Christianity as a philosophical code.” Hall, op. cit., p. 29.
21. Lost Christianities, p. 115.
22. Pagels and others correctly note that much of the terminology represents irrefutable Jewish heritage. However, other customs and culture also make up the multifaceted Gnostic collage.
23. Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church, 3rd. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 34.
24. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content, 3rd. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 188.
25. Ehrman, The New Testament, p. 187