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Gnosticism

1. In the period of roughly 130 and 160Ad there surfaced within the Christian community a debate over controversies between groups which came to be called "gnostics" and defenders of a more common-sense intepretation of the church's traditional teachings. As a result of this debate, the church was compelled to significantly develop in the range, depth and precision of its theological tradition. Yet in spite of the significance of this debate, it is difficult to clearly delineate the phenomenon of Gnosticism. Gnosticism's cultural and social setting was the urban world in which Jewish religious texts and symbols were being drawn into syncretism with popularized philosophical notions and themes drawn from Hellenistic religion.

2. Modern scholars do have access to a few complete works of gnostic authors. The Christian Gnostic Ptolemy's "Letter to Flora" was preserved in its original Greek by the 4th century Epiphanius, and 18th century finds in the Egyptian desert produced some important texts in the Egyptian vernacular, Coptic. Among these were the "Pistis-Sophia", a dialogue of the risen Jesus with his disciples; two works contained the so-called Bruce Codex, one untitled and the other called "The Mystery of the Great Logos"; and the vastly important "Secret Teaching of John", first published in 1955. However, the principal sources for knowledge of Gnosticism have been the works of its Christian opponents, late second and early third century writers such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Hipplytus of Rome. From such writers we have summaries of the gnostic teaching and quotations drawn from gnostic writings. (Origen provides extensive citations of the earliest known commentary of John's gospel, written by the Gnostic Heracleon..

3. Thus it was of great importance when in 1945 a small library of thirteen codices was discovered at Nag Mammadi in Egypt, on a site not far from the fourth century monastery at Chenobokion. These codices contain some 48 short tractates in Coptic translation, of which the great majority are gnostic works. It is from the Nag Hammadi collection that we have such works at "The Gospel of Truth", "The Gospel of Thomas", the so-called "Tripartite Tractate", and the "Treatise on the Resurrection", often referred to as the Epistle to Rheginos.

4. From a study of the gnostic materials, two things become clear. First, Gnosticism was by no means a uniform phenomenon and there was no single body of teaching common to all. Second, it is now clear that not all Gnosticism was Christian and that the movement existed independently of the church, even if it did not predate Christianity. However, one of the main characteristics of gnosticism was the offer of secret teaching, the knowledge (gnosis) of which could be grasped by only a select few. Much of gnosticism is mythologically communicated such that the gnosis which comes as a revelation to those having knowledge takes the form of a story (muthos) about the transcendent primordial realities. Yet gnostic myths are very distinct in kind since their characters are not gods and goddesses but rather abstract philosophical or theological notions or religious symbols. Gnosticism proved very syncretistic of Jewish scriptures, pagan mythology, popular astrology, magic, middle plaatonism, neo-pythagoreanism, and Hellenistic Judaism.


Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at Amazon.com)

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