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     Origins of Gnosticism

Origins of Gnosticism

The questions of when and from what source Gnosticism arose have been hotly debated. The Nag Hammadi documents give new evidence, which has yet to be fully evaluated on this as on other questions. They do not help solve the chronology of Gnosticism -. none is demonstrably earlier than the New Testament. On the other hand, the collection witnesses to non.Christian expressions of Gnosticism and so reopens the question of the possibility that Christians in the formative period used Gnostic concepts, imagery, and ter.minology to express their faith, even though at a later stage they found it necessary to combat extreme developments of Gnostic thinking.

Most forms of Gnosticism that we know seem to contain elements from pagan thought, Judaism, and Christianity. Elements of Gnosticism bear striking similarities to Neopythagoreanism and Middle Platonism, suggesting that some fusion of Greek speculative thought brought about Gnosticism. It has even been characterized as "Platonism run wild". We may note the idea of a remote supreme being, the soul as immortal and in bondage to the body, and a disparagement of the material world: these were ideas for which Gnosticism found philosophical support although extending them to an extreme beyond what philosophers advo.cated. Plotinus (Enneads 11.9; Cf 111.2) debated with Gnostics over the inter.pretation of Plato, particularly with relation to the nature of the material world. The Hermetica and Chaldaean Oracles (below, pp. 25off.) suggest Gnostic schemes in a non.Christian form.

On the other hand, it is remarkable how many Gnostic speculations can be explained as arising from reflections on the early chapters of Genesis. The personification of Wisdom, the an.gelology, later speculations in Jewish mysticism -- these are some of the features that cause many to look to heterodox Judaism for the origins of Gnosticism. The church fathers traced Gnostic heresies back to Simon Magus in Samaria (Acts 8); this artificial schematizing does fit the modern interest in circles in proximity to Judaism as the origin of Gnosticism. There was heavy contact of Gnostic thought with Judaism before its contact with Chris.tianity. Any contribution from the rest of the near east, at least to the Gnos.ticism combatted by the church fathers, was mediated through Greek or Jewish channels. Nevertheless, many of the new texts can be interpreted in a manner consistent with the church fathers' view of Gnosticism as a Chris.tian heresy with roots in speculative thought, if not a "Hellenization." Cer.tainly, many things in the New Testament, especially in Paul, proved to be susceptible of a Gnostic interpretation.

In dealing with the question of Gnostic origins it is perhaps well to observe a distinction between Gnosis and Gnosticism. If we take Gnosis to refer to a wider atmosphere of ideas, we can then reserve Gnosticism for the developed systems known in the second century. Gnosticism seems to have grown up concurrently with Christianity in a similar environment (but from different roots) with the two having some interactions in the first century before Gnosticism developed into a separate religion in the second century. This could account for contacts and mutual influences and for Gnosticisms contributions, positive and negative, to the development of Christian the.ology. Modern scholars have delineated two principal expressions of Gnos.ticism -. Valentinianism, which was more "Christian" and hence of special concern to the church fathers, and Sethianism.

The principal pre.Christian feature that has been claimed as a decisive Gnostic contribution to the Christian framework of thinking has been the "redeemer myth." On this view a supernatural being, a cosmic Man, de.scended to earth to redeem the saved; this provided the category in which the meaning of Jesus' mission was explained in Christianity. But no pre-.Christian document includes such a redeemer myth. An alternative inter.pretation puts the influence the other way: "In general apart from the Chris.tian movement there was a Gnostic way of thinking, but no Gnostic system of thought.... It was the emergence of Jesus and the belief that he was a supernatural being, who had appeared on earth which precipitated elements previously suspended in solution . The essential character of Gnosticism has also been sought not in a redeemer but in a particular understanding of existence.

One Gnostic sect, the Mandaeans of southern Iraq and Iran, has sur.vived to modern times. It has been claimed that they are descendants of a pre.Christian baptizing sect in the Jordan valley associated with John the Baptist. Another interpretation sees the Zoroastrian element as the founda.tion and dates their origin much later, with Babylonian and Manichaean influences entering in.

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

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