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A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of California State University Dominguez Hills

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts in Humanities

by Bernie Gallagher Spring 2009

UMI Number: 1472173


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ABSTRACT Gnosticism is identified as an ancient philosophical and religious movement that has been dormant for centuries, having been labeled heresy by the early Christian Church. However, the study of Gnosticism has experienced a lively resurgence due largely to the discovery of numerous Gnostic documents at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. The Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents present a profoundly different interpretation of Christianity than what is commonly held in Orthodox Christian belief, leading some to rethink the origins and validity of Orthodox Christian belief. This thesis will explore the extent to which resurgent Gnosticism may influence contemporary Christianity and if ancient Gnostic views deserve a platform in modern Christian thought.


INTRODUCTION Energized by the relatively recent discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents, several scholars of early Christianity are calling for a thorough re-examination of Gnosticism as well as a re-examination of the early history of Christianity. The Nag Hammadi discovery consists of "fourth century papyrus manuscripts (containing) twelve codices plus eight leaves from a thirteenth... fifty-two separate tractates. Due to duplications there are forty-five separate titles" (Smith ix). Robinson confirms that "the texts were translated... from Greek into Coptic" (2). There is no possible way to identify the original authors of these materials; however, it is obvious that the majority of the Nag Hammadi documents are Gnostic. The importance of these documents cannot be overstated. Filoramo notes: "The discovery of a library containing original Gnostic writings in Coptic... has... stimulated a renewed interest in a religious world.. .too long.. the exclusive preserve of academic research" (xiii). Hans Jonas agrees: "Never before has a single archaeological find so radically altered the state of documentation for a whole field. From great scarcity we were overnight catapulted into great wealth with regard to original sources uncontaminated by secondary tradition" (xx). However, the importance of the Nag Hammadi documents extends beyond the academic world. The implications exist for a radical rethinking of the origins of Christianity. Elaine Pagels notes: "we find that these remarkable texts.. are transforming what we know as Christianity" (Beyond Belief 29). Before the discovery of the Nag

2 Hammadi texts, the primary source material for Gnostic studies consisted of the writings of early orthodox Christian apologists who strongly opposed Gnostic ideas. Filoramo observes that "it is a strange fate to be able to speak only through the mouths of one's opponents" (2). Jean Doresse, who played a key role in the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts and was the first to attempt to translate the materials, questioned the accuracy of the early apologists: "What kind of impartiality can we expect from such impassioned polemics?" (9). Thus, Bock observes that some scholars, including Karen King, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman, are calling for a "makeover of Christianity [because] these documents.. show that all of us... have misunderstood the faith. There was a diversity of early Christian view [and this] opens the possibility for new ways of thinking.. that breathes life into the old faith" (xix-xx). Doresse seems to agree as is evidenced by the title of his book: The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts: A Firsthand Account or the Expedition that Shook the Foundations of Christianity. The implications of the above claim are astonishing considering the impact orthodox Christianity has had on western thought. If the early Christian apologists silenced a variant, rather than heretical interpretation of Christianity, then it follows that the variant view, i.e. Gnosticism, should be allowed a new hearing by the Christian community. If found to be valid, however that is defined, Gnostic thought should be incorporated into the faith. Obviously, modern orthodox Christian religious scholars will contest the above conclusions. Further it should be noted that Ehrman correctly observes that the implications of this debate are not limited to the Christian community, but, rather, will "affect everyone, not merely those who call themselves Christian. The beliefs,

practices and institutions of Christianity have played an enormous role in western civilization as a whole, not just for members or the church" (248). It is very difficult to give a definition for Gnosticism because the term is not descriptive of a single phenomena but rather a family of religious and philosophical speculations that developed parallel to early Christianity. Karen King observes that "the variety of phenomena classified as 'Gnostic' simply will not support a single monolithic definition" (226). "The problem of definition became so great that a famous conference in 1966 in Messina gathered experts to try to reach an agreed upon definition, but the attempt failed" (Bock 16). Bock concludes, "The key point is that Gnosticism was not a singular connected movement but more of a way of seeing the world that produced a myriad of viewpoints" (23). Thus, it may be more accurate to refer to Gnosticism as Gnosticisms (plural), indicating the wide variety of beliefs evident in the numerous Gnostic systems. However, as difficult as it is to state adequate definitions of Gnosticism, there are a number of characteristics that fit into most Gnostic systems. First, Gnosticism stresses the acquisition of "gnosis" or inner knowledge given to a select few individuals as the result of direct divine revelation. Grant explains that the Gnostic "does not know because he has gradually learned; he knows because revelation has been given to him. He does not believe, for faith is inferior to gnosis" (7). Further, Gnostic systems are often dualistic. For example, the material world is considered evil while the spiritual world, called the Pleroma, is good. Summarizing both emphases of gnosis and dualism, Rudolph explains the central myth of Gnosticism as " the idea of the presence in man a

4 divine 'spark'..., which has proceeded from the divine world and has fallen into this world of destiny.. and must be reawakened" (57). The reawakening of this divine spark requires an understanding of knowledge of the dualistic nature of the Divine. The true God is unknowable and "is too transcendent to be directly involved with the creation. The true God and the Creator God of Genesis are not the same being" (Bock 19). Thus, Gnostic systems tend to reject orthodox JudeoChristian creation myths and substitute alternate explanations for the identity of the Creator God as well as the role of Jesus as Redeemer. These beliefs are explained in a number of Gnostic texts that were never incorporated into orthodox Christianity. In fact, these and many other Gnostic beliefs were declared to be heretical by the early Christian Church. Thus, the purpose of this thesis is to explore the following claims: First, Gnostic thought was judged too severely by the early Christian apologists and should have been incorporated into mainstream Christianity. Second, now that an abundance of primary Gnostic sources are available due to the find at Nag Hammadi, Gnostic thought should be allowed to speak for itself. Third, Gnostic thought should be incorporated into contemporary Christianity, requiring a radical reinterpretation of historical orthodox Christian thought, essentially altering the key doctrines of Christianity. If these claims are valid, resurgent Gnosticism will greatly influence contemporary Christianity. However, if these claims are flawed, then Gnosticism will have little or no significant impact on contemporary Christian thought. This thesis will attempt to examine these claims by first discovering the origins of ancient Gnosticism, its philosophical background, and the basic beliefs associated with

5 the various Gnostic schools. The discussion will then move to the relationship between Gnosticism and early Christianity, particularly how the two belief systems interacted with each other and whether or not there is enough evidence to conclude that Gnostic thought was ever considered to be a part of mainstream Christianity. Next, an explanation will be given as to why the Christian apologists vehemently attacked Gnostic beliefs and practices and what affect this issue had on the formation of orthodox Christianity. Since the triumph of orthodox Christianity over Gnostic ideas was so complete, Gnosticism remained essentially dormant until the twentieth century. However, taking into consideration the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents coupled with the rise of modern critical Biblical scholarship, it will be explained how Gnosticism has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Specific Gnostic texts will be evaluated that present a radically different understanding of Christianity. Since the newly discovered Gnostic texts require a response from contemporary Christianity, the discussion will explore the relationship between modern Christian thought and the ideas presented in these Gnostic texts. Particular attention will be given to Gnostic ideas that may find a receptive audience in both contemporary Christianity and the at-large pluralistic culture. Then an analysis will be given as to the response modern Gnostic proponents can expect to receive from contemporary Christianity, particularly orthodox Christian scholars. Finally, a conclusion will be suggested as to the impact resurgent Gnosticism may or may not have on contemporary Christianity. Either Gnostic thought should be whole-heartedly incorporated into the faith, allowed to partially influence the faith, or it should continue to be excluded from the faith. By allowing the Gnostic documents to give direct explanation of Gnostic beliefs and then comparing these beliefs

6 with orthodox Christianity, it may be possible to propose a reasonable response to this question.


While there is abundant historical evidence to indicate that Gnosticism flourished during the second century CE, it is currently impossible to identify the exact time or place of origin for Gnostic thought. Consequently, there continues to be a lively debate as to when and where Gnosticism actually began. However, by exploring two tracks of evidence it may be possible to pinpoint within a reasonable degree of accuracy answers to the questions concerning Gnostic origins. The first track of evidence is primarily historical since it is possible to determine when Gnostic thought attracted the attention of the larger community as indicated by dateable references from both Christian and Hellenistic writers. The second track of evidence consists of reconstructing from the Gnostic documents the philosophical and religious influences that contributed to the development of Gnosticism. The assumption is that these influences were already in place before the beginning of Gnosticism. The historical evidence for the origins of Gnosticism begins with the writings of the third century Neo-Platonist philosophers, particularly Plotinus (204-270), who was adamantly opposed to Gnostic thought as evidenced by his work Against the Gnostics. In addition to the Hellenistic philosophers, is the abundant work of the early Christian apologists who also wrote extensively against Gnosticism during the second century. Irenaeus (125-202) composed a large work commonly known as Against Heresies around the year 180 CE, in which the bulk of the material is directed toward his disagreements with the various Gnostic factions. However, Justin Martyr (100-165) appears to be the

first apologist to mention Gnosticism. Thus, it can be concluded that Gnosticism was in existence and well known to both the Christian and the larger Hellenistic communities by the mid-second century. Historically, the first identifiable Gnostic teachers that drew the attention of both the Christian apologists and Hellenistic philosophers appear to be Basilides (117-138), Valentinus (c. 100-160), and Cerinthus (c. 100). Grant describes Basilides as "the first Gnostic teacher in whom elements of Hellenistic philosophical thought are conspicuously present" (14). However, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any of these Gnostic teachers were the founders of Gnosticism. Rather, each organized and expounded Gnostic ideas into their own philosophical and religious systems. In addition, each of these three is identified as Gnostic Christians, which explains why their writings attracted the attention of the early Christian apologists. Thus, taking into consideration the time frame for their lives, it can be assumed that developed Gnostic thought was present in the early second century. Beyond this point historical evidence for the origin of Gnosticism becomes much more difficult to identify. Part of the difficulty centers around the fact that neither the apologists nor the Gnostic teachers ever identified a founder of Gnostic thought. Thus, it continues to remain a mystery as to the identity of the first Gnostic thinker. Further, while there appears to be strong evidence pointing to the existence of Gnostic thought in the first century, no specific individual Gnostic proponent can be identified prior to the second century. Klauck explains, "The fundamental the sources. We have no literary testimonies to a developed gnosis that can be dated indubitably to the first century CE or even earlier" (458).

9 However, continuing to examine the evidence for the existence of Gnosticism in the first century, the primary source materials that can be helpful include some of the New Testament documents and some Gnostic documents, particularly the Gospel of Thomas. Koester describes the Gospel of Thomas as "a collection of traditional saying of Jesus" (124). The gospel is comprised of one hundred fourteen (modern numeration) sayings supposedly uttered by the resurrected Christ. The gospel begins with the following introduction: "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymas Judas Thomas wrote down" (1). Many consider the Gospel of Thomas to be one of the more significant Nag Hammadi documents not only because it presents a variant view of the teaching of Jesus, but also because it may have been written in the first century. "Quispel... who first published the Gospel of Thomas, suggested the date of c. AD 140 for the original" (Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels xvi). However, Koester has suggested that the Gospel of Thomas "in its original form... may well date from the first century" (125). Witherington disagrees stating: "Even what is probably the earliest Gnostic document, the Gospel of Thomas, seems to have come from a period after the New Testament books were already recognized as authoritative and widely circulated" ("Why the 'Lost Gospels' Lost Out" 26). Pagels counters that the author the New Testament Gospel of John "probably knew what the Gospel of Thomas taught" (Beyond 39). Pagels also asserts that "many scholars are now convinced that the New Testament Gospel of John, probably written at the end of the first century, emerged from an intensive debate over who Jesus was - or is... John's gospel was written in the heat of controversy, to defend certain views of Jesus and oppose others" (Beyond 34). As far as the dating of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is concerned, the consensus seems to be that


while the gospel was compiled around 140, some of the material may very well be from Gnostic traditions dating from the last half of the first century. Thus, the possibility can be considered that Gnostic thought was in existence and known to at least some of the writers of the New Testament. The term Gnosticism is not mentioned in the New Testament; however, Pagels is correct in her assertion that the majority of Biblical scholars see evidence for the existence of Gnosticism in the New Testament documents. Wilbert F. Howards seems to be representative of these New Testament scholars as evidenced by the following reference to Gnosticism included in the "Introduction to the Gospel of John" in The Interpreter's Bible commentary: "About the time when Christianity was first heard of, the world of Hellenism was pervaded by a strange mixture of Orphic beliefs, cosmological speculations, astrological lore, and magical demonology from Babylonia, Persian, and Judea, as well as a mystical theosophy from Egypt" (451). Howard further asserts that this "Gnostic heresy was endemic in the district around Ephesus by the time this Gospel (John) was written" (452). Obviously, if the Gnostic heresy was endemic before the time of the writing of the Gospel of John (c. 90 CE), its original ideas must have come into existence at an earlier date. R.M. Grant suggests that the origins of Gnosticism were in place before the year 70 CE, explaining that only after the Fall of Jerusalem "do we encounter Gnosticism in its various systematic forms" (viii). Grant is one of several scholars to theorize that Gnosticism developed among the Jewish community in reaction to their disillusionment concerning the non-fulfillment of apocalyptic promises. Thus, if this is true, it would not be a mere coincidence that Gnostic thought became known only after the destruction of

11 the Jerusalem Temple and the expulsion of the majority of the Jewish population from Palestine. However, there may be evidence of Gnosticism in its pre-systematic forms known to the Apostle Paul. Howard explains that it is possible that Paul's letter to the Colossians (c. 60 CE) was written in part in response to "a heresy that seems to have combined an incipient Gnosticism with some Jewish ascetic practices" (451). Perkins concludes that "because Pauline letters attest to the conflict by the middle of the first century, Gnostic and Christian speculation are seen to be intertwined from the beginning (of the Christian movement)" (31). The above conclusion would seem to fit with the claim of the early apologists that Simon Magus, mentioned in the New Testament book of Acts, contributed to the early propagation of Gnostic thought. Brown asserts the "Gnostic motifs were already felt in Christian circles in the Age of the Apostles. Early church tradition attributes the rise of Gnosticism to Simon Magus briefly mentioned in Acts 8:9-24" (50). Simon Magus is identified in the book of Acts as a magician from the province of Samaria who converted to Christianity after seeing a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. Justin Martyr identified Simon in his First Apology: "There was a Samaritan, Simon, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar (41-54 CE). ..did mighty acts of magic" (26). Justin also identified a disciple of Simon called Meander, who was a deceiver. In the same paragraph he mentions Marcion "who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater that the Creator" (26). While it may be argued that Marcion was not a true Gnostic, he certainly adopted some Gnostic ideas into his theology. Thus, by grouping Simon and Meander with Marcion, it does appear that

12 the early Christian apologists believed that Gnosticism was flourishing during the reign of Claudius Caesar, placing its origin before that time. A number of church historians, both contemporary and ancient, assert that Gnostic thought actually originated before the advent of Christianity. For example, the early church historian Eusibeus referenced the Christian writer Hegesippus who stated that "the Gnostic movement preceded the ministry of Christ in Palestine. Gnosticism was a byproduct of'seven Jewish heresies,' some of them involving Gnostic currents" (4:22). Bock (27-30) confirms that modern scholarship has offered four logical explanations for the origins of Gnostic thought, three of which offer evidence for Gnostic thought predating the time of Christ. The four options considered by contemporary scholarship are: (1) Gnosticism is independent of Christianity and was in existence before the first century; (2) Gnostic thought is independent of Christianity but developed at the same time as early Christianity. As both Christian and Gnostic thought became popularized the two views interacted with each other; (3) Gnosticism emerged as a reaction to Christianity. This is the only view to suggest that Gnostic thought does not predate the advent of Christianity; and (4) Gnosticism was originally a reaction to Judaism. This view holds to some basic agreement with Hegesippus. The theory is that Gnosticism originated among disillusioned Judaists during the century before Christ and then found enough similarities in Christianity to attempt a synthesis with the new religion by the end of the first century CE. To examine the second track of evidence concerning the origin of Gnostic thought, it is necessary to identify the possible philosophical and religious ideas present in the Greco-Roman world during the time period immediately before the advent

13 Christianity that could have influenced the development of Gnosticism. Once again it should be noted that Gnostic thought was so varied that it is impossible to definitely identify these key influences. Also, there is no direct link identified in the Gnostic literature to any earlier thought. Rather as Perkins explains, "one has to reconstruct the traditions behind second and third century Gnosticism" (29). Even though there are no direct links, i.e. references, found in Gnostic literature to influential ideas, several philosophical and religious themes are present that indicate the possibility that Gnosticism is largely a synthesis of various ideas present in the first centuries CE and BCE. Fileramo explains that "Gnosticism could not have had in itself its own origins" (142). This means that Gnostic thought was not truly original but rather was an adaptation and synthesis of other philosophies and religious systems. The noted church historian Adolf Harnack concluded that Gnosticism was "the acute secularizing of Christianity" (V. 1: 273). His thesis was that the Gnostics were actually the first Christian theologians. "They were the first to transform Christianity into a system of doctrines (dogmas)" (V. 1: 228). Obviously, this would indicate that the advent of Christianity had a profound impact on Gnostic ideas. However, Perkins observes that "both Christian and Gnostic writers (were) convinced that the fundamental structure of Gnosticism arose outside of Christianity. However, identifiable Gnostic sects do not appear prior to the emergence of Christianity" (9). Grant concludes that the origins of Gnostic thought "were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, Iranianism, Heterodox Judaism, and Christianity" (viii). Jonas basically agrees observing that the "Gnostic systems compounded everything.. oriental, astrological (Babylonian), Iranian, Jewish, Christian, and Platonic concepts" (25).

14 "Gnosticism drew from Greek philosophy, especially middle Platonism and NeoPlatonism for its dualism... reacted to Jewish traditions of creation... and drew from Christianity its appeal to the impact of Jesus and significance of the Christ figure" (Bock 22). A. D. Nock is representative of a number of scholars who see evidence of Hellenistic philosophy in Gnosticism observing that "Gnosticism is Platonism run wild" (xvi). Gnostic thought is permeated with the Platonic dualistic ideas that the most important world is the unseen world of ideas while matter and the physical world are less important. However, Gnosticism often moves beyond Platonism in declaring the physical world to be not only inferior but actually evil. Plato also spoke of a Demiurge, i.e. craftsman (Timaeus 29e-30a; 36b-e) who fashioned the world. Gnostic thought adopted the concept of the Demiurge but declared this being to be a much lesser god than the true god. The true god is known only by direct gnosis. Further, Grant observed that many Platonists believed that "knowledge was a divine gift sent to men" (127). This is one of the key ideas found among the Gnostics who believed that divine knowledge was a gift but only to a select few. Further, this knowledge could not be acquired by any human effort but rather only through direct divine intervention. However, Hellenist philosophies, both Platonism and Neo-Platonism are only a part of the world of Gnosticism. Many see Iranian, i.e. Zoroastrian, influences as well. Grant observes that "somehow.. Gnostic thought owes a great deal to Iranian theology (especially the concepts of) Ahriman and Ahura Mazda" (14). Zoroastrian theology speaks of a divine power locked in a struggle between good and evil within itself. Perkins also observes that the "Gnostic systems' appeal to a dualism of two opposing


principles of the origins of the cosmos... may have been influenced by Iranian dualism" (40). However, the most convincing explanation for the source of the origin of Gnosticism actually lies inside of Judaism. Grant observes that "the heavenly world of Gnosticism is derived from several sources.. .a mixture of Greek and Iranian (that) passes through the mixing bowl of heterodox Judaism" (55). Fileramo agrees stating that Gnosticism is "clearly Jewish in origin.. .then influenced by Christianity" (159). Ehrman concludes that the "origin of (Christian) Gnosticism is inside of Judaism as a reaction against (various) forms of Judaism" (117). Perkins observes that "a number of the Nag Hammadi texts are only superficially Christianized...but it is impossible to describe the basic elements of Gnostic myths about the origin of the material universe without reference to Jewish thought" (3). Finally, Perkins also observes that the "Gnostics refer to themselves as the true descendents of Seth.. thus, (the movement) begins in Judaism" (40). Grant theorizes that the "Gnostics must have been ex-Jews.. renegades from their religion.. (whose) apocalyptic hopes shattered after the fall of Jerusalem" (26). His thesis is that "Gnosticism originated out of apocalyptic Judaism" (37). Many of the Nag Hammadi books, such as the apocalypses of James, Adam, and Peter were written in a style that closely resembles Jewish apocalyptic literature. Ehrman proposes a possible explanation as to how Gnosticism could have emerged out of Judaism. Ehrman explains that a key issue in Jewish theology was the question of human suffering. Jewish thought from the time of Moses taught that God would intervene on behalf of his people as evidenced by the miraculous exodus from

16 Egypt. However, in later times, Israel suffered and God did not intervene. The Hebrew prophets responded that Israel suffered because of her sin and if the people would return to God, they would again be blessed. However, it appeared to many Jews living in the first BCE and CE centuries that they had returned to God and yet still suffered. The response to the suffering of the righteous found expression in Jewish apocalypticism that essentially taught that the powers of evil were currently afflicting God's people but the day would come when God would intervene, overthrow evil, and bring in a new kingdom. Ehrman notes that "Jesus is the best known Jewish apocalypticist" (118). However, from a Jewish perspective, the apocalyptic hopes were shattered as the Roman occupation continued. The final blow came with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Ehrman proposes that a minority element inside of Judaism became so disillusioned that the Gnostic option developed. The Gnostic explanation for evil is that the god of this world is either not good and actually wants people to suffer or he is too weak to prevent suffering. "If this is true then the God of this world is not the true God. There must be a greater God above the world" (Ehrman 119). The Gnostics then combined Platonic and Zoroastrian influences with their disillusionment with Judaism to propose the existence of a non-material god, i.e. the true god, who did not create this evil world, but instead wants to relieve suffering by liberating people through gnosis, i.e. direct revelation of this knowledge. Grant explains that during the first CE century, as Gnostic thought came into contact with Christianity, "the Gnostics could not ignore the claims of Jesus Christ... so just as they knew the true meaning of the Old Testament, they knew the true meaning of Jesus Christ" (35-36). Thus, the Gnostics incorporated the stories of Christ into their system. Perkins explains that "in their second century forms,

17 both Gnosticism and Christianity appear to be unlikely offshoots of Judaism. Both Gnosticism and Christianity claim that Judaism has failed to accept the revelation of a heavenly figure, i.e. Christ, that provides the key to salvation and both insist on inward enlightenment" (4). Thus, the most reasonable explanation for the origin of Gnosticism seems to be that Gnostic thought originated within a disillusioned element inside of first century CE or possible first century BCE Judaism. This disillusioned element added selected Hellenistic and Iranian ideas to create an alternate explanation for the question of suffering and the identity of the true God. Apparently as Gnostic thought was still in its fermentation in the first half the first CE century, it encountered early Christian thought and found plausible similarities. The disillusionment with the destruction of the Jewish presence in Palestine and particularly the Jerusalem Temple combined with the rapidly emerging Christianity created an opportunity for a synthesis of Gnostic thought with Christian thought, thus the formation of a more fully developed Gnosticism. All of the above coincides with the historical evidence that demonstrates that the systematic forms of Gnosticism do not appear until the beginning of the second century. It also helps to explain why Gnostic thought is so varied in that the Gnostic ideas are not truly original but rather are a synthesis of several schools of thought, allowing for a broad range of interpretation. Finally, this conclusion gives a reasonable explanation for the preponderance of Jewish influences evident in the Nag Hammadi documents.


While the point of original contact between Gnostic and early Christian thought remains a mystery, it is evident that the two systems were known to each other by the early second century. At times Gnostic thought competed with Christian thought but what concerned the Christian apologists was the attempt to combine Gnostic and Christian thought. From the perspective of syncretistic Gnosticism, the major doctrines of Christianity could, with some adjustment, simply be added to the various Gnostic systems. However, from the perspective of the Christian apologists, Gnosticism diluted the orthodox understanding of the faith and was declared to be heretical. The following is an attempt to provide a survey of selected Gnostic ideas that were of particular interest to the Christian apologists. This survey will reference both primary and secondary Gnostic sources as well as the contributions of leading Gnostic teachers from the second century. The various schools of Gnosticism confronted by the apologists had developed into sophisticated intellectual attempts to answer key philosophical questions. In fact, the basis for Gnosticism appears to be existential. The Gnostics were concerned with finding answers to an understanding of the human condition. In many ways Gnostic thought appears to have originated with existential concerns and then as it developed, these concerns were answered by an elaborate cosmological explanation that drew upon various philosophies, religions, and mythologies. Ironically, early Christianity was also

19 concerned with the human condition and offered not only an explanation, but also salvation from the hopelessness of existence. Thus, as Gnostic thought became acquainted with Christian thought, a synthesis was attempted that brought about a redefining of what salvation actually means as well as a redefining of the role of Jesus Christ in providing this salvation. Thus, from the very beginning, the two schools of thought were in conflict with each other. Existentialism is concerned with the basic experience of existence, particularly the feeling of loneliness or abandonment. The ancient Gnostics were primarily concerned with these issues. Grant observes "there is a great deal of resemblance between gnosis and existentialism" (13). Filoramo notes that "there must be a sort of subterranean umbilical cord between ancient Gnosis and modern existentialism" (xiv). AD. Nock is quoted as observing that Gnosticism addressed three principle human concerns, one of which was "a sense of alienation and recoil from man's environment" (Bock 20). The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospel of Philip declares that separation is the basic defect in creation and that "Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation" (70:12-17). As a result of this cosmic separation, human beings find themselves living in a world that is alien to them. "According to Jonas' analysis, many people at the time felt profoundly alienated from the world in which they lived, and longed for a miraculous salvation as an escape from the constraints of political and social existence" (Pagels, Gnostic xxx). Thus, for the Gnostic, the human condition is difficult and the outlook on

20 life is pessimistic. Gnostic thought searched for some sort of explanation for this depressing condition. Closely related to the exploration of the human condition is the issue of human suffering. Gnostic thought developed part of its elaborate cosmology in an attempt to explain why suffering exists. Ehrman observes that the Nag Hammadi documents express the general theme that "the world is miserable.. and if there is any hope for deliverance it will not come from the world" (114). Bock observes that "the roots of the movement saw the world as evil" (29). Pagels refers to Marcion's concern about this question in summarizing his view as follows: "Why, he asked, would a God who is 'almighty' - all powerful - create a world that includes suffering, pain, disease - even mosquitoes and scorpions?" (Gnostic 28). In response to these basic philosophical questions concerning existence, the human condition, and suffering, the Gnostics developed cosmological explanations that redefined the views of reality that were current in the ancient Hellenistic and religious worlds. Ehrman summarizes the Gnostic cosmology as follows: "Gnostics varied widely among themselves in basic and fundamental issues. But many believed the material world we live in is awful - or evil.. and came about as a cosmic catastrophe" (8). Jonas adds that "the universe, the domain of the Archons (lesser gods) is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth. Around and above it - the cosmic spheres are ranged like concentric enclosing shells.. Basilides counted no fewer than three hundred sixty-five 'heavens'" (43). The Gospel of Thomas teaches "whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the

21 world" (56). Somehow human beings are trapped in an evil physical world in which they don't belong: a world that came into existence by some sort of cosmic catastrophe. It is at this point that Gnostic thought incorporated the Jewish creation accounts and developed alternate explanations for how the world came into existence and who, i.e. what supernatural beings were responsible. The Apocryphon of John presents a representative Gnostic viewpoint concerning this issue. According to the Apocryphon of John there is a distinction between the true high God and the creator god of the physical world who is called Yaldabaoth. The true God is described as "the one who is with you always. I am the Father, I am the mother, I am the Son. I am the undefiled and incorruptible one" (2:10-20). From this Supreme Being emanate a series of light-beings including "Christ and Sophia" (8:1-25). Wisse explains: The fall occurs when Sophia desires to bring forth a being without the approval of the great Spirit. ..Consequently, she produces the monstrous creator-god Yaldabaoth.. .Man comes to life when Yaldabaoth is tricked into breathing light-power into him. Thus begins a continuous struggle between the power of light and the powers of darkness for the possession of the divine particles in man. The evil powers put man in a material body to keep him imprisoned.. .Finally, Christ is sent down to save humanity by reminding people of their heavenly origin. (104) Thus, the world is an evil place, hostile to human beings because it was created and is under the control of a lesser divine being. Yet human beings, or at least some of them, contain the true light or a true connection to the supreme God. Grant observes that the Jewish god "Yahwah (Yaldabaoth) must be a jealous, irrational god... inferior to some

22 supreme being" (60). Ehrman adds that "Yaldabaoth is ignorant of the realm above him and so foolishly declares 'I am God and there is no other God beside me' (Isaiah 45:5-6)" (123). Thus the explanation of reality is defined in dualistic terms for the Gnostic thinkers. Reality exists on two levels: a perfect transcendent world and an imperfect physical world. The explanation for the divine power is also dualistic. The supreme God is perfect, but the creator god, also known as the god of Genesis, is an inferior being. Human beings are trapped in the inferior physical world, but are really connected to the true reality. Thus they sense alienation in this world and experience suffering because they don't belong here. Indeed, this world should have never come into existence in the first place. As Gnosticism came into contact with emerging Christianity, the claims concerning Jesus attracted their attention. The Christians taught that Jesus was a divine being, sent from heaven to provide salvation from an imperfect world. At this point, Gnostic thinking generally accepted a modified claim of the divinity of Jesus and simply incorporated Jesus into their philosophical systems. Groothuis notes that the Gnostics saw Jesus "not as a sacrifice for sin, but as a Revealer, an emissary from error-free environs. He is not the personal agent of the creator-god revealed in the Old Testament. Rather, Jesus has descended from a more exalted level" ('Gnosticism and the Gnostic Jesus" 10). Certainly the Gospel of Truth, "a Christian Gnostic text with clear affinities to the Valentinian school" (Attridge 38), presents Jesus as "a guide, restful and leisurely. In schools he appeared (and) he spoke the words as a teacher" (19:17-18). Pagels explains that "the Gnostic Jesus is one of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance.

23 Instead of coming to save us from sin (Jesus) comes as a guide to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus is no longer a spiritual master. The two have become equal, even identical" (Gnostic xx). Since Gnostics viewed Jesus as primarily a teacher of enlightenment rather than a sacrifice for sin, it was necessary to reinterpret the Christian accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Pagels writes that the Acts of John, a Gnostic text discovered before Nag Hammadi, "explains that Jesus was not a human being at all; instead he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception" (Gnostic 73). Therefore, Jesus, as a spiritual being, could not have physically suffered on the cross. According to the Apocalypse of Peter. Jesus is portrayed as an observer of the crucifixion and laughed at the lack of perception of those involved in the execution: "But he who stands near him is the living Savior.. whom they seized and released, who stands joyfully looking at those who did him violence.. .Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind.. But I am the intellectual Spirit filled with radiant light" (82:25-83:5). The Nag Hammadi document called The Second Treatise of the Great Seth quotes Jesus as saying, "It was another who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I... it was another, Simon (of Cyrene), who bore the cross on his shoulders.. and I was laughing at the ignorance" (56:5-20). Thus, according to Gnostic thought Jesus was not literally crucified, but, as a spiritual being, was only a spectator to the crucifixion, laughing at the entire affair. By denying the belief in the literal, physical crucifixion of Christ, the Gnostic thinkers were free to reinterpret Jesus as a heavenly teacher rather than a heavenly savior.

24 Obviously, if Jesus did not come to die as a sacrifice for sin, the Christian view of salvation was invalid. Therefore, Jesus must have come for some other reason. Since Gnostic thought reinterpreted Jesus to be a revealer of truth rather than a sacrifice, the view of salvation was also reinterpreted. For the Gnostics, Jesus came to provide salvation through enlightenment. Further, this enlightenment is already inside of a person. Thus, salvation is not found in appropriating the sacrificial work of Christ, but rather coming to a point of self-realization. The Gnostic view is that the divine spark already resides inside the human spirit and one simply needs to understand this truth to attain true enlightenment. Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Thomas as saying, "That which you have (inside you) will save you if you bring it forth yourselves. That which you do not have within you will kill you if you do not have it within you." (70). Thus Ehrman correctly observes that the Gospel of Thomas "teaches that salvation comes from some other means than the death and resurrection of Christ" (58). Further, "it is only when one realizes his divine nature that one can escape the world and return to the eternal home. Salvation comes through knowledge (gnosis)" (59). However, this gnosis is only given to a select few according to most Gnostic thinkers. Doresse explains that the Valentinian school divided humanity into "three races: earthly, descendents of Cain; psychic, descendents of Abel; and spiritual, descendents of Seth" (29). The descendents of Cain were incapable of receiving gnosis or any spiritual enlightenment. The descendents of Abel could understand some truth and were often identified as ordinary Christians. However, only the descendents of Seth could achieve true enlightenment through gnosis. Pagels explains that both Ptolemy and Heracleon, the leading teachers of the western school of Valentinians,

25 claimed that 'Christ's body,' the church, consisted of two distinct elements, one spiritual, the other unspiritual. This meant that both Gnostic and non-Gnostic Christians stood within the same church. Citing Jesus' saying that "many are called, but few are chosen," they explained that Christians who lacked gnosis, by far the majority, were the many who were called. They themselves as Gnostic Christians, belonged to the few who were chosen. (Gnostic 115) The Christian thinkers of the second century discovered that they would have to respond in some way to Gnostic thought. Gnosticism reinterpreted key Christian beliefs concerning the person and work of Christ, the nature of reality, the definition of God, the concept of salvation, and even taught an elitism that excluded the majority of Christians from its version of salvation. Even though the survey of Gnostic beliefs given in this section is only representative of Gnostic thought, it is obvious that Gnosticism and Christianity held opposing views on a number of issues. Christian thinkers could choose to accept Gnostic ideas, synthesize Gnostic ideas, or reject Gnostic ideas. Historically, the second and third century Christian apologists chose to reject Gnosticism.


It might be argued that if the second century Gnostic schools of thought had chosen to not incorporate Christian ideas into their systems and instead remained content to redefine their Hellenistic and Jewish roots, they would not have attracted the amount of negative attention given to them by the Christian apologists. Certainly the apologists were busy with defending the new Christian faith against the attacks from Judaism, the myriad polytheist religions of the time, and Hellenistic philosophies. They also had to contend with the various responses within the Christian community to the complicated explanations concerning the nature of Christ and what would become the doctrine of the Trinity. However, by the middle of the second century Gnostic thought was well established in the Christian community. Leading Gnostic thinkers such as Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion considered themselves to be Christians. Thus, from the perspective of the apologists, Gnosticism had to be confronted and defeated. The apologists were frustrated with Gnosticism not because it was viewed as a direct attack on Christianity, but rather an attempt to undermine Christianity from within its own ranks. The apologists were convinced that if Gnostic thought was allowed to prevail, Christianity would collapse without having fulfilled it purpose in the world. Thus, in order to present a clear and unified version of the faith to the second century Roman world, Gnostic thought would have to be eliminated from inside Christianity. The struggle between the two systems was intense, and even though Orthodox Christianity

27 defeated Gnosticism, it is evident that the struggle itself had a profound effect on the development of the early Christian Church. The doctrines, practices, organization, and literature of the church would largely be defined in response to its struggle against Gnosticism. Before addressing the apologists' objections to Gnosticism, it may be helpful to briefly mention the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus who also objected to Gnostic thought. Plotinus (d. 270) wrote a treatise entitled Against Those Who Declare the Creator of This World, and the World Itself to Be Evil or simply Against the Gnostics (Ennead 11.9). Plotinus argued for the divinity and the goodness of the universe. Referencing ancient Greek and Platonic thought, Plotinus taught that while there was a difference between the world of ideas and the physical world, this physical world was not to be viewed in any negative way, but rather as a positive gift from the gods who are themselves good. Doresse explains, "Plotinus had no patience with people who picture the celestial regions as soulless, while they, whose hearts are filled with vice, desire, and anger, pretend to be capable of contact with intelligibility higher than the heavens" (44). Thus, it is obvious from the writings of Plotinus that Gnostic thought did not receive a particularly positive response in the larger culture outside of Christianity. However, it certainly drew the attention of the Christian community. In fact, a significant portion of Christian literature from the second and third centuries was concerned with Gnosticism. The leading apologists who addressed the issue included Justin Martyr (d. 165) who confronted Gnosticism in his First Apology and in Dialogue with Trypho. a Jew; Irenaeus (c. 180) and his famous work Against Heresies, an extensive attack on Gnosticism; Origin and his Four Principles; Tertullian (b. 169) who

28 battled Gnosticism during his entire career and wrote several books including The Prescription Against Heresies; as well as Hippolytus and his work Refutation of All Heresies. Along with the writings of the apologists, it should be noted that a significant amount of Christian literature in addition to the New Testament was already available to help identify what would become orthodox Christian belief. These materials, generally written in the first half of the second century, include 1 Clement; 2 Clement; the seven letters of Ignatius; Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians; the Epistle of Barnabas; the Didache; and the Shepherd of Hermas. Bock notes that it is important to "pay attention to these works because they tell us what many Christians believed in the early second century" (10). It is obvious from many of the titles of the works of the apologists that they were adamantly opposed to Gnostic thought. Erhman summaries the intensity of the conflict: "Not everyone could be right in their understanding about God for different groups of Christians in the ancient world held varying, even contradictory, points of view. Unless Jesus provided self-contradictory teachings, then some, most, or all of these groups represented perspectives that were not his" (91). Thus, the issue for the apologists was to separate truth from what they considered to be distortion and then to refute that distortion. For example, Perkins notes that "Irenaeus is most concerned with those Gnostics who are a part of the Christian communities. He demonstrates the theological absurdity of their mythic speculation and also attacks their treatment of Scripture" (190). Tertullian expressed his frustration concerning the lack of consistency and cohesiveness in the Gnostic systems stating that "everyone of them, just as it suits his own temperament, modifies the traditions he has received, just as the one handed them down

29 modified them, when he shaped them according to his own will" (42). Pagels notes "that they 'disagree on specific matters, even from their own founders meant to Tertullian that they were 'unfaithful' to apostolic tradition" (Gnostic 23). Indeed, one of the apologist's major objections to Gnostic thought was its inconsistency and unwillingness to submit to any authority in the church. Pagels notes that Irenaeus was convinced that the Gnostics placed "far too little confidence in traditional sources of revelation - and far too much in their own imagination" (Beyond 167). Irenaeus writes "To what distance above God do you lift your imaginations, you rash and inflated people?... yet, as if now they had measured and thoroughly investigated him.. .they pretend that beyond (God) there is.. another Father - certainly they are not looking unto heavenly things, as they claim, but really descending into the profound abyss of insanity" (4.19.2). The Gnostic imagination baffled the apologists who were convinced that the Gnostics had absolutely no clear authority from Christ or the apostles for their teaching. In contrast to the Gnostics, not only did the Orthodox Christian community claim its source of authority to be directly linked to Christ, it also claimed that Christ was the direct fulfillment of the Old Testament. Thus, the Christian community held to the validity of the Old Testament whereas the Gnostic community rejected the Old Testament. The clearest example of this disagreement can be found in the numerous and varied Gnostic creation myths that tend to refute the Genesis accounts. For example, the Gnostic Gospel of Philip states: "The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire. For the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the

30 world" (75:2-10). In contrast to this view Clement writes "For the creator and Master of the universe rejoices in his works. For by his infinitely great might he established the heavens, and in his incomparable wisdom he set them in order" (33:2-4). The apologists correctly understood that the Gnostic attempt to rewrite the creation accounts would not only sever the connection between the old and new covenants but would allow the Gnostics to redefine the concept of God. Another sharp disagreement between the apologists and the Gnostics concerned the person and work of Christ. Bock summarizes a consensus of the Gnostic views: Most of the (Gnostic) materials hesitated either about Jesus as an earthly figure or the reality of his suffering or about a redemption that included a physical world in a creation that was seen as flawed from the start. This was done in one of two ways: by highlighting Jesus' heavenly character so that the discussion of any humanity was muted or by arguing Jesus only appeared to be human. (128-129) Pagels summarizes Irenaeus' response to this as follows: "What Irenaeus objected to was the refusal of those he calls heretics to acknowledge how utterly unique Jesus is, and thus their tendency to place him with ourselves on the human side of the equation. Irenaeus proclaims the opposite: that God and Jesus Christ, God's manifestation on earth - wholly transcends human modes of thought and experience" (Beyond 146). Certainly an issue that drew a very strong attack from the apologists was the Gnostic claim to secret knowledge (gnosis) and the elitism implied in such a claim. Groothus summarizes the Gnostic thought as follows:

31 Gnosticism as a philosophy refers to a related body of teachings that stress the acquisition of 'gnosis' or inner knowledge. The knowledge sought is not strictly intellectual, but mystical.. .It discloses the spark of divinity within, thought to be obscured by ignorance, convention, and mere exoteric religiosity. This knowledge is not considered to be the possession of the masses but of the Gnostics, the knowers. ("Gnosticism" 8) The Gospel of Thomas teaches that the Gnostic community is very small and consists of only those chosen by Jesus. "Jesus said, 'I shall choose you, one out of thousand, and two out often thousand" (23). Grant observes that the "Gospel of Thomas offers no hope, eschatological or other, to mankind as a whole, or to any considerable number of men" (30). In contrast, the Orthodox Christian community taught that their faith was for all people. Pagels notes: "To become truly catholic - universal - the church rejected all forms of elitism, attempting to include as many as possible within its embrace" (Gnostic 104). Grant notes that "the element of exclusiveness is not absent from early Christianity, but is balanced by the call to mission and discipleship.. The church did not view itself as coterie of the spiritual elite" (30, 34). The Christian apologists could see no possible way to reconcile Gnostic teachings with their understanding of the faith. However, in the very process of refuting Gnosticism, the orthodox Christian believers were forced to clearly define their beliefs, their authority, and their literature. Thus, an ironic result of the conflict with Gnosticism was the beginning of the emergence of a clearly defined orthodox Christianity. The massive amount of material written by the Christian apologists left no doubt as to the

32 orthodox view of Gnosticism as well as other systems considered to be heretical. The Christian distinctions between truth and error would henceforth be judged by the work of the apologists. Irenaeus boldly claimed his authority in the opening preface to his work: In as much as certain men have set truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies.. and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, I have felt constrained.. .to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations. (1:1-5) Thus, one orthodox concept that emerged out of this controversy was Apostolic Succession. The basic idea was that truth was vouchsafed in the hands of the church leaders, i.e. bishops, who follow in the line of the apostles and who serve as representatives of Christ on earth. Ignatius writes "It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord itself (6:21). Thus, to silence the Gnostic teachers who disagreed with the orthodox and even disagreed among themselves, the orthodox community insisted on a strong line of authority that would insist upon complete agreement concerning the essential matters of the faith. The natural result of this doctrine was the establishment of the New Testament canon. The apologist Irenaeus and Justin are separated by only thirty years, yet Justin has no definitive canon and Irenaeus does. Ehrman notes, "One thing that separates them is thirty years of Marcionite Christianity" (240). "They are also separated by thirty years of other heretical movements, including the growth of various Gnostic religions" (278). Pagels adds, "It was Irenaeus, so far as we can tell, who became the principle architect of what we call the four gospel canon.. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John" (Beyond 111).

33 The establishment of these four and only these four gospels as authoritative would effectively render any additional gospels as, at best, non-authoritative and, at worst, heretical. Certainly Irenaeus included the Gnostic gospels in this category. Pagels concludes: Irenaeus could not, of course, stop people from seeking revelation of divine truth nor.. did he intend to do so.. But from his time to the present, Irenaeus and his successors.. did strive to compel all believers to subject themselves to the "fourfold gospel...henceforth and 'revelations' endorsed by Christian leaders would have to agree with the gospels set forth in what would become the New Testament. (Beyond 112) The final triumph of orthodox Christianity over Gnosticism began with the decisions rendered at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Supported by the Roman emperor Constantine, the orthodox view was officially adopted by the Christian community. The various Gnostic schools and their scriptures were condemned as heretical. Ehrman notes, "All things considered it is difficult to imagine a more significant event (in Christian history) than the victory of proto-orthodox Christianity" (251). While remnants of Gnostic thought continued for the next few centuries, the victory of the orthodox over Gnosticism was complete. Thus, Gnosticism was relegated to a historical phenomena known primarily to church historians but considered a dead heresy to the larger Christian community. All of this would change with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in 1945.


For sixteen centuries beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in 1945, Gnosticism remained a dormant field of study. Known in depth by only a handful of biblical scholars during these years, it generated little academic attention and even less attention from the practicing Christian community. However, the amazing discovery of the Gnostic documents at Nag Hammadi provided the rational for a second look at Gnosticism by both modern scholars and believers. It is difficult to overestimate how important this discovery is to the study of early Christianity. Erhman comments: "Had the Dead Sea Scrolls not been found, scholars would consider the Nag Hammadi library the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times" (51). It is now possible to study the Gnostic documents apart from the negative commentary of the early Christian apologists. Thus, the documents can be allowed to speak for themselves. The modern questions concerning these documents are both academic and practical for the Christian community. Certainly the documents are having an enormous influence on the historical study of early Christianity; however, this in itself would not attract much attention from the larger Christian community. What does attract attention from the larger community centers around the following themes: First, the validity and authority of the documents, particularly the question of whether or not these documents are faithful to the actual teachings of Christ; second, what the documents teach and in what ways are these teaching similar to or distinct from the orthodox materials; and third,

35 should the teachings from these documents be incorporated into modern orthodox Christianity. All of this has generated a lively debate among Christian scholars. However one thing is certain, orthodox Christianity must, once again, consider the claims of Gnosticism. Many of the documents found at Nag Hammadi include names in their titles that claim to link them to the original apostles. While the most famous is the Gospel of Thomas, other titles include the names of the Apostles Paul, James, John, Philip, Peter, and even Mary (Magdalene). Obviously, primary questions concerning these materials are related to authorship, date of composition, and quality or reliability of the manuscripts. In spite of the given titles there are no identifiable authors for any of the Gnostic materials found at Nag Hammadi. The only possible exception is the Gospel of Truth, which Robinson describes as a "Christian Gnostic text with clear affinities to the Valentinian school" (38), leading some to speculate as to the possibility of this work having been authored by the Gnostic teacher Valentinus. Further it is possible that some of the works, such as the Gospel of Thomas were actually composed of collected materials from several different authors. "Some scholars have observed that whoever assembled the sayings that constitute the Gospel of Thomas may have been less an author than a compiler - or several compilers - who, rather than composed these sayings, simply collected traditional sayings and wrote them down" (Beyond 46). Ehrman explains: "Almost all of the 'lost' (Gnostic) Scriptures of early Christianity were forgeries. On this, scholars of every stripe agree" (91). This is not to imply that the original authors were dishonest. Rather, it was a common practice to

36 attach a known name to a work in order to draw attention to it. Ehrman admits that even some of the books included in the New Testament may also be forgeries. "The author of 2 Peter explicitly claims to be Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus, who beheld the transfiguration (1:16-18). But critical scholars are virtually unanimous that it was not written by him. So too the Pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: They claim to be written by Paul, but appear to have been written long after his death" (11). The point is there is absolutely no evidence that any of the apostles actually authored the Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents. The dating for the documents collaborates the above conclusion since most scholars are in agreement that the original documents were written in the second or third century. The Nag Hammadi documents are actually Coptic translations from Greek texts and thus, are not originals. Pagels notes: "Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. AD 350 - 400" (Gnostic 16). However, since the apologist Irenaeus was well aware of the content of at least some of the documents, the originals must have been composed before 180 CE. On the other hand, Bock explains: "Many of these works reflect the period in which they were written (second and third centuries) and have no coherent link to the period to which their title points (first century)" (7). The physical condition of many of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts is less than perfect; thus, the reliability of the text is often in question. Robinson explains: "There is the physical deterioration of the books themselves, which began no doubt before they were buried around 400 CE, advanced steadily while they remained buried, and unfortunately was not completely halted in the period between their discovery in 1945

37 and their final conservation some thirty years later" (2-3). The modern translators can adequately guess at missing letters, but at other times entire words and entire phrases are simply left blank. Another serious question concerning the accuracy of the materials has to do with the skill, or lack thereof, of those who translated the works into Coptic from Greek. Robinson notes: "The texts were translated one by one from Greek into Coptic, and not always by translators capable of grasping the profundity or sublimity of what they sought to translate" (2). Fortunately, there are some duplications among the documents allowing for a comparison of the texts, but again Robinson notes "one wonder(s) about the bulk of the texts that exist only in a single version" (2). In spite of the challenges listed above, enough material is available to reasonably assume the document accurately contain whatever the original authors intended. It is this material that has brought about the modern resurgence in Gnostic studies for the Gnostic documents offer a religious perspective that is strikingly different from the orthodox Christian materials. This has led some Biblical scholars to suggest that the Christian apologist may have been too prejudiced against the Gnostics and modern thinkers should re-examine the Gnostic teachings. Pagels, a leading proponent of this view writes: "the astonishing discovery of the Gnostic gospels... attributed to Jesus and his disciples - has revealed a much wider range of Christian groups than we had ever known before. Although later denounced by certain leaders as 'heretics,' many of these Christians saw themselves as not so much believers as seekers, people who 'seek for God" (Beyond 28-29). Ehrman also expresses sympathy for the re-examination of Gnostic teaching by suggesting that the early Christian apologists "rewrote the history of the controversy,

38 making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times" (4). Pagels invites modern thinkers to wonder what would have happened in Christian history had Gnostic thought been accepted: "The gospels discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt, however, offer different perspective. For if Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been joined with the Gospel of Thomas instead of with (the Gospel of) John.. .or had both John and Thomas been included in the New Testament canon, Christians would have read the first three gospels quite differently" (Beyond 38). Pagels and Ehrman are representative of Biblical scholars who view ancient Gnosticism not as a historical relic but rather a vibrant, resurrected philosophical and religious system that can, in some ways, communicate to contemporary society. Ehrman identifies the existential attraction of Gnosticism: "No wonder these expressions of Gnostic religiosity have struck a resonant note among modern readers, many of whom feel alienated from this world, and for whom this world does not make much sense, readers who realize, in some very deep and significant way, they really don't belong here" (114). Pagels repeatedly suggests that the most helpful feature from Gnostic thought is its encouragement to discover self-enlightenment. "Thomas' Jesus directs each disciple to discover the light within" (Beyond 68). The achievement of this enlightenment, according to Pagels, is not limited to the Christian community but can be discovered by all seekers. Pagels quotes a Buddhist Roshi as exclaiming: "Had I known the Gospel of Thomas, I wouldn't have had to become Buddhist" (Beyond 74). Grant adds: "Gnosticism is a religion of saving knowledge, and the knowledge is essentially self-

39 knowledge, recognition of the divine element which constitutes the true self (10). The apologist Hippolytus quotes the Gnostic Monimus as giving this advice: "Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is who within you makes everything his own and says, 'My god; my mind, my thought, my soul, my body" (8:15). Ehrman adds: 'deliverance.. can happen only when we learn the secret knowledge that can bring salvation... knowledge of ourselves" (114). The Gnostic search for self-enlightenment does not leave Jesus out of the equation. Indeed the Gnostic Jesus plays an important role by serving as a guide, much like an Eastern guru. "Jesus serves as a cosmic catalyst for.. .awakening" (Groothuis, "Gnosticism" 8). Joseph Campbell explains that just as orthodox Christianity teaches that God was in Christ, "the basic Gnostic and Buddhist idea is that this is true of you and me as well" (210). In other words Jesus served as an example to complete selfrealization, for just as he realized that God was in him, so all humans have potential to realize the God-nature or Buddha-nature inside of each individual. Pagels explains that the Gnostic Jesus is defined as a being of "illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal - even identical" (Gnostic xx). The Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying, "he who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him" (108).

40 The Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents obviously present a view of Jesus and salvation, i.e. enlightenment that is radically different from the orthodox Christen perspective. Those who support the continued resurgence of Gnosticism, not only find the Gnostic views to be exhilarating, but insist that these views receive serious consideration by modern Christianity because they represent an acceptable plausible, if divergent, view of Christianity rather than a heretical view. Indeed, the pioneering work of Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, a work that Ehrman describes as "arguably the most important book on the history of early Christianity to appear in the twentieth century" (173), questioned the long held distinction between orthodox and heretical belief by suggesting that what was identified as various heresies by the early apologists were simply variant views held by sincere Christians. Bauer's basic thesis stated: "In earliest Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary to secondary, but in many regions, heresy is the original manifestation of Christianity" (xi). Pagels notes that "those who wrote and circulated these texts (Nag Hammadi) did not consider themselves as 'heretics'" (Gnostic xix). Thus the question to be considered is the validity of the orthodox claim to be the only correct form of Christianity. Bauer suggest that there was no clear distinction between heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity, but rather a number of different groups all claiming to be valid. "That there were people who considered themselves to be true followers of Jesus Christ, in contrast to other positions which they considered to be false, cannot be doubted" (312). Thus, those in favor of resurgent Gnosticism would argue that Gnostic thought has the same value as orthodox thought and deserves to be incorporated into modern Christian

41 thought. After all, there is no way to know with certainty if a variant form of Christianity, e.g. Gnosticism, may be closer to the intentions of Jesus than the orthodox interpretation. Further, Pagels insists that resurgent Gnosticism is a movement that is ideally suited for our time because it brings to light the lack of confidence many in the modern world have in orthodox Christian belief: Now that the Nag Hammadi discoveries give us a new perspective. ..we can understand why certain creative persons throughout the ages, from Valentinus and Heracleon to Blake, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, found themselves on the edge of orthodoxy. All were fascinated by the figure of Christ.. all constantly returned to Christian symbols to express their own experience. And yet they found themselves in revolt against orthodox institutions. An increasing number of people today share their experience. They cannot rest solely on the authority of the Scriptures, the apostles, (or) the church." (Gnostic 150)


To begin to predict the extent of influence resurgent Gnosticism might have on contemporary Christianity calls for recognition that it has been sixteen hundred years since Gnosticism was considered an active philosophy. The world has obviously changed. Western Civilization since the fourth century has experienced the victory of the orthodox Christian Church over paganism, a dominance that was gradually weakened over the centuries by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of modern science, secularism, liberal Christian theology, and, most recently, postmodernism. While Christianity remains the dominant religion in the western world, it certainly does not command the influence of previous generations. Contemporary society, which includes contemporary Christianity, prides itself on its openness to new ideas. For example, it is safe to assume that had the Nag Hammadi documents been discovered a thousand years ago, they would most likely have been destroyed by the church. Today, however, they are celebrated for both their archaeological-historical value as well as their contribution to religious studies. Thus it is no surprise that in modern pluralistic society resurgent Gnosticism has expressed itself in the formation of Gnostic churches that enjoy the same privileges as other religious institutions. Stephen Hoeller, who since 1967 has been bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica in Los Angeles, and a frequent contributor to the periodical Gnosis, has observed that "Gnostic churches... have sprung up in recent years in increasing numbers"

43 (24). However, at the present time the number of practicing Gnostic religionists is minuscule compared to the various orthodox Christian denominations. Realistically the greater influences of resurgent Gnosticism will be not in the formation of Gnostic congregations, but the influence it will have on the greater Christian community and, to some degree, the broader religious and secular worlds. As previously stated, religious scholars such as Pagels and Ehrman are calling for a re-evaluation of Christian thought in light of resurgent Gnosticism. Thus, the following will explore the response resurgent Gnosticism is receiving from contemporary orthodox Christianity. An evaluation of this response will certainly help to predict the possible impact of resurgent Gnosticism on contemporary Christianity. The contemporary orthodox Christian response to resurgent Gnosticism has not been positive. Objections to the call to reconsider and possibly include Gnostic thought in modern Christianity are expressed in four basic concerns. First, orthodox scholarship rejects Bauer's thesis that Gnosticism and other early Christian heresies ever had an equal footing with orthodoxy in pre-Nicene Christianity. Second, now that the Gnostic documents can "speak for themselves," it is clear that Gnostic beliefs continue to be unacceptable to the orthodox community. Third, serious questions remain as to the trustworthiness of the Gnostic documents and if they faithfully represent the teaching of Christ. Fourth, orthodox Christianity views Gnosticism as an inadequate philosophical and religious system that fails to provide coherent answers to the important questions concerning the human condition. Orthodox Christian scholar Darrell Bock accuses the adherents of Bauer's thesis of a "concerted effort to change our history and the way we look at our religious and

44 cultural roots" (xxiii). Orthodox scholars contend that the Christian community has, from the very beginning, held to a set of core beliefs that were taught by the apostles and Christ. While it can be observed that the formalization of key orthodox doctrines did not occur until the fourth century, the Christian community accepted these beliefs from the advent of the faith. Turner argued against Bauer noting "the Church's grasp on the religious facts was prior to any attempt made to work them into a coherent whole... (for example) Christians lived Trinitarily long before the evolution of the Nicene orthodoxy." (Bauer 298). Thus, orthodox scholars argue that there never was a time in early Christian history that Gnostic views were widely accepted by the Christian Community. To support this view, orthodox scholars point to the abundant evidence of orthodox faith recorded in early second century Christian documents such as the Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, and letters by Clement, Polycarp and Ignatius. Thus, orthodox understanding of the faith did not begin with the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) or even the work of Irenaeus (c. 180), but rather can be easily traced through second century to the apostles because these writings reflect the core beliefs found in the New Testament documents. Following Bauer's thesis that competing schools of thought existed in second century Christianity, Pagels offers these questions: "Why had the church decided that these (Gnostic) texts were 'heretical' and that only the canonical gospels were 'orthodox'? Who made these decisions, and under what conditions?" (Beyond 3). For Pagels, the implication is that Gnostic beliefs were equally as prominent as orthodox beliefs in the second century Christian community. However, Perkins counters this hypothesis by insisting that Gnostic schools of belief never existed as separate

45 alternatives to orthodox faith: "Gnosticism was not originally a form of religious practice... initially it was a school phenomenon" (36-37). Bock adds, "There was never a 'Gnostic church,' only a conglomeration of disconnected schools that disagreed with each other as well as traditional Christians. These Gnostic groups operated initially more like Greek philosophical schools than they did like communities similar to a church" (23-24). Witherington adds, "The claim that Gnostic Christians existed alongside orthodox Christians.. .is simply false" ("Gospel Code" 114-15). Orthodox scholars argue that Gnosticism was like a parasite on the Christian community "taking ideas from various sources and combining them in unique ways" (Bock 24) rather than a competing alternative to orthodox faith. The second major objection from the orthodox Christian community to resurgent Gnosticism concerns Gnostic thought. Having examined Gnostic beliefs evident in the Nag Hammadi document, most orthodox Christians find themselves in agreement with the early apologists and see no reason to incorporate Gnostic thought into their faith. For example, one major objection to Gnostic thought is its concept of God. The philosophical conclusion that the divine being exists on many levels and that the true or high God is perfectly spiritual and is separate from the creator God, who is at best, incompetent, and at worst, evil, is completely unacceptable to the orthodox believer. Bock observes, "Every major writer of the New Testament makes a statement about the work of the one God in creation. Most note that good intent grounded the creation. Matter is not inherently evil" (88). Gnosticism seems to be a mythological regression back to polytheism that is objectionable not only to orthodox Christianity, but to the religious

46 traditions of Judaism and Islam as well. Orthodox scholars affirm the belief in the existence of only one God who created the heavens and the earth. Further, orthodox Christians find Gnostic teaching concerning the person and work of Christ to be contrary to the clear teachings of the New Testament. In the Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents Christ is not viewed as a sacrifice for sin, but rather as an enlightened teacher who calls humans to bring forth the divine spark inside of them. Orthodox scholars argue that the Christian belief in the sacrificial work of Christ has always been a core element of the faith. This is evidenced by the practice of the Eucharist that in one form or another has been a part of Christian tradition since the crucifixion of Christ. Bock explains: "All of the major strands of the earliest traditional texts declare that Jesus' work is a saving sacrifice for sin, something that the (Gnostic) materials did not affirm. This declaration appears in the doctrinal summaries and in the materials that describe the church's worship, including the Lord's Table. That tradition claims that Jesus passed on this teaching Himself (190). Thus, the Gnostic denial of the very core of the New Testament teaching concerning Christ cannot be made acceptable to orthodox faith. The issue of elitism evident in Gnosticism is also troubling to orthodox faith. The Gnostic documents clearly teach that Gnosis is for a select few. Ehrman writes that "a striking feature of Gnosticism (was) they did not have their own churches, but rather operated within existing Christian churches and considered themselves to be the spiritually elite" (126). It is interesting to note that in Pagels' glowing assessment of the Gnostic idea of self-enlightenment, she fails to mention that the ancient Gnostics did not teach that this was universal. Only a few would experience true Gnosis. Thus, modern

47 objections to Gnostic thought are very similar to the ancient apologists. Christianity is a faith open to all people and while orthodox Christians do believe in forms of revealed knowledge, that knowledge can be found by all who seek for it. Ehrman also notes: "one of the problems with religions that stress the importance of the spiritually elite is that they have trouble winning over the masses" (133). The third major objection to resurgent Gnosticism concerns the Gnostic documents and the claim that these documents, such as the Gospel of Thomas, should be considered to be as valid as the New Testament gospels and thus included in the canon of the New Testament. Orthodox scholars such as Witherington observe that "Pagels' suggestion to the contrary, Gnostic texts were never seriously entertained by many Christians as legitimate representations of the faith" ("Lost Gospels" 25). Indeed, a survey of the various pre-Nicene lists of canonical books reveals that no Gnostic documents were ever included. Even Marcion (c. 140), who may have been the first to suggest an authoritative list of scripture, and who held to some Gnostic tendencies, did not see fit to include any Gnostic documents. Bock suggests that the primary reason the Gnostic documents were never considered to be authoritative scripture was because they rejected the Hebrew scripture, whereas the early Church accepted the Hebrew Old Testament scriptures. "The adoption of the Hebrew Scriptures as canon meant that Gnosticism would have never been recognized as a 'legitimate development of the Christian faith'" (212). Ehrman explains, "There is no doubt that during his public ministry Jesus accepted, followed, interpreted, and taught the Hebrew Scriptures to his disciples. Further, his earliest followers did as well" ( 232). Thus, following the teachings of Christ, orthodox scholars recognize that

48 Christianity is rooted in the Old Testament. The Gnostic documents attempt to sever that root. Another issue concerning the Gnostic documents is the quality of the materials. Even a casual reader can observe that they do not match the literary depth found in the New Testament documents. Groothuis observes, "Without undue appeal to the subjective, it can be safely said that the Gnostic material on Jesus has a decidedly different 'feel' than the biblical Gospels" ("The Gnostic Gospels" 16). Perkins gives a much more academic assessment: The Nag Hammadi manuscripts are much less professional in orthography. They are inconsistent in the use of titles as well as in the personal notations made by scribes. By contrast, orthodox codices display accurate and precise orthography, consistency of language, and careful connection to the codices themselves. The Gnostic writings do not enjoy the same status as sacred books. The translators and copyists of the surviving Gnostic materials were probably attempting to emulate a tradition that was established in the larger Christian community. (181) Orthodox scholars agree with the early apologists in their assessment that Gnostic writers had absolutely no direct link to the Christ or the apostles, but rather created their own fantastic mythologies from a corruption of the traditional materials. Grant observes that the Gospel of Thomas does not "represent a true interpretation of Jesus (because it) relies not on some early tradition of the sayings of Jesus, but upon the (canonical) gospels which he de-eschatologizies" (189). Thus, orthodox scholars are convinced that the

49 Gnostic documents are not valid representations of the Christian faith and thus have no place in the New Testament canon. The fourth major objection to resurgent Gnosticism is that it fails as either a philosophy or a religion to give reasonable explanations for the human condition. Grant explains: Gnosticism did not provide an adequate answer to the problems of human existence. Aside from its fanciful mythology, its notion that the Gnostic (human being) is essentially and indeed entirely a spiritual being does not correspond with what is known of human nature even in antiquity. Its emphasis upon salvation as escape meant that human life was treated neither deeply nor broadly enough. (199-200) Even Pagels admits that "the accusation that the Gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain Gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience" (Gnostic 18). Thus, orthodox scholars are convinced that there is a major disconnect between Gnostic thought and reality. Gnosticism is not grounded in historical Christianity, nor is it grounded in Judaism, Iranianism or Hellenistic philosophy. It is a system composed of speculations, drawing concepts from all of these sources, and grounded only in the fanciful imaginations of the Gnostic mind. F.F. Bruce comments, "there is no reason why the student of the Gnostic-orthodox conflict should shrink from making a value judgment: the Gnostic schools lost because they deserved to lose" (277). Ehrman explains that the ancient orthodox believers prevailed over Gnostic schools because they "claimed ancient roots for their religion.. .by clinging to the Scriptures of Judaism.. (and) they allowed their form of Christianity to be

50 a universal faith attractive to and feasible for the majority of people in the ancient world" (179). Orthodox scholars are convinced orthodox forms of Christianity surpass anything Gnosticism had to offer in the ancient world or has to offer in the modern world. Orthodox scholar Arendzen summarizes: "The attempt to picture Gnosticism as a mighty movement of the human mind towards the noblest and highest truth, a movement in some way parallel to that of (orthodox) Christianity, has completely failed" (20).


In light of the evidence and responses offered by both those who favor the modern acceptance of Gnostic ideas into mainstream Christianity and by those who reject modern incorporation of Gnostic ideas, it appears that resurgent Gnosticism will have a limited impact on contemporary Christianity. However, the above conclusion is not to suggest that resurgent Gnosticism will have no impact on modern Christian thought for it already has an impressive following of Biblical scholars. Further, the Gnostic documents and explanations of Gnostic beliefs are available to the entire Christian community who will eventually decide the amount of acceptance or rejection of resurgent Gnostic ideas. Resurgent Gnosticism is at a distinct disadvantage compared to orthodox forms of Christianity because its primary influence is academic rather than practical, whereas orthodox forms of Christianity have powerful and deep roots in both the academic world and the practice of the faith. As far as academics are concerned, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents and the renewed interest in the ancient Gnostic movements will certainly have a profound impact on the historical study of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi documents provide primary source material that is invaluable to the quest of historical accuracy. However, the suggestion that Gnostic thought was significantly incorporated into early Christian belief lacks substantial evidence and remains an unproved theory. There simply isn't enough historical evidence available at the present time to accept the validity of this claim.

52 Concerning the practice of religion, resurgent Gnosticism does offer some ideas that may be attractive to contemporary society. One example is the Gnostic emphasis on self-realization, teaching that the divine spark resides inside a person. Further, one can reach a greater level of self-realization by simply recognizing the divine nature within. The Gnostics taught that Jesus came primarily to reveal this truth. Pagels asks "What is wrong with seeing Jesus as if he were simply 'one of us'? Haven't we all - ourselves as he - been created in the image of God?" (Beyond 147). The implications from this idea include the recognition that all people are children of the divine, and, as such, are not separated from the divine, but simply not aware of the connection. Further, this connection can be realized through a variety of religious and philosophical traditions. Thus, the exclusiveness taught in orthodox Christianity is not valid. The release of religious exclusiveness can then be replaced with an attitude of tolerance toward all people and religions. While the above concepts may find a receptive audience among secularists and modern liberal Christian perspectives, orthodox Christianity will continue to resist any idea that self realization can be achieved apart from divine intervention. The Gnostic view of self-realization reduces religious expression to essentially a human experience. However, "according to Irenaeus, it is heresy to assume that human experience is analogous to divine reality, and to infer that each one of us, by exploring our own experience, may discover intimations of truth about God" (Beyond 145). Modern orthodox Christianity finds itself in full agreement with Irenaeus. Another profound disadvantage of resurgent Gnosticism in the practical sense is that it has not yet produced any charismatic religious leaders to propagate the faith.

53 Sympathetic Biblical scholars such as Pagels, King and Ehrman are primarily academicians and not religionists. Therefore, even though a handful of Gnostic churches do exist, their impact on the practice of the Christian faith is extremely limited. Thus, it is unlikely that Gnostic churches will ever achieve the status of other non-orthodox groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. This, however, may not be the goal because resurgent Gnosticism, like ancient Gnosticism, seems to be more interested in influencing mainstream Christian thought rather than existing as a separate religion. However, due to the wide disagreement concerning key doctrinal beliefs, it is highly unlikely that Gnostic thought will be incorporated into orthodox Christianity. Resurgent Gnosticism calls upon orthodox Christianity to completely revise key beliefs concerning the nature and work of Christ, the understanding of the human condition, the need for salvation, the nature of God the Father and his role in creation, as well as the connection between ancient Judaism, i.e., the Old Testament with Christianity. From an orthodox perspective the concepts presented in the Nag Hammadi document cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the orthodox New Testament documents. Orthodox Christianity clearly views Gnosticism as an inadequate religious system. Arendzen writes "Christianity survived, and not Gnosticism, because the former was the fittest - immeasurably, nay infinitely, so. Gnosticism died not by chance, but because it lacked vital power within itself; and no amount of theosophist literature.. can give life to that which perished from intrinsic and essential defects" (21). In spite of modern orthodox Christianity's clear rejection of resurgent Gnosticism, the orthodox faith may find itself strengthened once again as a result of the clash between

54 the two systems. Just as key Christian beliefs and practices were clarified as the result of the struggle against ancient Gnosticism, modern orthodox Christianity will also need to clarify its position in response to resurgent Gnosticism. In a pluralistic society that already questions the truth claims of orthodox Christianity, the struggle against resurgent Gnosticism may strengthen its position in the greater culture as well.


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