Early Christian History

Movements: Gnosticism

The most important “heresies” that the early Church faced, were a collection of sects now labelled “Gnosticism.” It was less common in the western half of the Roman Empire, and found more often in the major urban centers of the east. As such it was a threat to the “proto-orthodox” or literalist Christians, and they resolved to put an end to it by the beginning of the 4th century. It was all but dead by the end of the 5th century, in spite of the contributions it made to the growth of Christianity.

The Problem of Understanding Gnosticism

In trying to understand Gnosticism, we face a serious problem: the fact that the Church eradicated all traces of Gnosticism, after wiping it out. For a long time, we had little to go on, aside from what some of the Church Fathers said about it — what’s worse, most of them were quite hostile to it, and for all we know, misrepresented it.

A source for knowledge of Gnosticism, aside from the Church Fathers, was found in the 1940’s at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. In a buried jar, were found a number of rolled-up manuscripts. Scholars have determined them to have been at least partially Gnostic in nature, dated to about the turn of the 5th century. The jar may have been left behind by a small, secluded Gnostic community, trying to avoid persecution; they may have had to bury their texts to keep them from prying eyes, but for some reason, never got back to them.

At any rate, while the Nag Hammadi discovery is helpful, those documents are enigmatic, and may not fully present the “secret” doctrines of the Gnostics. The best we can do, is to collect clues from many sources, and like the pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, put them together, reconstructing, as best can be arranged, those pieces which are missing.

Ancient Roots of Gnosticism

Gnosticism was merely the last “incarnation” of a very old belief system, going back at least to the 6th century BCE and probably much further even than that. That belief system was known as Orpheanism, after the Greek hero Orpheus. Orpheus was a son of Zeus, and an incredibly skilled musician. When his wife, whom he loved immeasurably, died, he followed her shade to the River Styx. She went across, while he remained on its earthly side, mourning her. He played on his flute such stirring laments, that even Hades, in his halls, heard it, and was moved to tears. He allowed Orpheus to come across the Styx and visit her, for only one day; he had to return by nightfall.

Unfortunately, the majority of Orphean beliefs are lost to us. This is not merely because of later Christian eradication of any record of them, but because they did not generally put any of their teachings in writing. The earliest Orpheans used music, songs and poetry, via oral tradition, to convey their teachings. They appear to have depended on songs, thereafter.

Another problem with understanding Orpheanism is, that it manifested in several different ways that we know of and probably others that we don’t. For example, the Pythagoreans were, very likely, an Orphean movement, founded by Pythagoras (or perhaps his mentor). Other Orphean communities and/or academies popped up throughout the Hellenistic world. Most were in the Aegean islands or in western Anatolia, the district known as Ionia.

Some Orphean communities were not well-received, for they were viewed as a collection of useless outcasts. Still, they tended to be very scholarly, and a number of Orpheans established schools or academies which taught a “conventional” Greek curriculum.

Basic Orphean Beliefs

Intrinsic to all Orphean communities, up to and including Gnosticism, was a belief in a dualistic universe — made up of matter and light. Matter was considered evil by nature, the purview of an evil god, gods, or demons. Light was considered good by nature, the realm of the divine, that god being a solitary, aloof being. That god, called “the divine unknowable,” “the immeasurable,” etc. had created the universe, but the lesser beings had corrupted it by meddling with matter.

Humanity, like the universe as a whole, had a dual nature: an evil side, grounded in the physical body, and a good side, anchored in the soul. These two natures warred with one another, in the heart of each and every person. Moreover, because people tended to fall back on their physicality, the evil side tended to “win out,” which explains the sorry state of the human condition.

For Orpheans, then, life was a constant effort to minimize the physical, in order to release the light, or good side, which was by nature divine. Only by expressing this “light of the soul” could one hope to have even the most meager understanding of the divine.

Toward that end, Orpheans tended to be reclusive. Some Orphean communities were ascetic, and lived by what today might be called a monastic lifestyle. Some were not as reserved, though, and these tended to be found in or near major cities.

In this regard, all of the many manifestations of Orpheanism owe a good deal to Zoroastrianism. That religion had been founded somewhere between 1,200 BCE and 750 BCE in western Persia. It taught that the world was basically the battleground of two beings, Ahura Mazda, the god of light, creation, goodness and life, and Ahriman, the god of darkness, destruction, corruption, and death. This dualistic notion permeated almost every major ancient religious movement.

Orpheanism Moves Ahead

When Rome seized control over the Hellenistic world, many Orphean groups vanished. This is not due to persecution, per se, but because under the Roman regime, it was considered a frivolous and eccentric belief system; it attracted fewer followers. Furthermore, other “mystery religions” had become more sophisticated, and grew in size, capturing many of the same people who might have been attracted to an Orphean community.

One of these was Mithraism, which really blossomed in the Empire just prior to the turn of the first century. While it was named for a Persian sun-deity, and apparently taught a dualistic system, Mithraism had little other Persian influences, and was primarily a Greco-Roman religion, as well as being a “secret society.” By the middle of the first century, nearly all the Roman legionaires were members, and they carried it to all parts of the Empire.

Another well-known “mystery religion” was that of Herakles (Hercules in Latin), which was prominent among ethnic Greeks and in places where ethnic Greeks lived. It also had many followers among Romans, particularly in southern Italy (where the Greeks had had a number of colonies, hence its ancient name Magna Graeca).

Precisely what happened to Orpheanism, in light of all of this competition, is uncertain. Records of Orpheans in the last century BCE are all but non-existent. Again, this may be explained by the Orpheans' own reticence to put anything in writing. From the accounts of others, though, we know that some small groups did manage to live on.

Lighting the “Fire of Faith”

Around the turn of the first century, the “fire of faith” flared anew, throughout the Roman Empire, especially in the east. A number of mystery religions exploded in numbers. Christianity was only one of them. Another was Mithraism, which had already gotten a foothold in the Roman world when Pompey, erstwhile collaborator of Julius Caesar, joined Mithras, around 63 BCE. Other similar movements sprang to life, some of them brand-new, others founded on older movements.

Orphean-inspired people were, apparently, among the first to latch on to the young Christian movement. They saw Jesus Christ as an embodiment of the “divine knowledge,” or λογος (Logos), to whom the “divine wisdom” or σοφια (Sophia) had given birth. They considered the ancient Hebrew God, YHWH, the Demiurge, or the author of the woes of the material. To them, Jesus represented deliverance from the enslavement of the Demiurge, as well as the architect of spiritual advancement. Furthermore they believed that Jesus had taught the apostles things which were never put in writing, and which should not be put in writing, which they, themselves, were privy to; these were their “secret doctrines,” open only to the initiated, and only after the “outer mysteries” or publicly-acknowledged teachings, had been mastered.

Of course, all of this did not happen overnight. The Orpheans were mingled in with the rest of the Christian community. Because Christianity was young, there was no “established” sole doctrine, so individual interpretations of Christ’s message were not frowned upon.

Gnosticism Emerging

The Orphean version of Christianity did not emerge as a distinct Christian movement, until the late second century CE. By this time it went by the name “Gnostic,” from the Greek word γνωσις (gnosis) meaning “knowledge, to know” (referring to its quest for knowledge of the divine).

Although it had a label, Gnosticism was not a comprehensive package of doctrines, but rather, simply a mystical, Orphean-inspired approach to Christianity. As such, not all Gnostics were actually “heretical” or teaching things that other Christians didn’t.

Perhaps the greatest issue diving Gnosticism from mainstream Christianity, in addition to the “secret doctrines,” was Docetism, which is to say, the belief that Jesus did not actually die. Gnostics claimed that Jesus had never actually come in true physical form — for if he had, he'd have been corrupted by the inherent evil of the physical — but that his bodily existence had been merely an illusion. When he was crucified, his spirit fled, so that he never actually died.

Note that many Christians even of the mainstream variety were Docetists. Among them was Origen, a Church Father whose writings show a good deal of Gnostic inspiration — though at the time, he was not known as a Gnostic. Other Church Fathers, and even later Christian theologians and religious figures, have taken the stance that Jesus had not actually physically manifested.

Docetism, however, proved ultimately to be Gnosticism’s undoing. While not all Gnostics agreed on everything — in fact, there was a good deal of variance among the Gnostic congregations — they all did believe that the material, the physical was inherently evil, and therefore they all agreed that Jesus could not actually have lived in physical form.

In a series of synods in the east, in the middle of the third century, Docetism was denounced, several times over. It became a severe point of contention for many mainstream Christians.

Gnosticism Reacts — or Rather, Doesn’t!

The Gnostics didn’t take seriously the denunciation of Docetism. Largely educated, and somewhat elitist in their views, they viewed the mainstream Christians as simple-minded buffoons. Their denunciation carried no weight, with them. Besides, they had no use for bishops or their pronouncements. In fact, they disliked the idea of a hierarchy. While they observed several levels of doctrinal initiation, they didn’t look to any single person as a spiritual authority. What mattered was one’s spiritual knowledge, not one’s rank in a strictly-human organization.

Moreover, the idea of doctrinal disputes was one that Gnostics simply didn’t care about. They believed in individuals learning to understand the divine, by themselves. One person’s understanding might not be the same as another’s. So they did not care about cohesiveness of doctrine, and again, considered the mainstream’s efforts at establishing a single doctrine, to be tilting at windmills.

The Gnostics went their merry way, and in fact, possibly due to their elitist ideas, they attracted a good number of educated followers. Mainstream Christianity saw this as a threat — the Gnostics were taking away the most erudite and desirable believers! They found more grounds on which to attack Gnosticism — mainly by calling them polytheists (because of their beliefs in a God, a Demiurge, in a separate Jesus, etc.), which the Gnostics did not understand. The subordinate deities of their belief system, they equated with angels and demons, in which the mainstream Christians believed.

The division among the Christians grew, until Emperor Constantine, in 325, called a general Council, in order to heal the rifts. He had invited some Gnostics to attend, however, they did not take the Council seriously. If any did attend, we don’t know about it. Thus, with no Gnostics present, the Council immediately, with little debate, denounced it as heresy.

Over the next century, the mainstream Christians became an organized Church with considerable political influence, and they used it to go after the Gnostics, with all the methods at their disposal. Gnosticism lingered in some out-of-the-way places for another two centuries or so, but it died out. Ironically, the mainstream Christians used against their fellow Christians, the Gnostics, many of the same mechanisms that early Rome had used, to persecute them! After the Gnostics had vanished, the Church made every effort to obliterate any record of them. Gnostic writings were destroyed, or else distorted.

Thus, we have little to go on, in order to understand the Gnostics.

Gnosticism Re-Emerges

Gnosticism re-emerged, sometime in the 9th or 10th century, in Dacia, or modern-day Bulgaria. How this happened, is unknown, since we have no records of it. The movement was very small and may have been lurking, unnoticed, in the wilds of Dacia, possibly for centuries. In any event, the Byzantine Empire came down hard on this movement in the 10th century. At this time they were known as Cathari.

The Byzantine oppression dispersed this small community, which went north into what is now Hungary and Poland, and west into what is now Yugoslavia. They were continually opposed, wherever they went. They spent another two centuries or so, wandering central Europe, in relative obscurity, until they rooted themselves in what is now southern France and northern Italy.

In the 13th century, they became more numerous, to the point where harassing them by the local population was no longer enough to dislodge them. They were known, by this time, as Albigensians, for the town of Albi, in which they were dominant. The Church could no longer ignore this threat to their authority (the Albigensians rejected the need for the clergy or the Church hierarchy). Pope Innocent III called a “crusade” against the Albigensians. While the Albigensians mounted a spirited defense, defeating the Church forces several times in the first two decades of this crusade, ultimately, the Church won, and the Albigensians were destroyed.

Dominican friars, considered experts in handling heretics, were called in, to re-convert the Albigensians who had been taken prisoner. It was here that the Inquisition was born.

Modern Gnosticism

During the 20th century, scholars strived to “recover” whatever Gnostic knowledge they could find. They did this by reviewing Christian writings, both in favor of Gnosticism and opposed to it. They also looked for Gnosticism-inspired passages in the Bible and other documents. The Nag Hammadi discovery confirmed some of their suppositions, and added to their knowledge.

This effort is still underway. Some scholars even claim to know what the Gnostics' “secret doctrines” were, while others argue that it should be impossible to do so. In any event, the best one can come up with, now, is supposition. It may be well-grounded supposition, or not, but at best it is nothing other than supposition.

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