Why Gnosticism is Irrelevant to the Study of the New Testament
by Clinton E. Arnold
In this issue
- Why Gnosticism is Irrelevant to the Study of the New Testament
- Gnostic Gospels
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
Pick up almost any commentary of the previous generation and you will find its author pointing to Gnosticism whenever the biblical author warns of opponents threatening the church (except when the opponents are Judaizers). The Gnostics have been vilified as the bad guys behind nearly every bush of heresy in the New Testament. They have been seen as the heretics at Colossae, the opponents at Corinth, the Nicolaitans in Revelation, those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh in John’s writings, and elsewhere.
Liberal scholarship has taken this an enormous step further by arguing that many of the NT writers themselves had been profoundly influenced by Gnosticism. The so-called “History of Religions School” of thought assumed that a pervasive pre-Christian Gnosticism indelibly marked the worldviews of many of the biblical writers. In his Theology of the New Testament, Rudolf Bultmann spoke about a combination taking place between Gnosticism and Christianity in the first century to such an extent that one could term “Hellenistic Christianity a syncretistic structure.”1 One needs to look no further today than any one of the ten volumes of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament to see this approach worked out in the exposition of the theologically significant terms of the New Testament. For example, in his study of “head” (kephalē), Heinrich Schlier devotes a substantial portion of his article illustrating the use of the term in Gnostic texts. When he turns to explaining its NT usage in Colossians and Ephesians, he concludes, “We are in the sphere of the Gnostic redeemer myth as a development of the aeon conception.”2
When Did Gnosticism Begin?
In this brief essay, I will contend that whereas it is important to know about Gnosticism for understanding the history of the church in the second, third, and fourth centuries, it is actually quite irrelevant for interpreting any of the New Testament documents.
It is important to point out that this is not an idiosyncratic idea that I have come up with in the spirit of scholarly creativity. There has been a growing recognition by historians and NT scholars that Gnosticism developed later than was initially thought. This has led many commentators on the NT to begin using the expressions such as “proto-gnosticism” or “incipient gnosticism”—which are rather meaningless expressions since Gnosticism is so syncretistic that virtually any first-century religious tradition could be termed “proto-Gnostic.”
When I began my doctoral work in 1983 at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) on Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, I had to face the issue of Gnosticism head-on. I discovered that not only did many historical-critical scholars think that Paul did not write those two letters, but that whoever wrote them late in the first century was Gnostic in worldview and orientation. In fact, one famous German scholar argued that the wonderful poetic praise to Christ in Col 1:15-20 was actually a portion of a Gnostic redeemer myth hymn that had been incorporated into the letter.
Fortunately, I was pointed in a different direction by a landmark volume written by Edwin Yamauchi, an evangelical scholar from Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) titled, Pre-Christian Gnosticism.3 Yamauchi raised many serious questions about the entire scholarly edifice that assumed Gnosticism existed before or even at the time of Jesus and the Apostles.
What is the Essence of Gnosticism?
Before arguing its irrelevance for interpreting the NT, I should be careful to clarify precisely what I am talking about when I speak of Gnosticism. Rather than term it a cult of Christianity, which begs the controversial question of its origin, it may be better simply to refer to it as a religion of redemption in Roman antiquity. There is no doubt about the highly syncretistic nature of this religion; it combines elements of Platonism, Greek and Roman mystery cults, Persian religion, magic, astrology, Judaism, as well as (in its later forms) Christianity. Gnosticism became the principal opponent of the church in the second through fourth centuries with most of the church fathers speaking out against it, with some writing voluminously.
Rather than provide an encyclopedia-style description of Gnosticism, I might be able to give you a better feel for what constituted this religion by taking you on an imaginary journey to Rome, circa A.D. 150, to participate in a secret meeting where you hear a Gnostic teacher:
Imagine that you have just participated in a Roman “house church” service in a fourth-floor insula (apartment) on the Lord’s day. As you are walking down the stairs, a well-educated man of high social status who was in the service grabs your arm and strikes up a conversation. As he speaks to you, you sense his profound dissatisfaction with the teaching in this house group. He offhandedly refers to the leaders as unenlightened. He assumes you might feel the same way, so he invites you to a private gathering on Wednesday evening. Out of curiosity, you agree to attend.
The Wednesday evening gathering is small—perhaps 25 people, many of whom you recognize as fellow-believers from various insula churches around the city. They begin with a few hymns and a prayer, all of which sound Christian, but there is something different here. The speaker then steps forward and addresses the group, which is filled with new people on this occasion.
He begins with a reading of Genesis 1 and the account of creation. He says he believes precisely what this passage says when it asserts, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So far so good. What he says next, however, shocks you to the core. He claims that there is a hidden, unknown God existing in a kingdom of light that Genesis does not even speak of; in other words, there is a second god. He asserts that the creation was a gross mistake by this creator being who he sometimes refers to as “the Demiurge” (the creator) or Sophia. It was a mistake because reality exists in the realm of the unseen; that which is seen is destined to fall into corruption and demise. As he continues, you discern that some of what he is saying sounds much like Plato’s view that there are invisible archetypes that stand behind the material creation and that the body is a prison house for the soul. Nevertheless, there are so many Old Testament and Jewish elements in what he says, that you have a hard time figuring out his precise background and orientation.
As he teaches over the course of the next hour, he covers numerous topics including cosmology, the role of the savior, the nature of redemption, and the invisible world of angels and spirits. You sense that others in the group, especially those who are better educated, are convinced and excited about what he is saying. To them it makes sense philosophically—especially for understanding the problem of evil in the world. You begin to realize that this teaching will present a serious challenge to the church.
At the end of the time, he provides an opportunity to ask questions, so you take advantage of this:
You: “Thank you for your lecture and presentation. I would like to know what the implications are for the church. At the heart of the Gospel is the teaching that Christ died for my sins according to the Scripture. Do you believe this is true?”
The Teacher: “This depends on what people mean by “sin.” In our way of thinking, sin is not so much an offense against the will of the creator god, but a state of ignorance. Sin is a lack of awareness that each person bears a “divine spark” from the unknown God, the Father, that longs to be freed from the shackles of material existence and reunited with the incorruptible God in the kingdom of light.”
“So, the bigger problem is my body. In your way of thinking, how do I break free from it?”
Leave your church, commit yourself to our group, and we will reveal to you the knowledge (gnōsis) that you need to prepare for the day that you do break free. That will happen on the day of your death when your spirit can embark on the dangerous journey through the planetary spheres.
“What dangerous journey?”
When your spirit separates from you body, you will ascend through planetary spheres, each of which is ruled over by a powerful spirit ruler (an archōn). It is vital for you to prepare now for this ascent to the kingdom of light so that you know the proper passwords, have the right spells and formulas, to successfully navigate to the invisible realm of the unknown god.
“Where did you get this knowledge?”
When the redeemer came, he shared this knowledge with people he could trust. None of this is in your Bible. It is contained in documents that we now possess like “The Secret Teaching of John” (Apocryphon of John)—a book that contains mysteries that Jesus taught to John, the son of Zebedee, after the “resurrection.”
“By the way, pardon me for being so direct, but I must ask you if you do believe in the resurrection?”
Yes, we all believe in the resurrection, but perhaps not the way that you do. You see, the redeemer was never incarnated. To those who met him, he appeared to be incarnate, but in appearance only. Some of us believe that he was a spirit-being throughout his three-year sojourn on earth. Others from our persuasion believe that the spirit-redeemer came on the fleshly Jesus (the son of Joseph and Mary) at the time of the baptism and then left him before his passion. Either way, he is now alive.
“I am still a bit confused. I thought the cross was central to our salvation. Are you saying that it is not?”
You are still working with the wrong notion of what the root problem of humanity really is. What we are trying to tell you is that you have a portion of the divine in you, some call it a “divine spark,” that connects you with god. But you are serving the wrong god! The law and will of the creator god (the Demiurge) should not be a matter of concern; in fact, his work of material creation was an arrogant and regrettable mistake. Of paramount importance is your connection with the ultimate god existing eternally in the kingdom of light.
“I think I have heard enough for now. Perhaps we can talk some more next week.”
With that you leave the meeting while noticing that many others were eagerly continuing the discussion. A feeling of foreboding pervades your emotions. This will be an enormous problem for the church to deal with.
A Demonization of the Jewish and Christian God
As the preceding dialogue portrays, Gnosticism represents a demonization of the God of the Bible and the postulation of another god—unknown, hidden, and ultimate. Gnosis is the revelation of this unknown god.
A crucial issue that scholars have tried to grapple with is the question of how this could have happened. A variety of answers to this question have been suggested. In the previous century, some suggested that this two-god dualism surfaced because of the influence of Hellenism on Christianity, especially Platonism. There is much merit to this suggestion, but it may not provide an adequate answer to the numerous Jewish elements in the Gnostic texts.
The “History of Religions School” claimed that the roots of Gnostic dualism can be traced to Persian religion, which had two gods (Ahiram and Ahura Mazda), and that a form of Gnosticism had emerged prior to the time of Jesus and the Apostles. This has been found to be problematic on many grounds and has largely been abandoned by scholarship today.
Careful analysis of all the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi library in 1945 has revealed a very important fact that needs to be factored into any understanding of Gnostic origins: the texts are replete with OT and Jewish terms, concepts, images, and stories. This has led most scholars today to suggest that the origins of Gnosticism may lie within Judaism itself. But once again we must ask how this could possibly happen? How could a two-god theology surface within a context of rigid monotheism?
Disillusionment Following the Jewish War
When Jesus and the Apostles walked the land of Israel, apocalypticism within Judaism was prominent. Rome was in power and the Jewish people wanted nothing more than for God to intervene in human history with his Messiah and shatter the arrogance of the Gentile sinners like a potter’s jar. The Qumran community was preparing for this day. Jews everywhere longed for the arrival of the descendant of David who would come and conquer.
In the political sphere, precisely the opposite happened. The Jewish people revolted against Rome in AD 66 and by 70 the Roman armies had killed thousands of Jews, quelled the rebellion, and utterly destroyed the Jerusalem temple. In the second rebellion of AD 135 led by Simon bar Kosiba (or, Bar Kochba), the Romans not only defeated him and his army, but banished all Jews from Jerusalem, renamed the city Aelia Capitolina, and built a temple to Zeus-Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple.
A number of years ago, a Jewish scholar from Columbia University, Alan F. Segal,, wrote a very influential book, Two Powers in Heaven, that sought to explain how the profound disillusionment stemming from these two wars influenced some Jewish circles. His concern was to understand how some rabbis could claim to have experienced a mystical ascent to heaven where they glimpsed the divine throne, only to return and proclaim that they saw two gods in heaven! Segal contended that this was an attempt at theodicy (explaining the problem of evil) by these rabbis in light of God’s apparent defeat in the two wars. In other words, God was not able to intervene triumphantly because he had a powerful foe in heaven. Segal took this a step further by suggesting that this may help to explain the origins of the radical dualism that led to Gnosticism and how this could have happened within a Jewish environment.4
A number of other scholars have taken a similar approach to Gnostic origins, although the overall question remains highly debated. In a very important essay, “The Origins of Gnosis and Early Christianity,” the highly respected Tübingen historian and New Testament scholar Martin Hengel concludes that the radically negative interpretation of the origin of the world in which the God of Israel is defamed as a cruel and foolish demiurge has its beginning among Hellenistic Jews whose national eschatological hope was shattered after the Jewish war.5
Gnosticism as Irrelevant to New Testament Interpretation?
If the catalyst for the development of Gnostic dualism arose within Judaism sometime after the first Jewish war (and possibly the second), this would, in fact, rule out the possibility of Gnosticism influencing the writers of the New Testament (or even the opponents of the Apostles) with the possible exception of the Johannine material.
I became convinced of this view when I wrote my dissertation on the background of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about twenty years ago, later published as Ephesians: Power and Magic. It led me to look at other explanations for features within the New Testament environment that would have prompted Paul to emphasize the themes that he did and use the vocabulary that he did in Ephesians. Similarly, when I later wrote on Colossians, I found local folk animistic beliefs to be far more relevant for understanding the so-called “Colossian heresy” than importing Gnosticism back to the middle of the first century.6
In fact, it is difficult to find any place within the New Testament documents where the biblical writer polemicizes against a two-god dualism or against the notion that the creator god is evil. The closest we may come to Gnostic theology may be 2 John 7 where John says, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” But does this necessitate a Gnostic interpretation of the background? This may be nothing more than the influence of Platonism (“middle Platonism” was on the rise at that time) on a group within the church that led to a docetic view of Christ.7 There is no hint in this letter of a defective view of God in his role as the creator of the heavens and the earth.
1 Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1951) 1.164.
2 Heinrich Schlier, “kefalh,,” TDNT 3.680.
3 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism. A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973).
4 Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven. Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (SJLA 25; Leiden: Brill, 1979) 260-266.
5 Martin Hengel, “Die Ursprünge der Gnosis and das Urchristentum,” in J. Ådna, S. J. Hafemann, O. Hofius, Evangelium—Schriftauslegung—Kirche. Festschrift für Peter Stuhlmacher zum 65. Geburtstag (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997) 190-223, esp. p. 222.
6 Ephesians: Power and Magic. The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of its Historical Setting (SNTSMS 63; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); The Colossian Syncretism. The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (WUNT 2/77; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995).
7 See “Syncretism,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997) 1149-50.
Clinton E. Arnold (M.Div., Talbot; Ph.D. Aberdeen) is Professor and Chair, Department of New Testament Language and Literature. Clint, his wife Barbara and their three boys are vitally involved in their local church in Whittier.