Gnostics: Did You Know?

LOST AND FOUND. In 2006, a published English translation and a documentary by the National Geographic Society sparked a storm of public interest in the “lost Gospel of Judas.” The third- or fourth-century Coptic manuscript (probably translated from a second-century Greek text) was discovered in the 1970s, but it suffered three decades of mishandling, robbery, deterioration, and neglect before scholars could finally study, authenticate, and translate it. This may be the same Gospel of Judas mentioned by the Christian writer Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies in AD. 180. The Gospel of Judas is the latest in a number of Gnostic manuscript discoveries in the last center the most important of which was a collection of over 40 Gnostic writings in caves near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. (See The Secret Is Out)

PRO-JUDAS. NOT PRO-JEWISH. Because the Gospel of Judas portrays Judas as a hero rather than a villain, some people have given the impression that it is somehow an antidote to historic Christian anti-Semitism. This response is ironic, since much of early Gnosticism was deeply critical of traditional Judaism. Gnostics believed that there were actually two Gods, and that the God of the Jews was an evil or ignorant creator who deceived people. One Gnostic text calls the Hebrew patriarchs a “joke”! Because of this, Gnostics interpreted the Jewish Scriptures in ways that seem very strange to us. For example, many believed that Eve was right to take the serpent's advice and eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. (See In the Know)

GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME GOSPEL. Although the Gnostics had their own “gospels,” such as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth, they were all written later than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and none of them were ever considered Scripture by the majority of Christians. (See No Other Gospel) They are not gospels in the same sense as the canonical gospels: They do not chronicle the life of Jesus and are not primarily concerned with historical events but with spiritual advice, revelations, and explanations of the Gnostic view of the cosmos.

THE DIVINE SPARK. Gnostics believed they were the elect, spiritual ones who alone had the “seed” of the divine trapped inside their earthly bodies. Salvation for them meant escape from the material world. Some Gnostics believed in reincarnation for imperfect souls who might have another opportunity in this world for salvation through knowledge.

NO SECRETS. The Gnostics sometimes claimed that secret truth had been handed down by one apostle to a select group of insiders. But Christian opponents like Irenaeus argued that the true church represented the teaching of all of the apostles passed on in many locations. This was the original meaning of the word “catholic” as we say it in the Apostles' Creed: according to the whole church. (See Taught by the Apostles)

MARY, MARY. Since the 19th century, Gnostic writings have been popular among some feminists because they seem to give greater prominence to women than the traditional Christian church has done. The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary depict Mary Magdalene as uniquely loved by Jesus and the recipient of special revelation.

LIVING REMNANTS. Did any of the early Gnostic sects survive? Perhaps—in the tradition of the Mandaeans, a small religious group in southern Iraq and Iran. There is some reason to believe that they originated in firstÐcentury Palestine as a Jewish Gnostic sect. They speak a dialect of Aramaic, and the ritual of baptism plays a central role in their religion. In their view, John the Baptist was the true prophet, but Jesus was a liar and a sorcerer. The Mandaeans have been the focus of international news recently (“Save the Gnostics” said the New York Times) because their community has been an unintended casualty of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Most of Iraq's Mandaeans have had to flee to other parts of the world.

STILL POPULAR. There are people who call themselves “Gnostics” today, such as the Ecclesia Gnostica (Gnostic Church) in Los Angeles, but their religion is an amalgam of beliefs rather than a true reflection of ancient Gnosticism. More common in today's culture are the movements and books that show the continuing influence of Gnostic ideas—such as Scientology, the New Age, novels like The Da Vinci Code, and even some aspects of psychotherapy.

By Jennifer Trafton and Rebecca Colossanov

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #96 in 2007]

Next articles

It Only Takes a Spark (to keep a heresy going)

Ancient heresies are alive and well in modern culture

Jennifer Trafton

Defining the Faith

Gnosticism emerged during a time when Christians faced an identity crisis

Everett Ferguson

In the Know

The Gnostics believed that knowledge is the key to salvation--for a select few

David M. Scholer

The Secret is Out

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection brought ancient Gnostic writings to light

David M. Scholer
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