explorefaith.org-Spiritual guidance for anyone seeking a path to God.
Explore God's Love Explore Your Faith Explore the Church Explore Who We Are


Lost Christianities-The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew


Excerpt from Chapter Six
"Christians 'In the Know': The Worlds of Early Christian Gnosticism"
by Bart D. Ehrman


The Tenets of Gnosticism

As we have seen, Gnostic Christians maintained that in the beginning there was only One. This One God was totally spirit, totally perfect, incapable of description, beyond attributes and qualities. This God is not only unknown to humans; he is unknowable. The Gnostic texts do not explain why he is unknowable, except to suggest that he is so “other” that explanations—which require making something unknown known by comparing it to something else—simply cannot work.

According to sundry Gnostic myths, this one unknowable God, for some unknowable reason, generated a divine realm from himself. In some of these myths, the perfect essences of this One become themselves, somehow, self-existent. So, for example, this One spends eternity thinking. He thinks, of course, only of himself, since he is all there is. But his thought itself must exist, since he thinks. And so his thought becomes its own entity. Moreover, this One always exists. And so his eternal existence, his eternality, exists. And so it becomes its own entity. This One is living; in fact, he is Life. And so his life itself exists. Life then becomes its own entity. And so on.

Thus there emerge from this One other divine entities, emanations from the one, called aeons (Thought, Eternality, Life, etc.); moreover, some of these aeons produce their own entities, until there is an entire realm of the divine aeons, sometimes called the Fullness or, using the Greek term, the Pleroma.

The Gnostic myths are designed to show not only how this Pleroma came into existence in eternity past but how the world we live in came into being and how we ourselves came to be here. What these myths appear to have in common is the idea that there is a kind of downward movement from spirit to matter, that matter is a denigration of existence, the result of a disruption in the Pleroma, a catastrophe in the cosmos. In some of these systems, it is the final aeon who is the problem, an aeon called Wisdom or, using the Greek term, Sophia. The myths have different ways of explaining how Sophia's "fall" from the Pleroma led to the awful consequences of the material world. One of the more familiar myths is found in the Secret Book of John, an account of a revelation given to John the son of Zebedee by Jesus after his resurrection. This book was one of those discovered (in several versions) near Nag Hammadi in 1945; a version of its myth can also be found in the summaries of Irenaeus. In this Gnostic myth, Sophia decides to generate a divine being apart from the assistance of her male consort, leading to a malformed and imperfect offspring.
Fearful that her misdeed will be uncovered, she removes her offspring from the
divine realm into a lower sphere where no one can see him, and she leaves him then to his own devices. She has named him Yaldabaoth, a name reminiscent of "Yahweh, Lord of Sabbaths," from the Old Testament, for this malformed and imperfect divine being is the Jewish God.

According to this form of the myth, Yaldabaoth somehow manages to steal divine power from his mother. He then moves far off from her and uses his power to create other lesser divine beings-the evil cosmic forces of the world-and the material world itself. Since he is the creator, he is often called the Demiurge (Greek for "maker"). Yaldabaoth is ignorant of the realm above him, and so he foolishly declares, "I am God and there is no other God beside me" (Isa. 45:5-6). But he, along with his divine henchmen who have helped him create the world, are shown a vision of the one true God; they then declare among themselves, "Let us create a man according to the image of God" (i.e., the true God they have just seen-cf. Gen. 2:7). And so they make Adam. But Adam, not having a spirit within him, is completely immobile. The one true

God then tricks Yaldabaoth into conveying the power of his mother into this inanimate being, by breathing the breath of life into it, thereby imparting the power of Sophia into humans, making them animate and giving them a power greater even than the lesser cosmic forces that Yaldabaoth had created. When the cosmic forces realize that the man who was created is greater than they, they cast him into the realm of matter. But the one true God sends his own Thought into man, to instruct him concerning his true divine nature, the manner of his descent into the realm of matter, and the way in which he can reascend.

Other myths have other ways of describing the creation of the material world and the creation of humans. What they share is the notion that the world we live in was not the idea or creation of the One true God, but the result of a cosmic disaster, and that within some humans there resides a spark of the divine that needs to be liberated in order to return to its real home.

The only way this salvation can occur is for the divine spark to learn the secret knowledge that can bring liberation from its entrapment in the world of matter. Knowledge is thus central to these systems, knowledge of who one really is. As Jesus indicates to his brother, Judas Thomas, in one of the Nag Hammadi tractates, "While you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, you have in fact already come to know, and you will be called the 'one who knows himself.' For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all" (Book of Thomas the Contender 2.138.14-18).12

This knowledge can come only from revelation. One cannot simply look at the world and figure out how to be saved. This world is evil, and any knowledge acquired within it is simply material knowledge. True knowledge comes from above, by means of a revelation. In Christian Gnostic circles, it is Christ who provides this knowledge. In the words of a Gnostic hymn by a group known as the Naassenes, quoted by the heresiologist Hippolytus,

But Jesus said: "Look, Father, upon this being [i.e., the human] pursued by evils, which on the earth wanders about, far from your breath. It seeks to escape from the bitter chaos and knows not how it shall win through. For its sake send me. Father! Possessing the seals I will descend, all the aeons will I pass through, all secrets will I reveal, the forms of the gods will I disclose, and the hidden things of the holy way, which I have called 'knowledge,' will I impart" (Refutation 5.10.2).13

But how can Christ enter into this world of matter and not be tainted by it? That is one of the puzzles the Gnostics had to solve, and different Gnostic thinkers did so in different ways. Some took the line we have already seen in Marcion and others, maintaining that Jesus was not a flesh-and-blood human being, but only appeared to be so. These Gnostics took the words of the apostle Paul quite seriously: Christ came "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3). As a phantom sent from the divine realm, he came to convey the gnosis necessary for salvation, and when he was finished doing so, he returned to the Pleroma whence he came.


Photos of Gnostic books discovered in 1945, and the place where they were found,  Nag Hammadi, Egypt

Most Gnostics, however, took another line, claiming that Christ was a divine emissary from above, totally spirit, and that he entered the man Jesus temporarily in order to convey the knowledge that can liberate sparks from their material imprisonment. For these Gnostics, Jesus himself was in fact a human, even though some thought that he was not made like the rest of us, so that he could receive the divine emissary; some, for example, thought that he had a "soul-body" rather than a "flesh-body." In any event, at the baptism, Christ entered into Jesus (in the form of a dove, as in the New Testament Gospels); and at the end he left him to suffer his death alone. That is why Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (literally, "Why have you left me behind?") Or, as stated in the Gospel of Philip, "'My God, my god, why 0 lord have you forsaken me?' He spoke these words on the cross; for he had withdrawn from that place" (G. Phil. 64).14 According to one of the myths reported by Irenaeus, once Jesus had died, the Christ then came back and raised him from the dead (Against Heresies 1.30.13).

In either system, Christ provides the knowledge necessary for salvation. As the Gospel of Philip says, "The one who possesses the knowledge (gnosis) of the truth is free" (G. Phil. 93). Not everyone, however, can expect this liberating knowledge. In fact, most people have obviously never received it and never will. Some Christian Gnostics maintained that there were three kinds of humans. Some are the creations of the Demiurge, pure and simple. Like other animals, they have no spirit within; like them, when they die, their entire existence is annihilated. Other people have a soul within, but not a spark of the divine spirit. Such people have an opportunity for an afterlife, if they have faith and do good deeds. These in fact are regular Christians, those who believe in Christ but do not have the full understanding of the secret knowledge that leads to ultimate salvation. The third group of people have this knowledge. They are the Gnostics, those "in the know," who have within them a spark of the divine, who have learned who they really are, how they got here, and how they can return. These

people will have a fantastic afterlife, in that they will return to the Divine realm from which they came and live eternally in the presence of God as part of the Pleroma.

One might think that Christians who held some such view, in which the point of salvation was to escape the body, might urge, or at least allow, a rather cavalier approach to bodily existence. If the body does not matter, then surely it does not matter what you do with your body! And, in fact, that is precisely the charge leveled against Gnostics by their proto-orthodox opponents, as we will later see (chap. 9). But as it turns out, Gnostic Christians themselves appear to have taken just the opposite perspective. This is one aspect of the Gnostic religions that their enemies appear to have misunderstood (or, possibly, misrepresented). As far as we can tell from the Nag Hammadi writings, instead of taking a libertine view of ethics (anything goes, since nothing matters), Gnostics were ascetic, advocating the strict regulation and harsh treatment of the body. Their logic was that since the body is evil, it should be punished; since attachment to the body is the problem of human existence, and since it is so easy to become attached to the body through pleasure, the body should be denied all pleasure. Thus it appears that the typical Gnostic stand on how to treat the body was rather strict.

Before turning to several of the interesting Gnostic texts, what can we say about the various Gnostics Christians as social groups? The Marcionites and the Ebionites appear to have had their own churches, separate from those of the other, obviously, and from those of the proto-orthodox. What about the Gnostics?

One of the striking features of Christian Gnosticism is that it appears to have operated principally from within existing Christian churches, that Gnostics considered themselves to be the spiritually elite of these churches, who could confess the creeds of other Christians, read the Scriptures of other Christians, partake of baptism and Eucharist with other Christians, but who believed that they had a deeper, more spiritual, secret understanding of these creeds. Scriptures, and sacraments. This may well be why proto-orthodox church fathers found them so insidious and difficult to deal with, as we will see later in chapter 10. Gnostics were not "out there" forming their own communities. The Gnostics were "in here," with us, in our midst. And you couldn't tell one simply by looking. It seems likely that these Gnostic "inner circles" were prevalent in some parts of Christianity. In addition to the Scriptures used by the church at large, interpreted in Gnostic ways (for example, in the reinterpretations of Genesis I've mentioned above), they used their own writings, including some of the mythological treatises and mystical reflections now discovered in Nag Hammadi. They may have had additional sacraments: The Gospel of Philip, for example, alludes to five of them, without explaining what they were or how they worked: baptism, anointing (with oil), Eucharist, ransom, and bridal chamber (G. Phil. 60). It is difficult to know what all these involved-especially the sacrament of the "bridal chamber." Unfortunately, the Gospel of Philip simply mentions it, presumably because its readers knew full well what it was.

Lost Christianities Book Cover

Excerpt from Lost Christianities ©2003 by Bart D. Ehrman is used with permission from Oxford University Press. To purchase a copy of Lost Christianities
visit Sacred Path Books & Art. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith.org visitors and registered users.


(Return to Top)


Send this article to a friend.

Home | Explore God's Love | Explore Your Faith | Explore the Church | Who We Are
Reflections | Stepping Stones | Oasis | Lifelines | Bulletin Board | Search |Contact Us |

Copyright ©1999-2007 explorefaith.org