5a. The origins of Gnosticism.
Continental scholars have often argued that Gnosticism is of pre-Christian origin, the figure of a cosmic redeemer being taken over from Eastern, specifically Iranian, sources, which are also the prime source of its dualism. Some would even see the essence of Gentile (indeed, Pauline) Christianity as the superimposition of the Gnostic Redeemer on the historical Jesus. No one has yet shown, however, that the Gnostic Redeemer existed before Christian times, and the Qumran documents have shown that Pauline and Johannine language about knowledge was firmly rooted in Jewish tradition. R. M. Grant has even suggested that Gnosticism itself is of Jewish origin: the fruit of unorthodox speculation working upon an apocalyptic framework which the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 had caused to be re-evaluated. Certainly the Nag Hammadi documents suggest the effect of Jewish speculation. The “Colossian heresy” combined Jewish and ascetic features, philosophical activity, and veneration of astral powers (Col 2:16-23), and when Paul speaks of the whole pleroma dwelling in Christ (Col 1:19), it is tempting to see him taking the word which the Gnostics used of their scheme of intermediary beings, disinfecting it and replacing it, as it were, by Christ. But neither the Colossians nor the Corinthians, nor the groups attacked in the Pastoral epistles or 1 John, display a Gnostic system of the type reflected in the 2nd-cent. movements. The Corinthians delighted unduly in knowledge (1 Cor 8:1; 13:8) and wisdom (1 Cor 1:17ff.), were unhappy about the thought of resurrection (1 Cor 15), included both those who questioned whether a Christian could marry (1 Cor 7) and those whose “liberation” left them indifferent to their bodies’ actions (1 Cor 6:12-18). Others possessed “gnosis falsely so-called” (1 Tim 6:20), had mythologies and genealogies (1 Tim 1:4), spiritualized the resurrection (2 Tim 2:18), played with “Jewish fables” (Titus 1:14), and knew both severe ascetism (1 Tim 4:3) and sexual laxity (2 Tim 3:6). The elder feared the teachers of a docetic, “phantom” Christ (1 John 4:1-3). All these show what fertile soil the Early Church provided for Gnostic teaching; but show no sign of the systematized Gnosticism of the 2nd cent.
The Hermetic lit., some of which is pre-Christian, with its mystical quest for illumination and rebirth, also often reminds one of some Gnostic documents; and the mystery religions (with the notorious problems of dating material which they present) afford other parallels. All this simply reflects what was indicated earlier, that Gnosticism was a natural fruit of the 2nd cent. of religious quests of the Hel. world, with its Gr. assumptions, Eastern religion, and astrological fatalism. These tendencies did not together constitute a system: but, coming into contact with a system or articulated preaching they could form one. Coming into contact with Christianity, they took the Christian Redeemer and gnosticized Him, took the Christian preaching and tore it from its OT roots, took the Biblical tradition and sought to make it answer the problems of Gr. philosophy, took the Christian convictions about the end and purged away such offensively Jewish features as resurrection and judgment. Gnosticism was parasitic, and took its shape from the system to which it attached itself. Looked at from another point of view, it was cultural, an outcome of the attempt to digest and “indigenize” Christianity. It need not surprise us, therefore, that some of the same tendencies appear in other 2nd-cent. Christians, even among those who brought about the eventual defeat of Christian Gnosticism. It may be hard for us who have been formed in another thought world, who do not have the same inbred assumptions, to understand either the attractions of the Gnostic systems, or the agonies and difficulties of many mainstream Christian theologians. It is the measure of their greatness that, sharing so much with the Gnostics intellectually as they did, by faithfulness to the historic Christ and the Biblical tradition they produced an “indigenous” Greek-Gentile Christian thought which retained the primitive preaching and the whole of the Scriptures.
Being a phenomenon arising essentially from a particular historical and cultural situation, Gnosticism was not likely to outlast that situation long. The crisis for Gnosticism prob. came with the emergence of the genuinely Iranian, radically dualistic religion of Mani (d. a.d. 277), which was spreading in the Rom. empire from the 3rd cent. onward. Manicheism must have faced many Christian Gnostics with a crucial choice: it could not long be possible to occupy a middle ground between mainstream Christianity and the books of Mani.
6. The sources of Gnosticism. Until recent years the Gnostic writers were known almost entirely through the writings of their antagonists. Of these Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, and Epiphanius, Panarion, provide extracts, often sizable, from Gnostic works. The last twenty years have seen the gradual publication of items from a Gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and containing Coptic tr. of works of very diverse character. These include as well many works further from the Christian tradition, and some Manichean ones, the Gospel of Truth of (prob.) Valentinus and a Gospel of Thomas consisting of sayings attributed to the risen Lord and including a number of Gnosticized variants on synoptic sayings. While there is much still to be done in the study of these documents, the conclusion which emerges so far is that the early fathers, for all their trenchancy of language, hardly give a misleading impression.
Bibliography H. E. W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (1954); R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Original Setting (Eng. tr. 1956); R. McL. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem (1958); R. M. Grant, Reader in Gnosticism (1961); H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 2nd ed. (1963); R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (1966); R. McL. Wilson, Gnosis and the New Testament (1968); W. Schmithals, The Office of Apostle in the Early Church (Eng. trs. 1971) 114-230.