As a historian of the early Church I came to appreciate the extent of the myriad and complex heretical teachings that attempted to gain access and/or influence over the primitive congregations. Even more, however, I was in awe of the battle of wits and words on behalf of some of our greatest Church Fathers, including Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (ca. 140-202) in what is now modern-day France.
The embryonic Church had obstacles on every side of her development, both internally and externally. Externally, she was outlawed by the Roman government, shunned by Judaism, and ridiculed by the Greeks. Internally, there were as many problems, if not more. With no centralized structure, no completed text of sacred scripture, and no magisterium to oversee doctrinal development, the churches scattered around the Levant were subject to erroneous teachings. Relying heavily on sacred oral tradition, handed down from the apostles to their successor bishops, those assemblies had little if any written text to refer to in the concrete; something we live by today and take for granted. It was still an oral society where story telling was the modus operandi for communicating knowledge. With that in mind, and the fact that few people were literate or educated (still something associated with wealth and males only), it is not difficult to see how some people could be convinced by an energetic orator who smoothly mixed truth with error and called it “Gnosis” (the Greek word for knowledge).
The appeal of the Gnostic movement (ca. 100-400) was that the teacher, some of whom thought themselves to be Christian, claimed esoteric knowledge of the truest and most up-to-date revelations of Jesus Christ or some well-known apostle. Their skill in rhetoric and oration, something admired in those days, could artfully weave baskets of wheat and chaff and call it truth; and many would believe. Yet when this reached the ears of our educated Fathers, skilled in apostolic truth and tradition, some waged literary war on these men. One such man was Irenaeus, who, after reading some of the Gnostic “commentaries” and listening to those associating with Gnosis, began to write his four-volume corpus, Adversus Heresies (Against Heresies), largely in response to the many and varied Gnostic teachings plaguing the early Church. In his work he confronts several well-known teachers (e.g. Valentinus and Basilides) as well as their disciples and schools of thought. No doubt, the reason his work is so lengthy (500 pages) was that no two Gnostic teachers were alike; each had his own “special” knowledge and that knowledge often conflicted with other Gnostic teachings. Therefore, Irenaeus attempted to take on not one organized army, but a slew of disorganized guerrilla fighters. He had his work cut out for him!
Gnosis, as a decentralized movement, flourished from the 2nd to 4th centuries, and little was known about them except for the polemical writings of Irenaeus, as well as Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria. There were later writers, such as Hippolytus of Rome and Epiphanius of Salamis, who likely utilized Irenaeus’ writings, but for the most part what was known of Gnosis was by way of the Church. This meant that for nearly 1900 years there was no compendium of Gnostic texts to compare and contrast with the Orthodox refutations. In 1945, however, the one-sided nature of the debate was more evenly balanced with the discovery of the Nag Hamadi Codices in Egypt. At that site, some 50 Coptic Gnostic texts and fragments (dated to before 400 A.D.) were uncovered, including the much-lauded Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary. These texts not only revealed what Gnostics believed and preached, but they would shed a new light on what issues the Church had to deal with in order to maintain apostolic tradition. Part II will deal with what the Gnostics believed, and how the early Fathers responded. Part III will discuss why Gnosis had, and still has, no legitimate role in the development of early Christianity.