As mentioned in Part I, prior to 1945 the primary source of Gnostic information was derived through the writings of early Church Fathers. Only a few Gnostic sources came to light in the late 17th and 18th century with the discoveries of the Bruce Codex (Books of Jeu), the Askew Codex (Pistis Sophia) and the Berlin Codex that included the Apocryphon of John and the Wisdom of Jesus Christ; all of which were alleged to have been found in Egypt.
With the discovery of the Nag Hamadi Codices in Egypt in 1945, more than 50 Coptic Gnostic texts and fragments (dated prior to 400 A.D.) came to light, including The Gospel of Thomas, and The Gospel of Peter, both referenced by Eusebius (d. 339) in his Ecclesiastical History. The provenance of the texts, like Gnosis in general, are difficult to trace. Scholars agree that all the texts are translations of Greek originals which do not, as yet, exist. The bane of studying Gnosis, despite the newly available material sans provenance and original language text, is the lack of a logical or progressive system of thought. Unlike Judaism and even Apostolic writings, Gnostic writings are incongruous, with few common threads outside “revelation” as the claimed source, Coptic as the language, and the use and mis-use of other texts, both religious and philosophical.
The Nuts & Bolts of Gnosis
So let’s get down to what exactly was considered so heretical about Gnosis and why the early Church had to combat its influence. Again, because each Gnostic varied from the other, there are too many examples to list in this article (books have been written on the subject), but it may be easier to begin with what Gnostics did not believe, first. For there in lay the crux of their departure from the apostolic writings and tradition.
God the Father
We as Catholics understand God the Father to be supreme, eternal, and the unbegotten “Maker of Heaven and Earth.” The Gnostic, however, did not believe that “I AM” was the supreme being, but that there was another one before him, called by some as the Propater, or “Fore Father.” Gnostics believed that the God of the Old Testament (whom they call the “Demiurge”) was an ignorant, arrogant, and yes, they used the term “aborted fetus” of the Aeon Sophia. The God of the Old Testament, hence of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Catholic Christianity was a malignant accident.
Gnostics like to use the name of Jesus or Christ or Savior in their texts, but they appear as if to provide some familiar invocation, as in the beginning of The Book of Thomas The Contender which begins, “The secret words that the savior spoke to Judas Thomas…” followed by text even the twelve apostles would not understand. The Jesus Christ that Catholics know is not the Jesus Christ of the Gnostics. In fact, some Gnostics split them up, with more than one Christ. Yet, when they refer to him who was crucified, he is still an altogether different person that John or Peter would have known. Many Gnostics do not believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross – only that the body of Jesus did. Since they believe in transmigration of the soul (the soul moving from one body to the next) – they said that the Christ could never “die” but that only his body did. Some Gnostics believe that Christ departed from the body of Jesus on the cross and traded with Simon (the cross bearer) so that Simon actually died and Christ walked away in Simon’s body!
Gnosis is all about “knowledge” and with Gnostics, it was their secret knowledge (plus rituals for some) that would “save” a person. There is no room for faith, repentance or the need for a propitiation for sin by way of blood sacrifice. Jesus Christ dying on the cross, being buried and rising again, was superfluous. Redemption was not from sin, but the philosophical “awakening” of the divine spark in the soul akin to Plato.
There is so much more, but this should provide a taste of Gnosis and what the early Church had to contend with in their assemblies.
The Orthodox Response
The plague of Gnosis was endemic, reaching all quarters of the burgeoning Christian faith. The sheer number and magnitude of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church who stepped up to refute their errors indicates just how critical this heresy was. In the East, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Origen (d. 254) and Tertullian (d. 225) all addressed Gnosis. In the West, we find the writings of: Justin Martyr of Rome (d. 165); Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202); Hippolytus of Rome, (d. 235); and Epiphanius of Salamis in Cypress (d. 403).
Some of the men above refuted Gnosis on their own terms; deriding their cosmology that reflected Greek Mythology with their grand cosmogeny beginning with the supreme and unknowable Propator and his countless pairs of Aeons (spiritual creatures who procreated life forms) and the use of words such as pleroma, archon, unities and divine spark. Others refuted their mis-use of Sacred Scripture, taking it out of context and twisting it to meet the Gnostic perspective. Still others took on the Gnostics from a theological standpoint – defending the apostolic teachings and traditions. While many secular scholars of religious history believe that Gnosticism became extinct, in so far as it was a large one-time movement within Christian circles for many centuries then flamed out by 400 A.D., due the polemics (even supposed “persecution”) of the Apostolic Church, there is another perspective which I will propose in the next and final Part III of this article. Part III will discuss why Gnosis had, and still has, no legitimate role in the development of early Christianity.