The apostles were keenly aware during their ministry that there were some who attempted to, and would later attempt to, pervert the gospel message by insisting that it conform to their preconceived ideas. We see this in Acts Chapter 15 where the apostles had to correct the error of some believing Jews who insisted that gentiles be “circumcised” and “keep the law,” but which the apostles, through their authority, refuted saying, “we gave no such commandment.” In addition to internal questions and disputations, the apostle Paul was clearly concerned about external influence as well. He did not want to see anything distort or muddle the gospel of Christ; especially after he was gone. In saying goodbye to the Church at Ephesus, we read that Paul says,
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)
From the very outset, the infant faith was put to the test, yet under the guiding direction of the Holy Spirit, something secular historians will not address in their works, the early Church would develop into a mature faith and solid structure, with Christ himself as her cornerstone.
Though some scholars would like to believe that Gnosis had a legitimate claim to the development of early Christianity, but was, purportedly, marginalized by the Orthodox, in truth, Gnosis never had a strong footing. The reason for this conclusion is that with all their emphasis on “roots” and “branches,” Gnosis was never rooted in anything, but in everything. Feasting on a smorgasbord of beliefs and rituals, gleaned from multiple philosophical and religious sources, Gnosis was only ever superficially associated with Christianity.
There are several major reasons why Gnosis had, and still does not have, any legitimate influence upon the development of Christianity.
First, the core of Christian belief and doctrinal development is grounded in the apostolic writings of the New Testament, the Sacred Scripture of the Old Testament, and the traditions of the earliest Fathers who adhered to apostolic tradition. The testimonies, stories, exhortations and teachings of Jesus were captured by those who witnessed his life, work, death and resurrection, or, as in the case of Luke and Mark, were closely associated with one of the twelve apostles. These texts and traditions were passed on by way of successor bishops to the apostles; a key to maintaining the integrity of the faith. These eyewitness testimonies and texts were written within the same century as the life of Christ. The rise of Gnosis, however, came after the apostolic period by some 50-250 years and by men who never knew Jesus or the Apostles.
Second, unlike Gnosis, which overachieves in its hostility toward Judaism and the Old Testament, Jesus and the Apostles embraced Judaism; they were Jews! (This reminds me of the time in high school when a young Catholic man told me “Jesus was NOT a Jew, he was Catholic!”) A key to understanding the illegitimacy of Gnosis is understanding Christianity’s direct link to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus was not a Greek philosopher or Samaritan (as many of the Gnostic leaders were); he was not even a Christian, but was born and raised a Jew. In his youth he worshipped in the Temple with his family. In his ministry, he and his disciples worshipped and taught in the Temple. And Jesus often quoted from the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the early disciples of Jesus were considered a sect within Judaism. The first followers of Jesus Christ were overwhelmingly Jews who came to believe that the Messianic prophesies of the Old Testament had been fulfilled. And this is an important point in relation to Gnosis. Gnostic texts, such as those in the Nag Hammadi, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to sever Jesus Christ and Christianity away from her Jewish roots. By denigrating Judaism as a false religion, mocking Abraham, Moses and the Prophets, proposing that this world was created by an evil Demiurge – who they claimed was the god of the Jews – they sincerely believed that Apostolic Christians were ignorant of true Gnosis - fools who had been “duped” by the Jewish god.
That some Gnostics may have considered themselves true “Christians” did not make them genuine heirs to the faith. If it walks like a duck and roars like a lion – it is neither. And though modern scholars and academics like to point out that some Christian doctrines were in a state of flux for hundreds of years does not validate a right to Gnostic influence; any more than the Jewish legalizers had a right to impose the Mosaic Law on Gentile believers.
In summary, there are myriad issues with Gnosis and the texts they left behind, some of which plagued the growing faith more than others. First, Gnosis was not rooted in Judaism, but in many different religious and philosophical systems. They vilified the Hebrew Bible, called the Jewish god ignorant and arrogant, and went out of their way to carve anything that was Jewish out of the texts of the apostles. Second, and Irenaeus points this out clearly, they distorted passages of the Old and New Testament to meet their preconceived ideas. Third, they claimed new and secret “revelations” as a source, (though revelation died with the Apostles) and these revelations often contridicted or superseded the apostles. Forth, the Jesus of the apostles and the Jesus of Gnosis are two completely different beings. To the apostles, Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah who came to die for the propitiation of sin and was resurrected, but the Jesus of Gnosis was merely a “heavenly messenger” come to provide esoteric knowledge of how a human may release their “divine spark” so that it may return to the Pleroma.
The polymorphic movement of gnosis never had a legitimate claim to the apostolic faith. It was by nature, uncommitted to those who personally knew Jesus Christ and their testimony. But there is one thing that the pro-Gnostic scholars got right; Gnosis languished and died. But not from the polemics of the Church Fathers – though they no doubt helped – but because Gnosis was grounded in sinking sand, while the Catholic Church was grounded on the Rock and Pillars of the Faith.