03 July 2006

About the Gnostic Christians

I had some e-mail exchanges this weekend with someone interested in knowing more of about the gnostics. I've reprinted them below with some editing that omits identifying information and generally spiffs up the discussion a little.

Q: After reading the Da Vinci Code book. . . . I would like to know . . . about the Gnostic ideas.

A: I have a prior post on the topic here. Belief.net also has a lengthy discussion of the Gospel of Thomas that illustrates some of the ideas involved. I should also preface the discussion by noting that the term "Gnostic" is somewhat controversial, as it has become associated with inaccurate ideas about the people given that classification and because it implies more of a clear demarkation between orthodox and gnostic Christians than really existed. There was more of a continum of ideas than is commonly acknowledged.

Gnostics went back and forth with the predecessors of the Christians who would become Roman Catholics for supremacy in the church for centuries in ancient Rome, and the issue was settled more by force of arms and politics than by intellectual force.

Some links can be found: here and the Denver meetup page for gnostics is here.

One of the most accessible histories of the period is C. Warren Hollister's "Medieval Europe: A Short History" which is still has an edition in print. Hollister sums up the views in the early church as follows (at page 16, in the 5th ed.):

One group, the Gnostics, insisted that Christ was not truly human but only a divine phantom - that God could not have degraded himself by assuming a flesh-and-blood body. Others maintained that Christ was not fully divine, not an equal member of the Trinity. This last position was taken up in the fourth century by a group of Christians known as Arians (after their leader, Arius) who spread their view through Europe and beyond. The orthodox position lay midway between Gnosticism and Arianism: Christ was fully human and fully divine. He was a coequal member of the Holy Trinity who had always existed and always would, but who had assumed human form and flesh at a particular moment in time and had walked the earth, taught, suffered and died as the man Jesus.

This split started emerging around the 1st century as philosophers like Philo Judaeus started to observe ambiguities in scripture as it was examined in light of Greek philosophy.

Christian Persecution generally peaked under Emperor Diocletian, but Christianity was officially tolerated in the reign of Emperor Constantine 306-337 AD, who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to establish what was orthodox Christian doctrine. The conflicts of the 300s were mostly between Arians and Orthodox Chrisitans with Gnostics already marginalized around Rome (the did better in the Levant and Egypt), and were also allied with the neo-Platonic movement within the orthodox church (reflected somewhat in the Gospel of John).

All dissenting Christian views were banned and forcibly rooted out in the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (378-395) and it is largely to him that we owe the destruction of most Gnostic and pagan texts and religious relics and temples (those not destroyed in the first sack of the library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 47 BC), and the decline of those faiths within the Roman Empire. The Latin Doctors of the Catholic Church, Saints Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, were the last generation of Christian scholars to grow up in a pagan empire, they died in an orthodox and Christian one. The Arian view persisted a little longer amongst the "barbarians" who brought about the fall of the Roman Empire.

Of course, the Eastern Roman empire, known as the Byzantine Empire, persisted after the fall of Rome and had its own religious disputes, largely between the orthodox view and the Monophysite view.

The controversy between the orthodox and the Monophysites turned on the question of whether Christ's manhood and Godhood constituted two separate natures (as the orthodox said) or were fused together in one nature (Monophysitism). The Monophysite Christ possessed a single nature in which divinity tended to supercede humanity. Monophysitism has thus been seen as a return to the spiritualism of the ancient Near East, which tended to regard the physical world as evil or unimportant.

Hollister at page 38.

Thus, Monophysitism drifted in the direction of gnosticism. It was strongest in Syria and Egypt, and persisted until 680 AD when, after those parts of the Byzantine Empire were gobbled up by the Islamic Empire, there was no longer much of an even division.

One of the most ancient sources of Christianity is from the Coptic Christian (Egyptian/Ethopian) church which split from the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox branch prior to the Council of Nicaea and retained some of the non-canonical works for their own, and many of the surviving Gnostic works come to us from ancient Coptic Christians. One of the other most ancient Christian communities is that of India.

In 597, Muhammed was an unknown man in his 20s. Around 622, when he left Mecca, his movement was starting to gather steam. By 632, at his death, Islam was a force to be reckoned with. Caliph Omar had conquered Alexandria in 640 AD but the library was nothing but an ancient ruin, although Islamic rule further suppressed Christian practice. Syria and Egypt had both fallen to Islam by 655, followed by the Shiite and Sunni split in the form of a civil war from 655-661. All of North Africa had been conquered by the 690s.

The gnostic movement in the U.S. today is very small and not directly connected to its early Roman counterparts. One gnostic church of which I am aware in the U.S. was founded in 2002 and has a website. There are several other equally small and often recent in origins.

Q: I had read is that the gnostics ideas were able to be kept alive under secret societies since the beginning of Christianity. I read that they were secret to avoid the prosecutions. I read that Francmasonery, Rudolph Steiner Antroposophy, Society of Teosofy, Rosacruz Society and the Knights of Templars were among those secret societies. Do you know if this is true?

A: This is false.

Most of these societies actually trace their roots to the Enlightenment period (ca. 18th century), and the oldest date to the medieval period (ca. 10-13th century) or Renaissance (ca. 16th century). There really were Knights Templar, but they do not date to the beginning of Christianity or anywhere close, and the connection between the historical Knights Templar and existing groups under that name is questionable at best.

Most of the Gnostic texts were entirely lost to Western Europe, or at best, found in isolated fragments in monastic libraries by orders that didn't know what they really meant, from the fall of the Western Empire in the 6th century until the 19th century. In the Eastern Empire, most Gnostic texts were lost when the Islamic Empire conquered the areas in the 7th and 8th centuries. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if there were a secret papal library or two out there, or if there were large collections of documents preserved from one of the several "anti-Popes" out there in private collections. (An anti-Pope is someone who claimed to be a Pope during a period of disputed succession in the papacy and acted as one, whose claim ultimately failed.)

There were repeated waves of heresies and heresy prosecutions throughout the Middle Ages, most notably the inquisition. (There are also multiple waves of pogroms against the Jews). Many started as good faith efforts to create religious orders, but strayed, without much historical basis, from the orthodox line, and were then condemned and persecuted. Just about the only medicant order (i.e. travelling monks firmly commited to personal and corporate poverty, as opposed to monestary monks) which managed to avoid ultimate betrayal by the church was the Franciscan Order, which did so by strict compliance with orthodox doctrine despite atypical practice.

The oldest Christian religious society in existence, other than the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic and South Asian Christian Churches themselves, is the Benedictine Monastic Order, which is the oldest of the religious orders affiliated with the Christian church.

Q:I know that the Roman Catholic Church follows a lot of the Gnostics Ideas and rituals but those have different names and they do not say they are Gnostics.

A: I would dispute that, although not really strongly.

The Roman Catholic Church borrowed far more from the much better established pagan tradition than it did from other branches of the Christian church. Neo-Platonic ideas (i.e. those from Plato) such as the writings of Augustine and St. Thomas Acquinas, the Cult of Minerva (immaculate conception), the Cult of Dionysus (wine; resurrection), the Cult of Saturn (to whom we owe Christmas), the Cult of Osiris (resurrection; burial practices), and the pagan calendar's attention to solstices, equinoxes and the dates halfway between them (e.g. Easter, Halloween v. All Saint's Day, Groundog Day aka Candlemass). Mithraism and Manichaeanism were particularly influential with regard to sacramental practice (e.g. communion). Many Saints were adoptions of local pagan dieties, although this history is largely suppressed by official church authorities.

The Christian theology of heaven and hell comes to Christianity from Zorostrianism through Judiasm. Jews exiled in Babylon (i.e. Iraq) were influenced by it and brought that influence with them to the Levant when they returned. It was influential in the 1st century AD, and particularly impacted Jews looked for new ideas who often then moved onto Christianity (St. Paul, almost certainly among them). The Zoroastrian influenced strain of Judaism largely died out within the Jewish community in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, but by then Christianity was already impacted the ideas.

Gnostic ideas were heavily impacted by pagan ideas, to a greater extent even than orthodox Christianity, but relatively few such ideas came into the orthodox church through gnosticism. Most came directly through pagan roots or via Judaism (which, of course, has its own pagan roots which are largely Sumerian in origins, with a strong Egyptian influence). Probably the most gnostic influenced book in the New Testament is the book of Revelations, whose adoption into the New Testament canon was among the most controversial.

Do you know if the foundation of the Judiasm's ideas are found in the early Greeks?

The Jews far predated Greek civilization's apogee, so directly, no, there was little or no influence in the foundation of Judaism. Sumerians and Egyptians were far more influential. But, Talmudic interpretion of the Torah and other Jewish legal materials was significantly influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly, but not exclusively, Plato.

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