My previous post comments had drifted off topic, so I thought I’d post a new topic along those lines.
Gnosticism means “secret knowledge.” This is not to be confused with the term Agnostic, which means “without knowledge.” Typically, Agnostic people are without knowledge of God. Some are atheists, but not all. Agnostics typically are ambivalent about whether God exists or not.
Gnostics, on the other hand, date from the time of Christ. Gnostic should probably be considered a generic term, such as Protestant. For example, while Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. are all considered “protestant”, they certainly don’t all believe exactly the same. Protestant is a term to group nearly all “non-Catholic” groups together. In essence, these groups are “protesting” against some of the beliefs of the Catholic church.
So, when one refers to Gnostics, one should realize that there are various different beliefs. Let me illustrate with some probably poor examples, but hopefully it will help illustrate my point. There are probably anti-jewish gnostics, non-resurrection gnostics, gentile gnostics, mystical gnostics, etc.
Your typical Sunday School class (and I’m talking Catholic, Protestant, or Mormon here), generally gives early Christian church history something like this. Jesus ordained 12 apostles, these 12 apostles were in charge of the church. Peter was probably the leader. The apostles were killed. Constantine became a Christian. He wanted a Bible. He commissioned the Council of Nicea. The various denominations sprang from there.
While this characterization isn’t necessarily wrong, per se, it completely under-emphasizes the diversity of the early church. The Bible talks about Zealots, Pharisees, Sadducees, etc, and one gets the impression that the early church organization was simple. When one gets to the Letters of Paul, there are hints of apostacy (ie gnosticism), but one doesn’t really get a true flavor of the dissension.
Enter the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in 1945. This is not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered 1947-49). Let’s talk about these for a moment about these. The Dead Sea Scrolls probably get more publicity, because they appeal to Jews as well as Christians. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest copies of the Old Testament ever found, as well as some apocolyptic writings of the Jews. These writings date to approximately 50 years before Christ. Perhaps I will talk more about this history in a future post.
The Nag Hammadi Library dates to about the 1st or 2nd century AD, and is strictly Christian writings. There are some New Testament writing there, but many are considered gnostic, such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Thomas, and others. These were considered heretical by the early church fathers, and were not included in the Bible.
Gnostics writings are all over the map, as far as doctrine. Some believe that Jesus did not die on the cross. Others believe that Jesus was not resurrected. Some believe Jesus didn’t exist at all. We learn in the Gospel of Judas, that Judas was really the smartest apostle, and that he did not really betray Jesus at all–Jesus asked him to turn him over to the Romans so that he could get rid of his body. According to this line of thinking, resurrection is a bad thing. One needs to rid oneself of the body, so that one can obtain true knowledge. Gnostic beliefs are related in the fact that the resurrection story is not the important part of Jesus story, but rather, the teachings (or knowledge) of Jesus are what is important. (So, even dating to the time of Christ, there were problems with “intellectualism.”)
So, you can see why Paul had a problem with some of these teachings. Also, we see that the Orthodox and Catholic churches had some major problems with Gnostic beliefs.
The interesting thing about Constantine establishing Christianity as the official state religion, was that he essential chose one brand of Christianity (the Orthodox church, which later split into the Catholic and Orthodox churches), and started persecuting all the other Christians who we now call Gnostic Christians.
After Jesus died, essentially there was a succession crisis, just as there was a crisis when Joseph Smith died. Neither Jesus or Joseph left clear instructions on what was to happen after they died. Now the Catholic and LDS churches don’t like to hear that, but it is really true. Many early Christian historians say that it really wasn’t Peter in charge of the early church, but rather Jesus brother James, who was the first bishop of Jerusalem.
Wilfred Griggs recently made some interesting insights into early christian (especially Egyptian Christian) beliefs. He said gnostics did temple worship, and made some comparisons to mormon temple worship. Now while that is nice to hear in a fireside, he did leave out some beliefs of the gnostics, such as the unimportance of the resurrection. Nonetheless, it does appear to show that temple worship was part of the early Christian heritage, contrary to Catholic and Protestant beliefs, and could show that Joseph may have brought back some early Christian beliefs.
Incidentally, the only remaining group alive today that can trace part of it’s history to gnostic beliefs is the Coptic Church in Egypt. They are really a break off of the Orthodox Church from the first millennium AD, and are somewhat of a hybrid between gnosticism and the Orthodox church.
This all reminds me of what Joseph Smith said regarding the Apocrypha (gnostic writings are considered apocryphal writings, though obviously they were discovered 100 years after Joseph’s death.) He said basically that there are some good things and some bad things in the Apocryphya. Frankly, I find this analysis right on the money.