I found a really cool website that offers free downloads from a seminary. It’s found at Covenant Theological Seminary. I believe it is a Presbyterian Seminary, and I’ve learned a ton about the Bible, and Jewish and Christian History. Currently, I’m listening to the course called Ancient and Medieval Church History. Class 5 deals with Orthodoxy, and Heresy. It talks about 3 specific heresies: Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism.
The first thing I learned was that the term “heresy” originally meant “opinion.” It had no negative connotation. However, with these 3 movements, the term took on a much more derisive connotation. Othrodoxy literally means “straight thinking”, just as an orthodontist “straightens teeth.” These other movements are “heterodoxy”, meaning “other thinking.”
Gnosticism is very interesting in the fact that it is so varied. There were Jewish gnostics, Christian gnostics, and pagan gnostics. As I mentioned in an earlier post, gnosticism deals with secret knowledge. While Gnostics were quite diverse, they did have some things in common. They were not monotheistic. They believed there was a good god, and a bad good. It was the bad god that created the earth. Often, they named this bad god Jehovah.
The body and all of creation was a terrible thing. Gnostics preferred to denigrate everything worldly, and thought the body was a terrible thing. However each person was endowed with spiritual sparks from the good god. Gnostics believed that it was important to cast off the body in order to return to the good god.
Christian gnostics believed that Christ was not actually human, that he was not born, and that he came supernaturally to the earth. They don’t believe in Mary, Joseph, the star, and all that is associated in the Biblical story. The Gospel of Thomas is a gnostic gospel. It is not a narrative, like the 4 gospels are, but rather just a group of sayings of Jesus. Gnostics valued intellectual/spiritual knowledge above all. One could say they were the first group to espouse “intellectualism.”
Some of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are familiar, with some new twists, such as “Give unto Ceaser, the things which are Ceasar’s. Give unto God the things which are God’s, and give unto me, that which is mine.” The First Christians is a 4-part series by PBS that is outstanding regarding early Christian history, and talk a little about gnostics.
Another gnostic gospel is the Gospel of Judas. In this gospel, Judas is the hero as he helps Jesus get rid of his body to return to the good god. The other 11 apostles are portrayed as not as intelligent as Judas, and that Judas is Jesus’ favorite apostle. Other gnostic writings make Cain the hero because he slew Abel, and helped him get rid of his corrupt physical body. So gnostic writings were obviously quite strange, and definitely unorthodox.
Other gnostics believed that in order to escape this world, one had to complete many steps, and needed to know secret passwords to get to other aeons. One gnostic even claims to say there were 365 steps in order to return to the good god.
Bishop Irenaeus, who lived around 150 BC, coined the term “orthodox” was one person who tried to define orthodoxy, and really took issue with gnostics and Marcionites (which I’ll talk about in my next post.) He also tried to define the canon of scripture, and was the first to try to limit the canon to four gospels. (There are over 50 gospels in existence that modern scholars are aware of.)
I have wondered if the Sadducees, a Jewish group opposed to Jesus in the Gospels, were related to the gnostics at all. Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, similar to the gnostics. However, I think this is the only real similarity. It seems like they were in charge of the temple at Jerusalem. Is there anyone out there that can answer this question?
I enjoy looking at these heresies, as it seems the LDS church is acting similar to Irenaeus, regarding heresies. There is a real attempt to define orthodoxy in the church, and to stamp out anything considered heretical, whether it be early church history, same-sex marriage, women and the priesthood, or other controversial topics. I know some who read this blog are quite liberal in their LDS beliefs. What do you think of the similarities between the intellectual gnostics, and intellectuals in the LDS church?