History of Truth, The Truth about God and Religions

Dr. Adel Elsaie

Source: History of Truth

6.7 Gnosticism

The term Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word gnosis ("revealed knowledge"). Gnosticism competed with orthodox Christianity for the first 350 years of Christian history, and affected tremendously its doctrine. They promised salvation through secret knowledge that they claimed was revealed to them alone. Scholars trace their origin back to such various sources as Jewish mysticism, Hellenistic mystery and Iranian cults, and Babylonian and Egyptian mythology. Most Gnostic sects adhered to Christianity, but their beliefs sharply differed from those of the majority of Christians. Christian ideas were quickly incorporated into the Gnosticism sect. The most prominent Christian Gnostics were Valentinus and his disciple Ptolemaeus, who during the second century were influential in the Roman church. Valentinus accepted not only the four Gospels but also many additional traditions that included the Gospel of Thomas. Christian Gnostics showed that the traditional God of Judaism did not satisfy many of the new converts to Christianity. They did not experience the world as good world created by a merciful god. Until the discovery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt of key Coptic Gnostic documents in 1945, knowledge of Gnosticism depended on Christian sources, notably Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.

Marcion (100-160) established a rival Christian sect in Rome about 140. He listed contradictions between the Old and New Testaments, and developed a sophisticated apologetic method for approaching the discrepancies in the Bible. He believed that unknown persons determined to keep Christianity Jewish had corrupted the Gospels. Marcion rejected the Old Testament and almost all of the New Testament, including the accounts of the incarnation and the resurrection. He based his teachings on ten of the Epistles of Paul and on an "altered version" of the Gospel of Luke. The existence of four versions of the Gospels was a troublesome mystery in itself. He believed in a dualistic interpretation of God, whereby God is divided into the just God of Law, who was the Creator of the Old Testament, and the good God, the infinitely superior deity revealed by Jesus Christ. The popularity of his teachings showed that he had voiced a common anxiety due to public confusion. He had put his finger on something important in the Christian experience by rejecting the Jewish One God and introducing, instead, a dualistic God.

Much of early Christian doctrine was formulated in reaction to this movement. Marcion represented a formidable challenge to the Church. His exclusion of many of the apostolic writings provided a strong motive to the church’s need to classify which books did or did not rank as authoritative documents. In later Christian debate, the formation of the Biblical canon became a sensitive issue: were the books admitted to the Church’s canon because they were authentic? Or did the Church actively created the canon in response to Marcion’s "inspired" text? Christian historians believe that both questions have to receive affirmative answer. The criterion for admission of accepted books in the New Testament was governed by the Christian belief of the Fathers of the Church during the second and the third centuries.

By the third century Gnosticism began to yield to orthodox Christian opposition and persecution. Partly in reaction to the Gnostic heresy, the church strengthened its organization by centralizing authority in the office of bishop, which made its effort to suppress the poorly organized Gnostics movement. Furthermore, as orthodox Christian theology and philosophy developed, the primarily mythological Gnostic teachings began to appear weird and crude. Christians defended their identification of the God of the New Testament with the God of Judaism and their belief that the New Testament is the only true "revealed knowledge." By the end of the third century many Gnostics were converted to orthodox beliefs. Gnosticism as a separate movement vanished.

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