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The Threat of the Gnostics


Some thirty years ago, near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, an Arab peasant discovered about fifty-two ancient papyrus texts, including gospels and other secret writings attributed to Jesus and his disciples. In addition there were sayings, poems, myths, philosophic treatises, and instructions for magical or mystical practice—all of them Coptic translations of Greek texts. Some, apparently, contain material that derives from the first and second centuries of the Christian era.

The discoveries at Nag Hammadi demonstrate that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as early Christian tradition—presents only a small selection of early sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Why were writings such as those discovered at Nag Hammadi excluded from orthodox tradition and banned as “heresy”? What made gnostic views so dangerous that leaders of the orthodox church condemned them as an “abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ”?1

Those who wrote and circulated these texts did not think of themselves as heretics, but as Christians who possessed secret knowledge (gnosis) concerning the meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching that was hidden from the majority of believers. Because of their claim to higher knowledge, they came to be called gnostics (literally, “those who know”)

From ancient orthodox polemics, we have long known that the gnostics challenged doctrines which, in the second century, came to be held as sacred in early Christian creeds. Bishop Irenaeus, who supervised the church in Lyon (c. 180), and wrote the Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Gnosis, tells us, for example, that they challenged the belief that Christ rose bodily from the dead, and the belief in “one God.” Traditionally, historians have told us that the orthodox objected to gnostic views for religious and philosophical reasons. Certainly they did: yet investigation of the newly discovered gnostic sources suggests another dimension of the controversy. It suggests that these religious debates—specifically, the questions of the resurrection and of the nature of God—had social and political implications that were crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion.

Consider, for example, the political implications of the doctrine of resurrection.2 The statement that “Jesus Christ rose from the grave” may be the most fundamental element of Christian faith: certainly it is the most radical. For Jesus’ followers, his resurrection was the turning point in world history, the sign of its coming end. Orthodox Christians since then have declared in the apostles’ creed that Jesus of Nazareth, “crucified, dead, and buried,” was raised” on the third day.” At first, according to the New Testament gospel of Luke, the disciples themselves, in their astonishment and terror, immediately assumed that they were seeing his ghost. But Jesus challenged them: “Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have” (Luke 24.36-43). Since they remained incredulous, he asked for something to eat; as they watched in amazement, he ate a piece of broiled fish.

The North African theologian Tertullian (c. 190), writing before his own break with the catholic church, defined the orthodox position: as Christ rose bodily from the grave, so every believer should anticipate the resurrection of the flesh. He is not, he says, talking about the immortality of the soul: “The salvation of the soul I believe needs no discussion: for almost all heretics, in whatever way they accept it, at least do not deny it.”3 What is raised is “this flesh, suffused with blood, built up with bones, interwoven with nerves, entwined with veins, [a flesh] which…was born, and dies, undoubtedly human.”4 Tertullian expects the idea of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection to shock his readers: he insists that “it must be believed, because it is absurd”!5

Yet Tertullian admits that some Christians, whom he calls heretics, rejected the orthodox view of resurrection, calling it “extremely revolting, repugnant, and impossible.” But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, including a remarkable Treatise on Resurrection, reveal that certain gnostic Christians, far from “denying the resurrection,” as their opponents charged, regarded belief in the resurrection as a fundamental part of Christian faith. What they did deny was the literal view of resurrection, which some even called the “faith of fools.”6 Instead, gnostic Christians offered symbolic interpretations of resurrection.

The texts discovered at Nag Hammadi show that some gnostics thought that those who experienced the resurrection did not meet Jesus raised physically back to life; rather, they encountered Christ in a spiritual form—in dreams, in ecstatic trances, in visions, or in moments of spiritual illumination. The Apocalypse of Peter, discovered at Nag Hammadi, tells how Peter, deep in trance, sees Jesus, who explains, “I am the intellectual spirit, filled with radiant light”(83.8-10).7 The Gospel of Mary, one of the few gnostic writings discovered before Nag Hammadi, relates that Mary Magdalene saw the Lord in a vision and asked him, “How does the one who sees the vision see? Through the soul, or through the spirit?” He answers that the visionary sees “through the mind”(10.17-21).

Yet these gnostic writers do not dismiss visions as fantasies or hallucinations. Some regarded such experiences as spiritual intuitions into the nature of reality. The gnostic author of the Treatise on Resurrection says to Rheginos, his student, “Do not think the resurrection is an illusion [phantasia: literally, “fantasy”]. It is not an illusion, but is the truth.” “Indeed,” he continues, “it is more accurate to say that the world is an illusion, rather than the resurrection” (48.10-16). Like a Buddhist master, Rheginos’ anonymous teacher argues that ordinary human existence is spiritual death. The resurrection is the moment of enlightenment: “It is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness” (48.34-38). Whoever grasps this becomes spiritually alive. This means, he declares, that you can be “resurrected from the dead” right now: “Why not consider yourself as risen, and [already] brought to this?” (47.18-49.24). Another text from Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Philip, expresses the same view, ridiculing ignorant Christians who take the resurrection literally. “Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error.” Instead, they must “receive the resurrection while they live” (73.1-3). The author adds ironically that in one sense, then, of course “it is necessary to rise ‘in this flesh,’ since everything exists in it!” (57.19-20).

To support their symbolic interpretation of resurrection the gnostics appealed to the New Testament. They pointed out that a number of stories included in the orthodox canon could be interpreted as accounts of visionary experiences.8 Luke and Mark, for example, both relate that Jesus appeared “in another form” (Mark 16.12)—not his former earthly form—to two disciples as they walked on the road to Emmaus. Luke says that the disciples, who were deeply troubled about Jesus’ death, talked with the stranger, apparently for several hours. They invited him to dinner; when he sat down with them to bless the bread, suddenly they recognized him as Jesus. At that moment “he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24.13-31)—before the meal.

Gnostic Christians also pointed to Luke’s account of Paul’s vision of the resurrected Christ. As he traveled on the road to Damascus, intent on arresting Christians, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, and he fell on the ground” (Acts 9.3-4), hearing the voice of Jesus rebuking him for his intended persecution. Followers of the influential gnostic leader and poet Valentinus (c. 140) called Paul “the apostle of the resurrection.”9 Paul himself, of course, later defended the teaching on resurrection as the foundation of Christian faith. But although the orthodox often read his discussion as an argument for bodily resurrection, gnostic Christians emphasized that it concludes with the words, “I tell you this, brethren; flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”10 They argued that when Paul describes the resurrection as “a mystery,”11 he refers to the transformation from physical to spiritual existence.

If the New Testament resurrection accounts can be interpreted in various ways, why did orthodox Christians insist on the literal doctrine of resurrection? To answer this question, let us examine the practical effects of this doctrine on the development of political and religious authority in the early years of the Christian movement. After Jesus’ execution, his followers scattered, shaken with grief and terrified for their lives. Most assumed that their enemies were right—the movement had died with their master. Suddenly, according to Luke, they heard that “the Lord has risen, indeed, and has appeared to Simon [Peter]!” (Luke 24.34). What had he said to Peter? Luke’s account suggested to Christians in later generations that he named Peter as his successor, delegating the leadership to him. Matthew says that during his lifetime, Jesus already had decided that Peter, the “rock,” was to found the future institution (Matt. 16.13-19). Only John claims to tell what the risen Christ said: he told Peter that he was to take Jesus place as “shepherd” for the flock (John 21.15-19).

Whatever the truth of this claim, we can neither verify nor disprove it on historical grounds alone. But we do know as historical fact that certain disciples—notably Peter—claimed that the resurrection had happened. Then, shortly after Jesus’ death, Peter emerged as the leader and spokesman of the group. The German Biblical scholar Hans von Campenhausen sums up one traditional Christian view: because “Peter was the first to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection,” 12 he writes, Peter became the first leader of the Christian community. One can dispute Campenhausen’s claim on the basis of New Testament evidence: the gospels of Mark and John both name Mary Magdalene, not Peter, as the first witness of the resurrection.13 But orthodox Christians, the Catholic Church, and some modern Protestants have upheld the tradition that Peter, as “first witness of the resurrection,” became the rightful leader of the church.

As early as the second century, Christians realized the potential political consequences of having “seen the risen Lord.” In Jerusalem, where many Christians regarded James, Jesus’ brother, as the rightful leader of the church, one tradition maintained that James, not Peter (and certainly not Mary Magdalene), was the “first witness of the resurrection.” New Testament accounts indicate that Jesus appeared to many others besides Peter. Paul says, for example, that once he appeared to five hundred people simultaneously (1 Cor. 15.3-7). But, from the second century, orthodox churches developed the view that only certain resurrection appearances actually conferred authority on those who received them.

The orthodox noted, for example, Matthew’s account of how the resurrected Jesus appeared to “the eleven” (the disciples minus Judas Iscariot) and announced: “all authority, on heaven and on earth, has been given to me.” Then he delegated that authority to the “eleven disciples.”14 Luke, too, indicates that although many others had known Jesus, and even had witnessed his resurrection, “the eleven” alone held the position of official witnesses—and, hence, became official leaders of the community. Luke relates that Peter, acting as spokesman for the group, proposed that since Judas Iscariot had defected, a twelfth man should now “take the office” that he vacated, restoring the group as “the twelve” (Acts 1.15-20). But to receive a share in the disciples’ authority, Peter declared that the twelfth disciple must be

  1. 1

    Irenaeus, Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses, Praefatio (hereafter cited as AH).

  2. 2

    For a more technical discussion of this topic, scholars are advised to consult Elaine Pagels, “Visions, Appearances, and Apostolic Authority: Gnostic and Orthodox Traditions,” in Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas, edited by Barbara Aland (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978), pp. 415-430.

  3. 3

    Tertullian, De Resurrectione Carnis, 2.

  4. 4

    Tertullian, De Carne Christi, 5.

  5. 5


  6. 6

    Origen, Commentary on I Corinthians, in Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909), pp. 46-47.

  7. 7

    Citations from the Nag Hammadi texts may be found in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson (Harper & Row, 1977). Full citations are available in my forthcoming The Gnostic Gospels.

  8. 8

    For discussion of the types of resurrection stories, see C.H. Dodd, “The Appearances of the Risen Christ: An Essay in Form-Criticism of the Gospels,” in Studies in the Gospels, edited by D.H. Nineham (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 9 ff.

  9. 9

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Excerpta ex Theodoto 23.2-3.

  10. 10

    I Corinthians 15.50; cf. Irenaeus, AH 5.9.1.

  11. 11

    I Corinthians 15.51: for discussion, see Pagels, The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (Fortress, 1975), pp. 53-94.

  12. 12

    Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power (London: A. and C. Black, Ltd., 1969), translated by J.A. Baker (from: Kirchliches Amt und Geistliche Vollmacht, Tübingen: Mohr, 1953), p. 17.

  13. 13

    Mark 16.9-11; John 20.1-18.

  14. 14

    Matthew 28.16-20; Luke 24.36-49; John 20.19-23.

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