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The Threat of the Gnostics

…one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection. [Acts 1.22, emphasis added]

Matthias, who met these qualifications, was selected and “enrolled with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1.26).

After forty days, having completed the transfer of power, the resurrected Lord ascended into heaven (Acts 1.9-11). Luke, who tells this story, sees it as a momentous event. Although others might receive visions, dreams, and ecstatic trances that manifested traces of Christ’s spiritual presence, no one would ever experience Christ’s actual presence, as the twelve disciples had during his lifetime. They alone could testify to those unique events which they knew firsthand—and to the resurrection of one who was dead.15

The view that all authority derives from certain apostles’ experience of the resurrected Christ, an experience now closed forever, had enormous implications for the political structure of the community. First, as the German scholar Karl Holl has pointed out, it restricted the circle of leadership to a small band of persons whose members stood in a position of incontestable authority.16 Second, it suggested that only the apostles had the right to ordain future leaders as their successors.17 Following Luke’s account, Christians in the second century established the principle of the apostolic succession of bishops: all future Christian leaders would derive their authority from the unchallengeable authority of the apostles. What the apostles experienced and attested their successors cannot verify for themselves; instead, they must only believe, protect, and hand down to future generations the apostles’ testimony. 18 Even today the Pope traces his authority—and his primacy over other bishops and priests—to Peter himself, “first of the apostles,” since he was “first witness of the resurrection.”

In view of the political implications of the doctrine, what would it have meant when gnostic Christians challenged the orthodox view of bodily resurrection? The gnostics were less interested in the “historical Jesus” than in the possibility of encountering the risen Christ in the present.19 In the gnostic Gospel of Mary, for example, Mary Magdalene tries to encourage the mourning and terrified disciples by evoking Christ’s continual presence: “Do not weep, and do not grieve, and do not doubt; for his grace will be with you completely, and will protect you” (9.14-18). When Peter invites Mary to “tells us the words of the Savior which you remember” (10.4-5), she does not tell anecdotes from the past: instead, she explains that she has just seen the Lord in a vision received “through the mind.” When Mary finishes,

…she fell since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, “Say what you will about what she has said. I, at least, do not believe that the Savior has said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas!” [17.8-15]

When Peter and Andrew ridicule the idea that Mary actually saw the Lord in her vision, Levi defends her: “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered…. If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her?” (18.1-12). Finally, Mary is vindicated and she joins the other apostles as they go out to preach.

Gnostic Christians apparently recognized that their theory, like the orthodox one, could have political consequences. It suggested that whoever “sees the Lord” through inner vision can claim that his or her own authority equals or surpasses that of the Twelve—and of their successors. Consider the political implications of the Gospel of Mary: as Mary defies Peter and others who accuse her of pretending to have seen the Lord in order to justify her own “strange ideas,” so the gnostics who took her as their prototype challenged the authority of those priests and bishops who claimed to be Peter’s successors.

The gnostics argued, for example, that the orthodox relied solely on the public teaching which Christ and the apostles offered to “the many,” while the gnostics themselves claimed to offer, in addition, their secret teaching, known only to the few.20 The gnostic teacher Valentinus pointed out that even during Jesus’ lifetime he shared with his disciples certain mysteries that he kept secret from outsiders.21 According to the New Testament gospel of Mark, Jesus told his disciples,

To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see, but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should repent, and be forgiven.[4.11]

Matthew, too, relates that when Jesus spoke in public he spoke only in parables; when his disciples asked the reason, he replied, “To you it has been given to know the secrets [mysteria: literally, “mysteries”] of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them, it has not been given” (13.11). According to the gnostics, some of the disciples followed Jesus’ instructions, and kept secret his esoteric teaching: this they taught only in private, to those who had proven themselves to be spiritually mature, and who qualified for “initiation into gnosis,” that is, into secret knowledge.

Thus, they claimed, the risen Christ revealed himself to certain disciples, who passed on to selected others their new insights into divine mysteries. In the second letter to the Corinthians, for example, the apostle Paul says that he was “caught up into the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know.” There, in an ecstatic trance, Paul heard secret wisdom—“things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (II Cor. 12.3-4). But Valentinus, the most famous of all gnostic teachers, who traveled from Egypt to teach in Rome (c. 140), claimed that he had learned Paul’s secret teaching from Theudas, one of Paul’s disciples.

Gnostic Christians claimed that only their own gospels and revelations disclosed those secret teachings. Their writings found at Nag Hammadi tell countless stories about the risen Christ—the spiritual being whom Jesus represented—a figure who fascinated them far more than the merely human Jesus, the obscure rabbi from Nazareth. For this reason, instead of telling the history of Jesus biographically, from birth to death, gnostic accounts often begin where the New Testament gospels end—with stories of the spiritual Christ appearing to his disciples. The Apocryphon [Secret Book] of John, for example—believed to have been written by a Christian in the second century—begins with John’s vision of Christ after the crucifixion:

Immediately…the [heavens were opened, and the whole] creation [which is] under heaven shone, and [the world] was shaken…. [I was afraid, and I] saw in the light [a child]…. While I looked [he became] like an old man. And he [changed his] form again, becoming like a servant…. I saw…an [image] with multiple forms in the light…. [1,30-2.9]22

As he marveled, the presence spoke:

John, John, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid? You are not unfamiliar with this form, are you? Do not be afraid! I am the one who [is with you] always…. [I have come to teach] you what is [and what was], and what will come to [be]…. [2.9-18]

Similarly, in the Letter of Peter to Philip and in the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, Jesus appears not in his original bodily form, but as an invisible spirit. He comes as “a great angel of light,” who offers to teach his disciples the “secret of the holy plan” of the universe and its destiny.23

In the Gospel of Philip, as in the Apocryphon of John,

Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not reveal himself [as he] was, but in the way [they would] be able to perceive him…. He revealed Himself to [them all. He revealed himself] to the great as great [and] to the small as small. [57.28-35]

To the immature disciple, he appears as a child; to the mature, as an old man, symbol of wisdom. As the gnostic teacher Theodotus says, “Each person recognizes the Lord in his own way, not all alike.”24

Orthodox leaders, including Bishop Irenaeus, used such texts to accuse the gnostics of fraud. Irenaeus claimed that the heretics were trying to pass off as “apostolic” what they themselves had invented—“totally unlike what has been handed down to us from the apostles.”25

What proves the validity of the four gospels, Irenaeus says, is that they actually were written by Jesus’ own disciples and their followers, who personally witnessed the events they described. Most contemporary Biblical scholars would challenge this view: few believe that contemporaries of Jesus wrote the gospels we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or that we know who the authors were. We know little more than that these gospels were attributed to people with those names.

Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret writings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, some gnostic writers may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.

We can, for example, imagine the second-century author of the Apocryphon of John in the situation he attributes to the John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of the disciples’ experience, the author casts his own questioning “dialogue” into literary form. Among his contemporaries, only the orthodox, whom he considers “literal-minded,” would accuse him of forgery; the titles of these gnostic works indicate that they were written “in the spirit” of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip, or Peter.

Gnostics recognized only those who could create and invent as people who were spiritually “alive.” Each of them was expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught. Whoever merely repeated his teacher’s words was considered immature. Bishop Irenaeus charged that the gnostics “boast that they are the discoverers and inventors of…this kind of imaginary fiction,” and he accused them of creating new forms of mythological poetry. Indeed, first- and second-century gnostic literature includes some remarkable poems, like the Round Dance of the Cross and The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Most offensive, from Irenaeus’ point of view, was that they admitted that nothing supported their writings except their own intuition. When challenged, “they either mention mere human feelings, or else refer to the harmony that can be seen in creation:”26

They are to be blamed for…describing human feelings, and passions, and mental tendencies…and ascribing the things that happen to human beings, and whatever they recognize themselves as experiencing, to the divine Word.27

Thus they expressed their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, “dialogues” with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.

  1. 15

    Johannes Lindblom, Geschichte und Offenbarung: Vorstellungen von göttlichen Weisungen und ubernatürlichen Erscheinung im ältesten Christentum (Lund: Gleerup, 1968), pp. 32-113.

  2. 16

    See Karl Holl, Der Kirchenbegriff des Paulus in seinem Verhältnis zu dem der Urgemeinde, in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (Tübingen: Mohr, 1921), 11, pp. 50-51.

  3. 17

    Georg A. Blum, Tradition und Sukzession: Studium zum Normbegriff des Apostolischen von Paulus bis Irenaeus (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1963), p. 48.

  4. 18

    Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power, pp. 14-24. For discussion, see Pagels, “Visions, Appearances, and Apostolic Authority: Gnostic and Orthodox Traditions.”

  5. 19

    See Helmut Koester, “One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels,” in James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Fortress, 1971), pp. 158-204, and James M. Robinson, “The Johannine Trajectory,” op. cit., pp. 232-268.

  6. 20

    Irenaeus, AH 3.2.1.-3.3.1.

  7. 21

    Irenaeus, AH 3.4.1-2.

  8. 22

    The words placed in brackets indicate scholarly reconstructions of the texts, which are damaged in these places.

  9. 23

    Sophia Jesu Christi 77.9-79.18, in: NT Apocrypha 1.246. For discussion, see Henri-Charles Puech, “Gnostic Gospels and Related Documents,” in Edgar Hennecke, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (Westminster, 1963; translated from Neutestamentliche Apocryphen), 1.321-362.

  10. 24

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Excerpta ex Theodoto 23.4.

  11. 25

    Irenaeus, AH 3.11.9.

  12. 26

    Irenaeus, AH 2.15.3.

  13. 27

    Irenaeus, AH 2.13.3-10.

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