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

…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.

What differentiates these gnostics from other Christians who have claimed to receive special visions and revelations that they expressed in art, poetry, and mystical literature? Orthodox Christians expect that the revelations they receive—in principle, at least—will confirm the apostolic tradition that sets the boundaries of Christian faith. The apostles’ original teaching remains the criterion; whatever deviates is heresy. The gnostics, by contrast, claimed that their own secret sources of tradition far surpassed the common apostolic teaching. The gnostics relied on accounts of visions and secret knowledge attributed both to the apostles and to others, and they interpreted these in the light of their own spiritual experience.

The controversy over resurrection, then, proved critical in shaping the Christian movement into an institutional religion. All Christians agreed in principle that only Christ himself—or God—can be the ultimate source of spiritual authority. But the immediate question, of course, was the practical one: Who, in the present, administers that authority?

Bishop Irenaeus declared that the catholic church believed in its main points of doctrine

just as if she had only one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them and teaches them in perfect harmony. For although the languages of the world are different, still the meaning of the tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the east, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Africa, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.28

Should arguments arise among such scattered churches, Irenaeus prescribes terminating any disagreement

by indicating that tradition, derived from the apostles, of the very great, and very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul…. For it is necessary that every church should agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority.29

By contrast, Valentinus and his gnostic followers answered that spiritual authority is administered by whoever comes into direct, personal contact with the “living One.” They argued that only one’s own experience offers the ultimate criterion of truth, taking precedence over all secondhand testimony and all tradition—even gnostic tradition. On this theory, the structure of authority can never be fixed into an institutional framework: it must remain spontaneous, charismatic, and open.

Those who rejected this theory argued that all future generations of Christians must trust the apostles’ testimony—even more than their own experience. For, as Tertullian admitted, whoever judges by ordinary historical experience would find the claim incredible that a man should physically have returned from the grave—“it must be believed, because it is absurd.” Since the death of the apostles, believers must accept the word of the priests and bishops, who have claimed from the second century to be their only legitimate heirs.

The contemporary theologian Jurgen Moltmann suggests that the orthodox view of resurrection also expressed, in a symbolic way, the conviction that human life is inseparable from bodily experience: even if a man comes back to life from the dead, he must come back physically. Certainly the gnostics, who ridiculed the idea of bodily resurrection, frequently devalued the body, and considered its functions (such as sexual acts, for example) unimportant to the “spiritual” person. According to the Gospel of Thomas, for example, Jesus says,

If spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth [the spirit] has made its home in this poverty [the body].[38.33-39]

For the gnostics stood close to the Greek philosophic tradition (and to Hindu and Buddhist tradition) that regards the human spirit as residing “in” a body—as if the actual person were a disembodied being or spirit who uses the body as an instrument but does not identify with it. Those who agree with Moltmann may find, then, that the orthodox doctrine of resurrection, far from negating bodily experience, affirmed it as the central fact of human life.

But so far as the social order was concerned, as we have seen, the orthodox teaching on resurrection had a different effect: it legitimized a hierarchy of persons through whose authority all others must approach God. Gnostic teaching, as Irenaeus and Tertullian realized, was potentially subversive of this order: it claimed to offer to every initiate direct access to God of which the priests and bishops themselves might be ignorant.


If the doctrine of resurrection—and, by implication, the structure of clerical authority—divided orthodox and gnostic Christians, the doctrine of God proved equally controversial, and, in its implications, no less political.30 Bishop Irenaeus, in his Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Gnosis, insists above all that orthodox Christians believe in one God. For this reason, he explains, the Christian creed begins with the words, “I believe in one God, Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” But Irenaeus attacks gnostic Christians as “dualists,” associating them with followers of the heretic Marcion. A Christian from Asia Minor (c. 140), Marcion was struck by what he saw as the contrast between the creator-God of the Old Testament, who demands justice and punishes every violation of his law, with the Father whom Jesus proclaims—the New Testament God of forgiveness and love. Why, he asked, would a God who is “almighty”—all powerful—create a world that included suffering, pain, disease—even scorpions and mosquitoes? Marcion concluded that there must be two different Gods. Most Christians early condemned this view as dualistic, and identified themselves as orthodox by confessing one God, who is both “Father almighty” and “maker of heaven and earth.”

Irenaeus turns the same accusation against the gnostics, charging that they, like the Marcionites, say that “there is another God besides the creator.” Some scholars, following Irenaeus’ lead, have even suggested that gnosticism is synonymous with dualism. But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi disclose that although some gnostic doctrines may be dualistic, Valentinian gnosticism, the most sophisticated and influential of them—and by far the most threatening to the church—differs essentially from dualism. The theme of the oneness of God dominates several of the Valentinian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. The Tripartite Tractate, for example, describes God as

a sole Lord and God…for he is unbegotten…in the proper sense, then, the only Father and God is the one whom no one else begot. As for the universe [cosmos], he is the one who begot and created it. [51.24-52.6]

A Valentinian Exposition speaks of God who is

[Root] of All, the [Ineffable One who] dwells in the Monad. [He dwells alone] in silence…since, after all, [he was] a Monad, and no one was before him.[22.19-23]

Irenaeus himself tells us that the creed which effectively screened out Marcionites from the church proved useless against the Valentinians. In common with other Christians, they recited the orthodox creed. But Irenaeus explains that although they did “verbally confess one God,” they did so with private mental reservations, “saying one thing, and thinking another.”31 If while the Marcionites openly blasphemed the creator, the Valentinians, he insists, did so covertly:

Such persons are, to outward appearances, sheep, for they seem to be like us, from what they say in public, repeating the same words [of confession] that we do; but inwardly they are wolves.32

What particularly distressed Irenaeus was that most Christians could not tell the difference between Valentinian and orthodox teaching. After all, he writes, most people cannot differentiate between cut glass and emeralds either! But, he declares, “although their language is similar to ours,” their views “not only are very different, but at all points full of blasphemies.”33

For while the Valentinians publicly confessed faith in one God, in their own private meetings they insisted on discriminating between the popular image of God—as master, king, lord, creator, and judge—and what that image represented—God understood as the ultimate source of all being.34 Valentinus calls that source “the depth”;35 his followers describe it as an invisible, incomprehensible primal principle.36 But most Christians, they say, mistake mere images of God for that reality.37 They point out that the Scriptures sometimes depict God as a mere craftsman, or as an avenging judge, as a king who rules in heaven, or even as a jealous master. But these images, they say, cannot compare with Jesus’ teaching that “God is spirit” or the “Father of Truth.”38 Another Valentinian, author of the Gospel of Philip, points out that names can be

very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is accurate to what is inaccurate. Thus one who hears the word “God” does not perceive what is accurate, but perceives what is inaccurate. So also with “the Father,” and “the Son,” and “the Holy Spirit,” and “life” and “light,” and “resurrection,” and “the Church,” and all the rest—people do not perceive what is accurate, but they perceive what is inaccurate.[53.24-34]

What made their position heretical? Why did Irenaeus find such a modification of monotheism so crucial—in fact, so utterly reprehensible—that he urged his fellow believers to expel the followers of Valentinus from the churches as heretics? He admitted that this question puzzled the gnostics themselves:

They ask, when they confess the same things and participate in the same worship…how is it that we, for no reason, remain aloof from them; and how is it that when they confess the same things, and hold the same doctrines, we call them heretics!39

Here again we cannot fully answer this question until we consider the social and political implications of the different doctrines of God found in gnostic and orthodox writings. Specifically, by the late second century, when the orthodox insisted upon “one God,” they simultaneously validated the system of governance in which the church is ruled by “one bishop.” The gnostic modification of monotheism was taken—and probably intended—as an attack upon that system. For when gnostic and orthodox Christians discussed the nature of God, they were debating at the same time the issue of spiritual authority.

This issue dominates one of the earliest writings we have from the church at Rome—a letter attributed to Clement, called Bishop of Rome (c. 90-100 AD).40 Clement writes to the Christian community in Corinth at a time of crisis: members of the church in Corinth have driven certain leaders out of office. Clement calls this “a rebellion” led by “a few rash and self-willed people”; he insists that the deposed leaders be restored to their authority—and warns that they must be feared, respected, and obeyed.

On what grounds? Clement argues that God, the God of Israel, alone rules in heaven as divine Lord, master, and judge. But how is God’s rule actually administered? Here Clement’s theology becomes practical. God, he says, delegates his “authority of reign” to “rulers and leaders on earth.” Who are these designated rulers? Clement answers that they are bishops, priests, and deacons. Whoever refuses to “bow the neck” and obey the church leaders is guilty of insubordination against the divine Master himself. Carried away with his argument, Clement warns that whoever disobeys the divinely ordained authorities “receives the death penalty.”

This letter marks a dramatic moment in the history of Christianity. For the first time, we find here an argument for dividing the Christian community between “the clergy” and “the laity.” The church is to be organized according to a strict order of superiors and subordinates. Even within the clergy, Clement insists on ranking each member, whether bishop, priest, or deacon, “in his own rank”: each must observe “the rules and commandments” of his position at all times.

Clement simply may be stating what Roman Christians, at the end of the first century, took for granted41—and what Christians outside Rome, in the early second century, were coming to accept. The chief advocates of this theory, not surprisingly, were the bishops themselves. Only a generation later, another bishop, Ignatius of Antioch in Syria, more than a thousand miles from Rome, passionately defended the same principle. But Ignatius went further than Clement. He defended the three ranks, bishop, priests, and deacons, as a hierarchical order that mirrors the divine hierarchy in heaven. As there is only one God in heaven, Ignatius declares, so there can be only one bishop in the church. “One God, one bishop”—this became the orthodox slogan. Ignatius warns “the laity” to revere, honor, and obey the bishop “as if he were God.” For the bishop, standing at the pinnacle of the church hierarchy, presides “in the place of God.”42

Ignatius believed that God became accessible to humanity through the church—and specifically through the bishops, priests, and deacons who administer it: “without these, there is nothing which can be called a church!”43 Ignatius and Clement agree that this human order mirrors divine authority in heaven. Their religious views, certainly, bore political implications; yet, at the same time, the practice they urged was based on their beliefs about God.

What would happen if someone challenged their doctrine of God as the one who stands at the pinnacle of the divine hierarchy and legitimizes the whole structure? We do not have to guess: we can see what happened when Valentinus went from Egypt to Rome. Even his enemies spoke of him as brilliant and eloquent.44 Some thought him to be the author of the evocative Gospel of Truth that was discovered at Nag Hammadi. Valentinus said that besides receiving the Christian tradition that all believers hold in common, he had received, from Paul’s disciple Theudas, initiation into a secret doctrine of God.45

According to this secret tradition, the one whom most Christians naïvely worship as creator, God the Father, is, in reality, only the image of the true God. For Valentinus, what Clement and Ignatius mistakenly ascribe to God actually applies only to the creator.46 Valentinus, following Plato, uses the Greek term demiurgos47 for creator, suggesting that he is a lesser divine being who serves as the instrument of the higher powers.48 It is not God, he explains, but the demiurge who reigns as king and Lord; 49 who acts as a military commander,50 who gives the law and passes judgment on those who violate it51—in short, he is the “God of Israel.”

Valentinus offered an initiation by which the candidate learned to reject the creator’s authority and all his demands as foolishness. Just what this initiation consisted of in actual practice remains obscure. What gnostics come to “know,” however, is that the creator makes false claims to power (“I am God, and there is no other”) that derive from his own ignorance. Achieving gnosis involves coming into direct contact with the true source of divine power—namely, “the depth” of all being. Whoever has come to know that source simultaneously comes to know himself and discovers his spiritual origin: he has come to know his true Father and Mother.

Whoever comes to this gnosis is ready to receive the secret sacrament called the redemption. Before gaining gnosis, the candidate worshipped the demiurge, mistaking him for the true God: now, through the sacrament of redemption (apolytrosis: literally, “release”)52 the candidate indicates that he has been released from the demiurge’s power. In this ritual he addresses the demiurge, declaring his independence, serving notice that he no longer belongs to the demiuge’s sphere of authority and judgment,53 but to what transcends it:

I am a son from the Father—the Father who is preexistent…. I derive being from Him who is preexistent, and I come again to my own place whence I came forth.54

Irenaeus, as bishop, recognized the danger of this theory to clerical authority. The redemption ritual, which dramatically changed the initiate’s relation to the demiurge, changed simultaneously his relationship to the bishop. In the orthodox system the believer was taught to submit to the bishop “as to God himself,” since, he was told, the bishop rules, commands, and judges “in God’s place.” But now the initiate sees that such restrictions apply only to naïve believers who still fear and serve the demiurge.55 Gnosis offers nothing less than a theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and priests! The initiate now sees them as the “rulers and powers” who rule on earth in the demiurge’s name.

Irenaeus denounces the heretics for what he considers their arrogance. For, he tells us, those who undergo gnostic initiation

maintain that they have attained to a height beyond every power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything.56

This controversy occurred at the very time (c. AD 100-200) when diversified forms of church leadership were giving way to a unified hierarchy of church office.57 At that time, certain Christian communities were organizing themselves into a strict order of subordinate “ranks” of bishops, priests, deacons, laity. In many churches the bishop was emerging for the first time as a “monarch” (literally, “sole ruler”), disciplinarian, and judge over those now called “the laity.” Evidence from Nag Hammadi suggests that within the gnostic movements there were critics who were mounting resistance to this process. For example, the Tripartite Tractate, written by a follower of Valentinus, contrasts those who are gnostics, “children of the Father,” with those who are uninitiates, offspring of the demiurge. The Father’s children, he says, join together as equals, enjoying mutual love, spontaneously helping one another. But the demiurge’s offspring—the ordinary Christians—“wanted to command one another, out-rivaling one another in their empty ambition”: they are inflated with “lust for power,” each one “imagining that he is superior to the others” (79.20-32).

If gnostic Christians criticized the development of church hierarchy, how could they themselves form a social organization? If they rejected the principle of rank, insisting that all are equal, how could they even hold a meeting? So far we lack much firsthand detailed information on how, and where, the gnostics worshipped, and in what numbers. Irenaeus tells us, however, about the practice of one group that he knows from his own congregation in Lyon—the group led by Marcus, a disciple of Valentinus. Every member of the group had been initiated: this means that every one had been “released” from the demiurge’s power. For this reason, they dared to meet without the authority of the bishop, whom they regarded as the demiurge’s spokesman—Irenaeus himself.

How did members of this circle of “pneumatics” (literally, “those who are spiritual”) conduct their meetings? Irenaeus tells us that when they met all the members first participated in drawing lots.58 Whoever received a certain lot apparently was designated to take the role of priest; another was to offer the sacrament, as bishop; another would read the Scriptures for worship, and others would address the group as a prophet, offering extemporaneous spiritual instruction. The next time the group met, they would throw lots again so that the persons taking each role changed continually.

This group of gnostic Christians thus demonstrated that, among themselves, they refused to acknowledge the orthodox distinctions between clergy and laity, following instead the principle of strict equality. All initiates, men and women alike, participated equally in the drawing of lots; anyone might be selected to serve as priest, bishop, or prophet. Through this practice they intended to remove the element of human choice. They believed that since God directs everything in the universe, the way the lots fell expressed his choice.

Such practices prompted Tertullian to attack “the behavior of the heretics”:

How frivolous, how worldly, how merely human it is, without seriousness, without authority, without discipline, as fits their faith! To begin with, it is uncertain who is a catechumen and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally they pray equally—even pagans, if any happen to come…. They also share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics, if they meet together to storm the citadel of the one only truth…. All of them are arrogant…all offer you gnosis!59

The principle of equal access, equal participation, and equal claims to knowledge certainly impressed Tertullian. But he took this as evidence that the heretics “overthrow discipline.” Proper discipline, in his view, required certain degrees of distinction between community members. Tertullian protests especially the participation of “those women among the heretics” who shared with men positions of authority: “They teach, they engage in discussion; they exercise; they cure”—he suspects that they even baptize, which may mean that they also acted as bishops!

Irenaeus saw that he, as a bishop, ruler, teacher, and judge of the church, had been placed in an impossible situation. Certain members of his flock had been meeting without his authority in private sessions; Marcus, a self-appointed leader, whom Irenaeus derides as an “adept in magical impostures,”60 had initiated them into secret sacraments and had encouraged them to ignore the bishop’s moral warnings. Contrary to his orders, he says, they did eat meat sacrificed to idols; they freely attended pagan festivals, and they violated his strict warnings concerning sexual abstinence and monogamy.61 What Irenaeus found most galling of all is that, instead of repenting or even openly defying the bishop, they responded to his protests with diabolically clever theological arguments. Irenaeus complained,

They call [us] “unspiritual,” “common,” and “ecclesiastic”…they say that we go on living in the hebdomad [the lower region] as if we could not lift our minds to the things on high, nor understand the things that are above.62

He was outraged at their claim that they, being spiritual, are released from the ethical restraints that he, as a mere servant of the demiurge, ignorantly sought to foist upon them.

Irenaeus realized that to defend the church against these self-styled theologians, he must forge theological weapons. He believed that if he could demolish the heretical teaching of “another God besides the creator,” he could maintain the authority of the “one catholic church” and of its bishop. Like his opponents, Irenaeus would have taken for granted the correlation between the structure of divine authority and human authority in the church. If God is one, then there can be only one true church, and only one representative of that God in the community—the bishop.

Irenaeus declared, therefore, that orthodox Christians must believe above all that God is one—creator, Father, Lord, and judge—and that it is this one God who established the catholic church, and who “presides with those who exercise moral discipline”63 within it. He ends his treatise with a solemn call to judgment:

Let those persons who blaspheme the Creator…as (do) the Valentinians and all the falsely so-called “gnostics,” be recognized as agents of Satan by all who worship God. Through their agency Satan even now…has been seen to speak against God, that God who has prepared eternal fire for every kind of apostasy.64

Were Irenaeus’ religious convictions nothing but political interests in disguise? Or, conversely, were his politics subordinate to his religious beliefs? Either of these interpretations would be oversimplifications. Irenaeus’ religious convictions and his position in the community—like those of his gnostic opponents—would have influenced one another. Although certain gnostics opposed the development of church hierarchy, gnosticism was not simply a political movement that arose in reaction to that development. Followers of Valentinus shared a religious vision of the nature of God that they found incompatible with the rule of priests and bishops that was emerging in the catholic church—and so they resisted it. Irenaeus’ religious convictions, conversely, coincided with the structure of the church he defended.

This case is far from unique: we can see throughout the history of Christianity how varying beliefs about the nature of God inevitably bear different political implications. Martin Luther, more than 1300 years later, felt impelled by his own religious experience and his transformed understanding of God to challenge practices endorsed by his superiors in the Catholic Church, and finally to reject its entire papal and priestly system. George Fox, the radical visionary who founded the Quaker movement, was moved by his encounter with the “inner light” to denounce the whole structure of Puritan authority—legal, governmental, and religious. In the twentieth century, Paul Tillich proclaimed the doctrine of “God beyond God” as he criticized both Protestant and Catholic churches along with nationalistic and fascist governments.

As the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection established the initial framework for clerical authority, so the doctrine of the “one God” confirmed for orthodox Christians the emerging institution of the “one bishop” as monarch (“sole ruler”) of the church. We may not be surprised, then, to discover next how the orthodox description of God in exclusively masculine terms (as “Father Almighty,” for example) served to define who was included, and who excluded, from participation in the power of priests and bishops.

(This is the second of four articles.)

  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.

  15. 15

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

  16. 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.

  17. 17

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

  18. 18

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

  19. 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.

  20. 20

    Irenaeus, AH 3.2.1.-3.3.1.

  21. 21

    Irenaeus, AH 3.4.1-2.

  22. 22

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

  23. 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.

  24. 24

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Excerpta ex Theodoto 23.4.

  25. 25

    Irenaeus, AH 3.11.9.

  26. 26

    Irenaeus, AH 2.15.3.

  27. 27

    Irenaeus, AH 2.13.3-10.

  28. 28

    Irenaeus, AH 1.10.2.

  29. 29

    Irenaeus, AH 3.3.2.

  30. 30

    For a more technical discussion of this subject, see Pagels, “The Demiurge and His Archons: A Gnostic View of the Bishop and Presbyters?” in Harvard Theological Review 69.3-4 (1976), pp. 301-324.

  31. 31

    Irenaeus, AH 3.16.6.

  32. 32

    Irenaeus, AH 3.16.8.

  33. 33

    Irenaeus, AH 4.33.3;3.16.8.

  34. 34

    For discussion and references, see Pagels, “The Demiurge and His Archons.”

  35. 35

    Irenaeus, AH 1.11.1.

  36. 36

    Irenaeus, AH 1.11.1; cf. Tripartite Tractate 51.1 ff.

  37. 37

    Heracleon, Fragment 22, in Origen, Commentary on John 13.19.

  38. 38

    Heracleon, Fragment 24, ibid., 13.25.

  39. 39

    Irenaeus, AH 3.15.2. Emphasis added.

  40. 40

    Clemens Romanus, I Clement 3.3. References for this letter are in The Gnostic Gospels.

  41. 41

    See, for example, Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power, pp. 86-87: “Dogmatic issues are nowhere mentioned. We can no longer discern the background and the real point of the quarrel.”

  42. 42

    Ignatius, Magnesians 6.1; Trallians 3.1; Ephesians 5.3

  43. 43

    Ignatius, Trallians 3.1; Smyrneans 8.2.

  44. 44

    Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos 4.

  45. 45

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata 7.7.

  46. 46

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata 4:89.6-90.1.

  47. 47

    Cf. Plato, Timaeus 41. For discussion, see Gilles Quispel, “The Origins of the Gnostic Demiurge,” in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, edited by Patrick Granfield and Josef A. Jungman (Münster: Verlag Aschendorff, 1970), pp. 252-271.

  48. 48

    Heracleon, Fragment 40, in Origen, Commentary on John 13.60.

  49. 49

    Lord: Irenaeus, AH 4.1-5.

  50. 50

    commander: Irenaeus AH 1.7.4.

  51. 51

    judge: Heracleon, Fragment 48, in Origen, Commentary on John 20.38.

  52. 52

    Irenaeus, AH 1.21.1-4.

  53. 53

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.6.

  54. 54

    Irenaeus, AH 1.21.5.

  55. 55

    Irenaeus, AH 1.7.4.

  56. 56

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.6.

  57. 57

    For a detailed discussion of this process, see Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power, pp. 76 ff.

  58. 58

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.4. For a technical discussion of the lot (kleros), see Pagels, “The Demiurge and His Archons,” pp. 316-318. Such use of lots had precedent both in ancient Israel, where God was thought to express His choice through the casting of lots, and also among the apostles themselves, who selected by lot the twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1.17-20). Apparently the followers of Valentinus intended to follow their example.

  59. 59

    Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum 41. Emphasis added.

  60. 60

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.1.

  61. 61

    Irenaeus, AH 1.6.2-3.

  62. 62

    Irenaeus, AH, quotation conflated from 3.15.2 and 2.16.4.

  63. 63

    Irenaeus, AH 3.25.1.

  64. 64

    Irenaeus, AH 4.26.2.