Gnosis: The Inside Scoop

The Nag Hammadi Library is the largest and earliest discovery of Gnostic Christian texts, discovered in Egypt  in 1945 by two peasant brothers digging for fertilizer.

The Nag Hammadi Library is the largest and earliest discovery of Gnostic Christian texts, discovered in Egypt in 1945 by two peasant brothers digging for fertilizer.

What is that new stock tip? Where is that sale that no one else knows about? What secret knowledge can I get to win in Fantasy Football? The human quest to get the “inside scoop” is no surprise. But when it comes to Christian spirituality, an obsession to get insider knowledge can lead to folly.

Whether it is a get-rich-quick scheme, the latest diet fad, or even many forms of alternative medicine, the characteristics of an obsession with getting the “inside scoop” are basically the same. Someone gives you some special tip that is trivial at first yet seems helpful.   You have gained some valuable insight that others might not have.   But then this self-proclaimed “guru” encourages you to place your confidence in that person to gain more and more knowledge that will lead to success, wealth, health, or peace in a way inaccessible previously. You find yourself engrossed in what the guru says and you become skeptical of ordinary ways of knowing things. In many cases, you end up shelling out lots of money and/or time or other valuables to obtain what is promised to you, and any other discipline on your part is typically a short-cut to the ultimate goal. You may eventually learn the hard way that you have been duped, or you continue on in the ruse, ever more hopeful for that which was originally promised to you will finally come your way.

Some in these situations are  being greedy for knowledge or other things. But frankly, many others are simply desperate. They could be seriously in debt, terribly frustrated with their weight, or exasperated with modern medicine to find a cure for their ailment.   Desperate situations may tempt us to try to find an easier way out.   But following such a path often leaves us more frustrated than ever before.

A spiritual parallel from the pages of church history is found in the story of Gnosticism. Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for knowledge, “gnosis”. The Bible is very favorable about the Christian acquiring knowledge, such as in Proverbs 18:15 and Proverbs 1:7.

However, the Bible also warns about seeking after knowledge that is not made plainly available for others to see. In 1 John 1:1, we read:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life (NIV).”

The Gospel is not about getting the “inside scoop”. It is about something that was first empirically sensed by credible eyewitnesses and then passed down from generation to generation. However, the temptation for inexperienced believers to seek insider knowledge that will relieve some suffering or grant some special relief is very appealing.

Starting in about the second century A.D., a movement began in the church that promised an esoteric understanding of the truth. Various influential leaders began to gather untaught Christians in ideas that were not passed down by the original eyewitnesses of the faith. These leaders told their followers that they could gain special spiritual insight that was not being shared by the accepted leaders of the church. This special “gnosis”, or knowledge, emphasized the teachings of Jesus as opposed the acts of Jesus. A growing body of writings that supposedly contained these sayings of Jesus were passed around from community to community, often in secret. Jesus became mainly a philosopher to these seekers.

The following brief introduction to Gnosticism and the so-called Gnostic Gospels by Lee Strobel, demonstrates the challenge this new movement made to biblical Christianity:

A peculiar characteristic of the Gnostics is that they downplayed any teaching about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus. For the Gnostics, Jesus was a special spirit being who really was not made of the type of human flesh that you and I share. The created world was made up of evil matter, and so it would be inappropriate for Jesus as the Son of God to occupy any real creaturely form.  Jesus’ divinity posed no real problem for the Gnostics, but His humanity did.  So, the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord received scant attention in their understanding of faith. For example, if you read the Gospel of Thomas, available on-line, the most famous of the Gnostic Gospels, you will find only claims about the sayings of Jesus and very little about what Jesus actually did, such as dying on a cross and rising again from the dead.

Furthermore, the Gnostics were opposed to martyrdom, or any other bodily sacrifice for the faith. The early Christians who died for their faith did so due to persecution, and their courage was celebrated by their fellow believers, but the Gnostics viewed this as foolish.  Martyrdom ironically glorified the physical, according to the Gnostics. Because they viewed the created world as inherently evil, many thought that they should seek to escape the physical world they lived in to avoid suffering at all costs, an impossible task while we still live in our bodies. For others, the created world did not have any value to them, and they ironically gave themselves over to lusts and passions to anesthetize themselves, which only led them to further spiritual darkness and bondage.

Valentinus, 2nd century Gnostic teacher.  He taught that there were three different groups of people: the spiritual, the psychical and the material.  Only the spiritual in nature received the true gnosis that would lead to a full salvation... a "gospel" of spiritual elitism.

Valentinus, 2nd century Gnostic teacher. He taught that there were three different groups of people: the spiritual, the psychical and the material. Only the spiritual in nature received the true gnosis that would lead to a full salvation… a “gospel” of spiritual elitism.

The early church responded to the threat of these new teachers by calling on God’s people to follow the teaching passed down from the original apostles by way of the accepted leaders of the church and avoid those who promised a special, secret path to spiritual wisdom. The orthodox, or “right thinking”, Christians, in contrast to the Gnostics, were able to recall the words of 1 John 4:1-3:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God (ESV)”

Gnosticism has tremendous appeal in our world. It promises a short-cut path that bypasses the call to follow Jesus and take up the Cross in order to gain spiritual insight that others do not have. Unfortunately, this form of spirituality is really a sophisticated elitism. The Gnostics think they know more than anybody else, but what they know rarely leads to spiritual clarity and never delivers fully on what was promised. The student of Scripture is well advised to stay away from any self-proclaimed spiritual gurus that would steer one away from the Old Rugged Cross.

Additional Resources:

Tim Keller has a nice brief writeup about the state of Gnostic Christianity scholarship.

Most scholars reject the idea that any Gnostic writings can be dated back to the first century contemporaneous or earlier than the canonical Gospels. However, there are some contrarian and yet popular scholar-type writers, notably Elaine Pagels, who reject this view and argue for an early date alongside the four canonical Gospels for the Gospel of Thomas. Pagels is pretty much the “go-to” person for the secular media regarding Christian Gnosticism, following her popular 1989 introduction, The Gnostic Gospels.

I find Pagels to be a very engaging and talented writer, who has suffered much tragedy in her life, losing her son and husband at relatively early ages, so the question of suffering and its intersection with early Christian thought carries a very personal dimension. However, Pagels who already had an earlier interest in Gnosticism, has over time become more and more forthright in mixing Gnostic devotion with her scholarship, which detracts from her otherwise interesting work. One Catholic scholar, Paul Mankowski of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, has gone so far as describing Pagels more as a “novelist” than a historian…. ZING! Pagels views the relationship between Gnosticism and orthodox belief as primarily a political conflict, in which the orthodox side finally won, a perspective that terribly caricatures the history of orthodox Christian belief.

I read The Gnostic Gospels some years ago, and now I only wish I had the Mankowski analysis above and this moderate New York Times book review by the eminent Catholic-scholar Raymond E. Brown to help cut through some of Pagels’ creative interpretations of church history.

A very accessible book that challenges some of the recent claims in Gnostic Christianity research, as well as other far flung claims about a Jesus that differs from the orthodox telling of the story is by Dr. Craig Evans, featured in the previous Lee Strobel video. His Fabricating Jesus is an excellent book that gets at the main issues without getting too technical.

Here is a promotional video for the book.

Another book that was recommended to me along the same lines is Reinventing Jesus, by Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer and Dan Wallace (do you think John Paine likes Dan Wallace ? 😉

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “Gnosis: The Inside Scoop

  • John Paine

    It’s very encouraging when simple scholarship can be used in apologetics–just as it is to have the assurance that there are no questions we have to avoid. There is a reason we have a canon for Scripture and the Bible, and that canon works. It is also unfortunate that people hear of finds like Nag Hammadi but don’t take the time to delve deeper. Thanks once again for your research (and scholarship). I particularly enjoyed Tim Keller’s summary.

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