If there was a historical Jesus, we should be able to place him within the proper historical context and from that point, determine what his message was and how it was interrupted by his followers. I will demonstrate through the use of the New Testament, that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher but not only that, he was also a failed apocalyptic preacher. This is C-Webb’s Sunday School.
If there was a historical Jesus, we should be able to place him within the proper historical context and from that point, determine what his message was and how it was interrupted by his followers. I will demonstrate through the use of the New Testament, that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher but not only that, he was also a failed apocalyptic preacher. This is C-Webb’s Sunday School.
Not wanting to miss the Reza Aslan boat, I think it’s a good idea to talk about one aspect of the historical Jesus. I’ve said this before, I’m agnostic on the historicity of Jesus. Given the limited evidence and lack of historical record outside of the bible, it’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion that Jesus was indeed a historical person. Does this change my opinion on Christianity? If I accept a historical Jesus, does that mean I have to accept the other claims made about him? If I still reject Jesus as the Son of God am I doing it out of stubbornness? These are some questions you’d likely receive from theist if presented with the question of a historical Jesus.
What does this have to do with Reza Aslan’s book Zealot? It’s rather simple, if I were to accept the historical Jesus, then a zealot apocalyptic preacher would make the most sense and fits the limited evidence presented. What I find hilarious about the whole Aslan incident was the idea of Jesus being a person growing up and living within a particular cultural context and the fact that people freaked out about it. I think in Western cultures, the idea that Jesus lived in the Middle East during Roman rule is so far removed for the white washed Jesus most people recognize today. Aslan’s book struck a nerve when he presented this culture clash and it frightened a lot of people, not to mention Aslan is a muslim writing about Jesus. Now to be fair, I have yet to read Aslan’s book but I’ve read a few reviews from scholars and the consensus is that he’s not presenting any new information, stuff that has been known by scholars for centuries. Aslan is presenting this story to a popular audience and this is something I can get behind. Another thing that is important is that Aslan is portraying Jesus as a criminal and he was according to Roman law. If he did claim to be the King of the Jews, this was treason according to Roman law and his execution was not unjustified, according to Roman law.
This episode is not about Aslan’s book Zealot but about Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher. In this episode, I’m going to look at the evidence that supports this claim but before we go any further, I have to make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to the New Testament. It’s important to know the dating of the Gospel’s and the writings of Paul. Matthew is said to have been written between 37 to 100 CE, Mark between 40 to 73 CE, Luke around 100 CE and John between 65 to 100 CE. The high numbers are what most scholars agree upon as the actual dates even though we don’t have the original writings. Even though Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, Mark was actually written first. The Pauline letters are typically dated earlier than the Gospels with Galatians being dated around 49 CE and First Thessalonians around 51 CE. Of the 13 epistles of Paul only seven are classified as genuinely Pauline and they are Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians and Philemon. The other six are said to be pseudographical. When looking at the Gospels, it is widely believed that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and some other source text referred to as Q. John was written last. If we place Mark at around 70 CE, we can see the Pauline letters were written before that so Paul is a good source for understanding early Christian thought. The dating of the books of the New Testament are important especially when dealing with Jesus and his preachings. As time moved on and the imminent return of Jesus seemed less likely, interpretations changed to fit that narrative so it’s important that we go to the earliest sources which are the Pauline letters, Mark and in some case Matthew and Luke.
Back when I was a Christian, I was fascinated with the End Times and the Book of Revelation. I even read those lame Left Behind books thinking they were describing actual events that were to actually occur. I still have books about the end of the world in my book case. I was a die hard believer in the End Times and Christ inevitable return. My how far I have come. I still hold a fascination for the End Times but not because of it’s inevitability but for it’s overall nuttyness. It still blows my mind when I hear preachers and politicians claiming that we are living in the End of Days and that global warming is no big deal because God promised to never flood the world again. Like most pew potatoes, these Christians never really read their own source material. They never crack open their holy bible and read the text or they never try to understand it outside of superficial bible study groups. To look at it on a scholarly level takes effort and when done properly, usually leads to a weakening of belief, which should be avoided at all cost. If we are to take the synoptic gospels and the writings of Paul at face value, the evidence strongly suggest that Jesus was an Apocalyptic Preacher and going even further, it can be said that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic preacher and I’ll tell you why.
In order to understand Jesus’s role as an apocalyptic preacher, we have to place him within the correct historical context. This may come as a shock to Western believers but Jesus was a Jew and because of this we have to place him within the context of Jewish eschatology. Eschatology is concerned with death, judgement, heaven and hell [link]. Jewish apocalypticism was very common during the life of Jesus and we can find such examples in Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, first Enoch, Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Moses, fourth Ezra, Second Baruch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. Being a Jew during this time of Roman rule, it only makes sense that Jesus would have grown up knowing about these writings and their teachings. Even the two major factions of Judaism held apocalyptic beliefs. The Essenes “saw themselves as living on the edge of time, in the very last days; and they dedicated every moment and aspect of life to preparing, after their fashion, for the coming kingdom of God.” The Pharisees “were as much touched by eschatological hopes as most other jewish groups.” Hopefully you can see what I am doing here. I am creating a picture of the times in which Jesus is said to have lived. I’m creating context to judge to words I’ll quote from the New Testament. This is very important for understanding Jesus as this apocalyptic preacher.
When speaking about Jewish apocalypticism and Roman rule, Jesus is often compared to other revolt leaders. The first is Judas the Galilean who lead a revolt against the Romans do to a new taxation census in 6 CE. The revolt is chronicled by Josephus in his Jewish Wars and he says that a fourth sect of Judaism arose with it’s leader being Judas and they are referred to as the Zealots. This group preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel and urged that no taxes should be paid to Rome [link].
There was another Jewish revolt that was lead by Theudas in 46 CE but it was short lived. Theudas gathered around 400 men on the shores of the Jordan river and said that he was a prophet and that he would divide the waters for easy passage. The Roman procurator Cuspius Fadus quickly put an end to this by dispatching troops of horsemen to break up the party. Many of Theudas’ followers were killed, along with Theudas himself with his head being carried away to Jerusalem. It has also been said that Theudas claimed to be the Messiah [link]. He is even mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a warning of other failed Messiah’s. The Act of the Apostles however get the dating of the revolt wrong because it places Theudas before the Judas revolt but according to Josephus, the Judas revolt occurred four decades before Theudas.
Finally, John the Baptist and Jesus are closely related and for this we have to look at the historical evidence of whether or not John the Baptist existed. The only two historical accounts of John the Baptist are found in the Gospels and in Josephus. However, the account in Josephus can only be dated back to the third century as it was quoted by Origen, an early Christian apologist. Given how similar the Gospel accounts and the Josephus accounts match it could be said that the Gospel writers copied the Josephus account or it was added to Josephus later. I’m more inclined to believe the Josephus account was added at a later date to match the gospel account. John is often portrayed as an apocalyptic preacher that was gaining a large following. John preached of the coming Messiah and according to the gospel accounts, this coming Messiah was Jesus [link]. The Messiah was sent by God to usher in the coming kingdom of God so it seems to make sense that John was indeed an apocalyptic preacher. Also, if John was the leader of this movement and Jesus his disciple, it makes sense that Jesus would hold similar beliefs, specifically apocalyptism. According to the gospel accounts, John is only a few months older than Jesus, so it appears they were contemporaries as well. Given this evidence, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher similar to others during this time period. Now that we have the context created, let’s look at the New Testament and see what it has to say.
Dale C. Allison writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet that there are eight dominant themes in the New Testament that shows Jesus carried on the message of John the Baptist. They are: the kingdom of God, future reward, future judgement, persecution of the saints, victory over evil powers, a sense that something new is here or at hand, the importance of John the Baptist and reference to the “Son of Man.” When looking at the sayings of Jesus within the gospels, it’s important to keep these eight themes in mind. These themes create a pattern of eschatology that demonstrates the immediate fulfillment of what Jesus was preaching. Mark Chapter 13, which is known as the “Little Apocalypse” shows that Jesus was preaching the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God.
Mark Chapter 13 starts with the disciples saying how magnificent the temple is and then Jesus says:
“Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Moving on to Mark 13:14 Jesus says “when you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong-let the reader understand-then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” I find it odd that it says “let the reader understand.” Did Jesus say this or is Mark putting words in Jesus’s mouth for the benefit of the reader of the text? If this is supposed to be an eyewitness account, why would Jesus say this, it would come across confusing if you heard in person. This verse references Daniel 9:26-27 “After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”
The Mark verse is in reference to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. We can look at it two ways. 1) Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple or 2) Mark was written after the destruction of the Temple. Given the dating of Mark, it appears the 2 option is most probable. Now, if we take the first assumption, that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, then what he says later in Mark holds significance because Jesus predicted that after the Temple is destroyed, this will start the process of ushering in God’s Kingdom and the coming of the “Son of Man.” Mark 13:24-31 “But in those days, following that distress,“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Given the context I’ve created and given the verse’s just quoted, it stands to reason that the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was the sign of the coming of the “Son of Man.” Verse 30 really drives home the message of an immediate fulfillment of this prophecy “Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
Let’s look at some more verses which will show that Jesus and his followers were expecting an immediate apocalypse within their generation.
Matthew 10:23 “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Matthew 26:64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Even Paul had an understanding that the Son of Man was due to return at any moment, even though some have “fallen asleep”, the end was still coming soon.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
1 Thessalonians 4:15 “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
Looking at other verses we see similar perspectives on the immediate return of Jesus
1 John 2:18 “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.”
Revelation 3:11 “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”
Revelation 22: 6-7 “The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”
Jesus as an Apocalyptic preacher also explains the interim ethics that we see in the Gospels.
Luke 12:33 “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Matthew 6:34 “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Jesus instructs one of his disciplines in burying his dead father.
Matthew 8:21-22 “Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
This reinforces the idea that the dead will take care of themselves, the immediate coming of the kingdom of God is more important.
Matthew 10:37-38 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
What these verses tell us is that Jesus and his followers expected an immediate return and expected an immediate coming of the kingdom of God. All of this is predicated on the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. I don’t have to point out the obvious but after almost 2000 years, the kingdom of God as described in the New Testament has not come nor has the Son of Man returned. This can only mean one thing, Jesus was a failed apocalyptic preacher, just like every other apocalyptic preacher throughout history. And, you can see this realization as we get further and further away from the original text in the New Testament. The later writings have to spin this apocalyptic Jesus and this is exactly what happens and it happens as soon as the writings of Paul. And remember, the Pauline letters are said to be dated earlier than the Gospels and this is important because just a few decades after Jesus’s death, we already see followers coming to the realization that what Jesus preached about the coming end times was not coming true. This is important to know when it comes to understanding the evolution of the New Testament and the evolution of Christian theology and the reinterpretation of Jesus’s message throughout history.
We don’t have to travel too far into the New Testament to find this revisioning occurring. Because the Pauline letters are dated before the Gospels, this seems like a good starting point to check on how that whole apocalypse thing was going. What we find with Paul is that he placed a high importance on his ministry. If Paul’s ministry last twenty-five years, holding onto to the notion of an immediate eschaton had to be difficult. Paul places his ministry to the gentiles as the key to unlocking Christ return. Paul says that the eschaton would only come once he completes his ministry to the gentiles and only then will Israel be saved.
Romans 11:25 “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…”
What I find most interesting about Paul is that he was in constant conflict with other Jesus movements. Paul’s ministry focused on the gentiles while the Jesus movement that focused on the Jews blamed Paul for delaying the return of Christ because too many gentiles and not enough Jews were coming into Christ. Paul’s response was the opposite. God hardened the Jews hearts so the end would be delayed so Paul could redeem the full number of Gentiles and once that was complete, the end would finally come…and then Paul died. 2000 years later, here we are.
Let’s take a look at the gospels and see how they changed the text to explain away the delayed eschaton. Looking at Matthew’s “Little Apocalypse” speech, which was written decades after Mark, we see a subtle change. Remember in Mark the disciples asked “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?.” This was in reference to the destruction of the Temple specifically which signified the beginning of the eschaton. In Matthew, the disciples ask “Tell us when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” It’s tricky but let me explain. This conversation is about the destruction of the temple. In Mark, the disciples ask when will the destruction of the temple occur. Nothing was said about the coming of the Son of Man because it assumes that the destruction of the temple was the only sign needed for the coming of the Son of Man. In Matthew, the question is phrased as if the temple has already been destroyed, which is has, and it ask for additional signs of the coming of the Son of Man. In Mark, the destruction of the temple goes hand in hand with the sign of the coming of the Son of Man. In Matthew, the destruction of the temple plus additional signs are needed for the coming of the Son of Man. The reason is because by the time Matthew is written, the temple has already been destroyed and the eschaton did not occur. It’s subtle but significant.
If we continue to look at Matthew, we see that the idea of this specific generation, the generation that Jesus is speaking to, will not pass away until these things are fulfilled:
Matthew 24:34 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
In Matthew we see an emphasis on being patient for the coming of the Son of Man. This is rather simple to figure out, the failed eschaton is weighing heavy on Jesus’s followers.
Luke-Acts takes this step further because Luke-Acts was written even later than Mark and Matthew. By this time, the followers of Jesus are probably having serious doubts about the return of the Son of Man. In Mark 9:1, we have Jesus saying this:
“And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
In Luke 9:27 we have Jesus saying this:
“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Luke omits the last three words that Mark included “come with power.” This is significant because in Mark, it is anticipated that Jesus will come with power to institute God’s kingdom on earth and overthrow Roman occupation. Since Luke was written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and Jesus had not yet come with power, Luke has to modify what Mark wrote to make that statement more vague and eliminate the idea that the coming kingdom of God will be coming with power which indicates an immediate return.
Luke is also the first time we hear of a different kind of kingdom of God, one that comes from within. In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus says this: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” This is a huge shift from Mark where Jesus says there will be signs and the most important sign is the destruction of the temple, which has long since passed when Luke was written. If we look at Acts, we have this interaction between Jesus and his disciples in Acts 1:6-7 “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus says to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” It’s evident from the text that the prophecy from Isaiah, the one that Jesus is said to have fulfilled in Mark, has not yet been fulfilled or why else would the disciples be asking this question? Later Peter says this in Acts 3:21 “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Again, why have Peter say this unless Jesus failed to fulfill the prophecy laid out in Mark?
The later the writing, the more they have adjusted to fix the failed prophecy of Jesus and the immediate eschaton. Remember from Mark and Matthew, we have Jesus saying that his disciples would see the eschaton in their day and that some will not taste death. By the time John was written, the last remaining disciples are dying until there is all but one left. Eventually that disciple dies so John has to adjust what Jesus meant about some disciples not tasting death. In John 21:20-23 we see this happening “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
E.P. Sanders, in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, sums this up as follows:
“His followers preached that he would return immediately— that is, they simply interpreted “the Son of Man” as referring to Jesus himself. Then, when people started dying, they said that some would still be alive. When almost the entire first generation was dead, they maintained that one disciple would still be alive. Then he died, and it became necessary to claim that Jesus had not actually promised even this one disciple that he would live to see that great day.”
Things keep getting worse as the later pseudonymous letters tried to adjust even more like in Thessalonians where it assured followers that Jesus has not yet returned and will indeed return in the future but additional signs must take place first. FInally,in 2 Peter 3:3-10 we get the ultimate spin and the final nail in the coffin of the idea of Jesus’s immediate return:
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” …But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”
I’ve presented a lot of information and I feel like I made a compelling case for Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher. I’ve demonstrated, using the bible as a source text, that the earliest writing portrayed Jesus this way and as time went on those writings changed along with interpretations. It’s important to remember that even though Jesus was most likely portrayed as an apocalyptic preacher in the New Testament, this says nothing about his historicity.
This is where apologist get into trouble. It’s safe to say that the historical Jesus is foundational to Christianity. Without a historical Jesus and a resurrection Paul said “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” Now this doesn’t imply a historical Jesus as my gnosticism episode pointed out but it does explain how Christian apologist spin the text. Often you hear believers say atheist reject God because they love sin. I would say Christian’s reject the evidence of their saviors existence because they can’t fathom a world without their belief system. They know, that no matter how many times they say Christianity is based on logic, reason and evidence, that it ultimately comes down to an emotional response.
Jesus is a failed apocalyptic preacher even given the flimsy historical evidence within the New Testament. The Christian apologist has been battling this for over 2000 years and that is why, in 2013 we still have believers saying that now is the End Times. Of course they’ll be wrong, just like every other person before them…even Jesus.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that Jesus failed in his prediction about the eschaton and the end times and as history progresses on, it’s obvious that if the historical Jesus ever existed, he was another failed preacher. The next root to chop at is the empty tomb. Once that root is destroyed, which I will demonstrate in another episode, the only plausible conclusion is to reject the Christian hypothesis.
You can’t study early Christianity without studying Gnosticism. Given how we use the term today, one would think that there was a unifying sect of Gnostics amongst the early Christians. However, this is not the case. Gnosticism is a modern construction by scholars. There was not a group of early Christians calling themselves Gnostics. This is C-Webb’s Sunday School!
So soon after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, one would think that the Christian movement would be unified. However, what we see with early Christianity is that there were competing theologies. This pretty much destroys the notion that early Christians were on the same page when it came to the teachings of Jesus. If, so soon after the crucifixion, we see disparate movements, how are we to trust the writings we have today? If you haven’t guessed it by now, the creation myth that I presented in the last episode was from the gnostic sect of early Christianity and this will be the topic for this episode of C-Webb’s Sunday School.
You can’t study early Christianity without studying Gnosticism. Given how we use the term today, one would think that there was a unifying sect of Gnostics amongst the early Christians. However, this is not the case. Gnosticism is a modern construction by scholars. There was not a group of early Christians calling themselves Gnostics. There were, however, groups of Christians that shared a similar theology but they were not a unified movement but for the sake of this discussion, I will be using the term Gnostic, Gnosticism and Gnosis to describe these groups.
Gnosticism did not appear on the scene with Christianity. There were pre-Christian gnostic beliefs and spiritual practices. These included Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, Zoroastrianism and Neoplatonism [link]. These beliefs and practices had been around for a while and it’s of no surprise that early Christian thinkers adopted some of these beliefs. There are some scholars like Robert M. Price, who think Christianity in general was heavily influenced by Gnostic beliefs. There is compelling evidence for this and Dr. Price has several books on the subject. For Gnosticism itself, most of what scholars had to go by were counter arguments written by opponents of Gnostic Christians. However, in 1945, that all changed when a large cache of gnostic writing were discovered near the settlement of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These texts are known as the Nag Hammadi library. These text were found by local peasants and they contained twelve leather bound books that consisted of fifty-two mostly gnostic writings. They were written in the Coptic language and were most likely translated from Greek sources. The texts contained in this library were mostly from the third and fourth centuries [link].
There are many sources for Gnosticism but for this discussion, I’m going to focus on four popular Christian sources. They are The Apocryphon of John, Ptolemy and Valentinian Christianity, Justin the Gnostic and Marcion of Sinope. Examining these four sources should give us a good idea of gnostic thought in early Christianity.
The Apocryphon of John:
The Apocryphon of John holds a significant importance amongst gnostic texts. It has a relatively large number of surviving manuscripts including three version in the Nag Hammadi library, it comes with several revision or editions, and these surviving texts are typically the first writing in most Gnostic books.
This book contains the purported secret mysterious that were revealed to the apostle John, son of Zebedee. After the crucifixion of Jesus, John had a confrontation in the Temple in Jerusalem with a Pharisee who mocked John on the followers of Jesus for being deceived and led astray from their ancestral Jewish traditions. Unable to defend his position, doubt crept in and John ran into the desert to wrestle with some fundamental questions: Who really was the “Father” of whom the Savior had spoken? Why and how had the Savior come into the world in the first place? What actually is the “eternal age” or realm that the Savior mentioned as the disciples’ ultimate destination but yet had not explained? And what is the sound of one hand clapping? As John began to question his allegiance to his crucified Savior, a brilliant light flashes and then Jesus appears. First he appears to John as a youth than as an old man and finally as a slave. John learns that these forms, including Jesus the Nazarene, is just one mode of true divinity’s self-revelation.
Jesus then begins to blow John’s mind when he reveals the nature of true divinity, the invisible structures of the divine realm, the relationship between true divinity and humanity, the relationship between the invisible divine realm and visible creation, how this creation came into existence, the nature and names of the sub-divine powers who control this world, the reason why bad things happen to humans in this life and the overall all-powerful divine providence in which humanity can have complete trust.
One of the first things John learns is the nature or mind of God, the true God, which is completely transcendent, indescribable and even unimaginable. In the text, this highest level of divinity is called the “Invisible Spirit.” Take what you know about God or gods and throw it out the window. This “Invisible Spirit” transcends all those attributes and is so mystifying that it belongs to a unique category beyond even “divinity” itself. No one, and I mean no one can imagine God’s true perfection. Now onto the story of creation according to The Apocryphon of John.
This Invisible Spirit has thoughts and its first thought is about itself, which is a self-image. This thought then springs forth from the Invisible Spirit as a separate divine entity called Barbelo. Acting as a divine mediator, Barbelo is the divine Providence of the Invisible Spirit and works out divine order in all things and mediates salvation to humankind.
As the first thought of the Invisible Spirit, Barbelo is humanity in its most transcendent manifestation. Those of you familiar with the Genesis account will recognize Genesis 1:26-27 where God said: “Let us make Mankind in our image, in our likeness…” The Apocryphon of John accepts this premise but it doesn’t view Adam as this divine image bearer. Barbelo is this divine image bearer, the first human.
It’s important to establish gender roles for this myth. The Invisible Spirit is without gender and so is Barbelo but when using metaphor, Barbelo is depicted as “Mother” and the Invisible Spirit as “Father” and together they give birth to the divine “Child.” This third aspect of the Invisible Spirit is called Self-generated because it is the divine generating itself. We now have a Father-Mother-Child trinity and with this new trinity, a heavenly host of divine entities begin to appear, these eternal divine attributes or emanations are called aeons.
As if you were not thoroughly confused yet, it gets more complicated. The climax (pun intended) of this heavenly fornication is the appearance of the “Perfect Human” Adamas. You may be thinking to yourself “Hey that sounds familiar” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Adamas also has a child and his name is Seth. If the unfolding of this heavenly family started with Barbelo, the First Human, Adamas is the inevitable ending as the Perfect Human. This is the process of the unfolding of divine perfection. Now this Adamas is not the Adam of Genesis but more of a transcendent prototype.
All is well within this perfect spiritual realm with all the emanations worshipping this perfect image of the Invisible Spirit. That is soon shattered when the emanation Wisdom appears on the scene, Greek word Sophia. Wisdom, as per the myth, is unstable. It has two parts with one being the “better part of wisdom” and the other a “not-so-better part.” Wisdom does come from God but it can be dangerous, unruly, and arrogant and it can forget its place and can overstep its bounds.
Before wisdom came along, Barbelo ran a tight ship. Before any new emanation came along, Barbelo would request permission from the Invisible Spirit. All new emanations, knowing without Barbelo they would not exist, offer her up pious respect and gratitude. But wisdom, that cruel mistress, bucks the systems and attempts to do her own emanating. She doesn’t ask permission from neither Barbelo nor the Invisible Spirit. What could possibly go wrong? At this stage in the game, any emanation brought forth after having the proper paperwork filed in triplicate bears the image of the Invisible Spirit. But Wisdom hates bureaucracy and so she creates her own emanation. Unfortunately, because of this, her emanation doesn’t carry the divine likeness, as a matter of fact, the thing is hideous. It comes forth grotesque and unformed and unlike its mother Wisdom or any of the other divine entities. Wisdom is horrified and like most mothers that don’t want their children, she leaves him in a dumpster of clouds far away from the immortal divine realm. Before ditching this monstrosity, Wisdom names him Ialdabaoth (ida-ba-oth), also known as the demiurge. Oh Wisdom, you silly girl, you really think that’s going to work?
The demiurge inherited the worst of his mother and like a teenager stealing money out of his mom’s purse for cigarettes, the demiurge steals his mom’s spiritual powers and starts to create his own world that he can control. There is a clear correlation between the demiurge and the creator God of Genesis. Not satisfied to rule alone, the demiurge creates a gang of angelic henchmen called archons, to help him control his newly created, albeit dark, realm. Even though he is ignorant of the Invisible Spirit and the divine order of things, he still has some of his mother in him and subconsciously, he created his realm similar to the perfect divine spiritual realm. Proud of his creation, he screams from the mountain tops that “I am God and there is no god beside me.” Too late for an abortion, Wisdom goes crawling on her hands and knees and begs for help.
The clean-up process begins by getting the word down to the demiurge’s realm about the true divinity and the Invisible Spirit. They sneak in under the cover of darkness and plant little voices in the dark waters so the divine nature can reflect up at the demiurge. Feeling inspired, he calls forth his gang and says “Come, let us create a human after the image of God and after our likeness.” The parallels to Genesis 1:26 are pretty evident and it’s a clever way to clear up that whole plural thing found in that passage. It’s either a bastard God and his angelic henchmen or its God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus. The demiurge and his team of angelic engineers labor tirelessly over the design of their perfect human and eventually give up and create Adam piece by piece. Or, he creates Adam by the slow process of evolution, take your pick. Adam is created but the lights are on and no one is home. He’s just a lifeless blob. Realizing he has to plug him in before he’ll work, the demiurge breathes the divine sprit he stole from his mom into Adam and he springs to life and is shining with a luminous divinity and astounding intelligence. Like most bullies and Republicans, the demiurge and his angelic henchmen are frighten by intelligent people. They try to rig Adam’s body with affliction and try to make it heavier, they even throw him into a garden full of poisonous trees. Desperate to remove his divine luminous, the demiurge removes one of Adam’s ribs and creates a woman, thinking it will trap the divine luminous in her. Big mistake! Adam looks upon Eve and has a revelation, an awakening…in his loins. He now realizes who and what he is. This story also parallels with eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the mode is different but the result is the same. Finally, as a last resort, the demiurge throws them out of the garden and to increase human misery, he implants them with sexual desire. Yes, that oh so miserable sexual desire! Dressed to the 9’s, the demiurge seduced Eve and she births Cain and Abel. But, when Adam “knows” Eve, she births Seth who possesses the human image of God. With every plan foiled by Adam, the demiurge invents the power of Fate to ensnare humanity in sin and ignorance and fear and hopelessness. As one final F-U, the demiurge floods the world but divine Providence intervenes and warned Noah of the flood and they escape the flooding by building an ark.
All is not lost and salvation comes in the form of gnosis. This is the knowledge of the whole story and remembering what being human is all about, to understand, to awaken, to have power to resist the devices of the evil creator and to be restored to the divine household of Perfection after leaving this earthly body. Jesus is the divine messenger and bestows gnosis onto those with the ability to accept it. Once knowledge of the Invisible Spirit is obtained and upon death, the spirit returns to this divine realm and changes back into true perfection. In this form of Gnosticism, the Old Testament creator God is seen as evil and this lines up well given the horrific stories found in the Old Testament. The gnostic writers saw this problem and tried to fix it by separating Jesus from the Old Testament creator God. However, this presents its own problems.
Given the emphasis placed on Seth, scholars believe these writing came for Sethianism or Sethian Gnosticism. Sethianism was a pre-Christian movement that arose with Judaism that later turned into a diverse movement that fused Christian and Platonic traditions. The Apocryphon of John is considered a Christianized version of this pre-Christian Sethianism. However, going back to what I stated earlier about Gnosticism in general, these Sethian texts show significant diversity in the details and even structure so it’s hard to pin down what movement the authors, editors and early readers were a part of again emphasing the fundamental issue with gnosticism as a category [Michael Allen Williams. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Kindle Locations 290-291). Kindle Edition.]
Ptolemy and Valentinian Christianity:
Prior to the Nag Hammadi text, the most well-known gnostic writing came from Valentinus. Valentinus was a Christian teacher who moved to Rome around 140 C.E and set up a school and taught for a couple of decades. His surviving writings can be found in Irenaeus’s book titled Against Heresies. He quotes extensively from one of Valentinus’s students, Ptolemy. It is hard to say if these writings are what the original authors and editors intended because the source material is from a Christian writer documenting various Christian heresies but given the material we have, we can paint a decent picture of what these writings were all about.
When reading what Irenaeus wrote, it is clear there are some similarities to The Apocryphon of John. There are some broadly shared underlying concerns but the tone and scope differ. Ptolemy writes that everything derives from two primordial principles and they are a male principle called Pre-beginning, Pre-father, or deep and a female consort called Thought, Grace, or Silence. Through begetting ie: sexy time, the full Perfection of the divine slowly emerges and this is similar to patterns found in Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian origin myths. I will spare you the details on how procreation works and if you don’t know, I think it’s time to have that talk with your mother and father but Deep (male) plants his seed in Silence (female) and she births Mind and Truth. Mind, known in some parts as Only-begotten births Word and Life. From Word and Life, Human and Church are produced. More begetting is done and Word and Life produce five pairs of offspring or ten aeons and they are: Sunk-in-the-Deep and Mingling, Unaging and Union, Self-produced and Pleasure, Immovable and Mixture and Only-begotten and Blessed. Human and Church also bring forth twelve aeons and they are: Intercessor and Faith, Paternal and Hope, Maternal and Love, Everlasting and Intelligence, Ecclesiastical and Blessedness and Desired and Wisdom. Together these thirty entities constitute the divine Perfection or pleroma.
In the grand scheme of things, only Mind and the Only-begotten had the ability to understand the Deep or Pre-Father. Mind wanted to spread the transcendent qualities of the Deep to the other aeons but Silence prohibited it. Wisdom longed for the Father so bad that she rushed forward without her consort Desire and experienced the passion of seeking to understand the Father’s greatness. This was, would have been a suicide mission if she did not encounter the divine power called Limit. This Limit, which establishes everything, held her back and brought her to her senses. The Limit is also known as Cross, Redeemer, Emancipator, Terminator and Diverter.
During her fit of blind passion, she had and uh-oh moment and gave birth to a spiritual essence, a piece of thinking about the nature of the Father. However, this essence was imperfect and without form or image because Wisdom was not capable of comprehending the Father, not even a little bit. Limit, the Father’s bouncer, exclude this thinking essence from the divine Perfection and restored Wisdom to her rightful place next to her consort Desire. This imperfect thinking is called Achamoth which is Hebrew for wisdom. Now things get a bit more interesting.
Mind produced a new couple called Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ taught that the Father was incomprehensible while the Holy Spirit eliminated all distinctions among the aeons and taught them to give thanks and brought true rest. Feeling that Joy Joy Joy down in their hearts, they pooled all their best attributes and created a collective Perfection: Jesus, also called Savior, second Christ, Word or All. They also produced an angel entourage for J-Dog as well.
Feeling pity towards his discarded sister Achamoth, Jesus, through the Cross, gives her just a little taste of knowledge. This spark ignited the flame of passion within Achamoth and she rushed forth, trying to grab more of this divine perfection but she is stopped by Limit. Like her mother, Achamoth can’t get pass Limit but unlike her mother, she is not placed back within the divine perfection, she has to engage in a turning back or conversion which creates the soul of the cosmos and becomes the demiurge. Christ sends the Savior with his escort of angels to bestow knowledge upon Achamoth. The savior also separates all of her passions and gathers them to form the basis for the material elements in creation. Inspired by the Saviors angel entourage, Achamoth produces fruits in the image of these angels and her fruits make up the spiritual element within the cosmos.
Wanting to give form to her spiritual babies, Achamoth turns to the lower demiurge which is just an angel and takes matter and soul and forms the various elements of the cosmos and its heavens. This angelic demiurge is given rule over this creation because it is outside of the Perfection so it is inferior to the realm of Perfection. Just above the third of the seven heavens is paradise which is drawn from 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up in the third heaven…was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” This is where Adam first dwelt.
Even though the demiurge was able to preserve some of the images of the aeons in the Perfection, it has wholly ignorant of the Invisible Father. He is even ignorant of everything above him, even his mother Achamoth. This leads the demiurge to declare “I am God, apart from me there is no one” Isaiah 45:5. The demiurge, for some reason, creates the Devil and the Devil becomes the world-ruler of darkness alongside other spiritual forces of evils as told in Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” In a bitter twist of irony, the Devil is a spiritual being and this allows him to have knowledge of the things above him unlike the demiurge which is a soulish physical being. Let me lay things out, the mother Achamoth is in the eighth heaven, the demiurge in the Seventh and the Devil inhabits everything below, which is the cosmos we live in. Everyone got that? Good, moving on.
After creating the cosmos, the demiurge created the earthly human being out of fluid matter into which he breathed the physical element. The human being was assembled after the image and likeness of God but not of the same substance and physical being. Initially this human being was a spiritual emanation, it wasn’t until later that it was clothed in flesh. When the demiurge breathed the physical element into the human being, he accidentally breathed in some of the spiritual human. You see, when Achamoth had begotten the image of the Savior’s angelic entourage, she secretly implanted this seed into the demiurge who then breathed it into the human. This seed is the Church, an image of the Church in the aeons. So now humans have a trinity of elements that they are made up of. They have the spirit of Achamoth, the soul of the demiurge and the flesh of matter.
All this comes together in the image a Jesus but let’s trace this myth from start to finish when it comes to salvation. The matter or flesh will perish, it can’t be saved. The soul can be saved but it also has free will and can make wrong decisions so it has to be taught to make right decisions. The purpose of the created cosmos is like an audiovisual aid for teaching the soul. These lessons teach that the spiritual element in this world is yoked to the soul. The Savior came into this world to teach by taking in the soul of Achamoth and the physical element of the demiurge but not the material element. So Christ had an immaterial soul-body that looked as if it was made of matter, like our physical bodies which allowed him to be seen and to suffer.
It is said Ptolemy breaks humanity down into three groups: The spiritual, the physical and the material. The Valentinian Christians were of the spiritual nature and were automatically saved, not matter what they did. The ordinary Christians are the physicals and they must engage in asceticism and good works to be saved while everyone else are the materials and there is no hope for them. Finally, the end will come when all the spiritual elements have been perfected and they will ascend to Achamoth who will then be pulled into the Perfection. The spirituals ie perfect Christians, will attach themselves to the angel entourage and enter into Perfection. The demiurge along with the soulish will rise to the Middle or the spot Achamoth just vacated and everything thing material will be destroyed.
Justin the Gnostic:
Third on our list of Gnostic writings is Justin the Gnostic, not to be confused with Justin Martyr. These writing come to us via Hippolytus and his anti heretical works around 222-235 C.E. Justin’s writings are probably from the second century as well. As with most “heretical” writings, the source material we have are from the winning side. With Justin’s work, it seems that Hippolytus copied verbatim text from Justin’s writings. Scholars are not sure if the source material was from Justin himself or a copy of his works from some other source but given what we do know, the writings by Hippolytus appear to represent Justin’s position as accurately as we can hope for given the circumstances.
According to Hippolytus, Justin wrote of three divine beings. Two male and one female. There was an ultimate Good, the top male principle and then Elohim, which is the creator God of the Old Testament. The female principle is named Eden or Israel. She represented Mother Earth and she was female in appearance down to her groin where the rest of her was a snake. Elohim and Eden lacked knowledge of the ultimate Good. The ultimate Good knew everything past, present and future. Creation resulted in the sexual union between Elohim and Eden. They begotten twenty-four angels. Twelve belonged to Elohim and they are: Michael, Amen, Baruch, Gabriel and Essadaios (the remaining seven names are missing in the manuscript) and the other twelve belonged to Eden and they are: Babel, Achamoth, Naas, Bel, Belias, Satan, Sael, Adonaios, Kavithan, Pha- raoth, Karkamenos, and Lathen. According to Justin, the tree of life and knowledge are allegorical representations of these angels with the tree of life being Baruch and the tree of knowledge is Naas, the Hebrew word for serpent.
The angels created the first humans within the garden with the finest of all materials. They use materials from the human portion of Eden to create humans and they use material from the snake portion of her to create the beast of the earth. After Adam and Eve are created, the angels place a little soul into them from Eden and a little spirit from Elohim. This represents the martial unity and love of Eden and Elohim.
Eden then takes the twelve angels that came from her and organized them into four groups and places them at various points on the earth to administer her affairs. When it comes to gods, reliability and peace are not their greatest virtues. Plagues, famines and other evils result from the influence of these angels. How can this happen if we have perfect marital bliss between Elohim and Eden? Justin explains why this is so as the myth continues.
Elohim, being the perfectionist that he is, decides to ascent to the highest heaven to survey his creation and look for structural defects. Eden, being earth, stays behind. What Elohim sees on his trip changes everything. Up until this point Elohim and Eden have no knowledge of the ultimate Good but Elohim witnesses this Good during his trip and because of its immense power, Elohim begs to join this Good in its perfect realm. The Good abides and sits Elohim at his right side as described in Psalm 110:1 “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.’” Because this transcendent realm is pure perfection, Elohim looks on with disgust at his creation and wants to destroy it but the Good would not let him because “For you and Eden created the world from mutual satisfaction. Therefore, allow Eden to possess the creation as long as she wishes, but you remain with me.”
This is a bittersweet moment because Elohim, after seeing this transcendent ultimate Good realm, has no desire to go back to Eden so he has to leave a piece of himself there. Eden is stuck waiting for Elohim to return because he said he just went to go pick up a pack of smokes. Not knowing of this ultimate Good nor where Elohim went, Eden feels abandoned by her mate. Eden tries everything to entice Elohim back but to no avail and this really sets her off. If Elohim doesn’t want to come back, she is going to torment what little she has of him and unfortunately, that’s humans. She tells Babel to introduce adulteries and divorce and Naas to inflict all sorts of punishments and evils onto humans. Elohim sees this punishment and sends Baruch to warn the humans not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which is Naas. Naas, however, is a clever fellow and seduced Eve and has sex with her and then he moves onto Adam and has sex with him thus unleashing several forms of sexual sin. As human history unfolds, Eden and Elohim fight back on forth for control of humans. Elohim sends Baruch to help Moses understand the Good and Eden uses Naas to counter this. For every move Elohim makes, Eden has a counter move until Elohim sends Baruch to a small town in Israel and approaches the twelve year old child of a carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth.
Baruch briefs Jesus on everything that has happened since the beginning of time and task Jesus with spreading the message of the Good. Jesus accepts this mission and he begins his training. Baruch warns Jesus not be led astray like the other messengers and we see him tempted in the New Testament. Eden has met her match so she sends Naas to have Jesus crucified. But Jesus, being the chosen one, yielded his spirit up to the Father, Elohim and ascends to be with the Good and his soul and body are left behind, given back to Eden.
Followers of this myth were initiated into the fold by reciting an oath that goes like this: “”I swear by the one who is above all things, the Good, to keep these mysteries and disclose them to no one, nor to return from the Good to creation.” Those about to learn of these mysteries have to swear this oath as did Elohim swear to the Good as alluded to in Psalm 110:4 “The LORD took an oath and will never recant: ‘You are a priest forever, after the manner of Melchizedek.’” The initiate then enters into the Good and experiences some kind of baptismal washing. What is disturbing, the oath appears to be the final moment before experiencing death or release of the spirit. This can only come about through death. It could also mean the abandonment of all earthly relationships. Either way, this earth was made in ignorance of a higher knowledge and it is the will of the spirit to return to this higher knowledge, this ultimate Good.
Marcion of Sinope:
Marcion of Sinope lived in the second-century C.E. He began a movement that within a few years spread around the Mediterranean world and Marcionite churches began to spring up. Marcion was involved in the shipping trade which would account for the rapid spread of his movement. Marcion even made it to Rome and donated coin to the church there but it was returned when a schism erupted because of his teachings. Marcion and his followers viewed themselves as the only true Christians.
We don’t have the original writings of Marcion and the bulk of our understanding comes from his enemies and critics specifically Tertullian of Carthage. We don’t know what motives Marcion had for his teachings but one thing appears to be certain, as certain as things can be in this context, that he was “a religious genius with one overpowering idea: God, the Father of Jesus, was not the Hebrew YHVH.”
Marcion was no fan of the Hebrew God and he drew a clear distinction between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus as interpreted by the apostle Paul. Marcion’s work is called the Antitheses or “Contradictions”, he laid out a series of sharp contrast between the Jewish God and its religion on one hand and on the other the religion announced by Jesus. Marcion appears to be the first person to assemble a New Testament. It contained eleven books with the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul, edited because he felt they had been corrupted in earlier transmissions. There was not on Old Testament because he rejected the entirety of the Jewish Scriptures. He felt they were scriptures of a lesser god and inferior religion. He also rejected other gospel and apostolic writings because they had been polluted with Jewish error and other distortions.
Marcion had great disdain for the God of the Old Testament, calling his creation pitiful. He uses the sin of Adam and Eve to point out that this God is neither good nor possesses foreknowledge nor is he powerful enough to control his creation. Marcion even saw cruelty in a God who would curse a woman with painful childbirth and to make her a slave to her husband and for cursing the ground that was gloriously created. Marcion uses the problem of evil to lay out that the God of the Old Testament, through his actions and creeds such as visiting transgressions on to generations, eye for an eye and giving rain to the just and unjust alike, is not good and that this God even announces that he creates evil as in Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Marcion continues to point out that the God of the Old Testament is fickle and shows favoritism, punishes evil severely or simply winks at it and that he is always repenting, swearing, or threatening or is depicted as angry or jealous or excitable or exasperated. Marcion points out these weak, human emotions in this creator God and doesn’t allow them to be explained away by appeal to figurative or allegorical language.
Marcion proclaimed the creator god of the Old Testament as “god of this world” as demonstrated in 2 Corinthians 4:4 “In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them who believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine to them.” He said that such a God cannot be transcendent, forgiving and loving. That the God of the Old Testament was not the God announced by Jesus and Paul. He was unable to reconcile the traits of the Old Testament God with that of an all good God. You can still see Christians trying to rationalize this even today. Marcion insisted that the spirit humans have within them came from this creator God and he differs from other gnostic writings in saying that there is no divine seed deposited in humans from the transcendent Good One. We are creatures of this creator and if it were not for the divine grace of the Father of Christ, we would be forever destined to be under this creator God.
Marcion also attacks the prophecies of the Old Testament. He claims that Jesus was not this Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. The Messiah mentioned in those texts was the one the creator God was going to send, not the Son of the loving Father. He claimed that Christ only appeared to be human but did not actually inhabit a human body as stated in Philippians 2:6-7 “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” He could not fathom Christ inhabiting a body that he put was “full of dung.” Marcion insisted that Christ came to reveal the gospel of grace and to show humans how their souls can be saved from death and that he taught a message of love to the poor and humble and healing their afflictions. He stress that faith in the cross of Christ was the way to salvation.
Marcion still insisted that the creator God had its place within his theology. He stated that the creator God was a holding cell where the unrighteous were punished for their misdeeds and the righteous awaited their eventual rewards. When Jesus died on the cross, he descended into Hades and preached to these souls and offered the grace of salvation from his Father. Here we see an interesting confrontation. Jesus was able to win over sinners like Cain, the Sodomites and the Egyptians that enslaved the Israelites but the righteous like Moses, Abel, Enoch and Noah thought this was a trap by the creator god and resisted and remained in Hades. Those that accepted salvation were assured that upon death, the soul not the body was resurrected into the “heavenly bosom and harbor” of the father.
Let’s step back and look at each of these gnostic writings and writers. As I mentioned in the beginning, the term gnostic or Gnosticism is broadly applied and if you were paying close attention, there are differences between these four major sources. I will outline some of these differences here. What I hope to demonstrate is that the category of Gnosticism is not precise and some scholars would even say that the category needs to be abandon to allow for a more precise definition.
As I said earlier, the ancient writers of these texts did not label their writings as Gnosticism, this term was applied to these writings by scholars. In 1966, a conference held in the Messina, Italy hoped to nail down a precise definition of Gnosticism. Here is how they define Gnosticism:
“a coherent series of characteristics that can be summarized in the idea of a divine spark in man, deriving from the divine realm, fallen into this world of fate, birth and death, and needing to be awakened by the divine counterpart of the self in order to be finally re-integrated. Compared with other conceptions of a “devolution” of the divine, this idea is based ontologically on the conception of a downward movement of the divine whose periphery (often called Sophia [Wisdom] or Ennoia [Thought]) had to submit to the fate of entering into a crisis and producing-even if only indirectly-this world, upon which it cannot turn its back, since it is necessary for it to recover the pneuma-a dualistic conception on a monistic background, expressed in a double movement of devolution and reintegration.”
To sum this up: there is a divine spark within human kind that came from a divine, perfect realm. This spark fell into this world usually through that act of Wisdom or Thought and represents a devolution into this fallen world. It is the desire of this divine spark to reintegrate with the divine, perfect realm.
Right off the bat, we can see that Marcion does not meet this criteria but he is often lumped within the category. It seems Marcion emphasizes faith not knowledge as the means to salvation. He seems to accept the Biblical narrative of the Old Testament literally but just rejects its authority where other gnostic writers reinterpret the narrative allegorically. He also appears to have no myth (such as emanations and the activity of Sophia) that connects the Father of Jesus to the creator. It seems that the Father of Jesus is unknown and completely disconnected from the creator God according to Marcion. And finally, the divine spark that is supposed to be within humans is not mentioned by Marcion. He seems to say that we are products of this creator God and without the grace of salvation from the Father of Jesus, we would be stuck with this creator God. There is no divine realm for which the human spirit yearns to return to, it’s a gift from this unknown Father.
Also, Justin’s Baruch would be eliminated as well. The world was essentially good when created for Elohim and Eden but it wasn’t until Elohim witnessed this divine perfect realm that things went haywire. Our world wasn’t the result of a bastard emanation like in the Apocryphon of John but it was good and was recognized as so by this divine perfect being. It was when Elohim failed to return to Eden that things got bad and needed to be saved.
Ptolemy and The Apocryphon of John share some similar elements but vary slightly in the details. They retain the divine spark and the perfect spiritual realm but the created cosmos has different purposes. In Ptolemy, the cosmos as used as a teaching tool, in John, they are there because of this creator god. The demiurge in John thinks it is the only God in town and creates to his heart’s content. In Ptotemy, the demiurge is a tool used to create, this power given to it from Achamoth, which is the offspring of Wisdom. This creator was ignorant of the both the Father and Achamoth and he also thinks he is the only God in town. Both demiurge’s unwittingly breathed the divine spark into humans. In John, the demiurge is the direct offspring of Wisdom, in Ptolemy, the demiurge is the offspring of Achamoth, which is the offspring of Wisdom.
In all four writings, salvation is gain through Jesus who is of the Father. In Justin, John and Ptolemy, salvation is gained through knowledge of the divine realm but according Marcion, salvation is gain through faith in Jesus. That right there should remove Marcion as gnostic seeing how gnosis is about knowledge. This suggest that Marcion is some new interpretation of Jesus and uniquely Marcion. For this, I would not label Marcion as gnostic. This is the complicated category of Christian Gnosticism.
What are we to draw from these writings? Since most of these writings come from the second century and if we are to believe the gospel accounts, this is about one hundred to two hundred years after the alleged death of Jesus. These weren’t small cultish movements. They were a serious threat to Christian orthodoxy and we know this because we get most of the gnostic materials from critics. The treasure trove that is the Nag Hammadi library shinned new light on Christian Gnosticism. Marcion, which I have shown to not be gnostic for all intents and purposes was a real threat as well. His ability to mobilize and spread his teachings threatened the orthodox teaching at the time. Critics would not waste time on fringe movements. What does this say of Christianity? If you ask an apologist, the meaning and understanding to the life and death of Jesus was known and certain since the beginning but the actual reality of the situation is much different than the spin apologist put onto church history. There was not a unified church or Christian movement, this is evident in the Pauline letters. The very notion of an early, unified church is ludicrous. Everyone had their own interpretations of Jesus and God and this is what you would expect of a religious movement that spans many countries, cultures and people. Who’s to say what we have in the Bible is accurate? Why not what Marcion of Justin and John wrote? Because they didn’t win. Their theology lost in the end and is it because they were wrong? The apologist would say so but in truth it was because they didn’t have to backing of the state. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, those in power made sure their teachings won. This is not divine guidance but human politics. What this gnostic writings demonstrate to us is that there were many competing ideas and theologies so soon after the alleged death of Jesus that the historical record in the gospels is suspect. If we can doubt their reliability, then everything else that Christians hold their faith on can be doubted too even the historical Jesus.