Last week, we looked at the Epicureans, who sought to maximize individual pleasure. Two weeks ago, we looked at the Stoics, who sought freedom from the world. Now let’s look at another competitor with early Christianity, this one much closer to home—the Gnostics.
Everyone knows that Gnosticism, popular in the first few centuries AD, was rejected as heresy. What’s really interesting is what it meant for the early church.
Evil world, secret knowledge, layered heavens
Gnosticism was “a system of religious thought that blended elements of Christianity with Greek philosophy and Zoroastrianism. The basic tenet is that the created world [is] evil and salvation [comes] through secret knowledge (gnosis)” (FSB). But the diversity of Gnostic schools makes the system hard to pin down. Indeed, wrote a sarcastic Irenaeus, “since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views.”
So let’s look at the strangest, most interesting cosmology: that of one of the later Gnostics, Basilides.
Basilides’ heaven was not one but many, concentric. At the distant center was a single god, ruling over seven lesser gods; these seven created a heaven. They also created seven more gods and another, lower heaven, the symmetrical image of the first; the gods of this lower heaven created yet another heaven, with its sevenfold pantheon; these, another, and so on—365 heavens total. (Thus was the problem of evil resolved: by sheer distance between the world and the divine.) At the very bottom was the god of the Hebrew Bible, who, reduced 365 times over, was nothing but a demiurge—a creator god, working not with essences (like the inner gods) but with mere matter.
From there, Gnosticism was characterized by:
- Dualism between essence and matter, light and darkness, spirit and body. (Most Gnostics, judging all things fleshly as sinful, were ascetics; others, judging all things fleshly as equally sinful, were hedonists.)
- A focus on enlightenment. The Gnostics thought that they, through divine revelation, possessed secret knowledge that would allow them to pass from earth up through the ringed heavens—enlightenment unavailable in Scripture alone. (Enlightened souls were the only thing on Earth worth redeeming.)
- A vastly different notion of Christ. God took mercy on darkened, matter-bound humanity, sending a redeemer—a redeemer whose body was, since flesh and pure spirit are incompatible, merely an illusion. Therefore, Jesus’ physical crucifixion was illusory, too.
History tends to record Gnosticism as a subset of Christianity, but, given these radical departures, it’s more accurate (and interesting) to regard it as a standalone worldview. That’s especially true when you consider its diverse heritage.
Where did Gnosticism come from?
- From Plato, the Gnostics inherited the distinction between spirit and flesh, key to the Gnostic conception of personal enlightenment. Likewise, the Platonic distinction between form and matter influenced the Gnostic distinction between an essential heaven and a material earth. And the demiurge, too, comes to Gnosticism from Plato, who imagined a creator god in his Timaeus.
- From Zoroastrianism, the Gnostics inherited the dualism between light and darkness. More generally, Gnostic dualism owes something to Zoroaster’s consolidation of the Iranian pantheon into opposing forces of “illuminating wisdom” and “destructive spirit.”
- From Christianity, Gnosticism inherited pieces but by no means the whole: Jesus, but not his physical resurrection; the Bible, but only as an untrustworthy text to be modified by aggressive misreading and supplemented by such forged additions as the Gospel of Judas. (The Gnostic tendency to modify Scripture is unsurprising—they thought of it, after all, as the work of an inferior deity, given to errors, omissions, and deceit.)
Alarmed by the Gnostic worldview, Irenaeus set out to disprove it in Against Heresies. He argued that:
- The church was authoritative because of apostolic succession. According to the Gnostics, only their oral tradition, derived from the apostles, granted divine knowledge; Irenaeus countered that “The Church . . . received from the apostles and their disciples its faith.” Because the church leaders learned from people who’d learned from people who (a few steps earlier) had learned directly from Christ and his apostles, the church was to be trusted.
- The gospel was reliable because it was written after the apostles came to divine knowledge. The Gnostics thought the gospel was written before the apostles came to full enlightenment; Irenaeus responded that, right after the Resurrection, “the Holy Spirit came upon [the apostles], and they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge.”
- The sheer diversity of competing Gnostic viewpoints undermined the Gnostic claim to truth. With so many Gnostics “constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before,” how could any one be correct?
Gnosticism’s defeat was decisive—so much so that we know the school primarily through the writings of Irenaeus and other critics.
The debates over Gnosticism helped shape the early church in three ways. They contributed to:
- An increased focus on apostolic succession, so important to Irenaeus’ arguments.
- A standardized scriptural canon. In AD 150, Marcion proposed his own canon, which omitted the OT and was edited by Marcion himself. Irenaeus responded with a list of 21 canonical books, including the four Gospels.
- An emphasis on creeds to separate false from proper belief. The Apostles’ Creed, specifically, not only predates but also answers Gnostic heresy: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” rejects the Gnostics’ subaltern demiurge and flawed physical world; “Jesus Christ . . . born of the virgin Mary” rejects the Gnostic conception of Jesus’ body as illusory; “I believe in the holy catholic [universal] church” rejects the Gnostic claim that enlightenment is for a select few.
Gnosticism was remarkable not only for its strangeness, its startling diversity of cosmologies, but for its historical consequences. It’s in large part thanks to Gnosticism that the third- and fourth-century Christians solidified the doctrines we now regard as orthodox; that alone makes the Gnostics worth studying.
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If you’re interested in church and intellectual history, you should know the rise and fall of Gnosticism. Noet sets you up with many of the school’s most important texts, as well as smart tools for better scholarship.
- Understand its Hellenistic origins (and the origins of so much of Western thought) with the 24-volume Works of Plato, on Community Pricing for 83% off.
- Examine its rise with Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.
- Know the arguments against heresy with Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and the Works of Prudentius (who refuted the dualism of Marcion), on Community Pricing for 73% off.
Or extend your library with Noet’s enormous Classical Foundations Bundle, which sets you up to study antiquity across philosophy, history, and literature.
Then keep reading about early-church context:
- Epicureanism: what if life were all about pleasure?
- Stoicism: how ancient thought agreed (and disagreed) with the early church