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Gnosticism and the Creation of the Canon

by Elizabeth McNamer

There are 27 books in our canon of the New Testament. We are all familiar with the letters of Paul, the letters of John, Peter, James, Jude and Hebrews, with the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation, and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Since the end of the fourth century the church has accepted these books as authentically presenting the message of Jesus and few of us today would question their authority. This was not always the case, however, and today a small number of scholars are examining other texts that were rejected by the church and referring to those texts to re-create something of the early church.

One of these texts is the gospel of Thomas, which consists of sayings attributed to Jesus. This book, along with 54 others, was unknown to us until 1947 when a whole library was dug up at a place called Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Other titles that surfaced were the infancy narrative of James, the gospel of Peter, the gospel of Philip, the gospel of Mary, the Acts of Paul and Techla and a host of others.

What exactly are these books, how did they come to be, and why were they buried away? The answer is that these books promulgate a theology that is opposed to the theology of the mainstream church. They were written by groups of people in the early centuries of the church, and they appear to have been buried by the writers when the church authorities agreed on a canon.

We knew of the existence of heretical groups all along, but only through the negative things that had been written about them by the early church Fathers. Now we have found their diary so to speak and they have a voice of their own.

They were all written in Coptic, which was the common language of Egypt during these centuries, although it is evident that some of the texts had been originally written in Greek and translated.

Although they have been given the authority of leading figures in the church (Peter, Paul, James, Thomas, etc.) they were certainly not written by any of these. It was common practice to put a big shot's name to a work to give it more authenticity. This was long before copyright laws, or before authors attached their own names to their product. Many believe that these were the works of a group of heretics called Gnostics.

Who Were They?

The Gnostics—the word comes from the Greek gnosis, to know—believed that they possessed a special knowledge that put them a notch above the ordinary person in the pew. This knowledge destined them for eternal life.

Their stories tell us that they considered matter and creation to be bad. Their values were spiritual only. Some scholars think that Gnosticism was a serious attempt to answer the problems of evil, that it may have predated Christianity and was a philosophy that imposed itself on any religion it came in contact with. There may have been Gnostic Jews. Indeed it is evident as one reads through their books that the Old Testament was a target of their attacks.

Since for them matter was bad, the god who created matter was bad,too. He is referred to as the demiurge. In the beginning, something went wrong with the plan and God somehow had gotten divided up in his battle with evil. This resulted in two gods, one evil and the other good and spiritual. The evil one created matter, and creation was not good. Matter was bad. But sparks of the divine (the good god) went flying about. The Gnostics believed that their souls were sparks of the divine, imprisoned in the flesh and seeking release. At the basis of their doctrine, then, was the belief that spirit was good but matter was bad.

What They Did With the Scriptures

When their philosophy was applied to the Old Testament everything got topsy turvy. In the creation story in Genesis, they opined that Adam and Eve had tried to recapture knowledge, since that was what they felt they had to have. The serpent who told Eve to eat the fruit was the redeemer. He was telling her that she needed knowledge. In one of their books, the Testimony of Truth, the serpent is Wisdom. Likewise Cain is good because he wanted to destroy matter.

When they turned themselves to Christianity they explained that the purpose of Jesus coming to earth was to collect all those bits of the divine that had gone astray at creation and get them back together again.

They said Jesus had conveyed a secret knowledge to some of his apostles, especially to Thomas whom they considered his twin. But the big problem was that when one applied the doctrine of matter being bad to Jesus, they came up with the idea that Jesus did not have a real body, that he only appeared to have one.

Dokeo is the Greek word for "appear" so they came up with a docetic Christ. This, of course, subverted the emerging orthodox doctrines of the incarnation (matter was bad, therefore he was not human), crucifixion (he didn't suffer and neither need they) and resurrection (they did not believe in a physical resurrection).

Gnostic Effect on Christian Thinking

Their behavior was also a cause of concern. Most were ascetics since they distrusted matter, and sexual contact was bad since it produced more matter. Several of their tractates (The Acts of Paul and Techla and the Acts of Peter, for instance) present celibacy as the supreme virtue. Techla is willing to die rather than marry. Peter brings his deformed daughter to good health and then realizes that she might now marry so he returns her to deformity again. This spreads the word that marriage is bad and wrong.

But some, on the other hand, felt that since matter didn't matter they could indulge themselves in whatever they liked without hurting the soul. And what they seemed to like was sexual promiscuity. It is evident that such people had infiltrated the Christians to whom Peter wrote his second letter and those whom Jude addressed.

Gnosticism left things open to abuse. Marriage was bad, but at the same time, one could engage in physical things without hurting the soul, so sexual license was prevalent.

Women and Gnosticism

At least one scholar, Elaine Pagels, suggests that many women were attracted to this heretical group because in it they were given authority denied them in the orthodox church.

Women figure more prominently in several of the writings: the gospels of Thomas, Philip, James, Apocryphon of Peter, Acts of Paul and Techla, Thunder Perfect Mind. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalen, Mary is the leading figure in the church and bosses Peter around. In the Gospel of Truth, God is a woman.

They were mainly written in the second century when the hierarchy was being formed. Clement of Rome insisted that there is but one bishop as there is but one God and that men form the legitimate body of the community.

These writings may have encouraged insubordination by women and may have been written as a reaction to male authority. They may have been the origin of celibacy for women in the church.

We know that a local synod of bishops was held at Gangra in the fourth century. It was chiefly concerned to condemn an Armenian bishop Eustathius and his followers, for what they held about celibacy and the conduct of women.

The source of the problem seems to have been that married women were leaving their husbands, shaving their heads and dressing like men out of an exalted idea of virginity and denigration of marriage.

Gangra declared:

"If any one disparages marriage, shuns a faithful and god-fearing wife who sleeps with her husband, and speaks as though she cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, let him be anathema.

"If anyone is a virgin or celibate but is avoiding marriage because he regards it as some moral disorder and not because of virginity's own beauty and holiness, let him be anathema.

"If anyone of those who are celibates for the Lord's sake casts aspersions on those who take wives, let him be anathema.

"If any woman deserts her husband and wishes to be quit of him because she abhors marriage, let her be anathema."

Which Books Should We Read?

In the first four centuries there was no formal canon and people were often confused as to which books to use.

In the year 150, a prominent Gnostic called Marcion came up with his own canon. He hated Jews so he threw out the Old Testament. He believed that Jesus had sprung from the head of God—like Athena from Zeus. He accepted the letters of Paul in his canon. He rewrote Luke. But mainly he included his own books.

Marcion's canon brought a reaction from other leaders in the church. Ireneus of Lyon, finding that many of the women in his congregation were leaving their husbands, wrote five volumes against heretics. He came up with his canon, which included the four Gospels. He carefully explained that there could be only four gospels since there were four corners of the world and four winds! Hippolytus of Rome also wrote refutations against heresy.

At Rome, the Muratorian Canon included the four Gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, the letter of Jude, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Wisdom of Solomon, Revelation and Apocalypse of Peter.

Other canons included the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Acts of Paul. At Alexandria they used the letters of Clement of Alexandria. Several churches (including the churches at Alexandria and Antioch) would not include the book of Revelation. The letter to the Hebrews was accepted in the East, but not in the West.

Just how did the 27 that we now have in our canon emerge? One answer is that pressure was put on the hierarchy to suppress the Gnostic books not containing the true message of Christianity.

Another answer is that the 27 we now have are the ones that survived the test of the first three hundred years. They contained the authentic message of Jesus in the apostolic tradition. Other books petered out.

Things were cemented at the beginning of the fourth century when Saint Jerome translated the Old and New Testament into Latin. What Jerome produced (after 25 years' work) was called the Vulgate and it contained the books used by the church for a thousand years.

But it was only at the end of the fourth century that the 27 were generally accepted by all the churches. In his Easter letter of 367, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria mentions the 27 that we now have. The council of Hippo, which was held in 393, also mentions these books as being authoritative.

Gnostics Hung On

Gnosticism continued to plague the church. It did not die an easy death. We see in the Nicene Creed an attempt to refute it. We state, for example, that we believe in all things, visible and invisible. We also state most emphatically that we believe that Jesus Christ was born, died and rose from the dead.

In the 12th century it broke out again in southern France. The Catharian heresy was a resurrection of Gnosticism. It drew mainly women who were celibate and allowed themselves to be ordained as priests. They refused to say "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb" when the Hail Mary was popularized.

Even today, we find gnostic strains and influences in many of the New Age movements and in the revival of interest in the gnostic gospels.

But the church returns again and again to the truth contained in the New Testament Scriptures that lie at the center of our faith.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, has a Ph.D. in adult education and religious studies from Montana State University and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College.

Next: The Passion of Jesus (by Ronald Witherup, S.S.)

 

Praying With Scriptures  

Read the second letter of Peter and the letter of Jude. They both talk of groups that are infiltrating the Christian congregation. Pray for all bishop who are constantly called upon to deal with internal problems. We are not a perfect church.

 

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