Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Gnosticism and the Creation of the Canon
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
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
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 Gnosticsthe word comes from the Greek
gnosis, to knowbelieved 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
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
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
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
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.
"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 Godlike Athena from Zeus. He accepted the letters of
Paul in his canon. He rewrote Luke. But mainly he included his
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
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
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.
Next: The Passion of Jesus (by Ronald Witherup,