In the world of biblical studies, at least among some critical scholars, Gnosticism has been the darling for sometime now. Especially since the discovery of the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars have sung the praises of this alternative version of Christianity.
Gnosticism was a heretical version of Christianity that burst on the scene primarily in the second century and gave the orthodox Christians a run for their money. And it seems that some scholars look back and wish that the Gnostics had prevailed.
After all, it is argued, traditional Christianity was narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, elitist, and mean-spirited, whereas Gnosticism was open-minded, all-welcoming, tolerant and loving. Given this choice, which would you choose?
While this narrative about free-spirited Gnosticism being sorely oppressed by those mean and uptight orthodox Christians might sound rhetorically compelling, it simply isn’t borne out by the facts. So, here are five claims often made about Gnosticism that prove to be more myth than reality:
Myth #1: Gnosticism was more popular than traditional Christianity.
Time and again we are told that Gnostics were just as widespread as orthodox Christians, and that their books were just as popular too (if not more so). The reason they did not prevail in the end is because they were oppressed and forcibly stamped out by the orthodox party who had gained power through Constantine.
But, this is simply not the case. All the evidence suggests that it was “the Great Church” (in the language of the pagan critic Celsus) that dominated the earliest Christian centuries, long before Constantine. Moreover, Gnostic writings were not nearly as popular as those which became canonical, as can be seen by the number of manuscripts they left behind. For example, we have more copies of just the Gospel of John from the first few centuries than we have of all apocryphal works combined.
Myth #2: Gnosticism was more inclusive and open-minded than traditional Christianity.
A popular perception of Gnostics is that they lacked the elitist mentality of traditional Christianity. They were the accepting ones, we are told.
But, again, it seems that reality might have actually been the opposite. Most people don’t realize that Gnostics were not interested in salvation for everybody. On the contrary, they regarded salvation as something only for the “spiritually elite.”
As Hultgren affirms, “The attitude of these Gnostics was elitist to the extreme, since they held that only one in a thousand or two in ten thousand are capable of knowing the secrets [of salvation]” (Normative Christianity, 99).
Myth #3: Gnosticism more accurately reflects the teachings of the historical Jesus than traditional Christianity.
Some have argued that if you want to know the real Jesus, the historical Jesus, then Gnostic writings (like the Gospel of Thomas) give you a more reliable picture.
The problems with such a claim are manifold, but I will just mention one: Gnostics were not that interested in the historical Jesus. For Gnostics, what mattered was not the apostolic tradition handed down but rather their current religious experience with the risen Jesus (Jonathan Cahana, “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Anti-Traditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” Journal of Religion, 94 : 49-73).
In other words, Gnostics were concerned much less about the past and much more about the present.
This sort of “existential” approach to religion may be popular in our modern culture where experience rules the day and religion is viewed as entirely private. But it doesn’t help you recover what really happened in history. If you want to know what happened in history, the canonical Gospels have always been the best sources.
Myth #4: Gnosticism was more favorable towards women than traditional Christianity.
This is a big one. Popular perceptions are that the orthodox Christians oppressed women, but the Gnostics liberated them. But, again, the truth is not so simple.
On the contrary, the historical evidence suggests that women flocked to traditional Christianity in droves. Indeed, they may have outnumbered the men almost two to one. Rodney Stark in his book The Triumph of Christianity argues that this is because Christianity proved to be a very welcoming, healthy, and positive environment for women.
I also cover this issue in my latest book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP Academic, 2018).
It is also worth noting that some of the Gnostic leaders’ supposedly pro-woman stance is not all it is cracked up to be. The Valentinian Gnostic Marcus was actually known for bringing women into the movement so that he could sexually seduce them (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.13.5).
Moreover, the Gnostic view of women seemed particularly negative if one considers the final verse in the Gospel of Thomas: “For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven” (logion 114). It is hard to see this as an endorsement of women!
Myth #5: Gnosticism was more positive towards human sexuality than traditional Christianity.
A final myth about Gnosticism is that it was pro-sex and that traditional Christianity was anti-sex. In other words, Gnostics celebrated sexuality and traditional Christians were puritanical prudes.
Again, the reality is very different. While some Gnostics were quite sexually licentious (as noted above with Marcus), a large strain of the movement was utterly against sex. Indeed, much of the movement advocated a harsh asceticism and celibacy.
For example, the Book of Thomas states, “Woe unto you who love the sexual intercourse that belongs to femininity and its foul cohabitation. And woe unto you who are gripped by the authorities of your bodies; for they will afflict you.”
While some orthodox Christians took a more ascetic route, most viewed celibacy as voluntary. Marriage, and sex within marriage, was celebrated and viewed as a gift from God.
In sum, popular perceptions about Gnosticism are just that, popular perceptions. And thus they do not necessarily have a basis in history. As we have seen here, the real Gnosticism was very different. And it reminds us that perhaps Gnosticism failed not because it was politically oppressed by those crafty orthodox folks, but because it simply proved to be less attractive to those in the earliest centuries who were seeking to follow Christ.
Or, as F.F. Bruce famously quipped, “The Gnostic schools lost because they deserved to lose” (Canon of Scripture, 277).
James Lundstrom says
I’m inclined to agree with Bruce. Really good ideas usualy don’t die very easily, even in the face of oppression.
I’m also curious as to what is meant by “oppression” with regard to the orthodox church (I am unaware of the scholarly consensus). Certainly the church fathers argued vigorously against Gnosticism but my understanding is that it declined largely before Constantine controlled the empire. Are there examples of state persecution of Gnostics after Christianity got close with imperial power?
Great article, having just run into a person who was telling me the the Gospel of Thomas should be in the Canon…and railed about the sexual repression of the early church……