In the first two centuries after Jesus lived, many writings about the meaning and purpose of his life, death, and resurrection started to circulate. Eventually, however, some Church ‘Fathers’ criticized certain texts. For example, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, wrote a multi-volume work called Against Heresies. Interestingly, in the ancient world, a ‘heresy’ simply meant a choice, a certain school of thought. There were many different spiritual and philosophical schools and movements, or ‘heresies,’ but Irenaeus and others turned ‘heresy’ into a dirty word. Ultimately, many writings, those considered ‘heretical’ were suppressed or simply neglected or forgotten.
Irenaeus and others claimed that certain books contained ‘gnostic’ heresy. This word, too, didn’t start out as negative or pejorative. ‘Gnosis’ simply means ‘knowledge,’ and in fact, many considered having ‘gnosis’ a good thing. Over time, however, various ideas that some disagreed with came to be lumped together and labeled ‘gnostic.’
However, there was no ‘Gnosticism’ as such. That term was never even used until the 1700’s when Protestants in England accused Catholics of being heretical by accusing them of ‘Gnosticism.’ In the 1800’s, scholars unconscious of their Orientalist bias promoted the idea that there was an ancient religion called ‘Gnosticism’ and came up with a whole list of characteristics describing it.
In the past century and a half, however, many of the so-called ‘Gnostic’ texts have surfaced once again (mostly in Egypt where the dry climate is conducive to preserving ancient manuscripts). The ability to read the actual content of the texts themselves has shed new light on the perspectives of ancient Jesus followers. (The word “Christian” is somewhat anachronistic as no one in the New Testament ever calls himself or herself a ‘Christian.’ Jesus and his first followers were Jews, not Christians.)
First and foremost, we know these perspectives were diverse. Some made an analogy between the sacrifice common in Judaism and other religions and the death of Jesus. Others focused more on the meaning of his life and teachings. In future posts, we will be exploring all of this in more detail. But for now, it’s important to realize that there was no one way, practice, or belief that defined early followers of Jesus. There was lots of debate among those who looked to him as a figure of immense meaning and significance but not always for the same reasons.
Finally, no one text contains all the characteristics of ‘Gnosticism.’ As the texts themselves have been re-discovered, it’s easy to see that their style and themes vary tremendously. No one text fits the profile of a ‘Gnostic’ text as defined in the 1800’s by those who never read the books themselves.
So in the end, we are left with fascinating new scriptures to read and explore, but they are best characterized as ‘writings of the early Jesus followers,’ not ‘gnostic gospels.’