The other history of the early Christian church

We are all more or less familiar with the early history of the early Christian church… persecution of the early Church by the Roman authorities, martyrdom and sacrifice, before the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD and the creation of an official ‘New Testament’ of Christian belief. But what of the other streams of early Christianity that existed during these centuries but were excluded from inclusion in the ‘orthodox’ doctrines? What do we know of these unorthodox voices?

After the death of Jesus (around 33 AD), Christianity grew from a small Jewish sect of apostles and followers to a religion that began to spread around the Roman empire. The uniqueness of early Christianity is that even though its early leaders were Jews, the Christian message was addressed to people of all nations and classes. For the first forty years of the movement, the records of Christ’s life and the acts of the apostles were primarily verbal ones, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70ad the first gospels were committed to writing. The gospel of Mark was written at this time and over the next twenty years (to 90ad), Mathew and Luke were written, followed by John (95ad). These gospels were all ‘narrative’ gospels in that they essentially recorded the activities of Jesus’ life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christianity The remainder of the New Testament is believed to have been written by 150 ad. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Testament

This early period was known as the Apostolic Church and after 100ad the Christian church moved into the Post-Apostolic period. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Period Justin Martyr (100-160ad), in the early 2nd century (around 120ad) mentions the memoirs of the apostles which are called ‘gospels’ and around 185 ad Irenaeus of Lyon insisted that the four gospels were the ‘pillars of the church’. The religious scholar, Elaine Pagels, argues that the gospels chosen by Ireneaus were concerned with providing moral instruction to the Christian community which helped served the institutionalising of the Christian movement. Ireneuas also referred to other Christian works (which he described as ‘heresies’) but these were excluded from the Christian Canon because they did not serve the purpose of institutionalisation. By the early 3rd century, Origen of Alexandria may have been using the same 27 books as exist in the modern New Testament.

During this time, Christianity suffered various persecutions, but continued to spread because of its appeal to Jews and Gentiles alike. However this persecution came to an end with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 323ad and Christianity became the official State religion of the Roman Empire. In 367ad, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, provided the earliest preserved list of the New Testament canon and the African Synod of Hippo of 393 approved the New Testament as it stands today. The Councils of Cathage of 397 and 419, presided over by St. Augustine, repeated the decision of 393 and Augustine regarded the canon as already closed.

Early church writers such as Ireneaus and Tertullian (150-220ad) wrote against alternative accounts of Christian doctrine and theology known as ‘Gnosticism’, although little precise detail was known about these views. Some fragments of Gnostic doctrine and theology were preserved in the ‘refutations’ of these Christian writers but it was not until 1945 when a large collection of Gnostic manuscripts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt that the original documents of Gnosticism were first known. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nag_Hammadi_library The word ‘gnosticism’ is derived from the Greek word gnosis which means knowledge of a revelatory or salvationist nature (as against ordinary knowledge of the world). The intellectual movement known as Gnosticism incorporated Christian, Jewish and pagan belief systems and existed from the early first century to the end of the fourth century

The Nag Hammadi codex is a collection of non-orthodox writings (52 separate texts in total) dating from the 1st to the 4th century ad. Apart from texts relating to Christian Gnosticism, the other Nag Hammadi texts include discussions of Jewish Gnosticism (usually referred to as Sethian Gnosticism – Seth being the third son of Adam and Eve after Cain and Abel), Gnostic criticisms of Neo-Platonism (the late Platonic movement – 3rd to 5th century ad – dating from Plotinus (204-270) through to Proclus (412-485)) and discussions of hermeticism (also known as the Hermetica), the occult tradition of late antiquity incorporating elements of alchemy and astrology. Sethian Gnosticism is often thought to predate Christian Gnosticism and may have been influenced the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (25 bce – 50 ce). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo

Apart from its emphasis on the esoteric nature of gnosis, a consistent theme in Gnostic writings is the view that the creator of the physical world (known since the time of Plato’s Timaeus as the ‘demiurge’) is an inferior spiritual being or fallen angel. According to the gnostics, no truly spiritual being would consciously seek to create the physical world and this is the reason why the Neo-Platonic philosophers, who saw rational order in the physical world, were so hostile to the gnostics. Within the Nag Hammadi codex, dialogues which make use of Neo-Platonic ideas include Allogenes, Marsanes, The Three Steles of Seth, and Zostrianos, while those relating to Sethian Gnosticism include the Apocalypse of Adam, the Apocryphon of John, and the Thought of Norea.

The texts relating to Christian Gnosticism are diverse in number and dating, although in discussing these texts it must be remembered that early Church writers such as Tertullian and Origen had a hostile view of Gnosticism. Hence there is much dispute by modern orthodox writers as to the dating of any Gnostic gospels before the second century. (Elaine Pagels argues that the creation of the Nag Hammadi codex was in fact a reaction to the persecution and destruction of Gnostic communities during the 4th century).

Remembering that the original gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John were only written down in the late 1st century, it is significant that there are several Gnostic gospels which date from the early 2nd century and perhaps as early as the late 1st century. These include the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Truth, and the Apocalypse of Adam. The most well known of these is the Gospel of Thomas which is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus and has been dated as early as 50ad. An example of this gospel:

“Jesus said ‘Blessed are the solitary and the elect, for you will find the kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return.”

This gospel also mentions a conflict between Mary and Peter which is a theme of the Gospel of Mary:

“Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my own heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?’”.

The Dialogue of the Savior is an elaboration of traditional sayings and has a close relationship to the Gospel of Thomas. From the Dialogue of the Savior:

“The Lord said ‘Right. For do they see you? Do they see those who receive you? Now behold! A true Word is coming forth from the Father to the abyss, in silence with a flash of lightning, giving birth’.”

Within the corpus is a complete account of the Gospel of Truth, written by a 2nd century Gnostic (about 150 ad) Valentinus. Valentinus was an extremely important Gnostic and was, at one point, a candidate for the position of bishop of Rome within the Christian church. Another important Gnostic text (20 pages) was the Apocryphon of John which dates from before 185 ad and was still in use in the 8th century by the Audians of Mesopotania. Part of the importance of this text lies in its criticism of the Old Testament such as when Jehovah says “I am a jealous God”, this author of this gospel states:

“But by announcing this he indicated to the angels who attended him that there exists another God. For if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous?”

A similar theme is treated in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth:

“And then a voice – of the Cosmocrator – came to the angels: ‘I am God and there is no other beside me.’ But I laughed joyfully when I examined his empty glory.”

And:

“For the Archon was a laughingstock because he said ‘I am God and there is none greater than I. I alone am the Father, the Lord, and there is no other beside me. I am a jealous God, who brings the sins of the fathers upon the children for three and four generations.’ As if he was stronger than I and my brothers! But we are innocent with respect to him, in that we have not sinned, since we mastered his teaching. Thus he was an empty glory.”

Both of these texts emphasise the common Gnostic theme that the God of the Old Testament (Jehovah), by his own words, demonstrates that he is not the only God in the heavens and that there must be others greater than him.

The Teaching of Sylvanus (dating from the late 2nd century) is not a standard Gnostic text but does present a unique view of Christ:

“Light the lamp within you. Do not extinguish it. Certainly no one lights a lamp for wild beasts and their young. Raise your dead who have died, for they lived and died for you. Give them life. They shall live again. For the Tree of Life is Christ. He is Wisdom”.

In the Apocalypse of Peter (a 3rd century text) the crucifixion of Christ is understood to be an illusion. In this docetic passage, Peter is standing next to Christ watching Christ’s own crucifixion:

“When he had said those things, I saw him seemingly being seized by them. And I said ‘What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?’ The Savior said to me, ‘He whom you see on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But the one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails in his fleshy part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and look at me…. But he who stands near him is the living Savior, the first in him whom they seized and released, who stands joyfully looking at those who did him violence, while they are divided among themselves. Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind.’”

Many of the texts present ascent rituals whereby through the uttering of certain sacred words and phrases, the Gnostic was able to ascend through the various layers of reality and return to the true God. In the Trimorphic Protennoia the overcoming of the Underworld is described:

“Every bond I loosed from you, and the chains of the Demons of the underworld, I broke, these things which are bound on my members, restraining them. And the high walls of darkness I overthrew, and the secure gates of those pitiless ones I broke and smashed their bars …indeed all these I explained to those who are mine, who are the Sons of the light, in order that they might nullify them all and be saved from all those bonds and enter into the place where they were at first.”

The Protennoia is the Voice of the First Thought and in this gospel she describes her nature:

“I am androgynous. I am Mother and I am Father since I copulate with myself. I copulated with myself and with those who love me, and it is through me alone that the All stands firm. I am the Womb that gives shape to the All by giving birth to the Light that shines in splendour.”

A similar idea is treated in The Paraphrase of Seth and the explicit imagery used makes it clear why some of these texts were not acceptable in the early church. The text describes Nature as a giant womb and the Savior puts on his Trimorphic garment and has intercourse with Nature. Nature has an orgasm and casts off its Mind in the form of a fish and as a result the physical world is created.

Much more could be said about the unique texts contained in the Nag Hammadi codex, although it should be clear that from a very early point in the Christian period, there were many other views apart from those that we have come to regard as orthodox. These views were not united by a single religious perspective but were simply alternative accounts, not only of Christianity, but also Judaism and Platonic philosophy. However there is a general theology that does characterise Gnosticism and this will be discussed in a later post.

 

Leave a Reply