The 'Gnostic' Influence in Christianity

Above: Spell to cast out every unclean spirit (London Oriental Manuscript 6796 [4], 6796).

The "Gnostic" Influence in Christianity

The following is an extract taken from the book: The Wand of Jesus: The role of magic in the early Church

(This book will be published December 2020)

The terms 'Gnostic' and 'Gnosticism' come from the Greek word Gnosis which means 'knowledge.' The terms are used today, in academic as well as popular literature, to mean a group of people who believed that, rather than coming from 'faith,' one needed to learn a particular hidden secret to achieve 'enlightenment' or 'salvation.' Now, I am not trying to suggest that this is not the case—quite the reverse. What this modern category often fails to recognize is that this concept, of a deep 'Gnosis' or knowledge which is available only to the elect, is a theme that is played out in the vast majority of religions in the ancient world as well as in primal or tribal cultures and it was included in the some of the earliest writings of Christianity.

While it is true that Christianity was open to all classes and genders, which was one of the many reasons it grew so rapidly, there was still an inherent hierachy of 'Gnosis' in the various strands as they were developing. This is true for those strands that later became the mainstream—the 'proto-orthodox'—as well as those that were considered on the outside of that. In other words, there was always this particular level of 'Gnosticism' in Christianity. This concept was the original basis for the divisions of authority in the Church: At Mark 4:11, for example, Jesus is attributed to have said to the disciples: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables … ”

Above: A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

There are 27 references in the NT to this secret layer of teaching. The Greek used here, that becomes translated in the NIV as “secret”, is mustérion which means “mysteries”. The English word “mystery” is used in the KJV. Mustérion can be understood as, among other things, “a hidden thing or a religious secret, confided only to the intiated and not to ordinary mortals.” Mustérion comes from mueó which means to “initiate into the mysteries—hence 'to instruct.'” This word is used in only one occasion in the New Testament and it is by Paul in his letter to the Philippians at 4:12 where he states that he has been initiated: memyēmai. This was part of his own claim to authority over the Church that he established.  We will explore the contact between Christianity and the mystery religions in detail further on, but this discussion provides a good introduction to the overall theme because the mystery religions were examples of forms of religiosity that emphasised secret, even guarded, teaching.    

The concept of a 'mystery' element also had a strong precedent in Judaism. The Greek term mustérion appears in LXX, for example, in the second chapter of the book of Daniel in relation to the prophet's interpreting the dream of king Nebuchadnezzer. This narrative, coincidently enough, mentions the Kingdom of God:

“ … the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed … ” (2:44).

As illustrated above in the quote from Mark 4:11, God's Kingdom was, by all accounts, a favourite theme of Jesus and it is very often tied into this element of mystery.

At Daniel 2:47 it is written: “ ... the king said to Daniel, 'Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”

In Greek and, especially, Hebrew this one sentence has a huge depth of meaning that is lost in the modern translations. There is a beautiful, poetic passage in the book of Job at 38:1-39 which explains, at length, the mysterious nature of God. We will learn, further on in our journey, how to unravel the mysteries of these, comparatively mundane, modern renderings.  Among the other particular theological ideas identified by modern scholars in 'Gnosticism' are the concepts of a kingdom of light fighting against one of darkness and the 'sinful' nature of material existence. Again, these concepts are not specific to certain heretical strands of early Christianity and, as Elaine Pagels has demonstrated, the seed of these ideas, as they later came to be expressed in Christian forms of 'Gnosticism,' can be found in the theology of Paul and Jewish apocalyptic writing. (Pagels: 1992). The earliest precedent, that we know of, is the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Perhaps this is partly the meaning behind the appearance of the Magi in Matthew's birth narrative because these 'magicians' were the priests in that religion and were considered guardians of secret teaching.

As we examine Matthew in depth, starting in the next chapter, we will discover that this gospel has emphasized this dualistic dynamic which is very pronounced in his specific polemical perspective.  These particular theological ideas as well as the dimension of 'secret teaching' are factors that can be seen, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout the religious development of Classical antiquity. The meeting of Judaism and then Christianty with the Hellenistic world provided a powerful catalyst for this dualistic trajectory. 'Gnosticism'—especially the dimension of 'secret teaching'—could be viewed as various points on a continuum that exists within many forms of religious expression rather than a particular form of religiosity. Many of the groups that are termed 'Gnostics' today developed onto a fringe edge of what became mainstream Christianity but it is difficult to define it specifically as a certain 'religion' because there was, of course, no unified theology within their ranks either.  

One of the most important sources for exploring the contact between Judaism, Christianity and the Hellenistic religions is the Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria (ca. 15 BCE–50 CE). A near contemporary to Jesus and Paul, Philo was the most influential, prolific and well-known Jewish writer of the second temple period. It is through Philo, who read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek of LXX, that we have the bridge that spans the gap between Hellenistic thought and Christianity. His theology is especially important to engage with the writings of Paul, John, and the book of Hebrews. It is from Philo that we know that, like John, Jews of the ancient Mediterranean world understood the 'Word' or Logos in the Greek philosophical sense as a creative force of God. In a fragment entitled About initiation into divine mysteries, Philo states: “It is unlawful to speak of the sacred mysteries to the uninitiated.” (Yonge trans.) So we see that, at least in some quarters of the first century Jewish religious culture, a concept of secret, higher and hidden teaching was an institutionalized dogma and it was actually accomodated for within the sacred law. In another fragment entitled About mysteries, Philo warns that: “Chatterers divulging what ought to be kept buried in silence, do in a manner from a disease of the tongue pour forth into people's ears things which are not worthy of being heard.”   

The Essenes were a separatist group of Jewish purists, living on the outskirts of Palestine near the Dead Sea. The sect was one of four schools of Jewish thought mentioned by the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (ca. 37-100) in his book Jewish Wars (2.8.10). The Essenes have received a great deal of attention since the discovery, in 1947, of the so-called Deads Sea, or Qumran, scrolls which are widely attributed to have been authored, at least in part, by the group. As it happens, Philo was well acquainted with these seperatists and in his book, Every Good Man is Free, he describes an occasion where, apparently, he attended a synagogue with some Essene friends. The people often sit together to study, especially on the Sabbath, where they listen “in eager attention in becoming order.”  

"Then one, indeed, takes up the holy volume and reads it, and another of the men of the greatest experience comes forward and explains what is not very intelligible, for a great many precepts are delivered in enigmatic modes of expression, and allegorically as the old fashion was." (xii,82).  

It is reasonable to conclude that Philo's references to the “mysteries” in the fragments quoted above are probably referring to what he has learnt about studying the Hebrew Bible from the Essenes. It is also likely that the “law” that he cites is an Essene law because, as we will see in depth in the fourth chapter, the group had strict rules about keeping their teachings secret. Although there is no further information in the fragments themselves about the Essene methods  of allegorical interpretation, we are fortunate indeed that Philo's collected works provide for us a wonderful source of interpretative tools to use for allegorically understanding enigmatic texts.

We will be unpacking important texts ourselves at various stages of our journey with the help of Philo and a few other mystically inclined theologians who have already expanded a great deal on the “divine mysteries”.  It is interesting to note here that Philo refers to allegorical writing as being the “old fashion”. I have already mentioned the modern Enlightenment with our over-emphasis on rationalism and compartmentalization which has blinded many commentators to a deeper, symbolic, reading of the texts. Philo was addressing the point that some of the Classical intellectuals were going through their own 'mini-Enlightenment.' This is an important point to bear in mind when studying this period.   

Origen of Alexandra (ca. 185-254) was one of the most prolific philosophical exegetes, or interpreters, of the early Church. Amongst his works is the treatise Contra Celsus which was written in response to the second century criticism against Christianity from the Greek philosopher Celsus in The True Doctrine which was written ca. 175. Celsus' work is no longer extant but is reproduced almost verbatim in Origen's eight-volume answer which is considered to be the most important work of early Christian apologetics. Origen really rescued the reputation of the religion which, at the time, was accused of only attracting “the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children” (Contra Celsus: 3.44. Crombie trans.).   

Shortly after this passage, at 3.59, Origen quotes Celsus describing Christianity as one of the “mysteries” (teletai) and in his work The Passing of Peregrinus (xii), the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata (ca. 120-180), calls Christianity a ‘new cult '(kainên teletên), which means that he also considered it a type of mystery religion. So it is clear that Christianity was seen as such by people from the outside.   

In his day, Origen was highly respected by his Christian colleagues and considered orthodox, but with later theologians he did not have such a smooth ride and his writings were often criticized and even attacked as heretical. This is because of the particular formation of Christian doctrine that occupied the central theological focus for the first few centuries of the common era. The various debates concentrated mostly on the mysteries relating to the person of Jesus and the working out of dogmas about God such as the Trinity. These early interpretations included a certain degree of allegorical reading of scripture, especially with regards to finding prophecies pointing to Jesus in the HB. However, the need to clarify very specifically their developing dogma meant that the emphasis was in finding the mystery in the texts as they already assumed it to be, rather than allowing the texts to offer up an independent secret. Taking this stand, it was seen as outside the meaning of the scriptures when Origen declared, for example, that Satan was not beyond redemption. In other words, an allegorical reading was acceptable as long as it led to the 'correct,' pre-determined, doctrine. Despite the controversy that soon surrounded him, Origen is considered a Church Father today within Catholicism (although he was never canonized) and can be considered the founder of systematic Christian allegory. In his work First Principles (4:9), he addresses the point of the limited palette that many contemporary theologians were using and explains that the texts are written with what he describes as 'mystical economies.'      

"[T]he cause ... of the false opinions and of the impious statements or ignorant assertions about God, appears to be nothing else than the not understanding of the Scripture according to its spiritual meaning, but the interpretation of it agreeably to the mere letter ... Now, that there are certain mystical economies made known by the holy Scriptures, all—even the most simple of those who adhere to the word—have believed; but what these are, candid and modest individuals confess that they know not."

The broader, external pressures on Christianity that led to the loss of 'magic' in its initial development as well as in subsequent eras. There were also some important internal factors that contributed to this loss, including replacing the original 'mystery' with dogmatic theology.