Faulkner University


The Gnostics by Edwin M. Yamauchi

The Gnostics were followers of a variety of religious movements in the early Christian centuries that stressed that people could be saved through a secret knowledge (gnosisin Greek).
The clearest evidence for these movements, collectively known as Gnosticism, comes in Christian writings of the second century. These viewed the various Gnostic groups as heretical perversions of Christianity.

Gnosticism may also have been more independent of Christianity. For instance, some scholars find Gnostic traces wherever there is an emphasis on 'knowledge' for salvation, as for example in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others emphasize the stress on an opposition between the spiritual world and the evil, material world.

The Teachings of the Gnostics In Gnostic beliefs there is a sharp dualism--they set a transcendent God over against an ignorant creator (who is often a caricature of the God of the Old Testament). Some taught that the creation of the world resulted from the fall of Sophia, 'wisdom'. All Gnostics viewed the material creation as evil. Sparks of divinity, however, have been encapsulated in the bodies of certain 'spiritual' individuals destined for salvation.

These 'spirituals' are ignorant of their heavenly origins. God sends down to them a redeemer who brings them salvation in the form of secret knowledge (gnosis) of themselves, their origin and their destiny. Thus awakened, the 'spirituals' escape from the prison of their hostile bodies at death and passed safely through the planetary regions controlled by hostile demons, to be reunited with God.

Since they believed that salvation depended solely upon the knowledge of one's 'spiritual' nature, some Gnostics indulged in extremely licentious behavior. They claimed that they were 'pearls' who could not be stained by any external mud. Carpocrates, for example, urged his followers to sin; and his son Epiphanes taught that promiscuity was God's law. The Cainites perversely honored Cain and other villains of the Old Testament; and the Ophites venerated the serpent for bringing 'knowledge' to Adam and Eve.

Most Gnostics, however, had a radically ascetic attitude towards sex and marriage. Humans were originally unisex. The creation of woman was the source of evil; the procreation of children simply multiplied the souls in bondage to the powers of darkness.

Gnosticism clearly enjoyed great success in the ancient world, especially on the fringes of Christianity. It offered explanations of the evil and confusion of the world and mankind, and a way of escape that led back to man's spiritual home.

Until the nineteenth century, our knowledge of the Gnostics rested entirely on the writings of Christians such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, Tertullian, and Epiphanius. Some of them preserved extracts from original Gnostic documents, but for the most part their accounts are in the form of counter-arguments. Scholars were not sure how accurate these accounts were; recent discoveries, such as the Nag Hammadi texts, have confirmed some of them.

New Evidence about the Gnostics In the nineteenth century t original Gnostic manuscripts were published: the Codex Askewianus containing the Pistis Sophia, and the Code Brucianus containing the Books of Jeu. All of these are relatively late Gnostic documents. A third manuscript, the Codex Berolinensis, though acquired in the nineteenth century, was fully published unti11955. It contains a Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), a Wisdom of Jesus, Acts of Peter, and an Apocryphon of John (a work mentioned by Irenaeus in AD 180). These three manuscripts are in Coptic, a late version of the Egyptian language.

In 1946 a priceless cache of twelve Coptic codices and fragments was discovered near Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt by a peasant searching for fertilizer. The collection, which was deposited about AD 400, contains about fifty works. These texts have already thrown much new light on Gnostic beliefs and practices. Among those which have been published are: The Gospel of Truth, which some have ascribed to the famous Gnostic leader Valentinus, and which deals with ignorance as the cause of man's lost state.

The letter of Rheginos, possibly by Valentinus, claim that the resurrection was not a physical event.

The Gospel according to Thomas, an important collection of 114 logia or sayings attributed to Jesus. (This is distinct from another apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which describes the miracles supposed to have been done by the child Jesus.)

The Gospel according to Philip, by Valentinus, which discusses several sacraments, including baptism, anointing with oil and the 'wedding chamber'.

The Apocryphon of John, giving a detailed account of the origins of the universe, similar to that of the Sethians and Ophites, Gnostic groups mentioned by early Christian writers.

The Revelation of Adam, in which Adam reveals to Seth how Noah was saved from the flood and Seth's seed is saved from destruction by fire. Although some allusions--for example to a virgin birth and physical suffering--may be explained as references to Christ, Christianity is not explicitly mentioned in the text. Some have therefore argued that this document represents pre-Christian Gnosticism .

The Mandaean communities living today in Iraq and Iran are the sole surviving remnants of ancient Gnosticism. Three major texts from the Mandaeans were translated early in this century:

  • The Ginza, a detailed account of the beginnings of the universe.
  • The Johannesbuch, containing some late traditions about John the Baptist.
  • The Qolasta, a collection of prayers and liturgies.

The manuscripts of these texts date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries; there are earlier magic bowl texts (AD 600) and some magical lead amulets that may possibly date from as early as the third century AD. Though a number of scholars have assumed a pre-Christian date for the origin of the Mandaeans, the firm evidence suggests a date no earlier than the second century AD. Hence it is anachronistic to interpret the New Testament on the basis of Mandaean texts.

Gnostic Leaders Although the New Testament itself (Acts 8) does not describe Simon Magus as a Gnostic (he is called a magos, "magician") early Christian writers unanimously regarded Simon as the fount of all heresies. Unlike the later Gnostics, Simon appears to have claimed to be divine and taught that salvation involved knowledge of himself rather that any knowledge of one's self.

Simon was followed by a fellow Samaritan, Menander, who taught at Antioch in Syria towards the end of the first century. He told his followers that those who believed in him would not die. Needless to say, his own death demonstrated that he was a false prophet. Also teaching in Antioch, at the beginning of the second century, was Saturninus, who believed that Christ was the Redeemer. But like other Gnostics he maintained that Christ was not a material being and only appeared to be a man (the Docetic view).

Cerinthus taught in Asia Minor. (Irenaeus tells the story that the apostle Joh fled from a bath house at Ephesus when he learned that Cerinthus was there!) He taught that Jesus was merely a man upon whom 'the Christ' descended as a dove. As Christ could not suffer, he departed from Jesus before the crucifixion. (This tradition is also found in the Koran. 'They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so to them.')

Marcion of Pontus was an important, thought not typical Gnostic. He insisted upon faith in Christ, but rejected the humanity of Jesus and the resurrection of the body.

Other Gnostics teachers included Basilides and his son Isidore, and Carpocrates and his son, Epiphanes-all of whom taught in Alexandria, in Egypt. The most famous Gnostic teacher was Valentinus, who came to Rome in AD 140. He had a number of Able followers, among them Theodotus in the East, and Ptolemy and Heracleon in the West. Heracleon's commentary of the Gospel of John is the earliest known commentary on a New Testament Book.

Manichaeans by Edwin Yamauchi

Mani (AD 216-76), a Persian born in Mesopotamia, established a religion which claimed to be the final, universal revelation. It was a dualistic religion which maintained the sharp opposition between the principles of light and of darkness, 1ike other "Gnostic movements. Mani's followers, the Manichaeans, were zealous missionaries who carried their gospel to Africa, to Europe and even to China. The Manichaeans posed a threat to the church in the fourth century and numbered Augustine among their adherents before his conversion. The Manichaeans, probably bequeathed some of their beliefs to heretical groups which flourished in Asia Minor and Europe in the Middle Ages.

Mani was brought up among a sect of Jewish Christians, but left them when he received 'reve1ations'. He called himself 'the apostle of Jesus Christ'. Mani converted members of his family and began his far-flung ministry of over thirty years. An early source describes Mani's appearance with a book in one hand and a staff in the other--he may have been lame. He wore flamboyant clothing, a blue cloak, and red and green trousers.

He preached in Mesopotamia and throughout Persia, and even reached India. He allegedly delivered many from demons and diseases.

Mani died in prison in AD 276. He was decapitated, and his corpse was buried by his followers at Gundishapur in southwestern Persia. Mani, who was a gifted painter, composed the Ardahang, a picture book, to propagate his faith among the illiterate. He also wrote seven works.

Mani taught that there were two independent eternal principles, light and darkness, God and matter. In the first epoch, light and darkness were separate; in the second epoch they were intermingled; and in the final epoch they were to be separated once more. Jesus and other religious leaders came in order to release souls of light from the prison of their bodies.

The Manichaean Community The Manichaeans were sharply divided between an elite circle known as the elect, and the mass of laymen known as hearers. The hearers lived the lives of ordinary citizens. They offered daily gifts of fruit, cucumbers' and melons-which were believed to possess a great deal of light--to the elect, who were ascetics and vegetarians. At death the sou1s of the hearers were reborn as other men. Only the elect, who were distinguished by white robes, were eligible for offices and for the most sacred rites.

The Spread of Manichaeism in the West Manichaeism spread at an early date to Syria and Palestine. An army veteran brought the new religion from Mesopotamia in AD 274. Their invasion of North Africa elicited Diocletian's harsh edict of AD 297 which condemned the Manichaeans' as hostile Persian agents who were to be executed.

After the spread of Manichaeism in many areas in the fourth century, the forceful refutations of Augustine, his disciple Evodius, and other church leaders stemmed the tide. By the sixth century Manichaeism was in decline in the West.

The Paulician movement which spread in Armenia from the seventh to the twelfth century, though it repudiated Manichaeism, resembled it in its dualist views. The Paulicians came to Bulgaria in the tenth century and helped to develop Bogomils who flourished in the Balkans in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The latter movement in turn stimulated the important Manichaean-like heresy of the Cathars or Albigensians, who were dominant in southern France and northern Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A crusade was proclaimed against them by Pope Innocent III in 1208. By the fourteenth century the last heirs of Manichaeism had been finally suppressed by the Inquisition.

The Montanists by David F. Wright

An enthusiastic young Christian named Montanus began to attract attention as a prophet in AD 172 in Phrygia, a region of western Asia Minor. Two prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla, soon joined him. They claimed to be mouthpieces of the Paraclete, the Greek title used in John's Gospel for the Holy Spirit. At times God spoke through them in the first person as with the Old Testament prophets: "Man is a lyre, and I move over him like a plectrum." They were the 'New Prophecy'.

Through their oracles they urged Christians to relish persecution: 'Do not hope to die in bed, but as martyrs.' Montanists were 'gloriously martyred' in Gaul and Africa. Epitaphs on tombstones in Phrygia give evidence of the boldness of Montanist Christians.

Montanists called all Christians to a demanding asceticism. Marital relations were to be abandoned in favor of chastity, fasts multiplied, and food eaten dry. The Montanists holy, Spirit-led communities at Pepuza and Tymion in Phrygia were named 'Jerusalem'. Maximilla predicted: 'After me there will be no prophecy, but the End.'

The most distinguished Montanist was Tertullian of Carthage in his later life. He too believed that the prophecies given by the Paraclete perfected the church's discipline--by refusing forgiveness for serious sins after baptism, and banning remarriage and flight from persecution.

The Montanists soon ran into trouble. In Asia they were excommunicated by the first synods of bishops known of in the history of the church. Why they were condemned is uncertain. They were fanatics but not heretics. (One bishop of Rome apparently recognized their gifts as of the Spirit, but later changed his mind.) Their visions, speaking in tongues and intense religious excitement attracted suspicion. The claims made for their prophecies seemed to question the emerging canon of New Testament Scriptures.

Maximilla's predictions were not fulfilled. The Montanists scolded the 'unspiritual' church for rejecting their Paraclete. In short, allegiance to the New Prophecy created discord at a time when the bishops were working towards a united, stable church which conformed with the tradition of the apostles. Montanist groups survived into the fifth century in Africa and longer still in Phrygia. The church lost much by excluding them. Despite their excesses, the Montanists stood for the conviction that the Spirit was as active in the contemporary church as at "the beginning; greater manifestations, not lesser, were promised for 'the last days'.

Novatianists by Michael A. Smith

The Novatianists were a small puritanical group which split off from the church at Rome. Their founder, Novatian, was defeated in the election for bishop in AD 251, and set up a rival congregation. The main point at issue between the factions in the election was how to treat those who had renounced Christ during the persecutions. Novatianists took a very rigid line, and refused to receive back anyone who had given way under persecution.

Novatian was a gifted theologian and one of the earliest Latin authors among the Christians. Several of his works survive, the most important dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity. He is believed to have been martyred during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian about AD 258. Nova.tianists were theologically orthodox and in the 250s spread quickly. They set up a rival bishop at Carthage, gained the support of Marcian, bishop of Aries, and also made headway in the East. They soon built up a network of small congregations, calling themselves "Cathari" (pure ones) to distinguish themselves from all other churches, which they considered to be polluted as a result of their lenient attitude towards sinners. Those who joined the Novatianists had to be baptized afresh, as if they were joining the only true church. Novatianists later took their rigid stand further, refused to have communion with people who had been married more than once, and rejected the possibility of penance for any major sin after baptism.

Novatianists were treated as heretics until the time of Constantine, when an edict in 326 granted them toleration and the right to own church buildings and burial-places. A Novatianis.t bishop, Acesius, was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. In the fourth century, Novatianists spread into Spain and Egypt.

Despite official toleration, Novatianists continued to be harassed by officious churchmen. Nestorius attacked them in 428 at Constantinople, but was restrained by the Emperor. In 429 Celestine, bishop of Rome deprived them of their buildings. The Novatianists were especially strong in Constantinople, and the church historian Socrates (about 380-440) probably belonged to them. They were still important enough to be attacked in the writings of Eulogius, patriarch of Alexandria (580-607), but were probably reabsorbed into the mainstream churches with the passage of time. As early as Nicaea, Novatianist clergy were allowed to retain their rank if they returned to the 'catholic church'.

Marcion by H. Dermot McDonald

Marcion was born in Sinope, Pontus, on the Black Sea, the son of the bishop. He arrived in Rome about AD 140 and immediately fell under the spell of the Gnostic teacher Cerdo, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was unknowable; the latter had beer revealed. The former was sheer justice; whereas the God of the New Testament is loving and gracious.

Marcion became the chief spokesman of this message and introduced his own distinctive ideas. But his garbled Christian views were firmly repudiated by the church in Rome and Marcion was excommunicated in AD144.

Justin Martyr asserted that Marcion was aided by the devil to blaspheme and deny that God was the creator of the universe. Tertullian wrote Against Marcion about AD 207, and regarded Marcion as a formidable foe of true Christian doctrine.

Marcion's Ideas about God Marcion developed Cerdo's division between the God of the Old Testament and the New. He held that the Old Testament God was basically vengeful and the author of evil. God was solely concerned for the Jewish people, for whom he was prepared to destroy all others. In contrast, the New Testament God is a God of grace and love for all, who disclosed himself in Jesus Christ, his Son.

Marcion stated that Jesus Christ was not born of a woman; he suddenly appeared in the synagogue at Capernaum in AD 29 as a grown man. For he was not like any other man except in his appearance: he was a new being on earth. Marcion's view of Christ was similar to that of the Docetists. Although he stated that Christ's life and crucifixion were necessary for salvation, he also believed that Christ's human experiences and sufferings were merely apparent, not real. Since creation was not an act of the good God of the New Testament, the Christian must reject the world. The body must be denied and discarded, since the soul and spirit alone are redeemed. As a result Marcion rejected the idea of the resurrection of the body.

Because he believed that the God of the Old Testament favored the Jews exclusively, Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and also those New Testament writings which he considered favored Jewish readers--for example Matthew, Mark, Acts and Hebrews. He cut out from the rest of the New Testament what appeared to him to compromise his own views, including the Pastoral letters
(1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). So he was left with only a mutilated version of Luke's Gospel (omitting the nativity stories) and ten letters of Paul. He believed that Paul was the only apostle who did not corrupt the gospel of Jesus.

The Marcionites set up their own churches, modeled on orthodox congregations. They had their own orders of clergy and rituals. They did not use wine at communion, as a result of the ascetic emphasis of their teaching. Some of the Marcionite ideas spilled over into the various Gnostic sects, and Marcionites were themselves affected by Gnostic views. Their ideas spread throughout Italy, and as far afield as Arabia, Armenia and Egypt. In the East they exercised a considerable influence for many decades. A number of Marcionite villages are known to have existed near Damascus as late as the fourth century. In the West their influence declined mainly as a result of their becoming linked with the Manichaeans.

My Faulkner
Nichols Library
Academic Calendar
Faulkner Events
WebMail - Eagle Alert - Library - Give Online - Faculty & Staff Directory - Employment - Faculty Web Sites
Ask Us - Map & Directions | 5345 Atlanta Highway, Montgomery, AL 36109 334.272.5820 or 800.879.9816
©2012 all right reserved.