Many a new Christian was liable to lapse back into old ways. (In Ephesus St. Paul’s converts had to be shocked by a demoniac before they finally got around to organising a bonfire of their books of magic!) From the days of the Apostles there was always to be found on the fringes of the Church an array of teachers who claimed to possess a ‘knowledge’ (Greek gnosis) superior to the ‘teaching’ (didache) revealed by Christ, taught by the Apostles and guarded by the Bishops. At first these false teachers had been simply Judaisers urging return to the legality and safety of Judaism. These were dealt with by Galatians in 49 and the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem in 50. Quickly however these teachers began to exploit St. Paul’s doctrine of freedom from the Mosaic Law to preach immorality, an early version of ‘salvation by faith alone’. 2
Soon too they were wandering back into magical practices and were receiving powers and ‘revelations’ from demons. These were the Gnostics. As the first religious ‘choosers’ the Gnostics were the first outright heretics (‘choosers’: Greek: hairesis: ‘choice’). Indeed every heretic is a Gnostic in his implicit claim to possess a divine gnosis (‘knowledge’) and thereby an authority superior to that of the Church. The magician’s quest for power over nature and others drives the Gnostic in his search for the key, ‘Enlightenment’, the Gnosis of power. Such men were inevitably the prey of demons which were often permitted by God to appear to them and might dictate to them ‘secret gospels’. Thus during the second century a number of Gnostic gospels came to be written. Almost all historically worthless, the Gnostics’ ‘gospels’ – or ‘epistles’ or ‘revelations’ etc., some 48 at a recent count – always claim to contain secret revelations by ‘the risen Jesus’ to this or that specially privileged Apostle. That Jesus revealed two religions – a public and false one for the Church, and a secret true one to a small élite – is esotericism, a Gnostic characteristic. 3
Another Gnostic characteristic is syncretism: the belief that the best religion is a mix of them all. The Gnostics were syncretists. They borrowed freely from all the religions of the day, as well as the terminology and speculations of the Greek philosophies. To them the Gospel was just so much new material to incorporate into their speculations, magic, rituals, initiations, divine genealogies and doctrines of reincarnation etc. borrowed from all the ancient religions of the East, of Chaldaea, Persia, Syria, Egypt and even of India. Like today’s ‘New Age’ devotees, the Gnostics subjected all things to their free ranging imaginations. As St. Irenaeus observed in about 180 ‘Every day every one of them invents something new.’ 4
Alexandria, with its world famous library, was a natural centre for pagan speculations and Gnostic ‘learning’. Paganism necessarily denies the uniqueness of Jesus, His Church and the Christian Revelation. These the Gnostics sought to absorb back into their pagan world of innumerable greater
Published on Nov 29, 2011
This survey of how the New Testament came to be written is also a chronicle of the first 40 years of the history of the Christian Church. It...