I am currently in the midst of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; and, as several of these sermon-speeches contain language regarding the person of Christ which does not entirely fit the standard orthodox terminology, it may be helpful to define and explain the specific label Adoptionism. This label denotes the view that Jesus was only God’s Son “by adoption” and not “by nature“—in this respect it is somewhat inaccurate, since it is not at all clear that those who held “adoptionistic” views specifically thought of Jesus as being adopted. The term is also anachronistic, in a sense, as being understood from the standpoint of Nicene Orthodoxy—with the clear idea that Jesus Christ is by nature (and in substance) identical with God, being eternally generated (or “begotten” [gennhqe/nta]) by God the Father, as enshrined in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene formulation was the product of nearly three centuries of Christological reflection, interpretation, and debate; there are serious difficulties when one tries to read this orthodoxy back into the sub-apostolic and New Testament periods. Be that as it may, when one speaks of “adoptionism” in the early Church, there are two main viewpoints which ought to be distinguished:

    1. That Jesus (a human being) was in some way chosen or designated by God as the Messiah (and/or Son of God), most commonly at the Baptism. This ‘appointment’ was accompanied by miracles and powerful (salvific) actions performed by God (through Jesus), culminating in the death and resurrection.
    2. That Jesus (a human being) was exalted by God following the resurrection, being given a divine status and position in Heaven (at the right hand of God the Father)

The first view better fits the label “adoption[ism]”; the second is closer to the actual language used in the New Testament (on this, see below). Some scholars would apply the label “Adoptionism” more narrowly, to specific ‘heretics’ from the second- and third-centuries, such as Theodotus, Artemon, and so forth (cf. below). On the other hand, for many [proto-]orthodox Church leaders and writers of the time, the issue was drawn in simpler, general terms—of Jesus as God incarnate vs. being a “mere man” (yilo\$ a&nqrwpo$). Interestingly, while I do not know that this stark juxtaposition actually fits the reality of early Christological disputes, it does fit the situation today! In the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century, there appears to be little interest or inclination toward Christological thought and expression beyond the simple question of whether Jesus was “divine” or “just a human being”.

Unfortunately, we have little reliable information as to what supposed “Adoptionists” in the early Church genuinely believed or taught; there is little, if any, first-hand information, and what is recorded by ‘orthodox’ authors such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius, is of varying degrees of reliability. Certain Jewish Christians (such as the so-called Ebionites, or “Poor Ones”) are indicated as holding viewpoint #1 above. In the late-2nd and early 3d centuries, there were “Adoptionists” in Rome, associated with Theodotus [the cobbler]; apparently several bishops of Rome at this time were influenced by these views. In the mid/late-third century, Paul of Samosata (condemned at a Church council in Antioch in 268) gained a notorious reputation as a prime “Adoptionist”, but this association is highly questionable. Not surprisingly, heretical Adoptionists were accused of manipulating (altering) Scripture to accomodate their views (cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.28.13ff). While little evidence of this survives, there is actually indication of the opposite—that ‘orthodox’ scribes may have introduced changes to combat such heretical views. For a detailed discussion of the issue, specifically related to Adoptionism, see B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: 1993), pp. 47-118; some of the examples he gives are more convincing than others as instances of possible intentional changes. Such modifications were not so much for the purpose of altering the text of Scripture, as to clarify the text and avoid misunderstanding/misinterpretation of key passages, such as we might find done in translations today. An obvious example would be changes meant to safeguard the idea of the Virgin Birth in verses where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Joseph and Mary together as his “parents”).

The text of Scripture certainly was central to early Christological disputes, and it raises the highly controversial question as to whether there is any manner of “adoptionistic” Christology present in the New Testament itself. Upon any careful and objective study, it must be admitted that there are certainly passages, and language, which could be interpreted that way, and Adoptionists in the early Church presumably would have done so. If we consider the main question—”in what sense can Jesus be understood as God’s Son?”—and recall the two main strands of “adoptionistic” thought isolated above (#1 and 2), it becomes clear that the principal point of controversy centers on the eternal pre-existence of Jesus. Adoptionists presumably denied this point; for the [proto-]Orthdox, it was vital to the reality of both the Incarnation and the salvation brought about by God in Christ (cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies IV.33.[4ff]). And, while the pre-existent divine status of Jesus is assumed in orthodox Christology, it is important to note that relatively few passages in the New Testament state or affirm this with clarity. It is attested primarily in the Gospel of John (and other Johannine writings), several places in the Pauline and Petrine Epistles, and in Hebrews; but it is hard to find, for example, in the Synoptic Gospels or Acts. In fact, one could read the Synoptic Gospels from an “adoptionist” viewpoint without much difficulty; even the Matthean/Lukan Infancy narratives, which affirm the Virgin Birth, do not necessarily indicate a belief in pre-existence.

When we examine examples of (what appears to be) some of the earliest kerygma (Gospel proclamation) in the New Testament, one is struck by a certain ambiguity of expression, judged by later ‘orthodox’ standards—it is vivid and concise (often hymnic/poetic), full of dynamic immediacy, but lacking the kind of systematic clarity so eagerly sought after in later formulae. Note the following examples, which I believe, preserve early kerygmatic formula:

    • References where it is indicated that Jesus was “presented/designated/appointed” to special/divine status—cf. the use of the verbs o(ri/zw (“mark [out], limit, determine”, sometimes in the sense of “declare, decree, appoint”, etc) in Acts 10:42; 17:31; Romans 1:4, and a)podei/knumi (“show forth, present”, often in the sense of “demonstrate” or “designate, appoint”) in  Acts 2:22. The latter reference especially could be taken in the sense of Adoptionist view #1 above.
    • In Romans 1:3-4; Acts 2:33ff; 13:32-33, and other key passages, Jesus’ designation to divine status is connected with and follows (or is a result of) the resurrection. This could be seen as corresponding to Adoptionist view #2 above. In even more striking language, note Acts 2:36, where it is stated that God “made [e)poi/hsen] him Lord and Anointed [i.e. Messiah]”, as the climactic statement in Peter’s Pentecost speech. Later Christology would be most reluctant to suggest that in any way Jesus had been made Lord [ku/rio$].

Similarly, consider the manner in which Psalm 2 [verse 7b] was used in the early Church. In Greek the key portion reads:

ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you [lit. caused you to be {born}]

Orthodox Christology would apply this to Jesus in terms of his pre-existent Deity, of being eternally born/begotten by the Father (as the use of genna/w in the Nicene Creed); and it is presumably meant in more or less the same way in Hebrews 1:5 (and 5:5?). However, note that:

    • In Acts 13:32-33, Paul applies it to Jesus explicitly in the context of the resurrection. In a similar way, Hebrews 1:13 cites Psalm 110:1 (apparently) in the “orthodox” sense of Jesus’ pre-existent divine status (cf. Heb 1:2-3), but in Acts 2:33ff, it is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. This could be taken to imply that Jesus was ‘born/begotten’ as God’s Son only after the resurrection [Adoptionist view #2 above].
    • In several Western MSS, in Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism cites Ps 2:7b; a few scholars have argued that this is the original reading, and may have been altered (to the Synoptic parallel in Mark/Matthew) because of the possibility of misunderstanding. After all, the Western variant could be taken to mean that Jesus was (only) appointed as God’s ‘Son’ at the Baptism [Adoptionist view #1 above].

That passages such as these had an Adoptionistic ‘ring’ to them is demonstrated by the fact that a number of important variant readings can be found in the surviving manuscripts (see examples in Ehrman, pp. 54ff). How are they to be reconciled with orthodox belief affirming the (pre-existent) Deity of Christ? The best (and soundest) solution lies in the concept of progressive revelation—the idea that God only reveals truth to believers by a gradual process. This means that even the early Apostles did not necessarily have a full and complete understanding of the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The immediate emphasis in early Gospel preaching and proclamation was not a clear and consistent picture of Jesus’ mysterious nature, but rather the salvific impact of his sacrificial death, the reality of the resurrection, and his exaltation to heaven at the right hand of God (from whence he will come again to judge the World). By the time we come to the Epistles of John (c. 80-90?), for example, there is a much stronger emphasis on the need for a correct confessional formula regarding the person of Christ.

There are two other, somewhat related, terms which are perhaps worth mentioning here (I may address them in more detail in upcoming articles):

  • Subordinationism—by this is meant that Jesus Christ, in his divine person (as Son of God), is in some way—whether in terms of divine nature, power, or position—subordinate (and/or “lesser”) than God the Father. The term could also be applied to the person of the Holy Spirit, and is sometimes addressed as a proper theological, rather than Christological, question—related to the Christian view of the Godhead and the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Kenosis/Kenotic Theory—this view is derived primarily from the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11, and would hold (with some variation) that: (a) Jesus Christ was eternally pre-existent with God the Father, but that (b) in some mysterious way, he emptied himself of deity in his Incarnation as a human being, becoming totally dependent on the Father and the power of the Spirit, only to (c) receive the divine nature/status again (with greater glory) following the resurrection and exaltation.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

The term “Orthodoxy” can be defined, more or less accurately, as “right/correct opinion”. The verb o)rqodoce/w (orthodoxéœ) is relatively rare (but can be found in Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 1151a.19), from o)rqodo/co$ (orthodóxos, also rare). Neither word occurs in the earliest Christian writings (New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, etc); in fact, even the underlying component words are relatively rare in the New Testament:

    • The adjective o)rqo/$ (orthós, “straight, [up]right”) and the related adverb o)rqw=$ (orthœ¡s, “straightforward, rightly, plainly”) are used only 6 times combined, and in the sense of a “right/correct” saying/opinion only in Lk 7:43; 10:28; 20:21. Heb 12:13 uses the adjective according to the Hebrew idiom of making one’s paths “straight” (in the religious/ethical sense of “walking straight”), and note the similar compound verb o)rqopode/w (orthopodéœ, “set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right”) in Gal 2:14, as well as o)rqotome/w (orthotoméœ, “cut right/straight”) in 2 Tim 2:15 as a reference to correct teaching. Both noun and adjective are used more commonly for “right/straight” teaching and Christian ministry in the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius Eph 1:1; Herm Sim 2:7; Diognetus 11:2, etc) and e.g. Justin Martyr (1 Apol 4:8; 2 Apol 2:2; Dialogue with Trypho 3:3; 5:2; 67:4, etc).
    • The noun do/ca (dóxa) is derived from the verb doke/w (dokéœ), which itself has a fairly wide range of meaning, “think, suppose, imagine, consider, recognize” and, more abstractly, “seem (to be)”. So, the noun do/ca primarily means “thought, opinion”, but in the more specialized sense of “consideration, recognition”, etc., it came to be used regularly for the “esteem, reputation,” etc. with which one considers someone/something, and so more specifically for “honor, glory”, etc. It is almost always in this latter sense that the noun and related verb doca/zw (doxázœ, “esteem, honor, give glory/glorify”) are used in the New Testament. However, the verb doke/w occurs more frequently in the ordinary sense of “think, suppose, consider”.

By the end of the first century, and in what are usually considered the latest (anywhere between c. 65-100 A.D.) New Testament writings, there came to be a greater emphasis upon safeguarding “correct” teaching and tradition against ‘false teachers’ and opponents, as can be seen vividly in the Pastoral epistles (esp. 1 Timothy), 2 Peter, Jude, and the epistles of John (note esp. the strident partisan identifications and credal tests in 1 John). As Christianity continued to develop over the next two centuries, a greater number of divergent beliefs and sects arose often with contrasting (or contradictory) and competing viewpoints, ranging from fundamental issues of cosmology and theology (such as the nature of God and the person of Christ) to specific details of Church practice (such as the dating/celebration of Easter). Church leaders and theologians of various stripes sought to defend the “correct” position, usually on the basis of: (1) interpretation of Scripture, and (2) the reliability of inherited tradition. This multifaceted (historical) Christianity is normally described, in relation to orthodoxy (“correct belief/thought/opinion”), by one of two terms—”heterodoxy” or “heresy”.

Heterodoxy simply means “other thought/belief/opinion”, and today is typically used to reflect the (apparent) diversity of belief and practice, especially in the first three centuries of the Church, in contrast to Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire (both in the West and Byzantine East), from the early-mid 4th century through the end of the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a different, but related sort of Protestant “Orthodoxy” developed (mainly that of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches), which extends, at least formally and in theory, among (most) Protestants to the present day. The term heresy has a far more negative (and odious) connotation, and, for that reason (as well as its history of spiteful application), is avoided (and/or used with great caution) by thoughtful Christians today. It is a transliteration in English of the Greek ai%resi$ (haíresis), derived from the verb ai(re/w/ai(re/omai, “take, choose, select (for oneself)”, and fundamentally means “something chosen/taken”, as, for example, a (religious) way of life, a partisan or communal affiliation, a belief, and so forth. The word is used in the New Testament in Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:22; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1. The related noun ai(retiko/$ (hairetikós) generally means “one who takes/choose, is capable of choosing,” etc.; it is used in a negative (partisan) religious sense in Titus 3:10, a meaning preserved in English by the word “heretic”, i.e. one who has chosen the wrong religious belief, affiliation, etc.

What is the basis for establishing “orthodoxy” over and against either “heterodoxy” (diversity of beliefs/practices) or “heresy” (choice of the wrong belief, etc)? Historically this has been both defined and recognized according to a number of standards or factors, such as:

    • Teaching and/or edicts by influential or authoritative persons
    • Consensus forged through argument and debate over time (as in various Church councils, etc)
    • Interpretation of the authoritative (and formative) religious texts (Scriptures)
    • Acceptance/adoption of (written) formulas of belief (i.e. Creeds and Confessions of Faith)
    • Isolation/emphasis on what the majority of believers hold in common (fundamental and/or ecumenical principle[s])
    • A defining (hierarchic) organizational structure

For many Christians, including the majority of Protestants, the belief, variously expressed, is that the canonical Scriptures should be the ideal for establishing “orthodoxy”, as in the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura—Scripture alone as the authority of religious faith and practice. Unfortunately, this ideal is greatly complicated by the differences of interpretation which attend many key passages; there are many other profound difficulties as well, such as the weight and force given to one passage over another, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, whether a teaching is culturally conditioned or meant to be applied to all believers through history, and so forth. A much simpler (and popular) approach toward establishing “orthodoxy” is the adoption of written creeds—statements of belief (credo, “I believe…”), whether in the form of a Confession of Faith or a Catechism for instruction of new believers. And yet, here again there is great difficulty, for history has proven (rather decisively) that the establishment of each new creed, however well intentioned, is likely to result in at least as much (or more) division than unity among believers. This is especially true the more detailed and extensive the creed is; the best creeds tend to be those which are the simplest, such as the so-called Apostles’ Creed, and which clearly evince an irenic and peace-loving spirit. Among the many Protestant creeds, the most beloved and widely accepted are the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, both largely free of the worst and most destructive polemical characteristics of the period. A faithful and effective creed (in the best Christian sense) ought to be limited to as few “essential” points of doctrine as possible, allowing freedom for discussion and debate on more difficult or controversial matters. As Church historian Philip Schaff has put it well: “a surplus of orthodoxy provokes skepticism”; to which I would add that it (unnecessarily) promotes and instigates division as well.

From the standpoint of the New Testament, of course, the ideal of Church unity is found in the presence of the Spirit at work in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers—uniting us to God (and Christ) as well as to one another. And, while this is true enough—and ought to be the goal and focus of faithful believers around the world—it is, admittedly, more readily expressed at the level of the intimate relationship between individual believers (“where two or three are gathered”); within a larger corporate or institutional setting it is much more difficult to realize.


As I will be referring to “Gnosticism” in a number of upcoming notes and articles, I thought it worthwhile to introduce the topic here, by way of definition. The word is derived from the Greek gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis) and the root verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ), meaning “knowledge, to know”, often with the specific sense of possessing or gaining knowledge. “Gnostics” (gnwstikoi/, gnœstikoí) are literally the “ones who know, knowing ones”, i.e. those possessing knowledge, or who have come to be so. Much of the confusion surrounding the terms “Gnostic, Gnosticism,” etc, stems from the fact that there are, properly, two fundamental ways they can be used or understood: (1) as a phenomenon of religion, or (2) as a specific historical religious development in the first centuries A.D. Some modern scholars, aware of this problem, have suggested using the term “Gnosis” for the former, and “Gnosticism” for the latter. It might be better (and simpler) to make a distinction using upper and lower case, as far as possible—gnosticism for the general religious phenomenon, Gnosticism as an umbrella term for specific religious groups in the early Christian period.

The religious phenomenon of gnosticism

In terms of the phenomenology of religion, I would define gnosticism as:

A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize salvation, as well as other fundamental aspects of religious identity or status, in terms of knowledge.

Often this will take the place of, or take priority over, ceremonial, ritual or cultic means. As such, it is similar in certain respects to the phenomena of mysticism and spiritualism. There are two main components, or aspects, to this knowledge:

    1. A person comes to know or realize his/her true nature (religious/spiritual identity), of which, in ignorance, he/she had previously been unaware or only glimpsed in part.
    2. This knowledge (salvation) comes only through special revelation not normally accessible to people at large.

With regard to this last point, special (divine) revelation is typically considered necessary due to the evil/fallen condition of the world around us, with the result that humanity has been ‘lost’ in ignorance. The presence of a “savior figure”—a divine being or representative—is required to bring knowledge.

Gnostic thought is often expressed in dualistic language and vocabulary, emphasizing conflict or contrast—light vs. darkness, true vs. false, knowledge vs. ignorance, mind/spirit vs. body/flesh, etc. Such pairings are, of course, basic to much religious thought, but in gnosticism they tend to be more pointed, prominent, and used with greater consistency, often reflecting a particular worldview or cosmology (cf. below). From the standpoint of organized religion, such dualism, coupled with the gnostic idea of salvation through special revelation, may easily serve to enhance a specific group identity (i.e., as the ones who know the truth, who truly know), resulting in sectarian religious groups with a strong gnostic character.

Gnostic tendencies in Christianity

As a religious phenomenon, gnostic tendencies may be seen in many different religions, ancient and modern. They are attested, or can be claimed, in certain Greco-Roman religious contexts (such as Orphism and the “mystery” cults), as well as in Greek philosophy. There are major gnostic aspects within Hindu thought, and certainly are central to Buddhism. It should be no cause for surprise that one can find them in early Christianity as well. The basic thumbnail provided above accords generally with the Christian construct—of the Gospel message (in the person of Christ) bringing the knowledge of salvation to humankind lost in the darkness and evil of the world. However, certain other Christian ideas or beliefs temper any tendency toward gnosticism:

    • The theological emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ as the way to God—with God understood primarily according to the outlook of the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion.
    • The eschatological focus, i.e. on the resurrection and end-time Judgment by God—what believers understand or experience here and now will only be realized completely at the end.
    • In the New Testament, salvation and religious identity are described in terms of trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ rather more frequently than of knowledge (gnw=si$).
    • Religious identity ultimately is understood in terms of spiritual union with Christ—this is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters, and is expressed more in mystic terms, rather than gnostic.

Admittedly, Paul does occasionally strike a gnostic tone, as for example in 1 Corinthians 1:182:16; and cf. also the discussion running through Romans 5-8. Perhaps the strongest gnostic portions of the New Testament are the discourses of Jesus in John, along with similar passages in the Gospel (1:1-18; 20:31) and First Epistle. One may note the strong dualistic language, as well as the many references to knowledge, knowing, etc (more than 100 in the Gospel and another 30+ in the First Epistle). An even more distinctly gnostic early Christian writing, expressing similar thought and imagery to that of John, is the so-called Odes of Solomon—a collection of 42 truly beautiful and evocative poems, probably dating from the late 1st- or early 2nd-century A.D.

A special kind of (orthodox) Christian gnosticism developed in the 2nd century, influenced by Greek (and Jewish) philosophical thought and interpretive trends. It is best known from the major early center of Christianity in Alexandria, with theologians and scholars such as Clement and Origen. There were two primary aspects to this kind of gnosticism:

    • The tendency to downplay or disregard the literal-historical sense of Scripture (especially the Old Testament), in favor of an allegorical and/or spiritual interpretation that located a deeper (and specifically Christian) meaning to the text. It was, in part, the result of a long history of interpretive scholarship at Alexandria, as represented famously by the Jewish commentator Philo (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.).
    • This corresponded with the localization of levels of understanding (knowledge) among human beings (and believers)—some could only grasp the literal/conventional sense of things, while others (the spiritual/gnostics) were able to understand and realize the deeper meaning.

On close examination, one detects a very particular dynamic at work—an attempt to combine Christian belief and the truth of Scripture with the philosophical ideals and worldview of the time. This also applies to the heterodox (or aberrant, “heretical”) Gnostic groups of the period; Origen fiercely opposed and wrote against a number of these Gnostics, but, in certain respects, they had religious tendencies in common with him.

Heterodox/heretical Gnostics

When most scholars use the term “Gnosticism” they are usually referring to a variety of quasi-Christian groups or sects which are known (or thought to have existed) in the 2nd-4th centuries A.D. Most of the available (surviving) information comes from authors writing from the “orthodox” (or Proto-orthodox) point of view, against the beliefs and teachings of these groups. The principal authors are Irenaeus (his work Against Heresies, c. 180), Tertullian (c. 150-230), Hippolytus (c. 170-235), Origen (185-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), and Epiphanius (c. 315-403). Though clearly a hostile witness, Irenaeus’ information on the Gnostics of the 2nd century seems to be reasonably reliable, certainly more so than that of Hippolytus or Epiphanius. As for the actual writings of the Gnostics themselves, very little survived prior to the discoveries (in Egypt, etc) of the late 19th and 20th centuries, especially the collection of works found at Nag Hammadi. While it is not always certain or clear that these texts are specifically Gnostic, many do show features and characteristic beliefs associated with the groups (the Valentinians, etc) mentioned by Irenaeus and others.

Even in this narrow sense, the term “Gnosticism” still covers a wide and disparate range of thought and belief; however, a set of more or less common characteristics may be identified. I would begin by offering a definition of this quasi-Christian Gnosticism in the early centuries A.D.:

Groups and individuals who formed or adopted a system of syncretic religious and philosophical beliefs, blending Christian with Jewish and/or Greco-Roman (or other non-Christian) thought, and which evinces, or is characterized by, strong gnostic tendencies (cf. above).

Central to nearly all such Gnostic thought is a pronounced dualism—that is, a dualistic worldview—that goes far beyond anything we find in the New Testament. While Judaism and early Christianity held to the idea that the current world was in a “fallen”, sinful state (Gen 3; Rom 5:12ff), this was understood primarily in terms of the condition of humanity; only occasionally do we find it applied to the created order as a whole (cf. Rom 8:18-25). Most Gnostics of the period seem to have taken a wider cosmic view—i.e. that the created (material) world itself was fallen, corrupted and trapped by powers of sin and evil. So influential was this worldview that it forced people to try to explain just how this condition came to be. The creation account of the Old Testament was deemed insufficient, and various sorts of constructs using the language and imagery of cosmologic (cosmogonic) myth were adopted, involving the generation (birth), coupling, and fall of various divine (or semi-divine) powers. In some of these (pagan) mythic structures, Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions were blended in—Wisdom (hm*k=j*, sofi/a) being the only female manifestation or personification of God and his attributes found in Scripture (cf. Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31).

In addition, the dualistic worldview of most Gnostics resulted in the creation or adoption of an elaborate “salvation history” construct, which sought to explain and expound the nature and work of Christ. For Christians, of course, the savior figure (cf. above) who brings knowledge of salvation to humankind (or to the Elect) is Jesus Christ, though the revelation could also come by way of his followers and other messengers as well. A fundamental difficulty involved the fact that, according to the Gospels, Jesus had been born as a human being, i.e. into the fallen/evil (material) world. It proved hard to reconcile this with the over-arching worldview (how could God become enmeshed in evil this way?), and a variety of interpretations—i.e., heterodox Christologies—developed in response; the most commonly attested would seem to involve some variation on the following two themes:

    • That Christ, in manifesting himself to human beings, only seemed or appeared to be human—this is usually referred to as Docetism or a Docetic view of Christ (from the Greek doke/w, “think, suppose, seem, appear”, etc).
    • That the divine being Christ was joined temporarily to the human Jesus (e.g., at the Baptism), separating again at the time of his death—i.e. a Separationist view of Christ.

Proto-orthodox writers such as Irenaeus found all of this truly baffling—not to say repellent—contrary to what they saw as the clear sense of Scripture and the received Tradition. In his five books Against Heresies (really against Gnosticism), Irenaeus tries to give some semblance of coherence to all of the many different groups and beliefs, which he ultimately traces back to Simon Magus (I.23, cf. Acts 8:9-24). There is little historical basis for such a reconstruction, but it provides a convenient (Biblical) starting-point to trace the various Gnostics, through Simon’s supposed followers (Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, etc) on through to the various sects—Cerinthians, Nicolaitans, Marcionites, Ophites, et al (I.23-31). His main interest is in the Valentinians (i.e. followers of Valentinus), from whom Ptolemy and Marcus (and their own sects) are said to have come. Most of what follows in books II-V relates to the Valentinians, and corresponds, to some extent, with the theology and thought in several of the texts from Nag Hammadi (such as the “Gospel of Truth” [NH I.3/XII.2]).

Perhaps the most famous “Gnostic” writing to come down to us today is the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas [NH II.2], also preserved in Greek fragments. It lacks the elaborate mythological and theological/Christological elements of Gnostic systems, being simply a collection of short sayings by Jesus, some matching those in the canonical Gospels, and others with a more pronounced gnostic (if not Gnostic) flavor. Many of the surviving texts can be characterized as “Gospels”, reflecting teaching by Jesus, often in the context of special revelation vouchsafed only to his closest followers (cf. above). The clear implication is that these teachings have not been generally transmitted to the mass of “ordinary” Christians, but are intended to be communicated to the Elect (the gnostics). This is part of a wider pseudepigraphic tendency in early Christianity—writings attributed to, or presented as, the work of prominent early figures (apostles, etc).

We may conclude this discussion by outlining several other characteristics which may fairly be said to apply for many, if not most, Gnostic groups:

  • Asceticism—Most Gnostics appear to have followed and affirmed a strong ascetic ideal. This accords with general Greco-Roman (ascetic) philosophy of the period—the goal being to transcend the material condition through strict self-control (and self-denial), accompanied by knowledge, wisdom and the cultivation of virtue. A similar ascetic tendency can be found in early Christianity proper (even in the New Testament), though not nearly as prominent, it would seem, as among the Gnostics; it would increase notably within orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries. Hostile witnesses (such as Irenaeus) have claimed that Gnostics were (sexually) licentious; but this is rather doubtful, and reflects a prejudice (and presumption), repeated often through history: that heretics must be immoral. Most of the available evidence points in the opposite direction—if they erred in their ethics, it was in overemphasizing an ascetic ideal.
  • Sexual/female imagery—Many Gnostic writings and beliefs are noteworthy in their use of female figure-types and sexual imagery, which appears more prominently than in the New Testament and early (proto-)Orthodoxy. Such imagery is intrinsic to the use of cosmological myth—the generation/propagation of the divine powers, with their fall (also described via sexual motifs), which led to the created material world. The personification of Wisdom (female/feminine) also plays a role in the ‘birth’ of Christ and the process of “salvation history”. Birth and bridal imagery also feature in a number of texts. Natural (physical/biological) childbirth was repellent to many Gnostics (or at least appears in a negative/ambivalent light), as was everything associated with sexual intercourse and propagation; there was a strong tendency to spiritualize (or intellectualize) childbirth, sexuality and sexual distinction. A number of sayings/teachings (by Jesus) in Gnostic works emphasize the elimination of childbirth and sexuality (“male and female”). We should also mention the prominence given to female apostles—presented as equal, or superior, to men—such as Mary Magdalene, in several surviving texts (the “Gospel of the Egyptians”, “Gospel of Mary”, etc).
  • Election—Gnostic groups tended to stress the idea of election, i.e. that they were the chosen ones, having received special knowledge and understanding. Such a belief is common among many sectarian religious groups—it reinforces the group identity, and all the more so for those sects which emphasize the transmission of special revelation. It also provides a convenient explanation as to why the majority of people do not accept the group’s teachings—they are incapable of doing so, since the revelation can be accepted only by the chosen few, i.e. the gnostics or “spiritual” ones. Perhaps even more significant in this regard is the basic gnostic idea that saving knowledge involves recognition of one’s true identity (cf. above). Almost by definition, a Gnostic (one who comes to know the truth) has to be such by nature, from the very beginning; awareness of this identity had simply been lost, through ignorance associated with birth and entanglement within the corrupt material world.

Gnostics in the New Testament

Previously, I mentioned certain elements of the Gospel and the New Testament writings which could be considered “gnostic”, in the general religious sense of the term (cf. above), especially in the letters of Paul and the Gospel and First Letter of John. However, a number of scholars have felt that early forms of some of the aberrant/heterodox Gnostic groups being discussed here may also be present in the later writings of the New Testament (cf. 60-90 A.D.). Already in 1 Corinthians (mid-50s), Paul seems concerned to check or moderate certain marked gnostic tendencies (cf. 1 Cor 1:17, 18-31; 2:1ff; 3:18-20ff; 7:1ff; 8:1ff), though there is little, if any, evidence of true Gnostic thought. More notably, there are three “heresies” in the later New Testament (after 60 A.D.) that are often identified with Gnosticism:

    • The so-called “Colossian heresy”
    • False teaching described in the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), and
    • The separatist Christians mentioned in 1 John

1. Paul’s discussion in Colossians 2:8-23 has been thought to relate to a specific teaching (or group of teachings) sometimes referred to as the “Colossian heresy”. In verse 8, the author refers to filosofi/a (“fondness for wisdom”, i.e. “philosophy” [used only here in the NT]), but a wisdom so-called, according to deceitful human understanding (“empty deception/delusion according to thing[s] passed along by men”). From the Pauline standpoint, this could refer to virtually any sort of non-Christian religious or philosophical belief, whether Jewish or pagan. The contrast is between teaching/belief which is (a) according to the order/elements of the world, and (b) according to Christ (v. 8b). The similarity with the line of argument running through Galatians (see esp. Gal 4:1-11) strongly indicates a Jewish Christian context (cf. also the various references in 2 Cor 10-13). Apparently certain Jewish believers (or groups of believers) were influencing the Christians of the region (Colossae) in ways that were contrary to the truth of the Gospel, as understood by Paul. Several elements are specifically mentioned: (1) circumcision (vv. 11-13), (2) dietary regulations (v. 16a, 21), (3) observance of the Sabbath and other (Jewish) holy days (v. 16b). Also to be noted are the difficult phrases in verse 18, which seem to refer generally to religious identity/status based on certain visionary experiences (involving Angels, etc). The only detail which can be related, in any meaningful way, to gnostic/Gnostic belief is the ascetic emphasis in vv. 21-23, but this can be explained just as well in a Jewish or Greco-Roman philosophical context.

2. The various kinds of false teaching mentioned in the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy especially), can more plausibly be related to early Gnosticism. 1 Tim 6:20 is specifically combating beliefs or claims which emphasize knowledge (gnw=si$) and presumably make use of the term. In addition, several descriptive phrases are worth noting:

    • “endless tales and accounts of coming-to-be [i.e. ‘genealogies’]” (1 Tim 1:4)—this could refer to the cosmological myths and mythic language adopted by many Gnostics (cf. above); however, the use of genealogi/a in Tit 3:9 rather suggests a more distinctly Jewish context (as does the immediate context of 1 Tim 1:3-11).
    • “hindering [i.e. forbidding] (people) to marry, (requiring them) to hold [i.e. keep] away from (certain) foods” (1 Tim 4:3)—this reflects an ascetic ideal common to most Gnostics, but is found in many other religious groups and traditions as well; the anti-sexual tendency was certainly a significant element in Gnostic thought, and may relate to the author’s emphasis on childbearing in 1 Tim 2:13-15 (and cf. 5:14-15).
    • “counting [i.e. saying] the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] already to have come to be [i.e. come to pass]” (2 Tim 2:18)—Paul (or the author) says this of Hymenaios and Philetos (v. 17), and it has been thought by some (critical) commentators to be related to Gnostic thought (cf. Justin Martyr 1 Apology 26.4 and Irenaeus Against Heresies I.23.5 regarding the early “Gnostic” Menander). Certainly Gnostics, more so than other early Christians, would have been inclined to adopt a “realized” eschatology and reinterpret the resurrection as a spiritual (rather than bodily) event. However, questions and various views regarding the resurrection seem to have been relatively common in the early Christian period (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18ff; 2 Thess 2:1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:12-57), especially when the first generation of believers began to pass away without the return of Christ and the end having come.
    • 2 Tim 3:1-9ff—on the assumption that the Pastorals address some form of early Gnostic heresy, a number of commentators would read it in here as well. Justin and Irenaeus refer to Gnostics such as Marcus as gaining female followers and exerting influence over women (1 Apology 26.3; Against Heresies I.13.3, 23.2, etc), but this could simply be part of the author’s bias and polemic. For a bit more on the relation of the Gnostic groups to women, cf. Part 9 in the series Women in the Church.

3. The First Letter of John appears to refer to believers who have separated themselves from the wider Community (2:19, etc); it is sometimes claimed that these separatists either represent early Gnostic groups, or helped to form the basis for such groups in the 2nd century. 1 John 4:2 suggests a kind of docetic view of Christ (cf. above)—”every spirit which does not give account as one [i.e. confess] Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ} to have come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] is not from God” (cf. also 2 John 7). The false doctrine referenced in 1 John 5:6ff is more complex and difficult to intepret. However, apart from 1 John 4:2, there really is little evidence of Gnostic thought among the separatists or the false teachings opposed by the author. The Johannine writings (especially the Gospel) do seem to have been popular among the Gnostics; cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies III.9, 16. The earliest known commentary on John is by Heracleon [c. 170-180], whose work is referenced/refuted by Origen in his own massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel. Whether or not the Johannine “separatists” joined/formed the later Gnostic groups cited by Irenaeus et al, it is likely that Ignatius of Antioch knew of them (or persons like them) in the early 2nd century (c. 110), as he makes virtually the same declaration in Philadelphians 7:1 as the author of 1 John does in 4:2; moreover, in Smyrneans 1-5ff, he is clearly combating a docetic view of Christ, which could conceivably provide a link between 1 John and the later Gnostics.