The Apostle John, in an ancient story, hurries from a building because he
discovers inside a man named Cerinthus. John, so the story goes, believed
that the bathhouse might fall in ‘as long as Cerinthus, that enemy of the
truth” was within. 1 Cerinthus, an early second century Gnostic, taught a
distinction between Jesus and Christ. He believed that Jesus was simply a
man who received the Christ at his baptism. He also taught that the Christ
could not be crucified and so withdrew as Jesus died on the cross. F.F.
Bruce explains that the three epistles of John address problems caused by
teachings resembling this kind of ‘docetic” Gnosticism that separates Jesus
from Christ.2 For this reason John emphasizes the real body of Jesus Christ.
He reminds his readers that Jesus Christ is the one he and the other
Apostles have ‘seen with our eyes,” ‘looked at and touched with our
hands.” (I John 1:1) He also encourages them to be discerning, ‘By this you
know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has
come in the flesh is from God.” (I John 4:2) Gnosticism grew in complexity
and scope in the next several centuries, and the Church Fathers wrote about
the Gnostic’s beliefs in order to counter the heresies.
*Renewed Interest in Gnosticism*
Today there is a renewed interest in Gnosticism due in part to the discovery
in 1945 of a large collection of Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi. The renewed
interest can be seen in several areas. The first area is among some Radical
Feminist thinkers who look to Gnostic texts that feature women or feminine
themes as proof texts for the validity of women’s importance in early
Christianity. They also insist that Gnosticism was simply one alternative
view among many diverse Christian communities. The second area is the new
quest for the historical Jesus as it is focused in the Jesus Seminar. They
refer to the Gnostic texts as alternative forms of early Christian accounts.
Also, many of the Jesus Seminar writers use the _Gospel of Thomas_, an early
Gnostic text, as one of the earliest gospels. The theologians involved in
the quest, probably unwittingly, have developed theologies with some
similarities to docetic Gnosticism. Finally, there are groups and
individuals who consider themselves to be Gnostics in the older sense of
that word. They adhere to a kind of esoteric Christianity and even create
liturgies using the Gnostic texts. They are either individual adherents or
they belong to Gnostic Churches. In this paper I will explain the common
features of Gnosticism, and then explain how such teaching affects both
members of the new quest for the historical Jesus and Radical Feminism.
*Gnosticism’s Most Common Feature*
Although ancient Gnosticism was diverse the different groups held some
beliefs in common. The most common feature was a dualism that separates the
material world from the spiritual. The material world was seen as evil while
the spiritual world contained the good. This understanding affected much of
their worldview. It also affected how they related to orthodox Christianity.
This understanding shaped their view of creation, Jesus Christ, salvation
and death. It even affected their view of procreation and community.
A great many of their creation stories are long and complex. Their main god
is generally a spirit that is unnamable out of which all spiritual beings
are emanated. In this view God does not create out of nothing, his creation
comes from his own being. (In contemporary terms this is Panentheism; the
understanding that the world is a part of God.) The creation stories are
filled with hierarchies of spiritual beings usually referred to as aeons. On
the other hand, all material creations, which they see as evil, are caused
by the error of some of the spiritual beings.
For instance in _The Apocryphon of John_, Sophia of the Epinoia, an aeon,
brings forth a creation out of herself without permission and the creation
is named Yaltabaoth. He is a caricature of the biblical God, Jehovah. He is
evil and an archon and with the help of other archons, which he created,
forms a human. However, the human does not live until Yaltabaoth blows into
his face. What Yaltabaoth does not understand is that his power to give life
really belongs to Sophia who gave birth to him. The new man shone so from
Sophia’s power that a material body was made for him which imprisoned and
hid the divine spark. This is then a stage set for a dualistic world. The
human’s exterior is created of lifeless evil material formed by an evil
archon that ignorantly believes he is the only god. But within the human
form is the spark of divinity blown there by Yaltabaoth who does not know
the power of life really belongs to his mother.3 The entire material
universe is seen by Gnostics as evil and a prison for the spark of divinity
*Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Not Redemptive*
The Gnostics believed the entire material world lies in ignorance and
darkness. Humans are unaware that they are a part of divinity. They also
believed that a kind of intuitive self-knowledge was required for salvation.
This could be defined as a spiritual awakening in which the seeker realized
their inner light or divinity. If Christ came to save it was by giving
secret knowledge to his followers. The knowledge was to help them find the
light within themselves. In the _Gospel of Thomas_ when Jesus asks his
disciples who he is ‘like” the answer of Thomas is the correct one. Thomas
says, ‘Teacher, my mouth cannot bear at all to say whom you are like.”
Jesus then sees that Thomas has acquired the right knowledge for himself. He
is not dependent on Jesus but rather has become like Jesus in his knowledge.
Jesus tells him, ‘I am not your teacher. For you have drunk, you have become
intoxicated at the bubbling spring that I have measured out.”4 It is merely
the words of Jesus that aid in knowing the self, His death and resurrection
are not understood in a redemptive way. In fact, for the Gnostic,
resurrection is equated with enlightenment. In the 51st saying of _Thomas_
the disciples ask Jesus when the resurrection will come and he tells them,
‘That (resurrection) which you are awaiting has (already) come, but you do
not recognize it.”5
Not only did Christ’s death not count for salvation from sin, but some of
the Gnostic adherents believed that Christ did not die a physical death. In
the _Acts Of John_, as Jesus is supposedly crucified, John runs to a cave
where he encounters Christ who shows him a cross of light and tells him,
‘but this is not the cross of wood which thou wilt see when thou goest down
hence: neither am I he that is on the cross, whom now thou seest not, but
only hearest his (or a) voice.”6 Other Gnostics believed that Jesus Christ
did suffer, however not for sin, but to impart knowledge and to overcome
death, but not physically.
*No Physical Resurrection*
Since Gnostics believed the material world was evil they saw no reason for a
physical resurrection. The body was simply seen as a prison house in a world
that held no beauty or goodness. As Elaine Pagels, Professor at Princeton
University and author of _The Gnostic Gospels,_ writes, ‘The resurrection,
they insisted, was not a unique event in the past: instead, it symbolized
how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present. What mattered was
not literal seeing, but spiritual vision.” 7 Pagels goes on to enumerate
the various post crucifixion appearances of Christ in Gnostic texts.8 She
explains, ‘ What interested these gnostics far more than past events
attributed to the historical Jesus’ was the possibility of encountering the
risen Christ in the present.”9 Because of this difference of belief in the
resurrection the Gnostics made fun of the early martyrs of the Church.
*The Ideal of Androgyny*
Gnosticism and its inherently strong disregard for the material world
created problems in practical ways. Not only were Gnostic adherents unable
to see goodness in the created world they were unable to affirm the birth of
children. They did not affirm women as mothers. In many cases giving birth
to a child was seen as trapping the divine spark within the prison of the
body. The ideal Gnostic model seemed to be either male or an androgynous
being complete within itself. _The Gospel of Mary_, which focuses on Mary
Magdalene, places her as a leader of the Christian group and pictures her as
a favorite of Jesus. However, although in the translation of the Jesus
Seminar’s _The Complete Gospels_, she and the other disciples are pictured
as one in which ‘the seed of true humanity” exists; the text in the Papyrus
Berolinensis 8502 (Akhmim Codex) translates that they are one in which the
‘Son of Man” exists. In _The Complete Gospels_ Mary Magdalene tells the
other disciples, ‘Rather let us praise his greatness, for he has joined us
together and made us true human beings.” But in the former translation Mary
says ‘but rather, let us praise his greatness, for He has prepared us and
made us into Men.”10 In the _Gospel of Thomas_ when Peter asks Jesus to
make Mary go away because, ‘women are not worthy of life.” Jesus says,
‘Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become
a living male spirit, similar to you. (But I say to you): Every women who
makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”’11 The female
disciples function, as do the male disciples, as persons without physical
attributes, needs or realities. The world of their visions is extraordinary;
the material world they inhabit is sterile.
*Radical Feminists Seek Affirmation in Gnosticism*
Some Radical Feminists are seeking affirmation of women’s experience and
ministry in Gnostic texts. The debate is wide and varied. Two possibilities
emerge. One is the belief that early Gnostic communities were part of a
diverse Christianity thereby justifying alternative doctrines in
contemporary Christian communities. The other is connected with the first;
that Gnostic communities provided a place for women to hold leadership
positions and that women were honored as persons of wisdom and divinity in
the Gnostic texts. While Karen King, Professor of New Testament studies and
the History of ancient Christianity at Harvard University, includes examples
of women in leadership using both canonical scriptures and Gnostic texts,
she nevertheless concludes that the Gnostic texts are not helpful. In
_Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism, _a book that she has edited, King
makes the observation that ‘it seems to me that even when the feminine is
highly valued, it is often done so at the expense of real sexuality. It also
seems as though gnostic mythology and gender imagery often affirm patriarchy
and patriarchal social gender roles.”12 The first possibility: ‘early
gnostic communities were part of a diverse Christianity thereby justifying
alternative doctrines in contemporary Christian Communities” is probably
the direction radical Feminism will take. Radical Feminists believe they
have the option of choosing alternative forms of Christianity based on
women’s experience although not necessarily gnosticism. As Elaine Pagels at
the end of her book suggests the question now is ‘what is the relation
between the authority of one’s own experience and that claimed for the
Scriptures, the ritual, and the clergy?”13 It is well known that most
radical Feminists pick from many religious texts those portions they believe
affirm women and reject the rest.
*The Jesus Seminar and Gnosticism are Similar*
The more mythological and esoteric portions of ancient Gnosticism has fed
into the more esoteric religious movements of the nineteenth century as well
as contemporary movements including Theosophy and various Occult groups.
Philip Jenkins, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania
State University, in his book _Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost
its Way_ documents much of this in an interesting chapter entitled
‘Fragments of a Faith Forgotten.”14 But there is a far more serious
intrusion of Gnosticism into the theology of those who consider themselves
biblical scholars. While not so flamboyant as occultism the move away from
orthodox doctrine by the Jesus Seminar and others is more damaging to the
The Jesus Seminar, founded by Robert Funk, consists of a group of professors
from various universities who in the past have gathered to talk about and
vote on the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings. They not only include the canon
of scripture but also the _Gospel of Thomas_, which many of them believe is
older than the earliest canonical gospels. Their decisions are always
publicized causing them to gain more attention then other scholars. In their
books about Jesus one finds many of the same theological themes as the early
Gnostics. The similarities consist mainly of their redefinition of the being
of God and their docetic view of Jesus Christ.
*Panentheism – All Creation is part of God*
One widely read author, Marcus J. Borg, Professor of Religion at Oregon
State University, when writing about the being of God makes a case for a
Panentheism. Insisting that the orthodox view of God, ‘affirms only the
transcendence of God and neglects the immanence of God,” he believes
Christians should see God in terms of Panentheism. What he is saying is that
orthodox Christianity only sees God as out there, (transcendence) but
Panentheism sees God at work in the world caring for the world,
(immanence).15 He really misrepresents both views since orthodox teaching
affirms both transcendence and immanence while Panentheism sees God’s
presence in the world only because it defines the world as a part of God.
Orthodox teaching insists that the Creator is not a part of His creation,
but He cares and tends His creation. The theological belief in Panentheism
is like Gnosticism in that the Gnostics believed the universe emanated from
the Creator. For the Gnostic all existence was a part of God.
Panentheism limits the power of God since all of human experience is a part
of God. On the other hand, in Biblical theology, Jesus Christ, fully human
and fully God, has experienced what it is to be human. Thus one person has
in His being shown the compassion of God while allowing God’s power to work
for humanity in His life, death and resurrection. Panentheism sees human
experience as the shaper of God placing upon individuals the imperative to
be moral for the sake of God’s being. The biblical view allows the redeeming
work of Christ to enfold sin weary individuals into the community of the
Church that He alone is shaping.
*Jesus Merely a Teacher of Wisdom*
In the same way as the Gnostics, members of the new search for the
historical Jesus tend to separate Jesus from Christ. They do this because
they are basically religious. They want to hold on to the Christ but accept
little of the scriptural understanding of Jesus. As Paul J. Achtemeier has
explained about the early beginnings of the new search, they believe faith
must be placed in the proclamation of the word but not in historical events,
thus thwarting their own search.16 They feel that little of the sayings
attributed to Him in scripture are historically truthful. They see Jesus
simply as a wisdom teacher who may have healed some people but who was
killed for His concern with justice and who did not resurrect physically
from the grave. But most believe in a post-resurrection Christ. As Borg
My position is that experiences of the risen Christ as a continuing
presence generated the claim that ‘Jesus lives and is Lord” and that
statement ‘God raised Jesus from the dead” and the story of the empty
tomb may well have been generated by those experiences.
He goes on to explain N.T. Wright’s orthodox position and then states, ‘but
we both affirm the claim. This is who Jesus is for us as Christians.” 17
Stephen J. Patterson, a pastor and assistant Professor of New Testament at
Eden Theological Seminary, and author of _The God of Jesus: The Historical
Jesus & the Search for Meaning_, believes it was not the post-resurrection
appearances of Jesus that caused the disciples belief in the resurrection.
He believes the Jewish understanding that God would raise in vindication the
righteous who were killed allowed them to confess that God raised Jesus. But
He also believes that the appearances of Jesus to His disciples after his
death were really inner ‘revelatory experience.”18 These writers fit neatly
into Elaine Pagels’ definitive words about the Gnostics. ‘The resurrection,
they insisted, was not a unique event in the past: instead, it symbolized
how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present. What mattered was
not literal seeing, but spiritual vision.”19 What should be emphasized here
is that mythology and a worldview not grounded in either the Hebrew
Scriptures or the New Testament informed the visions of the early Gnostics.
A faith informed only by experience (and ecstatic experience at that) leads
to extreme positions of faith. Mythology abounds and the real world is
*Heresy: Jesus and Sophia are Manifestations of The Cosmic Christ*
The heresy grows deeper. One author, Sea Raven, writes, ”’Jesus and Sophia
are manifestations of the Cosmic Christ possibly the most powerful and
universal metaphor of all.” And, ‘The man Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, was
not the Christ. Jesus became the Christ or was revealed as the Christ after
his death.”20 Another writer, James M. Robinson, of Claremont University,
quoting Mark 10:18 states: ‘Jesus apparently had no Christology.” He goes
on to suggest that we need to find a Christology that will fit our ‘often
changed conditions. He then attempts to wed Sophia to Jesus in a chapter
entitled ‘Very Goddess and Very Man.”21
How different is the purity and truthfulness of the Word of God. To belong
to the One who is both God and man, the Incarnate One who entered history
for our sakes is the ultimate joy of life. Jesus Christ’s willingness to
live among us sharing our humanity gives affirmation to a loved creation.
His awful death on the cross and His resurrection give hope to a fallen
creation. (Rom.8:19-25) His redemption embraces all of our humanity
forgiving our sins and giving us hope for a physical resurrection. (Phil.
3:7-21) He has gifted us with the Holy Spirit who comforts and guides by
turning us toward Jesus Christ and away from the stranger’s voice. (John
16:5-15; 10:27-29) Jesus Christ has given us His Word where we find a real
picture of real people and the story of God’s redemption. (Matt 5:17-20) He
placed us in His Church, a community of the redeemed. And within that
community He has provided for His creation by leading us in ministries of
compassion and justice, evangelism and mission. (Matt 28:18-20)
_It is the unanimous opinion within the Church, that God is never for us
in the world, that is to say, in our space and time, except in this His
Word, and that this Word for us has no other name and content but Jesus
Christ, and that Jesus Christ is never to be found on our behalf save
each day afresh in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
One is not in the Church at all if he is not of a mind with the Church
in these things._
Karl Barth, _Theological Existence To-Day_, 1933
1. Eusebius’, _The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus: Bishop of
Cesarea, in Palestine,_ trans. Christian Frederick Cruse, (Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House 1976), chapter XXVIII, 114.
2. F.F. Bruce, _The Epistles of John_, (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans
Publishing Co. 1970), 25.
3. _The Apocryphon of John_, trans, Federik Wisse, from James M. Robinson,
Ed _The Nag Hammadi Library,_ HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1990,
4. _Gospel of Thomas_, Saying 13:4b, 5b, trans by Berliner Arbeitskreis fur
koptisch-gnostische Schriften as modified by Stephen Patterson and James M.
Robinson. In _The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age,_
(Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International 1998), 10.
5. Ibid. Saying 51, 1b, 2b.
6. _The Acts of John_, from, _The Apocryphal New Testament_, trans & notes
M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1924) 99. at The Gnostic Society
Library, [www. gnosis.org/library/actjohn.htm]
‘This text has a docetic Christology, and has been interpolated with a
Gnostic piece that forms an interpretation of the suffering of Christ.”
P.J. Lalleman, ‘Apocryphal Acts and Epistles,” _Dictionary of New Testament
Background_, ed. Craig A. Evans & Stanley E. Porter, Downers Grove, ILL.:
InterVarsity Press 2000), 68.
7. Elaine Pagels, _The Gnostic Gospels_, (New York: Random House 1979), 11.
8 Pagels mentions: _Gospel of Mary, Apocalypse of Peter_ and a_Treatise on
Resurrection as well as Gospel of Philip._ Ibid. 11,12.
9. Ibid. 12.
10. _The Gospel According To Mary_, at, The Gnostic Society Library, Gnostic
Scriptures and Fragments, [www.gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm]. 2; and _The
Gospel of Mary_, trans & intro, notes, Karen L. King in _The Complete
Gospels_, ed.Robert J. Miller, (Sonoma , CA: Polebridge Press 1992) 351-360.
In note4:5 King states: ‘_seed of true humanity_: This term is translated
elsewhere in SV as ‘son of adam.” It is rendered differently here because
it has a different connotation in the Gospel of Mary: it refers to the
archetypal Image of humanity within each person.” 356. It should be pointed
out however, that an archetypal Image of humanity coming from a Hellenized
culture would probably be male.
11. _Thomas_, Trinity Press, Saying 114.
12. For Kings affirmation of Gnostic texts see, Karen king, ‘ Women in
Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries,” on Frontline, ‘From Jesus To
Christ The First Christians”
1-9; For her negative views see, _Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism_, Ed,
Karen L. King, Studies in Antiquity & Christianity 1988, (Harrisburg, PA:
Trinity Press International 2000) xvii.
13. Pagels, _Gnostic Gospels_, 151.
14. Philip Jenkins, _Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way_,
(Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001).
15. Marcus J. Borg & N.T. Wright, _The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions_, (San
Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1999), 62.
16. See Paul J. Achtemeir, ‘Is the New Quest Docetic?” (Theology Today vol
19 No.3) October 1962.
[http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/oct1962/v19-3-article3.htm.] This article
deals with an earlier beginning of the new quest for the historical Jesus,
but because the Jesus Seminar is linked to Claremont and to Rudolf Bultmann
it is very relevant.
17. Borg & Wright, _Jesus_, 137.
18. Stephen J. Patterson, _The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus & the
Search for Meaning_, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International 1998)
19. See note 7.
20. Sea Raven, ‘Jesus Is Our Sophia: The Historical Jesus and the Cosmic
Christ,” [http://www.gaiarising.org/cosmic.html] 1998.
21. James M. Robinson, ‘Very Goddess and Very Man,” in _Images of the
Feminine in Gnosticism_, Ed. Karen L. King, Studies in Antiquity &
Christianity 1988, (Harrisburg, PA 2000),114