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This article is part of a series on Gnosticism
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Gnosticism and the New Testament
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This article discusses the relationship between Gnosticism and the New Testament. The Gnostics were a rather diverse group of early movements finding a basis often in Christianity or Judaism. These people did not refer to themselves as "Gnostics" but rather the label was applied mostly by their opponents and modern scholars. The movements were strongly associated with mysticism, and the thread connecting them was the concept of gnosis, which refers to an intimately personal kind of knowledge (as in the Spanish conocer rather than saber or German kennen versus wissen). The Gnostic movements were centered around gnosis of the divine rather than faith (pistis) and therefore are often associated with mysticism. The Albigensian and Cathar movements of the Middle Ages are often linked to Gnosticism. Many Gnostic movements made extensive use of allegory and metaphor in their interpretation of spiritual texts.

The Canonical Gospels

In academic circles, three of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are regarded as so similar in wording and content that they are often treated as one unit, the synoptic gospels. According to the majority of scholars, the solution to the synoptic problem of similar content and dependence is the two-source hypothesis - that the three synoptic gospels are not totally independent but derive from two source texts, one being the Markan priority, the other being a hypothetical lost collection of logia (sayings) known as the Q document, and the few remaining elements unique to Matthew or to Luke are known as M or L, respectively. No ancient gnostic text explicitly refers to an original document of sayings. The oldest extant fragments of gospels are of John, and by tradition Mark was the first written.

Sayings in Matthew and Luke attributed to Q

Luke and the Madonna, Altar of the Guild of St. Luke, Hermen Rode, Lübeck 1484

Some of the sayings written in Matthew and Luke and attributed to Q are reminiscent of koans; for example Luke 17:33: Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it and Luke 13:30:Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. Other sayings have reference to secret teachings and knowledge to be revealed, such as Luke 12:2: Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known, which are themes intrinsic to the idea of gnosis - secret knowledge that can be learned.

The Gospel of Mark

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For the gnostics, Jesus in Mark is often viewed as referring to secret teachings and secrets, even to assert that some teachings should be kept secret and deliberately obscured, all of which were attitudes shared with, and intrinsic to, gnosticism. For example, Mark 4:11-12:[1]

"And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’" (NRSV)

The Gospel of John

To the gnostics, the Gospel of John shows the clearest similarity to later gnostic writing style in general, and to them parts of the gospel have a similar dream-like quality to the writing (compare the Gospel of Truth, more especially the Trimorphic Protennoia).

The phrase "and the Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us" is generally seen as being against docetism, a belief that many Gnostics held that the human nature of Jesus was illusory, as the Perfect Saviour inherent in a Christ could not partake in the inherently corrupt (according to gnosticism) nature of matter. Also, the opening phrase is generally understood as being against Arianism, a fourth century sect of Christianity, later branded as heretical, which asserted that there was a time previous to Jesus' existence.

Much of John has this form, consistently drawing on positions held by later second century and early third century groups in order to contradict them and cast them as heretical. In the case of these supposed third century groups Rylands Library Papyrus P52, Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75 all have been dated to be before the third century. These groups frequently did not exist in the late first century and early second century, Arianism being a prime example, and it would be odd for them to arise if a gospel was circulating which so clearly condemned the positions that did not yet exist. For this reason, and since also the first quotations from the Gospel of John appear in the anti-heresy works of Irenaeus, many scholars like K.G. Bretschneider (1776 - 1848), Hegel and F.C. Baur (born 1792 - died 1860) cast doubt on the Authorship of the Gospel of John, and often consider it to have been a second century polemic by an author holding what later became the position of the orthodoxy.

Most of the above is called into question by Rylands Library Papyrus P52 which contains a fragment from John chapter 18 dated with a fair measure of confidence to the first half of the second century. As well as the recent work of Charles Hill's The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church. In which Charles Hill gives evidence that the Gospel of John was used between CE 90 and 130, the possible use of uniquely Johannine gospel material in several works which date from this period. These works and authors include Ignatius (c.107); Polycarp (c.107); Papias’ elders (c.110-120); Hierapolis' Exegesis of the Lord's Oracles (c.120-132).

Elaine Pagels, a prolific modern writer on Gnosticism, has written a book on the role of John in Gnosticism: Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John.

The Pauline Epistles

It has been hypothesized by scholars such as Hyam Maccoby and Elaine Pagels - as well as the mystic Timothy Freke, that Paul of Tarsus was a Gnostic who developed the early Christian church as a mystery religion with a Jewish flavour, and that elements of this church forgot or misunderstood the mystery elements, largely abandoned its Jewish foundation, and took up literal interpretation of the text.

Their argument for Paul being a gnostic is based on arguments about the authorship of the Pauline Epistles. The pastoral epistles (those to Timothy and Titus), are generally acknowledged as being clearly anti-gnostic, and the second Epistle to the Thessalonians clearly refutes certain gnostic interpretations of the first Epistle to the Thessalonians.

Paul and Hellenic influence

Besides being a Jew (of the tribe of Benjamin), and a member of the conservative Pharisee party prior to conversion, Paul could also write in Greek, and also refer to the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), rather than translating the Hebrew text.. He grew up in Tarsus, at the time of Paul was the dominant centre for Hellenic philosophy, Strabo commenting that Tarsus had surpassed Athens and Alexandria in this extent.

Although educated in Jerusalem, Paul expresses in his writing many ideas seen on Hellenic thought, previously used by philosophers such as Plato. For example, Paul refers to the solar cycle known as the great year, as well as to the idea that one is only wise if one knows that one knows nothing. According to the book of Acts, Paul's ministry takes him to cities dominated by mystery religions, such as Antioch (a centre for Adonis), Ephesus (a centre for Attis), and Corinth (a centre for the Dionysian Mysteries).

Terminology adopted by Paul

In 1 Corinthians,[2] Paul considers himself as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" which some[who?] suggest was also the technical term for a priest in Egyptian mystery religions where the central figure was the god Serapis. Paul also claims to know someone who ascended as far as the third heaven,[3] a principle which in mystery religions represented the degree of initiation achieved (for example, in the Mithraic mysteries there were 7 heavens, one for each of the 5 known planets, the sun, and the moon). Paul's story appears to have been a one time event however, and he claims uncertainty as to whether the visit to the third heaven was in the body or out of the body.

In Galatians 3:19-20, Paul states that the Law is the product of a "mediator", and that "the mediator is not one, God is one". The gnostics[who?] treated this as a reference to the standard gnostic teaching that the law should not apply since it was the product of the evil demiurge. Gnostics also referred to the demiurge as the mediator between God (whom they considered the only being to be singular and whole, and thus also referred to as Monad), and creation (which they considered intrinsically evil, rather than evil as the consequence of some human error). Though this does not hold true with the reference of the demiurge in gnosticism as blind and ignorant of his origin or the monad.

In Romans,[4] Paul clearly speaks of creation as awaiting redemption, rather than treating it as something irredeemable. He also refers to the law as the 'instructor' or 'tutor' of the Jewish people,[5] and as the beginning of God's work of turning people back to Himself, rather than as something opposed to God this being opposed to the works of Marcion who stated that the God of the Old Testament and law was the devil or demiurge.

Paul and the early church

The continual growth of Gnostic followings throughout the second century troubled the orthodox Christians that to refute it Irenaeus wrote a vast five-volume book (On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis commonly referred to as Against Heresies). The significance of Paul's influence was sufficient for Irenaeus to consider it important to proclaim that Paul was never gnostic and never supported gnostic teachings, using the evidence of the Pastoral epistles and the Gospel of John to support it.

Despite Irenaeus' claims for Paul's non gnosticism, Valentinus, the leader of a large faction of gnostics, claimed that Paul had initiated his own teacher Theudas into the Deeper Mysteries of Christianity, which revealed a secret gnostic doctrine of God.

From the beginning of modern biblical criticism with F.C. Baur, it has been argued that the Pseudo-Clementines, texts that in early times were frequently regarded as part of Biblical canon, are a coded attack on Paul, fictionalising him under the name of Simon Magus, in deliberate contrast to Simon Peter. Though as Paul is traditionally considered to have died in 67 and Marcion was born in 110, it has been argued that it is quite implausible for the two to ever have met; this also applies to Simon Magus who was said by the Book of Acts to have been teaching during the time of Simon Peter, and was said to have died during Peter's preaching (Clement of Rome attests to Peter himself dying before 90). Thus it is clear that neither Irenaeus nor Marcion himself can have been suggesting that Marcion was literally the immediate heir of Simon Magus or Paul, respectively, but instead must have been suggesting that Marcion was the latest in the line of heirs.

Gnostic interpretations of Paul's teachings

St. Paul, Caravaggio

The followers of Valentinius attempted to systematically decode the Epistles, claiming that most Christians made the mistake of reading the Epistles literally rather than allegorically. Valentians understood the conflict between Jews and Gentiles in Romans to be a coded reference to the differences between Psychics (people who are partly spiritual but have not yet achieved separation from carnality) and Pneumatics (totally spiritual people).

The Valentians argued that such codes were intrinsic in gnosticism, secrecy being important to ensuring proper progression to true inner understanding. In 2 Corinthians, Paul states he had heard ineffable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter, a position that gnostic initiates supported with respect to the higher gnostic teachings. However, Paul does also suggest Gnosis puffeth up (often this passage is found with gnosis translated - knowledge puffeth up), which appears to diminish support for gnosticism, but Clement of Alexandria offered the explanation that this meant to entertain great and true sentiments and was a reference to the magnitude of the effect of receiving it.

Grades of revelation

In 1 Corinthians 3:2,[6] Paul goes on to state 'I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it, for you are still of the flesh, which Gnostics interpret as the suggestion that the Corinthians were still Hylic (i.e. had not passed even the first level of understanding). Paul previously stated in 1 Corinthians 2:14[7] The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned, offering an explanation which coincides with the gnostic teaching of levels of comprehension.

Gnostics viewed scripture as allegory, only serving a literal meaning to Hylic (i.e. uninitiate) people, partly for the purpose of advertising. Gnostics thus interpreted Paul's statements, that the Old Testament acts as our examples in 1 Corinthians 10:6[8] and that For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life in 2 Corinthians 3:6,[9] as supporting this view, with understanding more important than rigid adherence. Gnostics also took to a more gnostic interpretation the phrase though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more in 2 Corinthians 5:16[10] as indicative of Paul's progress from Hylic, rather than the understanding of Christ's time being in the past.

Paul states in Romans 8:3[11] that Christ came in the homoioma of human flesh. Homoioma[12] means image or representation (the text is usually translated in the likeness of human flesh). Some gnostic groups[who?] treated this as admittance of Docetism, with the Christ being the divine wisdom which revealed gnosis, which would help humanity escape the evil creation (the world) of the demiurge, and having no physical existence. Though Paul never speaks of the creator or nature as evil.

In Epistle to the Galatians 1:15[13] and 1:16[14] Paul states of his conversion that God revealed his Son in me, rather than to me, which Gnostics interpret as a reference to Christ being the divine gnosis sent to save humanity, rather than a physical creature or person. In the same letter, Paul also states in Galatians 2:20[15] that I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, which gnostics took as further evidence of Paul supporting their stance.


The resurrection of the dead by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The gnostics took an esoteric view of death, and therefore of resurrection. When Paul states in Romans that he that is dead is freed from sin, and that we are buried with him by baptism into death, the gnostics assumed it was a reference to the teaching that the body is the work of the evil demiurge, and that death would release the divine part of a person from the demiurge's power.

Gnostics also took death to be symbolic for the death of the part of a person tied to the demiurge, and the consequential resurrection as a new entirely spiritual being, understanding resurrection as an awakening of spiritual enlightenment. In Philippians, Paul refers to himself as partaking in the same death as Christ, and thence partaking in the resurrection of the dead, which suited gnostic interpretations. Paul's references to reaping and sowing of crops, in 1 Corinthians, was also a common image from the mystery religions symbolising the esoteric death and resurrection of initiates.

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, however, during chapter 15, Paul appears to give credence to a more literal idea of the physical resurrection of the dead. However, as noted by many gnostics, Paul also states flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Irenaeus complained that all heretics always introduce this passage. It is widely thought by scholars that the presence of the issue proved such a problem that someone felt the need to forge a third letter to the Corinthians, which explicitly states the dead are resurrected physically. Despite this, 3 Corinthians was rejected from biblical canon, and thus became part of the New Testament apocrypha.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul also refers to baptism for the dead (15:29), a concept according to Elaine Pagels, was easily explained by gnostics. Since the gnostics argued that the text was allegory, their stance was that baptism for the dead refers to pneumatics (i.e. gnostics) taking the place of psychics (i.e. literalists), who were dead to gnosis. Tertullian wrote about Marcion gnostics in his work Against Marcion indicating that there they believed in baptism of the dead. The doctrines of Marcion were so similar to the Gnostics that the church father Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp in the 180s regarded him as one of them.

John Gill in his commentary of 1 Corinthians 15:29 remarked, "...some think the apostle [Paul]has in view a custom of some, who when their friends died without baptism, used to be baptized in their room; this is said to be practiced by the Marcionites in Tertullian's time, and by the Corinthians in the times of the Apostle John; but it does not appear to have been in use in the times of the Apostle Paul; and besides, if it had been, as it was a vain and superstitious one, he would never have mentioned it without a censure..."

Jameison-Faussett-Brown commentary of 1 Corinthians 15:29 mentioned, "...Paul, without giving the least sanction to the practice, uses an ad hominem argument from it against its practitioners, some of whom, though using it, denied the resurrection: "What account can they give of their practice; why are they at the trouble of it, if the dead rise not?"[So Jesus used an ad hominem argument, Matthew 12:27]. The best punctuation is, "If the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for them" (so the oldest manuscripts read the last words, instead of "for the dead")?"


One feature that was contested amongst the gnostics was that of ethics. Gnostics believed that since the world was intrinsically evil, so was anything the human body did. Some gnostics concluded that this meant that one could engage in gross immorality since it demonstrated the knowledge that the body was a prison for the soul. Most gnostics, however, considered that instead one should suppress the urges of the body as much as possible and live a highly ascetic life. One consequence of this view was a lack of care to social status (exhibited noticeably in Mithraism), or for that matter not caring about being/not-being a slave, a criticism also levied at Paul for his lack of raising the issue in Philemon.

Paul also appears to many scholars to exhibit a strong distaste for sexuality of any kind, supporting the principle of celibacy, which gnostics interpreted as due to the idea of the world as evil, though non-gnostics took it to be merely a rigid and strict adherence to the Old Testament. Paul himself elsewhere states that he teaches righteousness without the Law (Rom 3:21), which gnostics used as a counter argument to the claim he adhered to the Old Testament, and also supported the idea that laws were ultimately the product of the demiurge as a trap. Though once again Paul never mentions an ignorant or evil creator or demiurge.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul does recommend celibacy, but also recommends marriage for those who are not suited for celibacy. Later (1 Cor. 9:5), he defends the right of Peter and the other apostles to be married and to travel accompanied by their wives, although he himself was unmarried. In contrast, he condemned sexual immorality of all kinds, in various epistles (Romans 13:13, 1 Cor. 6:18, 1 Thess. 4:3), along with several other categories of sins, and making no exceptions for these.


Irenaeus argued that the use of scripture by Gnostic groups, such as the Valentinians, was flawed, and demonstrated his argument by taking arbitrary passages from various writings of Homer to compose a new story about Hercules. While the individual passages were authentic, the connected story was not of Homer's composition, and in fact the passages featured a number of different characters instead of just Hercules. Irenaeus compared this abuse of Homer to the abuse of the New and Old Testaments by the gnostics.

See also



  • John Dart Decoding Mark, Trinity Press International (2003), ISBN 1-56338-374-8
  • Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia The Logia of Yeshua
  • Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (1992), ISBN 0-8006-0403-2
  • Hyam Maccoby Paul And Hellenism (1991)
  • Hyam Maccoby The Mythmaker: Paul And The Invention Of Christianity (1986)
  • Morton Smith The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark New York: Harper and Row, 1973
  • The Nature and Extent of the Q-Document
  • Die Redaktion der Logienquelle (The redaction of the Q logia), Luhrmann 1969
  • Georg Wobbermin, Religionsgeschichtliche Studien zur Frage der Beeinflussung des Urchristentums durch das antike Mysterienwesen (1896); 2002 reprint: ISBN 978-0543778703.

External links

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