Gnosticism and the New Testament

By James M. Rochford

What is Gnosticism?

Henry More (1669) coined the term Gnosticism to describe a system of beliefs that arose during and after the time of Christ.[1] The term comes from the Greek word for “knowledge” (gnōsis). For example, Paul told Timothy to turn away from those who have what is “falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20 NIV).

Irenaeus (AD 180) records that John fiercely debated a man named Cerinthus. This false teacher was a Gnostic Jewish-Christian who lived during the same time as John (AD 100) and in the same area of Asia Minor (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.1). Cerinthus rejected the virginal conception, and he held that Jesus of Nazareth was merely a human being—even though he was “more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men” (1.26.1). Cerinthus held that an aeon (a spirit-being called the “Christ”) descended on Jesus’ body and possessed him at his baptism, but this spirit-being abandoned Jesus at his crucifixion. Irenaeus writes, “After his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being” (1.26.1; cf. 3.11.1). John disagreed so fiercely with Cerinthus that he wouldn’t even occupy the same public places (Against Heresies 3.3.4).

In addition to Irenaeus, we can reconstruct the beliefs of Gnosticism by studying the Gnostic literature discovered at Nag Hammadi. However, we should be clear that the Gnostic gospels were far later than the Four Gospels—sometimes hundreds of years later—and these documents reflect distortions of the reliable records of the historical Jesus. For a defense of the Four Gospels in comparison of the Gnostic Gospels, we suggest watching our lecture below:

The Gnostic literature from Nag Hammadi dates well beyond the first century. However, belief-systems often take considerable time to develop. Therefore, this later material sheds light on proto-Gnosticism in the first century. What then can we know about Gnostic beliefs in general? Are there major themes that can be understood? And how does this relate to our ability to interpret key books in the NT?

(1) Secret knowledge

According to Gnosticism, Christ was not so much the Savior of humans for their sins; rather, he was a Revealer of divine knowledge because of their ignorance.[2] Thus, Gnostic writing repeatedly emphasizes “secret knowledge” about Jesus and his true teachings. Gnosticism didn’t have a formal organization, formal creeds, or formal customs. It was a very diverse system of beliefs. Indeed, Bock writes, “Gnosticism was not a singular connected movement but more a way of seeing the world that produced a myriad of viewpoints on the themes tied to its definition.”[3] Furthermore, Gnostics had a “parasitic quality”[4] to their practices and beliefs. That is, they would borrow from existing views—especially from Christianity. We can reconstruct many of the popular beliefs within Gnosticism—even though we are aware that the movement was very diverse. Consider just a few examples of this “secret knowledge” motif in Gnostic literature:

  • “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 1).
  • The names of God and the Son were prohibited from being spoken aloud because this would spoil the secrecy of their nature (Gospel of Philip, chs. 53-54).
  • The Apocryphon of James is a “secret book” (1:10) among other secret books (1:30). This was alleged to be a secret letter to James and Peter from Jesus (2:19-20).

We can imagine a Gnostic teacher saying, “You believe in what is written in the Four Gospels about Jesus? You’ve been lied to! Only we know the real truth about who Jesus was and what he taught. In order to learn, you’ll need to join our organization and be initiated into the Gnostic faith.” Gnostics promised “inside information” and the coveted “secret knowledge” of the Divine.

A refutation of this Gnostic practice is reflected in the NT literature. Consider this passage from John regarding the role of human teachers. At first glance, it looks like John is rejecting the need for human teachers. After all, John writes,

“The Holy One has given you his Spirit, and all of you know the truth… you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ” (1 Jn. 2:20, 27 NLT).

Is John rejecting the need for teachers? Not at all. When we understand the widespread reality of Gnosticism in Asia Minor at the time, this passage makes considerable sense. John was directly refuting the Gnostic claim that Christians needed these false teachers to give them “secret knowledge” about Jesus (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20).

(2) God

The “divine feminine” was very popular in Gnostic literature. In one distorted Trinitarian formula we read of being put “into the Father, into the Mother, Jesus of the infinite sweetness” (The Gospel of Truth, 24:6-7). Another document records Jesus speaking to John: “I [am the Father]; I am the Mother; I am the Son” (The Apocryphon of John, II 2:9-25). In Gnosticism, the Trinity consists of the Father, the Mother [Barbelo], and the Son (Gospel of the Egyptians, III 41:8-55:16). We’re unsure how widespread this belief was in the first century because we don’t see the apostles refuting this concept in the NT epistles. But this was surely a widespread later development.

(3) Creation

Gnostics held that an evil, lesser deity created the physical world. Irenaeus (AD 180) writes, “[Cerinthus] taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all” (Against Heresies 1.26.1). Later sources describe this perspective: “The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire” (Gospel of Philip, 75.2-14). Because physical creation is impure and distorted, this led Gnostics to hate the physical world and embrace the spiritual world.

(4) Dualism

Since material creation was considered to be evil, this led to Gnostic dualism. The concept of dualism held that the physical world was filthy and impure, but the spiritual world was pure. Consequently, Gnostics held that the immaterial soul of a person was pure, but their body was evil. Consider several examples in the Gnostic literature:

  • “Compare the soul. It is a precious thing and it came to be in a contemptible body” (Gospel of Philip, 56:20-26).
  • “If the flesh came into being because of the spirit, it is a wonder. But if the spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 29).
  • “Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 112).
  • Providence entered the world by coming into “the middle of the prison” (The Apocryphon of John, II 30:11-18).

The application of dualism resulted in a number of outlandish and outrageous applications and beliefs. Since the physical body was considered evil, Gnostics held that we should either run wild in sin (because our physical bodies don’t matter anyway) or we should punish our bodies (because our physical bodies are evil and deserve harsh treatment). Hence, Gnosticism either resulted in (1) asceticism and (2) licentiousness.

(1) Dualism led some Gnostics to embrace ASCETICISM. The concept of asceticism refers to rigorous self-denial and a cruel treatment of the body. In some cases, this resulted in depriving oneself of perfectly good physical pleasures like marital sex or eating food. Since God created the physical world and called it “good” (Gen. 1), the Christian faith clashed with Gnosticism on this point. Consider a few examples:

“[False teachers] forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:3-4 NIV).

“You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Col. 2:20-23 NLT).

(2) Dualism led some Gnostics to embrace LICENTIOUSNESS. Other Gnostic teachers agreed that the material body was impure and evil, but they took an entirely different application: Run wild! We might imagine a Gnostic teacher saying, “I regularly have sex with prostitutes with my physical body. But this isn’t wrong because my spiritual soul is still pure.” Consider a couple NT examples:

“Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4).

“No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn. 3:9-10).

Dualism led some Gnostics to deny the Incarnation. The word incarnation comes from the root word carne which means “flesh” (e.g. “carnivore” or “reincarnate”). At the incarnation, God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus—being both truly human and truly God. Since Gnostics rejected physical reality as impure, they recoiled at the idea that a pure immaterial being like God would enter into the sewer of human flesh in the person of Jesus.

The Gnostics held that a spirit-being or “pleroma” fell upon the man Jesus of Nazareth. This term “pleroma” meant “fullness” or “that which fills up” (BDAG, p.829), and it was a common term within Gnosticism. The NT authors used this common term to refute their views. For example, in one Gnostic text we read, “All the emanations of the Father are pleromas, and the root of all his emanations is in the one who made them all grow up in himself” (The Gospel of Truth 41:14-19). Paul rejects this concept when he writes, “In Christ all the fullness (plērōma) of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9 NIV). In other words, Jesus wasn’t just filled with a spirit-being. Rather, the entire fullness of God filled the human body of Jesus. He was both truly God and truly human.

Dualism led some Gnostics to embrace DOCETISM. The Greek word dokeō means “to appear” or “to seem.” Thus, docetism held that God wasn’t truly human in the person of Jesus; rather, He only appeared to be human. In reality, Jesus was merely a man, and the Divine Christ was a spirit-being that looked like a man or could fall upon Jesus (Against Heresies 1.26.1). Certainly, the apostle John was refuting the heresy of docetism. This understanding of Gnosticism sheds considerable light on several passages in his first letter:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1 NIV).

“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 Jn. 4:1-3).

The Gospel of Peter espouses both dualism and docetism. In this spurious gospel, the people think Jesus was on the Cross, but really, the spirit-Jesus is above the Cross laughing. Jesus said to Peter, “He whom you see above the cross, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his physical part, which is the substitute. They are putting to shame that which is his likeness” (81:7-23). Jesus is laughing because they don’t realize their error (83:1-3).

(5) Salvation

To repeat, Gnostics despised the physical body. Therefore, only a person’s soul was saved by God—not their body. Bock writes, “Salvation of the nonmaterial spirit or soul within a person is what matters, not a salvation of the creation or of the flesh. In fact, the flesh is not redeemable. There is no resurrection of the body from the dead.”[5] This could explain why Paul needed to repeatedly defend a physical resurrection among the Greco-Roman world (Acts 17:32; 1 Cor. 15:20ff; 2 Tim. 2:18). Though, it should be noted that Neo-Platonism was also a conceptual barrier.

Didn’t Gnosticism appear in the second century—not the first century?

Many NT scholars argue that Gnosticism only existed in the second century—not the first. They argue that the vast majority of our knowledge of Gnosticism comes from the second century and beyond. Therefore, they argue, we shouldn’t apply second century texts retroactively onto the first century. Otherwise, this would be anachronistic.

There is some truth to this. Gnosticism was far more rampant in the second century than in the first century. However, this is far too reductionistic and rigid. In the ancient world, belief-systems didn’t spring into existence overnight, and they didn’t spread across the world overnight either. Therefore, our sources from the second century surely reflect some sort of nascent Gnosticism in the first century. Indeed, the presence of a robust second century Gnosticism implies a movement spreading its roots in the first century. Moreover, how do we explain the many examples of NT authors who were engaging with some sort of proto-Gnosticism? Surely this demonstrates that some sort of Gnostic belief existed this early.

[1] Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), p.45.

[2] Hiebert, D. Edmond. “An Exposition of 1 John 1:1-4.” Bibliotheca Sacra. April-June 1988. 199-200.

[3] Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), p.53.

[4] Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), p.54.

[5] Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), p.49.