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R.M. Grant

Gnosticism and Early Christianity

6. Gnosticism and Early Christianity

We have now seen something of the ways in which the principal early Gnostic systems were developed, and in which at least the Valentinians endeavored to come closer to the "Great Church." From time to time we have indicated some of the striking parallels to be found between Gnostic ideas and statements made in the New Testament. But now we must proceed to investigate the relation of early Christianity to Gnosticism and to the sources of Gnosticism in Jewish apocalyptic thought and in other kinds of Jewish speculation. From the previous chapters it will be evident that we shall encounter difficulties; for if something in the New Testament resembles Gnostic expressions, it is likely to resemble expressions found in Jewish apocalyptic or haggada, and we may not be able to state precisely what its origins are.


In the Synoptic Gospels we find almost nothing which seems to be related to Gnosticism, even though, as we have seen, some Gnostics were able to find support for their views by allegorical interpretation of the sayings of Jesus or, at times, by noncontextual literal exegesis. There are two passages, however, in which a kind of semi-Gnostic language occurs. The first is found in both Matthew (11.25-27) and Luke (10.21-22).

Ponise thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou tat hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and hast revealed them to infants; yea, Father, for so it was well pleasing before thee. All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, nor does anyone know the Father but the Son and whoever receives the revelation from the Son.

This passage presents the Son as the sole organ of revelation, and as B. W. Bacon argued long ago, it is based on the picture of Israel in Jewish speculation.1 Norden called the language "mystical-theosophical"; more recently, W. D. Davies has claimed that it is apocalyptic. Actually it is both. It stands on the borderline between apocalyptic and Gnostic thought, and does so in the context of Jewish speculation about the Israel, the Torah, and the Wisdom of God. And it obviously points onward toward the Fourth Gospel, where we read that "the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand" (John 3.35), that "the Father knows me and I know the Father" (10.15), and that "no one comes to the Father but by me" (14.6).

The second passage occurs in Matthew alone (11.28-30).

Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Here again the thought is related to ideas about the Wisdom or the Torah of God. A prayer of Jesus son of Sirach begins with the words, "I praise thee, Lord King" (51.1) and ends with an appeal based on his own experience. "Draw near to me, you who are untaught. . . . Put your neck under the yoke [of Wisdom] and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. ... I have found for myself much rest" (51.23-27). Wisdom is the "close-by" Torah of God, as in Sirach 51.26 (Bar. 3.29); and she has "tabernacled" in Jacob and in Israel (24.8). But in this passage in Matthew we do not hear about Wisdom from Jesus son of Sirach; we hear the words of Jesus the Wisdom of God. There is a Wisdom-Christology in this passage which points toward the Gnostic speculations about Wisdom. But here it is not Gnostic; it is simply Christian, and it may go back to Jesus himself. If Jesus somehow identified himself with Israel, as many modern scholars have held, it is surely possible that he could have identified himself with the Wisdom of God. In any event, we can see that at a very early time he was so identified by Christians.

It is obvious that the picture of Jesus which is reflected in these sayings does not easily blend with the portrait of him as an enthusiast for apocalyptic eschatology which is widely accepted by New Testament critics today. On the other hand, significant protests against the current view have been raised by such scholars as C. H. Dodd, J. A. T. Robinson, and E. Stauffer. Dodd argued in favor of "realized eschatology" or "eschatology in process of realization”; Robinson examined the whole synoptic tradition in order to show that the more apocalyptic-eschatological doctrines were added by early Christians to the teaching of Jesus; and Stauffer has pointed out that in the common source of Matthew and Luke (in which we find the first passage discussed above) there is no mention whatever of an imminent end of the world. "The tendency of the community," writes Stauffer, "to add oracular utterances about the imminent end of the world is most clearly evident in the tradition of the Gospel of Matthew, which . originated in the apocalyptic years shortly before the catastrophic fall of Jerusalem." This date for Matthew may be too early, but it is undeniable that the tradition he sets forth has been set in a framework in which apocalyptic eschatology has been heightened.

If the mission of Jesus was not purely, or even primarily, eschatological in nature—except in so far as it represented the fulfillment of eschatological hopes—then we can more easily understand how the interpretations of his person provided by Paul (except in Thessalonians), by John, and by various Gnostic teachers could arise. Apocalyptic eschatologists interpreted him in one way; others, with greater nuance on Jewish Wisdom conceptions and on Jewish speculations about the Word and the Name of God, and perhaps on his own teaching, interpreted him in another.


It may be that we can find traces of Gnostic ideas in the letters of Paul, although to find out what Paul thought and how and why he thought it is more difficult than might at first appear. We do not really know a great deal about the circumstances under which he wrote his letters, and to a considerable extent the circumstances have to be inferred from the letters themselves. Some scholars have tried to trace a development in his thought and to explain it partly on psychological grounds;T others have claimed that development cannot be traced and that as an apologist for the gospel he really tried, as he says, to become "all things to all men" (1 Cor. 9.22). With or without a theory of development, however, it is fairly plain that the atmosphere of such early letters as those to the Thessalonians is more apocalyptic-eschatological than that of such a letter as Romans, not to mention Colossians and Ephesians. Only in 2 Thessalonians (2.2) do we hear of converts who believe that "the day of the Lord has arrived."

We shall examine the Pauline Epistles by beginning with Thessalonians and then going on via Corinthians to the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. Finally, we shall deal with the Pastoral Epistles, which almost certainly represent "post-Pauline Paulinism."

In what are probably Paul's earliest letters, those to the Thessalonians, there are no traces whatever of anything resembling Gnostic doctrine. Instead, there is a vigorous and rather crude apocalyptic eschatology; the Lord is going to come down from heaven and we shall meet him in the air (1 Thess. 4.16-17). The Lord Jesus will appear with the angels of his power, with the fire of a flame (2 Thess. 1.7-8).

In Galatians, however, something a little different occurs. Paul tells his converts not to serve gods who are not really gods, the "weak and impoverished stoicheia." They once served them when they observed a calendar which included "days, months, seasons, and years" (Gal. 4.8-10). Who can these stoicheia be but the planetary spirits, weak and impoverished because somehow Christ has triumphed over them? And it may be—though caution is certainly necessary—that they are to be identified with the angels through whom, Paul says (Gal. 3.19), the Mosaic law was ordained.10 Paul's doctrine is not by any means Gnostic; it is apocalyptic but it is coming closer to Gnosticism.

It is worth noting that in this letter Paul's emphasis is shifting from the future to what Christ has already done. He has rescued us from the present evil age (1.4); it is no longer Paul who lives, but Christ who lives in him (2.20); the world has been crucified to him, and he to the world (6.14); a new creation has already come (6.15).

This doctrine is no different from what we later meet in Colossians, where we learn that we have "died with Christ and are separated from the stoicheia of the world" (2.20). Our true life is now a hidden life, hidden with Christ in God (3.3).

The Corinthian letters have been regarded, especially in recent times, as evidence for the existence of Gnostic sectarianism in the Christian community. Though the ability of modern scholars to recover Paul's opponents' ideas may be over-estimated, it would appear that a movement like the one which later became Gnosticism was probably present in Corinth.11 The framework in which the Corinthians expressed many of their ideas about themselves was derived from the Cynic-Stoic ideal "wise man," who was regarded as "powerful," "well-born" (1 Cor. 1:26), "rich," and "royal"(4:8). He lived in accordance with nature and therefore matters of diet and of sexual activity were "indifferent" as far as he was concerned; again, everything and anything was "permissible" for him, as it was to a king (cf. 6:12-13). But why did these Corinthians hold such a view of themselves? It would appear that two features of Christian life were especially influential in the development of their ideas. (1) There was the experience of the activity of the Spirit within the community; in their view, the gift of the Spirit made them "spiritual." (2) There was the proclamation of the imminent kingdom of God; in their view, this kingdom had already come, and therefore they were "filled" and "rich"; since the kingdom was theirs, they were kings (cf. the Sermon on the Mount). In other words, in place of an eschatology in process of realization the Corinthian sectarians had a fully-realized eschatology, which they interpreted in semi-philosophical terms. They may have laid special emphasis on the conception of Jesus as the Wisdom of God (cf. 1:18-2:5).

It is not so clear, however, that the Gnosticizing tendency present among them involved their setting forth a Gnosticizing or Gnostic myth. In a system much like theirs, that of Prodicus as described by Clement of Alexandria,12 there is such a myth, describing the emanation of "the Beloved" from the primordial One. But all we know about myth at Corinth comes from what Paul sets forth of his own belief. He speaks of the mysterious "archons of this aeon" who are passing away and says that they crucified "the Lord of glory" because they did not know God's hidden wisdom (2:6-8). Chief among them was probably the one whom Paul calls "the god of this age" (2 Cor. 4:4). But is his language, or any of theirs which he may conceivably reflect, actually Gnostic? The term "the Lord of glory" occurs eight times in the apocalyptic book of Enoch, where it is used of God; the absolute distinctions Paul sets forth between Christ and Beliar and between light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14-15) are close to the apocalyptic of the Dead Sea Scrolls—indeed, so close that some critics have suggested that 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is not Paul's but a Dead Sea fragment. And in trying to determine the background of Paul's thought in both Corinthian letters we must recall that the legends to which he may refer in 2 Corinthians II (seduction of Eve by the serpent; Satan's transformation into an. angel of light) occur in apocalyptic literature related to Adam, while the idea of rapture into the third heaven or into paradise (2 Cor. 12:2-4) is also characteristic of apocalyptic literature.18

It is true that such notions appear again among the Gnostics, but it need not be held that Paul himself has gone beyond apocalyptic toward, or into, Gnosticism. His interpretation of the Gospel in apocalyptic terminology, however, may have encouraged converts whose acquaintance with Judaism was minimal to understand him in a semi-Gnostic manner. Such a development may help us to explain the situation which probably underlies his letter to the Colossians.

As far as one canitell—and certainly some of this analysis has to be guesswork—the Colossians believed that there was a pleroma or fullness of divine being which was made up of the "elemental spirits of the world," the angels. They worshiped these angels and held that they themselves were bound to obey not only the Jewish law, which the angels had given, but also certain ascetic requirements (2.16, 21). This doctrine, which seems essentially Jewish in origin, they may have called by the name of "philosophy" (2.8). They may also have spoken of a special kind of knowledge (epignosis) of God(1.9-10; 2.2)."

It is doubtful that they were really dualists. When Paul tells them that God "delivered us from the power of darkness" he may well be expressing his own view, not theirs (1.13). In any case, he answers them by telling them that the "fulness of deity" was in Christ, not in these angels, and that every cosmic power was created in him—"thrones, dominations, principalities, powers" (1.16). God "blotted out the decree in ordinances which was against us, and took it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; he 'put off' the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them by him" (2.14-15). Paul's language is no less mythological than the Colossians', but it is centered in God and Christ, not in the angelic rulers.

What is Paul doing as he writes to the Colossians? He is correcting their rather simple, though speculative, angelology by insisting on his own "realized echatology." In the course of the development of his own thought from the Thessalonian epistles to this point, he has come to lay more and more emphasis on the realization of eschatology and to think less and less of the future coming of Jesus. The Christian is one who "has been raised with Christ" (3.1). Paul believes that Christ will be made manifest (3.4), but the center of emphasis has been shifted from future to past and present.

The Colossians actually seem to have been less dualistic than Paul himself. Perhaps this lack of dualism was due to a lack of concern for apocalyptic eschatology. In any event, their ideas—as far as we can recover them—cannot be used to prove the presence of Gnostic thinking in the Church when Colossians was written. Paul himself is moving in the direction of Gnosticism. We do not know that the Colossians were doing so.

The movement toward Gnosticism is almost completed by the time we reach the epistle to the Ephesians, for which the Gnostic background has been worked out by Heinrich Schlier. It is hard to prove that Ephesians was written after the death of Paul and the fall of the temple, though modern studies have made such a theory fairly probable.16 The mysterious reference in Ephesians 2.14 to the broken dividing wall between Jews and gentiles may suggest that the temple has been destroyed, though this is of course highly uncertain. In any case we are close to gnosis. Christians already live in the heavenly regions; the Church has already ascended to heaven in order to make the wisdom of God known to the principalities and powers. "Our warfare," says the author, "is against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual beings of wickedness in the heavenly regions" (6.12). These spiritual beings are almost certainly planetary angels, and we agree with Schlier that the background of Ephesians lies in an incipient Gnosticism.

This is one answer which the Christian Church gives to the problem presented by the collapse of apocalyptic eschatology. In Ephesians the expectations set forth in the earliest Pauline Epistles are almost entirely transformed into cosmological doctrine. And if Ephesians was intended as a guide to reading Paul, we can see that it sets the other letters in a post- or non-apocalyptic perspective.

Still later, further reinterpretation was necessary. Genuine Gnostics were "twisting" the letters of Paul in favor of their systems (2 Pet. 3.15-16). And as we have already intimated, there was a good deal of material available for them to twist. For this reason an ecclesiastical author made the effort to provide an authoritative treatment of Paul's views. The Pastoral Epistles attack "myths and genealogies" (i Tim. 1.4) or "Jewish myths" (Tit. 1.14), which may well be Gnostic accounts of the origin of the universe. They urge readers to "guard the deposit, avoiding the profane babblings and contradictions of the gnosis which is falsely so-called" (1 Tim. 6.20). And they oppose a gnosis which forbids marriage and requires abstinence from meat (1 Tim. 4.3). "Everything created by God is good" (1 Tim. 4.4). Surely those Church Fathers were right who believed that in these letters the Gnostic systems of the late or early second century were under fire.


Gnosticism and Early Christianity by R.M. Grant. Second Edition. Columbia University press, 1966. New York and London. P. 151-162.