Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Part II, Chapter 4: Early Christianities

As noted toward the top of this page in the right margin, I've decided to serialize and publish on this blog a book that I've been working on for some time. Below is the fifth installment. Consult the Table of Contents at the right of this page for a chronological listing of posts.

[W]ith all thy getting, get understanding.
--Proverbs 4:7

That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginnings of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christianity.
--St. Augustine

[The clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
--Thomas Jefferson

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
--Carl Jung

In chapter 1, I noted that Literalists interpret the Bible’s emphasis on “faith” as requiring an unquestioning belief in the historicity of certain events described therein. I called the idea that Bible’s spiritual significance is to be deciphered from its sacred history the “Paradigm of Historicity”. And I called the basic doctrines that purport to explain the significance of these events “Atonement Theology.”

In chapter 2, I explained how our unconscious instincts, beliefs, biases and attitudes—that is, our unconscious paradigms--influence how we perceive the world, and how easily we live in it. To the extent that we make decisions and assumptions while on autopilot—that is, while under the control of unconscious paradigms--we live our lives in chains, victims of “fate.” And, to the extent our unconscious paradigms don’t comport with reality, that fate is often a miserable one. The solution to this problem, and the way to freedom, is to bring our paradigms into consciousness where we can examine their validity and usefulness, retaining true ones and discarding false ones.

Finally, in chapter 3, I noted that interpreting any document is difficult. Determining whether a literal or figurative interpretation was intended by the author is not always easy, and this is especially true with religious literature. Unfortunately, due to the influence of our paradigms, most of us never consciously consider alternative interpretations of a text, especially the Bible. Rather, just like when we viewed the vases/faces picture and saw immediately either a vase or a face, we simply read the Bible, unconsciously interpret it through our paradigms, and presume we know what the author intended. But, unless we acknowledge how paradigms influence our understanding, we may interpret the author as describing a face when in fact he or she intended a vase.

The great paradigm that has unconsciously shaped our conception of the Christian scriptures for centuries is the Paradigm of Historicity. It is so engrained in the West’s psyche that most can’t imagine how the Bible could have meaning without it. Because of this, its derivative, Atonement Theology, has come to define most every modern form of Christianity.

And yet, it is becoming increasingly difficult for educated, knowledgeable Christians to accept the Paradigm of Historicity and its derivative, Atonement Theology. Discovering why this is so is the purpose of Part II of this book.

In short, it’s time to bring the Paradigm of Historicity fully into consciousness so that we can examine it in the light of day and decide once and for all whether it passes muster. After considering all the evidence presented in this Part II, any fair reader will agree that it’s only a staggering ignorance of the Bible and its origins that has permitted the Paradigm of Historicity to dictate our conception of Christianity for so long.

Because it is relevant to the entire discussion, let us begin with a summary of early Christian history.

Early Chaos

Many ordinary Christians mistakenly believe that a book, which we now call the Bible, was once assembled and ordained by the original group of Christians, or perhaps even by the earthly Jesus himself. However all scholars, Christian and secular alike, know that this is not true. Although the Jesus of the Bible was apparently literate, he did not author a single work during his time on earth, or at least none that have survived—no letters to his disciples, no Last Will & Testament, no autobiography, no chronicle of his teachings, no warnings or admonitions...nothing save a few scribbles in the sand now long gone.

Even the most faithful Literalist must find this a bit curious. If God intended for the revelation of his plan of salvation to be preserved for future generations in an infallible book documenting Jesus’ life and teachings, then why didn’t Jesus, while he was here, personally preside over the creation, compilation, or designation of such a work? Why didn’t Jesus appoint an official biographer or historian? An officially sanctioned Bible would have carried much weight with Jesus’ early followers and could have prevented innumerable disputes. To name just one, a Jesus-sanctioned Bible could have prevented centuries of arguments among the early Christians as to which “books” should be included in our Bibles .

But instead, virtually all scholars agree that the books of what we now call the New Testament were not written until decades after Jesus’ death. Many of them were simple letters of correspondence that weren’t considered “scripture” until centuries after they were written. In fact, the “books” of the New Testament were not organized into a cohesive, exclusive body of canon until about four hundred years after Jesus was born, and even then not all Christians agreed upon the Bible’s contents:

To be sure, the books that were eventually collected into the New Testament had been written by the second century [CE]. But they had not been gathered into a widely recognized and authoritative canon of Scripture. And there were other books written as well, with equally impressive pedigrees—other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses claiming to be written by the earthly apostles of Jesus. (Ehrman, Lost Christianities, at 2-3)

As we shall later see, a great number of these other works were held in equal esteem, and some in greater esteem, than certain of the books that now comprise our Bibles. In fact, one can scarcely overestimate the devotion that early Christian sects felt toward their own preferred “scripture” and the teachings derived therefrom, nor can we easily overstate the disdain that some of these early Christian sects felt towards the scriptures and doctrines of other Christian sects. The result of these disputes was chaos:

Hundreds of rival teachers all claimed to teach the “true doctrine of Christ” and denounced one another as frauds. Christians in churches scattered from Asia Minor to Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome split into factions, arguing over church leadership. All claimed to represent the “authentic tradition.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, at 4).

Disputes over the makeup of the canon were so pervasive and disruptive that in the year 367 that Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote a letter to all churches under his authority instructing them to consider as scripture only the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament, and he forbade the reading of any of the numerous other Christian texts then in circulation. Despite this dictate, many Christians and Jews continued to venerate a variety of others books for some time, books like these that were only rediscovered in the last 70 years, and many others that we know once existed only because they are referenced in "orthodox" writings that have survived.

Of course, all of these disputes could have been avoided if Jesus has simply written, compiled or designated an official Bible for all Christians. But, he didn’t. How do Literalists explain this oversight? The same way they do most things: "The Lord works in mysterious ways." n

The Beginning of Literalism

One group of early Christians, calling themselves “orthodox” (literally, “right-thinking”), was greatly distressed by the diversity and chaos that was second century Christianity. One influential leader of this group was Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (c. 180).

Iraneaus dreamed of uniting Christianity under a single banner by consolidating worldwide ecclesiastical authority under a hierarchy of “right-thinking” bishops and priests. But to do this, he first had to differentiate orthodox thought from the bewildering variety of “christianities” that competed for the public’s attention. He attempted to do this by authoring a seminal work, Five Books Against Heresies--a voluminous piece designed to discredit all forms of Christianity other than Irenaeus’ own:

Probably more than any other early Church Father, Irenaeus contrived to impart to Christian theology a stable and coherent form. He accomplished this primarily by means of a voluminous work, Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses (Five Books Against Heresies). In his exhaustive opus Irenaeus catalogued all deviations from the coalescing orthodoxy and vehemently condemned them. Deploring diversity, he maintained there could be only one valid Church, outside which there could be no salvation. Whoever challenged this assertion, Irenaeus declared to be a heretic—to be expelled and, if possible, destroyed. (Holy Blood, Holy Grail at 365)

Because Irenaeus and certain of his contemporaries were, as best as we can tell from the historical record, among the earliest proponents of orthodox doctrine, some scholars refer to them as “proto-orthodox” rather than “orthodox”, reserving the later title for those Literalists who centuries later won the battle to define Christianity. However, in this book I use the terms interchangeably as the distinction is irrelevant to my thesis.

Methinks He Doth Protest Too Much

Literalists throughout the ages have taught us that early Christians were united in their faith and understanding of Christianity, and that it was only a few fringe heretics who later sought to corrupt it. As Elaine Pagels notes:

The term “Christianity,” especially since the Reformation, has covered an astonishing range of groups. Those claiming to represent “true Christianity” in the twentieth century can range from a Catholic cardinal in the Vatican to an African Methodist Episcopal preacher initiating revival in Detroit, a Mormon missionary in Thailand, or the member of a village church on the coast of Greece. Yet Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox agree that such diversity is a recent—and deplorable—development. According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time, [it is assumed that] all members of the Christian community shared their money and property; all believed the same teaching, and worshiped together; all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity. (Elaine Pagels, Introduction to The Gnostic Gospels, at xxii-xxiii)

But the discovery of ancient documents during the last 75 years, some near the Dead Sea commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls, and especially those from Nag Hammadi, Egypt commonly called the Nag Hammadi Library, seriously undermines this history:

[T]he discoveries of Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts [found at Nag Hammadi] represent early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than nearly anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries. (Elaine Pagels, Introduction to The Gnostic Gospels, at xxii-xxiii)

Yet, it’s not just the relatively recent discoveries of previously unknown texts that supports the proposition that early Christianity was a sea of diversity and controversy. Irenaeus himself inadvertently makes this point via his publication of Five Books Against Heresies. Although Irenaeus is self-righteously dismissive of all “heretical” beliefs in these writings, the fact that he takes the time to document and lambaste "heretics" in a five volume diatribe betrays his true concern and their true influence. As critical scholars have long recognized, such a voluminous and vitriolic attack would have been pointless and unnecessary if these heretics represented only small, uninfluential splinter groups on the fringe of accepted Christianity. To the contrary, the attention that Irenaeus pays them, and the vitriol he heaps upon them, especially the Gnostics, is proof of their early significance. Had they posed no meaningful threat, then why was Irenaeus compelled to challenge them?

We now know that the “heretics”, especially the Gnostics, were clearly a threat to Irenaeus and his goals. To better understand why this is so, we need to know a little more about the Gnostics.

Gnostics, Early Rivals of the Literalists

The term Gnostic is used by scholars to describe a wide variety of groups, most typically certain Christian sects of the first three centuries CE. However, for purposes of this book, I abandon any of the various academic definitions in favor of broader, and for our purposes more useful, Gnostic/Literalist distinction employed by Freke and Gandy:

From our studies of world spirituality, we have observed that religious movements tend to embrace two opposing poles, which we call “Gnosticism” and “Literalism”, with particular individuals inhabiting the whole spectrum between the two extremes. This classification is important because Gnostics from different religious traditions have far more in common with each other than they do with Literalists within their own tradition. Whilst Literalist from different religions clearly hold conflicting beliefs, Gnostics from all traditions use different conceptual vocabularies to articulate a common understanding, sometimes called the “perennial philosophy.” It is not that all Gnostics agree. Different schools argue vehemently with each other, but these differences are minor compared to their shared essential perspective.


The goal of Gnostic spirituality is Gnosis, or Knowledge of Truth. We have chosen to use the name “Gnostics”, meaning “Knowers”, because in the various languages used by different religions, individuals who have realized “Gnosis” or achieved “Enlightenment” are often referred to as “Knowers”: Gnostikoi (Pagan/Christian), Arifs (Muslim), Gnanis (Hindu), Buddhas (Buddhist).
[*cite forthcoming]

In general, Gnostic religions, including the Christian Gnostic ones, teach that we can directly (i.e., without the intermediaries of priest or bishop or even church) commune with the divine and experience “universal consciousness” or “enlightenment” or "salvation." We do this through a process that begins by “waking up”—that is, becoming conscious of, and ultimately identifying with, our true “inner self”, the spirit within each of us (or “Christ within”, as the apostle Paul put it) who is separate and distinct from the ego with which we normally identify. Developing this level of self-knowledge is the fundamental teaching of all Gnostic orders (at least as I employ the term), and this is especially true of the Christian ones that were so prominent in the first few centuries of Christianity’s existence. But Gnosticism didn’t begin with Christianity: For instance, written above the most famous of all Gnostic, pagan sanctuaries, that at Delphi in Greece, was the injunction: “Know Thyself!”

But, how does one “wake up”? I’ll have much more on this subject in Part IV. For now it is sufficient to note that Gnosticism teaches, through sometimes elaborate and symbolic myths, that our true inner self, the spirit within us, is in some way related to (or in poetic, figurative terms, is the “son of”) God, who Christian Gnostics, like many pagan Gnostics before them, called “the Father”. At its higher levels, Gnostic religions teach that our true inner self is actually one with the divine (i.e., in traditional Christian language, “the father and son are one”) and, consequently, we are all actually one with each other. All is one.

To say the same thing in more modern terms, Gnostics teach that there is a universal consciousness (God, or the Father), and within each of us a hidden spark of that consciousness (the Son, or Christ) that enlightens and enlivens each of us and ultimately leads us back to the Father (or the experience of unity via identification with the universal consciousness). Could this be what Jesus meant when he said “I am the light and the life” and “no one comes to the Father except through me”?

Gnostics insist that the ideas expressed above are not formalistic teachings or points of dogma to be understood or assented to intellectually. Rather, these ideas are an attempt to employ figurative language to explain and communicate a purely subjective, ineffable experience, an experience that each sufficiently mature devotee is expected to have on his own. One who has had the experience can readily understand the teaching and the symbols employed, but the teaching and symbols are not an adequate substitute for the experience itself. To Gnostics, it is the subjective experience of the individual, not the teaching or doctrine itself, that is paramount.

The Gnostic idea that God is within us, and that we are all part of God, was repugnant to early orthodox Christians. Most modern Literalists likely feel the same way. However, to put some minds at ease, lets consider what the Literalists own scriptures say on the matter: In Colossians 1:25-28, Paul writes that his purpose in life is to reveal to us the Mystery that was hidden in past ages--namely, that Christ (i.e., God) is in us. In Galatians 1:15, Paul writes that “God revealed his Son in me”. Paul does not say “to me” or “through me” or “by me” as some inaccurate translations suggest, but rather “in me.” Furthermore, portraying Jesus’ death and resurrection not as an historical event, but rather as a spiritual allegory that he personally experienced, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ—I have shared his crucifixion; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in this body I live by faith—by reliance on and complete trust in the Son of God [who is in me]….”

As for the Gnostic teaching of oneness, consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:11-27 which concludes with, “Now you (collectively) are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” and in Ephesians 4:25 where he states, “[W]e are all parts of one body and members one of another.” In the Gospel of John (17:19-26), Jesus likewise prays that his followers will come to know their true nature. He prays that they will be “sanctified [i.e., ‘set apart’] by the Truth” so that they “all may be One just as You, Father, are in Me and I in you, they also may be One in Us. [I] in them and You in Me, in order that they may become One and perfectly united…. “ Jesus continues his prayer in the Gospel of John as follows: “[A]lthough the world has failed to recognize You, I have known You continually. I…revealed your True Self, and I will continue to make You known so that I myself may be in them.” Finally, it’s worth remembering that one of the most sacred Old Testament scriptures to mystical Jews is: “Here O Israel, the Lord your God is One.”

So, the teaching of the early Gnostic Christians may sound foreign to modern Literalists, but based on their own scriptures, they shouldn’t. Only the Paradigm of Historicity makes it so.

Facilitating the Experience Through Myth

Literalist Christians have long recognized a myth-making tendency in other religions, but they deny that it plays any meaningful role in their own. The fabulous tales of other religions are “just myths”, but their own are thought to have actually happened. To suggest otherwise it to lack the necessary saving faith.

However, Gnostics of all varieties know through experience that the journey of self discovery, of awakening, can be facilitated by creating, learning, and (through a multi-stage initiation process) ultimately deciphering and experiencing certain carefully crafted allegorical myths, the purpose of which is to convey via analogy and allegory, and as best can be done with words, some sense of the indescribable journey leading to gnosis, or experiential knowledge of the “divine.” Among the most important and useful of these myths for the early Christian Gnostics were the midrashic tales of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, and certain myths from the Old Testament, especially those of Genesis and Exodus, all of which were believed to encode spiritual truths of the greatest importance when understood figuratively and experienced “spiritually.” We will explore all of these myths in much greater detail later.

But even prior to Christianity, Gnostic ideas were passed from generation to generation through the vehicle of various “Mystery Schools”, each of which emphasized one of various myths, most commonly of the Greek variety, but all of which offered properly prepared candidates the experience of self discovery. As we shall see in much more detail later, these Mystery Schools were prolific in the Middle East at the time of Jesus’ birth, and their purpose was to guide initiates to spiritual gnosis. Virtually every great ancient figure was an initiate of one or more of these Mystery Schools, and many ancient writings, including those of Plato, sing their praises. Freke and Gandy write:

Pagan spirituality was actually the sophisticated product of a highly developed culture. The state religions, such as the Greek worship of the Olympian gods, were little more than outer pomp and ceremony. The real spirituality of the people expressed itself through the vibrant and mystical “Mystery religions.” At first underground and heretical movements, these Mysteries spread and flourished throughout the ancient Mediterranean, inspiring the greatest minds of the Pagan world, who regarded them as the very source of civilization.(The Jesus Mysteries, at 3)

The method of the Mystery Schools was to teach certain “Outer Mysteries” to all comers, while reserving their mystical, spiritual (or figurative, if one prefers) understanding, the “Inner Mysteries”, only for those who were deemed capable of grasping them and mature enough to experience them:

Each Mystery tradition had exoteric Outer Mysteries, consisting of myths, which were common knowledge, and rituals, which were open to anyone who wanted to participate. [However] there were also esoteric Inner Mysteries, which were a sacred secret known only to those who had undergone a powerful process of initiation. Initiates of the Inner Mysteries had the mystical meanings of the rituals and myths of the Outer Mysteries revealed to them, a process that brought about personal transformation and spiritual enlightenment. (The Jesus Mysteries at 3-4).

Early Christians employed these same teaching methods, reserving the sacred, secret meaning of their myths only for an initiated few. I will have much more on this later, but for now I will remind the reader of the words of Paul spoken in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 2:

span style="font-style:italic;">[W]hen we are among the fully-initiated—spiritually mature Christians who are ripe in understanding—we do impart a (higher) wisdom [that is, the knowledge of the divine plan previously hidden]…. (1 Corinthians 2:6)
[We set] these [higher] truths forth in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the spirit, combining and interpreting spiritual truths with spiritual [i.e., figurative] language. But natural, non-spiritual man does not accept or welcome or admit into his heart the gifts and teachings and revelations of the Spirit of God, for they are folly (meaningless nonsense) to him; and he is incapable of knowing them –of progressively recognizing and understanding and becoming better acquainted with them—because they are spiritually discerned and estimated and appreciated. (1 Corinthians 2:13-14) [parenthetical added]


Maintaining the sanctity and secrecy of the Inner Mysteries was important to Gnostics Christians for at least two main reasons. First, it helped insure that only those who could handle the truth--those who through initiation had been “purified” of their earthly egocentric attachments and had their psyches properly prepared--learned the truth. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Thomas, “It is to those who are worthy of my Mysteries that I tell my Mysteries”, and in Matthew, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” The early Gnostic Christian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150) writes:

It is not wished that all things should be exposed indiscriminately to all and sundry, or the benefits of wisdom [Sophia] communicated to those who have not even in a dream been purified in soul. Nor are the mysteries of the Logos to be expounded to the profane. (Quoted in Jesus Mysteries at 98)

And Jesus said, “Never give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs. Otherwise, they will trample them with their feet and then turn around and attack you.”

Despite this emphasis on secrecy, Gnostic truths were always available to those prepared to receive them, those with “ears to hear”. Anyone who has had the experience in question instantly recognizes its description in the myths and symbols employed by Gnostics, but the myths and symbols are no substitute for the experience itself. As W.L. Wilmshurst notes:

Truth…is at all times an open secret, but is as a pillar of light [only] to those able to receive and profit by it, and to all others but one of darkness and unintelligibility. [T]he vital secrets of life…protect themselves even though shouted from the housetops, because they mean nothing to those as yet unqualified for the knowledge and unready to identify themselves with it by incorporating it into their habitual thought and conduct. (The Meaning of Masonry at 9)

But secrecy served another purpose too: Once the Literalists gained the support of Rome during the time of Constantine, secrecy protected any remaining Gnostics from certain persecution for heresy. I will have much more about this topic later.

Individuality and Informality

To Christian Gnostics who emphasized personal, subjective experience, religious customs, rites, scriptures, myths and teachings were not divinely ordained requirements, but rather merely helpful symbols and efficacious tools, and imperfect ones at that. Gnostics regularly warned against mistaking these symbols for the underlying truth—for to do so is idolatry. Yet, when properly understood and “spiritually discerned”, Gnostic Christians believed, in fact they knew from personal experience, that these symbols could guide properly prepared initiates toward ever higher levels of consciousness eventually resulting in “Gnosis”--an indescribable union of individual consciousness with the universal, cosmic one.

As we shall soon see, Irenaeus and his orthodox sympathizers had a much simpler interpretation of Christian symbols, rites, customs and myths, one that served their own political objectives and that put them at odds with Gnostic Christians, who believed the orthodox were missing the whole point:

The Gnostics—at least the ones about whom we are best informed—did not maintain that the proto-orthodox views were utterly wrong. Instead, these views were inadequate and superficial—in fact, laughably inadequate and superficial. That is to say, Gnostics did not deny the validity of the proto-orthodox doctrinal claims per se; instead, they reinterpreted them in a way that they considered more spiritual and insightful. [They understood themselves] to be spiritually elite, an inner circle who recognized the deeper spiritual meaning of the doctrines, Scriptures, rituals that the proto-orthodox took (simply) at face value. [*cite forthcoming]

Taken only at face value, Gnostics knew that the doctrines, rituals and myths promoted by the Literalists could not serve their transcendental purpose. Such an elementary understanding was perhaps a first step, but those who stop there were considered by Gnostic Christians to be mere babes in Christ. This may seem alarming to some Literalists, but even their own scriptures make this very point explicitly:

Concerning this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull in your [spiritual] hearing and sluggish, even slothful [in achieving spiritual insight]. For even though by this time you ought to be teaching others, you actually need some one to teach you over again the very first principles of God’s Word. You have come to need milk, not solid food. For every one who continues to feed on milk is obviously inexperienced and unskilled in the doctrine of righteousness, [that is, of conformity to the divine will and purpose, thought and action,] for he is a mere infant—not able to talk yet! But solid food is for full-grown men, for those whose senses and mental faculties are trained by practice to discriminate and distinguish between what is morally good and noble and what is evil and contrary either to divine or human law.

Therefore let us go on and get past the elementary stage in the teachings and doctrine of Christ, the Messiah, and advance[e] steadily toward the completeness and perfection that belongs to spiritual maturity.
Hebrews 5:11-6:1.

And what exactly are these elementary teachings and doctrines of Christ, the “milk” that is fed to the inexperienced and unskilled babes, the foundational things that we must “get past” in favor of a more mature understanding? The author of Hebrews tell us explicitly in the very next sentence:

Let us not again be laying the foundation of repentance and abandonment of dead works [dead formalism], and of the faith [by which you turned] to God, with teachings about purifying, the laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment and punishment. If indeed God permits we will [now] proceed [to advanced teaching]. Hebrews 6:1-2.

By these words, the author of Hebrew explicitly states that the core doctrines of Literalist Christianity—namely, repentance, faith, resurrection, and eternal judgment--are just the “milk” for the inexperienced and unskilled Christians, the novices. Taken only at face value, these things constitute merely the Outer Mysteries, but there is much more to learn. But, what? The answer to that question must await later chapters. For now, it is sufficient o summarize this discussion of Gnosticism by noting the following:

The only proper object of study for the Gnostic is the self, hence the perennial Gnostic injunction: “Know Thyself!” Such knowledge, called Gnosis, can only be gained through introspection—by looking inward and not outward--and introspection was facilitated through initiation and meditation on the allegorical myths, eventually resulting in an expanded state of consciousness that transcends ego. Hence, mature Gnostics have little use for the outward indications of piety, formalistic doctrines, and other "elementary" principles that are so important to Literalists. Public rituals, enforced creeds, professions of faith, a restricted canon, social taboos, and all the trappings of institutionalized religion that were so important to Irenaeus were largely irrelevant to Gnostics.

The Politics of Theology

With this understanding of Gnosticism, and bearing in mind Irenaeus’ goal of consolidating worldwide ecclesiastical authority under a hierarchy of bishops and priests who would define and teach Christianity for the masses, we can begin to understand why Irenaeus was so hostile to Gnostics. First, Gnostics insisted that they understood the true, secret, inner meaning of Christianity while the orthodox, like Irenaeus, didn’t. This condescending attitude infuriated Irenaeus and like-minded orthodox sympathizers.

But more importantly, as long as Christianity retained a Gnostic character; as long as it permitted its followers a personal and direct experience (i.e. “gnosis” or knowledge) of God; as long as its emphasis was on the spiritual growth and subjective experience of the individual rather than the institutional, objective growth of the church; and as long as the Christian gospels were understood as allegorical myths that are to be deciphered, interpreted and experienced by each individual rather than a historical record now closed; the church would remain a disparate network of spiritual adepts without an authoritative hierarchy or unifying structure. In other words, so long as Christianity permitted Gnostic ideas, the chaos and diversity of the early church that Irenaeus so abhorred would continue:

Among the numerous diverse forms of early Christianity, it was Gnosticism that incurred Irenaeus’ most vituperative wrath. Gnosticism rested on personal experience, personal union with the divine. For Irenaeus this naturally undermined the authority of priests and bishops and so impeded the attempt to impose uniformity. As a result he devoted his energies to suppressing Gnosticism. To this end it was necessary to discourage individual speculation and to encourage unquestioning faith in fixed dogma. A theological system was required, a structure of codified tenants that allowed no interpretation by the individual. In opposition to personal experience and gnosis, Irenaueus insisted on a single “catholic” (that is, universal) Church resting on apostolic foundation and succession. And to implement the creation of such a Church, Irenaeus recognized the need for a definitive canon, sifting through the available works, including some, excluding others. Irenaeus is the first writer whose New Testament canon conforms essentially to that of the present day. (Holy Blood, Holy Grail at 364-365)

To unify the church, Irenaeus’ needed to cut off individual claims of spiritual authority and insight, and he needed a theology that would advance this objective. Thus, he was attracted to those Christians who had only been exposed to the Outer Mysteries of Christianity--that is, those who defined Jesus’ resurrection and other biblical episodes as one-time historical events rather than allegorical myths to be lived and experienced by each individual. Conveniently, he insisted that “faith” in the literal historicity of those one-time events is an essential element of salvation. In fact, Jesus’ historical death and bodily resurrection were understood as the final steps in God’s plan to redeem humanity. And critically, he taught that there is no salvation except through the intermediary of the Church and its officers, that the true church could only be lead by those whose authority came from the orthodox version of direct apostolic succession, and that only this true Church was capable of comprehending God’s will by interpreting the meaning of these historical events and the scriptures that chronicle them. In short, the orthodox (or proto-orthodox if one prefers) were the earliest known proponents of the Paradigm of Historicity.

Had it come to be accepted by the Christians of his time, Irenaeus’ literal, historical interpretation of scripture would have cut off all rival claims of authority. It would have vested Iranaeus and other like-minded bishops with incredible power and influence, making them the rulers of “the” church and giving them sole authority to interpret God’s will. Only they would be qualified to determine what was “orthodox” (i.e., “right thinking”) Christianity and what was heresy. And, because their claim to spiritual authority was rooted in historical events now closed forever—that is, because Christ’s coming to earth as an actual, historical person and his subsequent death on the cross “fulfilled” once and for all God’s grand plan for redeeming humanity—it was unassailable by competitors whose claims to authority rested on subsequent revelation, spiritual insight or maturity, persuasiveness, popularity, wisdom, gnosis or any other factor. In short, Irenaeus’ historical interpretation of scripture, if accepted, insured that no subsequent prophet could challenge the power of the Literalists.

We should never forget that, as Elaine Pagels reminds us, “[w]hen Gnostic and orthodox Christians discussed the nature of God, they were at the same time debating the issue of spiritual authority.” More particularly, they were debating the issue of who rightfully wielded ecclesiastical authority here on earth. Gnostic’s viewed such authority as resting more with the individual while the orthodox wanted it vested in an institutionalized church, governed by bishops who would decide all matters of faith and practice as God’s delegates.

Irenaeus Fails

In attempting to unify Christianity under the orthodox banner, Irenaeus had set no small goal for himself. The beliefs and doctrines of the earliest Christians were far more diverse, far more widespread, and far more ingrained than Irenaeus was willing to admit even to himself (or Literalist Christianity has previously permitted us to imagine). As Professor Bart Ehrman has noted:

What could be more diverse than…Christianity in the modern world? In fact, there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison. (Lost Christianities at 1)

In the end, these differences among the early Christians proved too much for Irenaeus. Armed only with only words as his weapon, he was unable to persuade sufficient numbers of early Christians that his Literalist views were indeed the “right thinking” ones. Gnostic Christianity and other “heretical” forms persisted, even flourished, and in many areas dominated, but only for a while.

Competing Claims of Authority?

During these chaotic centuries, which side can be said to have preserved the authentic teachings of Jesus, the Gnostics or the Literalists? Unfortunately, the record is unclear. Even so, any objective observer of the facts must note that Gnostic claims of authority rivaled in legitimacy those of the Literalists orthodox.

For instance, like the Literalists, Gnostic Christians apparently authentically believed that their tradition preserved the secret teachings of Jesus. As Pagels has noted:

[T]hose who were ***and circulated these [Gnostic] texts did not regard themselves as “heretics.” Most of [their] writings use Christian terminology, unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Many claim to offer traditions about Jesus that are secret, hidden from “the many” who constitute what, in the second century, came to be called the “catholic church.”


Although they claim to offer secret teaching, many of these [Gnostic] texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them include the same dramatis personae as the New Testament—Jesus and his disciples.
[*cite forthcoming]

And like the Literalists, the Gnostic Christians claimed that their understanding of Christianity had been handed down by a succession of masters going directly back to Jesus through the apostles. Although such claims of Apostolic Succession are tenuous at best, they are no more so than those of the orthodox Christians. For example, the orthodox leader Tertullian is able to name only two orthodox churches who can trace their lineage directly to apostles, Smyrna, whose bishop (Polycarp) was said to be appointed by the apostle John, and Rome, whose bishop (Clement) was said to be appointed by the apostle Peter. But, the great Gnostic leader Valentinus was said to be a disciple of Theudas, who was a disciple of Paul, while the Gnostic Basilides was said to have studied under Glaukia, a disciple of Peter (Miscellanies 7, 17, 106.) Although both sides would have insisted otherwise, the unfortunate fact is that neither the Gnostic nor the orthodox claims of apostolic succession are, or were, capable of verification. Furthermore, it’s possible, as we shall see later, that both had valid claims of succession with one line preserving the Outer Mysteries of Christianity and the other its Inner Mysteries.

Like the Literalists’, the Gnostics' “scriptures”, a stash of which was discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt within the last seventy years, also had impressive pedigrees. In fact, often the scriptures of the Literalists and Gnostics were one and the same, with Literalists interpreting them literally and Gnostics interpreting them figuratively. And both Gnostics and Literalists attributed many of their favored writings to the apostles themselves, although we know that most of these, even many included in our Bibles, are forgeries (or pseudonymous writings if the reader prefers). Even so, some Gnostic texts appear to rely on source material that is at least as old, perhaps older, than many of the favored books in our present-day New Testament:

About the dating of the [Nag Hammadi] manuscripts themselves, there is little debate. Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400. But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts [from which these writings were copied]. Some of them can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180, declares that the heretics “boast that they possess more gospels than there really are,” and complains that in his time such writings already have won wide circulation—from Gaul [France] through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor.


But recently Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has suggested that the collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas [one of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts], although compiled c. 140, may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, “possibly as early as the second half of the first century (50-100 CE)—as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John”.
(Elaine Pagels, Introduction to The Gnostic Gospels, at xvi-xvii) [bracketed material and emphasis added]

Gnostic Appeal

And finally, like Literalist Christianity, Gnosticism was very popular with the masses, enjoying broader support in many places than their Literalist opponents. One ordained priest has noted:

That Gnosticism was, at least briefly, in the mainstream of Christianity is witnessed by the fact that one of its most influential teachers, Valentinus, may have been in consideration during the mid-second century for election as the Bishop of Rome. (Lance S. Owens, quoted in Secrets of the Code by Dan Burstein)

In their various writings, both Tertullian and Irenaeus, two early orthodox Literalists, openly lamented the popularity of Valentinian Gnosticism, complaining that even bishops and deacons were among Valentinus’ followers. The Gnostic Christian Marcion, who was eventually excommunicated by the orthodox, was another incredibly influential and popular “heretic” of the mid-second century. His teachings were so popular that they nearly became the dominant form of Christianity:

We cannot be sure exactly why, but Marcion experienced almost unparalleled success on the mission field, establishing churches wherever he went, so that within a few years, one of his proto-orthodox opponents, the apologist and theologian in Rome, Justin, could say that he was teaching his heretical views to “many people of every nation” (Apology 1.26). For centuries Marcionite churches would thrive; in some parts of Asia Minor they were the original form of Christianity and continued for many years to comprise the greatest number of persons claiming to be Christian. As late as the fifth century we read of orthodox bishops warning members of their congregations to be wary when traveling, lest they enter a strange town, attend the local church on Sunday morning, and find to their dismay that they are worshiping in the midst of Marcionite heretics. (Lost Christianities at 108-109)

And Professor Erhman further notes:

Marcion had a huge following even after he was excommunicated (he may have been the first), going to Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey, to establish churches. In truth, Marcionite Christianity was a real threat to the other forms—it almost took over Christianity as a whole. (From and Interview with Bart D. Ehrman quoted in Secrets of the Code at 146)

The early popularity of “heretical” forms of Christianity is further evidenced by, strangely enough, Literalist Christianity’s earliest creeds. Scholars have long recognized that many of these creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed, were formulated specifically to contradict various popular “heresies”. Creeds were formulated in a reactionary attempt to purge the coalescing orthodoxy of unorthodox influences by forcing all church members to recite articles of faith that Literalists believed would be repugnant to many heretics. But, such attempts were largely ineffective at smoking out the Gnostics:

One of the striking features of Christian Gnosticism is that it appears to have operated principally from within existing Christian churches, that Gnostics considered themselves to be the spiritually elite of these churches, who could confess the creeds of other Christians, read the Scriptures of other Christians, partake of baptism and Eucharist with other Christians, but who believed that they had a deeper, more spiritual, secret understanding of these creeds, Scriptures, and sacraments. This may well be why proto-orthodox church fathers found them so insidious and difficult to deal with…. Gnostics were not “out there” forming their own communities. They Gnostics were “in here” with us, in our midst. And you couldn’t tell one simply by looking. (Lost Christianities at 126)

Finally, the most compelling evidence of the popularity of the Gnostics and other heretics can be found in the writings of their Literalist orthodox opponents themselves. Literalists Fathers such as Ireneaus, Tertullian, Justin, and Hippolytus devote entire volumes to attacking heresies, often Gnostic ones. As previously noted, the sheer volume and ferocity of these early orthodox polemics provide compelling evidence as to just how influential, and how much of a threat, these heresies truly were.

Freke and Gandy sum up the evidence of Gnostic Christianity’s likely numerial superiority nicely:

For the first three centuries CE, Literalist Christianity was the fringe sect and Gnostic Christianity was far more popular, which is why Literalists spent so much time attacking Gnostics. And why Gnostics could rarely be bothered to fight back. [I]n Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor the first Christians we know of are all Gnostics. In 110 CE Carpocrates founded a Gnostic sect in Alexandria. In 117 CE Basilides began another school in Alexandria. Around 120 CE, Cerinthus was writing in the city of Ephesus. Valentinus studied in Alexandria before going to Rome in 136 CE to set up his school. In 144 Marcion, who already had thousands of followers in the East, also came to Rome, followed in 150 by Marcus. By the third century Mani had founded a Gnostic church whose influence would eventually reach from Spain to China in the East.

Pagan writers testify to the popularity of Gnostic Christianity. The philosophers Celsus tells us about many different Gnostic Christian groups and their texts, but he knows nothing of Literalist Christians and the books of the New Testament. The pagan philosopher Potinus tells us that some of his friends are Gnostic Christians and mentions their texts, but he also has no knowledge of Literalist Christianity or any of the New Testament gospels.

The popularity of Gnostic Christianity is attested to by Literalist Christians themselves. A letter attributed to Polycarp (c. 69 to c. 155) admits that “the great majority” of Christians don’t believe that Jesus existed “in the flesh.” Tertullian bemoans the fact that Gnostics fill “the whole universe.” Even the great heroes of early Literalist Christianity were just going through a phase. Justin’s star pupil Tatian gave up on Literalism and went off to join the Gnostics. As did Tertullian, who eventually condemned the Literalist Roman Church as an organization of “a number of bishops” rather than “a spiritual church for spiritual people.”
(Laughing Jesus at 67-68)


Contrary to centuries of Literalist teachings, we now know that the Gnostics were not a late-arriving group of relatively unimportant and uninfluential heretics who attempted to pervert the true faith. Rather, they were a compelling and powerful group of early Christians whose understanding of Christianity developed contemporaneously with that of the Literalists, who often worshiped within established Christian churches, who acknowledged Literalist scripture but who supplemented them with their own, and whose pedigree and claims to authority were at least as compelling as those of the Literalist who ultimately extinguished them. From where we sit today, it’s impossible for us to determine, absent blind faith, which side represented the authentic tradition of Jesus. Both sides claimed to offer Jesus’ true teachings, both attempted to legitimize their claims by unprovable assertions of Apostolic Succession, both relied on ancient source material (some of which was clearly forged, as we shall see), and both enjoyed popularity with the masses. Could it be that both sides were, in a manner of speaking, correct? Is it possible that both sides represent different aspects of the authentic Christian tradition?

Regardless, as we shall see, only the orthodox, who promoted the Paradigm of Historicity, managed to gain the sponsorship of the all-powerful Roman Empire, thereby insuring the survival of their particular theology to the exclusion of all others:

[V]irtually all forms of modern Christianity, whether they acknowledge it or not, go back to one form of Christianity that emerged as victorious from the conflicts of the second an third centuries. This one form of Christianity decided what was the “correct” Christian perspective; it decided who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice; and it determined what forms of Christianity would be marginalized, set aside, destroyed. It also decided which books to canonize into Scripture and which books to set aside as “heretical”, teaching false ideas.

And then, as a coup de grace, this victorious party rewrote the history of the controversy, making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times, back to the time of Jesus and his apostles, that its perspective, in effect, had always been “orthodox” (i.e., the “right belief”) and that its opponents in the conflict, with their other scriptural texts, had always represented small splinter groups invested in deceiving people into “heresy” (literally meaning “choice”, a heretic is someone who willfully chooses not to believe the right things).
(Ehrman, Lost Christianities, at 4)

Given the early prominence, popularity and influence of the Christian Gnostics, why do most Christians know nothing of them or their theology today? Why are virtually all modern forms of Christianity defined by the Paradigm of Historicity? Why don’t we have a Gnostic Bible? The next few chapters will seek to answer these questions, beginning with the last one first.


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