What If?! What if everything we thought we knew about the birth of the Christian era was wrong? What if the Western world had been living a lie for 2000 years? What if there have been vast Church-led conspiracies and cover-ups, stretching back centuries to hide truths that would completely deconstruct Christianity as we know it? However fantastical such ideas may seem, these are the type of thoughts that have been going through many people’s minds during the seventy-five years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library and related archaeological treasures.
Upheaval For at least 1700 years since the fourth century AD it seemed the history of this pivotal ancient era was settled, but then, in a matter of only a few years after the Second World War, there began a massive upheaval in scholarship, as historians were suddenly inundated with previously unknown religious texts that hadn’t seen the light of day since they were hurriedly gathered together by their owners and hidden in the wilderness in the midst of conflict and repression many centuries ago.
Outer Limits These discoveries confronted scholars, institutional religion and the public with the possibility—or perhaps the probability—that the previously settled history of religious origins might have to be completely revised. For decades, scholarly monographs, academic and popular books, films and documentaries have explored the implications of these discoveries, and it has often seemed as if there was a war going between those seeking to re-confirm the historical and religious status quo and those intent on undermining it. Indeed, some authors embraced the outer limits of speculation and fantasy, attracting an attentive audience eager for confirmation that history is being manipulated by unseen forces.
Grasping Diversity In this series of articles we’ve reviewed dozens of the ancient documents made available by this archaeological revolution, and explored the efforts to interpret them and place them in their historical and religious context. Such efforts have made it possible to form a far clearer image than ever before of the turbulent state of religious faith some two millennia ago. In particular, it has become possible to grasp more fully the diversity of belief and practice in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, before the respective victories of Rabbinical Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy in the first centuries of the Roman empire drew a veil over the tumultuous origins of these two great religions.
Caveat This series has attempted to review the implications of these discoveries in an objective fashion, seeking to illuminate the origins of religious traditions that have proved vital for humanity’s self-understanding across millennia. Although some of the issues discussed may appear scandalous to some and present a conundrum to others, the series doesn’t purport to have any implications for the faith of believers. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some profound ideas buried amongst the material we have been exploring.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Of the two major discoveries, it appears that the Dead Sea Scrolls generated by far the most popular excitement and provoked the most extreme speculations—such as that Jesus was the leader of a network of gay libertines, or else was a mushroom and Christianity was a fertility cult! Immense effort was also put into interpreting and reinterpreting the Scrolls anachronistically to conjure up often tenuous links between contemporary political ideologies and what can be fantasised about Early Christianity. Such excess and indulgence were fuelled by widespread perceptions that there was a Church-led conspiracy to delay and suppress any information that might have negative implications for institutional Christianity. Indeed, the lethargic publication program by the original researchers created a cultural vacuum that inevitably was filled with wild speculation. Radical theories emerged quite early on, quickly blossomed, and attracted a great deal of attention for decades, as the establishment researchers dragged their feet, hoarded and denied access to vital Scrolls, and even refused to admit their very existence.
Speculations Already in the first decade after the initial discovery of the Scrolls, it was speculated that they showed that the true origins of Jesus and Early Christianity were to be found not in the first century AD but rather in the first century BC; that Jesus was a “reincarnation” of a mysterious Teacher of Righteousness; and that Christianity was not an original religious movement but really a descendant of the Essene movement. And then it was claimed that nascent Christianity was not a quietist sect dedicated to “loving one’s neighbour” and “turning the other cheek” but was really a fanatical form of Jewish messianism committed to suicidal rebellion against the Jerusalem Temple authorities and the Roman empire. Similarly, it was speculated that St Paul was not the “second founder” of Christianity but really the Wicked Priest or the Man of Lies described in the Scrolls, and possibly also a Roman agent provocateur working to destroy this dangerous sect from within.
Holy Grail Further out in the realms of crypto-history, it was also claimed that the Scrolls showed that Jesus didn’t die on the Cross, but lived on to raise a family with Mary Magdalene and eventually died either at Masada fighting with the Zealots against the Romans, or retired to the South of France. There, it was claimed in a series of best-sellers, Jesus and Mary founded the Merovingian dynasty, whose claim to the French throne has been championed ever since by a sinister secret society called the Priory of Sion. And then Mary went from being a notable partner of one of the main players to being a central character in these dramatic speculations and crypto-histories. Indeed, for some writers Mary became the central character in this complex and increasingly amorphous ancient drama. For example, we’ve been assured the Holy Grail that looms in the “hidden history” of the world is simultaneously the womb of Mary Magdalene and the sacred royal bloodline to which she gave birth. In contrast, the figure of Jesus continued to recede in significance, becoming a sort of “front man” for a political movement, while the roles of John the Baptist and James the Just (and even Judas!) were vastly enhanced and moved towards centre-stage.
Secularisation Only very occasionally did the authors of such speculations properly explore, or even notice or care about, the profound religious implications of their speculations. It seems they were blind to any such implications, or just profoundly ignorant, or were in fact determined to destroy the historical and theological foundations of the world’s largest religion. Indeed, if there was one common thread running through all the speculation it was a desire to secularise the origins of Christianity and re-cast it in terms of modern political ideologies so that Jesus became a sort of first-century Che Guevara. Above all, there was a concerted effort to strip Christianity and its founder of all supernatural dimensions. Similarly, Paul and his theology were relegated to a disreputable and minor role in these revisionist histories of the Early Church, an incredible conceit when it is recalled that more than half of the New Testament is attributed to or is about Paul. There was also a universal tendency to adopt a Low Christology with respect to the role of Jesus. Instead of being the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, he was re-cast as just another political activist, pious philosopher or moral exemplar. Literally none of all the speculative efforts prompted by the Scrolls attempted to recognise or enhance the supernatural role that was traditionally assigned to Jesus in the Christian scheme of salvation.
Parallel Movements Meanwhile, against this background of often fevered speculation by “outsiders”, the “establishment” scholars worked slowly away on the Scrolls, eventually determining what can plausibly be accepted as the actual relationship between the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran community, and Early Christianity. Overall, it seems there are many connections between the Scrolls and the books of the New Testament. At the very least, it seems that the Qumran community and the Jesus Movement were parallel religious movements (albeit with different starting dates), each propelled forward by its own charismatic leadership and apocalyptic and eschatological vision, against the backdrop of the Roman empire and the multitude of Judaic sects and factions that had emerged in Second Temple Judaism. The first group was engulfed by conflict and violence and disappeared from history; the second group went through a bewildering series of transformations before eventually becoming the largest religious movement in the history of the world.
The Nag Hammadi Library The second great discovery, the Nag Hammadi Library, illuminates those transformations in Early Christianity. As we have seen, it consists of thirteen leather-bound volumes containing fifty-two tracts translated from the Greek into Coptic and written on papyrus, representing about 1300 pages of text. These tracts include: Canonical and Apocryphal New Testament texts; Sayings Sources; Mystical and Mythological Cosmogonies; Theological Expositions; Wisdom Writings; Liturgical Texts; and Hermetic Treatises. Taken together they open a window onto the formative years of Christianity and an ancient religious world of which historians had previously been only dimly aware.
Scope & Implications The tangled tale of the Library’s discovery and publication is similar to that of the Scrolls, but the Library had a much lower profile and it wasn’t the centre of conspiracy theories, even though once again it took decades for scholars to gain access to the texts involved. Also, unlike the Scrolls, it was clear from the outset that the Library illuminated principally the first few centuries of early Christianity and had little to do with second-century Judaism. But above all, the Library differed from the Scrolls in the nature of the texts it revealed. Many were complex theological, philosophical, mythological and literary works. These focused on esoteric metaphysical speculations that didn’t lend themselves easily to conspiracy theories or even popular comprehension.
Implications These texts address the pivotal historical conflict over the nature and direction of the Early Christian movement: was it essentially an exoteric religion open to all who embraced the faith, or was it originally an esoteric religion to be pursued by a spiritual elite? As Luke Timothy Johnson, a leading historian of the period, explains in The Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: “The mid-2nd Century was critical for Christianity’s self-definition and involved a pitched battle between two tendencies. On one side were those seeking a fundamentally exoteric understanding of the religion, defined in terms of a closed canon of Scripture, a settled Creed, and institutional authority. On the other side were those—broadly categorized as Gnostics—who understood Jesus and his message in esoteric terms as a saving knowledge mediated through enlightened teachers, mythical narratives, and spiritual advancement.”
Traditional Sources Prior to the Revolution of the Scrolls, the traditional view of the history of the Early Church depicted it as an exoteric faith. This was based on various primary sources from the period: Jesus’s life and teachings as these are reported in the New Testament—the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, and the other epistles. These have been augmented by extra-canonical sources, including the Apocrypha, the works of Josephus, the Church Fathers, and by the fundamentally important Church History of Eusebius.
Growth & Strength Taken together, these support the traditional view that Christianity was essentially an exoteric religion, open to all, held together by a “proto-orthodoxy”, the version of Christianity that would become orthodox, “mainstream” Christianity in the fourth century and evolve into the Christianity of today. According to the Eusebian version of history (writes Bart Ehrman in After the New Testament), “Jesus taught his disciples the truth about God and the world, and [how] they passed these views along, after his death, to their own followers.” This was a tale of progress and victories: “from the outset, Christianity grew by leaps and bounds, as God’s hand guided and directed the mission to nonbelievers. Any setbacks that the Christians experienced at the hands of their opponents—e.g., persecutions and martyrdoms—were turned to the good, leading to further growth and strength.”
The Eusebian View According to this Eusebian view, the Early Church was ultimately victorious because it enjoyed a doctrinal unity and strength that could be traced back to the teachings of Jesus himself. And this direct and unbroken lineage had been protected and nurtured by the bishops anointed by God according to the principle of Apostolic Succession. This foundational narrative was ratified at the Council of Nicaea in 325, with the tale being told in detail in Eusebius’s Church History, published around the same time. This “Nicene” orthodoxy was then buttressed around 367 AD by the definitive selection of the twenty-seven books that make up the official New Testament canon.
Athanasius This canon was announced by Athanasius, the powerful bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter letter to the churches under his jurisdiction. As we’ve seen, it was most likely this theological decree that prompted the monks from the Monastery of St Pachomius to hurriedly gather together and hide in the desert their precious collection of Gnostic and other “secret writings” that explored often radically divergent spiritual teachings and mystical insights, all of which had suddenly become problematic or even heretical. This esoteric collection lay un-reclaimed for centuries until it was discovered in 1945 as the Nag Hammadi Library.
Peace & Unity Eusebius provided posterity with a history of the Early Church that emphasised its internal coherence and unity: “the Christian community enjoyed internal peace and unity. There were, to be sure, false teachers who occasionally disrupted the tranquillity of the Church, i.e., heretics inspired by the Devil to pervert the truth of God, but these stood merely on the margins of the Great Church and were easily overpowered by the truth affirmed by the genuine followers of Christ, the representatives of Christian orthodoxy”, passed down and enforced by the bishops and the other leaders of the Church since the days of Jesus and his Apostles.
Lost Christianities? This conventional “Eusebian” account of Early Christianity is now being challenged. The Revolution of the Scrolls and the work of recent revisionist historians has given rise to what has been called the “Lost Christianities” thesis. It appears we “are no longer able to accept Eusebius’s account uncritically”, and that the Nag Hammadi and other recent discoveries show that “Christianity before Eusebius was in fact widely diverse”, perhaps far more than ever imagined.
No Core Truth? It is now argued there was no definitive core truth or doctrinal certainty that stood uncontested at the centre of the Christian universe, around which there orbited various heretical and ultimately inconsequential doctrines. Rather, it seems there were many diverse religious tendencies within Early Christianity, such as the Ebionites, Marcionites, Valentinians, Gnostics, and others we’ve looked at in previous articles, and that these were engaged for centuries in a theological battle for dominance, in a spiritual “survival of the fittest”.
Victory & Suppression Furthermore, it seems that one tendency emerged victorious out of this battle and that it was this “proto-orthodox” version of Christianity that became mainstream Christianity as we know it. After this victory, the “losers” were suppressed and their writings were discarded, leaving behind only the remnants for future archaeologists to discover.
Window of Opportunity The Nag Hammadi Library and related discoveries strongly support this revisionist view of early Christian history. They indicate that a “window of opportunity” lay open through the early centuries of the Christian era, when various groups diligently explored a set of spiritual pathways towards the divine. It seems a diversity of religious options existed in the Christian movement before the Church became institutionalised and monolithic under the hegemony of Rome in the fourth century.
The Primacy of Rome The primacy of Rome is now easily taken for granted, but at the time, during the early centuries, there would have been little reason to elevate the theological status of Rome above that of Alexandria or Antioch, or other cities where divergent versions of Christianity flourished. It seems it was only Rome’s overwhelming political and economic power and bureaucratic expertise, and not the inherent superiority of its local church doctrines and teachings that eventually enabled it to establish its hegemony over Christendom and construct Christianity as we know it.
The Birth of Heresy After this victory, the Roman Catholic (“universal”) Church decided what was theologically orthodox and what wasn’t, and determined which texts from the wealth of contemporary spiritual and theological speculation should be included in its official Canon of Scripture and which had to be rejected. As part of this struggle the concept of heresy was radicalised. It ceased to signify a mere difference of opinion between schools of thought, and came instead to denote a demonic corruption of the faith, allegedly spawned by malevolent deviants from the truth who attracted the gullible and led them into perdition. This struggle intensified and raged for many decades, and drove many sincere spiritual seekers into the wilderness or sent them to the stake. It was eventually won by the Church in Rome after which evidence of such alternatives and opposition was suppressed and destroyed.
Deviant Tendencies? There has always been evidence about divergent tendencies in Early Christianity (see 2 Corinthians 11:1–15; I Clement), and these signify considerable theological divergence, dissent and disunity. However, the fact that such “deviant” tendencies were eventually declared heretical and successfully suppressed has traditionally been portrayed as illustrating not the underlying diversity but the alleged monolithic unity and core strength of Early Christianity, based on a “proto-orthodox” theological position and institutional structure that was settled from the earliest days.
Walter Bauer It seems this view has been made untenable by the Nag Hammadi and related discoveries. These provide strong support for the “Lost Christianities” thesis about the nature of early Christian history. The scholar who was the primary inspiration for this shift in historical thinking was the German theologian and historian Walter Bauer. His book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934; English edition 1971) has been described by Bart Ehrman as “the most important book on the history of early Christianity to appear in the 20th Century”. Bauer maintained that Eusebius hadn’t given an objective account of the interrelationship of early Christian groups but had rewritten the history of Early Christianity’s internal conflicts to validate the victory of the orthodox faction of the Church that he represented. Because of the disruption of the Second World War, the impact of Bauer’s book was delayed, coincidentally becoming generally available around the same time as the Nag Hammadi Library, which, fortuitously, served to illustrate Bauer’s thesis.
Exhaustive Study Bauer had developed his thesis after an extensive study of the then-available historical records, focusing on their places of origin. His book proceeded region by region—through Edessa in eastern Syria, Antioch in western Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Macedonia and so on—and he showed that virtually everywhere he looked the earliest attested forms of Christianity were in fact non-orthodox—Marcionite, Valentinian or various types of Gnosticism. Contrary to the Eusebian view, Bauer found that the earliest predominant forms of Christianity in these areas were “heretical”, versions of Christianity subsequently condemned by the orthodox form as defined by Rome.
Survival of the Fittest Bauer concluded that what came to be known as orthodoxy after the Roman triumph was just one of the numerous forms of Christianity that flourished around the empire in the early centuries. This finding challenged the long-standing conventional view that orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity were related to each other as original to derivative, dominant to subordinate, or normal to deviant. In fact, according to Bauer, in many regions the doctrines that became labelled heretical were in fact the original and dominant forms of Christianity in those places, and that what became known as orthodoxy was regarded as heretical by contemporaries in such areas. Nevertheless, the “proto-orthodox” version of Christianity embraced by Rome ultimately prevailed in its battle with the other versions, which were marginalised and then left behind as “Lost Christianities”.
Re-Writing History It now seems that most of these “Lost Christianities” progressively died out in the centuries leading up to the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, with the victorious version of Christianity declaring itself to be the sole “orthodoxy”. This faction then enshrined its doctrines at that Council and went on to rigorously enforce them as the mainstream Christian faith that we know now. This newly hegemonic Nicene orthodoxy then projected itself backwards to re-write history to show that it had always been the dominant form of Christianity, that its roots go right back to Jesus and the Apostles, and that all the other versions of Christianity were never real competitors but only irritating heretical deviations from the Truth. Eventually, almost all information about these alternative Christianities was suppressed, lost or destroyed, so that the official story could never be questioned or doubted. That is, until the Dead Sea and Nag Hammadi discoveries made it possible to discern a different picture of the past.
Debates Although Bauer’s case has been questioned on various counts, it now seems, as Bart Ehrman comments in Lost Christianities, that “if anything, early Christianity was even less tidy and more diversified than [even] Bauer realised”, and that we are now aware of divergent forms of Christianity even Bauer didn’t know about, such as the Ebionites. It is now incontestable that the “Early Christians engaged in heated and often acrimonious debates over fundamental issues”, that such controversies went far beyond those recorded in conventional sources, and that they gripped significant sections of the Early Christian movement for extended periods of time.
Tertullian’s Complaint The danger of such questioning of “fundamental issues” was recognised by the eminent Early Church Father, Tertullian of Carthage, who constantly complained that “heretics and philosophers” always concerned themselves with the same questions. These are, notes Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels, “Where does humanity come from, and how? Where does evil come from, and why?”
Very Deep Questions And from such fundamental questions many others followed, all of which were existential grist to the Gnostic and heretical mill: Who or what is God? Is there only one or are there many gods? Which one created this world, and why? How did the universe come into being? Where does humanity fit in the cosmic scheme of things? And does humanity lie in continuity with the divine or is there “an infinite qualitative difference” between the two realms? Why is there evil in the world? Why do the good suffer and the evil flourish? Is the fundamental affliction of humanity sin or ignorance? Is there any hope of salvation? If so, can it be earned through works, or is it gained by knowledge, or bestowed by grace? Was Jesus Christ human or divine or both? What was his mission on earth? Was he a prophet, messiah, teacher, philosopher, redeemer, emissary, or something else? How did he relate to Judaism? And were the Jews the chosen people of God or the evil children of the Devil? (cf. John 8:44) Did Jesus have to die? And in such a horrible manner? But did he really die, or just seem to die? And if so, why? And what did it all mean for humanity? And is the key to salvation faith, or is there really some gnosis or special spiritual knowledge that will deliver the devotee from this wicked and fractured world?
Advocates Many of the faithful in the diverse early Christian movement felt these were questions that couldn’t be ignored. Consequently, as Ehrman writes, “each of these positions—and many others on many other issues—had strong and vocal advocates among the Christian faithful of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries”. Christians on all sides wrote books, tracts and letters supporting their own positions and attacking those of their opponents. Those in authority and protective of proto-orthodoxy—above all, the bishops—appealed for allies amongst the various churches, and urged them to ignore or remove teachers who promoted doctrines they opposed. As part of such campaigns, the competing groups developed their own literature and tried to give greater credence to their point of view by forging documents in the names of the Apostles or other leading figures, many of which we have reviewed in this series. They also compiled lists of books that they regarded as canonical and denounced and excluded other books as heretical.
Ultimate Victory Ultimately, according to this revisionist history, the powerful Roman faction that won these battles ended up having its own selection of texts accepted as the final canon, which we know as the New Testament. It then systematically suppressed all evidence of opposing views and constructed the conventional Eusebian view of history that has reigned supreme for 1700 years. This strategy gave the impression that questions like those listed above had been resolved, or else were illegitimate to start with. And this situation prevailed until the “Scandal of the Scrolls” brought at least some of these alternative points of view back into the light.
Reclamation? Is it possible to reclaim or reconstruct these “Lost Christianities”? Is it even worthwhile trying? Perhaps they were “lost” for very good reasons. Perhaps the orthodox, Nicene version of Christianity prevailed over all the others because it was actually the correct version. And perhaps the Eusebian version of Early Church history could be excused for “writing out” competing versions of Christianity because these would have led the faithful Christian masses badly astray. Indeed, perhaps these alternative versions really might have endangered the salvation of the faithful, as the bishops and other leaders of the “orthodox” Church feared. This was especially the case with Gnosticism, which had considerable allure and can serve as a case study of the fate of the “Lost Christianities”.
Age of Persecution There are several key factors to be considered in formulating a view on such issues. The first is the marginalised, violent and often extremely dangerous situation in which the early Christians found themselves in the three centuries from 30 to 312 AD, during which they suffered official and popular persecution and repression. They were persecuted by the Jewish authorities from the outset in the first century, and then they were caught up in the first Roman-Jewish war. The Emperor Nero also implemented an appalling program of persecution in the 60s AD, renewed by Domitian at the end of the century. This was followed by the outlawing of Christianity under successive emperors through the second century. This intensified during the reign of Marcus Aurelius from 161 to 180—ironically a leading Stoic philosopher and one of the legendary “Good Emperors” of that era. Popular hatred of Christians continued to fester and full-scale systematic persecution resumed under various emperors during the empire’s near-fatal “Crisis of the Third Century”. Finally, the Emperor Diocletian (283 to 305) implemented an empire-wide persecution that continued under his successors until the epoch-shaping conversion of Constantine the Great on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312. It was only after this that the Edict of Milan in 313 extended tolerance of all religions including Christianity.
Explaining Suffering As this resume makes clear, Christianity existed as a persecuted religious movement on the margins of the Roman imperial society for most of the first three centuries of its existence. It was in this extended period of constant threat that there appeared Gnosticism and other “Lost Christianities” whose doctrines were designed to explain the presence of evil and suffering in the world, along with offering a pathway out of it. These sects apparently flourished for a time, becoming formidable competitors for the proto-orthodox version of the faith before fading away or being suppressed, ironically by a newly legalised Christian Church that had itself known nothing but persecution for nearly 300 years.
Age of Anxiety The second key factor concerns the bleak spiritual situation of the empire, and corresponds directly to the threatening physical situation just described. As we saw early in this series, a nihilistic and fatalistic intellectual and spiritual atmosphere afflicted imperial society in these early centuries. This was a period described as an “Age of Anxiety”; Harold O.J. Brown wrote in his book Heresies: “For 2nd Century man, the cosmos was dark, cruel, bewildering, and essentially meaningless; history was nothing but a continual succession of purposeless cycles.” The traditional paganism of Rome was decaying. It seems, as Jerome Carcopino notes in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, that “men had fled from the old religion … With its indeterminate gods … lack of metaphysical curiosity and indifference to moral values, [paganism] lost its power over the human heart”. For many, life came to be seen as a futile play in which people are only actors, or puppets being jerked about by their masters, as E.R. Dodd records in Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. The world came to be seen as a mean and tiny speck in a vast universe, where pathetic humans are doomed to dwell. Inexorably, as this spiritual malaise spread through Roman society, people turned away from the external world and in upon themselves.
Powerful Forces And so, during the ancient period of our study, a range of powerful forces was transforming religion in the Roman world. It seems a deep cynicism about the traditional religions had penetrated to the heart of Roman culture. In a time of turmoil, change and unpredictability, the cold-hearted goddess of fate, Fortuna, loomed large as the arbiter of a person’s life. Fatalism reigned as people turned to astrology and divination to discover what the future held for them. Meanwhile, Hellenisation had promulgated the Platonist worldview, along with Oriental religious and mystical systems which promoted dualistic, ascetic and “world-denying” ideas and practices. There was revulsion from the material world. According to this powerful spiritual mood, matter was evil, the body was a tomb, everyday life was a mirage, and salvation lay in subduing the flesh and contemplating the mystery that lay beyond all things. There also developed a looming sense that death was not the end, and that another realm lay beyond. But what sort of realm was it? Did it offer eternal bliss or only a miserable phantom-like existence, or even an eternity of torment? Who knew? Overall, it seems something new was emerging across the empire, a desire for an inwardly-directed form of spirituality, one that focused on the soul and the self, gave it a cosmic significance, and met the demand for a sense of personal salvation.
Cosmic Pessimism It seemed a spiritual void was opening up at the core of the Roman empire and it was this emptiness that Christianity in its various forms seems to have been destined to fill. However, Christianity had competitors, the most vigorous and threatening being Gnosticism. Gnosticism offered a system of “cosmic pessimism” that also seemed perfect for this age. It directly addressed the bleak, violent, nihilistic and fatalistic spiritual mood, while also providing a cosmic destination for those souls capable of grasping the liberating gnosis. And, of course, it has been Gnosticism that the Nag Hammadi discoveries have most fully illuminated, for the first time in 1600 years, providing us with the opportunity most fully to assess its appeal, especially on the “Lost Christianities”—and confirming, it should be noted here, some of the earlier insights of the great German-Jewish scholar Hans Jonas, recorded in Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (1934; English version The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity, 1958).
Gnosticism vs Christianity Gnosticism was opposed to Christian orthodoxy in fundamental ways. Above all, it explained the presence of evil and suffering by postulating two Gods: first there was the lower Demiurge, the god of the Old Testament who created this corrupt material universe and reigns over it as a wrathful despot and is responsible for the misery within it; but above him reigns the “new” God of the New Testament, the ultimate “One”, the ineffable, unknowable Absolute Spirit that brought the entirety of existence into being. From this dualistic structure flowed Gnosticism’s negative conception of the world and the body as sinister creations of the Demiurge, forms of material existence that serve as traps in which spiritual aspirations are submerged under physical appetites and desires.
Nightmare State Consequently, it seems humanity lives in a nightmare state of ignorance, subject to the “powers and principalities” of this world. In the face of this predicament, Gnosticism offers a scheme of salvation in terms of achieving gnosis, a profound liberating spiritual insight that enables Gnostics to transcend the benighted human condition, escape this realm of misery and find their way back to their divine home. And this gnosis is brought into this world by a divine emissary, Jesus. As the Nag Hammadi Library makes clear, this complex religious system had great appeal, sufficient for its writings to be preserved by nominally Christian monks for centuries during a period of intense persecution.
The Shadow of Gnosis It was preserved because that is what has always happened with this system of knowledge, which its adepts trace back to primordial times when it was first revealed to humanity’s great sages, from whom (it is believed) it has been handed down through countless generations and the great world religions. At its core is gnosis, a shadowy phenomenon that has loomed as an under-defined presence throughout our series. It can’t be defined because apparently it must be experienced, and scholars now know that the incredibly intricate myths of the Gnostics were never meant to explain or describe the core of their spirituality; rather they were meant to transport the devotee through a series of ever-intensifying stages of spiritual insight into the realm of mystery where they finally experienced gnosis and were transformed forever by it.
“The Only True Gnosis” Christian bishops and teachers, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, strongly opposed all such notions and what they saw as the demonic infiltration of Gnosticism into Christianity, and they vigorously enforced the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy. Irenaeus also strenuously rejected the idea that Jesus or the apostles had any kind of special, esoteric gnosis that was reserved for only “advanced” Christians. They insisted that “the only true gnosis” was exoteric and available to all the faithful in the sermons delivered or overseen by the bishops who served in a direct line of apostolic succession stretching back to Jesus.
Advanced Understanding Other Christian theologians recognised the appeal of gnosis and the need to explore the type of deep and profound questions noted above, especially those that addressed the question of evil and suffering in an empire of pervasive persecution. And they also recognised the appeal for many Christians of what they saw as a more advanced esoteric understanding of the faith. Two prominent Christian intellectuals from this period who pursued this broader path and tried to integrate Gnostic ideas into Christianity were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Their stories offer insights into the rise and demise of the “Lost Christianities”.
Clement Clement (150–c. 215) was a younger contemporary of Irenaeus who taught in Alexandria. Clement recognised that not all Christians should aspire to the same level of ethical perfection and intellectual understanding of the faith associated with profound questions like those noted above. However, he did believe that Christians can be at different points on a single path leading from ignorance and sin to gnosis and salvation. Everyone has the possibility of making this journey of understanding, although only some will reach the final stage and achieve perfect gnosis.
Spiritual Growth According to Clement, when people become Christians they begin a process of spiritual growth. In this process, they acquire “faith”—a firm belief in the basic teachings of Christianity as proclaimed by the Church—which Clement called the “Ecclesiastical Norm”, later itemised in the Christian Creeds. However, he also encouraged Christians to move beyond faith to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of Christianity. For Clement, it was this that constituted the only true gnosis, and it arose out of a more spiritual understanding of the Scriptures informed by philosophical learning. People who remain content with their faith understand the Bible literally and simply, but people who have attained gnosis learn to read the Bible in an esoteric fashion that reveals the multiple layers of meaning that it contains.
A Christian Gnosis Clement himself claimed to have received a secret gnosis that was not recorded in the Scriptures. However, unlike the secret teachings offered by the Gnostics and Gnostic Christians, he claimed that this gnosis didn’t violate the Church’s Ecclesiastical Norm but instead perfected the faith. Sadly, during another period of persecutions around 202, Clement was driven from Alexandria, eventually settled in Anatolia, and faded from history.
Origen Another great theologian of Alexandria was not so fortunate. This was Origen (c. 185–c. 254), one of the most brilliant theologians of the entire Christian tradition. A young genius, he tried to follow his father into martyrdom during the same persecutions that drove Clement away. Fortunately, he was prevented by his mother, who hid all his clothes. Later, according to Eusebius, he implemented Jesus’s observation (Matthew 19:12) that there are men “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and had a physician castrate him. Thus undistracted by the temptations of the flesh, Origen is said to have written some 2000 treatises in every area of theology and spirituality, basically establishing Christian exegesis and theology as fields of study. He was dedicated to the most advanced forms of learning, taught and preached nearly every day to an appreciative audience, was eager to help the faithful advance to the highest levels of knowledge, and was always open to new ideas and lines of inquiry, even when these seemed to verge on heresy.
On First Principles In an amazing book called On First Principles, Origen laid out his comprehensive vision of true Christian gnosis. This story of salvation resembles that of the Gnostics in that it details a narrative of “Fall & Redemption”, albeit modified to accommodate fundamental Christian principles. For example, Origen’s story doesn’t depict this universe as a cosmic mistake, nor is there a hostile Demiurge ruling over it; instead, this universe is a good creation. On First Principles describes the fall of spiritual beings from the divine realm into a benighted state of ignorance and alienation from God. Notably, he explains this in terms of the misuse of the free will given by God to these beings that then chose to turn from Him. Origen also emphasised that it was the super-abundance of God’s love for these creatures that led God to commission Jesus to serve as an emissary bringing the saving gnosis to humanity. Origen insisted that God wants everyone to be saved, and it seems that everybody will be, although this will only transpire over a multitude of historical cycles stretching across eons of time. So comprehensive will this process be that Origen claimed that even Satan will ultimately be saved!
His Fate Such propositions caused outrage amongst the “proto-orthodox”, and the fate of Origen is probably the best example of what may have happened to the “Lost Christianities” that rose up, flourished, but then vanished during this period. And it illustrates the type of dynamics that drove divergent spiritual thinking to the margins of orthodoxy and then suppressed all evidence of it until the Revolution of the Scrolls. Origen’s adventurous views proved costly. In the dark years of the “Third Century Crisis” he inevitably fell victim to persecution from both within and outside the Church, being excommunicated by his bishop, tortured ultimately to death by the Romans, and later having nearly all his writings destroyed or suppressed, much to the impoverishment of humanity’s spiritual heritage.
What Happened Next? We can’t take this story any further at present, beyond briefly noting two subsequent developments. First, various versions of Gnosticism lived on, mainly outside the orthodox Christian tradition. It made a spectacular appearance as the theological core of Manichaeism. This was a major dualistic religion, based on an eternal war between Light and Darkness and incorporating elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. It was founded by the Persian prophet Mani (216–274), and extended at its height (between the third and sixth centuries) from Europe and Africa to India and China, before it was brutally suppressed in the West by the Roman empire and eventually in the East by Islam. Manichaeism had a big impact on later Christianity through its influence on St Augustine, who was a Manichean in his youth. Gnosticism also lived on as the inspiration for various later heretical movements, especially the Bogomil and Cathar heresies, which succumbed to horrendous persecution, amounting almost to genocide, during the High Middle Ages.
The Perennial Pursuit The second point to note in conclusion is that the desire to pursue esoteric spiritual knowledge, gnosis, has never passed away. It seems this is a perennial pursuit that its seekers trace back to one great primordial revelation, for which various religious traditions have subsequently served as vehicles, perhaps like those “Lost Christianities” that flourished for a time but then faded away or were suppressed. After that, this pursuit subsequently found a home in philosophical speculation like Neo-Platonism, or in Hermeticism, Jewish Merkabah Mysticism, the Desert Spirituality of Early Christian Monasticism (like that of the monks that hid the Nag Hammadi Library), Muslim Sufism, the Jewish Kabbalah, the great flowering of Medieval Mysticism, and Renaissance Hermeticism associated with Pico Della Mirandola and the Platonic Academy of Florence. It flourished again during the Romantic era and has found expression in more modern times, which is one of the reasons that the Nag Hammadi discoveries have excited so much interest in certain scholarly circles. For the seekers of divine knowledge, the Nag Hammadi Library has provided many invaluable but previously lost pieces of the great historical jigsaw puzzle that they hope will one day reveal the ultimate origins and meaning of gnosis.
The Final Conundrum And so we come to the end of our series. We’ve followed the impact of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as it has transformed the understanding of Second Temple and Rabbinical Judaism and the earliest years of Christianity. In particular, we have looked closely at the various attempts to mobilise the Dead Sea Scrolls in an all-out assault on the conventional understanding of Jesus and the history of Early Christianity. The discovery and analysis of the Codices of the Nag Hammadi Library hasn’t had the same high-profile impact as the Scrolls, and it has been surrounded by few conspiracy theories. However, the implications of these previously unknown texts for our understanding of the origins of Christianity go well beyond the Scrolls and are so profound that there’s no need to misrepresent them: they’re radical enough already! And so we reach the final conundrum: does contemporary Christianity, which is already under tremendous stress, possess the will and capacity to rise once again to the challenge of history and scholarship, and continue to carry its mission forward? Time will tell.
This is the final instalment of this series. The first six parts appeared in the March, April, May, June, September and November issues. Mervyn Bendle is the author of Anzac and its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity.