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  • The Beliefnet Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities
  • Written by Richard Valantasis
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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 192 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42388-7
Published by : Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony
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Synopsis

This authoritative, fully accessible guide to early Christian movements sheds light on the hidden histories and intriguing mysteries that fueled the extraordinary success of books ranging from Dan Brown’s blockbuster The Da Vinci Code to Elaine Pagels’s critically acclaimed Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

From its earliest days, Christianity has been marked by a rich diversity of beliefs and practices. Different interpretations of Jesus’ life and mission, as well as conflicting views about worship and rituals, gave rise to numerous sects in the first centuries C.E. Condemned as heretical by the official Church, these early movements were lost to history until the twentieth century, when the discovery of ancient documents opened a new perspective on the evolution of Christianity.

The Beliefnet® Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities is a fascinating look at the diverse strands of the early Christian church. It examines the alternative Christian ideas propagated by the Gnostics, Sethians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Encratites, and Montanists, illuminating the philosophical sources and religious traditions that fostered them. Special attention is given to sects that presented the greatest challenges to the developing orthodoxy: the Hermeticists, the Manicheans, and the Neoplatonists. There are also thought-provoking discussions about the secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospels of Mary and Thomas, and the newly discovered Gospel of the Savior.


From the premier source of information on religion and spirituality, the Beliefnet Guides introduce you to the major traditions, leaders, and issues of faith in the world today.

Excerpt

1


The Many Kingdoms of God


Everyone who "comes in the Name of the Lord" ought to be received, but later when you have examined him you will know him, for you have the comprehension of the good and the bad. If the one who comes is a traveler, help him as much as you are able, but he will not stay with you more than two days, or perhaps three if needs be.

--The Didache XII.1-2


Jesus and Diversity


Diversity in Christianity came directly from Jesus himself. It began long before his death, with the first proclamations of the Kingdom of God. This aspect of earliest Christianity--its multifacetedness, its inclusion of radically different conceptions of itself--was buried by the triumphalist story that the bishops wrote after they'd successfully suppressed their rivals. It will take some digging to uncover it but it is worth the effort. We will need to put aside some of our preconceptions before we can understand Jesus' mission and why he encouraged such diverse understandings of the religion he ended up founding.

First of all, Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew who lived in a region occupied by the Romans. There two very different cultures and religious orientations thrived side by side, the Roman and the Jewish. The region was probably trilingual: Greek, spoken by all; Aramaic, spoken by the local people of Palestine and Judea; and Latin, the official administrative language of the Roman occupation forces. Jesus probably spoke two of these languages. We presume he spoke Greek because all of his preserved sayings--and in fact all of the earliest surviving Christian literature--exist primarily in Greek. Greek was the common language of the peoples living in occupied Judea, and it had been the intellectual language of the Jews since the time of Alexander the Great three centuries before. It is virtually certain that Jesus spoke Aramaic since it was the common language of the indigenous peoples of his region.

Second, Jesus never said he was God. I know this is hard for many contemporary Christians to understand, but it is true nonetheless. Christians affirm that Jesus is God, but that is something that Christians say, not anything that Jesus ever said about himself.

Jesus focused on proclaiming the Kingdom of God, a divine empire under God's sole imperial authority. He never clearly defined his own role in that kingdom. He never even defined precisely what constituted the Kingdom. He just proclaimed it to anyone who understood Greek. In the Greek-speaking Roman world there were many ways of understanding the divine nature of a person. Roman emperors, for example, were made gods upon their death, making the living emperor a "son of God." Although Jews maintained a monotheistic theology, they also included divine figures, or at least semidivine characters, in their worldview. Sophia, the divine mind of God, whose name literally means "wisdom," was one such figure. Jesus would have appeared as a divine messenger to Romans by virtue of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God and to Jews as well by virtue of the divine wisdom that he spoke. But Jesus never declared himself divine.

Third, if Jesus preached in Greek as opposed to Aramaic, we have to assume that he intended to communicate with anyone who could understand the language--Gentile and Jew alike. Jesus' message was not delivered just to the Jews and then carried to the Gentiles by Paul after his death, as most of our histories of Christianity tell us. Jesus intentionally undertook a universal mission himself. The use of Greek as the primary language of the proclamation of Jesus and the proclamation of the Kingdom of God by Jesus' followers emphasizes the universal mission of early Christianity. It is because this mission was already universal that Paul began his mission to the Gentiles. None of Paul's adversaries objected to his mission; they objected only to his dismissal of Jewish religious rites and practices for the Gentile Christians. The early church understood Paul's mission to be a continuation of Jesus' own.

Fourth, Jesus told people to enter the Kingdom of God and to create it in their own contexts. He said such things as "the Kingdom of God is close to you!" (Luke 10:9), and "the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21), and "blessed are the poor because the Kingdom of God is yours" (Luke 6:20). And of course Jesus often introduced his parables with "the Kingdom of God is like . . . " followed by a story. The Kingdom of God was his message. The Kingdom of God, however, did not look like any other kingdom of the world. You might say it looked like the opposite. The poor, the meek, and the hungry became leaders in that kingdom. When abused, the members of the Kingdom turned the other cheek. They did not expect to earn any interest on money loaned or even to have the money returned. Jesus proclaimed a really remarkable Kingdom of God that turned everything on its head. He proclaimed it both to Gentiles and to Jews, and he proclaimed it in Greek so that everyone could understand. Of course, there were some, like James, John, and Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus' mother Mary, who knew Jesus personally during his lifetime. But realistically, most of Jesus' early followers probably knew him only by reputation, by hearing some report about Jesus' words or deeds, or by a kind of mystical experience of the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed. But all of them sought to extend the Kingdom of God as they understood it and gather all the peoples of the world into it. The Kingdom and the people who proclaimed it spread like wildfire.

These earliest Kingdom movements remained as diverse as the people who proclaimed them. We can see this in the Epistles of Paul. Some movements followed Jewish law as it was given in the Old Testament while others rejected it. Some movements insisted that men be circumcised; others rejected the custom. Some claimed to perform miracles others rejected the possibility. Some devoted themselves to understanding the revelation in the Old Testament; others lived out their lives guided only by God's spirit.

Most of these communities, however, differed starkly in one way from Jesus' own preaching. They recognized him as God's own Son, not just as a divine messenger, but as a divinity in his own right. Their proclamation of Jesus as God's Son and the savior of the world through his death and resurrection nevertheless resulted in a multiplicity of beliefs and practices. The New Testament attests to that great diversity; indeed, it preserved in its own pages many of the conflicts and arguments about what was central to the faith.


Multicultural Paul


Paul's letters provide a window into the conflictual diversity of early Christianity. By examining his relationship with other Christian missionaries we can uncover the roots of some of the lost Christianities. Almost every one of his letters begins with his self-designation as "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ." Paul differed from the other apostles in that they had known Jesus personally, whereas Paul knew him only spiritually. Sometime after the crucifixion, Paul had a vision of Jesus that was so powerful that he not only became Jesus' follower but took himself to Arabia and Syria to tell non-Jews, the Gentiles, about the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. Furthermore, he declared that these non-Jews needn't follow Jewish law to enter the Kingdom of God. No need for consulting with anyone. He just did it. The vision was enough!

Paul tells us this story in his letter to the Galatians (1:11-2:14). But he also tells us how, fifteen years later, he ran afoul of other missionaries in the Jesus movements. Paul decided to go to Jerusalem to confer with James, John, and Peter, the acknowledged pillars of the church. At first, the meeting didn't go well--the disciples were adamant that to be a Christian you had to follow Jewish law: circumcision, dietary rules, all the laws of the Old Testament.

Paul was outraged by this imposition on Gentile believers, for Jesus had revealed something different to him. Yes, Jesus had sent him to the Gentiles to bring them into Israel's inheritance--but that did not include the law. The law was appropriate for Jews, but Gentiles could enter the Kingdom through faith in Jesus alone. Here were two radically different understandings of the Christian life--and both of them are found in the Christian scriptures.

At last the apostles compromised, agreeing that the only law Paul and his churches needed to obey was to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10), which Paul was eager to do anyway. They sent Paul on his way. At first everything went as well as could be expected among people who disagreed so seriously.

But as Paul tells us, it turned out to be an uneasy compromise. Paul started off toward Asia Minor and Greece to build churches among the Gentiles. The Jerusalem apostles had hoped that these two kinds of Christianity, Jewish and Gentile, could coexist. But almost immediately there was friction. While Peter was on his own mission to the Jews of Antioch he visited one of the churches that Paul was founding among the Gentiles. Peter and Paul found themselves at a mixed dinner party of Jews and Gentiles, all followers of Jesus and members of the Kingdom of God. Paul was delighted: to his mind, this was precisely what Jesus wanted--Jews and Gentiles eating together at the same table. But Peter couldn't bring himself to violate the Jewish dietary law. Yes, Gentiles and Jews could eat together, he said--provided that the Gentiles first adopted Jewish customs. Peter withdrew and a furious Paul confronted him face to face; they parted less than friends. The contour of the perpetual argument within Christianity between unity and diversity had been set.

Paul's troubles did not end there. His opponents and enemies dogged his tracks, attempting to undo his work in the churches he had already founded. Paul complained about these rival Christian missionaries in 2 Corinthians. Two groups were particularly inimical.

About the first group, Paul says, "I'm not like those others, the peddlers of God's Word!" (2:11). These so-called "peddlers" came with letters of recommendation from other cities. A letter of recommendation was a meal ticket--one person writes another to commend a person for free room and board, or some other material assistance. These traveling-salesman-type evangelists lived well while they preached the gospel; in contrast, Paul complained that he had to work with his own hands to support himself. Paul did not argue with their message but with their methods. He valued self-sufficiency; they valued the good life. They brought letters of recommendation to get provision; Paul wrote his own letter of recommendation on the hearts of the Corinthian believers. Moreover, these rival evangelists embarrassed and humiliated Paul, saying that he did not deserve to be supported, impugning both his person and his message.

The second group was even more vicious than the first. Paul referred to them mockingly as those "superlative apostles" (12:11), but he had to fight fiercely to hold on to the Corinthians he had converted. These superlative apostles claimed that while Paul's letters were powerful, his personal presence was weak and contemptible (10:10). They told the Corinthians that Paul's letters were aimed at terrifying them. Infuriated, Paul countered that his adversaries preached a different Jesus; they had a different spirit; they proclaimed a different gospel. History has not preserved the exact content of his rivals' teachings, but we can surmise by Paul's defense of himself that the gospel they proclaimed was more oriented to Jewish practice: they announced themselves as Hebrews and Israelites (11:22); they boasted of special visions and revelations (12:1-5); they performed miraculous deeds (12:12). Paul insisted that he was all of those, too--he was a Hebrew, he had received visions, and he knew Jesus. Eventually the Corinthians reconciled with Paul, but he had a hard time. Some of 2 Corinthians reads like testimony from a painful divorce trial.

Paul's letters indicate just the tip of the iceberg of early Christian diversity, a state of affairs that would eventually drive the bishops to distraction and, a few centuries later, impel the first Christian emperor to the use of force to establish and maintain uniform belief and practice. They provide a record of the vigorous competition between the early evangelists, their profound disagreements about what is true and important, and the violent emotions inspired by their theological positions--all in all, of the incredible variety of expression that characterized Christianity in its earliest years.


2


The Varieties of Gnostic Experience


Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one's thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free of care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.
--Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-15 New Revised Standard Version


Buried Treasure


Gnostics have so often been caricatured throughout the course of Western history that it is difficult for us to envision them as real, living, serious-minded people. Actually they are not as strange as the popular imagination has made them out to be; they were simply religious enthusiasts with an intellectual bent and an intense spirituality. Gnosticism was subtle, sophisticated, and audacious; it dazzled the mind. Gnostics of every variety thought of themselves as a spiritually vital, intellectually curious religious elite.

Gnosticism made the conventional church look drab and boring, almost stupid in comparison. This dismayed the bishops, who did not appreciate being characterized as the leaders of a flock of dullards and the spiritually lax. So the church's opposition to Gnosticism began early and stayed late, starting in the second century and continuing right up until the present day.

The biggest difficulty with studying Gnosticism is that until very recently it was defined exclusively by its opponents. Most of what we know about it comes from arguments against it, written by its enemies in the second, third, and fourth centuries. Irenaeus (130-200) and Tertullian (160-240), Hippolytus (170-236), and Epiphanius (310-403) were its most prominent critics. Even the non-Christian Plotinus (205-269), a third-century Neoplatonist philosopher, took a shot at it. It seems that the Gnostics were threatening to everyone. Their opponents made them look like comic book villains, accusing them of everything from stupidity to incest and cannibalism. This relentlessly one-sided vision of Gnosticism might have remained unchallenged had it not been for a remarkable discovery in Egypt.

One day in 1945, an Egyptian youth named Muhammad Ali al-Samman and his brothers rode their camels out to the Jabal al Tarif, a huge cliff across the Nile River from the town of Nag Hammadi, to dig for sabakh, a soft, nitrogen-rich soil that they used for fertilizer. When they uncovered a large red earthenware jar, they wondered if it didn't contain a jinn, a spirit. But they had heard legends that gold was buried in the caves that dotted the cliff, so they broke it open.
Richard Valantasis

About Richard Valantasis

Richard Valantasis - The Beliefnet Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities
RICHARD VALANTASIS is professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of several books, including Spiritual Guides of the Third Century, The Gospel of Thomas, and Reading Jesus: A Commentary on the Sayings of Jesus. An ordained Episcopal priest, Valantasis is well-known for his fresh translations and analyses of the New Testament and esoteric writings. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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