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Gnostic |
Gnosticism: If it began with Simon Magus, it enjoyed a far more respectable future

Gnostic is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 218, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Christian lore tells strange tales of the fate of Peter's old foe, but ideas like his of ‘secret knowledge’ would endure for centuries to come

Gnostic - Gnosticism: If it began with Simon Magus, it enjoyed a far more respectable future

Gnostic - Gnosticism: If it began with Simon Magus, it enjoyed a far more respectable future
Antiquities dealers originally sold several of the manuscripts from the Nag Hammadi library to a Swiss research institute. They were returned when the Egyptian government nationalized the collection. This photograph was taken in 1949, before restoration work at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The story of Peter the Apostle’s angry confrontation with Simon Magus, the Samaritan religious huckster, told in the Acts of the Apostles (8:18—24), leaves open the question of whether Simon repented. If subsequent records are right, he didn’t. Or if he did, it didn’t last. The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus records that Simon later turned up in Rome, traveling with a prostitute named Helen and claiming that he himself was God the Father while his companion was Sophia or “Wisdom.” Thus began a problem that would dog the Christians for the next two centuries and more. The problem was called Gnosticism.

As Simon’s story went, shortly after he himself had created Wisdom at the beginning of time, she lost control of her fertility and gave birth to seven foolish angels who sought to claim supreme divinity for themselves. So they created the world and imprisoned their goddess mother here on Earth in a series of females through history–Helen of Troy, for example. God, appearing human, had now come down to earth in the guise of Simon to rescue his bride, finding her in a brothel in Tyre. While on earth, he was offering to liberate from this evil world anyone willing to accept his secret and divine “knowledge,” the Greek word for which is gnosis.

Such was the earliest manifestation in Christian history of the Gnostics, “the people in the know,” a most resilient idea that would persistently reappear. In Rome, according to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Simon encountered Peter and Paul, and also tried to impress the Emperor Nero by flying through the air, only to be dashed to the ground by the apostles’ prayers. Another pious legend has him returning from Rome to Samaria where he promised he would die and rise on the third day. Accordingly, he had himself buried, but he stayed buried. Even so, he was later worshiped as the Messiah by a Samaritan sect. Other mystic teachers soon followed him. They included his fellow Samaritan, Menander, who taught in Antioch, as well as Menander’s successor Saturninus, and Cerdo who had followed Simon to Rome.

Elsewhere, however, Gnosticism had far more respectable credentials; it is generally considered to have originated in Greek philosophy. Platonism in particular is believed to have shaped the views of Basilides in Alexandria and Valentinus who taught there before coming to Rome in a.d. 140. If these teachers were not inspired by Simon’s personal example–none of them claimed to be themselves the Supreme God–they certainly emerged from the same cultural stew of eccentric Judaistic spiritualism, Greek philosophy, and Persian mysticism.

Most Gnostics claimed to be Christians–as they saw it, the true Christians–but also the inheritors of Greek and Eastern dualism, which sees good and evil as equally eternal and powerful and conducting an endless war on earth. To the Christians and Jews before them, God was the only eternal entity. He made the universe, with evil resulting as a corruption of good. The Gnostics could not accept the suggestion that the eternal God could pollute himself by taking on human flesh and enduring real agony in crucifixion. Nor could they accept that a good and all-powerful God could have created a world so evil.

In the mid-second century, the Christian gospel was still largely an oral tradition, with an assortment of writings of widely varying reliability. So the Gnostics easily reinterpreted the tradition. The true God was entirely unknowable, they said, and the visible universe was the creation of a foolish or evil demigod, the Jewish Yahweh. The world and most of the people in it were completely unredeemable. However, through the intercession of the true God, some had been granted a divine “spark,” or “spirit,” or “pearl.” Jesus Christ, a manifestation of God who merely appeared to be human, came to redeem those chosen ones–“as one who makes himself free and awakes from the drunkenness wherein he lived, and returns to himself,” says the Gnostic Gospel of Truth.

What was needed for salvation was knowledge of one’s divine identity, which was destined to escape material existence. The Gnostics offered to provide this knowledge–for a price, of course, because the Gnostics sold their secrets dearly. In practice, that knowledge was little more than myth, mysticism, astrology, and magic spells, differing from one Gnostic sect to another.

By the second century, with its intellectual centers in Antioch and Alexandria, Gnosticism had spread wherever there were Christian congregations: Rome, Carthage, southern Gaul, and Asia Minor. The apostles’ immediate successors had been too busy teaching and caring for their communities to translate the good news into the categories of Greek philosophy. So since the Gnostics seemed the first theologians, they were welcomed into wealthy Christian homes in Alexandria. In Rome, Valentinus was almost elected a bishop.

Gnosticism’s attraction for the effete and sophisticated Greco-Roman world was double-edged. Intellectually, it detached the revelation of Jesus Christ from its Jewish roots and gave a more flattering–for the chosen–explanation for the world’s evil. Morally, in simply condemning the world and all human flesh, it encouraged some to engage in extreme austerities–since nature was corrupt, sex and procreation were evil, they taught. Or more commonly, since the enlightened considered their minds to be “pearls to which no mud could stick,” they were free to engage in anarchic sexuality–which they did with gusto.

The Gnostics began appealing to a succession of teachers, back, so they said, to the apostles Philip, Thomas, and Matthias. To these, they claimed, Jesus entrusted secret knowledge. Rejecting most of the Hebrew and many apostolic writings, they produced their own Scriptures. The Cainite sect–“descendants” of Abel’s brother Cain–produced The Gospel of Judas. The Alexandrian Acts of Peter describes Peter refusing to heal his paralyzed daughter to preserve her chastity. Other works included Pistis Sophia (Faith and Reason), The Song of the Pearl, The Acts of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Wisdom of Jesus, and The Apocryphon of John. Much fragmentary material was preserved by the Mandeans of the lower Tigris and Euphrates, the last continuously practicing Gnostic sect, whose existence was not discovered by the western world until the nineteenth century.

The Gnostic challenge forced Christians to respond vigorously. Already, in the late first century, Ignatius of Antioch had thundered against the Gnostic Docetists who taught that Jesus was purely divine and that his humanity was merely an appearance. A generation later, it was clear that Christianity’s fundamental beliefs–that God’s creation was essentially good, that sin was destructive, that God’s salvation is rooted in the Jews, that God had entered human history as a real, not a sham, human being, and that the Christians were the continuing “body of Christ” on earth–all this would have to be defended as a package against the Gnostics.

The defenders, however, soon appeared. The Christian historian Hegesippus, among others, traveled from Rome to Palestine, documenting the succession of bishops back to the apostles to indicate there had been a person-to-person link from the apostles to the present. Clement of Alexandria, boring in on the Gnostics’ contradictory attitudes toward sex, demanded they must concede the essential goodness of the created order. Polycarp, Justin and Irenaeus argued the continuity of the Jewish and Christian revelations, and condemned the Gnostics for their lack of charity–“trying with words devoid of meaning to gain hearers devoid of faith,” as Irenaeus described them. “They set forth, indeed, the name of Christ Jesus as a sort of lure,” he wrote, “but in various ways they introduce the impieties of Simon [Magus], and thus they destroy multitudes, wickedly disseminating their own doctrines by the use of a good name, and through means of its sweetness and beauty, extending to their hearers the bitter and malignant poison of the serpent, the great author of apostasy.”

Valentinus’s activity in Rome represented the high-water mark of the Gnostic threat, both because of the depth of his scholarship and the sophistication of his teaching. He was no smarmy poseur, but a speculative theological reformer who wanted to revise and incorporate Gnosticism into the emerging Christian orthodoxy. An inheritor of the teachings of Alexandria’s Basilides, he moved to Rome in or about 143 and was a candidate to be its bishop. Though defeated, he nevertheless served as an aide to Bishop Anicetus ten years later. Valentinus’s disciple Ptolemy was able to present a view of Christianity which, says historian W. H. C. Frend, was particularly appealing to women because it gave them a central role in the acquisition of gnosis. Gnosticism had come a long way from Simon Magus and his prostitute partner. Not far enough, however. For when the Christians became fully conscious of the Gnostic threat, it ceased to be one.

By the mid-third century, the Gnostic challenge was on the wane, and by the fourth it had been supplanted by other controversies even more lethal in their divisiveness. But Gnosticism never did quite die. The Manicheans of the fourth-century North Africa, the Bogomils of the ninth-century Balkans, the French, German, and Italian Cathari in the twelfth century, the French Albigensians of the thirteenth century, and the Theosophist movement of nineteenth-century England and America are only a few of the recurring Gnostic revivals. And Gnostic influences can be seen in the alchemy of late-Medieval and early-Modern Europe. It seems that wherever the Gospel spreads, some will reinterpret the message of salvation as purely intellectual, reject the body as unredeemable, and often wallow in mud they believe will not stick to their “pearl.”

Indeed, as late as the twentieth century, interest in Gnosticism revived with the discovery of a cache of thirteen Gnostic books near the southern Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi. These included the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ sayings (including the strange assertion that “heaven and earth came into being” for the sake of the apostle James); The Book of Thomas the Contender, a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas just before Jesus’ Ascension; a Revelation of Adam that has Adam telling Seth how Noah was saved from the Flood; and Valentinus’s own Gospel According to Philip.

Spurred by these discoveries, Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels brought out a controversial reassessment of the early church in 1979. Based on and entitled The Gnostic Gospels, it won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, and was praised for recovering an alternative form of Christianity, flourishing before the early church moved toward becoming an orthodox body with rules, rites and clergy. Simon Magus and Helen would, no doubt, have heartily concurred.

This is the end of the Gnostic category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 218, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Gnostic from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at