Ironically, Gnosticism Is A Nasty Business

Gnostic fragmentIn preparing to reach CH601 (Ancient Church) this fall, I’ve been reading a lot of primary and secondary texts that I’ve not read or that I’ve not read for a long time. One of the more interesting has been Simon Gathercole’s book, The Gospel of Judas: Re-Writing Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Gathercole is a very good writer and tells a fascinating story with a number of threads. The first of which is the mystery of the discovery, virtual destruction, and reconstruction of the text of the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” It’s a story of greed and stupidity. Another thread concerns the commercial investment made by companies in this fourth century coptic text (probably a translation of an older Greek text) so that it became a vehicle not just for scholarly study but for commercial exploitation via sensationalism. It also became another vehicle for the promotion of Gnosticism as either the “true” (a typically gnostic thing to claim) Christianity or the original version of Christianity later displaced arbitrarily by “orthodoxy.”

There is a great debate in the academic literature about how to define “Gnosticism.” Broadly defined, it is teaches an ontological dualism between “evil” matter and “good” spirit (immaterial). It teaches “salvation” from evil matter by the acquisition, through revelation, of special knowledge (gnosis) of the true nature of things. When Christians have tried to synthesize Gnosticism to Christianity it has meant the denial of the true humanity of Jesus and the radical separation of the Old and New Testaments. The ancient gnostics denied that Yahweh was “God.” They referred to him as a “god” or a “demiurge.” In the “Gospel of Judas,” the Jesus character is more satanic than Son of God.” He mocks the piety of the disciples, he mocks them for giving thanks to a “god” who demands thanks. Hmm, this all sounds very familiar. Something about a serpent and “has God really said?”

A third thread in Gathercole’s book is the story of the spiritual relationship some of the scholars came to have to the text. The study of gnosticism, in the modern period, has not been just an academic exercise. This is not to say that there have not been scholars of Gnosticism who have not been dispassionate, fair, and careful in their analysis but there has also been a sizable lot of advocate-scholars who are themselves gnostics and who want others to become gnostics.

Of course The lure of Gnosticism is great. As Peter Jones has been pointing out for years, it fundamentally reverses the natural Creator/creature relationship. It offers deification to the creature while it marginalizes the God of the bible as an evil demiurge. It turns Jesus into a master of spiritual enlightenment rather than the God-Man who obeyed for us, died for us, was raised for our justification and who is coming again in power and glory to judge the earth.

It’s ironic that gnosticism should be such a nasty, this-worldly, political business. It’s ironic because the whole point of gnosticism is to escape this “evil” material world. The history of gnosticism, however, is a history of misrepresentation, lies, and outright deception. It’s been going on since before the apostolic fathers. Indeed, there are more than a few indications that some of the very same threads that coalesced into “gnosticism” proper existed during the apostolic age. Prior to the crisis that prompted the Nicene Creed, perhaps no other issue so dominated the attention of the ancient church as the attempt by the gnostics to corrupt the text of Scripture, to corrupt the story of Scripture, and to turn the faith on its head.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2008.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. So, modern Gnosticism is full of lies and deceptions? What do you expect of something spawned by the devil himself?

    When I was a lot younger, some of my elders and betters tried to “set me straight” by buying me Elaine Pagels’ _Gnostic Gospels_. The amount of misrepresentation and rewriting of known ecclesiastical history (e.g., Athanasius as persecutor of gnostic monks rather than persecutee of Arians and Homoiousians) was utterly appalling. I’ve also read the _Five Gospels_ of the Jesus Seminar, some of Dominick Crossan, and have reached the conclusions that (a) the proponents of Gnosticism as a legitimate strand of Jesus’ movement are either stupid, evil, dishonest, or a combination of all three and (b–re Crossan), if you’ve read one vintage 1968 apostate Roman cleric you’ve read them all.

    I’ve also noticed that in the Coptic [pseuso-] Thomas, that Jesus says that Mary will become male to be saved. Yet these neo-Gnostic apologists tell us that Gnosticism was more female friendly, and feminism-affirming! Can someone tell me where in the unabashedly patriarchalist Old and New Testaments is there any suggestion that the holy woman will be something other than women in the world to come? Hmmmmphf!

    Modern liberal scholarship seizes on the Gnostic literature because it is tacitly admitting that it gets no aid or comfort from the canonical Scriptures. And because it does this, it twists itself in strange knots.

    BTW, is there any possibility that the Gospel of Judas is a modern forgery? Some of the attitudes reported in your article suggest a late 20th century sensibility, especially in the derision of piety. The fragments of Gnostic literature I’ve read (admittedly not much) seem marked by a piety of their own.

  2. “He mocks the piety of the disciples, he mocks them for giving thanks to a “god” who demands thanks. Hmm, this all sounds very familiar. Something about a serpent and “has God really said?”

    Indeed it is familiar.

    It all comes down to “has God really said?”. Rob Bell asked the same question.
    Bell: “Will only a few select people make it into Heaven and will billions and billions of people suffer in Hell forever?”

    In other words, Bell asks, did God REALLY mean these words in Revelation 7:9?

    ” After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

    Where do you read “a few select”, Rob?

    (Yet, I’m a undone as well (albeit differently) as I find it nearly impossible to remember enemies of the faith, in my prayers.

Comments are closed.