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Early Christianity

A discussion on someone elses's journal has got me interested in gnosticism again. I've been poking around for stuff that sounds familiar. Here's a list of links:

A very detailed synopsis and review of The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels:


Reading this leads me to beleive that I must have read at least part of Pagels' book way back when.

Here's something by Pagels herself:


Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

An essay that describes why the early church was right to reject gnostic ideas and texts:


A Chronology of the Gnostic movement:


Too much information for preliminary reading, but I might want to get back to it later.

During this period of transition from Mithraic pagan rule to Christian influence, there were thus several critical moments when anxiety in Coptic quarters of a total suppression of unsanctioned literature would have logically compelled the reproduction of volumes for secret storage. That the cache of texts were finally hidden at Nag Hammadi in fear of militant orthodox Christians might be interpreted from the fact that the find also contained a copy of The Republic of Plato, previously considered an acceptable work of political theory.

The Gnostic Heresy:


A very short essay hostile to gnosticism.

The History Channel website actually turns out to be a pretty informative resourse:


Sunday, February 1 8 - 10:30pm Who Wrote the Bible? will re-air. I'll be sure to tape it.

The Gnostic Jesus:


Deepens my conviction that I have read Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels. The following excerpt is very familiar to me:
How did members of this circle of "pneumatics" [the Gnostics] (literally, "those who are spiritual") conduct their meetings? Irenaeus [Bishop of Lyons] tells us that when they met, all the members first participated in drawing lots. Whoever received a certain lot apparently was designated to take the role of priest; another was to offer the sacrament, as bishop; another would read the Scriptures for worship, and others would address the group as a prophet, offering extemporaneous spiritual instruction. The next time the group met, they would throw lots again so that the persons taking each role changed continually.

This practice effectively created a very different structure of authority. At a time when the orthodox Christians increasingly discriminated between clergy and laity, this group of Gnostic Christians demonstrated that, among themselves, they refused to acknowledge such distinction. Instead of ranking their members into superior and inferior “orders” within a hierarchy, they followed the principle of strict equality. All initiates, men and women alike, participated equally in the drawing; anyone might be selected to serve as priest, bishop, or prophet. Furthermore, because they cast lots at each meeting, even the distinctions established by lot could never become permanent “ranks.” Finally – most important – they intended, through this practice, to remove the element of human choice. A twentieth-century observer might assume that the Gnostics left these matters to random chance, but the Gnostics saw it differently. They believed that since God directs everything in the universe, the way the lots fell expressed his choice.

A Gnosticism portal page:


In modern times, Gnosticism is a widely abused term, giving rise to many conflicting ideas as to what precisely is meant by it. There are hundreds of “Gnostic” churches, groups, teachings, writers and schools, each claiming to have the true Gnosis, the true knowledge of the divine. These modern groups range from small study groups analyzing the ancient gospels, to movements that claim millions of members. Truly, Gnosticism is not a collection of dead cults; it is a living tradition that has persisted under many faces, but which has never been extinguished, for it is the heart of the human experience: direct, intimate knowledge of higher truths.


The Myth of the Early Church:

The story of how Christianity suppressed its early pluralism in favor of emergent catholic orthodoxy starts with another story, a parable found in Matt. 13:24-30. A farmer plants wheat in his field, looking forward to a fine crop at harvest time. But as soon as the stalks start to sprout, his farmhands bring him ominous news: Every other plant is not wheat but darnel weed! The farmer knows this is no accident. "An enemy has done this!" For centuries the official historians of Christianity have taken this parable to describe the way the church started out orthodox and then became infested with heresy. Christ had sown the field with the good seed of orthodox Christianity. But then he left the scene, returning to Heaven, leaving the farm in charge of the apostles and the bishops. But, to their horror, they soon discovered that Satan had slipped in and planted all sorts of false doctrines.

Since it is a question of farming, perhaps we need the advice of a couple of farmers. Two of the most important investigators of early Christianity were a pair of New Testament scholars, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) and Walter Bauer (1877-1960). (Both last names are German for "farmer.") F. C. Baur and Walter Bauer[1] pretty much threw the traditional jigsaw puzzle up in the air and then reassembled the pieces. The result could be described with another parable (though I'm afraid you won't find this one in any gospel): It is as if a man sowed his field with all kinds of seeds at random. "Let a hundred flowers bloom!" he said. Soon the plants began to sprout, each different from the others, until one plant with long tendrils choked out all the others and filled the field with its own seedlings, and none other was left.

The Role of Athanasius in deciding what qualifies as cannon:


Athanasius had a high regard for scripture. He wrote, "These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words that they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, 'Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.' And he reproved the Jews, saying, 'Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of me.'"

Because of the importance of the city of Alexandria, Athanasius was a well-known bishop. Much of his life was spent battling heresy, especially Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. His strong views got him into trouble with the emperor and he was forced into exile five times. Each time, the Egyptians welcomed him back. Because of his influence, Athanasius' list of books helped settle the question of which books do and don't belong in the Bible. People recognized the truth of what the great bishop wrote. The books of the Bible are not God's word because Athanasius said so; they are in the Bible because almost everyone in the church recognized their wisdom as coming from God. Athanasius was only ratifying the decision of many devout Christians who saw the power of certain books to draw people to Christ and change their lives and thought. By contrast, the gnostic books had no life-correcting power, so they fell out of use.

Establishing the New Testament:


Chronology of events important to the establishing of the cannonical gospels.

Why Did Christianity Succeed? Legitimization under Constantine: From persecuted minority to official imperial religion -- what caused this extraordinary reversal for Christianity?


The second century of our era was the age of definition before Christianity. Now that it realized it no longer was Judaism, or no longer was a form of Judaism it had to figure out well then, what is it exactly? What is Christianity? What makes it not Judaism, what makes it not Jewish? How is it able to somehow at one and the same time hold on to the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and still not be Judaism, and still not be Jewish? This was one of the major questions confronting Christian thinkers, writers, church leaders in the second century. This was the great age of Christian diversity, sects, schools, heresies of all kinds, confronting Christian thinkers, and it was only in the second century that we begin to see the emergence of what we might call an orthodoxy, or something that might simply be called "Christianity" in a kind of uniform body of doctrines and text, that is to say the New Testament. The New Testament as a collection of texts is a product of the second century, as the church figured out which books are sacred, which books are authoritative and which ones are not....


What happens is that Constantine has a vision. Luckily for the Church, there's a bishop nearby to interpret what the vision means. Constantine ends not converting, technically, to Christianity, but becoming a patron of one particular branch of the church. It happens to be the branch of the church that has the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. Which means that since this branch of Christianity includes the story about historical Israel as part of its own redemptive history, it has an entire language for articulating the relationship of government and piety. It has the model of King David. It has the model of the kings of Israel. And it's with this governmental model that the bishop explains the vision to Constantine.


One of the first things Constantine does, as Emperor, is start persecuting other Christians. The gnostic Christians are targeted, ... and other dualist Christians. Christians who don't have the Old Testament as part of their canon are targeted. The list of enemies goes on and on. There's a kind of internal purge of the church as one Emperor ruling one Empire tries to have this single church as part of the religious musculature of his vision of a renewed Rome. And it's with this theological vision in mind that Constantine not only helps the bishops to iron out a unitary policy of what a true Christian believes, but he also, interestingly, turns his attention to Jerusalem, and rebuilds Jerusalem just as a righteous King should do.

I may add to this list for my own future reference. (I have added much to it.)


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 29th, 2004 05:52 pm (UTC)
A Chronology of the Gnostic movement:

This one suggests that the Nag Hammadi documents were hidden just in case the Christians decided to destroy them. I don't think that constitutes evidence of a Christian cover-up of some kind.
Jan. 29th, 2004 07:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's what this article seems to suggest.
The History Channel will be re-airing their "Who Wrote the Bible?" program in just a couple of days. I plan to watch it and pay closer attention this time than I did the first time around. Specifically, I'll get the name of the scholar who, as I seem to recall, stated that the monks hid the texts in response to a specific order to destroy them.
Jan. 29th, 2004 08:11 pm (UTC)
From Pagels' book
I found the following exceprt here:


Why were these texts buried-and why have they remained virtually unknown for nearly 2,000 years? Their suppression as banned documents, and their burial on the cliff at Nag Hammadi, it turns out, were both part of a struggle critical for the formation of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century. We have long known that many early followers of Christ were condemned by other Christians as heretics.

Yet by A. D. 200, the situation had changed. Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only "true faith." The majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a leading role, rejected all other viewpoints as heresy. Deploring the diversity of the earlier movement, Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted that there could be only one church, and outside of that church, he declared, "there is no salvation." Members of this church alone are orthodox (literally, "straight-thinking") Christians. And, he claimed, this church must be catholic-- that is, universal. Whoever challenged that consensus, arguing instead for other forms of Christian teaching, was declared to be a heretic, and expelled. When the orthodox gained military support, sometime after the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the fourth century, the penalty for heresy escalated.

It seems that the opinions I formed during my research into gnosticism about the active suppression of the gnostic sects and their texts came from reading Elaine Pagels' book, and that's something I can easily lay my hands on (hopefully at a library). Strange that I didn't remember reading that book.
Jan. 29th, 2004 08:33 pm (UTC)
further support for the "just in case" interpretation of Nag Hamadi
from: http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/price1.htm

Bauer lived to see his portrait of Egyptian Christianity amply confirmed by the discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi library, [3] a cache mainly of Gnostic gospels, epistles, tracts, and revelations, which revealed an astonishing diversity of Christian beliefs and origins the breadth of which not even Bauer had dared suspect! Who would have guessed that Sethian Gnostics had become Christians on the assumption that Jesus was the reincarnation of Seth or of Melchizedek? Or that Jesus was believed in some quarters to have been the reincarnation of "the Illuminator" Zoroaster? What makes this discovery all the more astonishing is that associated documents show the collection of leather-bound volumes to have been taken from the monastic library of the Brotherhood of Saint Pachomius, the first known Christian monastery. Apparently when the monks received the Easter Letter from Athanasius in 367 c.e., which contains the first known listing of the canonical twenty-seven New Testament books, warning the faithful to read no others, the brethren must have decided to hide their cherished "heretical" gospels, lest they fall into the hands of the ecclesiastical book burners. We may perhaps take that monastery as a cameo, a microcosm of Egyptian Christianity in the fourth century, diverse in doctrine, though soon to suffocate beneath the smothering veil of catholic orthodoxy.
Jan. 29th, 2004 09:42 pm (UTC)
Accelerated History Lessons
If you take a look at my "reading notes" entry, you'll find it's grown considerably since you left your comment.

This one suggests that the Nag Hammadi documents were hidden just in case the Christians decided to destroy them. I don't think that constitutes evidence of a Christian cover-up of some kind.

If the Nag Hamadi library was hidden in response to Athanasius' Easter Letter of 367 c.e. (which contained the first known compilation of the books of what has come to be known as the New Testament), then the monks had very good reason to think that the books they hid faced immenent destruction. By that time the Emperor Constantine had already united the eastern and western empires, convened the council of Nicaea, and begun actively persecuting not only pagans but also those Christian sects that diverged from the interpretation of Jesus' divinity established as official at Nicaea.

I don't think that constitutes evidence of a Christian cover-up of some kind.

Not a "cover-up," but the use of state power to suppress diverent interpretations of the nature and meaning of the teachings of Jesus.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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