The Gnostic Attempt at an Alternate Christian History

I don’t know if you run across the modern gnostic attempt at an alternate Christian history much, but it’s in the news a lot. The Da Vinci Code borrows a lot from Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot, and Dan Brown, the author, likes to quote Elaine Pagels, another modern gnostic who likes to make up her own history.

All of them get lots of press (or in the case of The Passover Plot “got” lots of press).

What prompted this post was a link I was sent to a web page espousing the gnostic interpretation of Genesis. It has some interesting ideas and some interesting arguments, but in the end you have to ignore a lot of history for those interpretations to make any sense.

Let’s look at this.

The Gnostic Interpretation of Genesis

The author, Stephen Hoeller, tells us that the “orthodox view” of Genesis is that it is “history with a moral.” To orthodox Christians and Jews “Adam and Eve were considered to be historical figures, the literal ancestors of our species.”

The gnostic interpretation, he says, is not so. Instead, “The Gnostic Christians who authored the Nag Hammadi scriptures did not read Genesis as history with a moral, but as a myth with a meaning. To them, Adam and Eve were not actual historical figures.”

I’m fine with that. Many early “orthodox” Christians didn’t consider Adam and Eve to be actual historical figures, either. Origen, for example, said it was “foolish” to believe that God planted a tree, as though he were a farmer, so that if someone bit into it with bodily teeth they would obtain life (Against Celsus IV:1:16).

The problem does not lie in the gnostics suggesting that Adam and Eve were not literal historical figures, but in the interpretation that is given later. Hoeller tells us that the gnostic treatise, The Testimony of Truth, looks at Genesis in this way:

After extolling the wisdom of the serpent, the treatise casts serious aspersions on the creator.

The gnostic work, The Hypostasis of the Archons, is said to teach:

The serpent was similarly inspired by the same supernatural wisdom … then taught Adam and Eve about their source, informing them that they were … not mere slaves of the creator deity.

He goes on to say that the Creator has an “unfavorable image … contrasted with the favorable one of Adam, Eve, and even of the serpent.”

Uh huh.

Did Stephen Hoeller forget whose story this is?

Putting Interpretation in the Light of Real History

This gnostic interpretation of Genesis suggests that the Creator is the bad guy, who should be forsaken in order to adhere to another, higher god that has made himself known through the various gnostic teachers.

I have to wonder if they noticed that they have made the Creator the bad guy based on stories that they don’t believe really happened. They don’t like how the Creator behaved in the story of Adam and Eve, but they don’t seem remember that according to their own interpretation the Creator didn’t behave any way at all. The story never happened!

Adam and Eve is a Jewish story. Whether you believe it is literal history or not, it is in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is not found anywhere else. For the gnostics to come along 1500 years after Moses and make it theirs is nonsensical.

We Christians have come along and made that story ours, but we have also surrendered ourselves to the God that gave the Jews that story. We believe that Christianity is the continuation and fulfillment of the Jewish religion, not a correction of it.

More Real History: The Matter of Jesus Christ

Those who are proposing this alternate Christian history argue that the gnostics may well have been the first, original, and true Christians.

The first problem with this is that there’s no evidence for it. Not one gnostic text can be certainly or even likely dated to the first century

The second problem  with this is that everything in gnosticism, including gnostic literature, is reactionary. None of it is original.

The Adam and Eve story belongs to the Jews. The gnostics took the Jewish story and corrupted it. Their whole system begins with the Hebrew Scriptures, which they did not write or have any part in, and goes from there to the myth of a false deity–Yahweh, the God of the Jews–that they say is the produce of a being, Sophia, that they invented and said was produced by the true god, who is unknowable and has never done anything on earth at all.

How are they supposed to know this? Their claim is that they learned this in some way from Jesus Christ, who they claim was sent by the emanations (or aeons) of their unknowable god who has never done anything.

The problem here is that the only known companions of Jesus Christ are the apostles, and they all said that Yahweh, the God of the Jews and the Creator in Genesis, is the true God and the Father of Jesus Christ.

Here again, the gnostics simply steal history. Their works are full of references to the apostles, trying to explain why Jesus would have given them false knowledge, while he passed true knowledge on to someone else.

Of course, in gnostic literature who that person is varies. The only consistent thing about those who supposedly received true knowledge of Jesus is that they left us no writings and we have no good historical way to verify that they really received anything from Jesus at all.

In the Gospel of Thomas, it’s Thomas. That’s convenient. He’s one of the apostles who left us no writings. So you can say anything you want about Thomas, and there’s no written evidence to refute you.

The problem is that the churches that were formed by the known apostles all tell us that Thomas went to India. If you go to India, you will find churches that say that they were founded by Thomas. And, surprise!, those churches teach exactly what Peter, Paul, John, and James taught, that the Creator in Genesis is the true God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did not give “capricious” commandments, but spoke the words of life.

In the gnostic Gospel of Mary, it’s Mary Magdalene who knows more than the apostles. In the Gospel of Judas, it’s Judas who was given the secret message that the God of Israel is a false God.

Does it sound a little like someone made something up and then tried to borrow the authority of people who are actually known to history to justify their fantasy?

The Interesting Link to Mormonism

I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Book of Mormon, but it’s interesting. About a third of it is quoted word for word from the King James Version of the Bible, which would have been the most common English Bible in the early 1800’s, when Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was attending a Christian church.

The sections quoted from the King James Bible have some interesting additions. There are definitely places in the New Testament where we are left wondering exactly what Jesus meant by something he said. Not in The Book of Mormon. In The Book of Mormon fascinating and plausible explanations are inserted into the King James text so that these difficult sayings of Jesus are not so difficult anymore.

If those parts of The Book of Mormon were the only parts, and if The Book of Mormon were being sold as a commentary on Scripture, I’d have no objections to it. Some of the added explanations seemed pretty brilliant to me. Joseph Fielding Smith was a smart man.

The problem was, Joseph Smith wasn’t interested in publishing a commentary on the Bible. He was interested in starting a new religion, but he didn’t have the authority to do so.

Where did he get it?

From Jesus! He simply invented a history where Jesus came over to America after his resurrection and appointed twelve apostles from among the Jews in America.

Oh, you didn’t know the Jews were in America in the 1st century A.D.?

No problem, Joseph invented that history, too, though he made a few mistakes that stand out to someone who knows the real, actual, and verifiable history that Christians believe.

Not Theory, but Reality

We Christians have a big leg up on the gnostics. Our history is real. The gnostics had to steal it, and then they had to try to adapt and explain it because our history proves their theories to be false.

This is one of the reasons that it’s good for Christians to know their history. Martin Luther and John Calvin, for example, taught doctrines that were completely unknown to any Christians anywhere for three or more centuries after Christ.

Try to explain that! How exactly did true doctrines, found in the Bible that was read by Christians whose churches were founded by apostles, get missed by every Christian in existence from the time of the apostles until well after the Church had degenerated into a state church?

It didn’t. Those new doctrines are false because they are not founded in history.

Baptism is another example. The purely symbolic baptism believed by most evangelicals in America is even newer than the 16th century, when Martin Luther and John Calvin were preaching. It’s unknown to all Christians from the time of the apostles until the 17th century!

How likely is it that this doctrine is true?

Some of our worst doctrinal arguments would disappear if we grounded our faith in history. The apostles really started churches. They really preached the Gospel to those churches. Those churches wrote letters to one another, letters to people in the world, defenses of the Gospel to Roman emperors, refutations of heretics, and stories about major events in their life.

How smart is it for us to ignore those things?

Not very, but we’re ignoring them almost across the board.

Thank God those early apostolic churches battled through issues like the eternality of the Son of God, the truth of the Incarnation, and the hope of the resurrection, judgment, and eternal life. It’s hard to avoid holding on to those things because the early churches embodied them in a creed so that we wouldn’t lose them like we’ve lost everything else.

Otherwise, our complete lack of historical  foundation might have made us already gnostics in disguise.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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