If you want to understand John’s Gospel and letters in the New Testament, you need to understand gnosticism. His Gospel and letters were written against gnostics, who were also called “docetists.” “Docetist” refers to the gnostic belief that all matter, everything physical, is evil and should never have happened. Only the spiritual world is real and good.
History of Gnosticism
Second-century Christians (e.g., Justin Martyr) tell us that Simon Magus, the magician from Acts 8, started gnosticism. Peter rebuked him and told him to repent (Acts 8:20-24), but he did not. Instead, he went back to astonishing people with his magic, but now he told them either that he was the Christ or that the Christ spirit had moved from Jesus to him. The point is, he was teaching that because Jesus died, he did not fulfill his mission. Simon told people Jesus’ mission had passed to him.
Simon eventually had a disciple named Menander. We also know there was a teacher named Carpocrates by the late first century that the apostle John had to deal with. Carpocrates had received Simon’s teaching, but all the gnostic teachers added to that teaching. In the late second century, Irenaeus reports of the gnostics, “Every one of them generates something new, day by day, according to his ability; for no one is deemed “perfect,” who does not develop among them some mighty fictions” (Against Heresies, I:18:1).
Irenaeus, who wrote the 5 books of Against Heresies right around A.D. 185, gives a thorough description of a set of heretics known as the Valentinians. He spoke with them and read writings from them to accurately determine their beliefs. He claimed he would do this “briefly,” but try reading the first two books of Against Heresies! I read them. They are long. It is interesting for a while, but it gets real tiring.
He does, though, give a brief overview at the beginning. By Irenaeus’ time the Valentinians were teaching that there was one unknowable God who had generated 30 “aeons,” which are spirits or emanations from God of some sort. The unknowable God is named Bythus, which means “depths” or “profundity” (profoundness). He sent forth Silence with the seed of all things in her, and she produced Word and Life. Word and Life produced the rest of the 30 aeons with names like Man, Church, Unity, Oneness, Wisdom, Faith, Love (Agape), Will, and even “Only-begotten” (Gr. monogenes). Basically, they took words used often in the preaching of real Christians and made separate “aeons” of them.
Irenaeus’ description of the gnostic system is sometimes called slander by those who want to revive gnosticism, but I have verified his descriptions in gnostic works like Pistis Sophia (The Faith of Wisdom) and The Apocryphon of John (roughly, The Hidden Teaching of John). Their teaching goes like this:
The thirty aeons were in a place called the “Plethora” (fullness). They were unable to know Bythus, the one true God, because he is unknowable. This really bothered Wisdom, so she left the Plethora to go search for him. She still could not find him, so she wept great tears that created a being called the Demiurge. The Apocryphon of John describes the event this way:
Something imperfect came out of her, different in appearance from her. … She gave rise to a misshapen being unlike herself. Sophia saw what her desire produced. It changed into the form of a dragon with a lion’s head and [its] eyes flashed thunderbolts. … Sophia surrounded him with a brilliant cloud … so that no one would see it. She named him Yaldabaoth. … Yaldabaoth united with the thoughtlessness within him. He begot ruling authorities. (reference)
Irenaeus describes it this way:
But others of them fabulously describe the passion and restoration of Sophia as follows: They say that she, having engaged in an impossible and impracticable attempt, brought forth an amorphous substance, such as her female nature enabled her to produce. When she looked upon it, her first feeling was one of grief, on account of the imperfection of its generation, and then of fear lest this should end her own existence. Next she lost, as it were, all command of herself, and was in the greatest perplexity while endeavouring to discover the cause of all this, and in what way she might conceal what had happened. (Against Heresies I:2:3)
As you can see, little difference here between the two descriptions.
Yaldabaoth, also known as “The Demiurge,” created the physical world. He did not know his mother, Sophia, nor the aeons of the fullness, nor the true God. Not knowing that, he thought he himself was God and created the world. This was a mistake, thus the whole physical creation is evil. So gnosticism begins with the idea that these aeons came to earth to rescue humans, who have some spirit in them. This is what became of Simon Magus’ idea that the Christ spirit, now aeon, had come to earth to save man, but left Jesus when he died.
Oh, and of course they accuse the Christian God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the God of Israel, of being this false god, the Demiurge.
Salvation and Sanctication in the Gnostic System
Salvation, in the gnostic system, comes from knowledge. The Greek word gnosis means knowledge, and that is where we get “gnostic” from. (In the Greek word, gnosis, the “g” is pronounced; in the English word, gnostic, it is not pronounced.) To be saved, you need to know all these things so that you can enter the Pleroma, the Fullness, after you die.
As far as behavior, gnostic teaching varied. The gnostics that the apostle John dealt with were teaching that since all matter, all the creation of The Demiurge, is evil, it does not matter what you do with you body. The behavior of your body does not affect your spirit, which is the only thing that will be saved. It will be saved by knowledge, not by good behavior.
There were at least two more ways of salvation in gnostic teaching that I remember from Irenaeus’ books. Remember, a good gnostic teacher has to invent new teachings almost every day, so there were a lot of systems by the time Irenaeus was writing, more than a century after Simon Magus started the religion.
One system taught that there were people who were almost pure spirit. It did not matter what they did with their body. They were “the perfect,” and they would be saved no matter what they did. Obviously, these were the gnostics. Other people were part spirit and part animal (flesh). They had to live righteously to be saved. Those were the Christians. Then there were people who were pure animal; there was no saving them.
Another system taught that because only spirit is good, to do anything to please the flesh was bad. They lived ascetic lives with lots of fasting and no sex. At least that was the goal.
The Apostle John and the Gnostics
John wrote both his Gospel and letters with the gnostics in mind. His letter is the most obvious, as he argues that Jesus is eternal life (1 Jn. 1:1-4) and that real Christians don’t hide in darkness, but proclaim their teachings and live their lives “in the light” (1 Jn. 1:6-7), keep Jesus’ commandments (1 Jn. 2:3-4), love one another (1 Jn. 4:7-8), and confess that Jesus is Christ and came in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:2-3). These are things the gnostics did not do. In the Gospel, the first chapter refers to Jesus as the Word, as Life, as Light, as becoming flesh, and as the only-begotten of God. These are all names of the supposed aeons.
The gnostics did not admit Simon Magus as their founder. Instead, they claimed to have received secret teaching from an apostle or companion of the Lord. They claimed that Jesus taught these things only privately, and that the Christians knew only his public teaching, which was for the masses. Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and John himself (thus The Apocryphon of John) were all sources the various gnostic sects claimed.
Thus, one of the purposes of John’s Gospel was to give his apostolic testimony against them. He lived longer than all the other apostles, with Christians in Asia Minor testifying that he lived into the times of the Emperor Trajan, who reigned from A.D. 98-117 (Eusebius, Church History III:23). Apparently gnostics were already using his name by then.
What Happened to the Gnostics
The gnostics and their bizarre religion died out long ago, though they have influenced other religions after them.
An early bishop of Antioch, Paul’s home church, wrote against the gnostics in his letters, written in either A.D. 107 or 116. It is clear in his letters that gnostics had infiltrated the churches in his time. It is possible this was only around the area of Ephesus, where John spent the end of his life (see (Eusebius, Church History III:23) again). His letters are known for promoting a strong “clergy,” the bishop, elders, and deacons, in those churches. I argue that Ignatius only emphasized the authority of the church leadership because gnostics were opening schools for Christians, teaching them gnosticism, and baptizing them into their false faith. Ignatius argues throughout his letters to the churches, and only in the ones in the area of Ephesus, that the must not do any teaching, baptizing, or taking communion without the bishop’s permission.
During the period from 70 to 150 years later, several writers wrote against the gnostics. It is clear in their writings that the gnostics were spreading outside the church. While some Christians did defect to them, returning later in repentance to report their wicked practices, the gnostics had to create their own churches rather than hiding out within the church as John and Ignatius had to deal with.
After those “apologies,” or defenses of the faith, written against the gnostics from around A.D. 170 to 250, we hear little to nothing about the gnostics in Christian writings.
You might also want to know that despite the claims of modern gnostics, neither the gnostic gospels nor even the biblical canon were discussed at the Council of Nicea.