Gnosticism was suppressed in the later history of Christianity, and we might not know anything about Gnosticism if not for the Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of codices (books). Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, we did not know much about the Gnostics.
In 1945, peasants in Egypt found thirteen leather bound books. They were not immediately available to scholars; they were published later in the 1970s. They contain over fifty works, among them apocryphal gospels, apocalypses, letters, psalms, prayers, and Plato’s Republic.
The books themselves date to the fourth century, making them some of the earliest Christian manuscripts that we have. Indeed, some of the works preserved in the Nag Hammadi codices are even earlier: second or third century texts of which we already had a fourth century copy. The Nag Hammadi library contained texts that we knew existed but did not have – and other texts that we never knew existed. They include texts such as the Secret Book of John and the Gospel of Thomas.
The Secret Book of John, or the Apocryphon of John, is in some ways the most representative text we have of Gnosticism. It belongs to the second half of the second century, around 180 AD. In this book, Jesus is a figure of salvation because he teaches gnosis about the world. The Secret Book of John begins by claiming to be the teaching of the savior, the revelation of the mysteries which he gave to his disciple John. It is set in the period after the crucifixion. John is tormented by the death of Jesus. He goes into the desert and asks why the Savior died. Why did he teach us about the Kingdom of God without telling us where it is? John sees a vision of Jesus. Jesus reveals to him the truth about the universe. God is not the creator of earth. God is above everything; he is perfect; he is pure light. He is unsearchable, unnamable, majestic, and eternal. He is uncorrupted by creation. God could not create the imperfection which is found in the material world.
The secret book of John includes a retelling of the Genesis myth in which the true God is not the creator. An inferior god is the creator of the material world. The true God, having pity on man, sneaks a divine spark into Adam, the first man. This version of Genesis is a criticism of the Jewish scripture. This Gnostic, true God is not a jealous God. The true God is a giving god.
The book retells the story of the Garden of Eden. In this version, a serpent comes to Adam and Eve and tells them to embrace the material world, to beget children, to lust, and to destroy. It was the divine light in Adam that made him want to disobey the serpent and eat from the tree of gnosis.
John tells Jesus that he is confused. He thought the serpent told Adam to eat the fruit. Jesus explains the real story: it was the light of knowledge hidden in Adam that led him to disobey the inferior creator god, Yaldabaoth. Adam’s companion, Eve, represents wisdom. Together, they beget Seth, the third son in Genesis and – in this version – the ancestor of true humanity.
The Gnostics create a new myth. The world is not created by God, but by a wicked divinity: the Demiurge Yaldabaoth. Gnostics teach that the saved are the elect; they have been chosen to be the descendants of Seth. John asks Jesus, “Will all the souls be brought into the pure light?” Jesus says the light will only descend upon a few. Gnosticism is predestinarian. The mythology found in the Secret Book of John is only one example of Gnosticism, known as Sethian Gnosticism, but it shows the Gnostic tendency to invert scriptural accounts in order to promote Gnostic ideas.
Orthodox Christians accepted the basic truth of the Genesis account. God is the Creator of heaven and earth. Orthodox Christians believed deeply in free will. The orthodox account contrasts deeply with the Gnostic solution to the problem of suffering. This differences led to a tremendous controversy within early Christianity.
Both orthodox and Gnostic theologies were faced with the problem of evil and suffering. Orthodoxy began an answer with Genesis, but it was not yet complete. The Gnostic Christians offered a different answer, one that rejects the world. It is deeply dualistic and closer to Platonism. Gnostics, even more than the orthodox, reject the body. The body is in the grip of evil; it is the source of suffering. (Remember that martyrdom is ongoing at this time.) The second century debates between Gnostic and orthodox Christians would raise profound questions about the nature of authority in the Christian movement. Gnostics did no accept that they were heretics; they labeled orthodoxy as heretical. The problem of doctrine and theology always leads to a problem of authority. These problems could only be resolved by an appeal to authority. In response to that, we will see orthodoxy develop a concept of Apostolic Authority.