Pre-Christian gnosticism

In the last few years the fundamental historicity of the canonical gospels has been increasingly brought into question not merely through the work of a few “mythicists” but now also through the work of mainline scholars such as Thomas Brodie and Dennis MacDonald. The work of other scholars, too—scholars who are not ‘mythicist’ at all—is inexorably leading the entire field towards a new paradigm: “Jesus of Nazareth” was a fiction. This new paradigm is still far from being even a minority consensus among scholars, but that may largely be due to the reticence of many scholars to espouse what is extremely unpopular and still politically suicidal. In other words, the mythicist position is far stronger than may appear when the built-in resistance of popular religion and culture is taken into account. The masses of biblically untutored Christians—who cleave to “the Book,” who go to church on Sundays, and who demand that their professors espouse traditional views—are framing the current debate.

Yet there are courageous scholars, such as Father Brodie, whose work seriously undermines the originality and veracity of the New Testament—its credibility. In so doing, his work also debunks the historicity of Jesus. Brodie’s mythicist work helps explain the existence in antiquity of all those “docetists” who claimed that Jesus was pure spirit and had no body—for them, the Jesus of the Church was an invented figure with no physical existence. The docetists were, one must conclude, the Jesus mythicists of ancient times.

From whence Christianity?

However, we are still left with the paramount question: from whence Christianity? To my knowledge this question has not been satisfactorily answered by any scholar.

One problem is definition. Almost everyone today defines “Christianity” as a later form of the religion, one which became the theology of the Great Church—the form carefully defined by various councils and creeds in Late Roman and Byzantine times. Everything else is not Christianity and hence is somehow ‘aberrant.’ This mindset obtains today among most mainline professors who teach in universities and colleges.

The possibility that normative Christianity may itself be aberrant is hardly admitted. By ‘aberrant’ I mean a departure from an older and more authentic teaching. Indeed, the kerygma has been shown to go back only to “Paul,” and the New Testament to be based squarely on the kerygma. Brodie, myself, and others have now also shown that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a fictive character. So, when these two core fictive elements are removed from Christianity—the kerygma and “Jesus of Nazareth”—what is left? That is the question…

Many would affirm: “Nothing at all is left.” But, I submit, that is too hasty. Certain elements in (both normative and heterodox) Christianity are neither Pauline nor pertain to the false biography of Jesus of Nazareth. These elements have received insufficient attention in scholarly discourse. They essentially reduce to a number of logia and parables which bear the hallmarks of a forceful prophet, one who challenged normative Judaism and who did so from a gnostic perspective. To date, the existence of such a prophet has not been ruled out by any scholar. In another post I begin an analysis of those logia which demonstrate that “authentic Christianity” was inveterately gnostic.

The existence of pre-Christian gnosticism

Scholarship is inexorably moving the birth of normative “Christianity” later and later. It is becoming increasingly evident that the foundations of Orthodox Christianity (“Paulinism”) were laid in the second century of our era, not in the first century as was previously thought. Very little that is normative can any longer be reliably dated to the first century CE—including the letters of “Paul.”

At the same time, scholarship is coming to appreciate that gnosticism existed in a non-mythological form far earlier than previously thought. Gnosticism is still generally viewed (erroneously) uniquely as a late, post-Christian development. We have here another problem of definition. “Gnosticism” is defined as a mythological system with a redeemer figure, the disparagement of materiality, and a “foreign” God. These elements are indeed post-Christian. Yet they do not touch the core element of gnosticism: seeking salvation through gnosis (‘hidden wisdom’), rather than through faith, through a vicarious redeemer, or through anything else. That core has been in existence from time immemorial and precedes Christianity as certainly as does, say, Buddhism—a quintessentially ‘gnostic’ religion.

There are many logia in the New Testament which attest to the gnostic view and, at the same time, which have nothing at all to do with the Pauline kerygma (e.g., “Seek and you will find,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” “My kingdom is not of this world,” “The flesh profiteth nothing”…) Such sayings also have nothing to do with the later mythology of Gnosticism. They are all about seeking and finding hidden gnosis. They are also seen in the parables of the hidden treasure, the found pearl, and the captured fish of great price (Mt 13:44-50). This core of teaching, I submit, is a more “authentic” Christianity than the later triumphant religion of the crucified redeemer.

Unfortunately, few researchers look at gnosticism in this broader way. The consequences are dramatic—a false definition of gnosticism renders scholars blind to the actual origins of Christianity. Yet, there have been some dissenting voices. W. Schmithals has asserted: “At the beginning of Gnosticism stands no redeemer myth, but rather the redeeming Gnosis as such.”1 In this sense, gnosis originally had no mythological associations and was simply “knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite.”2

Some scholars have linked pre-Christian gnosticism with Jewish mysticism. Thus, G. Luttikhuizen: “It will appear that until recently, ‘Gnosticism’ and ‘mysticism’ were two words for more or less the same religious phenomenon.”3 Some scholarly attention has been devoted to ascent texts belonging to heterodox Judaisms of the Second Temple Period. Such texts include those in the Enochian tradition, some of the Dead Sea Scriptures, and others belonging to the Pseudepigrapha (e.g. the Ascension of Isaiah). In many of these cases, the approach to the divine can be interpreted as a gnostic ascent. In fact, the Dead Sea Sect appears to have viewed itself as having accomplished such an ascent. Its members possessed secret knowledge and were “angels.” C. Fletcher-Lewis writes of “a priestly community which, in some sense, has become divine.” He defines mysticism as including “some experience of personal transformation, perhaps even some union with the Godhead.” Regarding the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice he writes: “much of the language within the Songs, though not all, refers to the Qumran community members who now have a heavenly, angelic and divine identity.”4

Some of the Nag Hammadi texts were demonstrably Christianized, thus showing that the Gnostic version preceded the Christian version. In sum, it is not possible to view Gnosticism merely as a late aberration of Christianity, as is commonly maintained. Furthermore, those Nag Hammadi texts—in their original form—were clearly non-Christian:

[T]he Nag Hammadi Library contains several gnostic tractates which are certainly non-Christian. These writings show that Gnosticism did not arise as a Christian heresy.5

Thomas Brodie’s work shows that normative Judaism gave birth to normative Christianity. He shows that the New Testament and the biography of Jesus of Nazareth are both based in Jewish scripture. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly evident that heterodox Judaism (‘mysticism’) gave birth to heterodox Christianity (‘gnosticism’). Brodie’s work does not address this latter critical development, which is why—though he adequately explains the genesis of Paulinism (the theology of the Great Church)—he does not explain the genesis of “Christianity.”

“Early Christianity” was a multivalent phenomenon. In simplified terms, it was a dual tradition with normative and heterodox strains developing side-by-side. Even the New Testament betrays the presence of both strains. Its quasi-gnostic elements do not derive from normative Judaism. Rather, they derive from the Jewish mysticism of intertestamental times.

It can be argued that Old Testament Yahwism itself developed in reaction to a non-mythological gnosticism already in existence in the Iron Age—the religion of those who would “ascend to heaven” (Isa 14:13). We note other anti-gnostic elements: Adam’s fall was due to his reaching out to the “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” and the misguided Babylonians attempted to construct a Tower of Babel reaching to the heavens. In Yahwism (normative Judaism), the gnostic initiative is ever proscribed—it is ‘out of bounds.’

Christianity was originally not a form of Yahwism but a form of gnosticism. We have clues of this in the Christian scriptures themselves: in Jesus’ opposition to temple, scribe, and ‘Pharisee,’ in his persistent questioning of Jewish rite and custom, in his repudiation of a ‘chosen people,’ and in his exhortations to seek sincerely without outside aide or approval. Jesus’ teaching is non-corporate. It is private, “within,” and not to be seen by men. This conforms with the teaching of hidden ‘gnosis.’

If the Pauline elements in Christianity proceed out of normative Judaism (as Brodie has shown), then logic tells us that the original and more authentic elements in Christianity must reside precisely in the non-Pauline and pre-Pauline strains. This applies particularly to gnosticism which has never been normative in Judaism or in Christianity.

Ironically, it is the gnostic elements not embraced by the Great Church (and eventually repudiated by it) which may be the most authentic, including the doctrine of salvation by gnosis (rather than by ‘faith’), the fusion of man with the divine (anathema in normative Judaism and Christianity), the concept of spiritual resurrection before death (the Gospel of Philip), the need for the repudiation of pleasure (encratism), and the efficacy of personal effort unaided by any divine agent (thus, the denial of atonement and of a vicarious redeemer). Explicit only in heterodox Christian literature, these elements are also to be found half hidden in the New Testament itself. Their seeds can be found in the rich intertestamental developments of heterodox Judaism(s). It is there, I submit, that we must look for the origins of Christianity.


1. Walther Schmithals, The Office of Apostle. Abingdon, 1969:126.

2. “Documento Finale,” in Colloquio di Messina: Le Origini dello Gnosticismo. Brill, 1966:xxvi.

3. G. Luttikhuizen, “Monism and dualism in Jewish-mystical and Gnostic ascent texts.” In Flores Florentino: Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Early Jewish Studies in Honour of Florentino García Martínez. Ed. A. Hilhorst et al. Brill, 2007:749.

4. C. Fletcher-Louis, “Heavenly Ascent and Incarnational Presence: A Revisionist Reading of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.SBL Seminar Papers, Part One. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1998, pp. 397, 368, 369.

5. R. van den Broek, “The Present State of Gnostic Studies.” Vigiliae Christianae 37 (1983), p. 67.

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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