The obliteration of Gnosticism from early Christian history

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 5

The chronology of Christian origins being developed on this website places the appearance of the canonical gospels in the 140s CE, the canonization of the NT c. 200 CE, and the final Christianization of the Roman Empire in early IV CE. Those are three late highpoints. Christian chronology, for me, begins before the turn of the era—with the life and ministry of Yeshu ha-Nostri (c. 100–c. 67 BCE). According to this extended chronology a full two hundred years transpired between the crucifixion of Yeshu and the appearance of the canonical gospels. That’s a long time and plenty could (and did) happen in those centuries. The Church Fathers—who suddenly begin writing in mid-II CE—witness to a plethora of Christian groups already on the ground, many with names that sound very strange to us: Satornilians, Basilideans, Carpocratians, Colorbasians… For the historian, unfortunately, those early Christian centuries and the groups that populated them are a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

The main problem is the assiduous and sustained activity of the later Church in (a) erasing most traces of earlier, pre-orthodox Christianities, and (b) in substituting the false history enshrined in the New Testament.

The thief always leaves clues, however—otherwise, detectives would not exist to afterwards solve the crime. And there are, indeed, plenty of clues, contradictions, and inexplicable facts waiting to be exposed. What are required of investigators today are the motivation to solve the crime and the willingness to jettison preconceived notions and self-serving agendas. Given human nature, however, that’s a pretty tall order.

Some of the fifty miles of bookshelves in the Vatican secret archives.

I suspect that many unknown texts (many more than one might suppose) sit in libraries around the world gathering dust (or even molding away) on shelves that have not been disturbed for centuries. Those texts are well protected behind lock and key, many in dead languages. The enormous Vatican Library would probably be the first place to look…

Academics studying early Christianity are expert in Greek—the language of the New Testament—but how many of them know Aramaic, much less Mandaic, Samaritan, Ethiopic, or Armenian? (Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, a few scholars have learned Coptic.) If, as I argue, the Greek New Testament did not come on the scene until mid-II CE, then scholars of early Christianity are woefully unprepared to deal with the many Jewish Christian and Gnostic Christian movements that flourished before that time.

Bart Ehrman—a representative scholar

Bart Ehrman has impeccable academic credentials, has put time and effort into his career, and is an expert in his subfield which is the textual criticism of the New Testament. I might well get along with the man if I met him—after all, we are both atheists and could probably enjoy a good glass of wine together or listening to a Mozart sonata. Due to my views on Christianity, however, were I his student he would surely give me an “F” (I would consider a better grade insulting), and were he my student I would certainly give him an “F” (see below).

Ehrman was once a born-again Christian, has journeyed on to become an “agnostic atheist” and—for such independent souls can be quite unpredictable—is actually on a natural trajectory to, umm… Jesus mythicism perhaps? 🙂 But here I digress. Yet there is precedent. Look at the apostle Paul: at first a persecutor of the Christians, then one of them, and finally their champion. Go figure.

The problem is that the received Christian tradition Ehrman has inherited (from pulpit and school) is insufficient to the task. That tradition was born long ago in the forest of orthodox superstition, of ‘the big lie’—Jesus of Nazareth. That is not Ehrman’s fault. He has inherited the same Christian tradition as have his peers. And like them, he has simply not exercised sufficient insight. That is his fault.

There are two sides to Ehrman’s writings. One side is an enormous number of highly successful books directed at the high school graduate, at the general lay public, or (at most) at the undergraduate student not majoring in religious studies. These footnote-free, easygoing volumes populate the relevant shelf of your local lending library. It’s as if his editor told him, “Don’t make your readers think too much. You can upset the apple cart, but just don’t overturn it.” And this strategy has been very successful. Ehrman’s views are found in books, videos, DVDs, cassettes… You name it.

University of North Carolina professor and author, Bart Ehrman.

The other side of Ehrman’s output is directed at the college student of religion. Chances are that your New Testament course at the local university uses his The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, currently in its seventh edition.

Sadly—though he is at the pinnacle of the scholarly world—Ehrman’s opinions on Christianity are, by and large, dead wrong. Recently I came across a passage in his book The Triumph of Christianity (Simon & Schuster 2018, p. 168). In an effort to determine the growth of Christianity ‘by the numbers,’ Ehrman offers the reader the following:

     Egypt is a good example. One of the fascinating studies of the Christianization of Egypt was undertaken by Roger Bagnall, at the time a professor of ancient history at Columbia. Bagnall applied an interesting method for determining how quickly Egypt became Christianized. It had to do with a field called “onomastics,” the study of personal names. As Christianity spread throughout the empire, Christians started giving their children Christian names. As an obvious example, Peter was not a common name at all in antiquity before Christians arrived on the scene. The name Peter is based on a nickname given to one of Jesus’s disciples, Simon son of Jonah (John 1:42). It is a word that means rock. We are not sure why Jesus wanted to call Simon “the Rock,” but he did and years afterward Christians would sometimes give their children the name of this famous disciple. Non-Christians had no inclination to do so.
     Some names are thus definitely Christian, and if enough documents survive from any region—such as tax records, marriage certificates, and land deeds—it is possible to determine what people are named at different periods of time and on that basis to calculate how many of those people were Christian (based, at least, on the naming practices).
     As it turns out, we see very few traces of Christianity in Egypt before the middle of the third century…

I winced when reading the above passage. Consider: Peter is a major figure in the Christian New Testament. However, since that corpus of writings did not exist before c. 140 CE, then no Christian would have (or could have) favored the name Peter before that time. So, it is not surprising at all that the name is hardly found in Egypt until the Catholic Church made inroads there in the third century. I have news for Ehrman and Roger Bagnall: the name Peter has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity in Egypt pre-140 CE.

It follows that Ehrman’s overall conclusion is terribly wrong: “we see very few traces of Christianity in Egypt before the middle of the third century…” That Mark is reputed to have penned his gospel in Alexandria doesn’t seem to phase him, nor the documented existence of Gnostics in the land long before 200 CE. But, you see, it’s a matter of definition. For Ehrman, “Christianity” is Catholic orthodoxy pure and simple. He seems to have bought into the notion that Gnostics weren’t “Christians.” It’s a common misconception, even among scholars. Consider the following typical statement: “a variety of Gnostic communities (e.g., Sethianism, Mandaeism, Hermeticism, Valentinianism) existing alongside diverse Christian communities…” (emphases added). This short statement clearly differentiates “Christian” from “Gnostic” and does so reflexively, perhaps unknowingly. That Gnostics also revered the name “Jesus” doesn’t seem to have registered at all! A more accurate—and far more historical—distinction would be between “heterodox Christians” (who came first) and “orthodox Christians” (who came later).

Christian gnosticism was in Egypt at a very early time, as the voluminous writings of Birger Pearson (among others) have shown. It’s not a particularly recondite issue. Even a cursory online query “gnosticism in egypt” immediately brings up the following:

…Gnosticism was especially prominent in Egypt, first in Alexandria and then spreading into the [hinterland]… Indeed, the first Christian teachers in Egypt known to us by name were Gnostic “heretics” active in Alexandria in the early second century: Basilides and his son Isidore, Carpocrates and his son Epiphanes, and Valentinus, who moved to Rome ca. 140.

While several forms of Christian Gnosticism existed in Egypt, two were especially prominent, as reflected in our primary sources: “Sethian” or “classic” Gnosticism, in which the heavenly Seth plays an important role as revealer of gnosis and spiritual progenitor of the Gnostic “race”; and Valentinian Gnosticism, which originated as a more specifically Christian adaptation of classic Gnosticism and is reflected in the writings of Valentinus and several prominent pupils of his, such as Ptolemy, Heracleon, Theodotus, and several others.

Heracleon and Theodotus were probably active in Alexandria in the mid-second century. Valentinian Christianity spread to all parts of the Roman Empire and beyond, and persisted in some areas into the seventh century.

Onomastics is probably not a useful tool in determining the spread of early Christianity. All signs suggest that, at an early stage (before the hegemony of the Church) the religion was gnostic, ascetic, and encratite. Procreation was not an early Christian value. On the other hand, celibacy (continence if married) was valued. In any case, only two names would probably have been favored by the earliest Christians: Yeshu (Joshua, Jesus) and Jonathan (John). But these were very common names among the general populace and little would be gained by tracing their prevalence. Towards mid-I CE Gnosticism began to take on mythological traits and many names (including “Seth” in the foregoing citation) became current.

In opposition to Ehrman’s astounding verdict—“As it turns out, we see very few traces of Christianity in Egypt before the middle of the third century”—the Catholic Church itself long ago formulated a complete list of “Patriarchs” of Egyptian Christianity prior to 200 CE:

Mark the Evangelist (43–68); Anianus (68–85); Avilius (85–98); Kedron (98–109); Primus (109–121); Justus (121–131); Eumenes (131–141); Markianos (142–152); Celadion (152–166); Agrippinus (167–178); Julian (178–189); Demetrius I (189–232)…

Though the foregoing list is of little historical value, it attests to the pitfalls that await the researcher. We are dealing with the quicksand of propaganda, with competing agendas, and with an entire lost history of Christianity spanning about two hundred years. Given these crosscurrents, the researcher must be suspicious—and careful.

The growth of Christianity—according to Ehrman

Ehrman offers the reader two charts that, in his opinion, encapsulate the general growth of Christianity. I have combined them below:

From B. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity (2018) pp. 171 & 172 (combined and redrawn).

The above chart is for Christians in the whole Roman Empire, not merely in Egypt. We see that there are virtually no Christians anywhere until c. 200 CE. Of course, this excludes all the heterodox Christian groups that were certainly active before 200 CE (see above).

Ehrman’s chart then shows a modest but noticeable increase in the number of Christians between 200 and 312 CE. That period, we recall, is the period between the canonization of the New Testament (via the Muratorian Canon) and the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. One would indeed expect a “modest but noticeable increase” in the number of Catholic Christians during that interim period between canonization of scripture and public triumph. Finally, the chart shows a huge increase in the number of “Christians” after orthodox Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire c. 312 CE—entirely consistent with expectation. It’s obvious: Ehrman has accurately charted the rise only of Catholic Christianity. He has completely ignored the multitude of heterodox Christian groups that existed before 200 CE, whether they believed in Jesus or not. In sum: he has effectively erased the entire early history of Christianity—the stage of the religion before the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth.

But, as the saying goes, ‘the victor gets to write the history.’ In the case of Christianity, the victor was Catholicism. Long ago the Church expunged Christian Gnosticism from the record. Today, the Church’s heirs in cathedral and classroom continue to do the very same thing.

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About René Salm

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

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