A Facebook friend of mine (an old acquaintance from Bible College) commented on one of my posts the other day expressing the idea that Christianity was originally gnostic, that Paul was its only apostle, and that all his writings were rewritten by “literalists” during the time of Irenaeus (late 2nd Century). His original comments are below and my response follows. I would appreciate your input into all of this. Please critique my response if I have overstepped somewhere or if I am lacking somewhere. And please give me any additional arguments that might be helpful for this:
My Friend’s Response to Romans 8:18-25:
And that is as fine a statement of gnostic theology as Paul ever gave…the darkness of creation, and it’s Creator, the glory of the “sons of God”, hidden within and awaiting it’s revelation to the creature who unknowingly possesses it, the redemption of the physical to the spiritual and the glorification of that which is glory itself, yet unrealized…powerful truth indeed…
We’ll just have to disagree, I suppose…I believe Paul was the only apostle, and his teaching was co-opted and rewritten by Romans years later, during their political power struggle to wrest control of Christianity from the dominant gnostic churches…read. “On Heresies” to track the power struggle…
Irenaeus brought out four “approved” Gospels…at the same time, Plotinus (pagan) knows of gnostic Christianity, but not Roman, literalist dogma or gospels, which came from Justin and his pupil, Irenaeus…see Bultmann’s critiques of the gospels…
The greatest joke is Irenaeus’ production of the acts, which has Peter and others attacking agnostics…at that time, the only church was the gnostic church, and literalists weren’t around to dispute them till Justin invented literalism in the second century in Rome…
Paul, persecutor of Christians, should have known or known of Jesus…yet he meets him “spiritually” in an “enlightening” encounter…his writings are implicitly gnostic, but centuries of tradition, and a little editing, have cast his spiritual Christ, the basis of original Christianity, as shallow literalism…the most humorous, where in acts, he is made subservient to peter…Paul, historical person, and founder of Christ’s church, subservient to peter, a character in the great story…
I have been thinking about what you wrote a lot the last couple of days and here are some of my thoughts:
A. What you propose would be a massive undertaking
1. They would have had to revise the entire New Testament without showing signs of editing…not an easy task since there is such a huge difference between Gnosticism and New Testament Christianity (and since the ideas of both are pervasive: that is they show up in subtle ways that an editor might not even think about).
2. They would also have had to revise all the apostolic fathers (who quoted and commented on the New Testament).
B. There is no motivation for this scheme.
1. There would be no need to pursue this massive undertaking to gain control within Christianity if it was truly gnostic. The leaders wanting to take control could simply start new groups and claim to have the true secret knowledge.
2. Perhaps most importantly, there was no power to be gained. The Church experienced constant persecution until the time of Constantine and the Church mostly hid underground. Christians were despised and hunted down. There was no substantial ecclesiastical power to be had.
C. There is no historical evidence for this scheme of things. This is pure imagination run wild.
D. There is much evidence against this scheme.
1. Gnosticism is anti-Jewish and anti-Old Testament and has its roots in pagan philosophy and religion. It is very hard to see how it could have gotten started among the Jews (who were raised to despise everything Gentile)–and even harder to see how Paul could have been a gnostic apostle (since he calls himself a Hebrew of Hebrews). Moreover, it is very hard to see how Jesus could have been taken seriously as a Jewish Messiah if he was teaching Gnosticism.
2. The gnostic writings that we do have are clearly based on the New Testament as we have it…and not the other way around.
3. If Christianity was originally gnostic and allegorical, it is very hard to see why anyone would die for their belief in an allegory. Yet the evidence is very strong that Christians were heavily persecuted during the First Century. This is not only reported throughout the New Testament, but also by Tacitus (who was considered to be the greatest historian of ancient Rome). He wrote:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.“ (Annals 15:14)
4. It is difficult to see how any religious group that had experienced such phenomenal growth over a 150 year period–so that it was spread over the entire known world (from Great Britain to Africa to India) could suddenly replace its entire doctrine with something so completely different. Furthermore, it is odd that this doctrine that produced such phenomenal growth during this 150 years would completely die out and not persist anywhere in the world. (I would expect there to be a gnostic sect existing somewhere yet today that would preserve this gnostic religion and knowledge of this massive takeover.) But instead the doctrine that replaced it has persisted everywhere. This is especially peculiar since there was no effective central power structure in the Church until about 150 years later (under Constantine). For example, the churches established in India by the apostle Thomas during the First Century have enjoyed an unbroken line of succession–and at a location far removed from Irenaeus and the disputes with Gnosticism.
5. The four gospels were circulated as a collection by about 110 A.D. (or earlier). And they were harmonized into the Diatessaron in 172 A.D.
6. The internal evidence of the New Testament assures us that they were written during the First Century. This is especially true for Luke-Acts. The historical detail pertinent to the mid-1st Century in Acts is much too accurate to have been written in the late 2nd Century. Sir William Ramsay was one of the greatest archaeologists who ever lived. And during the late 19th/early 20th Century he was the greatest authority on archaeology as it related to the travels of Paul. He had been trained in his university studies to believe that Acts was a 2nd Century document and went to Asia Minor to prove it. He ended up completely reversing this opinion and declared that Acts was clearly written during the 1st Century and that Luke was a historian of first rank.
7. We have fragments of Matthew, Mark and John that predate Irenaeus by 50 to 100 years. The fragments from Matthew and Mark date from the mid-1st Century. They are very small and are not universally accepted by all scholars (though it is hard to understand why). The fragment from the Gospel of John, however, is universally accepted by all scholars, and contains John 18:31-34, 37-38 (a very significant conversation between Jesus and Pilate). The date range for this fragment is 90-125 A.D.
8. All the gnostic writings that we have are from the 2nd Century (none from the 1st Century).
9. If the New Testament was originally gnostic and was revised to reflect a different theology, then we should have found some of those gnostic versions of New Testament books among the massive find at Nag Hammadi. But no such finds were made. This is conclusive evidence that this entire idea is completely fictional.
E. The source of this idea is found not in the 2nd Century but the 20th Century
1. Those who promote Gnosticism today do so without integrity. They try to make people believe that Gnostics had a high view of women. But the truth is exactly the opposite. The so-called Gospel of Thomas openly despises women as part of its religious beliefs. This is its closing thought: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven.'” (114). I’m sure Kim would find this aspect of Gnosticism quite moving!
2. The “Gnosticism” you speak of smacks of existentialism and new age religion. It appears to be an attempt to read 20th Century ideas back into this ancient 2nd Century religious teaching.
Brad Cooper is a pastor and apologist with more than 30 years of experience teaching the Bible and apologetics. His passion is to see God’s people grow stronger as their faith is firmly grounded and they grow deeper in their understanding of God’s Word. His teaching focuses on the New Testament, the cumulative case for Christian faith, and various apologetics issues related to the New Testament–including the integrity of the New Testament canon.
Brad is available to speak at events in northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
He earned a B.A. in Bible and Pastoral Ministry from Taylor University, Fort Wayne and an M.Div. from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is a moderator for the Christian Apologetics Alliance Facebook group and blogs at “To Be Sure.” He has pastored several churches over the years but is currently taking a break from pastoral ministry. Brad, his wife Jodi, and his daughters Samantha and Becca are part of Strong Tower Worship Center in Ligonier, Indiana.