2nd Century BCE+: Mithraism and Christianity1st Century: The Ebionites
Jewish Christianity - the OT laws must be upheld1st-7th Century: Gnosticism
The inferior OT god is subverted by the True God1st-14th Century: Adoptionism
Jesus was only human until his baptism1st-7th Century: Docetism
Christ only appeared human but was divine2nd-8th Century: Arianism
The Father is Greater than the Son2nd-5th Century: Marcionites
Jesus came to overthrow fake God of the OT4th Century: The rise of modern Christianity
Cappadocian, Nicene, Pauline and Trinitarian Christianity
Gnosticism is an ancient religion stemming from the first century (approximately), and is an alternative messiah-religion that shares many features with Christianity. An inferior angelic being created the Earth, and this being is a hindrance to spiritual development. Many Gnostic schools taught that the Hebrew Scriptures were the religious creation of this inferior god. To trick this god out of power, a saviour was sent by the true god, and the sacrifice of this innocent man undermined the power of the old god, allowing the possibility for people to become saved and align themselves with the true god. Gnosticism was heavily attacked by the first Christian anti-heresy writers. Some authors such as Freke & Gandy (1999) argue that Christianity as we know it is a shallow version of Gnosticism which has mistaken symbolic stories for real ones1, whereas many academics find that the historical and archaeological evidence is unclear: Christianity and gnosticism are related, but, and although we don't yet know which one came first, it seems that early Christianity was much more Gnostic than it is now, and perhaps the gnostic/literalist divide simply didn't exist for the first two centuries of Christian history. By the 7th century, literalist Christians had overwhelmed Gnosticism and related forms of Christianity, leaving us with modern Trinitarian Christianity.
“There was a Syrian branch of gnosticism, represented by Saturninus in the second century, of whom Irenaeus says '... Saturninus of Antioch... Taught that there is one Father, utterly unknown, who made angels, archangels, virtues, powers; and that the world, and all things therein, was made by certain angels. [...] The God of the Jews was one of the [evil] Angels [and] Christ came to destroy the God the of the Jews.”
“[Gnostic Christians] held that the sensible world had been created by an inferior deity named Ialdabaoth, the rebellious son of Sophia (heavenly wisdom). He, they said, is the Yahweh of the Old Testament, while the serpent, so far from being wicked, was engaged in warning Eve against his deceptions. For a long time, the supreme deity allowed Ialdabaoth free play; at last He sent His Son to inhabit temporarily the body of the man Jesus, and to liberate the world from the false teaching of Moses.”
“Gnosticism refers to a number of religious groups from the early centuries of Christianity that emphasized the importance of secret knowledge to escape the trappings of this material world. The name Gnostic itself comes from the Greek word for 'knowledge,' gnosis. Gnostics, then, are the ones who are in the know. And what do they know? They know the truth that can set them free from this world of matter, which was created not by the one true God but by lower, inferior, and often ignorant deities who designed this world as a place of entrapment for elements of the divine. Gnostic religions indicate that some of us have a spark of divinity within us, a spark that longs to be set free from the prison of our bodies. These religions provide the secret knowledge that allows us to transcend our mortal, material bodies to return to the heavenly realm whence we originally came, where we will once again live with the gods. [...]
That brings us to the state of the world today. Why is it a place of such misery, pain, and suffering? Because it is not the good creation of the ultimate true God. It is a faulty creation of a lower, inferior, ignorant and (sometimes) evil deity. [...] This misshapen and imperfect being is called by different names - most commonly Yaldabaoth, which may be related to the name of God in the Old Testament, Yahweh, Lord of Sabbaths. This divine miscarriage is, in fact, the creator God of the Jews, who ignorantly proclaimed, 'I am God and there is no other.' He simply didn't know that there were other gods, far superior to him in power and knowledge. [...] The goal of salvation, therefore, is not to create a paradise on earth, a Kingdom of God in this realm. The goal is to allow the divine sparks scattered among humanity to escape this material world, to become reunited, and to return to the realm whence they came. [...] Saving knowledge [...] must come down to us from above. A divine being - an aeon from the Pleroma - must come down to tell us what we need to know.”
Hence, Gnostic Christians believe that the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Jews with its tough and harsh covenant and punitive and hateful nature, is the inferior creator-god of this world. In order to escape, and embrace the true, ultimate godhead, you must escape from the creation of the inferior god. Jesus was sent to provide the knowledge required to break free from this world. This is a complicated affair, and the general opinion of Gnostics is that not many people are capable of realizing the truth, and breaking free of the shackles of this world 5, thus gnosticism is often called a mystery religion, a form of religiosity that was popular in the Roman Empire, and wherein the basic idea is that hidden teachings are placed within external mysteries (stories) that can only be properly understood once you have been told the secret of their interpretation.
Although in ancient history there various divine beings that came to give us the knowledge required for salvation, it is the Christian incarnation of this story that became dominant, and it is Christian gnosticism that is codified in most of the texts found so far by archaeologists. Having said that, historians know that various groups had various gnostic ideas, and some warn against calling all of them 'gnosticism', instead preferring "gnosis":
“Generally speaking, the Gnostics were Egyptians, Essene Jews, and early Christians, 'heretics' who practiced mystery cults based on the idea of 'knowing' the divine. Gnosis is now preferred to the term to Gnosticism - a religion of its own - as a label for this loosely connected group. [...] One Gnostic creation myth says that Sophia, the spirit of wisdom, signified by the dove that also was the sign of the Holy Spirit, was the child of the primeval silence and that Sophia herself was the mother of both Christ and [who] sent Christ to earth as the dove to enter the human man Jesus as he was being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.”
"Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East" by David Leeming (2004)6
Gnostics believe that this world, this material, Earthly existence, is the creation of an inferior deity who needs to be escaped from.
“Humans who declare their devotion to the god(s) who created this world have been fooled into worshipping the wrong god(s). The goal of salvation is to transcend this creation and the divine beings that brought it into existence.”
"The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot" by Bart Ehrman (2006)
Therefore, even our own bodies are part of the system of degradation, and gnosticism is thoroughly ascetic and rejectionist, eschewing all forms of earthly pleasure, in the same manner as some strands of Hinduism and Buddhism:
“The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library has shown how [...] because the Gnostics devalued the body that they thought that a person should not be enslaved to the body or its desires. Rather than being promiscuous, Gnostics were highly ascetic, urging their followers not to cave in to the lusts of the flesh, but to fast and abstain from good food and fine wine and even from sex. Bodily pleasures ties one to the body, but Gnostic religions urged people to escape from their bodies.”
Many authors have written about the striking resemblance between many gnostic pagan beliefs, symbols and theology, and those of Christianity. Some authors such as Alfred Reynolds (1993) are not sure if it was Gnostics who adopted Christian ideas, or, if it was Christians who adopted Gnostic ideas, to form early Christianity. Authors such as Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy are sure that the gnostics provided such a large part of Christian symbolism that the latter is merely a shallow rewrite of the former. Gnosticism was later heavily opposed by 2nd, 3rd and 4th century Pauline and Nicene Christianity, which eventually wiped the Gnostics out, often with much violence. The Pauline/Nicene Christians explained that the similarities were the work of "devilish mimicry".
It is clear that Gnosticism and early Christianity are intrinsically linked. Almost all discovered gnostic manuscripts are connected with Christianity, "in that it is usually Christ himself who brings the knowledge necessary for liberation. As Jesus himself is recorded as saying in the Gospel of John: 'You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free' (John 8:32)"4. Such gnosis can explain a great deal of the features of early Christianity.
Gnostics revelled in signs and symbols rather than in literalism. Their 'outer mysteries' were shown to the public, who could only ever understand them as simple stories. Gnostics, those in the know, knew what the characters and objects in the stories really represented, and so, they knew the inner mysteries. These inner mysteries were the profound truths of Gnosticism. Gnostics and Jews had in similar an inclination to concoct clever word games, for Hebrew was a subtle and complex language where many phrases and words could merge together to form new meanings and ambiguity in meanings often formed the basis of songs, poems and stories.
“The earliest Christian art evolved, as we have seen, in a milieu suspicious of imagery; and at the beginning, Christ was represented not through images but in signs, which we first find scratched on funerary slabs, and which soon spread from catacombs and marble sarcophagi to everything: seals, jewellery, lamps and other household objects. As we might expect in a society of mostly Jewish-born converts, these signs depend on words and word games. A monogram was formed from the first two Greek letters for the word Christ, the Chi Rho already mentioned [plate 19]. It had long existed among the pagans as an abbreviation of the similar Greek word chrestos, meaning 'auspicious', and had been used as a symbol of good omen; it was probably for this reason that it was first adopted by the Emperor Constantine on the Roman imperial standard. The Chi Rho could be shown wreathed with a victor's crown, like the one Christ confers on San Vitale in Ravenna; Christians also often append to it the Greek letters alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.”
"Seeing Salvation" by Neil MacGregor with Erika Langmuir, published by BBC to accompany the same TV series in 2000. Chapter 5
“Most Gnostics [believed] that Christ was a divine emissary from above, totally spirit, and that he entered the man Jesus temporarily in order to convey the knowledge that can liberate sparks from their material imprisonment. [...] At the baptism, Christ entered into Jesus (in the form of a dove, as in the New Testament Gospels); and at the end he left him to suffer his death alone. That is why Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (literally, "Why have you left me behind?") [...] According to one of the myths reported by Irenaeus, once Jesus had died, the Christ then came back and raised him from the dead (Against Heresies 1.30.13).”
Prof. Ehrman examines the idea of Jesus dying apart from God in the light of the earliest known Christian manuscripts:
“In a very interesting passage in this letter [Hebrews], the author indicates that Jesus died for all people 'by the grace of God' (Heb. 2:9). Or is that what the author said? In several manuscripts, the text instead says that Jesus died "apart from God". [...] In Hebrews, in fact, the statement makes perfect sense, since elsewhere as well it emphasizes that Jesus experienced his suffering as a full human being without any divine succour that might have been his as God's son. He suffered just like the rest of us. [cf Heb. 5:7, 12:2-3] [...]
But at a later time, in the second and third centuries, this kind of statement could be highly problematic, since Gnostics were saying that Jesus literally died "apart from God," in that the divine element within him had left him. Evidently, for that reason, scribes in the period modified the text to the more familiar phrase [...] that Jesus died by the "grace of God." Their change in this instance was remarkably successful; it is the wording you will find still in most English translations.”
Revert back to the pre-orthodox (pre-Nicene) translation, in accordance with original manuscripts, and you revert to the phrasing that adoptionist Christians used, but which was suppressed and hidden by later literalist Christians.
This section is taken from "Christian Adoptionism and the Baptism of Jesus Christ: Centuries of Belief Before the Trinity" by Vexen Crabtree (2011).
The very first Christians, the Ebionites, Nazorenes, Gnostic Christians and others, were all adoptionists. In accordance with the first hundred years of Christian belief and with the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, Jesus was born in a normal way like the rest of us, to his parents, Joseph and Mary, from the line of David as prophesized (Matt. 1:1,9:27, Lk. 1:32, Jn. 7:41-3, Acts 13:23, 2 Tim. 2:8, Rev. 5:5 and 22:16). Jesus kept God's laws so well that on his baptism, God adopted him as his son, and sent him to the cross as a truly innocent, perfect sacrifice, to atone for the sins of all mankind, to fulfil promises made in the Jewish scriptures. God signalled to the world that this sacrifice had been accepted by raising Jesus from the dead and raising him up directly into heaven. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, so popular amongst Roman mystery religions and paganism at the time, was never accepted by adoptionists10. It was only hundreds of years later when the concept of the Trinity was codified by the Pauline/Cappadocian Christians that adoptionist beliefs became condemned; yet, it represented the truer and original form of Christian belief.11
It is easy to see how adoptionism and Gnosticism go together: the True God of the universe seeks and finds a truly innocent man, someone over whom the old god of this world has no power. Upon his sacrifice, the old laws are swept away, and the true god can manifest its power in Earth at last, if only people understand the true situation and therefore save themselves through Christ, the saviour.
These were the beliefs of Christians in the first century, and were espoused by the Ebionites and other Jewish sects too. In the second century it was famously espoused by Theodotus of Byzantium2, but, from that time onwards it was heavily oppressed by the rising power of literalist, Pauline Christianity.
For more on docetism, see: "Docetism: Early Christianity of the 1st to 7th Century" by Vexen Crabtree (2012).
“Docetism and its various branches held that Christ's human body was merely a phantom, and that his suffering and death were but appearance. If he suffered, he was not God, they argued, if he was God, he did not suffer: a most reasonable conclusion.”
Some of the earliest groups of Christians were docetist but after the rise of Cappadocian and Pauline Christianity they were forcibly silenced and mostly eradicated. They believed that Jesus was a purely spiritual projection, sent by God to inform and lead. Joseph didn't impregnate Mary because Jesus didn't come from any physical seed; Mary conceived him to fulfil prophecy. Jesus couldn't have been physical because the physical world was fallen, imperfect and separate from god - in this docetist and gnostic Christians agreed. The reason Jesus didn't write anything himself or baptise anyone (John 4:1-2) is because he was a phantasm and could not. St Paul wrote that the Son came "in the likeness of flesh" (Romans 8:3).
There are clear signs that this form of Christianity predated the ones we know today, and, those Gnostics who were not adoptionist were docetists. The former believed that Jesus was a real person, whereas the docetists believe that the True God sent a being that was born without a fleshy, human body, as the sacrifice that was required to trick the inferior god of this world had to be done on a being not of this world. After the sacrifice of the Christ, the old god will have lost its power over humankind due to it overstepping its boundaries, hence, bringing salvation from the strict laws and rules of the god of Moses. Such beliefs were recorded in documents such as The Gospel of Peter (which, needless to say, was rejected from the NT canon by the literalists).
Docetism was popular enough amongst Christians that multiple authors and Church Fathers wrote arguments against them. The author of the Gospel of John specifically went out of its way to awkwardly state that "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:1,14). Other anonymous letters and texts which accepted the Gospel of John were later named after John and the resulting literature called Johannine texts. 1 John 4:2-3 says that you can only be godly if you confess that Jesus was physical - docetists, says 1 John, are of the antichrist. Another Christian wrote against docetism in the name of John, and also said that docetists were ungodly. Despite being a forgery, the letter became known as the Second Epistle of John (2 John) and was also canonized in the New Testament, no doubt because the Cappadocian/Nicene Christians found it so useful to back up their belief in a physical fully-God and fully-Human Jesus.
Christian theologians Ignatius of Antioch (died between 98 and 117CE), Irenaeus (115-190CE), and Hippolatus (170-235CE) wrote against the error in the first few centuries13. Around 197-203CE the Bishop of Serapion of Antioch wrote against docetism after finding it in Rhosus, specifically, he wrote against the Gospel of Peter in a tract he titled "The So-Called Gospel of Peter" pointing out that although it was mostly correct, the Gospel of Peter could not be used because it supported docetism.14. St. Jerome (died 420CE) complained that "while the apostles were still surviving... the Lord's body was asserted to be but a phantasm"15. In 451CE, the great Christian Council of Chalcedon also condemned docetism13. Even though the orthodox hunted down and tried to eradicate heretics with increasing violence, the use of the Gospel of Peter continued until at least the 6th/7th century16 by which time the physical and literary dominance of Pauline / Nicene Christianity had become so great, it was getting very hard to imagine Jesus in any other way but theirs.
13 of the books of the New Testament are the epistles (letters) of St. Paul. Seven were probably written by Paul himself and six others have been written in his name by (anonymous) followers, some up to 80 years after his death. By the time the official Bible canon was produced, no-one knew that only some were genuine. The historical Paul probably did write 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans. Letters forged in the name of Paul are 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians. Paul was born in Tarsus as "Saul" and adopted the name of Paul after converting to what is now Christianity. He was an early leader of the growing Christian churches around the Roman Empire, and the writings of St. Paul are the earliest existing Christian writings known to historians. Despite this, Paul never met Jesus and appears to rely mostly on Greek myths and legends, many of which he copied, placing Jesus at the center of them instead of their original heroes.”
This section is taken from "St Paul - History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism" by Vexen Crabtree (1999).
Was Paul himself a gnostic and a teacher of the Jesus Mysteries, or was he a literalist? The scholars T. Freke & P. Gandy in The Jesus Mysteries compiled a large quantity of historical evidence that St. Paul was a Gnostic:
“Paul writes of a 'Gnosis' which can be taught only to the 'fully initiated'. He offers a prayer 'that your love may more and more be bursting with Gnosis'. He writes of 'Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of Sophia and Gnosis' and of 'the Gnosis of God's Mystery'. Like a Gnostic initiate Paul claims: 'By revelation the Mystery was made known to me'. Like a Gnostic defending the secrecy of the Inner Mysteries he asserts that he has heard 'ineffable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter'. Like a Gnostic he puts the emphasis on understanding, not on dogma, writing, 'The letter kills, while the spirit gives life'. And like a Gnostic, he describes stories in the scriptures as 'allegories' and writes of 'events' and 'symbolic'.”
Yet Freke and Gandy conclude that he was actually neither a gnostic nor a literalist. A large chapter of their Jesus Mysteries hypothesis is dedicated to showing us the many ways in which early Christianity was a Mystery religion, which was later replaced by Christians who only interpreted its vegetation myths literally rather than spiritually. They conclude that although Paul's genuine teachings were gnostic, Paul was neither for or against gnosticism, because literalist Christianity did not yet exist, so there was no "side" to be on.
“Upon reflection we felt that to call Paul a Gnostic was, in a sense, misleading. The more we looked at the evidence we had uncovered, the more it seemed that to apply to the terms 'Gnostic' and 'Literalist' to the Christianity of the first century was actually meaningless. From Paul's letters it is clear that the Christian community of this period was deeply divided, yet this schism was not between Gnostics and Literalists, as was the case by the end of the second century. Paul is neither anti-Gnostic nor pro-Gnostic, because in his day the great schism between Gnostics and Literalists had yet to occur.
At the time of Paul, the strands of thought that would become Gnosticism and Literalism were harmoniously co-existing as the Inner and Outer teachings of the Jesus Mysteries. The theological battle that Paul is engaged in is between those initiates of the Jesus Mysteries who want to maintain a traditional and distinctively Jewish identity and those, like himself, who wish to make their new Mysteries completely 'modern' and cosmopolitan.”
That Christianity actually started out as a Roman Mystery Religion is not accepted even by many liberal Christians, but nonetheless the evidence is laid out comprehensively that Paul taught gnostic teachings, not because he was a "gnostic" as opposed to a "literalist", but because Christianity was inherently gnostic from its conception. It was another god-man religion like Mithraism, Osiris-Dionysis myths and other common religions of the time. Taking the bullet points from Freke and Gandy (p212-213), here is some of the simplified evidence that Paul taught the same things that the Mystery religions, because Paul was himself a gnostic, being an initiate of The Jesus Mysteries:
The Gnostics despaired as a new form of popular Christianity arose which only understood the simplistic outer mysteries.
“In a Gnostic gospel called The Apocalypse of Peter, the risen Jesus calls Literalist Christianity an 'imitation church' in place of the true Christian brotherhood of the Gnostics. [...] Literalist Christianity preached only the Outer Mysteries of Christianity, which they called a 'worldly Christianity' suitable for 'people in a hurry'. Gnosticism, by contrast, was a truly 'spiritual Christianity' [...].
These particular quotations are not from some little known Gnostic heretic, but from the writings of two of the most eminent Christians of the early Church - Clement, the head of the first Christian philosophical school in Alexandria, and his successor Origen. These men [...] are still regarded as two of the greatest early Christian philosophers, yet both preached a form of Christianity more akin to Gnosticism. [...] Gnosticism was a broad, vibrant and sophisticated spirituality which was attractive to the greatest Christian intellectuals of the first few centuries CE - not only great sages such as Valentinus and Basilides [...] but also men such as Clement and Origen.”
Irenaeus mentions the Cainites near the end of the book 1 of Against Heresies. [...] Why would any group of religious believers identify themselves with Cain, of all people? It must be remembered that these Cainites were Gnostics, who believed that the creator god of this world - the one who punished Cain for disobeying him - was not the true God but a lesser, inferior divine being. The Cainites evidently believed that in order to worship the true God you needed to oppose the god of this world. And if this god was against Cain, then Cain must have been on the side of the true God. [...] According to Irenaeus, the Cainites saw Korah as one of the heroes of the faith. This is a figure who opposed Moses and urged a rebellion against him; in response, God caused the earth to open up and Korah and all his family were swallowed alive (Num. 16).
Irenaeus explains that the Cainites also revere Judas, who through his actions allowed a trap to be snared, for through the murder of a truly innocent spirit, the fake God of this world (as the God of the Old Testament) was overthrown, and the true god was revealed.
Also Judas, the traitor, they say, had exact knowledge of these things, and since he alone knew the truth better than the other apostles, he accomplished the mystery of the betrayal. Through him all things in heaven and on earth were destroyed. This fiction they adduce and call it the Gospel of Judas.
It happens that if the apparent god is evil, then it is not only human figures such as Cain, Koresh and Judas who are the true heroes - symbolic figureheads such as Satan are also part of the unlikely crew of deception-destroyers! This fact is picked up with glee on my page Righteous Satan Theologies: When Satan is Good:
“Some theologies and theories place Satan as a saviour and a defender of righteousness, and the white light God as an evil oppressor. Most common is the acceptance of Satan as true, a correct symbol used to represent crisp reality, with God as the negative symbol of delusion. Satanic religions hold to this idea even if they lack the actual belief in a real god or Satan. These are common themes in Satanic music, and are also present in nearly all schools of thought that are labelled as Devil Worship. Some ancient gnostic religions also hold that the good-seeming god is evil, whereas there are other more obscure good forces in life.”
The following pages mention this religion. The 10 most relevant are listed:
St Paul - History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism, 12 times, in the following sections:
Review of 'The Phenomenon of Religion' by Moojan Momen, 6 times, in these sections:
* Top of page
Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?, 6 times, in these sections:
2.5. Gnosticism (1st-7th Century)
Satanic Union of Gnostic Eidolon and Daemon using Belial, 6 times, in these sections:
1. Eidolon and Daemon
* Top of page
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
"St Paul - History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism" (1999). Accessed 2013 Nov 15.
"Mithraism and Early Christianity" (2002). Accessed 2013 Nov 15.
"Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?" (2003). Accessed 2013 Nov 15.
The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987, Ed.). 16 volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA.
Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East (2004, Ed.). Hardback. Published by Oxford University Press.
Sophia Bestiae (2006). 2006 Jun 06. Published by Aestheteka Press. Quotes taken from a pre-release edition.
Jesus Versus Christianity (1993). Originally published 1988. Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
History of Western Philosophy (1946). Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.