Gnostic Insights in the New Testament Gospels

(Original title: Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, II)

In my previous article, Can the Gospel Witnesses be Trusted?, I exposed the contradictions inherent in the literal “flesh and blood” interpretation of the Gospels. I also explained why it is unjust for so-called “orthodox” Christians to use the four Gospels as a standard by which to judge other Christians who refuse to read the Gospels literally. In this article I want to explain why the Gnostics, historically, made an appeal to these same Gospels and regarded them as sources of divine revelation.

When we hear the words “Gnostic scripture” we most often think of the Gnostic Gospels and treatises as found in the Nag Hammadi Library. But in ancient times the Gnostics were also known for their extensive use of the Gospels and Epistles that we identify today with the New Testament. And indeed these very writings were at the center of the controversy that raged between early Catholic and Gnostic factions. The Catholic Fathers provided a record of this controversy from their point of view; and they make clear that the Gnostic use of these writings was a major problem. The Gnostic use of such Gospels as Matthew, Luke and John threatened everything that the Catholic clergy wanted to establish in terms of a uniform and ‘correct’ theological standard. The problem was that the Gospels did not provide a clear standard in themselves. The Gnostics recognized the divergent themes and they allowed this diversity to shape their theology and myth.

The great Catholic Father Irenaeus informs us that the Gnostics had a peculiar critical approach to the Gospels. According to his report the Gnostics did not believe that everything in these Gospels was purely true or accurate. Irenaeus described the Gnostic approach this way: “When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn around and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. … For they maintain that the Apostles intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Savior; and that not the Apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place (Sophia), and yet again from the Pleroma. But they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner!” (Against Heresies, 3.2.1-2.)

In there own way the Gnostics recognized that the Gospels were composite in nature: hence some of Jesus’ sayings came from the Demiurge; other sayings came from Sophia, or the Pleroma. And the Apostles themselves confused Jesus’ teachings with the Law of Moses, and they preached under the “influence of Jewish opinions” (ibid. 3.12.12). According to the Gnostics only a certain element of the Gospels contained the pure, spiritual truth. In this present article we will look at an important example of what this truth actually was, and why the Gnostics used the Gospels as a license to blaspheme the Creator.

Let us begin by considering the question of what form the four Gospel texts existed in when they were used by “heretics” like Valentinus, Ptolemy and Marcion. These people conducted their activities around the middle of the second century. Catholic records from the same time period show that the Gospel manuscripts were not named and quoted as they were later with Irenaeus (c. 180). Irenaeus was the first Catholic leader to quote the Gospels by the names we know today. If we go back a generation to Justin Martyr (c. 160) we find that the Gospels are not quoted by name, and are referred to instead as “memoirs of the Apostles” (Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 2, pg. 41f.). The Gnostic Ptolemy lived in the same period as Justin. He alludes to the Gospel of Matthew in his Letter to Flora, which historians date between 150 and 160. Like Justin, Ptolemy does not mention or quote “Matthew” by name. A generation earlier we find Marcion (c. 140). Marcion used a form of the Gospel that Irenaeus later identified as Luke. But Marcion never identified that Gospel with Luke just as Justin didn’t. Also of significance is that Marcion used a different form of this Gospel (Luke) than the Catholic Fathers later used. The Fathers accused Marcion of “mutilating” Luke’s Gospel; but the valid question remains as to whether the present Gospel of Luke, which we have inherited from the Catholic Fathers, is truly comprised of unified elements which constitute an original, homogenous text (see below).

My point is that there is no evidence that the four Gospel traditions existed in the forms in which they were named later. An example of this problem may be seen in the letter of 1 Clement, which historians date at 90 AD. In orthodox tradition 1 Clement was written by one of the “Apostolic fathers” who was known as “Clement of Rome.” The term “Apostolic fathers” is a name for those early church leaders who were supposedly born and raised among the Apostles. Clement was said to have known the Apostle Peter personally and later succeeded him as bishop of the Roman church. The letter of 1 Clement was supposedly written by him. If this is true then this letter is the earliest ecclesiastical text outside of the New Testament (assuming all the NT writings are as early as claimed).

Like the other sources named above, 1 Clement does not quote any Gospel by name. But in one section there is a quote from certain elements of Matthew. The writer begins by saying “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how he said, ‘Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him if he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones’.” (1 Clement 46, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 17f.)

Of significance is that this passage from “Clement” is actually a conflation of diverse passages from Matthew 18:6 and 26:24. As these passages appear in our present day Gospel, they have no relationship to each other and are found in different parts of the book. Yet Clement quotes these passages as if they are from one statement. The above passage raises the following questions: Did this writer simply conflate two passages from different parts of Matthew? – or is he quoting from a source which framed Jesus’ words in a different order? (Think about it: Why would Clement, the bishop of Rome, quote Jesus in such a confused way in an official letter to the Corinthian Church? The more plausible alternative is that the author has quoted the words of Jesus from a tradition that was much different from the form that appeared later under the name of Matthew.)

All the evidence at hand shows that, before the Catholic Fathers (c. 180), the Gospel traditions were not named, and that these traditions were not organized in the forms that appeared later. In support of this point is that the four Gospel manuscripts today are anonymous: none of these texts identifies its author, or explains the nature of the relationship of that author to the Lord of whom he bears witness. It is amazing that the Gospels purport to be witnesses to the single most important event in history; and yet none of the authors will put their names on these documents! (Of note is that the author of John claims to derive his information from the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, Jn. 21:24. But neither the author nor the disciple are officially identified by name.)

Also in support of this point is that the Gospels contain internal, conflicting elements which appear obvious once they are exposed. One obvious example can be seen in a comparison of Matthew 10:5-6, 23 and 28:19. In the former passage Jesus instructs his Apostles to preach to Israelites only; and in verse 23 Jesus assures them that they “shall not have gone through all the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.”

Next, let us compare Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…” And also Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world…then shall the end come.”

The passages above contain irreconcilable statements. In Matthew 10 Jesus instructs his Apostles to preach to Israelites only, and that they will not have gone through all the cities of Israel before the kingdom arrives. Matthew 24:14 and 28:19 say that the Apostles must preach to all nations before the kingdom arrives.

It is obvious that Matthew 10 is derived from an early Jewish Christian tradition which regarded Jesus as a Jewish prophet who proclaimed that the “son of man”, viz. the Messiah, was coming soon. Matthew 24:34 is also part of this Jewish tradition: Jesus promises his followers that the kingdom will arrive before the end of their generation. In comparison, Matthew 28:19 is from a different source which no longer recognizes the imminent arrival of the kingdom; hence the followers of Jesus must now preach to the entire world before the end finally comes. Matthew 24:14 is also from a different source and is in conflict with Matthew 10:23.

Another example of contradictory elements may be seen in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. In Matthew 5:17-19 Jesus informs his followers that no part of the Law of Moses will pass away until all things are fulfilled. As we read though the Sermon everything is consistent until we reach verse 38. At this point the Sermon takes a radically different turn, and “Jesus” begins annulling certain definitive points of the Law. Thus in verse 38 Jesus annuls the “eye for an eye” statute (Ex. 21:24) and commands instead that his followers “resist not an evil person.” And in verse 43 Jesus overturns the statutes defining the enemies of Israel (Dt. 7, 23:3). Jesus commands instead that his followers are to “love their enemies.”

Matthew 5:17-19 is consistent with the early Jewish tradition of Jesus as found in Matthew 10. Jesus tells his followers to keep all of the Law, and the Apostles are to preach to Israelites only. But Matthew 5:38-48 contains a doctrine and theology which is not consistent with the other elements. Either Jesus was deeply confused, or Mt. 5:38-48 originates from some other alternative tradition of Jesus.

The theology of Matthew 5:38-48 is also unbiblical and un-Jewish, and at this point a connection with Gnosticism becomes evident. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus makes an appeal to God as the authority behind the changes that he has made to the Law. Hence his followers are to resist not evil, and to love their enemies, so that they will be “perfect” as their “Father in heaven is perfect.” What is meant here by the idea of a perfect Father? And can this idea be reconciled with the jealous God and Lawgiver of the Old Testament? (i.e. the Demiurge) The Lawgiver expressly warned the Israelites to keep all of his laws: “For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you lest the anger of the Lord be kindled against you and destroy you from off the face of the earth” and in the same passage “Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded you” (Dt. 6:15, 17). In Matthew 5:17-19ff. Jesus’s instruction is consistent with the Lawgiver/Demiurge; but in 5:38-48 the instruction opposes the Lawgiver in favor of a God who is perfect, and not jealous. The perfect God is not interested in revenge (an eye for an eye) or in keeping track of enemies (e.g. Dt. 7).

The unique ideas in Matthew 5:38-48 are reflected in the teaching of the Gnostic Ptolemy in his Letter to Flora. He reasons accordingly that the Law of Moses was not given by the “perfect God” because the Law itself is “imperfect” and in need of “fulfillment” (Bentley Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pg. 308f.). Ptolemy understood Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon to mean that the Law itself was given by the Demiurge, and that Jesus corrected the Law under the authority of the higher, perfect Father. It is noteworthy that Ptolemy established his doctrine on the Gospel we know as Matthew, and not from any conventional “Gnostic” text.

Another point where Matthew contains a non-Jewish, non-biblical element is in Matthew 11:27. This was one of the passages that Irenaeus was most concerned about; and he remarked of the Gnostics that Matthew 11:27 was the “crown” of their system (Against Heresies, 1.20.3). This passage reads “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son.” Irenaeus resorted to specious theological reasoning in order to explain this passage away, as if Jesus were simply speaking to orthodox Christians (ibid., 4.6). But the true, relevant question is what did these words mean to Jews and everything they believed about the scriptures and the Law? In that context what Jesus meant is that Moses had no knowledge of the true God. This is the proper context in which the passage in Matthew 11:27 is supposed to be understood. Hence: only Jesus knows the Father; Moses never knew the Father.

This theme regarding Moses is also found in the Gospel of John, and is a central underlying theme. In John 6:46 Jesus assures his disciples that “Not that any man has seen the Father, save he which is from God, he has seen the Father.” Jesus’s point here was to make sure his hearers understood that Isaiah (quoted in the preceding verse) had never seen the Father (cf. John. 6:45, Isaiah 54:13, Isaiah 6:1).

This theme is also reflected in the words of John the Baptist as reported in John 1:17-18. John testified of Jesus that “the Law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No Man has seen God at any time.” John here denied that Moses had seen God and received the Law from God as is stated, e.g., in Deuteronomy 34:10, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face.” (cf. Ex. 20:1f.)

The author of John makes a special point of supporting the correctness and infallibility of this theme that is introduced through John the Baptist. Thus in John 5:31-33 Jesus says: “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness he witnessed of me is true. Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth.”

In the above passage Jesus is made to confirm that John the Baptist’s testimony is “true” as found in John 1:17-18. Thus according to John the Baptist, Moses did not receive the Law from God, and that “grace and truth” came only through Jesus, not Moses. Thus only Jesus speaks the truth; whereas the Law came through Moses. The Law itself is not the truth. The Gospel of John further states that this was how the Pharisees understood Jesus when they rejected his message: “We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is” (John 9:29).

This theme is also found in John 17:25, “O righteous Father, the world has not known you…” (cf. Isaiah 64:4)

In the passages I have presented above we can see elements of a theology that does not conform to Judeo-Christian conceptions or doctrines. The theology of an unknown God is implicit in these passages. And this was why the Gnostics believed that there was a divine core truth in the New Testament Gospel traditions. And once these elements are pointed out, it is possible to see why the Gnostics attributed one part of the Gospel to the Demiurge, and another part to the Pleroma, as Irenaeus reported. The Gnostics recognized that there was more than one theology in the teachings of Jesus.

I would like to conclude with one last example from the Gospel of Luke as used by Marcion. The Catholic Fathers blasted Marcion and accused him of cutting up this Gospel. Supposedly Marcion removed the first three and a half chapters of Luke. And he took Luke 3:1 and attached it to 4:31, and created a new beginning for the Gospel which resumed at 4:31f. In the process Luke’s name was supposedly left with the other scraps on the cutting room floor.

But are these charges really true? Is it that simple; and did this Gospel really exist in the form in which we have received it from the Catholic Fathers?

Let us compare two passages from Luke 6:35 and 4:8. In the former passage Jesus tells his followers: “But love your enemies…and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and the evil.”

And in Luke 4:8 we read the words of Jesus, which are a quote from Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”

The discerning reader will recognize that the theology of Luke 6:35 cannot be reconciled with the words of Jesus in Luke 4:8/Dt. 6:13. In Luke 6:35 Jesus appeals to a God who is “kind unto the unthankful and the evil.” This is the diametric opposite of the God that is described in Dt. 6 and in the books of Moses in general. In these books God is a vengeful and jealous being who vigorously punishes transgressions; and also punished and slew the Israelites for their murmurings and ingratitude (e.g. Numbers 14).

In short, Luke 6:35 cannot be reconciled with the other elements of theology which are found in Luke, and which are found in Jewish and Catholic traditions. Marcion perhaps believed that his Gospel (Luke) was doctored up, and he tried to separate the elements that he recognized as true. Or it may be that Marcion had an earlier homogenous form of this text, and the Catholic Fathers slandered him and advanced their counter-text under the name of Luke.

For better or worse the New Testament Gospels (or certain elements thereof) were an important part of the emergence of Gnostic theology. The Gnostics were, and are to this day, those mystics who have revelation of the better God above it all. Some elements of the Gospels originate from such people; and they placed these ideas in Jesus’ mouth.

Also of significance is that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke can be shown to be composite in nature, and are derived from diverse elements which were not originally united. Some parts are Jewish Christian, other parts are proto-Catholic, and other parts are proto-Gnostic. These Gospels were pieced together from traditions that originated from different sects, and are the product of an attempt to reconcile diverse traditions and ideas into uniform and coherent accounts; all of which were intended to force these elements into conformity with the emerging Catholic, orthodox creed. But when these diverse elements are examined it becomes conceivable as to how Gnostics embraced the teachings of Jesus, but those teachings never originally included the notion of a “second coming” or a fleshly incarnation, or a Jewish theology, or a Mosaic priority. Again, as the Gospels presently exist, there is evidence to show that each text is comprised of separate elements which were never part of any original unity or consensus.

Now of course it may seem like a logical conclusion to state that if we look to the “Gnostic Gospels” that we will find a pure and uniform statement of Jesus’s doctrine. But here again it is not that simple; ironically the Gnostic writings also contain a diversity of doctrine. But it is true that Gnostic texts do contain a wider statement of doctrine that add context to those mysterious themes in the New Testament that are all too brief.

In the next installment of this series we will look at the puzzling diversity of the Gnostic traditions. But at the same time we will also look at some key doctrines that add context to those Gnostic themes in the New Testament Gospels. –jw 

By Jim West. Copyright © 2007, 2013. All Rights Reserved.


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