Monday, June 3, 2013

How Can We Explain the Gnostic Christians?

A Flight of Fancy: A Speculative Explanation for the Gnostics

The premise that I have been working on is that Christianity, at least as a distinct group with its own literature, came into being in the 2nd century, more or less concurrent or shortly after the Bar Kochba revolt in Judea and neighboring provinces. Before that Christianity is essentially prehistoric, we really know nothing. It is from that I posit my ten thousand foot overview of how the Heresies evolved.

The erstwhile church history that is the Acts of the Apostles is very dependent upon Josephus Antiquities (c. 94 AD) for characters and storylines, indicating a 2nd century providence. The very reference to Hellenist (Greek) Ἑλληνιστάς in an internal Christian conflict with Hebrews (Jewish) Ἑβραίους in 6:1 (also 9:29, 11:20), but the term seems to fit the era of the known Roman Hellenist in Caesar Hadrian (117-138 AD) not that of the Tiberius or Claudius reigns; the source text of Josephus makes no mention to any Hellenist Jewish faction in Temple worship. So how are we to read the New Testament in order to understand the development of the Heterodox movements and more specifically how did the Gnostic come about?


The concept which I follow in analyzing the New Testament is that authors write about events and conflicts which they know and which reflect the life and time in which they live. This is simply common sense. [1] For example, if you were to write a novel with the setting being a hundred years before in the time of the First World War, you would find yourself writing contemporary characters, modeled off contemporary figures. All you have to do to see this effect is watch any Western of the 1950s or 1960s and you see the contemporary society – especially the politics – simply wearing period costumes. So it is that the religious politics and theology are contemporary projections. Even the pseudo autobiographical materials on Paul are projections.

Where I speculate is placing the pontifical pen name for Marcion on Paul, and what seems autobiographical, or at least personal, is that of Marcion himself. This pontifical name may have been inherited from another in earlier epistles he may have incorporated in his Canon and may have been continued post mortem by another before the absorption of the collection into the Catholic versions that have come down to us.


This is a good time for a brief - and admittedly inadequate - digression into the environment where Marcion appeared. He is from the era of Hadrian, who was known as a Hellenist Emperor. Terming Hadrian, like the earlier Nero and the later Marcus Aurelius, a Hellenist goes beyond the normal process of Grecian cultural influence on Judaism and its secularization of that society; it’s an influence that was strong and undeniable, leading for example to the writing of the Septuagint in Alexandria (3rd century BC) and pressures from the Ptolemy influence on the upper classes which are ranted against in books like Maccabees. There is no question that Hellenistic Judaism played a major role in the formation of communities that would later become the backbone of the new Christian religion - ironically I believe they constitute the "Jewish Christians" not the "Greeks." But here I am looking for the trigger mechanisms that led more directly to the eruption of Christianity. But the term more should more preferably refer to specific Roman policies toward the Jews designed to break their identity. [2]  

Hadrian's policies which included the renaming of the Jerusalem, and the dedication of a temple to Jupiter on the destroyed temple spot immediately before the Bar Kochba revolt, and post revolt policies such as in 127 AD banning circumcision and its practice in Judaism, can be seen as looming large in this critical era of 129 to 138 AD. Although Hadrian died in 138AD, his policies no doubt lingered and had influence well into the next decade. It is a world hostile to Jewish writings and religion. This is the perfect environment for an antithesis to develop and for Heretical Christianity following in the Roman footsteps, obliterating the connection the Judaism.


The fun begins now, when we consider the storyline of the Marcionite Paul as mimicking Marcion’s life and trials. Noting the principle that the first is the last; that is the capstone book which introduces the Pauline collection is that last written letter, Galatians for Marcion.

In Marcion's Canon the capstone book - likely the final one written - was Galatians. [3] By the time this epistle was written the Marcionite churches were not only established, and not only is it's leader Paul battling against Judaizing (Orthodox) Christian missionaries, but he is losing or already lost congregations to rival movements. It is a document meant to claim and stamp his authority. It also gives us a history of the foundation of Paul and hence Marcion's authority.

The claim by Marcion's Paul is of course that he received his ministry by revelation (Galatians 1:1, 1:11-12) directly from Jesus Christ, with no human teacher or teaching. But just when did this revelation happen? And by that I mean when did it happen for Marcion? Galatians 2:1-2 seems to give us a clue, if we read the circumstances as applying to Marcion - fiction emulating life- such that:
Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem, taking Titus with me;
and went up according to a revelation, and brought with my the Gospel which is preached to the nations.
Ἔπειτα διὰ δεκατεσσάρων ἐτῶν ἀνέβην εἰς Ἰεροσόλυμα συμπαραλαβὼν καὶ Tίτoν·
ἀνέβην δὲ κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν καὶ ἀνεθέμην αὐτοῖς το εὐαγγέλιον κηρύσσω ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν. [4]
Which it seems to read as referring to the time between when Marcion had his revelation and when he journeyed to Rome. Marcion's legendary trip to Rome is generally placed 143-144 AD, a decade after Jerusalem was no more, destroyed, and now a new city Aelia Capitolina stood in its place. [5] Jerusalem could only be but symbolic by this time as a seat of power. But if we accept that Marcion came to Rome in 143 AD to present his Gospel to the leaders of the assembly in Rome though they were nothing to him (Galatians 2:6-7a, 9), as the Heresiarch accounts state, [6] then by counting backwards 14 years we arrive at the date of 129 AD for his revelation.

Curiously 129 AD turns out to be 100 years exactly after Christ appears in Marcion's Gospel, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar." One can readily see the irresistible allure for a writer to place the date of his hero's entrance in the past to so obvious a date. 'I had a revelation that one hundred years ago on this day' flows as naturally today as it would have then, as a natural addition. [7] And so we have the start of the Gospel Marcion preached. Forward 115 1/2 years and 15 days, and you have the date the Marcionite order formally started, something hinted in Galatians 2:9 (AM 5.3.4) as having blessing of the so called pillars (καὶ γνόντες τὴν χάrιν τὴν δoθεῖσάν μoι, ... oἱ δoκoςντες στῦλoi εἶνaι, δεξιὰv ἔδωκaν ἐμoὶ κοινωνίας, ἵνα ἡμεῖς εἰς τὰ ἔθνη).

When Marcion splits from the other churches, in Paul's projected version, it is with the blessing of the Christian leadership. This stands in stark contrast to the orthodox claim by the Heresiarchs fifty or more years later of being excommunication by the orthodox Bishop Pius; if he existed at all, the structure presented in Galatians lacks a single leader. Be that as it may we still have no explanation for the Gnostic Christians yet.


The picture presented by Paul, continuing on our literary twin theory, more or less parallels Marcion's life in allegory, discussing a Christian community already deeply divided. There are two camps, one that is Heterodox ("Greeks") and one that is Orthodox ("Jews"), the former rejecting the LXX, the latter accepting as Scripture. Organizationally the churches are only beginning to align with one or the other movement. By the time Galatians was written, which following this parallel is some years after the Marcionite churches have formed in the wake of Marcion's Jerusalem/Rome trip. Attitudes have hardened, and now Heterodox are being put out of the Orthodox assemblies.

We see evidence of this in both Paul and the Gospels. Much has been made of the so-called Johannine communities of the first century, which fit much better here in the 2nd century. Again we rely on parallels, where Jews are stand-ins for Orthodox and the Synagogues are meeting places of the Assemblies. So in John 9:22, in the aftermath of Jesus giving the man born blind sight, it is reported that the Jews (Orthodox) have decided that anyone who confessed Christ (the Heterodox Christ, not the son of the Jewish God) they will be put out of the Synagogue. Reading the report of Galatians 2:9, it becomes clear, following our time line, that this decision to expel the Heterodox must have come at a time after Marcion started forming his own church and hierarchy, what he believed the right hand of fellowship entailed. One can logically conclude that Marcion founding his own church was likely the trigger that started the Jewish Christian or Orthodox to organize and begin to draw lines, start expelling those who sympathize with theologies like Marcion's.

Continuing the story of man born blind, when questioned by the Jews, he marvels that the Jews, who just said they know Moses, do not know Jesus and where he comes from (9:29-30). From this it is clear that writer of John’s opponents defend Moses and the God of the Jews, but do not acknowledge the Christ of an unknown God. It is this group of  Christians which will through them out of the Synagogue (John 16:1-3) because they think they are serving their God, the Jewish God of Moses, and who do not know the unknown God of the Heretics Christ. This after Christ had been openly proclaimed, as in the Marcionite sense (John 18:20).

And there is evidence for the procedure to expel the heterodox. In Matthew, the most orthodox of all Gospels, verse 5:22 refers to a calling of Christian Religious Council Court or Sanhedrin (συνεδρίῳ) anyone who calls a brother the mysterious 'Raca' (ῥακά), an Aramaic term that has yet to be satisfactorily explained. But the context of the statement seems to be an offense of a Christian leader of some status to another, as it is 'your brother' (τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ) implies something of equal standing –a brother meaning much the same as you hear today when reverends and monks refer to their compatriots as such, not an ordinary believer (πιστῷ) of the congregation. And the offense must be religious in nature, and an insult of considerable power – no doubt against proto-Orthodox held position – that it requires a formal Council of elders, deacons, and certainly presided by the Bishop. As I have noted before, this would constitute a post Marcion era, a larger church organization than when Paul simple declares he has decided to hand one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (Marcion’s 1 Corinthians 5:5 παραδοῦναι τὸν τοιοῦτον τῷ Σατανᾷ εἰς ὄλεθρον) without consultation of any council.

Underground: (faulty logic, incorrect conclusion, but I'm leaving it up for humility)

These post Marcion rupture excommunications indicate that the circumstances have changed by the writing of the first layers of the Gospel of John. Marcion mission is booming, and the proto-Orthodox are starting to organize and exert their authority, purging Heretics who preach other than what they approve, and beginning to preach against Marcion with their own missions.

It is in this era, when the Gnostics began to bloom. It is not that they may not have existed before, it is almost certain they did, and even that they had teachers, and they knew the same unknown God as the father of Christ, and the same Jewish God as the demiurge. But the systems they developed, which Irenaeus other Heresiarchs reported, was based on the full Pauline collection and the four Gospels, to a large extent in Catholic form. They unknown God they knew (hence “gnosis”), could be detected through the various methods of exegesis they developed to identify the text which was authentic or spiritual, and that which was meant for the fleshy Christians (Jewish or Orthodox). In truth what they were trying to do was to recover the Marcionite readings from the Catholic, something they had mixed success with. And with the new additional text and their methodologies, they sometimes discovered (or invented) new teachings.

In essence they sprang from the same camp as Marcion (it was large and varied) but not part of Marcion’s Church, they remained behind in the Churches that became Orthodox, and so went underground. Not recognizing the elders [8] or teachers the Orthodox were beginning to install over the Synagogues and Assemblies, instead recognizing their own Apostles and Deacons. John 16:1-3 refers to this expulsion and its reason (also 9:34), worshiping a different God. Those that remained behind must meet and worship their Christ in secret "for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38, see also 9:22, 20:19).


The only reasonably reliable date is Marcion’s rupture around 143-144 AD. The Marcionite collection of Paul that Tertullian knows includes material in 1 Corinthians related to succession of Marcion, as well as activities and disciplines in his congregations. Galatians represents an even later time when an Apostle has betrayed him (2:11-15) turning to the Jewish Christian or Orthodox camp. Some of his congregations have been lost to the counter missionary work of the Orthodox, and it is necessary to declare his authority. There is also at least one more Gospel, which I posit is Matthew (not completely in present form), in circulation challenges his antithesis directly, and which the antithesis expanded to incorporate a jab (Matthew 5:17). This pushes the date to a decade after his split, the mid 150s for the final collection. I posit a date within a decade of this for the Gospel John, or about 160 AD. The Catholic version of Paul comes soon after, as does Acts and Luke. This is the ear that the Gnostics begin to thrive as secret societies, formerly open, in the Orthodox controlled churches. The first Heresiarch Church Father writings begin to appear in the last quarter of the 2nd century.

So it is necessary to push back Irenaeus to the late 180s or even 190s (fits better his theology), Justin’s dialogue only just before, Ignatius and Polycarp epistles not yet extant. Some books of the New Testament would not make their appearance until the 3rd century (James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, maybe Jude). Valentinus may have existed in the 140s, but the formulas attributed to him for exegesis of the Catholic version of Paul and the Gospel of John and others must have come from followers a generation or more later. These are the dates that fit if one accepts Paul as semi-autobiographical parallel to Marcion’s missionary work, and that dates should be worked out from the internal content.

Final Comments:

This is purely a speculative narrative of the development of Christianity. I laid it out not as proof of anything, but to show the general conclusions I have come to after learning the Marcionite and Heretical exegesis of Scripture, and then applying the social conditions of the era.

As for the existence or non-existence of Jesus as a human, who knows? The literature we have is post Bar Kochba, and Bar Kochba appears to have been the catalyst for the appearance of both Heretic and Orthodox Scripture, and for the definition of the Christian religion distinct from Judaism. It is that literature which presents a fascinating picture into the development of Christianity. And that is what I am interested in.

 (New Post will correct problems, date TBD - sgw 7/2/2013)

The fundamental problem with the description above is my lack of understanding of the impact of the reading of the stars and constellations. which was closely associated with Judaism, Zoraostorism, and Christianity. The eclipses of 29 CE, 59 CE, 71 CE, 118 CE, and possibly even 197 CE, all played a role in the development of theology. The interpretations of these events is hinted throughout the New Testament. I will do a blog post in July on the various references to the stars, moon, sun, and planets and show which event each applies. It is an interpretive swamp,  but we have to wade into it if we wish to understand the why and how Christianity was born. 

[1] I have written an unpublished article on the purpose of Galatians and Romans, a few points of which were extracted
[2] This is a blog entry so I leave the discussion of the nature of the New Testament writing to others. Robert Price, The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, covers the nature of the writings, for one example.
[3] I have written an unpublished article on the purpose of Galatians and Romans, a few points of which were extracted in my post about Marcionite Openings: Romans in March, 2013. The basic idea is that when the main collection was complete a letter had to be chosen to head the collection, or a new one written. It is my belief that Marcion wrote Galatians, as the conditions seem to describe the situation in his congregations toward the end of his ministry. It is my belief also that Romans was chosen by the Catholic editor to lead the Canon we have received, because the theme had to be changed from holding the "true" church together to one of reconciliation of the "Greek" (rehabilitated Heretical congregations) and "Jewish" (Orthodox) factions as opposed to drawing lines in the sand that we see in Galatians. Each starts with its own creed (Romans lacked the creed of 1:1(b)-1:6 in the Marcionite version, likely reading only Παῦλος ἀπόστολος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, πᾶσιν τοῖς οὖσιν [ἐν Ῥώμῃ] τοῖς ἁγίοις), declaring the authority of the writer and the collection.
[4] Marcionite version of the text
[5] Roman Coins from 132 AD bear the inscription Aelia Capitolina, for the city to be built, starting in 130 AD in place of the destroyed Jerusalem of the prior Jewish revolt (67-70 AD) that saw the destruction of the temple, and the spiritual center moved to Yavne on the coast. Hadrian, in addition to expelling the Jews from Jerusalem and executing the ten leading members of the Sanhedrin, banned Torah Law and Circumcision - which he saw as mutilation.. Hadrian is widely referred to as a Hellenist, which has significance to NT dating.
    It is not unusual in Christian literature to refer to Cities in allegorical parallels. The most famous is Revelation 11:8-9 where Rome is clearly identified ("the great city, the one called spiritually Sodom and Egypt" τῆς πόλεως τῆς μεγάλης, ἥτις καλεῖται πνευματικῶς σόδομα καὶ αἴγυπτος), by its broad streets (τῆς πλατείας) and the many peoples, tribes, languages, and nationalities present (τῶν λαῶν καὶ φυλῶν καὶ γλωσσῶν καὶ ἐθνῶν). None of these fit Jerusalem. And yet the verse seems to imply this was the place Christ was crucified (ὅπου καὶ κύριος αὐτῶν ἐσταυρώθη). A similar parallel in Revelation 17:4-6, 18 where Rome is called Babylon (i.e., tower of babble, languages of the earth) that mother of prostitutes, killer of Christian Saints, who we are told finally is the "the great city having a kingdom over the kings of the earth" ( πόλις μεγάλη ἔχουσα βασιλείαν ἐπὶ τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς). Only Rome fit that description.
[6] Tertullianm AM 1.19.2 dates the Marcionite movement, that is as a separate sect, as coming 115 1/2 years and 15 days after the appearance of the Lord in Marcion's account in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (Luke 3:1) or 29 AD, to his introduction of a new God or in the last months of 144 AD: Anno xv Tiberii Christus Iesus de caelo manare dignatus est, spiritus salutaris. Marcionis salutis, qui ita voluit, quoto quidem anno Antonini maioris de Ponto suo exhalaverit
[7] I postulate that Marcion, or one of his colleagues, built upon a proto-Synoptic Gospel shared with Mark.

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