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Who Are the Gnostics?

by Ethan R. Longhenry

In recent years a strong interest has arisen in "alternative" religions, and Gnosticism has received interest as an "alternative" to "orthodox Christianity". The recent success of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code has popularized this trend. The book speaks regarding "over eighty gospels" that were not chosen to be a part of the Bible (Brown, p. 231), makes other claims regarding the contents of these gospels, to lead the reader to believe that these texts lend credence to the idea that Jesus did not really die but married Mary Magdalene, had children, and maintained a secret bloodline, the knowledge of which the Catholic church tried to repress. The Da Vinci Code makes for good fiction-- unfortunately, its author tries to pass off its claims as reality. Furthermore, Mr. Brown takes his cue from current trends in modern scholasticism and from a previous book entitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which makes many of these same claims as "fact". Since there are so many who talk about this book and want to discuss its claims, let us spend some time looking at these "secret" Gospels and the people who wrote them.

What are these "secret" Gospels?

The "secret" Gospels of which The Da Vinci Code speaks are books that were popular among the Gnostics. While we have known of their existence from the writings of their opponents, it was not until a discovery in Egypt in 1945 that we could read the texts themselves. It should be made clear that there were not "eighty gospels"; there were, at most, six "gospels" per se among these texts. The most often cited of these include the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.

To understand more about the nature of these "gospels", we must first learn about their authors and readers-- the Gnostics.

Who are the Gnostics and What Did They Believe?

The term "Gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means "knowledge". The term was coined in the eighteenth century to refer to the diverse groups of people who did not hold to "orthodox" Christianity but put great emphasis on having secret "knowledge" of spiritual things.

While the various Gnostic groups often disagreed amongst themselves, we can find a few common traits to these Gnostic groups.

The Gnostics believed that they had received secret knowledge that common, ordinary people did not understand. Much of Gnostic belief represents a blend of Christian elements and Hellenistic philosophy popular in the day.

The Gnostics all considered the God of the Old Testament to be an inferior, ignorant God, the "Demiurge", who made an evil creation. While Gnostics internally disputed as to whether the body's desires should be met or not, they all agreed that the body, as with all physical matter, was inherently evil, as its creator was evil.

Those Gnostics who believed in Christ believed that He, the Logos, was one of the superior and more spiritual gods than the ignorant Demiurge. Gnostics did not accept the idea that Christ came to the earth in the flesh -- to them, He was as a phantasm. They denied the physical death, believing that Simon or a "physical Jesus," not the spiritual Christ, died on the cross.

Are the Claims of The Da Vinci Code True?

Now that we have a better understanding of the Gnostics, we can return to the premise of The Da Vinci Code. It is important for us to remember that while we may live in a society that would rather pick and choose what they like out of competing religious theories, this was not the case in the ancient world. Christians and Gnostics did not get along very well; neither side would compromise with the other.

The Da Vinci Code, however, attempts to create a compromise religion that no one ever really believed. While the Gnostic Gospel of Philip does seem to record Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene (63:32-64:10), those who would believe such a book would not believe that Jesus was in the flesh nor that He would have been pleasing the flesh -- the kiss is designed to teach a spiritual lesson, not present a love story. Likewise, those who would believe in Jesus as a physical man would deny the legitimacy of the Gospel of Philip and that Jesus was married and did not die on the cross.

The main premise, then, of The Da Vinci Code is entirely without merit in reality. Neither Gnostics nor Christians would ever accept the idea of Jesus being a man, not dying on the cross, marrying Mary Magdalene, and living in France.

As to the Gnostics, we can read even in the New Testament how their doctrines were opposed (II Timothy 2:16-18, II John 1:7-9). Their documents are all written later than the New Testament; they were never even considered for the canon, since their manifest error was apparent to all who accept the truth of God. Let us not be deceived by modern fads -- let us hold to the truth of God present in the Scriptures.