Five Myths About the Ancient Heresy of Gnosticism

by Michael J. Kruger

In the world of biblical studies, at least among some critical scholars, Gnosticism has been the darling for sometime now.  Especially since the discovery of the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars have sung the praises of this alternative version of Christianity.

Gnosticism  was a heretical version of Christianity that burst on the scene primarily in the second century and gave the orthodox Christians a run for their money.  And it seems that some scholars look back and wish that the Gnostics had prevailed.

After all, it is argued, traditional Christianity was narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, elitist, and mean-spirited, whereas Gnosticism was open-minded, all-welcoming, tolerant and loving.  Given this choice, which would you choose?

While this narrative about free-spirited Gnosticism being sorely oppressed by those mean and uptight orthodox Christians might sound rhetorically compelling, it simply isn’t borne out by the facts.  So, here are five claims often made about Gnosticism that prove to be more myth than reality:

Myth #1:  Gnosticism was more popular than traditional Christianity.

Time and again we are told that Gnostics were just as widespread as orthodox Christians, and that their books were just as popular too (if not more so).  The reason they did not prevail in the end is because they were oppressed and forcibly stamped out by the orthodox party who had gained power through Constantine.

But, this is simply not the case.  All the evidence suggests that it was “the Great Church” (in the language of the pagan critic Celsus) that dominated the earliest Christian centuries, long before Constantine.  Moreover, Gnostic writings were not nearly as popular as those which became canonical, as can be seen by the number of manuscripts they left behind.  For example, we have more copies of just the Gospel of John from the first few centuries than we have of all apocryphal works combined

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Five Myths About the Ancient Heresy of Gnosticism – Canon Fodder