Those fun, tolerant Gnostic Christians

I finally read an article from last fall about a second-century artifact found in Rome, which is an inscription probably connected with the Gnostic Christian heretic Valentinus. It’s an interesting article and shows some of the esoteric Gnostic Christian teachings.

While it’s informative, there’s a striking agenda in it as well. In the middle of the article, there’s a description of the Gnostic attitude toward martyrdom, which echoes an observation from Larry Hurtado that I posted last year:

But there were some important differences between Valentinians and other early Christians. “Valentinians in particular, and gnostics more generally, most of them wouldn’t, for example, get martyred,” McKechnie said. “They wouldn’t think it was wrong or unlawful to do the things that Christian martyrs refused to do, like take an oath in the name of Caesar or offer incense to a statue or that kind of thing.”

The reason for their lack of bias has to do with the Valentinians’ beliefs about all things physical. “They believed that not only matter and the physical world was evil, but also that matter and the physical world was unimportant,” McKechnie said. “Therefore, it was unimportant what you or what your body did in the physical world.”

“It’s mostly about the world of the mind.”

Valentinians were also likely influenced by earlier Greek philosophers such as Plato, Snyder has found, though he doesn’t think they would have interpreted the story of the resurrection of Jesus in a literal way.

“It’s certainly not the case that they would have considered that to be a physical resurrection,” he said. “Christians of this particular variety (who incorporated Plato’s philosophy) generally speaking saw the material body as something not so desirable, not so good.”

Wow, what a healthy attitude. What I do with my body is not important, just what’s in my mind. I wonder how they taught their kids not to hit their siblings. “But, Dad, I was loving Julius in my mind. It’s not important what I do with my fists.” And don’t we wish all people could be flexible enough to violate their consciences like those cool Gnostics?

The last two paragraphs of the article drive home the spin:

Snyder said that the mix of Christian and pagan traditions in the inscription is striking. He told LiveScience that he’s studied early Christian paintings on the Via Latina that mix biblical themes, such as the story of Samson or the raising of Lazarus, along with figures from classical mythology, like that of Hercules.

“Those kinds of things I find particularly interesting, because they seem to suggest a period of time in which a Christian identity is flexible,” Snyder said. “Is it just a simple either/or between pagan and Christian?” he asked. “Or is there really something rather like a spectrum? Or are you really sort of both in certain respects?”

There’s probably a way in which Christian identity is flexible in any age. Being in the world and not of it, the reality that being made more Christlike is a process, the difficulty of establishing the right relationship between Christ and culture, and the pressure to conform to the world mean that Christians in any age will have difficulty untangling themselves from the sinful aspects of their culture. So in one sense, this kind of thing is not that surprising. This was a time where Irenaeus and other Christian leaders were contending for the correct understanding of these issues, resulting in creedal statements and the movement toward a canon of Scripture.

Secondly, good grief! The martyrs might have interested to hear that this was a period of flexible Christian identity. In fact, that’s really what the persecutors wanted them to adopt, wasn’t it? To be more flexible on issues of incense-burning and honoring the Roman gods?



  1. That was fun to read. It’s not often we get to see sarcastic Scott. 🙂

    Even without the parody, Gnosticism seems like a caricature with exaggerated features. I’m not sure if that suggests that believers were misunderstood, ill-defined, or if their tenets actually just provided them with ample basis for rationalization.

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