The Gnostics And History -- By: Edwin M. Yamauchi

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 14:1 (Winter 1971)
Article: The Gnostics And History
Author: Edwin M. Yamauchi


The Gnostics And History

Edwin M. Yamauchi, Ph.D.*

I. Introduction

Gnosticism was a dualistic heresy which proclaimed salvation through gnosis or esoteric knowledge. It was a heresy which flourished in the 2nd century A.D. Whether it was akeady in existence in the 1st century or even in the pre-Christian era is a matter of great controversy.1

Until 1945 our major sources of information on the Gnostics were: the church fathers;2 and the late Mandaic texts.3 Then in that year a spectacular cache of 13 Coptic Gnostic codices was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.4 These now give us a substantial corpus of early documents from the Gnostics themselves.

The leading Gnostic heretics, as we know them from the church fathers, were as follows: 1) Simon Magus (cf. Acts 8:4-5) of Samaria was considered to be the arch-Gnostic. The fathers report that he led about with him a Phoenician prostitute named Helen, whom he audaciously proclaimed as the Mother of All. 2) Simons disciple was another Samaritan, Menander, who flourished c. A.D. 100. 3) Menander in turn influenced Saturninus (Satemil) of Antioch, and probably 4) Basilides, who with his son Isidore taught in Alexandria in the first half of the 2nd century. 5) In Asia Cerinthus was a contemporary of the sainted Polycarp who was martyred c. A.D. 155. 6) The most outstanding Gnostic leader was Valentinus, who taught at Alexandria in the second half of the 2nd century. 7) Marcion, who taught at Rome at the same time as Valentinus in Egypt, was not a typical Gnostic. He stressed the need of faith rather than gnosis. But his attitude toward the Old Testament was typically Gnostic. 8) Mani, who flourished in the second half of the 3rd century, founded Manichaeism which was a highly syncretistic Gnostic sect.

It was in opposition to the false teachings of the Gnostics, including their perspective on history, that such church fathers as Irenaens empha-

*Associate Professor of History, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

sized the importance of history for the Christian revelation.5 It is also probable that the Gnostics were in mind when the Apostles Creed, which was compiled at the end of the 2nd century, was written so as to include the phrase crucifixus sub Pontio Pilato.

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