Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Jonal entry 943 | Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Gnosticism, introduced in the two previous Jonal entries but not defined, is the oldest of all Christian heresies. In fact, it existed already when the church was being founded and probably much earlier than that. In general, "gnosticism" can be used to describe any occult knowledge. The word "occult" is from a Latin root meaning "covered, hidden," and gnosis is Greek for "knowledge." Any hidden knowledge practiced as a belief system (such as the secret teachings of Masonic lodges, practice of witchcraft or magic of either a sinister or even a benign type) can be called gnosticism in the root sense. As a Christian heresy it means some teachers claim to know things about Jesus and the "secret" teachings of the church that give them an inside insight into what it's all about.
The early church, fearing that the communion service could be misrepresented as a form of cannibalism ("eat my flesh, drink my blood," as Jesus said when instituting it, and which is said when it is practiced) in its early years dismissed those attending services who were not yet baptized before the communion part of the service began. In fact, the Latin word for "you are dismissed" at that point in the service is the root for the word "mass," which over centuries was turned into a shortcut term for the communion service which then got turned into a term for the whole liturgy (service of prayer) that is the main Catholic Sunday worship. The Orthodox were never Latin-speaking, of course, but even today at that point in the liturgy, in English, the words "the doors, the doors" are loudly said by the deacon or priest, recalling a time when the visitors were shown to the doors when the liturgy turned from the instruction segment to the communion segment. Actually expecting anyone to leave at that point probably ended in the time of Emperor Constantine, when it was no longer necessary to fear the state misunderstanding any part of the service to make a case against this previously outlawed religion.
But gnostics could play up the fact that something was hidden in the Christian services to claim there were lots of other hidden parts of the religion, like Jesus having been married to Mary Magdalene. The Book of Acts refers to a magician, "Simon the sorcerer," who wanted to be Christian but offered money to the apostles to buy what he perceived was secret information about the Holy Spirit, so he could heal people and perform other miracles as the apostles did (Acts 8:9-24). Magicians were also widely considered healers in that time, and their ways of seeming to perform miracles were handed down from one generation to the next in great secrecy. The "miracles" that Pharoah's magicians performed to counter the God-sent miracles of Moses are evidence that there were gnostics for thousands of years before the time of Jesus.
There are still a handful of books produced by the gnostics of the early Christian era, including the "Infant Gospel" mentioned earlier, and a "Gospel of Mary Magdalene" that tried to pull new Christians into gnosticism by presenting "hidden" information about the church and its founders. The movement was not very successful, despite the fact that it was the church rather than the gnostics that was being persecuted through the first three centuries after Christ's ascension. Though dating to New Testament times, the gnostic writings are obviously not knowledgeable about Jewish life, as all the apostles and the relatives of Jesus were, which probably was a fatal flaw in them that anyone with much sense could see from the beginning. Historians believe that the origin of "baptismal creeds," like the Apostles Creed, in the early church effectively ended the gnostic efforts to subvert the new religion of Jesus, because they highlighted all that was needed to be a Christian, with nothing hidden.