The book of Ecclesiastes said it well: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9).
The New Age movement imports exotic religious ideas from the East into middle-class America. Based on the authority of a “secret tradition,” a best-selling novel paints a picture of Jesus far different than what we read in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The New Age is not so new. And neither are the ideas contained in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. They go back quite far—to the second century in fact—to a loose but widespread religious movement in the ancient world called Gnosticism.
In the second century, the Roman Empire had grown tired. Under the emperor Trajan the empire had reached its greatest territorial extent. For over a hundred years the Pax Romana had reigned over the Mediterranean world, a peace kept in place by the unrivaled power of the Roman military machine. But the empire was far from its republican roots and republican virtues. Sensuality and materialism were the order of the day. No one took the religion of Jupiter, Juno, and the Vestal Virgins very seriously. Worship of the emperor and the Roman gods was a matter of civic virtue, not true religious devotion. Affluence and corruption led to boredom and restlessness.
In such an environment, people often look to far off, exotic lands for something new and exciting. So it is no wonder that ideas from Persia—married to a mishmash of ideas drawn from Greek philosophy, magic, and other exotic sects—coalesced into a something that came to be known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was not a tightly organized religion but rather a general way of thinking that characterized a wide variety of sects following different leaders and often disagreeing sharply on several points.
The important thing here, though, is not what they disagreed about or even where they got their ideas from. What we want to understand is the essence of Gnosticism, the basic ideas that people called Gnostics held in common.
Have you ever had the feeling that you don’t quite fit with the people and society around you? That you are a fish out of water? That’s because you are different, the Gnostics would say. This material world, the Gnostics held, was not created by the Supreme Being. He dwells in the realms of light and is purely spiritual. It would never cross his mind to create the slime and muck of this material world. The physical realm is a work of darkness created by a lower spiritual being called the Demiurge.
Some held that the Demiurge was pure evil. Others said he was just incompetent. In any case, this physical world he created is not “good,” as it says in Genesis 1, but rather a terrible mistake. And the most tragic mistake is that some sparks of divinity, some truly spiritual realities, managed to get trapped in human bodies. Redemption for them is to discover their true spiritual identity, escape from the body and its disgusting passions, and return to their true heavenly home.
Such liberation could happen only through gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Some spiritual being had to descend from the realms of light and bring this knowledge. Most of humanity was “carnal” and therefore belonged to this realm of decay. The savior did not come for these pitiful folk.
But to those few who were fallen angels imprisoned in flesh, the savior brought the saving knowledge of their true origins and a complicated set of esoteric passwords so that, after death, these divine souls could navigate past the Demiurge and his minions and make their way back at long last to the realm of light.
So the Gnostic was someone “in the know,” someone who was better than others, someone who discovered meaning in an otherwise meaningless world and, sensing a need for redemption, found it through complicated myths and exotic rituals.
Some Gnostics, hearing the Christian message that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), supposed that Jesus was the heavenly messenger who would bring salvation through hidden knowledge. To these, of course, the stories of Jesus’ birth and death could not be right, because no heavenly being would defile himself with matter. Matter and spirit were utterly opposed. So Jesus just appeared to be human, they reasoned. And the story about Golgotha either was left out entirely or was said to be a case of mistaken identity. The bearer of heavenly revelation couldn’t have a body and therefore couldn’t have died. Salvation was accomplished not through sacrifice but through knowledge.
So how did these folks deal with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Some tossed out all of them save one, regarding the others as forgeries. For Marcion (who was not a thorough Gnostic but held many of their ideas), Luke minus the infancy narratives was the only gospel. Others liked the view of Jesus as the wandering guru who uttered profound discourses full of riddles—John seemed to fit the bill. Others championed gospels by other names, such as the Gospel of Thomas.
But all the so-called Christian Gnostics had one thing in common: Theirs was a Christianity without the cross. The Crucifixion either was explained away or, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, was left out of the story. If salvation came through secret knowledge, why did they need a story at all? All that was needed was a collection of parables and sayings. And that’s exactly what we find in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
So what kind of lifestyle should a good Gnostic lead? Here is where the various sects diverged a bit. They all agreed that the body was of no consequence. Some said that therefore we must deny it as much as possible, even starve it. Their ideal was an ascetic lifestyle of severe fasting from food and sex.
Others drew the opposite conclusion. Because the body is just a hunk of meat with no relationship to the spiritual life, what we do with the body simply does not matter. That means there is no law—anything goes. So some Gnostic sects celebrated this license through ritual orgies. It would appear that the Nicolatians, condemned in the book of Revelation, were an early form of such a sect (cf. Rev. 2:6, 15).
But how could the Gnostics claim that their vision of Jesus was the true one? Simple: They explained that Jesus realized that most couldn’t take his true teaching, so he confided it to a few chosen confidants who passed on this secret tradition to those worthy of it, from generation to generation.
As strange as this whole religious system may seem to us today, it swept the ancient world and posed a great threat to the Church. A bishop from Lyons (in modern-day France) named Irenaeus decided that someone had to take them on. He wrote a lengthy work called Against the Knowledge Falsely So-Called (a.k.a. Against Heresies), which not only exposed the ridiculous and illogical doctrine of the Gnostics but also offered a full exposition of the truth of the gospel.
First of all, Irenaeus had to deal with the issue of legitimacy. How are we supposed to know what Jesus truly taught and who he really was? Who is to say that the Gnostic Jesus is not the original one?
To the Gnostic argument of a secret tradition, Irenaeus did not respond with a sola scriptura argument. He didn’t say “forget tradition—only Scripture is infallible.” That wouldn’t have worked, because the question of which gospels were the authentic ones was hotly contested. Rather, Irenaeus just used common sense. If Jesus had secret, deeper knowledge to pass down, wouldn’t he have entrusted it to his twelve personally selected confidants called apostles? And toward the end of their lives, wouldn’t the apostles have entrusted the secrets to their successors, and so on? Yet, protests Irenaeus around A.D. 185, the Catholic bishops of apostolic cities such as Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome can trace back their lineage in a continual unbroken line to the apostles. They know nothing of the silly doctrines of the Gnostics, proving that these doctrines did not come from Jesus and his followers. As an example of how clearly each bishop knew his pedigree, Irenaeus gives the example of the Church in Rome and traces the pope of his day all the way back to Peter, naming every pope in between.
This doctrine of apostolic succession makes clear which writings were authentic—namely, those continuously read in the churches founded by the apostles. And it makes clear where the authentic Christian tradition is to be found: It is the tradition guarded by those churches, taught by the apostles’ successors.
Having exposed Gnostic nonsense and established the legitimacy of the Catholic Tradition, Irenaeus went on to preach that the material world is a blessing, not a curse. He preached a Savior who becomes one of us, dies for us, and continues to nourish us through sacraments—material realities that become transmitters of holiness, vehicles for God’s saving power.
So what happened to Gnosticism after Irenaeus’s blistering attack? Not long after his book was written, Gnosticism faded out of the picture. When darkness is exposed, it vanishes, swallowed up by the light. Though this esoteric religion initially appealed to a generation thirsty for spiritual life, it failed to satisfy.
So the Gnostic gospels were lost, buried under the sands of time. The only reason that we have the Gospel of Thomas today is that the sand that entombed it was the arid sand of Egypt, which is too dry for the bacteria that cause decay. In 1946 a famous archeological dig unearthed a copy of this document that confirms Irenaeus’s description of ancient Gnosticism.
Old Wine, New Wineskin
Heresies are much like the common cold. They keep coming back around but in a slightly changed form. The change is just enough to sneak by the defense of our immune system and pose a new threat to our spiritual health.
Neither the New Age movement nor The Da Vinci Code buys into ancient Gnosticism lock, stock, and barrel. But they both rely on key Gnostic ideas that have as much appeal now as they did in the second century. Who doesn’t feel at some point the emptiness and ennui of a life without a spiritual dimension, a life devoid of mystery? Our contemporary Western society, like second-century Roman society, has lost its soul. We suffer from the desperation that comes from a lack of meaning.
The New Age has appeal because it restores a sense of mystery. It imitates the syncretism of the Gnostics, blending together exotic ideas from the East with traditions native to the West, producing a hodgepodge that is intriguing—even if it is incoherent. The Da Vinci Code resurrects the claim that there exists a secret tradition that is earlier and more authentic than the New Testament. It offers people a way to feel connected to Jesus even while they scorn the leaders and laws of the Church founded by him.
But its appeal is also its undoing. Both the New Age movement and The Da Vinci Code seek spirituality without sacrifice, without authority, without the cross. They follow ancient Gnosticism in preserving a veneer of Christianity while emptying it of its heart and soul.
But the fate of Gnosticism ought to serve as a warning here: A Christianity with no cross is a Christianity with no power. And a religion with no power doesn’t last very long. The Da Vinci Code may have sold a few million copies in the first years of the third millennium, but here is my guess: In the fourth millennium, it will take an archeologist digging in the arid sands of Egypt to find a copy.