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The later New Testament literature, and at least one of the Apostolic Fathers, strongly combat conceptions of Christ which it is evident must have been widely prevalent, especially in Asia Minor, in the opening years of the second century. These views denied His real humanity and His actual death. He had not come "in the flesh," but in ghost-like, Docetic appearance. These opinions have generally been regarded as the beginnings of Gnosticism. It is true that this Docetic conception of Christ was a feature of much Gnostic teaching. It is more probable, however, that these early teachings were more largely based on an attempt to explain a seeming contradiction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of experience, than on purely Gnostic speculations. That earthly life of humiliation was so contrasted with His pre-existent and post-existent glory, that the simplest solution of the Christological problem may well have seemed to some the denial of the reality of His earthly life altogether. Christ did, indeed, appear. He taught His disciples; but all the time as a heavenly being, not one of flesh and blood.
Gnosticism, properly speaking, was something much more far-reaching. The height of its influence was from about 135 to 160, though it continued a force long after the latter date. It threatened to overwhelm the historic Christian faith, and by so doing brought upon the Christian Church its gravest crisis since the Pauline battle for freedom from law. Its spread and consequent peril were made possible by the relatively weakly organized, and doctrinally undefined state of the church at its beginning. The church overcame the danger; but at the cost of the development of a rigidity of organization, creed, and government which rendered the condition of the church at the close of the second century a striking contrast to that of its beginning.
Strongly syncretistic already, Gnosticism found much in Christianity which it could use. In particular, the figure of Christ was especially adapted to give a definite and concrete centre to its theory of a higher saving knowledge. He was the revealer of the hitherto unknown high and all-perfect God to men. By that illumination all "spiritual" men, who were capable of receiving it, would be led back to the realm of the good God. Since the material world is evil, Christ could not have had a real incarnation, and the Gnostics explained His appearance either as Docetic and ghostly or as a temporary indwelling of the man Jesus or as an apparent birth from a virgin mother without partaking of material nature. The God of the Old Testament, as the creator of this visible world, cannot be the high God whom Christ revealed, but the inferior demiurge. That all Christians did not possess the saving "knowledge," the Gnostics explained by holding it to be a secret teaching imparted by the Apostles to their more intimate disciples, a speaking "wisdom among the perfect." It is true that while Paul was in no sense a Gnostic, there were many things in Paul's teachings of which Gnostics availed themselves. His sharp contrast between flesh and spirit; his conception of Christ as victor over those "principalities and powers" which are the "world rulers of this darkness," and his thought of Christ as the Man from Heaven, were all ideas which the Gnostics could employ. Paul was always to them the chief Apostle.
Gnosticism was divided into many sects and presented a great variety of forms. In all of them the high, good God is the head of the spiritual world of light, often called the "pleroma." From that world fragments have become imprisoned in this visible world of darkness and evil. In later Gnosticism this fallen element from the pleroma is represented as the lowest of a series of aeons, or spiritual beings, emanating from the high God. To rescue this fallen portion, the seeds of light in the visible evil world, Christ came, bringing the true "knowledge." By His teaching those capable of receiving it are restored to the pleroma. They are at best few. Most Gnostics divided mankind into "spiritual," capable of salvation, and "material" who could not receive the message. Later Gnosticism, especially the school of Valentinus, taught a threefold division, "spiritual," who alone could attain "knowledge"; "psychical," capable of faith, and of a certain degree of salvation; and "material," who were hopeless.
Christian tradition represented the founder of Christian Gnosticism to be Simon Magus, but of his real relations to it little is known. More clearly defined leaders are Satornilus of Antioch, who labored before 150; Basilides, who taught in Alexandria about 130; and, above all, Valentinus, who was active in Rome from about 135 to 165, and who must be regarded as one of the most gifted thinkers of the age.
Gnosticism was an immense peril for the church. It cut out the historic foundations of Christianity. Its God is not the God of the Old Testament, which is the work of an inferior or even evil being. Its Christ had no real incarnation, death, or resurrection. Its salvation is for the few capable of spiritual enlightenment. The peril was the greater because Gnosticism was represented by some of the keenest minds in the church of the second century. The age was syncretistic, and in some respects Gnosticism was but the fullest accomplishment of that amalgamation of Hellenic and Oriental philosophical speculation with primitive Christian beliefs which was in greater or less degree in process in all Christian thinking.