Monday, December 5, 2016

The Gnostics and their Books by James De Quincey Donehoo M.A. 1903

The Gnostics and their Books by James De Quincey Donehoo M.A. 1903

See also Over 320 Forbidden and Lost Books of the Bible on DVDROM (Apocrypha) and Lost Christianities: 170 Books on DVDrom on Early Christian Sects

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Gnosticism is certainly the most extensive and protean collection of religious beliefs and speculations, which has ever been commonly designated by a single name. An exact definition of it is, therefore, impossible; but it may be described as the sum total of numerous attempts made, during the first three Christian centuries particularly, to combine two or more existing religions into one system. Such composite religions, which were characteristic of those centuries, usually had a tendency towards allegorizing and mysticism, pretended to possess important secrets known only to the initiated, and were predominantly dualistic; but they did not necessarily have an evident Christian element. For I take the cults of Serapis and Mithras to be properly called Gnostic in the wider sense, although they were exclusively heathen in origin. Gnosticism, however, generally contained a Christian element; and the idea of redemption was the one which above all it took from this source.

The numerous Christian Gnostic systems which arose have been classified in a number of different ways; but it would go altogether beyond the possible limits of this Introduction, even to attempt to sketch these divisions. The whole subject of Gnosticism yet remains one of the most obscure in the domain of Church history, although its importance cannot be overrated. There is no exhaustive treatment of the subject in English. The bibliographical index in the appendix to King's book is the best of which I know, and will afford ample references for those who wish to carry the study of this subject further. Suffice it to say here, that the various Gnostic systems represent greater or lesser admixtures of Christian and Jewish elements with the religions of Persia, Syria, and old Egypt, with Buddhism, with the classical religions, and with, perhaps, other sources to this day unidentified. The number and complexity of the elements thus introduced under the name of Christianity, and cropping out unexpectedly in apocryphal literature, is quite startling. And the fact that this admixture has taken place is the key to the numerous coincidences between certain forms of Christianity and alien religions, which often surprise the student. Gnosticism, in its earlier course and in its later Manichaean forms, has made of Christ's religion atheism, pantheism, dualism, monotheism, idolatry, and practically every form of doctrine which the history of comparative religion discloses. Illustrations of this will be found plentifully in the notes on the succeeding text.

But the characteristic of Christian Gnosticism which has the principal interest in this connection, is its marvellous fecundity in the production of pseudepigraphic books. The many titles and fragments of these that remain, together with the numerous references in the writings of the fathers of the Church to the multitude of Gnostic books, justify us in forming the conclusion that the literary activity of these sectaries was an unique phenomenon. However repellent it may be to modern ideas of honesty, that books should be composed in the names of dead celebrities, with the intent to impose upon the public as to their authorship, most of the ancient world apparently did not share in this feeling. Not alone do the Jewish pseudepigrapha illustrate this fact, but Greek and Roman instances of it are many. The Gnostics, however, seem to have carried this bad fashion to the greatest conceivable height. We know that they forged a perfect swarm of writings professing to be the works of Christ, of His Apostles, and of all the other principal characters of the New Testament, as well as of the Old. In accordance with traces found in the writings of the Church fathers, we are enabled to infer, for instance, that the Gnostics had their so-called Gospels or other books attributed to Adam, Seth, Cain, and Melchizedek amongst others. Every Gnostic vagary seems to have felt at liberty to support itself by any figment which imagination could contrive. The modern student stands amazed at such titles as, the "Gospel of Judas Iscariot," and the "Gospel of Eve", and wonders whether any religious enthusiasts could have taken such documents seriously, or, more wonderful still, could have expected the outside world to receive them. The existence of these books is certainly a crowning illustration of the lengths to which credulity may extend.

It is evident that Gnostic literature was produced in great enough abundance and variety of forms to account directly or derivatively for all the vagaries of Christian apocrypha and legend in later ages. But there are other sources whence at least some of this latter came; and there were forces that had powerful influence in the way of adapting Gnostic figments to Catholic use. It may, indeed, in the first place be conceded, that a small amount of authentic tradition regarding the Founder of Christianity and His words is probably to be found...The sources that are most likely to contain this are the more widely-quoted Agrapha...and perhaps a few legends; such as, that regarding the Cave of the Nativity.

But I think that outside of Gnosticism proper, the most powerful influence in producing Christian apocrypha or legend was what Cowper calls the "haggadistic" one. The Jews were accustomed to write "haggadoth" or stories, confessedly fictitious, but containing a didactic as well as amusing element, concerning scriptural characters, incidents, or texts. Now it is plain that some of the apocryphal stories are only Christian haggadoth. Even though they be of Gnostic origin, it is conceivable that their first inspiration was the same motive as that which impelled the composition of a modern "Ben Hur," or "Prince of the House of David," only the desire to furnish amusement conjoined with religious instruction. Since there are certain gaps in the life of Christ about which the canonical scriptures give little information; the Infancy, the period spent in Egypt, the Childhood at Nazareth, the early Manhood, and the Forty Days after the Resurrection, Christian imagination would dwell on these, and fill them in with fictitious events. Some of these compositions may have been Gnostic with strong theological bias, others Catholic, without thought of adding to received tradition; but elements from both one and the other class may finally have been taken literally by certain Christians.

The attempt to explain mysterious texts of scripture, and to show how Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled, was especially an inspiration of these haggadoth, both Gnostic and Catholic.

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