As I said in my previous post, there is much evidence that early Christianity was actually a plurality rather then the monolith that tradition wants us to believe it was. A very good example of this pluralism is the history of the development of the Canon of the New Testament. The final canon was not officially designated until the Synod of Rome in 382 CE. That means that for more then three centuries various Christian communities accepted non-canonical gospels and letters as canonical. What these various Gospels and letters actually said was not really known to modern Christians until late in the 20th century. The most important of these gospels and letters were part of the discovery at Nag Hammadi in lower Egypt near a monastery dedicated to Saint Pachomius. The papyri from Nag Hammadi were not made public until the 1980s although they were discovered shortly after World War 2. Elaine Pagels in the Gnostic Gospels details the history of the scholarly in-fighting that delayed their publication.
The most important Gospels from Nag Hammadi are The Gospel of Phillip, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Truth and The Gospel of Mary Magdallene. These Gospels present a somewhat different picture of what Jesus taught then that presented in the Synoptics. These four non-canonical Gospels are the core of what has become known as The Gnostic Gospels. For the purpose of our discussion, we will treat them as they were treated in the earliest Centuries of Christianity: of equal value to the Synoptics. As I said in my previous post, most of the earliest heresies, which are the progenitors of all the later heresies, fall under the rubric of Gnosticism. So, what is Gnosticism really?Gnosticism, according to the orthodox tradition, is presented as a heresy or group of heresies which to claims to have special knowledge about the teachings of Jesus. This special knowledge is often characterized by orthodoxy as being secret and not to be shared by everyone, especially the uninitiated. In reality, Gnosis is NOT a special form of knowledge, but rather a unique way of gaining knowledge.
I am not going to offer an entire course in Epistemology, the Philosophy of Knowing, on this blog. But I will offer a short summary of how the early Greek philosophers, who provided the philosophical underpinnings for the western world view, understood how humans gain knowledge. For them, all knowledge was divided into two basic categories. The first is Episteme, which is basically theoretical knowledge, what we call scientific knowledge. The other is Gnosis, which is intuitive or inspirational knowledge, what we call mystical. Gnosis is gained through meditation and self-reflection. Episteme is gained through empirical evidence, including research and education.
Most, if not all, of the great Gnostic theologians were first and foremost great mystics. Unlike the orthodox theologians, the Gnostics stressed personal religious experience, I.E. mystical knowledge, as the basis of religious authority rather then the authority of tradition, I.E. theoretical knowledge. Mystical knowledge is the basis for Charismatic Authority, which means the basis of Gnostic claims of authority are grounded in the person, not the office, which is the basis of orthodox.