Gnosticism as Explained by Bishop N. T. Wright

by Lewis Loflin

Book title Judas and the Gospel of Jesus by N. T. Wright pp 30-24.

The author is the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and was named by Christianity Today is one of the top five theologians in the world. He has taught New Testament studies for 20 years at Cambridge, Oxford, and McGill universities.

The writer is very critical of the atmosphere of conspiracy surrounding what critics of Christianity consider the Church effort to suppress certain Gospels. He is particularly sensitive like all Christian theologians on the subject of Gnosticism - and Judas.

But the subject of Judas is a little more complicated than this evil fiend who at the behest of Satan betrays Jesus. Jesus knew what was coming according to Christianity - Jesus was to be the sacrificial lamb all planned out by God the Father from the beginning of time.

Jesus clearly knew what was coming and welcomed it - Jesus believed He was the actual Jewish (not Gnostic or Christian) Messiah and his final words as he died on the cross was one of disbelief and resignation. He clearly never expected the fate the befell Him.

Also troubling in relation to Judas was his demise. In one case in grief he went and hanged himself and in another different story fell into a hole and his insides burst. But it's clear Jesus knew all of this was coming and in my view when I first read this story Jesus had set this up - Judas serving as his tool - believing he was to fulfill some prophecy that under Judaism he was supposed to free Israel from Roman rule and usher in a new kingdom of God on earth. That obviously didn't happen and the church needed a scapegoat to explain why.

It needs to be clearly understood that the Messiah of Judaism has absolutely no relationship to the cosmic redeemer deity that Paul created in his Gospels. The Jewish Messiah was to be the figure of Zechariah 9:10 that in no manner died on a cross.

Bishop Wright like many other Christian theologians and in reality the church Fathers themselves fight to sever themselves from what is in (in particular in Galatians where he rejected the God of Israel) reality a sister belief system of Gnosticism - or those facets of Christianity that endangered their power and control over their sheep.

But are the official Gnostics the only ones that deny the actual God made the material world? The Old Testament clearly said God made the material world as well as gave Moses the Law. The official position doesn't match what the Bible has to say. According to Paul,

Gal 3:19-20, Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one...

Angels or lesser beings had control of the world and gave the Law which is a Gnostic position. If salvation can come through one's own efforts then who needs the church, its bishops, its liturgies, and money collectors? That was the real danger of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is better understood as a collection of heresies and not so much a single religion.

It seems more of a personal mystical belief system drawing from both Eastern mysticism and Greek philosophy. In my readings of the New Testament I see what I consider many potential Gnostic themes. Other publications such as the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1903 also states that the primary authors of the New Testament, in particular the Apostle Paul, were heavily influenced by the mystery religions and Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was salvation by divine spiritual knowledge and Bishop Wright is going to have problems with these many sayings from Paul that are clearly Gnostic:

See 1 Corinthians 12:8, 1 Corinthians 13:2, 1 Corinthians 15:34, 2 Corinthians 4:6, 2 Corinthians 6:6, 2 Corinthians 8:7, 2 Corinthians 10:5, Ephesians 1:17, Ephesians 3:4, Ephesians 3:19, Ephesians 4:13, Philippians 1:9, Philippians 3:8, Colossians 1:9, Colossians 1:10, Colossians 2:3, Colossians 3:10, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Timothy 3:7, Hebrews 10:26, 2 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:3, 2 Peter 1:8, 2 Peter 2:20, 2 Peter 3:18.

The Apostle Paul was a product of Hellenistic not Jewish culture. All of his writings were in Greek and in my comparison of his quotes of the Old Testament they were either gravely in error from ignorance or simply deception on his part. But that is another subject.

Bishop Wright goes on with the usual Christian position that Gnosticism was a product of the second century. But if that is true of Gnosticism the same is true of Christianity which was never formalized as such until the fourth century.

Bishop Wright on page 30 notes that in fact there were many first century Judaisms. He notes that some people made the same claims of Christianity. He explains the features of Gnosticism are as follows with four main characteristics:

(1) "The present world of space, time and matter is a bad place, not only a place where wickedness flourishes unchecked but a place which, had it not been for an evil God going ahead in creating it, would not have existed at all."

Unlike Christianity which depicts human beings as evil and fallen Gnosticism posits that an incompetent, arrogant and foolish lower god created the material world - that the material realm is a mistake.

(2) "The world as we know it was made by bad stupid and perhaps capricious God. There is another divine being, a pure, wise and true divinity who is quite different from this creator God. Sometimes this alternate high God is called the Father which is confusing for Christians who associate that title with the God who made the world..."

(3) "The main aim of any right-thinking human being, therefore will be to escape the wicked world and the outward human existence altogether. Salvation means exactly this: attaining deliverance from the material cosmos and all that it means. Only so can one make one's way to the pure higher spiritual existence where freed from the trammels of space, time, and matter one will be able to enjoy the bliss unavailable to those who cling to the physical world and who mistakenly worship is creator."

Bishop Wright goes on to explain that gnosis or what could be called spiritual knowledge has no relation to what is taught in textbooks or school: (4) "Rather this special gnosis is arrived at through attaining knowledge about the true God, about the true origin of the wicked world, and not least about one's own true identity. And this knowledge can only come if someone reveals it."


"What is needed in other words is a revealer who will come from the realms beyond, from the pure upper spiritual world, to reveal to the chosen few that they have within themselves the spark of light, the divine identity hidden deep within their shabby gross outward material form."

To summarize the Christian position from Bishop Wright:

"A wicked world; a wicked God who made it; salvation consisting of rescue from it; and rescue coming through the imparting of secret knowledge, especially knowledge that one has the divine spark within one's own self these are the for distinguishing marks of Gnosticism as we find it, not only in the polemic of Irenaeus and other early Christian teachers, but in the texts themselves: the codices from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere, and now the Gospel of Judas."