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Mystic Beliefs and Heresies

of the Early Church


Some of the early Jewish mystics believed that it was possible, in a trance-like state, to ascend to heaven, experience God and his angels, and then return to earth.  (This is possibly what is alluded to in Colossians 2:18 and elsewhere.)


Some mystics claimed to be superior, saying that God had given them ‘special revelations’ and ‘special knowledge’ unknown to everyone else.  This belief later became known as one of the ‘Gnostic’ religions.  At various times in Paul’s letters he opposes the teachings of these mystics (eg Colossians 1:15-20; 1:26-27; 2:2-4), and tells his readers that they have no need to feel inferior by this kind of arrogant teaching.



The word ‘Gnosticism’ comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis’, meaning ‘knowledge’.  Gnostics were people who were so-called ‘in the know’.  Gnosticism was one of the most popular and dangerous heresies during Paul’s time, and much of his writing was concerned with correcting this false teaching as it began to infiltrate the Church. 


The basic teaching of Gnosticism was that everything material was entirely evil, and that everything spiritual was entirely good.  From this basic assumption, suppositions were that:


  • Because the human body was entirely matter, it was entirely evil.
  • God was entirely spirit, and was therefore entirely good.
  • Jesus could not be both God (good spirit) and man (evil matter).
  • Salvation could only be achieved by escaping the evil body.
  • This escape could only be achieved by gaining ‘special and exclusive knowledge’.
  • This ‘knowledge’ was only available from ‘special people’ (the Gnostics) who, for a ‘special fee’, and lengthy times of ‘special instruction’ would disclose a mode of ‘special meditation’ that would attain this ‘knowledge’.


Other false teachings used this basic idea, but took slightly different slants, ie:  Some believed that since the body was evil it was to be treated austerely and harshly in an attempt to punish, and if possible, even to rid it of evil.  (This is what may be alluded to in Colossians 2:23.)


Conversely, some used the Gnostic idea to promote licentiousness.  If the body is already evil, then what happens to it while it is alive is of no consequence, therefore live life and treat the body in any way that pleases.


The word ‘Gnosticism’ was not actually used in Paul’s time; it was a later description given to all the mystery religions that evolved from this basic belief.  But Paul had to deal repeatedly with an early form of this heresy.


In later years, the same basic heresy took slightly different forms, and later still became intricately and highly developed; some combining mystic ideas with Judaism, Christianity and other religions.  A relatively recent form of Gnosticism can be found in the New Age ideology, which tries to blend Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and popular psychology. 


Writings from some of the early forms of Gnosticism include:

     Gospel of Thomas;

     Gnostic Apocrypha of John;

     Gospel of Philip;

     Gospel of Truth;

     Gospel to the Hebrews;

     Gospel of the Egyptians;

     Gospel of the Twelve;

     Gospel of Peter;

     Gospel of Mary Magdalene;

     and numerous writings of the Oxyrhynchus Papyruses.


Many of these were discovered in Egypt, and few contain any reliable historical detail.  Some contain distorted portions of the New Testament gospels, and some contain spurious material that enhanced the view of the particular group using them.  But the ‘facts’ portrayed in these manuscripts do not agree with each other.


Another of these Gnostic writings is the ‘Gospel of Judas’, a leather bound codex papyrus manuscript, dated at around AD 300.  It was discovered in a cave near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s, and was bought by a Zurich antiquities dealer in 2000.  It took five years to piece together, restore, conserve, transcribe and translate it, and the National Geographic Society has purchased one of the translations.  In a typical style that reflects some of the Gnostic ideas, the Gospel of Judas claims that Jesus asked Judas to betray him in order that Jesus could be killed and escape from the evil of his body.


Also on the subject of Jesus’ death, another of the Gnostics, Basilides of Alexandria (AD 130) wrote, ‘Simon of Cyrene was transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, and was crucified through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon and, standing by, laughed at them’.  


Two other forms of this heresy that dogged the early church were Docetism and Cerenthianism.



The word comes from the Greek word ‘dokeo’ which means ‘to seem’.  This belief caused a denial of Christ’s true humanity.  The belief held that Christ was just spirit, and only seemed to have a body, therefore his excruciating death on the cross was of no real consequence.



This name came from the founder of the belief, Cerinthius.  This belief denied the true deity of Christ.  The belief held that Jesus’ divine spirit entered him at his baptism, and left him before he died.  Therefore Jesus was born a man, and died a man.  John, in his gospel and in his letters, goes to great lengths to explain that Jesus was the true Christ (human and divine) on both these occasions.


Paul’s Defence of Jesus and the True Gospel

Words such as: ‘mysteries’, ‘secret’, ‘revelation’, ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’ etc were used abundantly amid the vocabulary of these mystics.  Consequently Paul deliberately used the same sort of terminology when countering their false teachings, in order to effectively show his readers that God’s ‘mysteries’ (glimpsed by the Old Testament prophets) have now been ‘revealed’ in Jesus Christ.  Throughout Paul’s letters, he devoted much time to explaining both the full humanity and full deity of Jesus, thus emphasising the fact that Jesus was in fact the true Messiah, and as such he is the only way to eternal salvation (summarised in Romans 1:2-4).




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