What is the Gnostic Redeemer Myth? (Gnosticism series)

Last week we left off our reading of Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? with the problem of historians ignoring and distorting data for the sake of protecting the exalted status of whatever they believed to be true Christianity. They let theological concerns get in the way of historical ones. The most damaging idea introduced by this generation of scholars was the gnostic redeemer myth.

What is the gnostic redeemer myth? More or less invented by philologist Richard Reitzenstein by combining elements from many different texts, the gnostic redeemer myth is summarized as follows by twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann:

A heavenly being is sent down from the world of light to the earth, which has fallen under the sway of the demonic powers, in order to liberate the sparks of light, which have their origin in the world of light, but owing to a fall in primeval times, have been compelled to inhabit human bodies. This emissary takes a human form, and carries out the works entrusted to him by the Father; as a result he is not cut off from the Father. He reveals himself in his utterances (‘I am the shepherd’, etc.) and so brings about the separation of the seeing from the blind to whom he appears as a stranger. His own harken to him, and he awakes in them the memory of their home of light, teaches them to recognise their own true nature, and teaches them also the way of return to their home, to which he, as a redeemed Redeemer, rises again. (Bultmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart).

Bultmann, like other scholars of his generation, believed the gnostic redeemer myth to be a pre-Christian myth appropriated and transformed by Christian evangelists like the writer of the Gospel of John (Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography: 319). Most of you will be familiar with the Christian version, as can be read in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed:

I believe … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Apocryphon of John

King questions whether the Apocryphon of John, pictured above, should be understood as an example of gnostic alienation, as Jonas believed, or a social critique of imperial violence. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The gnostic and Christian myths mostly differed “in what each conceived to be the root cause of the problem [of the human situation]. For Gnosticism, it was fate; for Christianity, sin” (King, 105). Often viewed as a direct competitor with the Christian redeemer myth, the gnostic myth was deemed “an alien parasite whose infestation produced the heresies of Christian Gnosticism” (109). Scholars were able to assume this in part because they assumed a master narrative in which Jesus delivered an original, “pure” doctrine to his disciples that was later corrupted (111).

In chapter 5 of What Is Gnosticism?, Karen King introduces three scholars who became increasingly critical of earlier claims about gnosticism, especially the redeemer myth: Walter Bauer challenged the notion that “heresy was a secondary development in the history of Christianity” (110). Christianity “did not look the same everywhere” (112). Whatever form Christianity took in a given city or region, that was Christianity to those communities. There was no model or protocol for how Christianity ought to be until several generations later. Hans Jonas challenged the history of religions school’s obsession with tracing the origin of gnostic ideas as though a movement could be defined merely by the sum of its parts. “Myth demands interpretation,” he believed (128). We can engage myth on a psychological and philosophical level rather than merely dissecting it. Carsten Colpe dissected faulty assumptions in past studies of gnostic texts, such as the fact that no single text tells a complete version of the myth, and that the Jewish “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel cannot easily be tied to redeemer figures in Manichaean and Mandaean traditions.

While the work of this later generation of scholars carried forward some of the prejudices of the past, such as the assumption that gnosticism was immoral and inferior, their “enduring work” has been “to emphasize the multiformity of early Christian phenomena, as well as to demonstrate irrefutably that Christianity and Judaism are integrally entwined in a wider historical and cultural matrix” (148). This laid a crucial foundation for the further upset of assumptions about gnosticism that was to come with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

More on that next week as part of the Westar Christianity Seminar discussion of this book at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego!

Join us in reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

This is the fifth post in a blog series on Karen L. King’s book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

4 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    But you still hold that there’s something called Gnosis as you write about that insight into yourself and into the divine?

    Yes, of course. And the view that the divine light is hidden within us and we can find it, we don’t have to go through a church — that I think is common to these texts. I love that about them.


  2. Gene Stecher says:

    A. To very partially follow up on Pagel’s suggestion of non-canonical commonality, 6 of 113 logia in GThomas refer to “light” but it isn’t always clear that the reference is to a “light hidden within”:

    24 – His disciples said, ‘Show us the place where you are, for we must seek it.’ He said to them…’There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. It it does not shine, it is dark.’

    33 – Jesus said, ‘What you will hear in your ear, proclaim from your rooftops…one who lights a lamp puts it on a lampstand so that all who come and go will see its light.’

    50 – Jesus said, ‘If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light… We are its children and the chosen of the living Father’…

    61 – …Jesus said to her, ‘I am the one who comes from the one who is unwavering…For this reason I say, if anyone becomes unwavering they will be filled with light, but if anyone becomes divided, they will be filled with darkness.’

    77 – Jesus said, ‘I am the light that is over all things, I am all; from me all came forth, and to me all attained’…

    83 – Jesus said, ‘Images are visible to people, but the light within them is hidden in the image. The Father’s light will be revealed, but his image is hidden by his light.’

    (Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels (Scholars Version, 279-304, 2010)

    B. Might be interesting to compare the following with other non-canonicals. Based on number of references, ‘light’ may be a secondary theme in GThomas to concepts such as:

    Eliminating death: 1, 18, 29 59, 61.1, 63, 70, 85, 111
    Seeking oneness: 4, 22, 23, 30, 48, 106, 108 and
    Eliminating duality: 11, 13, 29, 43, 47, 55, 72, 87, 105, 114
    The ‘world’s’ unworthiness: 21, 28, 42, 56, 63, 67, 80, 110

    C. Thomas is also not without its practical side:

    6 – “don’t lie,” “don’t do what you hate;”
    14 – fast, and bring sin upon yourself,” “pray, and you’ll be condemned,” “give to charity, and harm your spirits,” “when people take you in, eat what they serve,” “care for the sick among them;”
    25 – “love your friends like your own soul,”
    26 – “take the timber out of your own eye before the sliver from your friend’s eye;”
    27 – “fast from the world,” “observe the Sabbath as a Sabbath;”
    54 – identify with “the poor;”
    55 – “hate” duality, “father and mother, brothers and sisters;”
    56 – treat “the world” as “a corpse;”
    64 – Identify with the “street people;”
    69 – Identify with “those who go hungry;”
    95 – “…don’t lend money at interest…give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back;”

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    One of the earliest to use the term “Gnostic” descriptively was Irenaeus. According to my counting, it is used twenty-one times in the five books of Against Heresies (AH), not much. He used it to describe those heretical thinkers who had, in his mind, created elaborate myths, cosmologies to define Jesus Christos. In Book 1.11, he states, “ The first of them, Valentinus, who adapted the principles of the heresy called “Gnostic” to the peculiar character of his own school, taught as follows…” Then he speaks about their beliefs. The problem I see with his descriptions is that he is writing polemic material, which is often prone to hyperbole, negative stereotypes and the creation of the polemicist to reinforce the “absurdity” of a belief other than his. One can only look to his wonderful imagery in Book 1.29, stating, “… a multitude of Gnostics have sprung up, and have been manifested like mushrooms growing out of the ground.” Mushrooms are decomposers which thrive in poor soil and in rotting material.

    I would look at attempts to piece together a “Gnostic Redeemer Myth” from the divergent groups of second through the third, early fourth century as another example of stereotyping. I’ve counted twenty-two heretical sects that Irenaeus listed, with Hippolytus adding fourteen different ones and Eusebius adding another thirteen for good measure, making around fifty sects considered heretical. (Some listed and described, like the Ebionites, did not fit the label of “Gnostic.”) It is, however, not surprising that there is no complete “Gnostic Redeemer Myth” found in the “Gnostic” writings. There is no such unified myth of Jesus found in the gospels. There is merely a variety of voices that has been cobbled together to form church doctrine. There is no evidence of a “unified” heretical viewpoint, only groups of divergent voices.

    I think it is valid for scholars to compare “Gnostic” finds with the heresiologists, but that is just one aspect. One finds Irenaeus giving the time of Marcion and Valentinus as this: “For Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus, …Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus, who held the tenth place of the episcopate.” This gives the arrival of Valentinus and Cerdon between 136 & 166, with Marcion at 155 ce. How could this be if, in around 150 ce one finds Justin Martyr saying (Apology 1), “And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator.” This is a problem. The dates don’t jibe. More questions arise.

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    Confirmation bias: to seek out information that confirms one’s beliefs, and minimize that which does not, mostly driven by emotionally charged subject matter.

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