Selfdifferentiation among Christian groups the Gnostics and their opponents

david brakke

When around 180 ce Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons wrote his Detection and refutation of gnosis falsely so-called, known simply by the Latin title Adversus haereses ('Against heresies'), he hoped to bring order to a confused situation. A bewildering number of'Christian' groups and teachers offered interested persons salvation, often in the form of gnosis ('knowledge' or 'acquaintance') with God. Yet the teachings and practices of these 'Christians' displayed an astonishing diversity on such issues as the nature(s) of God and the creator of this world and the content and interpretation of scripture. Irenaeus presented his readers with a powerfully simple way to make sense of these competing claims.1 There was, he argued, a single consistent Christian truth, deposited in a single church spread throughout the world in communities that could trace their heritage back to Christ and his original apostles. All other groups that claimed to be Christian, despite their seemingly infinite variety, in fact were manifestations of a single error, false gnosis, which originated in a single teacher, Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). The clarity of Irenaeus' vision is so compelling that even today, after more than a century of scholarship undermining it, we moderns must exert great pains to see the Christianities of the second century in any other way.

To be sure, few scholars would now tell the story in precisely Irenaeus' terms. Most recognise that there was no single church from which Gnostic heretics deviated. Rather, Christian communities were diverse from the start, and it is probable that in some regions forms of Christianity that would later be labelled 'heresies' pre-dated those that might be identified as 'proto-orthodox'. Likewise, scholars question the assignment of numerous teachers, sects and texts to a single category of 'Gnosticism', the modern version of Irenaeus' 'gnosis falsely so-called', which prevents understanding of the diverse teachings of such figures as Basilides, Marcion and Valentinus.2 The several so-called

2 Williams, Rethinking 'Gnosticism'.

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