The attempt to formulate a dogma was begun by Justin and continued in earnest by Irenaeus, circa 180 C.E., in Against Heresies. With this work Irenaeus set a precedent in discussing what ordinary Christians ought to believe. To buttress his discussion he put forth an extraordinary claim, one which became the cornerstone of orthodox authority: Irenaeus said his theology represented an unbroken tradition handed down from bishop to bishop back to Peter and Paul. He maintained that the only authority for doctrine was to be found in the tradition of Rome and its bishops, for "outside the church, there is no salvation."

     But there were two problems with this claim.  First, there was no unbroken line of "bishops," as the function and office of bishop was a later creation; and second, the Christianity of Rome in Irenaeus's time was incredibly diverse, as it was throughout the Roman Empire. The "church at large" did not mean what it does today. When the attack on sectarian Christians began, circa 160-180 C.E., there was simply no uniform theology or interpretation of Christianity. No normative dogma.

     Few scholars today accept Irenaeus’s assertion, nor is there much evidence to support it. Discussing the diversity of early Christianity, Elaine Pagels writes of her search to discover the original "simplicity" of Irenaeus:

"But during the first and second centuries, Christians scattered throughout the world, from Rome to Asia, Africa, Egypt and Gaul, read and revered quite different traditions, and various groups of Christians perceived Jesus and his message very differently.... What I did not find in the process of this research was what I had started out to find—a "golden age" of purer and simpler early Christianity. What I discovered instead is that the "real Christianity"—so far as historical investigation can disclose it—was not monolithic, or the province of one party or another, but included a variety of voices, and an extraordinary range of viewpoints.... From a strictly historical point of view, then, there is no single "real Christianity."[17]

     Yet this "golden age of purer and simpler Christianity," with its apostolic succession, is precisely what Irenaeus claimed was the fountainhead of orthodoxy. Ironically, the apostolic succession was also claimed by the Gnostics[18], who traced no fewer than four of their preeminent teachers’[19] interpretations of Christianity back to the biblical disciples Peter, Mark, Paul, and Matthew. Basilides, the Gnostic who taught in Rome at least fifty years before Irenaean theology was codified, claimed to have been instructed by both Glaucias, a student of the apostle Peter, and Matthias, who purportedly received secret teachings directly from Jesus after his resurrection. Moreover, Gnostic sects known as the Naassenes and Ophites traced their apostolic lineage back through a woman named Mariamne, to Jesus’s brother, James, the leader of the first Nazarean community in Jersusalem and a forerunner of Paul.

      Who was really the doctrinal heir to Jesus? In a review of the first Christian traditions, the following can be singled out as representing the earliest forms of Christianity: 1) Pauline, 2) Nazarean /Ebionite/Petrine, 3) Samaritan (e.g., Simon, Menander, Satornilos), 4) Johannine, 5) Ophite/Naassene, 6) Cerinthian, 7) Carpocratian, 8) Clementine (Rome), 9) Ignatian (Antioch), 10) Basilidean, 11) Marcionite, 12) Valentinian, 13) Justinian, and 14) Irenaean.

     The first eight existed during the first century. The remaining six comprised the most important arising in the second century. Orthodox, dogmatic theology did not begin to take root until Irenaeus, circa 180 C.E. The canon of "accepted" books began to be formulated as a reaction to Marcion, circa 144–150, but did not achieve any degree of finality until 200, or even a decade or two later.

     Like Pagels, Paul Johnson, in his A History of Christianity, observes that there simply is no warrant for the notion that one variety of Christianity is more historically "true" than another. "Before the last half of the third century," he writes, "it is inaccurate to speak of a dominant strain of Christianity.... So far as we can judge, by the end of the first century, and virtually throughout the second, the majority of Christians believed in varieties of Christian-gnosticism." (Emphasis added). Thus, it was not some unified Roman orthodoxy that Irenaeus claimed was the original Christianity. It was a particular orthodoxy among many traditions, one "authenticated" entirely by his own historical inventions.



     Because the evidence is before us, we must, if we are honest, see that orthodoxy’s stranger-brother, Gnosticism—for centuries reviled, disparaged, at best relegated to the fringes of Christianity—is no bastard relation. He is not an illegitimate grasper after Jesus’s legacy of salvation. Today’s fundamentalists would do well to ask themselves: Who can judge with surety the absolute meaning of Christ’s teachings, the absolute propriety of doctrines, if the very first among his followers could see their visions of his light transformed by dogma into heresies?

      It’s just possible that the Gnostic holds in his faith a misplaced key or two to what it means to be a Christian. If so, then perhaps it’s time he was invited to the table and recognized for sharing that spark of divinity which Jesus awakens in all who are committed to following him.

[17]  Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent, p. 152

[18] The Gnostic sects claimed their teachings were handed down by the apostles. The extensive collection of "other gospels" found at Nag Hammadi and bearing the names of various apostles (which, if not written by these apostles may have been transmitted through them, or may represent authentic teaching derived from circles surrounding them) seems to bear this out. They include: The Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Phillip, The Book of Thomas the Contender, The Apocalypse of Paul, The First Apocalypse of James, The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, Apocalypse of Peter, Letter of Peter to Phillip, The Gospel of Mary, The Acts of Peter.

     Ironically, all these texts were produced by authentic Christians (if not by the apostles themselves) who affirmed the apostolic origin of these decidedly Gnostic doctrines. In The Gnostic Dialogue, Pheme Perkins writes that at least half of the dialogue-type texts discovered at Nag Hammadi "appeal to a common apostolic tradition. Therefore, one must conclude that the Gnostic position on apostolic tradition is much closer to the general second-century view than is sometimes admitted." (Pheme Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and the Crisis of Gnosticism, p.196-7)

[19] Basilides, Carpocrates, Valentinus, and Cerinthus.


For more information about the disciple Thomas:

John D. Turner's translation of The Book of Thomas the Contender

Andrew Bernhard's Gospel of Thomas webpage, with various translations from Coptic and Greek

Stevan Davies' Gospel of Thomas homepage, which includes a book list and links to other texts and discussion sites.