Amazing but true: Second-century Gnosticism is a "big ticket" item today. TV feature programs, popular books and novels, and a flood of scholarly literature are discussing it. The recent unveiling of the thoroughly Gnostic Gospel of Judas caused quite a sensation, primarily because Judas is the "hero" of the story. Various groups and scholars have touted the spiritual wisdom of Gnostic movements and a few have even suggested that some Gnostic documents were unfairly prevented from entering the New Testament canon. The latest, complete, and authoritative translation of the major ancient Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 is entitled The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Even though the authors nuance the term "Scriptures," the book title makes an appeal to lay Christians that raises many questions and concerns.

The current hoopla over ancient Christian Gnosticism has led to many misleading claims. It is vitally important for Christians to understand the Gnostic movements as accurately as possible, both for the sake of grasping the realities of the second-century church and for our own theological reflection. Gnosticism appealed to people then because it presented new, often creative, responses to the major questions of existence, buttressed by claims of secret, special revelation. In today's religious climate, suppressed literature offering an alternative to established orthodox tradition has an irresistible appeal. These old texts also seem to resonate with some people's spiritual quests.

The knowing ones

"Gnosticism" is a modern term (first used in 1669) to describe a complex of movements in the ancient church. People who belonged to these sects believed they possessed secret knowledge; therefore, the second-century church father Irenaeus ...

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