Last week well-respected and bestselling New Testament scholar and retired Anglican Bishop N.T Wright wrote a letter to The Times of London weighing in on what he calls “confusion about gender identity.” According to Wright, a professor at Prince William’s alma mater St. Andrews, “confusion about gender identity is a modern and now internet-fueled form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism.”
For nearly 1,800 years, orthodox Christians have described Gnosticism as an archetypical heresy that threatened the survival and integrity of Christianity itself. So, what Wright is really saying here is not just that transgender people and their allies are a particular kind of heretic, but they are the oldest and most dangerous kind. It’s a form of theological slander and in Christian circles it has frequently functioned as a conversation-ending accusation. The problem with Wright’s statement is that he is dressing up theological polemic as history and slandering an ancient group in order to denounce a modern one. And his analysis matters because he is an academic whose work is greatly favored by evangelical Christians on both sides of the Atlantic.
In his letter, Wright states that Gnostics view themselves as the “one who ‘knows’ [and] has discovered the secret of ‘who I really am’ behind the deceptive outward appearance.” He adds that Gnosticism “involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world.”
The view of the Gnostics that Wright repeats here comes to us from the Christian writers who opposed them. Foremost among these heresiologists was Irenaeus of Lyons, a Bishop in Lyons, France, during the second century. In his Against the Heresies, Irenaeus offers a summary of the Gnostic myth—the story that Gnostics told about how the cosmos came into being. The myth has some elements in common with mainstream Christianity and others with Greek philosophy. Its most distinctive feature, however, is the idea that the material world we live in now is the creation of an inferior deity (the God of the Hebrew Bible known to and worshipped by most Christians as God the Father). That deity wants to trap human beings in this world and our goal, as enlightened Gnostics, is to try to return to true supreme deity from whom our authentic souls (and everything else including the bad deity) originated in the first place. It might sound a little out there, but in character it was very similar to the kinds of myths told by Greek philosophers like Plato in the Timaeus.
Though he is adamant about the threat that the Gnostics pose to true Christianity Irenaeus was relatively tame when it came to the ad hominem attacks. The same cannot be said of Epiphanius of Salamis, a late fourth century monk, who went into great detail about the supposed sexual practices of the Gnostics. According to Epiphanius, Gnostic celebration of the Eucharist was actually an orgy in which men would instruct their wives to have sex with other men. At the moment of climax, men would ejaculate into the hands of their partner. Then the group would consume the semen claiming that it was “the body of Christ.” If the woman was menstruating at the time they were happy to consume that too as the “blood of Christ.” If their efforts to prevent conception failed, the Gnostics would subsequently abort the infant, grind it up with honey, pepper, and spices and use that to celebrate their Passover.
To my knowledge, there is not a single scholar alive who thinks that the Gnostics actually did any of this. Cannibalism and sexual impropriety are typical features of ancient slander. For the record, mainstream Christians were accused of exactly the same kinds of things.
If they weren’t sexually deviant cannibalistic heretics, who were the Gnostics? For centuries this was a difficult question to answer, largely because academics only possessed the vitriolic writings of the heresy hunters. Then, in 1945, a collection of fifty-two books surfaced on the Egyptian antiquities market. The man selling them claimed to have found them while digging for fertilizer in near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The books were written in Coptic, the latest form of ancient Egyptian, and were soon discovered to contain some of the texts described in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies and others that had previously been unknown. The Nag Hammadi Library, as the collection quickly came to be known, offered us the first evidence of what the Gnostics actually believed.
What emerged from these writings is that the traditional understanding of “Gnosticism” was wildly off base. Gnostics were a theologically diverse group and there is a healthy scholarly debate about what, if anything, these books and those who wrote them have in common. David Brakke, the Joe R. Engle Chair in the history of Christianity at the Ohio State University and author of The Gnostics, told The Daily Beast that “In general, the term refers to a variety of religious groups and writings of the second through fifth centuries that developed complex myths to explain God, the cosmos in which we live, and the origin and destiny of humanity; that attributed the creation of this cosmos to a god inferior to the ultimate divine principle; and that emphasized gnosis (“knowledge”) as a path to salvation.”
Beyond this there are numerous ways in which Gnostics differed from one another both in how they used Platonic philosophy to read the creation accounts of Genesis, and also in their integration into what would later become mainstream Christianity. Valentinus, a leading figure in early Christianity and, according to his opponents, the founding figure of what is sometimes called Valentinian Gnosticism, was almost elected the Bishop of Rome (or, as Catholics might call it, the Pope). Reading his writings, it’s not at all clear that Valentinus believed in the Gnostic myth. A lot of the time he sounds like the author of the Gospel of John.
The interest in gnosis (direct knowledge of something) that Wright associates with the Gnostics and implicitly condemns as a kind of theological hubris, was not limited only to the Gnostics. There were a number of ancient Christians who discussed the ways in which the true Christian could acquire gnosis and become a Gnostic. The profoundly influential third century writers Clement of Alexandria and his student Origen regularly appeal to the idea gnosis as a goal for elite Christians. Origen would later be condemned as a heretic, but the Roman Catholic Church has rehabilitated him because of the importance of his methods in interpreting scripture. Pope Benedict XVI described him as a “maestro” and in other contexts described wanting to recapture what he called “authentic gnosis.” If Wright wants to criticize the arrogance of certain kinds of religious claims he can do so, but he should not present this tendency as an exclusive feature of Gnosticism.
While Brakke believes that there were ancient Christians who did self-identify as Gnostics, there are others who argue that the Gnostics never really existed at all. If you were at a conference on Gnosticism at least half the scholars there would use scare quotes whenever they said the word Gnostic. I’d be doing it myself now but my editor would kill me. At a minimum, many of the people who were labeled Gnostic by later writers did not conform to the view (expressed by Wright) that the material world was bad or that the physical body was to be despised. In his book, Rethinking Gnosticism Michael Williams argues that the majority of so-called Gnostics simply differed from the orthodox in the way that they read scripture, but they were otherwise well-integrated Christians.
Where Wright really gets into trouble, however, is in equating what he sees as unnatural views of sex and gender with the Gnostics. One might easily assume that Gnostic hatred of the physical body leads to the conclusion that gender is unimportant, but as Kalamazoo professor Taylor Petrey has recently argued, at least one Gnostic treatise explicitly argues for the presence of gender in the resurrection. Brakke agreed, stating that even in the Gnostic myth “spiritual divine beings have gendered identities.” Brakke added that, like other Christians, Gnostics “held all sorts of ideas about gender, where it comes from, whether it belongs to our truest self… None of these ancient ideas correspond well to our modern understandings of gender and sexuality.”
Perspectives on gender, sexuality, and biological sex have shifted a great deal over the past two thousand years. Ancient taxonomies of sex and gender actually defy our modern categories (a fact that should prompt us to think about whether our categories are as natural as we think they are). Gnostics aren’t the ancient equivalent of our modern day liberals, but orthodox writers aren’t the ancient conservatives, either. The diversity of early Christian views means that if you want to make an orthodox Christian case for the legitimacy and validity of transgender persons using scripture and tradition, you can certainly do it.
What is clear is that in the eighteen hundred years since Irenaeus, the Gnostics came to be treated and referenced as the original Christian heresy. When new heresies were added to the catalog of undesirable ideas they were compared to those original deviants. In the past few decades the term has experienced something of a renaissance in conservative religious circles. Gnosticism has become a cipher for liberalism, feminism, fuzzy theology, and, now, the trans movement. Connecting identity politics with heresy might appear erudite and it’s certainly rhetorically effective, but it is cheap slander today just as it was cheap slander in the past.