“Orthodoxy” and “Gnosticism” in Post-Nicene Egypt: Thinking on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and Others

If you sit down with a history of the Early Church or patristic doctrine such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church or J N D Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, a picture emerges of an Egypt where before Nicaea the proto-orthodox look to have won out over the ‘Gnostics’ — ‘Arianism’ being a debate between factions within proto-orthodoxy, indeed amongst Origenists (see my post here).

Athanasius of Alexandria was the champion and forger of the Nicene cause. Antony was revered by him and many of the Fathers for his holiness. The monks of Egypt, with whom Athanasius hid in exile, were notoriously orthodox, doing the bidding of the unflinchingly orthodox Theophilus in desecrating pagan temples. Cyril is one of the ‘orthodox’ party’s strongest voices, as is his contemporary monastic fellow Shenoute of Atripe.

Egypt seems to be very much orthodox, especially by 381. And, once you’ve wrapped your mind around the Chalcedonian debate, perhaps they never even stopped (see my post on ‘Monophysites’).

Archaeology has been telling us a new story, perhaps a parallel one. From the sands of Egypt, most notably Nag Hammadi, have come a wealth of ‘Gnostic’ documents — frequently called ‘Gospels’, largely in Coptic. These documents are often from the fourth century, as is the momentarily-famous ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’. Some are possibly later, such as the Books of Yu, themselves possibly representing an entirely different mystery religion of its own.

Having read Hurtado’s take on the business-card sized papyrus on Jesus’ wife and that of Gathercole, as well as Dr King’s own cautious statements in the flamboyant news reports, this is a document wherein Jesus mentions ‘My wife’ (or ‘my woman’). This may bring us into the realm of Gnostic allegory. It may bring us into a text trying to legimitate Christian marriage by saying Jesus was married (a point on which our earliest sources are silent).

What it brings us into is ‘Gnosticism’, a term applied to an amorphous group of religious beliefs and practices that are often related in some way to Christianity, sometimes claiming to represent the true tradition thereof, but not always, and not always necessarily related to the Church itself at all (as with one possible reading of the Books of Yu).

From what I’ve seen, by Nicaea, the mainstream or proto-orthodox Church — the institutional Christianity from which all of today’s churches descend — is not necessarily grappling with Gnosticism and Gnostics. They seem to have at times had their books, as described by Eusebius, when bishops hand over heretical scriptures to the Roman authorities. And their are, I understand, certain Valentinian influences on the letters of St Antony the Great and possibly elsewhere amongst the Desert Fathers.

But these appear to be just traces. Gnosticism seems not to be leaving a great impact upon the wider Church in the fourth century, unlike in the second when Irenaeus wrote his Against the Heresies in opposition to certain of these groups.

But they were still around. They left us papyri in the desert. Where did they go? How did they interact with their ‘orthodox’ neighbours? Did they eventually disappear through assimilation into mainstream Christianity after the official sponsoring thereof by the Emperors?

I don’t know. Do any of you?

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