Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Egypt: Shaping Gnosis for Christianity

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Egypt: Shaping Gnosis for Christianity

Article excerpt

MENTION EARLY CHRISTIANS and people think of Jerusalem and Rome. However, many of the most important developments in the movement that became Christianity occurred in Egypt. First, the Coptic, or Egyptian, Church fought gnosticism and paganism by manipulating doctrine to limit spiritual inquiry and consolidate in the hands of orthodoxy temporal power exercised in the name of a spiritual monopoly. Second, and contemporaneously, the practice of Christian monasticism emerged in the deserts of Egypt, creating an outlet for serious spiritual questing in a form tolerable to church authority. The methods by which the Coptic Church consolidated power while forging an alliance with desert monasticism helped shape the future parameters of gnosis and contemplative life within the Christian church.

Gnosticism existed long before Christianity. Elaine Pagels's seminal work, The Gnostic Gospels, describes how orthodoxy's political need to eradicate claims of authority by gnostics led to development of doctrines that augmented the Church's authority and undermined that of opponents. For example, she speculates that orthodoxy embraced a physical, rather than symbolic, resurrection of Christ because it enhanced the authority of disciples who saw Christ risen physically, an experience none again can have. The experience made these disciples special and thereby enhanced the legitimacy of a church claiming to be the successors of these disciples, i.e. Peter.

This essay also develops the theme that orthodox doctrines were fashioned to serve the needs of temporal power. However, it focuses on three steps Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria took that created a "template" for orthodoxy: closing the canon, ascribing knowledge to Christ only, and embracing desert monasticism. Each of these steps served the political interests of institutional orthodoxy, enabling it to triumph over gnosticism in a culture that had been highly eclectic and cosmopolitan.


The idea of a God-man was native to Egyptian culture prior to the emergence of Christianity. Egyptian myths held that Isis and Osiris ruled Egypt as god-like monarchs. Seth, Osiris's brother, became jealous of Osiris and killed him. Isis assumed the body of a bird and searched for Osiris, finding his body imbedded in a tree that had grown around his coffin. Isis obtained the body of Osiris, but Seth discovered it and cut it into pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis recovered and reassembled all of the pieces except the phallus, which had been devoured by a fish. Still in bird form, Isis, through the beating of her wings (reminiscent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove), restored the breath of life and Osiris was resurrected and became a God-man. These Egyptian beliefs provided an atmosphere within which images of Christianity later would resonate.

In addition to the Isis and Osiris myths, Egyptians worshipped other gods, including the sun, moon, and animals. The rule of Greece, followed by Rome, introduced the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods to Egypt as well, and Judaic beliefs were known as well. Alexandria tolerated a wide variety of practices, and citizens did not necessarily see them as mutually exclusive.

In fact, because a wide variety of spiritual questing was tolerated in the centuries before Christianity, there was a freewheeling spiritual atmosphere in Alexandria, yet competing hierarchies of priests and teachers co-existed. There was a financial aspect to religion as well. Public religious ceremonies were both widely observed and sources of revenue for those incharge. Religious offices were temporally valuable and might be inherited or sold.

Gnosis can be intellectual or experiential--one can prepare the ground for the other--and fourth-century Egypt embraced both. Speculative philosophers in Egypt, especially Alexandria, drew freely upon all sources of wisdom, including Jewish thought, Greek mystery cults, Hermeticism, and Neo-Platonism. …

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