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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Christian Diversity

Although the concept of “orthodoxy” is anachronistic before the fourth century, and notwithstanding the great diversity of the early church, there was an emerging mainstream. During the second and third centuries, however, it had to respond to the challenges posed by the divergent views of a number of groups and systems of belief, prominent among which were those of the Christian Gnostics. Before the 1945 discovery in Nag Hammadi (Egypt) of more than forty Christian writings, many of them Gnostic, our understanding of Gnosticism was largely dependent on the writings of its adversaries, who included such prominent church figures as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, and Justin Martyr. The origins of Gnosticism, which existed in both Christian and non-Christian contexts, are obscure, and Christian Gnosticism is itself diverse. Still, as Robert McL. Wilson writes, developed Gnostic systems shared several features: “(1) a radical cosmic dualism that rejects this world and all that belongs to it: the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape; (2) a distinction between the unknown transcendent true God and the creator or Demiurge, commonly identified with the God of the Hebrew Bible; (3) the belief that the human race is essentially akin to the divine, being a spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body; (4) a myth, often narrating a premundane fall, to account for the present human predicament; and (5) the saving knowledge [gnosis] by which deliverance is effected and the gnostic awakened to recognition of his or her true nature and heavenly origin” (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, New York, 1993, p. 256). Similar to the beliefs of the Gnostics were the teachings of the second-century writer Marcion, who viewed the God of the Jews as an evil and inferior deity and would have excluded the Hebrew Bible from Christian scripture.

Other divergent views appeared, for example, in late second-century Phyrgia in Asia Minor, where Montanus and two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, proclaimed a “new prophecy.” Apocalypticists, they heralded the second coming, announcing that Christ would return imminently to the Phrygian villages of Pepuza and Tymion. Despite Christ's failure to do so, the movement persisted. Two centuries later, Emperor Theodosius commanded that the books of the Montanists be burned and that those who hid them be put to death. In their unbridled eschatological expectation, ecstatic prophesying, and claim to be instruments of the Holy Spirit, the Montanists challenged the growing authority of the church's episcopal structure.

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