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The Enduring Influence of the Second-Century Christian Sects

Many of the ideas we have been reviewing over the last month may have seemed strange to some readers. We heard about complex cosmologies and an unknown god that transcends the ignorant or malevolent god who created the material universe. We encountered views about Jesus that fall short of the full understanding of the Incarnation, either by denying Jesus’ divinity by treating him as a human who was adopted at his baptism and exalted to his heavenly throne after Easter or by downplaying his humanity by arguing that Jesus’ body was temporarily inhabited by a spiritual being or that Jesus only “appeared” to have a physical body. We grappled with esoteric doctrines and diverse social or ritual practices. While some of these views have long been abandoned, other ideas may continue to find traction among modern Christians:

  • Contemporary Messianic Jewish congregations that combine acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah with a Jewish way of life marked by Torah observance is reminiscent of groups such as the Nazoraeans and the Ebionites. Just as the Nazoraeans held views about the deity of Christ that was aligned with the greater majority of Gentile believers and the Ebionites did not, a similar spectrum of belief may exist among Jewish Christians today.
  • The popular caricature that the “Old Testament God” is all about rules and wrath and the “New Testament God” is all about love and grace shows that Marcion’s thought endures. Whenever I teach my intro Bible course at my current theological institution, I make sure to balance this distortion with the numerous examples of grace in the Hebrew Bible and the warnings of divine judgment in the New Testament.
  • Apart from the contemporary congregations that explicitly identify themselves as “Gnostic” today, or April DeConick’s efforts to show Gnostic influence on “New Age” thought more generally in her book, there may be other popular conceptions among Christians that have affinities with the ancient “Gnostics.” For instance, some modern Christians equate the gospel with correct “knowledge” of certain dogmatic statements and salvation with the escape of souls to heaven to the exclusion of the resurrection of our human bodies and the full redemption of the physical cosmos.

What do you think: is this a fair list of some of the ways these theological ideas have endured? What would you take away or add?

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