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We now come to a subject, concerning which important errors have been committed, and which requires a more thorough examination, than it has hitherto received. It is the manner in which the Gospels were regarded by the heretics of the first two centuries, particularly by the Gnostics.
Beside the great body of Christians, the Catholic Christians, as they may be denominated, conformably to the ancient use of the term, who were united, notwithstanding many diversities of opinion, in the general reception of a common system of faith, there were, at an early period, various sects called Heresies. The generality of the Heretics of the first two centuries may be divided into two principal classes, the Ebionites and the Gnostics; and these two classes alone are of importance as furnishing evidence in regard to the genuineness of the Gospels.
Of the EbioniTES, the heretical Jewish Christians, I have formerly given some account,* in which I have anticipated nearly all that may be said concerning them in relation to the present subject. They were a sect that attracted but little notice from the earlier fathers; whose accounts of them, however, are explicit and consistent. The discussions concerning them, in modern times, have been founded principally on the confused, contradictory, and obviously very inaccurate statements of Epiphanius, in the latter part of the fourth century. But all the ancient accounts of them agree, as we have formerly seen, in affirming that they used the Gospel of Matthew in its original language, with a text more or less pure. As has been remarked, this would not have been said of them, had they not said it of themselves. They comprehended, probably, the generality of Jewish Christians, and appear to have been the successors of the first con
* Vol. I. pp. xlv – liii.
verts in Judea, with little intermixture of those Jews, the Hellenists, to whom, as living in foreign countries, the Greek language was often more familiar than that of their own nation. Thus, using the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in their native language, and, as there seems no doubt, with particular reference to Jewish Christians, they neglected the other Gospels. Their testimony in receiving the Gospel of Matthew as his work is blended with that of the common mass of Christians. Nor is it important to urge it any further; but it may
be worth while, here as elsewhere, to keep in mind those considerations, formerly presented, * which show, that the direct proof of the genuineness of any one of the Gospels is an indirect proof of the genuineness of all.
We here take leave of the Ebionites, and enter on a much more extensive and difficult subject. Our attention will now be confined to the GNOSTICS.
The Greek word rendered Gnostic denoted, in its primary meaning, an enlightened man; and is commonly used by Clement of Alexan
* Vol. I. pp. 167 - 173.
dria to signify an enlightened Christian, a Christian philosopher.* In this sense, it was assumed as a designation by those heretics to whom the name is now restricted. The heretical Gnostics were divided into many particular sects; but there were striking characteristics common to them all, by which they were distinguished from the great body of Christians. Their religion was eclectic. While some of their contemporaries among the Heathens, of a similar cast of mind to their own, the later Platonists, were forming systems in opposition to, and in rivalship of Christianity, they, on the contrary, incorporated into their theology the historical facts, and some of the essential doctrines, of our faith. In the systems thus composed by the Gnostics, foreign as they were from pure Christianity, the ministry of Christ held a very important place. It was the key-stone of their hypotheses.
Some of the leaders of the Gnostic sects appear to have been generally regarded in their day as men of more than common learning
* This meaning survived the application of the word to the Gnostic heretics. In the Lexicon ascribed to Zonaras, who lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Iowsexos (a “Gnostic”) is defined to be “one perfectly conformed to the truth,” και τη αληθεία τοιωθεις τιλείως.