There is a single idea at the root of every single word I have written about the earliest Christians. It is an idea that would certainly be rejected by conservative Christians, and probably the large majority of “critical” Christian scholars, as well.
The idea is this: conventional wisdom states that the earliest heretics took proto-Orthodox Christian ideas and texts, and flipped, or otherwise corrupted them to support their own, weird philosophies. This paradigm is erroneous.
Rather, I believe that the heretical interpretations which are described in-depth by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other Heresiologists represent the original spirit in which the earliest Christian tenets were invented.
My speculation is rooted in a reality which the Gospels and other New Testament literature so often violates. For example, consider a famous blunder the Gospel of Mark makes when it has Jesus go from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee (Mk 7:24-31). Though observers poke fun at Mark’s woefully inefficient route (50 or so unnecessary miles on foot), I cannot help but wonder if the woman Jesus met, who begged him to exorcise the demons from her daughter (before Jesus called her a dog!), was a reference to a story about that messianic claimant, Simon Magus of Samaria, who, according to Irenaeus (AH i.23), rescued his female counterpart, Helen, who had been a slave and worked as a prostitute. Helen was from Tyre and Simon claimed to be a messiah. This female companion trope shows up in the Gospel of John, where Jesus, who was accused of being a Samaritan (Jn 8:48), gave the former prostitute Mary Magdalene a special prophesy (Jn 20:18).
An even more obvious example of this speculative corrupted Christianity involves Satan. The obscure Old Testament co-conspirator who dared God to ruin Job’s life by killing his family and destroying his means of income comes back with a vengeance in Christianity as the owner and operator of hell. Aside from being the progenitor of Earthly evil, Satan has a post-death underworld realm he controls, which doubles as the destination for Heaven’s rejects.
And so we encounter Christianity’s primary recruitment problem: a loving God will reject some number of Earth’s population because of perceived violation of obscure and inconsistent rules. Instead of the soul being rendered null in eternity’s abyss, there is a symbiotic hand-off where God sends the soul to Satan’s domain. Once in hell, the rejected soul undergoes trillions of years of torture (thanks Dad).
Satan makes little sense in this context, which puts God in the back-seat, and promotes Satan, in terms of managing behavior on Earth; this detail is not lost on those blasphemous enough to poke fun at this Iron Age invention.
It is my contention that Satan makes more sense in the Gnostic and quasi-Gnostic worldview, particularly that of Cerinthus, who supposed Earth was crafted by lower angels ignorant of the most-high. In this Cerinthian view, and its derivatives (such as the Valentinians and Marcionites), the responsibility is on the Christian practitioner to become aware of the gulf between the material realm and the one above it, which is where the most high God resides. From there, standard mystery religion rules apply: collect the proper amulets, recite magical incantations, perform the proper rites, and you’ll out-maneuver the “Principalities and The Rulers and The Powers of this dark world” (Eph 6:12). In other words, the Gnostics suppose that Earth is hell, and that Christ is the way out!
Consider also demonic possessions, which are highlighted in the Gospels. In the Gospel framework, Satan not only controls actions on Earth and hosts the soul junkyard, but he can also reside within a human’s body! One wonders if the Christian God has any influence on this Earth at all. In the Orthodox view, he must not have much!
My theory is that the earliest Mark and proto-Matthew/Luke architects (notably Cerinthus) did not believe that the most high God had much use for this material world, and that the deeper Christian mysteries would reveal to practitioners how they could get to him (Jn 14:6). Demonic possession makes much more sense when the ruler of the world is hostile to humanity. Consider Jesus’s vitriol against the Pharisees around John 8:44, where he calls them the children of Satan! Does that attack make more sense in the modern Christian understanding of Satan, or does it make more sense in the view that the creator and manager of Earth is separate from the loving God Christians imagine?
Could Jesus really be saying that the Pharisees are sons of Satan? Plenty of Christians believe this. What is really happening in this passage is that Jesus differentes the Jewish God from Christ’s God.
There are also individual passages which we sometimes get insight into. For instance, the “very last farthing” passage in Matthew 5 and Luke 12:
Whilst you are with your adversary in the way, give all diligence, that you may be delivered from him, lest he give you up to the judge, and the judge surrender you to the officer, and he cast you into prison. Verily, I say unto you, you shall not go out thence until you pay the very last farthing.
Irenaeus gives details about how the Carpocratians, who used a Matthew or Luke Gospel, interpreted this passage in Against Heresies i.25. Irenaeus wrote “They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action…They also declare the
adversary is one of those angels who are in the world, whom they call the Devil, maintaining that he was formed for this purpose, that he might lead those souls which have perished from the world to the Supreme Ruler.”.
Biblehub.com gives a variety of theological interpretations of this passage, some of which make more sense than others (I will leave it to the reader to determine whether they care enough to parse any of these interpretations); it is clear to me that this passage should be used in conjunction with “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, which is found in the Gospel of Thomas, as well as the Synoptic Gospels. The point is obvious from a “Gnostic” perspective: the material wealth, money or other, which one accumulates in this world must be surrendered in order to escape the Demiurge‘s prison, which is this world. Failure to do so will result in reincarnation, which was a widely-held view of several heretical groups.
Irenaeus gives Valentinian interpretations, as well. For instance, when Jesus says on the cross “My God why have you foresaken me”, Irenaeus gives the following Valentinian interpretation:
“Jesus simply showed that Sophia was deserted by the light, and was restrained by Horos from making any advance forward.”
According to Irenaeus, the Valentinian interpretation of Jesus’s Earthly crucifixion was that it was allegory for Sophia’s imprisonment outside of the Pleroma. This would indeed make more sense than the Orthodox interpretation, which has superman Jesus experiencing pain and doubt on the cross, despite being the actual “word of God”. There were theological battles over whether Jesus experienced pain on the cross for hundreds of years. Doesn’t it make more sense that, in light of an absolute absence of Jesus in secular history, coupled with clear composition of multiple biblical and historical figures feeding into Gospel Jesus (notably Jesus ben Ananias, Theudas, the Egyptian, Paul, and James), that the whole Gospel story was allegory of a much broader religious mystery?
Consider Irenaeus’s description of the Valentinian interpretation of the parable of the leaven:
Also the parable of the leaven [Note: Matthew 13, Luke 13] which the woman is described as having hid in three measures of meal, they declare to make manifest the three classes. For, according to their teaching, the woman represented Sophia; the three measures of meal, the three kinds of men— spiritual, animal, and material; while the leaven denoted the Saviour Himself.
Traditionally, leaven was used as a symbol of evil desire (Weber, p. 221). A common interpretation of this parable is that Jesus flipped that symbolism on its head, giving the leavening as a metaphor for spreading Christianity. To the Gnostics, the “three measures” is a source of mystery: Sophia rendered the 3 types of humans, and it was through the Christ that her measures were intertwined. Saint Irenaeus gives away the mystery here, and in implementing his own Orthodoxy, purges a more interesting metaphor.