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Approaches to the Question of Early Christian Esotericism

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This special episode is a bit of a freeform excursus on early Christianity and the question of early Christian esotericism. While we are reasonably happy with our summary of some of the issues to do with the interpretation of our evidence for second-century Christianities presented in the foregoing episode, there are some itches that need to be scratched. In this episode, for the hardcore, we explore a bit deeper beneath the rather too-easy dichotomy between early esoteric Christians (like those pesky Gnostics) and their allegedly anti-esotericist counterparts (the ‘proto-orthodox’), which we often find in scholarship. It turns out that, for your host, all Christianity has elements of the esoteric in it, even if they are sometimes hidden under denials, repressions, or ignorance.

Christianity really is a mystery cult, and heresy really is perpetually hiding in the bosom of the Church, waiting to erupt! Irenæus was right about so many things ….

Works Cited in this Episode:


Clement of Alexandria on Valentinus’ apostolic wisdom-tradition: Strom. VII 17.106.4.

Hippolytus on Basilides’ apostolic wisdom-tradition: Ref. VII.201.

Irenæus on the beast 666 and all those other sixes: Adv. Hær. 5.30.1.


For Danièlou 1962, Stroumsa 1996, and Williams 1999, see below.

Bernard McGinn. The Foundations of Mysticism. Crossroads, New York, NY, 1991.

Recommended Reading:

Jean Daniélou. Les traditions secrètes des Apôtres. Eranos Jahrbuch, 31:199–215, 1962.

Guy Stroumsa. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Brill, Leiden, 1996

Michael Williams. Secrecy, Revelation, and Late Antique Demiurgical Myths. In E. R. Wolfson, editor, Rending the Veil: Concealment and Secrecy in the History of Religions, pages 31–58. Seven Bridges, Chappaqua, NY, 1999.