Throughout Christian history, people have looked for hidden messages in Scripture. Sometimes this took the form of allegorical interpretation, where the historical meaning was secondary to the higher ‘spiritual’ meaning. Sometimes numerology played into it. Apocalyptic literature has been especially subjected to a ‘magic decoder ring’ hermeneutic, as people have speculated for 2,000 years who the Beast is, and when Jesus will return. Any book talking about a ‘hidden message’ in Scripture or a ‘Bible code’ is guaranteed to be a best-seller. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a best-seller because it challenged the plain meaning of Scripture by introducing a ‘hidden’ element (as well as his revisionism about the Canon—see the articles under What about the claims of The Da Vinci Code?).

The first ‘hidden message’ hermeneutic

The first people to claim that there was a message beyond the plain words of Scripture were the Gnostics. They claimed that there was a higher message in Scripture that only the enlightened could understand (their name comes from γνῶσις gnōsis, the Greek word for ‘knowledge’). There is evidence that some form of proto-gnosticism developed within the lifetime of the apostles—John especially seemed to fight against a form of gnosticism in his epistles.

The Gnostics denied the physical resurrection, and depending on the variety, some denied that God ever really became human. To the extent that Christ still existed in gnosticism, salvation wasn’t through Him, but through the true knowledge which enabled people to escape the physical world. Probably to counter some form of this belief, in John’s first epistle, he adapts his prologue from his Gospel to reassert the physical nature of Jesus who, he says, “we looked at and touched with our hands” (1:1).

John dismantles the core beliefs of this heresy—Jesus was a physical person, and the thing from which humanity needs to be saved is sin, not ignorance. Some scholars think that the proto-Gnostics misused John’s Gospel to develop their heresy, which included giving new meaning and significance to key terms in that Gospel; and that John in his epistle is now reclaiming the language they’ve co-opted in order to argue strongly against their views….

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