the gnostic gospels - reading notes

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the gnostic gospels - reading notes


extracts :

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

( from pages xviii - xxi - Introduction )

By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. But in Upper Egypt, someone, possibly a monk from a 19 nearby monastery of St. Pachomius, took the banned books and hid them from destruction‚Äö in the jar where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years.

But those who wrote and circulated these texts did not regard themselves as "heretics." Most of the writings use Christian terminology, unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Many claim to offer traditions about Jesus that are secret, hidden from "the many" who constitute what, in the second century, came to be called the "catholic church." These Christians are now called gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as "knowledge." For as those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called agnostic (literally, "not-knowing"), the person who does claim to know such things is called gnostic ("knowing").

But gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge ("He knows mathematics") and knowing through observation or experience ("He knows me"), which is gnosis. As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as "insight," for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. And to know oneself, they claimed, is to know human nature and human destiny. According to the gnostic teacher Theodotus, writing in Asia Minor (c. 140-160), the gnostic is one who has come to understand who we were, and what we have become; where we were . . . whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth.

Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis. Another gnostic teacher, Monoimus, says:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, "My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body." Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate . . . If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.

What Muhammad 'Ali discovered at Nag Hammadi is, apparently, a library of writings, almost all of them gnostic. Although they claim to offer secret teaching, many of these texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them include the same dramatis personae as the New Testament Jesus and his disciples. Yet the differences are striking.

Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.

Second, the "living Jesus" of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal‚Äö even identical.

Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:

Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out. . . . He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him."

Does not such teaching‚Äö the identity of the divine and human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide‚Äö sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the "living Buddha" appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or Buddhist tradition have influenced gnosticism? The British scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, suggests that it had. He points out that "Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such writings as the Gospel of 23 Thomas) in South India." Trade routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East were opening up at the time when gnosticism flourished (A.D. 80-200); for generations, Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in Alexandria.

We note, too, that Hippolytus, who was a Greek-speaking Christian in Rome (c. 225), knows of the Indian Brahmins‚Äö and includes their tradition among the sources of heresy:

There is . . . among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food . . . They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise.


( ibid page 27 - Chapter 1 : The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection )

Gnostic teaching, as Irenaeus and Tertullian realized, was potentially subversive of this order: it claimed to offer to every initiate direct access to God of which the priests and bishops themselves might be ignorant.


( ibid page 49 - God the Father/ God the Mother )

Yet instead of describing a monistic and masculine God, many of these texts speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements. One group of gnostic sources claims to have received a secret tradition from Jesus through James and through Mary Magdalene. Members of this group prayed to both the divine Father and Mother: "From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being, and thou, dweller in heaven, humanity, of the mighty name . . ." Other texts indicate that their authors had wondered to whom a single, masculine God proposed, "Let us make man [adam] in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Since the Genesis account goes on to say that humanity was created "male and female" (1:27), some concluded that the God in whose image we are made must also be both masculine and feminine‚Äö both Father and Mother.

( ibid pages 51 - 55 - God the Father/ God the Mother )

Some insisted that the divine is to be considered masculofeminine—the "great male-female power." Others claimed that the terms were meant only as metaphors, since, in reality, the divine is neither male nor female.13 A third group suggested that one can describe the primal Source in either masculine or feminine terms, depending on which aspect one intends to stress. Proponents of these diverse views agreed that the divine is to be understood in terms of a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites—a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity. A second characterization of the divine Mother describes her as Holy Spirit. The Apocryphon of John relates how John went out after the crucifixion with "great grief" and had a mystical vision of the Trinity. As John was grieving, he says that
the [heavens were opened and the whole] creation [which is] under heaven shone and [the world] trembled. [And I was afraid, and I] saw in the light . . . a likeness with multiple forms . . . and the likeness had three forms.14

Another gnostic writing, called the Great Announcement, quoted by Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies, explains the origin of the universe as follows: From the power of Silence appeared "a great power, the Mind of the Universe, which man ages all things, and is a male . . . the other . . . a great Intelligence . . . is a female which produces all things." Following the gender of the Greek words for "mind" (nous‚Äö masculine) and "intelligence" (epinoia‚Äö feminine), this author explains that these powers, joined in union, "are discovered to be duality . . . This is Mind in Intelligence, and these are separable from one another, and yet are one, found in a state of duality." This means, the gnostic teacher explains, that there is in everyone [divine power] existing in a latent condition . . . This is one power divided above and below; generating itself, making itself grow, seeking itself, finding itself, being mother of itself, father of itself, sister of itself, spouse of itself, daughter of itself, son of itself‚Äö mother, father, unity, being a source of the entire circle of existence.

How did these gnostics intend their meaning to be understood? Different teachers disagreed. Some insisted that the divine is to be considered masculofeminine‚Äö the "great male-female power." Others claimed that the terms were meant only as metaphors, since, in reality, the divine is neither male nor female. A third group suggested that one can describe the primal Source in either masculine or feminine terms, depending on which aspect one intends to stress. Proponents of these diverse views agreed that the divine is to be understood in terms of a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites‚Äö a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity.

A second characterization of the divine Mother describes her as Holy Spirit. The Apocryphon of John relates how John went out after the crucifixion with "great grief" and had a mystical vision of the Trinity. As John was grieving, he says that the [heavens were opened and the whole] creation [which is] under heaven shone and [the world] trembled. [And I was afraid, and I] saw in the light . . . a likeness with multiple forms . . . and the likeness had three forms.

To John's question the vision answers: "He said to me, 'John, Jo[h]n, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid? ... I am the one who [is with you] always. I [am the Father]; I am the Mother; I am the Son."

This gnostic description of God‚Äö as Father, Mother and Son‚Äö may startle us at first, but on reflection, we can recognize it as another version of the Trinity. The Greek terminology for the Trinity, which includes the neuter term for spirit (pneuma) virtually requires that the third "Person" of the Trinity be asexual. But the author of the Secret Book has in mind the Hebrew term for spirit, ruah, a feminine word; and so concludes that the feminine "Person" conjoined with the Father and Son must be the Mother. The Secret Book goes on to describe the divine Mother: . . . (She is) . . . the image of the invisible, virginal, perfect spirit . . . She became the Mother of everything, for she existed before them all, the mother-father [matropater]


If some gnostic sources suggest that the Spirit constitutes the maternal element of the Trinity, the Gospel of Philip makes an equally radical suggestion about the doctrine that later developed as the virgin birth. Here again, the Spirit is both Mother and Virgin, the counterpart‚Äö and consort‚Äö of the Heavenly Father: "Is it permitted to utter a mystery? The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down"24 ‚Äö that is, with the Holy Spirit descending into the world. But because this process is to be understood symbolically, not literally, the Spirit remains a virgin. The author goes on to explain that as "Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin earth" so "Christ, therefore, was born from a virgin" (that is, from the Spirit). But the author ridicules those literal-minded Christians who mistakenly refer the virgin birth to Mary, Jesus' mother, as though she conceived apart from Joseph: "They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?" Instead, he argues, virgin birth refers to that mysterious union of the two divine powers, the Father of All and the Holy Spirit. In addition to the eternal, mystical Silence and the Holy Spirit, certain gnostics suggest a third characterization of the divine Mother: as Wisdom.

Here the Greek feminine term for "wisdom," sophia, translates a Hebrew feminine term, hokhmah. Early interpreters had pondered the meaning of certain Biblical passages‚Äö for example, the saying in Proverbs that "God made the world in Wisdom." Could Wisdom be the feminine power in which God's creation was "conceived"? According to one teacher, the double meaning of the term conception‚Äö physical and intellectual‚Äö suggests this possibility: "The image of thought [ennoia] is feminine, since . . . [it] is a power of conception." The Apocalypse of Adam, discovered at Nag Hammadi, tells of a feminine power who wanted to conceive by herself:
. . . from the nine Muses, one separated away. She came to a high mountain and spent time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous. She fulfilled her desire, and became pregnant from her desire . . .

The poet Valentinus uses this theme to tell a famous myth about Wisdom: Desiring to conceive by herself, apart from her masculine counterpart, she succeeded, and became the "great creative power from whom all things originate," often called Eve, "Mother of all living." But since her desire violated the harmonious union of opposites intrinsic in the nature of created being, what she produced was aborted and defective; from this, says Valentinus, originated the terror and grief that mar human existence. To shape and manage her creation, Wisdom brought forth the demiurge, the creator-God of Israel, as her agent. Wisdom, then, bears several connotations in gnostic sources. Besides being the "first universal creator," who brings forth all creatures, she also enlightens human beings and makes them wise. Followers of Valentinus and Marcus therefore prayed to the Mother as the "mystical, eternal Silence" and to "Grace, She who is before all things," and as "incorruptible Wisdom" for insight (gnosis). Other gnostics attributed to her the benefits that Adam and Eve received in Paradise. First, she taught them self-awareness; second, she guided them to find food; third, she assisted in the conception of their third and fourth children, who were, according to this account, their third son, Seth, and their first daughter, Norea.

Even more: when the creator became angry with the human race because they did not worship or honor him as Father and God, he sent forth a flood upon them, that he might destroy them all. But Wisdom opposed him . . . and Noah and his family were saved in the ark by means of the sprinkling of the light that proceeded from her, and through it the world was again filled with humankind.

Another newly discovered text from Nag Hammadi, Trimorphic Protennoia (literally, the "Triple-formed Primal hought"), celebrates the feminine powers of Thought, Intelligence, and Foresight. The text opens as a divine figure speaks:

[I] am [Protennoia the] Thought that [dwells] in [the Light]. . . . [she who exists] before the All . . . I move in every creature. . . . I am the Invisible One within the All

She continues: "I am perception and knowledge, uttering a Voice by means of Thought. [I] am the real Voice. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within." The second section, spoken by a second divine figure, opens with the words

I am the Voice . . . [It is] I [who] speak within every creature . . . Now I have come a second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them. . . . I have revealed myself in the Thought of the likeness of my masculinity.

Later the voice explains:
I am androgynous. [I am both Mother and] Father, since [I copulate] with myself . . . [and with those who love] me ... I am the Womb [that gives shape] to the All . . . I am Me[iroth]ea, the glory of the Mother.

Even more remarkable is the gnostic poem called the Thunder, Perfect Mind. This text contains a revelation spoken by a feminine power:

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore, and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am (the mother) and the daughter. . . . I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband. . . . I am knowledge, and ignorance. . . . I am shameless; I am ashamed. I am strength, and I am fear. . . . I am foolish, and I am wise. . . . I am godless, and I am one whose God is great.


notes & thoughts
( very disjointed / stream of consciousness after drinking coffee to let the thoughts flow - likely not historically correct!! )


I find it interesting to read the stories about the people in the time of jesus. whilst I was in Israel I saw a few documentaries on the discovery channel - some Christian ones. if I recall properly (& likely I don't!) Jesus was one of the people who became popular with the uneducated people of the time, and he spoke against the Jewish leaders and their leadership at the time. there was corruption and greed in the Jewish leaders. I tried to imagine what I would have thought had I lived at the time. I think perhaps I would have listened to the jesus talks as he promoted fairness for all the people, not just the rich and influential. I can't say if I would have been gnostic yet as I don't know enough about it. jesus as a person sounded like a pretty nice guy. he seemed very charismatic too to be able to gain so many followers. he's almost the gandhi of his era or perhaps gandhi is the jesus of our lifetimes :) christian religion today doesn't seem, to me anyway, really aligned to these original stories. I don't really read the stories as literal as in the resurrection story, so it'll be interesting to see what the gnostic beliefs about this say. I'm sure I'll learn more as the course progresses. also, I wonder if the course will go into Christianity of the time - I'm a little confused about how it came to be & need to brush up on the history of it all. from what I can gather, most of the people were Jewish (including Jesus), but then the Romans invaded jerusalem - it was an important city in the trade route as well as religious influences. what became catholic religion, later (?) roman catholic? was different to judaism. but if christianity is the followers of Christ (jesus), then the romans killed their own religious leader/prophet when pontius pilot sentenced him to death. ie the jewish people didn't kill jesus - even though he spoke out against them in particular, not the romans. I'm confused over what religion the romans were at the time of jesus' life. I've seen the replica of the jewish temple in jerusalem, at the museum, but I've forgotten the stories about it too - and it's only been 6months since I was there!! sad. I'd posted home (to Mum's address as I didn't have one in Aus prior to coming home) most of my Israel books and music so I've just brought it back this week during Christmas break, so I'll try read through these too


funnily enough, here's my stars for today from

Your horoscope for January 2, 2009
The scenes that erupt in your world might seem like a gladiatorial game from ancient Rome. The good news is that if anyone can rise above this situation and see the truth in the matter, it is you, KATH. Be careful of being too obstinate about how things should be resolved. This is likely to get you deeper into a mess that you shouldn't even have to deal with in the first place. Your job is to mediate, not dictate.


(ibid page 74)

from The Acts of John‚Äö one of the most famous gnostic texts, and one of the few discovered before Nag Hammadi :

Instructing the disciples to "Answer Amen to me," he began to intone a mystical chant, which reads, in part,
"To the Universe belongs the dancer." "Amen."
"He who does not dance does not know what happens." "Amen." . . .
"Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in Me who am speaking . . . You who dance, consider what I do, for yours is This passion of Man which I am to suffer. For you could by no means have understood what you suffer unless to you as Logos I had been sent by the Father . . . Learn how to suffer and you shall be able not to suffer."

John continues:
After the Lord had danced with us, my beloved, he went out [to suffer]. And we were like men amazed or fast asleep, and we fled this way and that. And so I saw him suffer, and did not wait by his suffering, but fled to the Mount of Olives and wept . . . And when he was hung (upon the Cross) on Friday, at the sixth hour of the day there came a darkness over the whole earth.

::: the book I'm reading now "Dance, Dance, Dance" by Haruki Murakami, the main character is told to keep dancing during a metaphysical experience in an alternate reality (in the book), meaning, keep moving, keep progressing, don't stay still. I wonder if this could be a similar interpretation for the words "To the Universe belongs the dancer" and "He who does not dance does not know what happens" and "Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in Me who am speaking . . . You who dance, consider what I do, for yours is This passion of Man which I am to suffer"


( ibid page 106 - God the Father/God the Mother )

Gnostic Christians, on the contrary, assert that what distinguishes the false from the true church is not its relationship to the clergy, but the level of understanding of its members, and the quality of their relationship with one another. The Apocalypse of Peter declares that "those who are from the life . . . having been enlightened," discriminate for themselves between what is true and false. Belonging to "the remnant. . . summoned to knowledge [gnosis]," they neither attempt to dominate others nor do they subject themselves to the bishops and deacons, those "waterless canals." Instead they participate in "the wisdom of the brotherhood that really exists . . . the spiritual fellowship with those united in communion."

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth similarly declares that what characterizes the true church is the union its members enjoy with God and with one another, "united in the friendship of friends forever, who neither know any hostility, nor evil, but who are united by my gnosis . . . (in) friendship with one another." Theirs is the intimacy of marriage, a "spiritual wedding," since they live "in fatherhood and motherhood and rational brotherhood and wisdom" as those who love each other as "fellow spirits." Such ethereal visions of the "heavenly church" contrast sharply with the down-to-earth portrait of the church that orthodox sources offer.


( ibid page 120 - Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God )

Gnostic sources offer a different religious perspective. According to the Dialogue of the Savior, for example, when the disciples asked Jesus the same question ("What is the place to which we shall go?") he answered, "the place which you can reach, stand there!" The Gospel of Thomas relates that when the disciples asked Jesus where they should go, he said only, "There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness." Far from legitimizing any institution, both sayings direct one instead to oneself‚Äö to one's inner capacity to find one's own direction, to the "light within."


( ibid pages 121-122 Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God )

What‚Äö if anything‚Äö did the various groups that Irenaeus called "gnostic" have in common? Or, to put the question another way, what do the diverse texts discovered at Nag Hammadi have in common? No simple answer could cover all the different groups that the orthodox attack, or all the different texts in the Nag Hammadi collection. But I suggest that the trouble with gnosticism, from the orthodox viewpoint, was not only that gnostics often disagreed with the majority on such specific issues as those we have explored so far‚Äö the organization of authority, the participation of women, martyrdom: the orthodox recognized that those they called "gnostics" shared a fundamental religious perspective that remained antithetical to the claims of the institutional church.

For orthodox Christians insisted that humanity needs a way beyond its own power‚Äö a divinely given way‚Äö to approach God. And this, they declared, the catholic church offered to those who would be lost without it: "Outside the church there is no salvation." Their conviction was based on the premise that God created humanity. As Irenaeus says, "In this respect God differs from humanity; God makes, but humanity is made." One is the originating agent, the other the passive recipient; one is "truly perfect in all things," omnipotent, infinite, the other an imperfect and finite creature. The philosopher Justin Martyr says that when he recognized the great difference between the human mind and God, he abandoned Plato and became a Christian philosopher.

He relates that before his conversion an old man challenged his basic assumption, asking, "What affinity, then, is there between us and God? Is the soul also divine and immortal, and a part of that very regal mind?" Speaking as a disciple of Plato, Justin answered without hesitation, "Certainly." But when the old man's further questions led him to doubt that certainty, he says he realized that the human mind could not find God within itself and needed instead to be enlightened by divine revelation‚Äö by means of the Scriptures and the faith proclaimed in the church.

But some gnostic Christians went so far as to claim that humanity created God‚Äö and so, from its own inner potential, discovered for itself the revelation of truth. This conviction may underlie the ironic comment in the Gospel of Philip:
. . . God created humanity; [but now human beings] create God. That is the way it is in the world‚Äö human beings make gods, and worship their creation. It would be appropriate for the gods to worship human beings!

( ibid pages 124-128 - Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God )

New Testament sources teach that we suffer distress, mental and physical, because we fail to achieve the moral goal toward which we aim: "all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God."


Many gnostics, on the contrary, insisted that ignorance, not sin, is what involves a person in suffering. The gnostic movement shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques. Both gnosticism and psychotherapy value, above all, knowledge‚Äö the self-knowledge which is insight. They agree that, lacking this, a person experiences the sense of being driven by impulses he does not understand.


Most people live, then, in oblivion‚Äö or, in contemporary terms, in unconsciousness. Remaining unaware of their own selves, they have "no root." The Gospel of Truth describes such existence as a nightmare. Those who live in it experience "terror and confusion and instability and doubt and division," being caught in "many illusions." So, according to the passage scholars call the "nightmare parable," they lived as if they were sunk in sleep and found themselves in disturbing dreams. Either (there is) a place to which they are fleeing, or, without strength, they come (from) having chased after others, or they are involved in striking blows, or they are receiving blows themselves, or they have fallen from high places, or they take off into the air though they do not even have wings. Again, sometimes (it is as) if people were murdering them, though there is no one even pursuing them, or they themselves are killing their neighbors, for they have been stained with their blood. When those who are going through all these things wake up, they see nothing, they who were in the midst of these disturbances, for they are nothing. Such is the way of those who have cast ignorance aside as sleep, leaving [its works] behind like a dream in the night. . . . This is the way everyone has acted, as though asleep at the time when he was ignorant. And this is the way he has come to knowledge, as if he had awakened.

Whoever remains ignorant, a "creature of oblivion," cannot experience fulfillment. Gnostics said that such a person "dwells in deficiency" (the opposite of fulfillment). For deficiency consists of ignorance:

. . . As with someone's ignorance, when he comes to have knowledge, his ignorance vanishes by itself; as the darkness vanishes when light appears, so also the deficiency vanishes in the fulfillment.

Self-ignorance is also a form of self-destruction. According to the Dialogue of the Savior, whoever does not understand the elements of the universe, and of himself, is bound for annihilation:

. . . If one does not [understand] how the fire came to be, he will burn in it, because he does not know his root. If one does not first understand the water, he does not know anything. . . . If one does not understand how the wind that blows came to be, he will run with it. If one does not understand how the body that he wears came to be, he will perish with it. . . . Whoever does not understand how he came will not understand how he will go . .

How‚Äö or where‚Äö is one to seek self-knowledge? Many gnostics share with psychotherapy a second major premise: both agree‚Äö against orthodox Christianity‚Äö that the psyche bears within itself the potential for liberation or destruction. Few psychiatrists would disagree with the saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas:

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Such insight comes gradually, through effort: "Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you." Such gnostics acknowledged that pursuing gnosis engages each person in a solitary, difficult process, as one struggles against internal resistance. They characterized this resistance to gnosis as the desire to sleep or to be drunk‚Äö that is, to remain unconscious. So Jesus (who elsewhere says "I am the knowledge of the truth") declares that when he came into the world I found them all drunk; I found none of them thirsty. And my soul became afflicted for the sons of men, because they are blind in their hearts and do not have sight; for empty they came into this world, and empty they seek to leave this world. But for the moment they are drunk.

The teacher Silvanus, whose Teachings were discovered at Nag Hammadi, encourages his followers to resist unconsciousness:

. . . end the sleep which weighs heavy upon you. Depart from the oblivion which fills you with darkness . . . Why do you pursue the darkness, though the light is available for you? . . . Wisdom calls you, yet you desire foolishness. . . . a foolish man . . . goes the ways of the desire of every passion. He swims in the desires of life and has foundered. . . . he is like a ship which the wind tosses to and fro, and like a loose horse which has no rider. For this (one) needed the rider, which is reason. . . . before everything else . . . know yourself . . .

The Gospel of Thomas also warns that self-discovery involves inner turmoil:

Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over all things."

What is the source of the "light" discovered within? Like Freud, who professed to follow the "light of reason," most gnostic sources agreed that "the lamp of the body is the mind" (a saying which the Dialogue of the Savior attributes to Jesus). Silvanus, the teacher, says:

. . . Bring in your guide and your teacher. The mind is the guide, but reason is the teacher. . . . Live according to your mind . . . Acquire strength, for the mind is strong . . . Enlighten your mind . . . Light the lamp within you.

To do this, Silvanus continues,
Knock on yourself as upon a door and walk upon yourself as on a straight road. For if you walk on the road, it is impossible for you to go astray. . . . Open the door for yourself that you may know what is . . . Whatever you will open for yourself, you will open.

The Gospel of Truth expresses the same thought:
. . . If one has knowledge, he receives what is his own, and draws it to himself . . . Whoever is to have knowledge in this way knows where he 37 comes from, and where he is going.

The Gospel of Truth also expresses this in metaphor: each person must receive "his own name"‚Äö not, of course, one's ordinary name, but one's true identity. Those who are "the sons of interior knowledge" gain the power to speak their own names. The gnostic teacher addresses them:

. . . Say, then, from the heart that you are the perfect day, and in you dwells the light that does not fail. . . . For you are the understanding that is drawn forth. . . . Be concerned with yourselves; do not be concerned with other things which you have rejected from yourselves.

So, according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus ridiculed those who thought of the "Kingdom of God" in literal terms, as if it were a specific place: "If those who lead you say to you, 'Look, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds will arrive there before you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' " then, he says, the fish will arrive before you. Instead, it is a state of self-discovery :

". . . Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty."

But the disciples, mistaking that "Kingdom" for a future event, persisted in their questioning:
His disciples said to him, "When will . . . the new world come?" He said to them, "What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it." . . . His disciples said to him, "When will the Kingdom come?"

(Jesus said) "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."

That "Kingdom," then, symbolizes a state of transformed consciousness :

Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, "These infants being suckled are like those who enter the Kingdom." They said to him, "Shall we, then, as children, enter the Kingdom?" Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same . . . then you will enter [the Kingdom]."


( ibid pages 133-135 - Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God )

Such gnostic Christians saw actual events as secondary to their perceived meaning. For this reason, this type of gnosticism shares with psychotherapy a fascination with the nonliteral significance of language, as both attempt to understand the internal quality of experience. The psychoanalyst C. C. Jung has interpreted Valentinus' creation myth as a description of the psychological processes. Valentinus tells how all things originate from "the depth," the "abyss" ‚Äö in psychoanalytic terms, from the unconscious. From that "depth" emerge Mind and Truth, and from them, in turn, the Word (Logos) and Life. And it was the word that brought humanity into being. Jung read this as a mythical account of the origin of human consciousness.

A psychoanalyst might find significance as well in the continuation of this myth, as Valentinus tells how Wisdom, youngest daughter of the primal Couple, was seized by a passion to know the Father which she interpreted as love. Her attempts to know him would have led her to self-destruction had she not encountered a power called The Limit, "a power which supports all things and preserves them," which freed her of emotional turmoil and restored her to her original place. A follower of Valentinus, the author of the Gospel of Philip, explores the relationship of experiential truth to verbal description. He says that "truth brought names into existence in the world because it is not possible to teach it without names."

But truth must be clothed in symbols: "Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. One will not receive truth in any other way." This gnostic teacher criticizes those who mistake religious language for a literal language, professing faith in God, in Christ, in the resurrection or the church, as if these were all "things" external to themselves. For, he explains, in ordinary speech, each word refers to a specific, external phenomenon; a person "sees the sun without being a sun, and he sees the sky and the earth and everything else, but he is not these things." Religious language, on the other hand, is a language of internal transformation; whoever perceives divine reality "becomes what he sees":

. . . You saw the spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw [the Father, you] shall become Father. . . . you see yourself, and what you see you shall [become].

Whoever achieves gnosis becomes "no longer a Christian, but a Christ." We can see, then, that such gnosticism was more than a protest movement against orthodox Christianity. Gnosticism also included a religious perspective that implicitly opposed the development of the kind of institution that became the early catholic church. Those who expected to "become Christ" themselves were not likely to recognize the institutional structures of the church‚Äö its bishop, priest, creed, canon, or ritual‚Äö as bearing ultimate authority.

This religious perspective differentiates gnosticism not only from orthodoxy, but also, for all the similarities, from psychotherapy, for most members of the psychotherapeutic profession follow Freud in refusing to attribute real existence to the figments of imagination. They do not regard their attempt to discover what is within the psyche as equivalent to discovering the secrets of the universe. But many gnostics, like many artists, search for interior self-knowledge as the key to understanding universal truths‚Äö "who we are, where we came from, where we go."

According to the Book of Thomas the Contender, "whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depths of all things." This conviction‚Äö that whoever explores human experience simultaneously discovers divine reality‚Äö is one of the elements that marks gnosticism as a distinctly religious movement.

Simon Magus, Hippolytus reports, claimed that each human being is a dwelling place, "and that in him dwells an infinite power . . . the root of the universe." But since that infinite power exists in two modes, one actual, the other potential, so this infinite power "exists in a latent condition in everyone," but "potentially, not actually."

How is one to realize that potential? Many of the gnostic sources cited so far contain only aphorisms directing the disciple to search for knowledge, but refraining from telling anyone how to search. Discovering that for oneself is, apparently, the first step toward selfknowledge.


( ibid pages 135-141 - Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God )

Plotinus complained that the gnostics had no program for teaching: "They say only, 'Look to God!,' but they do not tell anyone where or how to look." Yet several of the sources discovered at Nag Hammadi do describe techniques of spiritual discipline.

Zostrianos, the longest text in the Nag Hammadi library, tells how one spiritual master attained enlightenment, implicitly setting out a program for others to follow.

Zostrianos relates that, first, he had to remove from himself physical desires, probably by ascetic practices. Second, he had to reduce "chaos in mind," stilling his mind with meditation. Then, he says, "after I set myself straight, I saw the perfect child"‚Äö a vision of the divine presence. Later, he says,

"I was pondering these matters in order to understand them. . . . I did not cease seeking a place of rest worthy of my spirit . . ."

But then, becoming "deeply troubled," discouraged with his progress, he went out into the desert, half anticipating being killed by wild animals. There, Zostrianos relates, he first received a vision of "the messenger of the knowledge of the eternal Light," and went on to experience many other visions, which he relates in order to encourage others:

"Why are you hesitating? Seek when you are sought; when you are invited, listen. . . . Look at the Light. Flee the darkness. Do not be led astray to your destruction."

Other gnostic sources offer more specific directions. The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth discloses an "order of tradition" that guides the ascent to higher knowledge.


Another extraordinary text, called Allogenes, which means "the stranger" (literally, "one from another race"), referring to the spiritually mature person who becomes a "stranger" to the world, also describes the stages of attaining gnosis.


Allogenes says he wrote this down for "the sake of those who will be worthy." The detailed exposition of the initiate's experience, including sections of prayers, chants, instruction, punctuated by his retreat into meditation, suggest that the text records actual techniques of initiation for attaining that self-knowledge which is knowledge of divine power within. But much of gnostic teaching on spiritual discipline remained, on principle, unwritten. For anyone can read what is written down‚Äö even those who are not "mature." Gnostic teachers usually reserved their secret instruction, sharing it only verbally, to ensure each candidate's suitability to receive it. Such instruction required each teacher to take responsibility for highly select, individualized attention to each candidate. And it required the candidate, in turn, to devote energy and time‚Äö often years‚Äö to the process.

Tertullian sarcastically compares Valentinian initiation to that of the Eleusinian mysteries, which first beset all access to their group with tormenting conditions; and they require a long initiation before they enroll their members, even instruction for five years for their adept students, so that they may educate their opinions by this suspension of full knowledge, and, apparently, raise the value of their mysteries in proportion to the longing for them which they have created. Then follows the duty of silence . . .

Obviously, such a program of discipline, like the higher levels of Buddhist teaching, would appeal only to a few. Although major themes of gnostic teaching, such as the discovery of the divine within, appealed to so many that they constituted a major threat to catholic doctrine, the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion. In this respect, it was no match for the highly effective system of organization of the catholic church, which expressed a unified religious perspective based on the New Testament canon, offered a creed requiring the initiate to confess only the simplest essentials of faith, and celebrated rituals as simple and profound as baptism and the eucharist.

The same basic framework of doctrine, ritual, and organization sustains nearly all Christian churches today, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. Without these elements, one can scarcely imagine how the Christian faith could have survived and attracted so many millions of adherents all over the world, throughout twenty centuries. For ideas alone do not make a religion powerful, although it cannot succeed without them; equally important are social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation.


( ibid pages 143-146 - Conclusion )

IT is THE WINNERS who write history‚Äö their way. No wonder, then, that the viewpoint of the successful majority has dominated all traditional accounts of the origin of Christianity. Ecclesiastical Christians first defined the terms (naming themselves "orthodox" and their opponents "heretics"); then they proceeded to demonstrate‚Äö at least to their own satisfaction‚Äö that their triumph was historically inevitable, or, in religious terms, "guided by the Holy Spirit." But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi reopen fundamental questions. They suggest that Christianity might have developed in very different directions‚Äö or that Christianity as we know it might not have survived at all. Had Christianity remained multiform, it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity. I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed.

Anyone as powerfully attracted to Christianity as I am will regard that as a major achievement. We need not be surprised, then, that the religious ideas enshrined in the creed (from "I believe in one God," who is "Father Almighty," and Christ's incarnation, death, and bodily resurrection "on the third day," to faith in the "holy, catholic, and apostolic church") coincide with social and political issues in the formation of orthodox Christianity.

Furthermore, since historians themselves tend to be intellectuals, it is, again, no surprise that most have interpreted the controversy between orthodox and gnostic Christians in terms of the "history of ideas," as if ideas, themselves assumed to be the essential mainspring of human action, battled (presumably in some disembodied state) for supremacy.

So Tertullian, himself a highly intelligent man, fond of abstract thought, complained that "heretics and philosophers" concerned themselves with the same questions. The "questions that make people heretics" are, he says, the following: Where does humanity come from, and how? Where does evil come from, and why? Tertullian insists (at least before his own violent break with the church) that the catholic church prevailed because it offered "truer" answers to these questions. Yet the majority of Christians, gnostic and orthodox, like religious people of every tradition, concerned themselves with ideas primarily as expressions or symbols of religious experience. Such experience remains the source and testing ground of all religious ideas (as, for example, a man and a woman are likely to experience differently the idea that God is masculine).

Gnosticism and orthodoxy, then, articulated very different kinds of human experience; I suspect that they appealed to different types of persons. For when gnostic Christians inquired about the origin of evil they did not interpret the term, as we do, primarily in terms of moral evil. The Greek term kakia (like the English term "ill-ness") originally meant "what is bad"‚Äö what one desires to avoid, such as physical pain, sickness, suffering, misfortune, every kind of harm. When followers of Valentinus asked about the source of kakia, they referred especially to emotional harm‚Äö fear, confusion, grief.

According to the Gospel of Truth, the process of self-discovery begins as a person experiences the "anguish and terror" of the human condition, as if lost in a fog or haunted in sleep by terrifying nightmares. Valentinus' myth of humanity's origin, as we have seen, describes the anticipation of death and destruction as the experiential beginning of the gnostic's search. "They say that all materiality was formed from three experiences [or: sufferings]: terror, pain, and confusion [aporia; literally, "roadless-ness," not knowing where to go]."

Since such experiences, especially the fear of death and dissolution, are located, in the first place, in the body, the gnostic tended to mistrust the body, regarding it as the saboteur that inevitably engaged him in suffering. Nor did the gnostic trust the blind forces that prevail in the universe; after all, these are the forces that constitute the body. What can bring release? Gnostics came to the conviction that the only way out of suffering was to realize the truth about humanity's place and destiny in the universe. Convinced that the only answers were to be found within, the gnostic engaged on an intensely private interior journey.

Whoever comes to experience his own nature‚Äö human nature‚Äö as itself the "source of all things," the primary reality, will receive enlightenment. Realizing the essential Self, the divine within, the gnostic laughed in joy at being released from external constraints to celebrate his identification with the divine being:

The gospel of truth is a joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the grace of knowing him . . . For he discovered them in himself, and they discovered him in themselves, the incomprehensible, inconceivable one, the Father, the perfect one, the one who made all things.

In the process, gnostics celebrated‚Äö their opponents said they overwhelmingly exaggerated‚Äö the greatness of human nature. Humanity itself, in its primordial being, was disclosed to be the "God over all." The philosopher Plotinus, who agreed with his master, Plato, that the universe was divinely created and that nonhuman intelligences, including the stars, share in immortal soul, castigated the gnostics for "thinking very well of themselves, and very ill of the universe."

Although, as the great British scholar Arthur Darby Nock has stated, gnosticism "involves no recoil from society, but a desire to concentrate on inner well being," the gnostic pursued an essentially solitary path. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises this solitude: "Blessed are the solitary and the chosen, for you will find the Kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return." This solitude derives from the gnostics' insistence on the primacy of immediate experience. No one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act.

The gnostic could not accept on faith what others said, except as a provisional measure, until one found one's own path, "for," as the gnostic teacher Heracleon says, "people at first are led to believe in the Savior through others," but when they become mature "they no longer rely on mere human testimony," but discover instead their own immediate relationship with "the truth itself." Whoever follows secondhand testimony‚Äö even testimony of the apostles and the Scriptures‚Äö could earn the rebuke Jesus delivered to his disciples when they quoted the prophets to him: "You have ignored the one living in your presence and have spoken (only) of the dead."

Only on the basis of immediate experience could one create the poems, vision accounts, myths, and hymns that gnostics prized as proof that one actually has attained gnosis. Compared with that achievement, all others fall away. If "the many"‚Äö unenlightened people‚Äö believed that they would find fulfillment in family life, sexual relationships, business, politics, ordinary employment or leisure, the gnostic rejected this belief as illusion. Some radicals rejected all transactions involving sexuality or money: they claimed that whoever rejects sexual intercourse and Mammon "shows [that] he is [from] the generation of the [Son of Man] ."

Others, like the Valentinians, married, raised children, worked at ordinary employment, but like devout Buddhists, regarded all these as secondary to the solitary, interior path of gnosis.

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, articulated a different kind of experience. Orthodox Christians were concerned‚Äö far more than gnostics‚Äö with their relationships with other people. If gnostics insisted that humanity's original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially "good." The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the Mosaic code, which prohibits physical violation of others‚Äö murder, stealing, adultery‚Äö in terms of Jesus' prohibition against even mental and emotional violence‚Äö anger, lust, hatred. Agreeing that human suffering derives from human fault, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth's plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars, and trees form an appropriate home for humanity.

As part of that "good" creation, the orthodox recognized the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation, and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as "fullness of God" come down into human experience‚Äö into bodily experience‚Äö to sacralize it. Irenaeus declares that Christ did not despise or evade any condition of humanity, nor set aside for himself the law which he had appointed for the human race, but sanctified every age

. . . He therefore passes through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are at this age . . . a youth for youths . . . and . . . because he was an old man for old people . . . sanctifying at the same time the aged also . . . then, at last, he came onto death itself.