The Theosophical Forum – March 1940

GNOSTICISM — P. A. Malpas

(Extract from a letter)

Dear Friend: You ask what I think of your programme of study, including a discussion on Gnosticism. I think it fine, but here in a small country village miles from anywhere, I have no books at all, so can only give some general hints from memory, as accurately as I can.

In the first centuries of the current era there were many groups and societies in the Mediterranean countries and the Near East which combined some special symbolical religious system with secret teachings. They can be called Mystery-Schools. Some were kabbalistic; some were more or less degenerated mystery-systems; some are more properly called gnostic. Strictly translated, the Greek word gnostic means "one who knows." In India the word Buddhist means one who has wisdom. A Jain means probably much the same thing as a Gnostic, etymologically speaking. The Jains are said to have been the early teachers of Gautama the Buddha. In Latin the word scientist should mean "one who knows" but as our modern official scientists of the West have scrupulously cut themselves off from all that cannot be weighed in a balance or examined in a test-tube they labour under serious limitations. Fortunately, since the advent of Madame Blavatsky official science has been forced to recognise inner unseen worlds and is now so far advanced as to realize that the outer phenomenal world is nothing in comparison therewith. By a "coincidence" the first breaches in the wall were made by such men as Sir William Crookes in H. P. B.'s time. Now we have progressed much farther. Soon the word science will mean what it ought to mean, knowledge on all available planes.

The Mandeans (oddly enough once called "Christians of St. John the Baptist" — although he was never a Christian) are similarly "people who know." Also the word pistis in the gospels means (higher manasic?) knowledge, but has curiously enough been crystallized into the English conception "faith," which is not knowledge at all. I am of opinion that the very first pre-church Christianity was also "Gnosticism" and not faith at all with its adepts, if any. At any rate the historic "Founder of Christianity" was "one who knew." Even in the gospels of a far later date he is made to say of political (?) opponents, "You hold fast the keys of the Gnosis and prevent those who wish to enter in from doing so." (The word gnosis is translated in English "knowledge" thereby completely missing the point.) In Timothy we also read a warning against science or knowledge falsely so called — and the word is really the gnosis. This must have been written after the time when "Christianity" had so far lost all knowledge (as opposed to "faith') that "Gnosticism" was regarded as a deadly enemy.

Some of the leaders of the Gnostic schools were renowned — Basilides, the god-taught, Marcion, Valentinus. In The Secret Doctrine it is pointed out that the leaders of these Gnostic schools were initiates in the mysteries.

To me, Marcion is specially interesting. He was the son of a Black Sea shipowner in Sinope or Trebizond, I think. He was rich. He brought £1500 with him into the Church and that was a great sum in those days. They wanted to make him head of the Church at Rome — Pope as we should say. But there was a difficulty — they wanted him in exchange for their support to obey their political orders, so to say. He refused and left the church. They made the best of it and declared virtuously that they had thrown him out as a heretic, with his money. So passed the last one in the church at that time who really knew anything. It is true such folk as Origen also knew a little but the case was different. Faith with the passing of Gnosticism took the place of knowledge. Actually one or two Gnostic societies survived until recent centuries in Europe, but persecution finally annihilated them — they were at last only shadows of what Gnosticism had once been.

It was this Marcion who about the year 135 a. d. cut out about one-third of the Gospel of Luke as we have it, reducing it to the proportions it had possibly about the year 110. He cut out among other things the childhood stories and the political anti-Herodian and other additions. If he was actually the writer or re-editor of Luke, he could very well do this — but it is quite possible that even Marcion's Luke was a greatly expanded gospel of earlier date than 110 a. d., this earlier gospel occupying perhaps only a few pages of a lodge-ritual. He seems to have been one of the two main writers or editors of Acts also.

Marcion's interpretation of the Christos saga is ingenious and very interesting. His gnostic Christ is not a historical man (the historical Jesus was added later), but the type of the higher man in all men, we might say perhaps the Buddhi-Manas in Sanskrit technology. I suppose this is a good example of a paradox. "Jesus" was a historical man or Avatara, but the original gospel does not seem to have referred to a historical Christ or Jesus at all. Only later was he put in as a type of the generality therein described. So when one man says, "The Christ of the Gospel is not historical," and another says "Jesus was indeed a historical character," both may be perfectly right. The paradox lies in the absence of the connecting links explaining precisely what each statement means. There are many such paradoxes.

Later, when the church had forgotten what had once been known, and had therefore ceased to be Gnostic, that church fought a bitter fight against the "Gnostics" as if they were some terrible species of heretics.

About fifty years after the drama of Marcion another little drama took the stage. About 180 a. d. we hear of curious doings at Lyons in Gaul. The "bishop" there, Irenaeus, quarreled with the "Gnostics" — quite likely his own lodge from which he might have demitted. It looks as if Irenaeus published the Gospel of John at this time — a gospel quite distinct from the other three. At any rate, John appeared about now, and it might have previously been the private ritual of some lodge and by no means so old as the synoptics.

Irenaeus seems to betray an odd situation. The Gnostics forced him into a corner by saying that "Jesus" in the gospels had such a short time for his mission that he could not found and train a body of disciples to form a church in say eighteen months or three years. The taunt was so obviously true that Irenaeus is forced to say that Jesus preached for twenty years and died at the age of fifty-two, or thereabouts (I think I have the numbers approximately correct).

Very well. Then are we to suppose that Irenaeus knew perfectly well that the gospel story is pure allegory and that the historical Jesus is quite "another story'? It looks like it. Certainly the Jewish Talmud "Lives of Jesus" do suggest that he was active until his fifty-second year — but this was the historical Jesus, not the gospel Christ (or Jesus as he was before he died and became a Christ). If this is the solution then here we have a very interesting confirmation of the idea of the original gospel as a lodge-ritual, but not as history. The seemingly historical dates and names can be explained in another way — Tiberius, Herod, Pilate, etc.

What has all this to do with us? A great deal. Because Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society in our age, and the real bringer of Theosophy to our modern world once more (acting as agent for others still greater than herself), was a "Gnostic" in the true sense of the word — she knew — and it was her business to wake in us the faculty of knowing, or at least the faculty of recognising that such is possible, plus an effort to attain it. So in a minor sense we are also Gnostics, or should be. We are against no churches, but we do help churches to regain the life they once had and to get rid of the accumulated rubbish (often political) of the ages which has overlaid their gospel. If they have only faith and not pistis, which is perhaps spiritual knowledge, that is their business, and if some few of them resent the fact that we seek knowledge rather than (blind) faith, we must be patient and wait until they see more light. If we claim that some of us have more light, more intuition, than others, and that some of us have experience confirming the possibility of its attainment, that is all the more reason for us to be kindly and to meet resentment with calm reserve — for time heals all things. Was there ever an age in the world's history when people had not to be given time to accustom themselves to more light when they were fortunate to get it?


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