The Theosophical Forum – November 1949

COPTIC GNOSTIC MSS. — Charles J. Ryan

Theosophical students are well aware of H. P. Blavatsky's frequent references to the unexpected discoveries of ancient archeological or literary remains which seem to be "accidentally" made just at the appropriate time to solve unexplained problems. One of these, and a most important one for Theosophy, is just attracting wide attention. We refer to the discovery by peasants at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1946 of 850 pages of Coptic Gnostic manuscript on papyrus sheets. The Egyptian Government bought a portion soon after they came to light for $240,000, and now it is acquiring the rest. Translation by distinguished scholars is being made, and with the text, will be published as soon as possible at Louvain, Belgium, sometimes called a "Phoenix of learning" from the brilliant work of resurrection of ancient documents it has done.

According to H. P. B., the Gnostic teachings precede by some hundreds of years the Christian Gospels, and are directly derived from Babylonia and India. She says:

A Brahmin needs only to read Pistis Sophia to recognize his forefathers" property, even to the phraseology and similes used. . . . Pistis Sophia is an extremely important document, a genuine Evangel of the Gnostics. . . . It is genuine and ought to be as canonical as any other gospel.
     — The Secret Doctrine, II, 566

G. R. S. Mead's translation and comments were originally published in H. P. B.'s Lucifer.

H. P. B. shows that when the Essenes (a Gnostic sect) disappeared in the beginning of the second century b.c. their place was filled by the Christian Gnostics who introduced Platonism, etc., into Christianity, adapting many of the teachings of the ancient Theosophy to the framework of the growing Christian faith and even taking over the names of sacred personages employed by the early Christians. (See Isis Unveiled II, 325, and the valuable quotations from Renan on pages 334-5). On page 12, Vol. I, H. P. B. shows that the Gnostics held firmly to the doctrine of metempsychosis or transmigration "in its esoteric sense," so widely accepted at that time, and adds that the Gnostics are "unhesitatingly proclaimed by history as a body of the most refined, learned, and enlightened men." In The Secret Doctrine, II, 389, she explains how certain early Christian sects were denounced as heretical through complete misunderstanding of the secret meaning of their particular teachings. After explaining some of these, she adds:

As a direct consequence, the tenets of the Gnostic sects also become clear. Each of these sects was founded by an Initiate, while their tenets were based on the correct knowledge of the symbolism of every nation.

It is most regrettable that very little remains of the pure teachings of Gnosticism. As H. P. B. says, every effort was made after the days of Constantine, when the Church became entangled with the State, to destroy every vestige of Gnosticism. How the Pistis Sophia escaped is a wonder, but though a very important contribution to our knowledge of Gnosticism it is only a fragment of the teachings. Scholars have had to depend mostly on scraps of information derived from its prejudiced critics. For this reason the publication of a genuine Coptic Gnostic text of the magnitude of the newly discovered MS. will be a great event not only to scholars of Christian Theology but to students of Theosophy, who will now have the rare opportunity of studying one of the ancient presentations of the Esoteric Wisdom as given out by its own followers and not garbled or mutilated by its enemies.

A well-informed contributor to The Manchester Guardian, England, who reports the forthcoming publication, makes some remarks of great significance to Theosophical students as they show that modern scholars are considering Gnosticism from almost, if not quite, the position taken by H. P. B., though of course without her understanding of the real importance of it as a part of the ancient world-wide "Wisdom Religion." When she wrote on the subject her views must have been highly unpalatable to the orthodox theologians. But times are changing.

The contributor to the Guardian writes:

The study of the vast mass of new documents from Nag Hammadi (most of which have so far only been read cursorily by one man, M. Doresse) will cast light on the question whether Gnosticism is a later product of religious thought than Christianity or whether it may not be older and have adopted the names of Christ and the Christian saints when these gained prestige. There is some reason to think that the same revelations were attributed successively to Zoroaster, Seth, and Christ. . . . The first impression of the new manuscript seems to suggest that the non-Christian element in Gnosticism is of very great importance.

We might ask the writer why "the non-Christian element" should be so important unless it contains revelations of the true origin of the comparatively modern presentation of the Ancient Wisdom, called Christianity, as well as matter that will tear away the obscurities that have been placed in the canonical Gospels to protect the deeper interpretation of their content from being profaned by the unprepared, "blinds," as H. P. B. calls them.

The writer touches on another problem of interest to all students of the religions of the Near East when he refers to Manicheism, "the synthetic religion which competed so long successfully with Christianity and spread as far as China. How far did Mani take over a synthesis already made by the Gnostics and merely give it the impetus of his personality and his gift for organizing a Church?"

H. P. B. in Isis speaks of Manicheism as a Gnostic sect, which regarded Buddha, Jesus and Mani as essentially one.

It will easily be seen how important in our studies of the various forms under which the Ancient Wisdom Religion has been presented, this new and unexpected discovery of original documents is likely to prove in view of H. P. B.'s teachings in regard to Gnosticism.


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