Gnosticism and Christianity

By Hugo Oosterwijk

It is always the winners who write the history of a conflict, and for 2,000 years orthodox opinion on what were called heretics has dominated traditional accounts of the origin of Christianity. Until recently widely held opinion among Christians considered the early church a charismatic, united body of people, inspired by the life of Jesus and all believing in the same basic teachings. The heretics came later, so it was thought, when the Apostles and the generation of those who knew them had passed away.

This illusion was shattered by two of the most important archaeological discoveries of this century: the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea in 1947; and the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in 1945 in Egypt. While the Dead Sea Scrolls raised doubts about the historicity — even the identity — of Jesus, the Nag Hammadi texts opened an entirely new vista on early Christian communities.

It took some 30 years before the Nag Hammadi texts were translated and published, due to delay caused by endless intrigues and manipulations which did little credit to the scholars involved. It is also well known that access to the texts was deliberately suppressed because — as was generally suspected — orthodox Christians feared the revelation of facts which might upset the faith of believers. As it turned out, their fears were well-founded. Meanwhile the literary floodgates on this subject have been opened, with thousands of publications on the Nag Hammadi Library. And the arguments among historians and theologians show no signs of abating.

What are these texts about, and why are they of such tremendous importance? For one thing, we find in them at last what the Gnostics themselves were saying about their teachings, and also what they thought of their orthodox opponents. Until recently, available information was largely based on writings of contemporary churchmen who opposed the Gnostics by all available means: for nearly 2,000 years Christian traditionalists, while destroying the Gnostic writings, preserved and revered orthodox writings that denounce them. It should not surprise us to find the Gnostics in their turn denouncing the orthodox as heretics and proclaiming themselves to be the true believers.

Also, we find that simple, spiritual unity in the early Christian community is clearly a myth. The suspicions of some historians were confirmed: from the beginning the early church was deeply split on major issues. What did come as a surprise to many was the large number of gospels in circulation during the first and second centuries. Those included in the Nag Hammadi Library express strikingly different views of Jesus and his mission from the gospels accepted as orthodox a century or so later. For that reason they throw doubts on the authenticity of the four canonical gospels. In fact, Paul Johnson, editor of the New Statesman (1965-1970), says in A History of Christianity: "When we turn to the earliest sources in Christianity we enter a terrifying jungle of scholarly contradictions." Of course, most of the authors of the gospels — Christian and Gnostic — were writing theology rather than history, and for quite some time the oral tradition was considered perhaps the more reliable source. However, by the time Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote his famous work against what he termed "the so-called Gnostics" at the end of the second century, the oral tradition had gone for good and, Johnson adds, "Irenaeus, professionally engaged in putting down heresies and establishing truth, knew no more about the origin of the gospels than we do — rather less, in fact."

The Gnostic gospels were often ascribed by their authors to Apostles such as John, James, Peter, and Thomas, and sometimes to Mary Magdalena, Herod, and Pilate. Other of their writings were associated with Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Adam, Eve, Seth, Enoch, and others. However, it is believed on good grounds that many of the Gnostic esoteric teachings were transmitted only orally and not written down at all. For that reason they could not be attacked by the orthodox and may well remain a mystery.

It seems that Gnostic sects — under a variety of names — often held their own meetings, but many Gnostics remained in the official church. They must have been present from very early times and for quite a while their views were not officially condemned. For all we know they may originally not have been thought of as unorthodox, and the question has been asked whether Gnosticism and Christianity were not, in fact, divergent branches of the same tree.

The origin of Gnosticism is now generally believed to be pre-Christian. While all were perhaps nominal Christians, there were Christian and Jewish Gnostics and also an older pagan variety. The last named, especially, had elements of Egyptian Hermetic thought, astrological teachings which can be traced back to Babylonian religious concepts, and Platonic ideas. Most of the sects professed a type of dualism which was decidedly Persian.

With nearly all Gnostics, Jesus Christ had a central place, even if most of them denied Jesus' real humanity and his actual, physical death. Some historians believe that the early so-called Docetic teaching — that Jesus was not a man but a spiritual being associated with the Logos, who could adopt any form — was based on the apparent contradiction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Jesus' earthly life was so largely one of humiliation — so contrary to his past glory — that it seemed the simplest way out was to deny the reality of his earthly life altogether.

On the other hand, the orthodox rejected the Gnostic view that Jesus was only apparently physical but in reality a spiritual being, insisting that he, like the rest of humanity, was born, lived in a family, became hungry and tired, suffered and died. They even went so far as to insist that he rose bodily from the dead. In other words, the orthodox tradition implicitly affirms bodily experience as the central fact of human life, while the Gnostics viewed the material world and physical life as nearly wholly evil and as an obstacle to salvation.

The conflict between Gnosticism and what later became orthodoxy eventually centered around this historicity. The orthodox insisted that a belief in the historical Jesus was essential for one's salvation. The Gnostics, on the other hand, either denied those so-called historical facts or considered them irrelevant to their salvation.

To understand the bitterness of the struggle we may have to look at the social and political consequences of the supposed bodily resurrection of Jesus. The difference may not strike us now as very important, but for early Christianity it was essential. We have to take into account that traditionally all church authority derived from someone who had actually witnessed the resurrection. It was Peter who, according to Catholic tradition, was the first witness, although both Mark and Luke mentioned Mary Magdalena as the first one. Therefore, Peter was the rightful founder of the church and passed on this authority to his successors. The belief is so basic to Catholic theology that no differing view could be tolerated without endangering the legitimacy of the entire clerical hierarchy from the Pope down to the ordinary priest.

Gnosticism, which took elements from many sources, professed to be based on gnosis, the Greek word for "knowledge," or rather "insight." It is a transcendental knowledge of God's redemptive purpose, and this redemption is effected through the Logos who is Christ. The resurrected Christ is an inner spiritual experience and the gnosis is the secret knowledge which Jesus gave to his immediate followers to be shared only with those of sufficient spiritual maturity.

While it is difficult to find one's way in the complexity of Gnostic belief, it is possible to indicate some points on which most of the sects were in agreement. These include:

1) The Godhead — as in Hinduism and theosophy — is eternal, infinite, and absolute. It is, in fact, beyond the range of human thought. Silence can best express it. He or It does not create in the Biblical sense — making something out of nothing. He emanates from himself manifestations as reflections, and among those emanations is the creator of earth and material things, known as the Demiurge and usually identified with the Old Testament Jehovah, the God of Israel. Jehovah is said to have created an imperfect, even evil, world and he is ignorant of the existence of the real Godhead, believing himself to be the absolute ruler of the universe. So while the God of the Old Testament was rejected as the lower deity who created the wholly evil phenomenal world (and sometimes was even identified with Satan), it was Jesus the Christ who revealed the High God, the Father within.

2) Man is a mixture of spirit and matter but has a spark of the Highest — the Pleroma. For man to be saved he must be freed from his bondage to the visible world and its rulers, the planetary spirits. The means of his salvation is gnosis — a mystical, spiritual enlightenment for the initiated, which brings them into contact with the realm of spiritual realities. This process is described in the Nag Hammadi text called The Gospel of Truth, which contains a powerful statement on the human condition as an emptiness, ignorance, and dereliction to be healed by the saving revelation of Christ. Many Gnostics insisted that ignorance — not sin in the orthodox Christian meaning — is what involves mankind in suffering (as do Buddhists, with whom they share other basic views). Most Gnostics believed that man must wake up, must become aware of his condition and the possibility of his release.

Irenaeus was perhaps one of the first theologians who understood what was at stake in the conflict between Gnosticism and Christianity. The central point was the question whether Jesus was a historical figure wholly human while on earth: living, suffering, and dying. According to Irenaeus, what gave Christianity its distinctive identity was not in the first place a body of doctrine or a rule of life, but the proclamation of a few simple facts — and those facts were of the man Jesus, born under Augustus Caesar, executed under Pontius Pilate, resurrected from death three days later. Anyone who denied one or all of these was a heretic.

Johnson poses the question in the Prologue of his book: "Is it possible [for a Christian] to write of Christianity with the requisite degree of historical detachment?" Most Christians have argued that skeptical or critical methods of historical research are incompatible with Christian belief. It is of course for that reason that archaeological finds like those of Nag Hammadi have such a traumatic effect on those Christians who desperately want to cling to their faith. We may add, it is also clear why in all historical accounts of the early centuries, including the gospels, there are so many interpolations and, no doubt, omissions. Throughout 2,000 years of Christianity, Christians engaged in historical research were tempted and often seduced to fit the facts into the pattern of their own preconceived theological views.

The spread of Gnosticism, which reached a peak about 135-160 AD but continued for a long time afterwards, was no doubt possible because orthodoxy was at first weakly organized and its creed poorly defined. When both the organization and the definition of the creed improved, Gnosticism lost influence; and when the Church finally became the state religion and received the active support of the emperor, Gnostic and other "heresies" were actively suppressed and their followers persecuted. The outcome of the conflict was perhaps never much in doubt because the orthodox church had in the simplicities of its historical faith a ready-made rallying point. The Gnostics, on the other hand, while counting among them some of the finest minds, were essentially individual thinkers with little theological consistency and with a poor organization.

Gnostics could not accept on faith what others said, except as a provisional measure until one found one's own path; and even if Gnostics generally did not recoil from society, they essentially pursued a solitary path. In The Gospel of Thomas Jesus praises this attitude: "Blessed are the solitary and the chosen for you will find the Kingdom. For you are from it and to it you will return." And this solitude derives from the Gnostic insistence on the primacy of immediate experience.

Much of the Gnostic teachings — especially that part concerning spiritual discipline — is unwritten. It was considered suitable only for the select candidate who was often required to devote years of energy and time to the process of making himself mature. Such a program of discipline would obviously appeal only to the few. While major themes — such as the "Father within" and the equal status of men and women in the church community — appealed to so many that Gnosticism was seen as a major threat to the orthodox church, the complex Gnostic philosophy together with its severe discipline were obstacles preventing Gnosticism from becoming a mass religion.

The Gnostics were certainly no match for the highly effective system of organization of the official church. Neither could they match the uncomplicated requirements for the ordinary believer and the (to many) attractive rituals of Baptism and Eucharist. Of course, the orthodox church had the built-in promise of salvation for those who lived and died in the faith because the church claimed a monopoly for dispensing this salvation. The Gnostics, on the other hand, had individually to earn their salvation the hard way.

What do we know about Gnostic practices? Here again we have to rely mostly on the accounts of their enemies, who would be inclined to stress excesses and be silent on Gnostic virtues. It seems likely, however, that the very individual character of Gnostic convictions made it possible for them to apply their beliefs in many different ways. Practices, therefore, cover the extremes from ascetic excesses on the one hand to licentiousness on the other. All this is perhaps not much different from Christian practices although the church would, of course, not ostensibly sanction excesses.

The Gnostic belief survived only as a river driven underground, resurfacing in various forms time and again throughout the Middle Ages and later. Nearly all the great Christian mystics had recognizable traces of Gnostic ideas in their beliefs and many of them found themselves on that account on the edge of orthodoxy. In common with many artists and philosophers, they were all fascinated by the figure of Christ and turned constantly to Christian symbols; yet they found themselves in revolt against orthodox institutions.

An increasing number of people today share that experience. They cannot accept the final authority of the Scriptures, the Apostles, or the Church. They feel strongly that their faith must be based on more solid foundations than the authority of fallible human beings or, for that matter, on historical events, descriptions of which contradict one another to such a degree. Many of them are convinced that the source of all knowledge, all wisdom, and all the mysteries of the universe are somehow within themselves — accessible to them if they live the life and know and understand, but above all, subdue their lower natures.

It is tempting to see in the present global turmoil similarities with conditions around the beginning of this era. Times were equally turbulent; expectations of the imminent arrival of a messiah were as common as expectations of a second coming now; self-appointed gurus, teachers, prophets, and saviors were then as much in evidence; and, as at that time, the old beliefs are dying: the ancient pagan beliefs lost against Christianity, and Christianity in its turn is now losing against something which has not yet clearly expressed itself.

Once again old Gnostic ideas are around, in modern dress but recognizable in their basic clarity. Again the emphasis is on the individual's own responsibility, finding his own truth and doing his own thing. Again God is within as he, of course, always was — he is no longer somewhere out there. Most of all, the realization is growing that we are one; that all humanity and everything around us belong to one vast organism where cooperation and mutual help is not only an ideal but a real necessity for the well-being, even the survival, of all.

Some years ago I saw an article in a Dutch newspaper headed: "New European Religion? Perhaps." A large group of conservative Protestant theologians had jointly published a statement that they felt threatened by a new religious wave with a "pagan flavor." We also believe that this age of transition reintroduces pre-Christian ideas into our thought life, because Gnosticism with all its excesses had and still has the elements of the ancient wisdom which makes it a perennial philosophy — ever recurring. But far from being a danger, we believe that it may herald a new spirit and a new hope for humanity.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)


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