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To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens, but to them it has not been given. — Matthew 13:11
I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice. — John 18:37
"What is truth?" Pilate asked — a question worthy of a philosopher. For nearly two millennia Christian theologians, clergy, and laymen alike have tried to answer this question and define their identity as people "of the truth." But conflicts soon arose over what Jesus taught, and visible borders began to be inscribed defining truth and error, right views and heresy, and, inevitably, "our God and your god" — a tragic paradox in a faith that teaches gentle loving wisdom. Discerning Jesus' actual teachings is another paradox. "Seek and you will find" is commended in both Testaments, and our surest answer is said to be in our hearts. But as to scripture and tradition, who defines truth and what is spiritually authentic?
Rehearsing again a chain of events frequently observed in religions illustrates the problem*: A teacher like Jesus or Gautama begins to teach. He isn't well known — people are often satisfied with their own faith or occupied with other matters. Historians may miss him completely, causing later generations to wonder if he existed at all. Most people reject him, for he does not fulfill their expectations of what a teacher should be, and his teachings do not jibe with their own beliefs. Indeed, they often appear novel and strange, challenging established norms. But a few recognize the worth of the message and, being deeply inspired, share it with others. In time a tradition forms to preserve and transmit the teachings, which may eventually be written down. However, as this may occur decades or even centuries after the teacher's passing, his original message may be partially forgotten, infused with foreign doctrines, or otherwise altered. Further difficulties arise when we learn there are both public and private teachings, the inner mysteries being reserved for the "spiritually mature" — an early Christian phrase. Leaving aside writings which are lost or destroyed, virtually all records of teachings are edited, some with text inserted, modified, or deleted and variant readings due to scribal errors. They are also translated, sometimes mistranslated, copies are made from copies, and over the years, little by little, the original message erodes.
*See "Cyclic Renewal of the Theosophic Spirit," Sunrise, April/May 1997.
There are yet more serious problems: as soon as the teacher departs, discussion arises over the content of the message. One disciple thinks the Master intended one meaning, another something different. In trying to preserve and explain the true teachings, schools of interpretation are formed, points of agreement decided upon, dogmas formalized, and there follows one schism after another — not to mention the proliferation of counterfeit teachers and new revelations — all claiming spiritual authority, until at length we have a smorgasbord of conflicting doctrines, systems, and groups. A replay of the tower of Babel — a confusion of "languages" — and, regrettably, a pattern from which few religious movements have been exempt.
First page of the Gospel according to Thomas, from Nag Hammadi Library
This pattern, as it applies to Christian history, is well known to scholars, clergy, and the educated public. However, since the 1945 discovery of a unique collection of early Christian documents at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, augmented by the Jewish Dead Sea scrolls and other 20th-century finds, the ways in which this story has been interpreted, understood, and retold have distinctly changed. In 2003 several books by respected scholars of early Christianity have synthesized over a half-century's work on the Nag Hammadi writings and their relationship to traditional Christianity. Taken together, four of these books offer a thoughtful, accessible, yet detailed study of the diversity of early Christian communities from the time of Jesus to the formation of the New Testament canon, and the diverse ways in which that history has been told since.* As their titles indicate, they focus on those groups and writings which emphasized Jesus' secret teachings — the mysteries and hidden wisdom of God referred to in the New Testament — and the importance of gnosis ("knowledge," spiritual discernment, or enlightenment) as both necessary to, and the fruit of, spiritual regeneration.
*Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Random House, New York, 2003; ISBN 0375501568, 258 pages, hardcover, $24.95.
Marvin Meyer, Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark, Trinity Press Int'l, Harrisburg, PA, 2003; ISBN 1563384094, 208 pages, paperback, $23.00.
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003; ISBN 0195141830, 336 pages, hardcover, $30.00.
Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2003; ISBN 067401071x, 358 pages, hardcover, $29.95.
Up to 1945 most information about the Gnostics was second and third hand, derived mainly from the censorious writings of the early heresiologists, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Epiphanius.* Their efforts were largely motivated by the perceived need to define the content of faith in order to weld together a cohesive Christian community, whose fragile existence was frequently threatened by persecution without and divided opinion within. Aside from combating distortion, fantasy, and imposture, one of the most intractable problems centered on esoteric knowledge — the mysteries alluded to by Jesus: how to define the indefinable, "that which cannot be, or is unlawful to be uttered," and to distinguish it from what they felt was "falsely so-called gnosis." Just as in today's living New Age laboratory, there was a surfeit of divergent claims in the first few centuries of the Christian era. As Bart Ehrman points out, winners write the history books and choose the sacred texts. For the early "proto-orthodox" Church Fathers, creating a Christian identity meant not only defining the structures and contents of faith, but also defining their opponents by showing how different, wrong, and evil their doctrines were — in contrast to Jesus' authentic teachings as transmitted by the apostles and their appointed heirs. However, the documents found at Nag Hammadi,† many of which also claim apostolic authority, reveal a picture of some of these "lost Christianities" that doesn't mesh with the standard versions in significant and fundamental ways.
*The words gnosis, gnostic, and gnosticism are being reevaluated in light of the new material — a central issue in Karen King's study. Prior to 1945, only a few works by Christian gnostics were available, such as the Pistis Sophia and the two Books of Jeu, as well as some non-Christian Hermetic, Mandaean, and Manichaean texts (see Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, 1987, pp. 25-30). One can also speak of an Orphic, Pythagorean, Platonic, and an Oriental gnosis, but all of these including the Jewish and Christian are part of a larger story concerning the universal Mystery tradition.
† Full text translations are collected in a single volume, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, ed., 3rd edition.
The four titles under review arrange themselves into a natural sequence, Elaine Pagels' book providing a graciously-written entry into the subject that distills over three decades of direct scholarship in the field and a lifelong personal involvement with Christian faith. Aimed at a general audience, Beyond Belief gives a broad overview of the central issues of early Christian history, and is refreshingly uncluttered with scholarly apparatus, though it contains ample endnotes with references and suggested books for further study. One critic, however, described her book as "'religion lite' for the PBS crowd," arguing that "almost every generalization could be challenged or modified." (Pheme Perkins, America: The National Catholic Weekly, July 7, 2003) No doubt they could, but it seems to me this is a healthy part of spiritual discovery and one of the most effective ways of avoiding dogmatism. And here Elaine Pagels excels with candor and insight, inviting the reader to participate with her in the search for truth.
As a young teenager, having always been fascinated by John's Gospel, Pagels joined an evangelical church, where she found what she then craved: "the assurance of belonging to the right group, the true 'flock' that alone belonged to God." Yet in contrast to Jesus' teaching to "love one another," she gradually became aware of disturbing undercurrents in John's Gospel, a pronounced antisemitism and condemnation of unbelievers. Before long, she also learned the "cost of inclusion":
The leaders of the church I attended directed their charges not to associate with outsiders, except to convert them. Then, after a close friend was killed in an automobile accident at the age of sixteen, my fellow evangelicals commiserated but declared that, since he was Jewish and not "born again," he was eternally damned. Distressed and disagreeing with their interpretation — and finding no room for discussion — I realized that I was no longer at home in their world and left that church. — p. 31
Several years later, still wondering what was so compelling about Christianity, Pagels decided to look for the "real Christianity" and entered the Harvard University doctoral program, there to discover what was then little known outside of academic and theological circles: gospels and apocrypha (secret books) written during the first centuries containing sayings, rituals, and dialogues attributed to Jesus and his disciples — many of them among the 52 tractates comprising the Nag Hammadi library. These revealed to her a diversity within the early Christian movement that the later "official" versions of Christian history had effectively suppressed. And their content challenged her. Predisposed by Irenaeus's denunciation of secret writings as "an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ," she had expected the texts to be "garbled, pretentious, and trivial. Instead I was surprised to find in some of them unexpected spiritual power" (p. 32).
The discourse of heresy employs a number of strategies. One is to tar opponents who share similar characteristics with the same brush, lump them all into a few oversimplified categories, label them, and derogate the terms (e.g., gnostic, heretic). Although the Church Fathers did not use the word Gnosticism — coined by 17th-century Englishman Henry More — its principal characteristics are usually defined and understood as elitist secret knowledge (only the elect are saved) and a radical devaluation of the world and its creator, the god of Genesis. Irenaeus complained bitterly about those Christians who claimed to have received the "second baptism" enabling them to join the more select circles of the spiritually mature:
they call those who belong to the church "common," and "ecclesiastic". . . [S]uch a person is so elated that he imagines he . . . has already entered within the "fullness of God" . . . and goes strutting around with a superior expression on his face, with all the pomposity of a cock. — Against Heresies, quoted in Pagels, p. 137
Undoubtedly there were some who were offensive, just as there are religious believers, academics, and others today who feel very superior about their own knowledge. But most of the "initiated" were probably very much like earnest truth seekers in every age who may experience an illuminating insight, received gratefully, humbly, and silently.
While some Gnostic texts, when read literally, disparage the material world as the failed creation of an ignorant Demiurge (creator) — implying that evil arises out of ignorance — and accordingly urge the spiritually enlightened to escape its blinding, soul-killing influence, other texts are less extreme. In these, the world's conflicting elements and imperfections, including the "defective Logos," are viewed from a transformational rather than an escapist and rigidly negative perspective: everyone is the chosen of God potentially, and the highest good is to remain in the world, working for salvation of all beings. For example, Pagels writes (pp. 121-2) that the Gospel of Truth
pictures the holy spirit as God's breath, and envisions the Father first breathing forth the entire universe of living beings ("his children are his fragrant breath"), then drawing all beings back into the embrace of their divine source. Meanwhile he urges those who "discover God in themselves, and themselves in God" to transform gnosis into action:
"Speak the truth to those who seek it,
And speak of understanding to those who have committed sin through error;
Strengthen the feet of those who have stumbled;
Extend your hands to those who are sick;
Feed those who are hungry;
Give rest to those who are weary;
And raise up those who wish to rise."
Those who care for others and do good "do the will of the Father."
In contrast with scientific knowledge (episteme), gnosis is spiritual knowledge, held by gnostic Christians to be both soteric ("saving") and esoteric ("inner"). For them, it implied far more than the secret revelation hidden in scripture and discovered through a "spiritual" rather than literal reading. Because everyone is a child of God and contains the seed or light-spark of divinity within, enlightenment is ultimately attained through the discipline of self-knowledge — as emphasized in the Gospel according to Thomas, which begins as follows:
These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
(1) And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."
(2) 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 the All."
(3) Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."
As a historian, Pagels is interested not only in the content of the Nag Hammadi and other Gnostic writings, but also in their origin and subsequent history: who wrote them? when? why? and how did they come to be excluded by the early Church? Her scholarship not only helps answer such questions, it also helps illumine many of the obscure and sometimes contradictory passages in that other small library of early Christian documents called the New Testament. For readers willing to trouble settled convictions, Beyond Belief offers an introduction and richly guided tour of the contours and contrasts of faith and knowledge in early Christian history. It also engages us with life's deepest questions of existence and God, and with spiritual choices we cannot escape, no matter what our beliefs may be, challenging us always to look beyond them. In her concluding summary, Pagels writes:
The act of choice — which the term heresy originally meant — leads us back to the problem that orthodoxy was invented to solve: How can we tell truth from lies? What is genuine, and thus connects us with one another and with reality, and what is shallow, self-serving, or evil? . . . Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this. Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches.
. . . Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists. What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions — and the communities that sustain them — is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus' words, to "seek, and you shall find."
Since this tradition is not published alone for him who perceives the magnificence of the word, it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught. . . . For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true light, to swinish and untrained hearers. — Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis I.xii
The Jewish Talmud relates the story of four men who entered the heavenly Orchard (Hebrew pardes or Paradise). Ben Azzai looked and died. Ben Zoma looked and lost his mind. Acher cut his plantings, while Rabbi Akiba, who entered in peace, left in peace. The story is a cautionary tale about mystical ascents in search of spiritual knowledge. Unprepared journeys were universally prohibited in the ancient Mysteries, as they were held to be dangerous not only to the initiate's psychological and physical health, but potentially harmful to others should the knowledge gained be misused for selfish ends. Hence the strictures of discipline and silence imposed as protections against injury and abuse — and a reason for secrecy.
The Gospel of Thomas alludes to this when Jesus tells Thomas three secret words. Asked by his fellow disciples what these are, Thomas replies, "If I tell you one of the words which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up." In the same episode (13), Jesus asks them to compare him to someone. Simon Peter describes Jesus as a righteous angel, Matthew calls him a wise philosopher, while Thomas — "intoxicated" by divine wisdom flowing from the bubbling spring — says "my mouth is wholly incapable of saying who you are like." Paul writes in the same vein about the man (himself) who was "caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Cor 12:4).
References to the mysteries and hidden wisdom of God in both the New Testament and the secret gospels imply that some of Jesus' core teachings were reserved for the few, and that the overwhelming majority of faithful Christians have been largely deprived of them. Here lies a major problem concerning the essence of Christianity: Did it originally rest on an esoteric foundation similar to the ancient Mysteries? Clement of Alexandria, the late 2nd-century Church Father, clearly affirmed it did. The mysteries of the faith are not to be divulged to all, he wrote, bidding us to "receive the secret traditions of the true gnosis" taught by the Son of God (Stromateis I.xii).
Myths and parables were the public language of the ancient Mysteries; and while no detailed statements of higher teachings are available, their fundamental content was never secret. Cicero, for example, praised Athens for its many contributions to civilization, "but nothing better than those Mysteries by which we are formed and molded from a rude and savage state of humanity; and, indeed, in the Mysteries we perceive the real principles of life, and learn not only to live happily, but to die with a fairer hope" (De Legibus II.14). Their institutional forms were collegial bodies broadly structured like modern universities into undergraduate and graduate studies — called the Less and Great Mysteries — whose "curriculum" revolved around the mysteries of death and rebirth: the progressive awakening and raising of the soul to knowledge and union with the divine essence within. Paul speaks the language of initiation when he says "I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal 4:19).
Although most churches today portray Christianity arising out of Judaism as a unique spiritual event in fulfillment of messianic prophecies, downplaying or avoiding the issue of secret knowledge, modern historians remind us of Christianity's genesis in a far more complex spiritual, philosophical, and political matrix which had been developing for centuries. In addition to normative Judaism, which itself rested on an esoteric foundation (Gentiles saw Judaism as a secret Mystery religion), the most readily identifiable elements were Jewish mysticism and apocalyptic, which prophesied spiritual renovation at the soon-to-come end of the age; Hellenism, the Greek religious and philosophical legacy spread by Alexander's conquests; and Egyptian and Oriental religions — all simmering under the influence and constraints of Roman occupation.
This historical background is indispensable to understanding the varied forms of early Christianity. The books reviewed in these articles present some of this context, while offering valuable lessons of history. Chief is the importance of primary sources: the need of first-hand knowledge of original texts and traditions insofar as this is possible, and also something of their origin, interpretation, and transmission. The Nag Hammadi library, for example, reveals how popular and scholarly opinion about Gnosticism was and continues to be skewed by the filtering and imprinting effects of the early heresiologists. Secret writings nevertheless present a special problem. The uncensored Nag Hammadi and other gnostic documents remain obscure, for most are reserved texts said to veil hidden, unutterable realities. By their own descriptions they are at best imperfect secondary sources requiring valid interpretive keys, without which uninitiated readers will see perhaps only fantastic stories and dark sayings, not the hidden logos within the mythos, the truth within the myth. The Gospel of Philip, for example, alludes to this in a passage highly reminiscent of the Tao Teh Ching ("The Tao expressed in words is not the eternal Tao; nameless is the source of heaven and earth"):
Names given to worldly things are very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is correct to what is incorrect. Thus one who hears the word "God" does not perceive what is correct, but what is incorrect. So also with "the Father" and "the Son" and "the Holy Spirit" and "life" and "light" and "resurrection" and "the Church" and all the rest . . .
. . . the Son would not become Father unless he wears the name of the Father. Those who have this name know it, but they do not speak it, but those who do not have [it] do not know it. — II.53-4
Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark by Marvin Meyer is an anthology of essays focusing on the Gospel of Thomas, the most well-known treatise in the Nag Hammadi collection, and on the controversial Secret Gospel of Mark discovered in 1958 at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem. A professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University, Meyer begins by introducing the reader to secret gospels and his principal themes. He provides context by referring us to Mark 4:1-20 where Jesus teaches openly in parables while privately giving their allegorical interpretation to his disciples; then to the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of James, which describes "the twelve followers all sitting together, recalling what the savior had said to each of them, whether in a hidden or an open manner, and organizing it in books." Meyer rightly questions whether the latter scenario actually happened, but both episodes highlight a demand of all sacred writings: they require interpretation, the Gospel of Thomas emphasizing — cryptically — that "whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."
Meyer sees Thomas and Secret Mark as gospels offering two distinctive types of proclamations: Thomas a gospel of wisdom and Secret Mark a gospel of the Cross, a symbol of spiritual transformation and a call to discipleship. In the six Thomas essays, Meyer picks up the theme of seeking and finding, and treats a diversity of topics: the image of Jesus portrayed by Thomas, the relation of Thomas as a "sayings" gospel to the canonical gospels and to "Q" (the source collection of Jesus sayings incorporated by Matthew and Luke in conjunction with Mark's narrative), and commentary on other unique images meant to provoke inquiry ("Be Passersby," "Making Mary Male").
The essays on the Secret Gospel of Mark consider initiatory patterns and motifs in early Christianity and, for those who enjoy detective stories, a controversial mystery of authorship that has yet to find scholarly consensus. Suffice to say that any ancient letter or gospel signed or titled with a famous person's name needs to be critically examined for authenticity — a subject more fully treated in Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities. The story begins with Morton Smith's discovery of a 17th- or 18th-century manuscript in the Mar Saba library purporting to be a copy of a late 2nd-century letter written by Clement of Alexandria, which describes and quotes Mark's secret gospel. Smith photographed the manuscript, shared and discussed it with distinguished Clement scholars and colleagues, undertook fifteen years of laborious research and, in 1973, published his results in a 450-page volume by Harvard University Press, with photographs, transcription, translation, and a lengthy analysis of the document, its authenticity, and the historical background — concluding that Clement's letter appears to be genuine. Meyer carefully notes that while he too assumes the letter is an authentic copy of an ancient text, the actual manuscript needs to be released for scientific analysis.
First page of Clement's letter to Theodore
Clement's letter begins by commending a certain Theodore for "silencing the unspeakable teachings of the Carpocrations" — a rival group in Alexandria founded by Carpocrates, whose teachings, Clement believed, were doctrinally and morally objectionable. "Now of the things they keep saying about the divinely inspired Gospel according to Mark," he continues, "some are altogether falsifications, and others, even if they do contain some true elements, nevertheless are not reported truly. For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor." The letter then turns to the authorship of Mark's gospels a century earlier:
As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge [gnosis]. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected [teleioumenon, "finished" or initiated]. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.
While surprising many people with its assertions of a private version of Mark and of the Lord's secret teachings that are not to be written or spoken, this passage is not the center of controversy. Clement scholars have always known that he openly proclaimed a secret tradition reserved for the few true gnostics, and believed Christianity to be the pure representative of God's true Mysteries which others had stolen and corrupted:
O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy whilst I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals [pledges to silence] while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. If it is thy wish, be thou also initiated; . . . — Exhortation to the Heathen, xi
In Clement's view, Carpocrates was a false gnostic, a "wandering star" who, though boasting freedom, was actually a slave of servile desire. In the letter, Clement explains that Carpocrates had obtained by devious means a copy of Mark's private gospel which he then "interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted by mixing utterly shameless lies with the spotless and holy words." To answer Theodore's questions, Clement quotes two passages from Secret Mark, the larger excerpt depicting a variant of the Lazarus resurrection story rich with initiatory symbolism. He then specifies where in Mark the story is to be inserted (10:34), refutes Carpocrates' sexual interpolation, saying that it was never part of the original, and continues: "Now the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy" — and here the letter ends abruptly.
Although we lack Clement's interpretation, the story's inner meaning as a mystical ascent to God's kingdom is fairly obvious: Entering the tomb (the body), Jesus (the Christ within) raises the youth (the soul), who looked upon Jesus, "loved him" and "beseeched him that he might be with him" (divine communion). Going out of the tomb to the rich young man's house (his inner world or dwelling place), after six days (of initiatory trial) Jesus tells the youth (neaniskos, a common Greek word also meaning "servant") to come to him in the evening, naked (as a babe) but wearing a linen cloth (the burial shroud of a corpse covering naked living spirit, dual symbol of death and rebirth). During the night Jesus taught the neaniskos the mystery of the kingdom of God. "And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan" (from the sacred river's "other shore," i.e., the kingdom of God) — baptized, resurrected, and reborn spiritually.* The episode is devoid of sexual imagery and connotation; however, such stories have a mirror-like quality which reflects the mind of the perceiver — reminiscent of Rabbi Akiba and the others in the heavenly Orchard.
*In ancient Judaism the burial garment was the resurrection garment. According to a rabbinic passage, "A man is raised in the same clothes in which he is buried" (Smith, A Secret Gospel of Mark, p. 177). The prescribed ritual dress in early Christian baptisms was also a linen robe over a naked body. These symbols and rites of spiritual regeneration are explained philosophically by the Neoplatonist Plotinus:
"To attain [the Good] is for those that will take the upward path, who will set all their forces towards it, who will divest themselves of all that we have put on in our descent [into material bodies]; so, to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments [of the soul] worn before, and the entry in nakedness [of spirit] — until passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God [within], each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from which all things depend, . . . the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being."— Enneads I.6.7
Meyer's essays consider how the initiation scene in Secret Mark integrates with canonical Mark's narrative, shedding light on other gospel episodes which also feature a linen-clad youth: the neaniskos seized at the time of Jesus' arrest who ran off naked (Mark 14:51-2); the "young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side" in Jesus' otherwise empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8); and the story of Lazarus in John 11 which, interestingly, features Thomas saying to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" — another allusion to initiation. Meyer believes with other scholars that the Secret Mark excerpts may have belonged to an early version of "public" Mark, and were later omitted in what became the canonical version — just as the last twelve verses of Mark (16:9-20), absent in the earliest manuscripts, were added to strengthen a theological agenda. Whatever may be the actual history of the Secret Gospel of Mark, Clement's letter is nevertheless consistent with his known writings and with the symbols and initiatory patterns of the Mysteries adopted by many early churches.
The scene of Jesus conducting a nocturnal initiation has troubled many Christians, and those who reject the idea of Jesus teaching secretly often cite John 18:19-21 as their authority. When the High Priest of Jerusalem questioned him about what he taught, Jesus is said to have replied, "I have spoken openly to all the world. I have always taught in synagogue and in the temple, where all Jews congregate; I have said nothing in secret." Contradicting this, however, are all three synoptic gospels, Paul's letters, the Apostolic secret tradition affirmed by Clement in his known writings, the Jewish esoteric background, and several Christian gnostic texts (cf. Margaret Barker, "The Secret Tradition," Journal of Higher Criticism (2:1), 1995). Moreover, the Gospel of John — which Gregory Riley, Elaine Pagels, and other scholars believe was written partly to refute or modify teachings found in Thomas (John is the only gospel with the Doubting Thomas) — is in conflict with the Synoptics in other ways, such as reporting Jesus cleansing the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, whereas the Synoptics feature this at the end. John's statement is also in conflict with itself, for example in the episode where Jesus teaches Nicodemus secretly at night (ch. 3).
Part of the reason for these discrepancies is that during the first three centuries after Jesus, widely diverse Christian communities were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and different groups received different traditions which taught different things. There was no monolithic church, no formally-defined New Testament, no ruling orthodoxy, and even wider disagreements about observance of Jewish law, basic theological issues such as the Resurrection and the divinity of Jesus, and about gnosis and the Christian secret tradition. Just as Paul reinterpreted and transformed the teachings of a relatively small Jewish esoteric sect into a growing Gentile movement proclaiming the risen Christ, so Irenaeus fathered an orthodoxy that became normative theology for virtually all Christians today. The story of what happened to the other groups and their texts and "how one early Christian group established itself as dominant in the religion, determining for ages to come what Christians would believe, practice, and read as sacred Scripture" is the principal subject of Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew — and the subject of our next article.
If the belief in immortality is of remote antiquity, how can the dread of death be the oldest of all fears? — Plutarch, On the Soul
Fear and wonder about the hereafter lie at the heart of virtually every ancient and modern spiritual tradition including Christianity, whose canonical narrative centers not only on the death and resurrection of Jesus, but on the death, resurrection, and judgment of every human being. The evangel or "good message" of gospel faith reasserts the soul's immortality, promising Christ's salvation for the faithful and everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom, freed from the burdens of suffering and sorrow.
The inner or secret tradition expressed in the Gospel according to Thomas likewise affirms the ancient belief, but advocates the need of saving knowledge, expressing in veiled terms virtually the same initiatory pattern of trial and renovation experienced in the Mysteries — difficulty and darkness followed by epiphany, liberation, and the garland or crown of Self-rule symbolizing divine communion:
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 become king over the All." — Saying 2
This pattern is likewise allegorized in Jesus' passion, resurrection, and lordship in the gospel narratives. And to some degree it may be recognized in our own personal search for truth.
Attempting to relate "last things" — the end of one's life, end of an age, or end of the world — to the purpose and proper conduct of life, sacred traditions often depict the history of salvation as a contest or battle between good and evil, spiritual and material forces, and between cosmos and chaos, played out mainly within the human soul. Living in harmony with the divine source of life, however it may be conceived, is said to confer present and future happiness. Ideally we might hope for, even expect, a united front of the spiritually faithful; but opposing forces arise here too, sowing discord and conflict.
Religious differences are often attributed to false or misguided teachers, but many traditions also allude to a more subtle tension between prophets and priests, contemplatives and clerics, and between seekers of divine wisdom and believers of popular faith. Understanding these conflicts and their interaction with cultural and political history helps us to understand the diversity which soon emerged within the earliest Christian communities, all of which shared a common interest in "last things."
When Jesus refers to scriptures he means Jewish writings and, in one sense, the Hebrew Bible is as much a history of salvation as it is of election, covenant, and a life of holiness. The story has its seeding in Genesis when God tells Abram that he will bring him to a new land, a promise renewed with Moses: the people of Israel will be led from Egyptian bondage "to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey." When they settled in Canaan, the promises were thought to be fulfilled. In time the First Temple was built in Jerusalem, whose inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, was shielded by a curtain, visible representative of God's presence and mysteries.
After David and Solomon came divisions in the religion and the nation, followed by a series of conquerors. The Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE, taking Jewish leaders, priests, and others into exile. These events were interpreted as God's (Yahweh's) punishment for worshiping other gods and failing to keep his commandments. After release from captivity, some Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, reform the worship of Yahweh and, according to 2 Esdras, Ezra was inspired to dictate the 24 public and 70 secret books of the Hebrew scripture to replace those lost in the Exile.
Foreign oppression continued, however, and the later prophets, no doubt influenced by Zoroastrian concepts garnered during the Exile, began to see this not so much as punishment but the work of cosmic powers opposed to God. A new genre of esoteric visionary writing called apocalyptic (from the Greek apocalypsis, "revelation") began to circulate, revealing that God would soon intervene in history, sending his messiah ("anointed") to reestablish righteousness. The prophet Elijah will then return as a forerunner to preach repentance before "the great and terrible day of the Lord" which consummates this final period, marked by tribulation and cosmic conflict between God's people and their enemies. The living and the dead will all be raised to stand before the judgment of God: the wicked will be condemned to eternal torment or extinction, and those finding favor will live abundantly on a renewed and supernal earth, enjoying the heavenly reign of God.*
* See "Eschatology," Harper's Bible Dictionary, from which this summary is adapted; on Zoroastrian influence, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come by Norman Cohn. In Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Christianity, Margaret Barker argues that the apocalyptic worldview was also the worldview of First Temple Judaism.
These ideas were extensively developed by the ultraconservative and apocalyptic Qumran community in their sectarian writings (found among the Dead Sea Scrolls), most or all of which were produced between 150 BCE and 68 CE. This Intertestamental Period was a time of intense messianic expectations, during which a similar apocalyptic, baptist Jewish sect emerged and diversified into a multi-branched movement soon to be called Christianity. Just as the Nag Hammadi texts are forcing major revisions of our understanding of Gnosticism, so the Qumran scrolls help us to understand the complex origins of Christianity and its relation to ancient traditions of spiritual gnosis. Like today's theosophical and new age movements, the secret traditions were diverse among themselves; certainly there was no single form of gnosis or "Gnosticism," Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. For example, while the Qumran writings frequently refer to secret mysteries reserved for the elect and the importance of spiritual knowledge, they clearly glorify the one Lord, his Law, and the goodness of his creation, in contrast to some later Jewish-Christian gnostic texts critical of Yahwistic monotheism:
. . . from His marvellous mysteries is the light in my heart.
My eyes have gazed on that which is eternal, on wisdom concealed from men, on knowledge and wise design (hidden) from the sons of men; . . .
— Community Rule, 1QS xi (Vermes tr.)
The Qumran writings speak also of a "covenant of grace," a "new covenant" as a "community of truth" and a refuge during the "war of the heavenly warriors [who] shall scourge the earth" until the appointed destruction: "I will lean on Thy truth, O my God. For Thou wilt set the foundation on rock" (cf. Matt 16:18, "on this rock I will build my church"). According to the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521), "the Lord [Adonai] will accomplish glorious things . . . For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor." The community expected a priestly and a kingly messiah, the star and scepter (possibly united in one individual as "the messiah of heaven and earth"), and prophesied the end times were to begin about forty years after the death of its leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. Most scholars date this onset to sometime during the reign of Alexander Janneus in the early first century BCE, a prophecy which may have influenced the later Talmudic stories which place Jesus in the same era.
However, the messiah did not appear or was not recognized, and the Qumran community began revising its expectations — and writings — to account for the delay. With the Roman capture of Jerusalem, destruction of the Second Temple, and widespread repression in 66-70 CE, the scrolls were buried in nearby caves and the community dispersed. Messianic expectations in varied forms continued for many Jews, while other Jews and a growing number of Gentiles held that they had already been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, whom they believed was the prophesied "anointed" one (Gk Christos). Still others believed that the Samaritan Jew Simon (Magus), who claimed to be the successor of John the Baptist, had himself been adopted by "the Standing One" (God) — a reference to another kind of "anointing," found also in Jewish-Christian Elkasite theology. In Egyptian Judaism there was, moreover, a quasi-messianic expectation of a Savior-King, expressed in the Sibylline Oracles which predicted that "God will send a King from the Sun" (3:652-6).*
*Cf. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 1997; John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, 1995.
Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press, 2003; ISBN 0195141830, 336 pages, hardcover, $30.00) picks up the story at the beginning of the Christian era, surveying the complex issues that beset not only the early Christian movement, but later generations of Christians, scholars, and the interested public. Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and specializes in New Testament interpretation and the history of early Christianity. He has also translated a number of extracanonical Christian writings included in a companion volume. Not all of these writings are gnostic; in fact many are quite orthodox, but for whatever reason did not make the final cut.*
*Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003. This volume comprises 14 gospels, 5 acts of the apostles, 14 epistles and related writings, 9 apocalypses and revelatory treatises, and 5 canonical lists of Christian writings.
After a helpful introduction on the varieties of ancient Christianity and "lost" (but known) scriptures, aptly entitled "Recouping Our Losses," Ehrman divides the book into three principal sections: (1) Forgeries and Discoveries, which examines issues of textual authorship, editing, and authenticity, including discussions of the Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark; (2) Heresies and Orthodoxies, which looks at the broad spectrum of early Christian communities, their doctrines, and the development of "proto-orthodoxy"; and (3) Winners and Losers, which inventories the "arsenal" of religious politics (polemics, personal slurs, misrepresentation, and "invented" scripture), with a historical overview of how academic scholarship has variously reinterpreted the story of Christian origins — a subject more extensively examined by Karen King in What Is Gnosticism? Thoughtfully presented throughout, Lost Christianities concludes with a timely chapter on questions of diversity and tolerance, and of "winners as losers."
Part One, however, raises a thorny and problematic issue. Here Ehrman states that "Almost all of the 'lost' Scriptures of the early Christians were forgeries" (p. 9), specifying forgery as the work of an unknown author who passes it off as that of a well-known figure such as an apostle. He points out that most scholars prefer the less pejorative term pseudonymous ("falsely-named") writing, and that this was a common practice in antiquity, adding that a number of canonical writings are also forgeries. He shows, for example, how some of Paul's letters are likely to have been written by others who held different views.
Many pseudonymous writings, however, involve radically different motives than forgery or deception. Regrettably — and this limitation affects the book's perspective throughout — Ehrman omits mentioning the ascetic protocol reflected in these ancient works, especially esoteric writings, whose authors "hid their own individuality and their names, concealing themselves behind biblical characters like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Baruch, Daniel, Ezra, and others" (Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 11).
Esoteric knowledge in these books touched not only upon the revelation of the end of time and its awesome terrors, but also upon the structure of the hidden world and its inhabitants: heaven, the Garden of Eden, and Gehinnom, angels and evil spirits, and the fate of the souls in this hidden world . . . [and] "the wonderful secrets" of God mentioned by the Dead Sea Scrolls.
. . . This pseudepigraphical pattern continued within the mystical tradition in the centuries that followed. The clear tendency toward asceticism as a way of preparing for the reception of the mystical tradition, which is already attested to in the last chapter of the Book of Enoch, becomes a fundamental principle for the apocalyptics, the Essenes, and the circle of the Merkabah [Throne] mystics who succeeded them. — Ibid. *
Fully imbued with this tradition, many early Christian writers undoubtedly adopted the same accepted practice.
Further, while labeling the Gospel of Thomas a forgery on the same grounds, Ehrman exempts the canonical Gospels. In his view, their unknown writers made no special authorial claims, even though later people said they were written by Matthew, Mark, etc., instead of "according to" as their respective titles indicate. I think this distinction is dubious and leaves the Gospels open to the same charge. Within them, moreover, is an implied authorial claim attributing the Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes, Farewell Discourses, and other sayings to Jesus via the disciples who transmitted them. There seems to be little difference between this claim and that of the Gospel "according to" Thomas (its actual title), in which the anonymous compiler only names the apostle who purportedly recorded the sayings (Thomas is mentioned in the third person only — never as "I, Thomas").
These examples illustrate how difficult it is to evaluate the authenticity and value of any religious text. Altered, distorted, and spurious writings nevertheless were and are a major problem for every religion relying on scripture. Throughout the book Ehrman explores these and other issues of textual development and transmission within early Christian communities. One special area of expertise is the canonical writings and how they were shaped, modified, and sometimes "corrupted" to avoid "heretical" interpretations.
To illustrate the diversity of the early Christians, Part Two focuses on the doctrines and history of two groups at polar ends of the spectrum — Ebionites and Marcionites — as well as Gnostic Christian systems, mainly the Valentinian, contrasting them with the developing "proto-orthodox" views. These communities are difficult to characterize because information is often scant, inconsistent, and prejudiced; moreover, like modern Christian sects, they sometimes modified their views, differed among themselves, and split. Hence Ehrman depicts what is thought to be representative.
Ebionites (the "Poor") were Jewish Christians who did not reject Judaism. They held that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but at baptism had been "adopted" by God as the most righteous man on earth. In addition to Hebrew scriptures, they appear to have accepted Matthew's gospel, or an edited version of it (e.g., no nativity story of a virgin birth), but strenuously opposed Paul as an apostate from the Law, especially for allowing male Gentiles to remain uncircumcised, the sign of the covenant. As to secret teachings, aside from the virtually certain inference of Jewish esotericism, there are several references in the Pseudo-Clementine literature used by the Ebionites, e.g., "the true gospel must be secretly sent abroad for the rectification of heresies that shall be" (Homilies 2.17). While Ehrman discusses the Pseudo-Clementines, he does not, however, mention this aspect.
At the other pole were the Marcionites, founded by the second-century theologian, Marcion, son of a Christian bishop and a bishop himself. This well-organized community was regarded by the orthodox church as perhaps its most dangerous foe. Revering Paul as the only true apostle and Christ's gospel as a universal message, Marcion attempted to purge Christianity of its Jewish elements, even to formulate his own Christian canon: ten letters of Paul and an abridged version of Luke. He had been troubled by the dichotomy between the wrathful, vengeful, and harshly punitive God of the Hebrew Bible and the loving, merciful, and forgiving God preached by Jesus. He came to understand that there were two gods: the previously-unknown God over all "separated by an infinite distance" from the just (but not evil) God of Genesis who created man and the material world. Sent by the former, Christ was neither the promised messiah nor was he born of a woman. Rather he was a divine manifestation: a docetic "phantasm" who died on the cross to redeem mankind from the ownership of its inferior creator. Marcion's doctrine rejected bodily resurrection, affirming instead liberation from this material world through strict asceticism and faith in the promise of eternal life with the God above all.
Ehrman continues with a broad survey of the origins and tenets of Christian Gnostics who attempted to address the question of why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer — and their writings which depict the material world as the imperfect (sometimes evil) creation of an ignorant creator, usually identified with Yahweh. Here Ehrman notes that not all Gnostics shared this theology: "It is impossible to synthesize the views, presuppositions, religious perspectives of these [Nag Hammadi texts] into one monolithic system" (p. 115). The remaining section of Lost Christianities is devoted largely to the "proto-orthodox" response to these rival groups, its assault on Gnosticism, Constantine's adoption of what became normative Christianity, the subsequent suppression of "heresies," and the loss of many Christian voices that deserve to be heard today. That discussion and Karen King's What is Gnosticism? will be the focus of our next article.
Not baptism alone sets us free, but gnosis [knowledge]: who we were, what we have become; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whither we hasten, whence we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth. — Excerpta ex Theodoto 78.2
Summarizing the essence of what has come to be called Gnosticism, historian Hans Jonas called this declaration the "Valentinian formula," named for the 2nd-century Christian Gnostic Valentinus who claimed to have received Jesus' secret teachings via a disciple of Paul. It rests on the assumption that "though we are thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so also have an aim in eternity" (The Gnostic Religion, p. 335). Although Gnostic teachers and schools of the early Christian era diverged significantly among themselves in specific doctrines and practices, they nevertheless shared this basic view of man's divine origin, as did the early churches which came to represent normative or popular Christianity. Individuals and groups differed mainly on questions as to who is saved, how and when redemption or enlightenment is to be accomplished, what are true conceptions of God and the universe, and why evil and suffering exist — questions which touch the deepest and most sensitive issues of human life and conduct.
The awakening of faith and the experience of divine reality inspire the heart of the world's spiritual and philosophical traditions. Scripture and doctrine ultimately derive from them, yet their underlying basis — the revelation of divine wisdom — presupposes prophets, sages, seers, mystics, and anointed ones who are the receivers and transmitters of spiritual knowledge. When teachings cannot be personally verified, or seem to contradict one another, questions of authenticity and authority arise, returning us to Pilate's question, "What is truth?"
Part Three of Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Christianities and most of Karen L. King's What Is Gnosticism? — both excellent and well-written books* — describe the conflict between orthodoxy and heresy. They focus not only on early Christian history as written by theologically-driven "winners," but as it has been reexamined and reinterpreted by scholars in light of accumulating documentary evidence such as the Nag Hammadi Library and other ancient texts. According to early Church historians, Christian heresy began with Simon the Magician of Samaria, who used his powers to convince others that he was "the power of God that is called great" (Acts 8). Tracing the history of "gnosis, falsely so-called," Irenaeus argued a century later that Simon was the original Gnostic "from whom all heresies got their start," distinguishing them from orthodoxy, that is, the "right opinions" which faithfully represent Jesus' true teaching.
*Parts One and Two of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew were reviewed in our last article; King's book is published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2003; ISBN 067401071x, 358 pages, hardback, $29.95. Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, King has also recently published The Gospel of Mary: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, CA, 2003), which includes an excellent synopsis of early Christian history.
Heresy, however, is a word with an interesting but little known history. Derived from the Greek hairesis, "choice," it was originally a neutral term denoting among other meanings a religious sect, as for example when the Jewish historian Josephus referred to the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Each sect (hairesis) was a community to which its adherents chose to belong — just as a modern day Christian might choose to be a Methodist or a Catholic. Most early Church Fathers, however, redefined the term to signify "intentional decisions to depart from the right belief; it implies a corruption of faith, found only among a minority of people" (Ehrman, p. 164).
The words gnosis and gnostic were similarly demonized so that for nearly two millennia they too have been terms of reprobation virtually synonymous with "heresy" — despite Clement of Alexandria's very orthodox plea that we "receive the secret traditions of the true gnosis" taught by the Son of God, and that the true Christian should be understood as the true Gnostic (Stromateis I.xii, II passim). Much of the "proto-orthodox" religious polemic, however, was concerned with defining the boundaries of right belief by distinguishing it from conflicting doctrines espoused by individuals and groups both within and outside of their communities. Out of this pluralism developed the Church's definitions of true faith and "heresy" which gradually coalesced into a "master narrative" of Christian history:
(1) Jesus reveals the pure doctrine to his apostles, partly before his death, and partly in the forty days before his ascension.
(2) After Jesus' final departure, the apostles apportion the world among themselves, and each takes the unadulterated gospel to the land which has been allotted him.
(3) . . . But now obstacles to it spring up within Christianity itself. The devil cannot resist sowing weeds in the divine wheat field — and he is successful at it. True Christians blinded by him abandon the pure doctrine. This development takes place in the following sequence: unbelief, right belief, wrong belief. . . . where there is heresy, orthodoxy must have preceded . . . — Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy, quoted in King, p. 111
Once the Church secured political power in the 4th century, it aggressively suppressed not only rival sects and religions, but virtually all critical examination of its master story. However, with the Renaissance, Reformation, and advent of the European Enlightenment over a thousand years later, long-held religious assumptions began to be examined more openly. In the 1700s "serious concerns about the historical accuracy of the Bible began to appear," writes Ehrman, "when supernatural doctrines of divine revelation that guaranteed the truth of Scripture became matters of scholarly debate. . . . not just among those who saw themselves standing outside the Christian tradition but especially among those within" (p. 168). In the absence of primary sources, the Gnostic systems were nevertheless still treated as a relatively homogeneous theological entity whose characterization depended almost entirely on the heavily-biased patristic sources. As scholars and theologians wrestled with issues of Jesus' historicity and biblical inerrancy,* study of Gnosticism languished as it was considered (and still is by the majority of Christians) to be "a marginal, sectarian, esoteric, mythical, syncretistic, parasitic, and Oriental religion, in contrast to mainstream, authentic, ethnic, historical, rational, or universal religions, such as orthodox Christianity" (King, p. 3).
*Ehrman notes (p. 219) that an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 textual differences appear in the approximately 5,400 Greek copies of New Testament manuscripts and fragments currently known.
In the 19th century, as newly-discovered Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Asian religious texts began to broaden the western intellectual horizon, interest in Gnosticism once again began to stir, possibly in reaction to what these texts implied about Jewish and Christian origins, scripture, and doctrine. In 1885 Protestant church historian Adolf Harnack in his monumental History of Dogma called Gnosticism "the acute Hellenization of Christianity." By this he meant that Gnosticism "was ruled in the main by the Greek spirit and determined by the interests and doctrines of the Greek philosophy and religion." While seeing the universalizing influence of Greek culture as beneficial to Christianity, Harnack nevertheless viewed its mythology and polytheism as parasitic infections opening the way for "the transforming of the disciplina Evangelii into an asceticism based on a dualistic conception, and into a practice of mysteries."
Harnack listed several characteristics that he believed defined the essence of Gnosticism, including: (1) Gnostic thought distinguished between the supreme God and the creator. (2) The supreme God was separated from the God of the Old Testament. (3) Matter was considered to be independent and eternal. (4) The created world was the product either of an evil being or of an intermediary acting out of hostility to the supreme God. (5) Evil was a force inherent in matter. (6) Christ revealed a previously unknown God. (7) Gnostic Christology distinguished Jesus in his human appearance from the heavenly Christ. (8) Humans were divided into two or three classes, depending on whether they possessed spirit (pneuma), soul (psyche), or only a material (hylic) nature. Only the spiritual were "capable of Gnosis and the divine life . . . in virtue of their constitution." (9) Gnostics rejected the second coming, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment, waiting only for delivery from the sensuous world into the heavenly Pleroma, the "fullness" of God's kingdom (King, pp. 62-3).
According to King, such definitions for the most part only reconstructed the master story which viewed Gnosticism as a post-Crucifixion deviation influenced by other and inferior religious systems. However, a group of scholars calling themselves the History of Religions School turned elsewhere for the origin of Gnosticism, seeing roots also in the religions of Iran, Babylonia, and India, as well as a proto-Gnosticism in pre-Christian Judaism. Despite making important and frequently intuitive contributions to scholarship, their descriptions of Gnosticism nevertheless tended to reinscribe much of the old paradigm, leaving "an influential legacy of innovative misconceptions and misleading characterizations of Gnosticism" (King, p. 109).
The mid-twentieth century saw a major shift in thinking led by the work of Walter Bauer, who also challenged the longstanding assumption that Gnosticism was a secondary development in the history of Christianity. More importantly, he focused his immense scholarship on the master story. According to Ehrman, Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Earliest Christianity "was arguably the most important book on the history of early Christianity to appear in the twentieth century." Its analysis indicated that not only did the master story oversimplify and misrepresent history, but "in some regions of ancient Christendom, what later came to be labeled 'heresy' was in fact the earliest and principal form of Christianity" (Ehrman, p. 173).
Nag Hammadi Codices (courtesy Institute of Antiquity and Christianity).
Perhaps the greatest challenge to old notions of early Christianity has been the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which clearly indicate that the earliest Christian groups were rooted in and part of a larger esoteric movement proclaiming salvation through baptismal initiation and gnosis. While roughly half of the Nag Hammadi texts are Christian productions, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth, the rest are non-Christian in origin or have been "Christianized." One of the most interesting is the letter of Eugnostos the Blessed. Internal evidence indicates it was originally written in Egypt sometime during the mid-1st century BCE, perhaps 80-100 years before Jesus' death. Although its language shows both Jewish and Greek influences, its description of a supercelestial region beyond the visible world seems to resemble most closely the emanational theologies of ancient Egyptian religion. Ruling the highest realms is a hierarchy of five divinities, each emanating its reflection or son below: (1) Unbegotten Father, also called Forefather; (2) Self-Father or Self-Begetter; (3) Immortal Androgynous Man, whose male name is "Begotten Perfect Mind" and female name is "All-wise Begettress Sophia [Wisdom]"; (4) androgynous Son of Man or Son of God, also called "Adam of Light"; and (5) the Savior, the androgynous son of the Son of Man. Of the highest One, Eugnostos writes:
He is immortal and eternal, having no birth; for everyone who has birth will perish. . . . He has no name; for whoever has a name is the creation of another. . . . He has no human form; . . . He is infinite; he is incomprehensible. . . . He is unchanging good . . . He is unknowable, while he (nevertheless) knows himself. He is immeasurable. He is untraceable. He is perfect, having no defect. He is imperishably blessed. He is called "Father of the Universe." — The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd ed., pp. 224-5
Rooted in these divine emanations, the myriad hosts of created gods, archangels, and angels radiate divine goodness throughout the heavens, from which come the patterns or types for subsequent creations: "all natures from the Immortal One, from the Unbegotten to the revelation of chaos, are in the light that shines without shadow and (in) ineffable joy and unutterable jubilation." Because of this beneficent influence and the absence of a defective or evil Demiurge (creator), the translator notes that "Eugnostos cannot be considered Gnostic in any classic sense," but should be considered "proto-Gnostic."*
*For detailed analysis, see Douglas R. Parrott, ed., Nag Hammadi Codices III,3-4 and V,1, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1991; also Daniel R. McBride, The Egyptian Foundations of Gnostic Thought, 1994 (PhD thesis, University of Toronto), ch. 7.
The letter closes with a reference to the coming savior: "All I have just said to you, I said in the way you might accept until the one who need not be taught appears among you, and he will speak all these things to you joyously and in pure knowledge." An early Christian evidently saw here a reference to Jesus and, using the letter as core text, "Christianized" it by deleting and rewording existing passages, adding considerable new material and retitling it The Sophia of Jesus Christ — now a revelation discourse of the risen Christ to his disciples. Among its theological additions (or expansions) reflecting a more classical Gnostic view is a god — the arrogant, blind, ignorant, and "Almighty" Yaldabaoth — who directly rules this world to the detriment of mankind.
Such borrowings and adaptations illustrate the difficulty of characterizing Gnosticism in any simple way, so much so that some scholars, including Karen King, argue that it is a misleading if not meaningless term. The word Gnosticism, she reminds us, is an artificial construct of modern scholarship. Coined in the 17th century by English philosopher Henry More, it is a convenient label used to define a historical entity that never existed outside the intellectual categories created to describe certain sectarian groups, doctrines, and practices. In view of the growing awareness of Gnostic diversity, a variety of solutions have been proposed, including using the word Gnosis instead of Gnosticism, using a capital G to refer to the Jewish-Christian gnostic systems of the Graeco-Roman period, or to speak of gnosticisms (plural) rather than to abandon the term altogether.
In 1966 an international colloquium on the Origins of Gnosticism was held in Messina, Italy, partly to consider the problem of definitions. Helping to broaden the scope, Buddhist scholar Edward Conze contributed an exceptional paper on "Buddhism and Gnosis" in which he listed eight basic assumptions shared by adherents of Gnosis and Mahayana Buddhism, including (1) salvation by gnosis or jnana (the words share the same Indo-European root), (2) ignorance (i.e., blindness to the true facts of existence) is the cause of evil, (3) knowledge is derived solely from revelation which each one has to experience within himself, and (4) the crucial role of Wisdom in each system. Regarding the last, Conze noted, it seemed remarkable
that during the same period of time — i.e., from [about] 200 B.C. onwards — two distinct civilizations, one in the Mediterranean, the other in India, should have constructed a closely analogous set of ideas concerning "Wisdom," each one apparently independently, from its own cultural antecedents. — The Origins of Gnosticism, 1970, p. 656
He could see only three hypotheses to account for the similarities: mutual borrowing, joint development, or a parallel development which "assumes that Gnosticism is one of the basic types of religiosity, and therefore likely to reproduce itself at any period. Its self-consistent theoretical statements would then spring from a common mentality and from common spiritual experiences" (ibid., p. 666). In a footnote to the printed edition, he added:
The rather startling paper of G. Lanczkowski about the gnostic elements in ancient American religions has led me to think of a fourth possibility. Perhaps the basic ideas were thought out in some prehistoric period as a kind of philosophia perennis, at a time before Europeans, Asians and Americans dispersed into their respective continents. — Ibid.
Interestingly, none of these possibilities is mutually exclusive — all could be at work simultaneously — although Conze's fourth observation seems to point more directly to the origins of Gnosis considered as a primeval revelation cyclically renewed through avataric appearances, initiatic awakenings, and intuitive glimpses of divine realities.
We are deeply indebted to generations of scholars for their assiduous labors and for their courage in bringing to light what may appear to be troubling, astonishing, but hopefully ennobling truths about who we are and where we are going: our "aim in eternity." Yet for all their work, scholars realize that the inner content of secret gospels remains largely hidden and that Christian origins are still shrouded in mystery. However diverse and complex its expressions, gnosis by its own definition requires its ethics be lived if its "secret" is to be revealed. Even then gnosis offers two fundamentally different paths to the truthseeker: personal escape from the evils and suffering of the world or, like the bodhisattva of compassion, to remain and help transform it with the light of knowledge and divine wisdom. This, according to the Valentinian gnosis, is the "hidden" meaning of the Resurrection:
It is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness. For imperishability [descends] upon the perishable; the light flows down upon the darkness, swallowing it up; and the Pleroma fills up the deficiency. These are the symbols and the images of the resurrection. He it is who makes the good. — Treatise on the Resurrection I.4.48-9
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2003/January 2004, February/March 2004; June/July 2004; August/September 2004; copyright © 2003, 2004 Theosophical University Press)