In my recent review of The Gnostic Bible, edited and largely translated by Professors Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, whose death at 64 has made me even more acutely aware of my own mortality, I commented that the book left me unsatisfied. It is the best study yet of the major segment of the “Gnostic” movement, those who were radically dualistic and radically ascetic, but they were not the only varieties of “heresy” in the ancient and medieval worlds.
Another was the Christians who remained loyal to their Jewish roots, who remained observant, and who in fact were probably practicing the sort of “Reform” Judaism that Rabbi Joshua the Nazarene had been preaching. Such is the argument of Jeffrey Buetz in his The Secret Legacy of Jesus, which I highly recommend. I know the title sounds as if it might be just more pious and uneducated twaddle, but in fact it is one of the ten most important books I have ever read about the actual history of Christianity. However, I will discuss that more in a later episode.
Here I am going to discuss, and hit you upside along the head with an example of, the type of “heresy” that the Church Fathers called “libertine.” “Heresy” derives from the Greek hairesis, which simply meant “choice,” in this context, choice of anything other the Roman Christians’ party line. The Church Fathers argued that the “libertines” (by which they meant anyone who believed that sex was not sinful) were actually dualists who believed that the experiences of their physical bodies could not affect their true, purely spiritual selves, which would by their nature return to the Light of the “real” (Platonic) spiritual world above, and who therefore believed they could get away with doing whatever they pleased. That was more propaganda, a complete misrepresentation of the “libertine” groups.
Back about 1970, because I had read Robert M. Grant’s Gnosticism and Early Christianity, I knew that the writings in The Ante-Nicene Fathers were the largest collection of information about the Gnostics then available. When, during one lunch hour, I found the ten-volume set in Holmes Books, diagonally across the intersection of Third and Market from the offices of Scientific American Books, where I had a very secure and well-paying position as a Manuscript Editor, I immediately bought it for $50 (which then had the buying power of $500 now). I pored through the index and read all the passages about Gnostics, then, wondering what an actual Gnostic writing might have looked like, I pulled out all the quotations of the Gnostics’ own words and worked them up into a Gospel of Simon and Helen, focusing on the beautiful and powerful myth of their love. As I’ve said before, I think I made out a more sympathetic case for the plausibility and workability of their beliefs than they ever made for themselves—and that’s including everything in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, published in 1979.
As I said in my review, the major shortcoming I saw in The Gnostic Bible is that it says nothing at all about these “libertines.” Furthermore, it interprets the most astonishing and now best-known of the Nag Hammadi writings, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary, as being dualistic and ascetic—but a very different interpretation of them is obviously possible, as goes for some bits and pieces of others of the writings.
One fact that struck me hard in 1971, when I and my friends were busy growing the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn as a new Wiccan Tradition, was how much the Marcosians, as described by Irenaeus, resembled modern Witches. There is an obvious reason for the resemblance: both movements represent a rebellion, among other concerns, against the sexual pathology of “mainstream” Christianity, a pathology derived from the Greeks rather than the Jews and still plaguing our civilization two millennia later. Irenaeus’ description of the Marcosians is, of course, utterly negative, sarcastic, and unfair; yet, because he was too smart and too concerned to create a “straw man” argument, his description is basically accurate and includes quite a bit of material that he quotes or paraphrases from the Marcosians’ own writings.
Also, if I were to lard this “letter” down with all the scholarly footnotes and arguments, it would become impossibly long and quite unreadable. The power of the ideas would be diluted to nothingness. However, I am maintaining a master file with those footnotes still in place. I would be happy to send it as an email attachment (assuming I’m not deluged, which seems unlikely) to anyone who would like to sort out what I got from the sources from what I made up to fill in the gaps. I suppose some will be saying, “Did they actually say that?” So you could judge for yourself whether my literary intuition makes any sense.
By the way, let me share with you a story I found very funny. At some place in his history of early Christianity, Epiphanius, writing in the third or fourth century (I’m not going to bother looking that up), says that he actually knew and had talked with some Gnostics, women who talked what he considered to be blasphemous heresy and who tried to “seduce” him. Let’s deconstruct that. The women were explaining their sincere beliefs, obviously much like those of the Marcosians, which he could not understand at all, and then offered to initiate him or maybe just work some sex magic—and he turned them down! What a dork! So he committed what Kazantzakis in Zorba called the unforgivable sin.
So next will be the first installment of what I am calling The Letter to Theophilus.