On Jesus as a Gnostic

 Why write about him at all? Because, like it or not, he is the protagonist in the story of Western civilization. You know about him; you have a theory about him, even if it’s that you should ignore him. But, as with most topics, it’s better to be well-informed than to be ignorant.

Before 1945, the few people interested in the Gnostics generally thought they were heretical interlopers whose teachings had nothing to do with the genuine Christian message. The Nag Hammadi documents, which iclude some (not all) of the writings by some of the other versions of Christianity before about AD 400, have shown that theory to be inadequate, but few have thought it to be entirely wrong.  However, what if it was? What if the essence of Gnosticism went back to Jesus himself, but was ignored in what became the mainstream form of the Christian movement? Would Jesus make any sense as being a Gnostic? I now think he does, in fact, more sense than is provided by the traditional theologies about him.

It has often been noted that the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (abbreviated as Mk), assuming it is historical to some degree rather than purely theological, seems to relate Jesus’s undergoing some sort of “conversion experience.”  If scholars have considered the implications of such an interpretation, perhaps I just have not stumbled upon their work. Nevertheless, even at the risk of reinventing a wheel, I will undertake to think them through myself.

The Gnostics were “knowers.” They had acquired gnosis, knowledge. But just what was it they knew? Many writers, from Hans Jonas to Marvin Meyer, have thought that what they knew was their complex cosmological systems. I don’t think so.  I think what they knew was what they had felt in their own “Awakening,” which was the term they used most often to name that experience. I know that Awakening feels as though one has been in direct contact with the Divine, in fact, that one has been part of the Divine. An Awakened person seems always to know  that we are not utterly different from and separate from the Divine. It is quite empowering to know that one is forever safe.

The Gnostics described what they knew as being ineffable, inherently impossible to state in words. An Awakening fits that description, whereas no set of merely intellectual information could. That is, their complex cosmologies were an attempt to explain and to understand what they had felt, but were not themselves what was known.

 It is important that the “Gospel of the Hebrews” says that Jesus’s entire family was baptized by John. Mark, being apparently of the Pauline variety of Christianity, had an agenda of denigrating all of Jesus’s original circle of family and friends. Then it makes sense why in both Paul and Acts, Jesus’s brothers are suddenly among his followers from the start.

Mk 1 says that as Jesus came up from the water after being immersed by John, he saw the heavens opened and heard a voice saying, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well-pleased.” Notice that this is Jesus’s own subjective experience; no one else, including John, is aware of it. Making John a witness to this internal event, as the other three gospels do, is embroidering the story into a legend.

Next, the Spirit (its being in the form of a dove is apparently from a different theological thread) descends, enters into him, and drives him out into the wilderness,  where he struggles with angels and demons for many days. This is the sort of metaphorical language that has often been used to attempt to describe the psychological turmoil that is necessarily part of an Awakening. It is childish to assume that real physical angels and demons were involved.

Jesus later said (as is reported by the Church Fathers), “My mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by one hair of my head and carried me off to the great mountain Tabor.” He repeatedly referred to the Holy Spirit, which had entered into him, as his mother. That is, he was saying that he had two heavenly parents. Why Mt. Tabor? Because, I  discovered by merely looking, on it was the cave haunted by the spirit of Melchizedek, the archetypal High Priest.

Whatever sort of person Jesus might have been before his baptism, he was transformed into an utterly different sort of person afterward. Mark’s theology was Adoptionist. He believed that Jesus was an ordinary human being, with a human father and a human mother, who was adopted as God’s son at his baptism. When Jesus returned from the wilderness, he knew he had been “anointed” as a true prophet, like John; so he began to work with John, which is plainly what he is doing at the beginning of the story as told by Jn. Only after John has been imprisoned does Jesus begin to preach on his own, continuing John’s work.

The first words of Jesus’s preaching as given in Mk are usually translated as “The times are fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the good news.” These words are usually interpreted as meaning, “Feel sorry for what you have done wrong so that when God arrives, like Daddy coming home from work, he won’t punish you for them.” I cannot think of a more childish understanding of this central message, and it is a tragedy that so many humans have believed and still believe that it is correct.

The Greek word translated as “repent” is metanoie. It is related to “paranoia”; its roots mean “to think beyond.” It does not mean “feel sorry”; it means “change the way you think.” The Greek translated as “is upon you” is ambiguous; it can mean “is near” or “is already here.” I think Jesus intended the latter. I think what he meant was, “If you change the way you think, you will find yourself in the Kingdom of Heaven,” that is, in the presence of God. That interpretation seems very likely, considering these rediscovered sayings in the Gospel of Thomas:

His students said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”

[He replied] “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” . . .

His students said to him, “When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?”

He said to them, “What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it. . . . If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) 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 within you and it is outside you.”

 I suppose what probably happened was that most people, not having had an Awakening, looked around, saw no evidence of the presence of the Kingdom, and decided Jesus must have meant that it would be coming in the future. Thus what he said got transformed into apocalyptic prophecies—although he might have predicted that the Romans would destroy Jerusalem. The way things were going, it took no more than human intelligence to foresee that.

Okay, fine, if Jesus was telling people to change how they thought, what did he want them to change to? I think that should be obvious—although not to persons who have never tried to do what he said. He said, “Thy will be done”, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” And how does one do God’s will? By fulfilling the commandments. He was an observant Jew. He argued with the other Rabbis about how to interpret the commandments, but he fulfilled them. In fact, his Hebrew name, Yeshua ha-Notsri, says that. It did not mean Jesus of Nazareth. It meant Jesus the Nazarene, the “keeper” of the commandments. His original circle of family, friends, and followers called themselves Nazarenes.

(That’s enough for today. More will be revealed.)

 

  • Elena Margo Gould

    I’m reading Elaine Pagels’ “Beyond Belief” and I recently watched the National Geographic show about the Gospel of Judas, where Pagels suggested that it was “advanced teaching.” It is reasonable to expect children to read Dr. Seuss first, and then advance to Shakespeare later. Perhaps spiritually, we begin with Mark, grappling with the parables, and then later, when we’re ready, we can tackle the “gnostic,” “heretical” and almost lost Gospels of Judas, Thomas, and others. Gnosis, genuine personal knowing, requires mindful, adult participation, and you have to be adequately prepared for that.

    Just a thought.

    • Aidan Kelly

      Yes, Elena, you’re quite right. Unfortunately, given the currentstate of Western civilization, only a rather small minority of people ever get ready to learn anything advanced. I think unteachability is as serious an endemic and epidemic mental illness as (what I’ve labeled) Aphrodiphobia is, but I have no answer on how to cure it. I have decided not to tacitly consent when someone is spouting pernicious nonsense. Instead, I would say, first, “No, you are completely ignorant on that subject” and, second, something like “I don’t owe you a free course in religious studies. Go pay tuition for a college course; that way you’ll know you’re supposed to be learning something.” Yeah, maybe I can stick to that policy. One can persist in trying to leaven the lump.

  • aidanakelly

    I’ve never yet had to delete a comment on here,but there’s always a first time. This is not a forum for the unteachable.

  • Chas S. clifton

    Another variation on the view by some early followers that Jesus was too holy to have a physical body: