I have been posting about the widespread knowledge of alternative gospels and scriptures that existed in Western culture over a century ago, roughly between 1870 and 1930. Whether we are looking at Gnostic and esoteric views of early Christianity, feminist interpretations of the role of Mary Magdalene, or the influence of Essene doctrine, very few ideas that we might today regard as radically modern and daring were in fact unfamiliar back then. Far from being confined to elite scholars, such ideas were very widely disseminated in mass media and popular culture. One great vehicle for such ideas was the large and flourishing esoteric or occult movement that enjoyed such a global boom in those years. Writers of that school saw the then-available Gnostic and alternative texts as the authentic scriptures of earliest Christianity. They made these texts available in mass market editions, so that they could reach any curious inquirer in every small town and village. This was true across the English-speaking world, and also in continental Europe. I suspect that such “alternative” ideas of early Christianity were far more familiar around 1900, say, than they are today.
One movement in particular – Theosophy – sparked, inspired, directed, and mobilized the esoteric quest for Jesus that still flourishes today. Theosophists furnished all the essential maps and guides to anyone interested in following that path. Without acknowledging Theosophy, we can never understand the history of the popular interest in the gospels, in Gnosticism, or in alternative Christianities.
The Theosophical movement was then at the cutting edge of what we might call New Age or esoteric thought. You get a sense of their influence and interests from such key works as the Isis Unveiled of Helena P. Blavatsky, published in 1877, or her The Secret Doctrine (1888). Both books are very large, but it is instructive to glance through the contents list of Isis Unveiled, remembering that these were the commonplaces of esoteric thought way back in the decade following the US Civil War.
To oversimplify a vast book, Blavatsky believed that the earliest Christians were mystical Essenes and Gnostics, and that the ignorant clods of the Great Church had systematically suppressed their truths and secret doctrines, which at many points echoed Buddhism and Hinduism. Here are a few typical samples:
When we take in consideration that the Gnostics, or early Christians, were but the followers of the old Essenes under a new name, this fact is nothing to be wondered at. …
If we now stop to consider another of the fundamental dogmas of Christianity, the doctrine of atonement, we may trace it as easily back to heathendom. This corner-stone of a Church which had believed herself built on a firm rock for long centuries, is now excavated by science and proved to come from the Gnostics….
The Logos, or word of the Gospel according to John, was a Gnostic personification. …
It is needless to state that the Gospel according to John was not written by John but by a Platonist or a Gnostic belonging to the Neo-platonic school…..
Clement describes Basilides, the Gnostic, as “a philosopher devoted to the contemplation of divine things.” This very appropriate expression may be applied to many of the founders of the more important sects which later were all engulfed in one — that stupendous compound of unintelligible dogmas enforced by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others, which is now termed Christianity. If these must be called heresies, then early Christianity itself must be included in the number. Basilides and Valentinus preceded Irenaeus and Tertullian; and the two latter Fathers had less facts than the two former Gnostics to show that their heresy was plausible. Neither divine right nor truth brought about the triumph of their Christianity; fate alone was propitious.
While Theosophy grew from older esoteric roots, much of its appeal derived from its seeming congruence with the science of the day, particularly notions of evolution. Theosophists told of the rise and fall of successive races through millions of years, and also depicted the progress of the human soul through successive lives: at the summit of spiritual evolution were divine redeemers, avatars, or Christs. The Theosophical Christ thus had a huge amount in common with the Jesus of the Gnostics, the (non-material) heaven-sent Redeemer dispatched to liberate the forces of light from their prison of matter.
In presenting her picture, Blavatsky drew on the scholarship on Gnostic and early Christian heresy available in her own day, and Isis Unveiled borrows extensively from King’s The Gnostics and Their Remains (1864). Following the Gnostics of old with remarkable fidelity, Blavatsky and her contemporaries interpreted Christ’s death and resurrection as a symbolic and psychological reality, that reflected transformations within the soul of the believer. In this vision, “Christ” was not a historical personage, but a title given to any true initiate. As Theosophist Anna Kingsford declared in the 1880s, “Religion is not historical and in nowise depends upon past events … . The Scriptures are addressed to the soul, and make no appeal to the outer senses.”
As ancient texts were rediscovered in vast numbers over the following decades, so esoteric advocates took them up enthusiastically. Theosophists like G. R. S. Mead loved the alternative gospels, and tried to make them widely available. (See my post on Mead’s influence on Holst). Mead himself was secretary of the Theosophical Society, and his editions of the Pistis Sophia and the Echoes from the Gnosis were first published by the Theosophical Publishing House. I have on more than one occasion raved about Mead’s magnificent collection of texts in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. If you had read Mead’s edition of the Pistis Sophia – which appeared in 1896 – then you would find little surprising in most of the major alternative gospel finds of the past few decades, such as the Gospel of Judas or Gospel of Mary. Theosophical works had a special appeal to feminist thinkers, who found validation for ideas about women’s suppressed role in early Christianity.
In turn, those Theosophical works spawned a whole genre of pseudo-gospels that purported to describe the lost years of Jesus’s life, and explained how he had studied with Buddhists and other masters of Asian religion.
As scholarship, these esoteric writings have not aged well, and historians tend to regard Blavatsky as a fraud and plagiarist on an epic scale. But in popularizing advanced thought and speculation about early Christianity and the alternative texts, never underestimate the enormous impact of the Theosophists.
Next time, I’ll have more to say about the pervasive – if often forgotten – role of Theosophy in the secular thought and culture of the time.
One excellent book on all this is Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke and Clare Goodrick-Clarke, G. R. S. Mead and the Gnostic Quest (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2005).