The Fascinations of Gnosticism, Part I

The Fascinations of Gnosticism, Part I August 28, 2012

As I recall, I first read about the existence of Gnosticism in about 1971 or 2, perhaps from R.M.Grant’s Gnosis and Early Christianity  (that may not be the exact title) or from Richard Cavendish’s The Black Arts. Both of them said enough about it to fire my curiosity. I very much liked the antinomian flavor of this alternative Christianity they described.

At that time, I was interested in the Synoptic problem; I don’t remember why or how it first came to my attention. Alta wondered, during our week of honeymooning around northern California in September 1971, why I stole the Gideon Bible from each motel we stayed at. I just needed the raw materials for that project. The Synoptic problem is the question: why do the gospels according to Mark, Matthew, and Luke resemble each other so closely, but the gospel according to John looks so vastly different, contradicting the other three in many, many ways? Why as a Witch—we were then four years intensely into our creation of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn—would I care about that? Because I was wondering how in the world the utterly implausible Christian religion actually got started. The gospel accounts are not reliable as history, but there must have been an actual history, because the Christian faith community did get started and still exists.  How did that happen? To answer that question, one must begin with the gospels (and Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s continuation of the story), because, even though they cannot be trusted as history, they provide most of the possibly historical information we have.

Looking back, I can see that someone might have asked, “Aidan, some of the world’s greatest scholars have been working on that problem for at least 150 years. How can you have the audacity to think you can improve on their work?” Looking back again, I remember that no such question ever occurred to me. I was confident that I could make some progress, especially compared to the apologists whose real agenda was to defend the literal truth of the gospels, and fifty years later, I know that I did.

I began cutting up the gospels from the Gideon Bibles into small pieces and pasting those from Mt, Lk, and Mk (those are the abbreviations us Bible scholars use) into three columns, with the parallel or duplicated passages side by side, with a fourth column for the few passages from Jn that parallel them. That is not easy to do. Although Mt, Lk, and Mk contain many identical or similar passages, they are not in the same order, and there are passages in Mt and Lk that are not paralleled in Mk. Why? I read a lot about this problem by people whose agendas seemed honest to me. I learned that the King James translation of the Greek is simply wrong in many places and so began upgrading the texts I was working with. At one point I got so frustrated with the project that I threw it all away and sold all the books about it. But it would not let go of my curiosity; so I replaced the books and carried on.

So what is the answer to the question? It is a difficult question, and therefore has a difficult answer. I and a lot of other people are pretty sure we now know how to explain it. But let me put that off and get around to talking about the Gnostics. One day, again in about 1971, in Holmes Books, diagonally across the intersection of Third and Market from the (then) offices of W.H. Freeman and Co., I discovered a complete ten-volume set of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, which comprises virtually all the writing of Christian authors from before the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. I had read about that set. I knew it contained almost everything known about the Gnostics at that time (the translations of the Nag Hammadi documents were first published in 1979), even though that knowledge was contained in violently hostile diatribes against them. I immediately bought the set for $50 (equivalent to $500 now in buying power; advantage of a well-paying job), took it home, and started reading, or, actually, using the index to find and read the passages that were specifically about the Gnostics and all the other “heretics” of those first three centuries.

The most useful document was Book I of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies (as it’s usually called; its actual title in the text is Detection and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, written ca. A.D. 180), the Greek for “knowledge” being “gnosis.” Irenaeus devotes that Book to detailed descriptions of all the Gnostic and other sects he knows about, and he did know about some of them first hand, from the days of his studies in Roma, about A.D. 140. We know from the Nag Hammadi documents that he was describing them fairly accurately, not indulging in a straw-man argument; he considered their threat to be too serious; but he was sarcastic.

The next most useful was Hippolytus’ Philosophoumena, which describes and quotes from yet other groups, and apparently gives away the “secret” of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The third was Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis, “Miscellanies.” Actually, the Victorian translators turned Book III of that work into Latin, because it discusses the Carpocratians’ beliefs about sex,  but more recent scholars have Englished it. There are other bits and pieces scattered throughout the set.

(Just in cae you don’t know what the Nag Hammadi documents are—and only a very small percentage of the general public has ever even heard of them—they are a library of 13 bound volumes, containing about 60 treatises, that were buried in a jar in a cemetery about A.D. 400, by the monks of the nearby monastery, so that the auditors coming from Rome would not destroy them. Most of them are works whose titles we knew from Irenaeus and the other Church Fathers. They are the scriptures of a very different sort (or sorts) of Christianity that was destroyed by the Roman church once it had been given the political power to do so at the Council of Nicaea. They were discovered in 1948; it took 30 years to get them translated and published.)

Having read what the Church Fathers had to say, I began wondering what the Gnostic writings themselves might have been like. I combed through the set to collect all the actual quotes and the paraphrases that could be turned back into quotes, and so on, and began pushing the pieces around on my desk. I enjoy working with fragments, trying to see how they might have fitted together. That’s how I worked with the fragments of Sappho to create my AEolian Transformations. That’s how I worked with the fragments of information I gleaned from Gardner’s writings when we were creating the NROOGD. With the Gnostic fragments, I created The Gospel of Simon and Helen, as something of a love story. I think it provides a far more positive vision of the Gnostics than they ever managed for themselves. I have included segments from it in my Goddess Murder novel, and will include it whole in my forthcoming A Different History of Mary.

That’s where my Gnostic Studies stood when I began my doctoral program in January 1974. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I had taught myself Greek while commuting to and from work for the preceding six months. As soon as possible, I began learning Coptic, at first with Leonard Lesko at UC Berkele, then with Antoinette Wire of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, who was one of the translators for the Nag Hammadi Library in English, and with David Johnson, S.J., who was the cousin of my officemate at Freeman, Richard Johnson, and in whose seminars we studied various esoteric ancient religions; after many classes he invited the three or four of us to come chow down at the buffet in the main Jesuit house, and we would continue talking for much of the afternoon. In all these classes we worked with photocopies of the original Coptic documents and preliminary copies of some of the translations. One final exam was translating a page of the Gospel of Thomas.

Because of learning Coptic, when I became active in the American Academy of Religion in 1979, I had the immense privilege of becoming at least casually acquainted with the stars of Gnostic Studies, such as James Robinson, Marvin Meyer, and Elaine Pagels. At the 1979 annual meeting, attended by thousands of college professors, a forklift was bringing palettes full of copies of the newly published Nag Hammadi Library in English to the floor of the book show; the copies disappeared before the guy could fetch the next palette. Quite unknown to the public, it was one of the greatest moments in modern religious history.

I bothered to learn Coptic (it really wasn’t terribly hard; much easier than Hebrew) just to be sure the documents were being translated honestly—and of course they have been. The scholars who were and still are working on the translating have no interest in either confirming or disputing traditional Christian beliefs, merely in establishing the facts of history that can be deduced from these documents. You need to understand that the entire history of modern religious studies, which began during the Enlightenment era in the eighteenth century, is the history of how scholars have beaten the defenders of orthodoxy back, step by step, to reach the stage we are now at, where one can have a mature understanding of religion that requires neither childish belief that myths are literal history nor sophomoric belief that all religion is bunk. Of course, a large proportion of the public, especially Evangelicals and Republicans, has never taken advantage of this opportunity and, in fact, is oblivious to its existence.

(More will be revealed.)





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