The Fascinations of Gnosticism, Part II

The Fascinations of Gnosticism, Part II August 31, 2012

I hope you were able to hang with the personal history in Part I. It’s there because for me Gnosticism is not merely an academic historical puzzle, but instead highly relevant for current religious concerns. For example, the vision of an utterly different sort of Christianity allowed by the Nag Hammadi documents is a vision of a religion that could not only be compatible with the Craft, but also enrich it. I have played with such possibilities in my Goddess Murder novel, such play having been the real reason for writing it.

When I was finally able to read through the 1979 edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English, I was very surprised by what I learned. First, the earliest Gnostics really, absolutely, indisputably were Christians. Many of the Church Fathers, especially Hippolytus, had argued that the “heretics” were outsiders who had adopted Christianity as protective cover, and many modern scholars, especially Hans Jonas, had regarded Gnosticism as a broad philosophical movement in the ancient world that merely overlapped with Christianity. But why would someone who subscribed to a perfectly safe philosophy want to pretend to be a member of a religion that was not only illegal but occasionally persecuted? Fr. Raymond Brown, one of the most brilliant Catholic scholars of the last century, pointed out in his Community of the Beloved Disciple that 1 Jn 2:18 states explicitly that the “heretics” had originally been members of the Johannine community and had schismed off from it in a protest over the creation of the office of bishop in the late 80s. Elaine Pagels’ research supports that interpretation. The first half dozen documents in the NHLE make it obvious that these people believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, and so on. They had many different theologies about who and what he was, but many of these have been reinvented in modern times by the varieties of Christianity that have proliferated since the Reformation and more so after the Enlightenment, especially in the United States. Beyond all that, what is intriguing is the information about early Christianity that had been neither known nor reinvented.

For me, the most interesting document of them all was and is The Gospel of Phillip. It is aphoristic—that is, consists of separate sayings and short literary forms strung together in no apparent order. It reminded me greatly of Nietzsche. I will provide a list of the most important of its contents later.

The next most interesting was and is The Gospel of Thomas, now the best-known of the documents. Most of the 114 (or so) paragraphs in it begin, “Jesus said.” That is, it is a collection of isolated sayings, much like the hypothetical Q source that Matthew and Luke had used, but that Mark and John apparently did not. Current thought is that, although it was given an overlay of encratite (antisexual) sayings about 140, the basic document dates back to about the year 50, contemporary with Paul’s letters, making it also the oldest evidence we have about Christian beginnings. The Jesus Seminar, comprising the best liberal Biblical scholars in America, who are therefore thoroughly hated by the Evangelicals, considered The Gospel of Thomas to be neither more nor less historically reliable than the four canonical gospels (that means, the ones in the New Testament collection) and therefore published their The Five Gospels, updating scholarship on Biblical history. (I do tend to forget how little most people know about the solid facts of history that any student of religious history learns. Mk was written about A.D. 70, after the stories about what Jesus had said and done had been passed along by word of mouth for about 40 years. Ten years later, Matthew rewrote Mk; he obviously did not think that Mk was “gospel truth”; and Jn was written during about the next decade, and then rewritten, apparently to harmonize it with would become the orthodox theology. Luke wrote his about A.D. 95, probably by rewriting all three of the earlier ones, and added Acts about ten years later. Please don’t quibble because you’ve read obsolete versions of this dating.)

The third most interesting is The Gospel according to Mary, which, if you haven’t been paying attention at all, means Mary Magdalen, not the BVM. Mary’s huge importance in earliest Christianity is revealed by this and several others of the documents, but she is going to require a thorough discussion of her own, as you may have guessed from various of my previous blogs.

Overall, the Nag Hammadi documents divide into two large categories, the ones that stay closer to the Jewish origins of Christianity and that are basically very liberal in their attitudes about sexuality, and the ones devoted to metaphysical speculations about the origins of the universe and the nature of Jesus as a pre-existent being. I find the former category to be extremely interesting; the latter, mostly not, although it accords with the myth of Sophia I experimented with in my Gospel of Simon and Helen. There are, of course, some that fall in between these categories, and many places where contradictory beliefs about sexuality are mixed together.

The large division is reflected in the canonical gospels. Mark’s theology is adoptionist: he believed that Jesus was truly human and became the Messiah only when the Holy Spirit entered into him at his baptism and drove him out into the wilderness to meditate. Despite a few hyperbolic lines, Mark’s Jesus is essentially a prophet like John, and Mark does not describe anyone as seeing a risen Jesus (Mk 16:8 to the end is a later addition). In contrast, in Jn, Jesus is a pre-existent being who came to earth and hardly seems human at all, but one implicit assumption of that gospel is that all human beings are incarnated from a pre-mortal existence. Neither of them knows anything about a virgin birth, since they don’t need that hypothesis, or thinks that Jesus’ siblings were anything but full-blood brothers and sisters. In the first edition of Jn, apparently Mary was the only person who saw Jesus before his ascension, as Robert M. Price and others have argued.

It is, of course, Mt and Lk who have the two different and contradictory birth stories as their theory about what made Jesus special. Fr. Raymond Brown pointed out the two stories could be later elaborations of an earlier and much simpler birth story that is rather similar to the one about Mary and Jesus in the fifth Sura of the Qu’ran (the Prophet Muhammad, Blessed be his name, apparently did know the Jewish Christian communities that still existed around Arabia in his time). An odd fact is that, whereas the virgin birth stories say that the Holy Spirit was Jesus’ Heavenly Father, Jesus is quoted several times in the Gnostic documents, and even by the Church Fathers (who did know some of these writings), as saying that the Holy Spirit was his mother. The Gospel of Phillip emphasizes this difference, which, as far as I know, no one has ever paid any attention to until recently, and its implications are still being figured out.

Sufficient unto the day is the writing thereof. Next I really will start explaining why these Gnostic writings are of contemporary use, though not necessarily next.


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