I write a lot about alternative non-canonical scriptures, and the diverse Christianities they represent. One idea I challenge regularly goes something like this: for long centuries, Christians believed there were only the scriptures we know in the New testament. Then, suddenly, a series of amazing discoveries in the mid-late twentieth century (like the famous Nag Hammadi finds in Egypt) transformed our understanding. From the 1970s onward, we began to realize just how diverse and effervescent early Christianity was. These lost scriptures portray Jesus teaching mystical truths, and commonly to women disciples who are depicted as exalted holy figures. Mary Magdalene was an exalted disciple! If only we had known all this earlier. How differently the churches might have developed!
Here’s my main problem. Very little in the “lost scriptures” was ever really lost, and was pretty well known through texts preserved – accurately, and at great length – by various Church Fathers. More to the point, the great age of rediscovering original heretical and alternative texts occurred long, long, before the 1970s, or 1940s. If there was a turning point in the process of rediscovery, it occurred closer to 1890 than 1980. We have forgotten a century or so when all these insights were well known, and were in fact thoroughly absorbed into popular culture.
To illustrate this, I want to discuss three collections of documents that were found long before the twentieth century, and which had their impact long ago. Just how far back these events occurred might startle. All included selections of texts, mainly falling into the general category of “Gnostic,” and all closely resemble the spectacular finds from Nag Hammadi. One specific text, the Pistis Sophia, basically told modern readers everything they knew about ancient Gnostic and alternative Christianity, and most of what we have found since can be classified as commentary. Here are the three:
Traveler James Bruce bought this in Egypt in 1769, which really is impressively early. At that date, George Washington was still a busy planter not terribly interested in politics, and Edward Gibbon was still planning his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Although the Coptic language was not well known in the West at the time, the work was translated into Latin and German in the 1890s, and appeared shortly afterwards in English. The main find was the Gnostic Book of Jeu, through which Jesus reveals cosmic mysteries to male and female disciples.
It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this find for understandings of early Christianity. An English traveler probably obtained it in Egypt c.1770, and in 1785 it was bought by the British Museum. Its main content is Pistis Sophia, “Faith Wisdom”, a work probably composed in the third or early fourth century, and I’ll say much more about this below. (There’s much debate about what the work was originally titled).
The Berlin Codex (Akhmim Codex)
Discovered in Egypt in 1896, this includes several pivotal Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Mary, Apocryphon of John, and Sophia of Jesus Christ. When these works have been published in English in modern times, the usual assumption is that they are fresh and thrilling finds. Thrilling yes, fresh no. The Gospel of Mary, for instance, has been reasonably well known for many years.
All these texts had their impact, but one in particular was transformative. Because it is so elaborately detailed (it runs to some three hundred pages in translation), Pistis Sophia offers a thorough introduction to Gnosticism, including many of the aspects which attracted the most attention in the Nag Hammadi gospels.
Pistis Sophia claims to report the interactions of Jesus and the disciples after the Resurrection, but it differs radically from the canonical texts in its account of the spiritual powers ruling the universe, its belief in reincarnation, and its extensive use of magical formulae and invocations. The Jesus depicted here was a mystic teacher, whose main disciples include several female characters. Repeatedly, Jesus praises those women for their wisdom and their perceptive questions.
Other women are also prominent questioners, including Mary, Jesus’ mother; Martha; and Salome. In one memorable scene, Peter is forced to interrupt on behalf of the excluded men: “My lord, let the women cease to question, in order that we may also question.” Jesus is sympathetic, telling the women “Give your male brethren the opportunity, that they too may ask.”
Much of the book concerns the stages by which Jesus liberates the supernatural (and female) figure of Sophia, heavenly Wisdom, from her bondage in error and the material world, and she is progressively restored to her previous divine status in the heavens. Characteristic of these gospels, the events described occur symbolically and psychologically, in sharp contrast to the orthodox Christian concern with historical realities.
M.G. Schwartze translated that work into Latin in 1851, claiming it as a Valentinian work, and it soon began its astonishing career in English. Charles William King discussed it in his hugely influential 1864 book The Gnostics and Their Remains, citing it as “sole survivor of the once numerous family of Gnostic Gospels; but fortunately the most important of them all for our purpose, and the very one for whose escape (in its Coptic disguise) the archaeologist ought to feel most grateful to the ignorance of the destroyers.” The breakthrough translation by the Theosophist G. R. S. Mead appeared in 1890-1891, in the magazine Lucifer, and his free standing book version followed in 1896. Mead was consciously publicizing such texts as hidden gospels: he described Pistis Sophia as a Gnostic gospel, and the text was commonly recognized as “a sort of Gospel coming from some early Gnostic sect.”
Once translated and made easily available in popular editions, the Pistis Sophia had a general cultural impact quite comparable to the later Gnostic discoveries as they were popularized from the 1970s onward. In 1900, King’s pioneering Remains was superseded by G. R. S. Mead’s mammoth and much-reprinted Fragments of a Faith Forgotten…. A contribution to the study of Christian origins based on the most recently recovered materials. The subtitle indicates the already common idea that the heretical texts might shed much light on the earliest days of the faith. The Fragments included extensive translations from the Gnostic writings themselves, including the Pistis Sophia, the Books of the Savior and the Gospel of Mary. Mead went on to publish the eleven volume Echoes from the Gnosis (1906-1908), a comprehensive edition of every Gnostic writing then known – which made for a very large work.
By the 1920s, the British SPCK, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, published cheap translations of Pistis Sophia, together with other recent discoveries. A translation of the Pistis Sophia also appeared from the mainstream house of Macmillan.
If you read Pistis Sophia in one of those many easily available versions, you knew a massive amount about alternative early Christianity, and Gnosticism. Above all, you knew about the critical role of those women figures in that mythology. If you were a feminist, you found there ample ammunition for your cause, and for reconstructing the church on woman-friendly lines. Then as now, you might also view the early Christians as daring progressive feminists and egalitarians, whose authentic doctrines were tragically suppressed. In this view, true Christianity taught the Divine Feminine.
Already around 1900, you might believe that (following Frances Swiney) the Gnostics found their chief supporters among the emancipated women of the Roman Empire, “early pioneers of the liberation movement of their sex, dialectical daughters questioning the truth and authority of received opinions, earnest intellectual women.” She believed – rightly – that the Pistis Sophia gave a pretty comprehensive view of that Gnostic faith, or at least one of its most significant manifestations.
And all that before 1910. If you were an ordinary literate person in that era, and you were interested in religion – by no means a credentialed expert – if you didn’t know about “Other Christianities,” you must have been living in a cave (and not the well-furnished sort of cave that has scrolls in jars). With all this in mind, we should see the contemporary rediscovery of early Christianity as déjà vu all over again.
You can find the full text of Pistis Sophia in many places on the Internet.