An in-depth survey of early Gnostic Christianity, its teachers, its relationship to modern esoteric thought, and the religious/political environment which shaped its expression.
In 1945, near the banks of the River Nile, a jar was unearthed which contained one of the richest manuscript finds of modern history – the Nag Hammadi codices.
Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered two years later, this library of ancient documents (dated AD 350) contained texts relating to early Christianity that the world had never seen. The Dead Sea texts belonged to an earlier, Jewish branch of Christianity, and the works from Nag Hammadi to a later philosophical movement, called Gnosticism.
Since their discovery scholars have long pondered their contents, questioning their relation to original Christianity. In Share International, May 1994, Benjamin Creme refers to these two sets of documents, saying that their discovery “… was inspired by the Master Jesus to shed a clearer light on the events of that time in preparation for the Christ’s return today.”
We suggest that the “clearer light” of the Christian Gnostics was their understanding of esoteric wisdom or “gnosis” – those sacred truths of the spiritual universe which sustain all human progress. These writers of the Nag Hammadi documents belong to a long and ancient line of similar teachers who, throughout the world and over the ages, have kept these truths alive. In many ways they can be considered the true early Christians, the real inheritors of a wisdom tradition which Jesus relayed, in secret, to a select group of his disciples. Between 50 and 250 AD their ideas flourished and were largely tolerated, but reactionary voices began to prevail and by the end of the 4th century they were practically silenced, their writings, until now, lost to history.
In these pages we will look into their times to see the forces that shaped their thought. We will see in their writings totally new Gospels, teaching dialogues between Jesus and his followers, collections of sayings, and cosmological myths of vast design. These deeply mystical works express in their own language and style the same ideas as are found in the works of Helena Blavatsky and Alice Bailey, our own modern carriers of the esoteric flame.
The scriptural writings of the Gnostic Christians are often described as uncommon and bizarre. Their vocabulary is unusual; their concepts defy the ideas of sin, the afterlife, and humanity’s relationship with God which underlie most Western traditions. Some call them world-haters, immersed in an existential negation of life. Others see them as too sublimely ecstatic, soaring to foolhardy heights of spiritual bliss. In their own era, they made a huge impact, drawing thousands to hear of Christianity, the new religion inspired by the prophet Jesus Christ. They taught that the path to liberation lay in the attainment of Gnosis, the knowledge of sacred truths of the spiritual universe.
They said that each human being is the inheritor of a divine spark, a bit of fire given by the hand of God. Most men do not realize this fire within and live in ignorance of their true nature, but Jesus’ life had as its mission the purpose of reminding humanity of its true nature. He demonstrated, through his life and death, the way to freedom and taught the secrets of the ascent. The Gnostics wrote of an ongoing relationship with Jesus, even years after his death, through revelation and vision.
They knew the sciences of astronomy, divination, and healing, and the great mysteries of human origin and immortality. They were brave enough and bold enough to lay claim to this birthright, like Prometheus, who stole the sacred fire from the very gods themselves. But like Prometheus they were destined to suffer mightily for their daring, for bit by bit their schools were condemned, their voices hushed to a bare whisper. Their sacred and treasured writings, the mystical words of the beloved Teacher, were destroyed with hardly a trace by a Christian orthodoxy that was wedded too irrevocably to the political power of the Roman State.
As a whole, we have little data to tell us of Christianity’s early growth, but we do know that the 400 years surrounding Jesus’ birth could be called a renaissance of spiritual seeking. It was an era, like our own, which displayed the best and the worst of human endeavor. By 30 BC the Roman empire had consolidated most of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Its great highways and shipping routes enabled populations freely to intermingle, exchanging cultural and religious ideas. Its system of law unified the vastly divergent populations that it ruled. The first 200 years of the Christian era were generally peaceful ones, allowing a high achievement in spiritual and philosophical ideals. Though Rome was unbending in its demand of obeisance to the state, it tolerated a remarkably free expression of religious thought. Within its borders could be found groups adhering to ideas of Eastern Buddhism, Persian Zoroastrianism, the Egyptian Hermetic tradition, Jewish monotheism, the sun worship of Mithras, and Greek Platonic thought.
Gnosticism was one of these religions. It had its own sacred scriptures and ideas but it also freely borrowed from other traditions, developing a richly endowed theology. Alexandria was the main center of learning in the empire, its library the most famous of antiquity.
In this great city at the mouth of the Nile congregated groups of varied culture and creed. Yet despite the outward signs of political peace and unity there was raging within the Roman soul a moral war. The accumulation of vast riches in the upper strata of society, excessive and cruel taxation of the peasants, widespread slavery, and disrespect for human life had risen to such a height that the inner decay they spread was destroying the heart of the nation. For this reason numerous groups were seeking to counter the prevailing decadence with a return to a higher morality. Throughout the empire, in the deserts or forests of the land, small societies of spiritual seekers began to gather. Often they led ascetic lives, determined to address the dissolution they saw in mainstream culture. In cities like Alexandria were born schools of philosophy, and great moral teachers sought to instil their students with higher ideals.
The Christian groups in time became one of the loudest voices against the evils of the empire. They taught simplicity and communal sharing. Decrying the lot of the poor and oppressed, they denounced slavery and the brutality of the Roman gladiatorial games which slaughtered the underprivileged by the thousand. Many of the disaffected joined their ranks. Rome had always speedily silenced such popular protest, either by death or by bribery. But the Christians were a different lot. Unafraid of the former and untempted by the latter, their numbers continued to grow, despite rigorous and widespread persecution. And by AD 300 it was apparent that a moral tide had turned. The new faith was focusing the ideas of a new evolutionary cycle, one which began to speak for the rights and equality of all humanity. It was one voice that Rome could not bend to her ways. Conversions began to be made among the upper classes and politicians. In the end, because it had always been able to perceive the source of power in a society and use it to advantage, Rome capitulated. Under the Emperor Constantine, in AD 325, Christianity was accepted as the official state religion.
A union was born which permanently altered both Rome and the church. On its side, Rome began certain reforms to lift the lower classes from their bondage. But on the Christian side, perhaps the brush with Roman power was too heady a temptation, for the church leadership began to show the same hunger for wealth and power which had so marred the Roman rule. This new class of orthodox church leader began to accumulate riches and rule the congregations with an iron will. Within this stream of competing factions and ideas the flame of Gnosticism burned brilliantly for a brief time. In the first two centuries of the Christian era it enjoyed its triumph, spreading rapidly through the eastern Mediterranean. It mainly influenced the intellectuals and philosophers, drawing to its ranks a more highly educated adherent than did the mainstream sects which were often composed of the peasants and slaves. When the latter more mainstream groups began to be organized around orthodox leaders demanding strict adherence to the newly forming church rules, the Gnostics fell into disrepute.
Because they had always voiced the absolute necessity of individual freedom in finding salvation and because they refused to bow to any authority other than their own, they began to be viewed as renegades, a danger to the growing power base of Constantine’s church. Consequently, they were disdained and persecuted, not so much by forces outside the Christian community, but by the very community to which they had once belonged. Later sections will further discuss this interplay between the Roman state, the Christian leadership and the Gnostics.
The Gnostic Teachers
Although we have copious information about many other personages and events of the Roman era, few facts are left of the lives of the Gnostic teachers, for their personal remains were erased as thoroughly as their written ones. It is only our modern manuscript finds that have begun to reconstruct a more accurate picture of their life and thought. There follows a description of some of the most prominent thinkers. Blavatsky thinks that the Apostle Paul was the first really to understand that Christ’s life was a symbolic path of initiation.
His statement: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col.1:27) well expresses his belief that Christ came into the world, not as its sole means of redemption but as an example, to illustrate a way of redemption, which each person can follow who wishes to help in the uplifting of the world. Everyone, Paul makes clear, can eventually imitate Christ’s glory. His influence was the true beginning of the Christian Gnostic movement.
Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24) was a contemporary of Paul known for his magical feats. Because of this, stories about his life are fantastic and bizarre, but many historians say that all the later sects derive from him. Blavatsky says that he and many other Gnostics were powerful workers of occult miracles (The Secret Doctrine III, pp117-121).
Menander, Simon’s disciple, was also known for his practice of transcendental magic. He took the teachings to Antioch, a city in Asia Minor which developed a strong Christian community.
Satornilos of Syria was an ascetic who also taught at Antioch in the early 2nd century.
Cerinthus (mid-1st century) from Asia Minor, taught ideas about the Unknown God and the overshadowing of Jesus by the Christ.
Carpocrates (c. AD 117-138) headed a Gnostic school in Alexandria, and Marcellina, a female disciple, spread his teaching to Rome about AD 160.
These were the early teachers, of whom little is known. More can be said about the three giants of Gnosticism – Basilides, Marcion and Valentinus.
Blavatsky says of Basilides that “the founders of other Gnostic sects group round him, like a cluster of stars borrowing light from their sun” (Isis Unveiled II, p123). Clement of Alexandria, third Bishop of Rome (c. AD 150-215), describes him as “a philosopher devoted to the contemplation of divine things” (IU II, p155). Basilides claimed to have received “secret words” of Jesus from the apostle Matthias, and also to have been taught by Glaucias, Peter’s interpreter.
He was learned in Hellenic, Egyptian and Hebrew wisdom. Around AD 130, he gathered a group of students in Alexandria. Also a prolific writer, he is said to have written a Gospel plus 24 volumes of Interpretations Upon the Gospels, as well as poetry and song. All that survive are a few fragments; one is a prayer to the Unknown God. His school is said to have celebrated the baptism of Jesus, thus indicating that it understood the nature of the overshadowing of Jesus by the Christ. After he died, his disciple Isodore carried on his work.
Marcion was a rich ship owner who lived on the south shore of the Black Sea. He held office as a bishop, as did his father, and lived in Rome around AD 155. He based his teachings on those of Paul, and rejected most of the other Gospels that were circulating at the time. He is perhaps best known for his complete rejection of the Old Testament. This disavowal came from his objection to the Jewish God. He claimed that the Jewish Jehovah was indeed a just God, but that the God of Jesus was not only just but was also a good God.
To illustrate the point he meticulously collected the sayings and doings ascribed to Jehovah in the Old Testament and arranged them side by side with the sayings of the God of Jesus. The striking contrast served to support his contention. In this way he voiced and illustrated part of the revolution of ideas within those sects with Jewish ties. The vengeful God of wrath and restitution no longer suited the new ideas of Christian thought. The new wine needed a new wineskin.
Valentinus (c. AD 100-175) was a philosopher, religious leader and teacher. He wrote sermons, hymns, myths, letters, poetry and psalms. The most widely discussed of all Gnostic philosophers, he was known for his eloquence and the genius of his theological ideas, derived from a blend of Platonic, Hermetic, Jewish, and Christian elements. He was born on the Egyptian delta at Phrenobis and educated in Alexandria, where he taught early in the 2nd century. It is said that he was instructed by Theudas, a disciple of Paul. We know that at some point he traveled to Rome, perhaps expecting to be elected bishop because of his great renown. His failure in this regard may show that orthodox voices were already prevailing. Nevertheless, he gained a wide following throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and trained many distinguished intellects to his philosophy – Ptolemaeus, Heracleon, Theodotus and Marcus.
Known as a great mediator, Valentinus acted as a conciliatory force between the Roman Church and the more radical branches of Gnosticism. “The Gospel of Truth” from the Nag Hammadi find is sometimes attributed to him. Public branches of Valentinianism survived until the 4th century and some probably practised in secret a few centuries more. His successor, Marcus, conducted ceremonies that were connected to the ancient mystery cults, and claimed that by revelation he was shown how to transpose the whole Valentinian system into numerals and letters.
Since Catholic orthodoxy had so thoroughly destroyed any trace of original Gnostic thought, practically our only knowledge of it has been through the eyes of its most bitter opponents, patristic fathers who brutally condemned all groups which did not conform to orthodox thought. With the Nag Hammadi discovery of a large cache of Gnostic works, scholars were most anxious to see how valid was the orthodox view in presenting the Gnostic ideas. These early church fathers are known to history as the heresiologists.
Those described below were the most influential.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. AD 130-200), wrote a lengthy treatise of five books called Exposure and Refutation of the falsely so called Gnosis, later abbreviated to simply Against Heresies. In this work he attempts systematically to classify the sects and their founders, but it turns instead into a long and tiresome attack. He states that his main principle is “not only to expose but also from every side to wound the beast.” Irenaeus above all became an important information source for the other heresiologists.
To the theologian Hippolytus of Rome (c. AD 170-236) is usually ascribed the book Refutation of all Heresies. Most of this work was considered lost until 1842 when a manuscript was discovered in a monastery on Mount Athos. (See IU II, p52fn. for an interesting corollary.) In this work he tries to discredit the ideas of Gnosticism by tracing their origin to the Greek philosophical systems, which were considered ‘pagan’ and therefore heretical by the church leaders. In doing so, he not only describes 33 Gnostic systems, but gives to history an outline of the contemporary Greek ideas of astrology, magic, and religious mystery.
Tertullian (c. AD 150-225), Christian apologist and writer, wrote a treatise he called a Plea for the prosecution against the heretics.It is not so much a condemnation of heresy as an assertion of orthodox belief. It lays a claim that in time became a rallying cry for orthodoxy – that of direct apostolic succession. Any who could claim their teachings were directly handed down from the original apostles could assume an authority and position over those who had no such claim. Although many Gnostic teachers made similar claims, theirs were given no credence by the heresiologists.
Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, theologian and teacher (c. AD185-254), also wrote against heresy. Their position shows how comparatively flexible the Church was in its early years, because the writings of both have much similarity to Gnostic thought. Origen is particularly known as a champion of belief in reincarnation. Within a few centuries he and his teachings would also suffer condemnation by the Church.
The Nag Hammadi Finds
The documents from Nag Hammadi first showed up in Cairo in 1946, when Togo Mina, Director of the Coptic Museum, purchased one of the manuscripts for 250 Egyptian pounds. Mina and Jean Doresse, a French graduate student in Egyptology, thought the find was of great historical significance and worked together to reunite the rest of the collection. In 1948 the world was informed of the discovery, but the announcement caused barely a ripple. In 1950 Doresse tracked down the original site of discovery to Nag Hammadi, 280 miles south of Cairo. Some peasants in the area directed him to the site of the ancient town of Chenosboskion. Its ancient Coptic name, Shenesit, means “acacias of the God Seth”. The name may have been chosen by a Gnostic group, for in many of the Scriptures they honor and claim descent from Seth, who they say was the righteous son of Adam and Eve. The influences in the area that visibly survive are Egyptian and orthodox Christian.
The jar containing the codices had been unearthed from an abandoned Christian cemetery at the foot of a mountain called Gebel et-Tarif. In the cliffs above are caves, the burial places of ancient Egyptian officials. Nearby are the ruins of a monastery established by St Pachomius, known in church history as one of the ‘desert fathers’ who established monastic communities in the Egyptian desert. Perhaps it was pressure from such communities, widely spread and known for their strict orthodoxy, which caused the Gnostics to hide their books.
There survives a letter from Pachomius’ successor, dated AD 367, condemning heretical writings. This corresponds to the dating of the finds. The documents that were found are called codices. Bound in leather, they were a forerunner of the modern book. At the time of their composition, the codice had begun to replace the scroll because it was more durable and easier to read. In all, there were 13 codices, containing 52 tractates (separate texts). Forty of them were entirely new to the modern world. They were written in Coptic – the Egyptian language written in Greek characters, and probably translated from an original Greek text. Because of the tumultuous post World War II situation in Egypt, efforts to translate and publish the Nag Hammadi codices were continually thwarted.
It was a tremendous frustration for biblical scholars because they knew that the codices would contain answers to important historical questions. Despite repeated efforts by Mina and Doresse, the Gnostic scriptures would have to wait 30 years to be properly translated. The American theologian James Robinson was instrumental in finally gathering a team to translate the texts. The Nag Hammadi Library, published in 1977, is a result of this effort.
In approaching the Gnostic texts, one is immediately struck by the many concepts which have a root in esoteric tradition. Without this key, the writings are elusive, mysterious and sometimes incomprehensible. Though certain of their texts claim to be secret teachings, it is probable that there was an even more secret teaching shared by an inner circle, possibly contained in only one copy or transmitted by word of mouth. To make sense of their writings, first we will outline a few concepts from the writings of Blavatsky and Bailey. These will give us a framework in which to view Gnostic thought. We propose that the truths we find in these ideas were the same as that taught by the Gnostics.
The latter-day religion of Jesus Christ has never really encouraged an inquiry into the nature of God. Its emphasis has always been on Jesus as the Son of God, the second person of an original Trinity. Beyond assigning creation as the function of this Trinity, ideas are nebulous about its nature and mechanism. By contrast, every esoteric tradition devotes much thought to cosmological ideas and presents a view that is vast in its complexity.
Of importance in this approach is the distinction made between the highest God and the Gods of manifestation. The highest or Unknown God can never be described because our finite minds are wholly unable to comprehend its nature. It can only be described in terms of what it is not.
It sets in motion the process of manifestation and remains as the underlying energy, but at no point does it take an active role in the creation of the physical order. All we can know of the Unknown God is that “it shows its face from time to time.” We assume that the Unknown God is the essence of perfection. But the material creation, though a reflection of the Unknown God, can never be called perfect. Therefore we have an uncreated sphere of unity and perfection and a created sphere of physical manifestation. When the process of manifestation begins, from this Unknown God issues the seed matter of the future creation. It implants a spark of life to awaken the seed matter and thus begins the evolution of solar systems and worlds.
Symbolically, from the first union of spirit/male and matter/female, the son is born. This is the first primordial trinity. Creation then proceeds in stages. Forces or entities, called emanations, shape and occupy the vast and varied layers of creation. These layers are called planes and they are arranged in steps like a ladder, proceeding from the highest and most spiritual, downward, to the densest and most material. Each higher plane gives birth to the one below it. Each higher plane holds an image of the ideal plan of perfection as a goal for the lower to strive towards. The further from the original Godhead, the less perfect and pure is the creation.
Similarly, as the Unknown God is an essential unity, so the densest matter of manifestation exhibits characteristics of extreme differentiation and separation. This movement proceeding from the essential unity of the original Unknown God to the vast separation of our manifested universe is called the involutionary arc. At the end of the involutionary process, when matter is the most dense, the process reverses and what was a vast differentiation moves back again to the original unity which gave it life. This is called the evolutionary arc. It is this constant interplay between spirit and matter, unity and separation, involution and evolution, which produces a middle region, that of consciousness, a totally new quality which comes of the interaction between the opposite poles. Essentially it is an electrical phenomenon, an interplay between positive and negative polarities which creates (much like a light bulb on the physical plane) the quality of light or consciousness. This is the dynamic which propels evolution.
Second-ray solar system The Seven Rays are the seven streams of universal divine energy, each the expression of a great Life, whose interaction, at every conceivable frequency, creates the solar systems, galaxies and universes. Movement of these energies, in spiraling cycles, draws all Being into and out of manifestation, coloring and saturating it with specific qualities and attributes.
The Master DK through Alice A.Bailey says that the solar system that preceded, and gave birth to, ours, was a 3rd-ray system, expressing the predominantly material aspect of Active Intelligence. Our own system is 2nd ray, perfecting the purer, more spiritual, expression of Love-Wisdom. In its next incarnation the system will express the even purer attribute of 1st-ray Will. In knowing this, we can understand that the solar system itself is on the evolutionary arc, evolving towards an increasingly unified spiritual expression. When evolution is thus proceeding upwards there is always a great resistance to change. The lower forces try to hold to a separative tendency while the higher are seeking a more unified expression. All duality, the eternal conflict between good and evil, arises from this interplay; when the lower refuses to give way, and evolve, into the higher, the result is evil. This duality pervades creation.
Humanity is always confronted with challenges to its expression of a more adequate spiritual truth by the sheer resistance of matter itself. In the end humanity must make a personal decision, and choose to overcome the resistance if it wishes to proceed to a higher level. If, however, mankind chooses apathy, it can negate many possibilities for upward growth. With these ideas as background, perhaps we can better understand the dualism of the Gnostics. They knew the nature of creation and the challenges of humanity within that creation. They accepted that all evolution, both material and spiritual, was merely part of the larger plan, but they also knew that for their era it was time to overcome the resistance of material existence and orient themselves as totally as possible towards spiritual life.
World view of Gnostic Christianity
The Gnostic scriptures are of three kinds: esoteric cosmological works, gospels that contain discourses between Jesus and his followers, and ethical books of sayings or pure teaching. Some books combine these aspects. In sophistication, scope and insight they take us far beyond our biblical teachings. One scholar has described their effort as nothing less than an attempt to chart the very mind of God. The Gnostics were a group of thinkers with their heads, almost literally, in the clouds and their eyes on the stars. In this section we will look into their teachings, and draw analogies with our own esoteric tradition. Interestingly, they spoke little of reincarnation, probably because it was an implicit assumption among the religions of the day. They probably accepted, as well, the idea of the cyclic return of Avatars, understanding that the work of the Christ was such a manifestation. We know that they drew a distinction between the Unknown God and the lower hierarchies for, as we shall see, this became a very divisive issue in their time.
Aeons, Archons and Emanations
The Gnostics drew heavily on the pure Buddhist idea of overcoming desire. They were acutely aware of any influence that kept them bound too closely to physical life. These included the world of the passions, whether for money, sex, intoxicants, or fame. They were aware, beyond these obvious temptations of the flesh, of the invisible influences that hold mankind in bondage. A Gnostic tenet that became hated by the heresiologists was that of emanations. The Gnostics claimed that the whole spiritual and material universe is peopled with countless numbers of entities which make up the many varied levels of existence. These are all the successive creation of an original primordial Trinity.
They gave the name aeon to the higher classes of inhabitant, those which beckon humanity upwards. The inhabitants of the lower classes, those below the level of the human kingdom, they call the archons. These entities are depicted as jealous of the higher state that mankind has reached. They constantly try to pull him back into a lower, more material realm. When reading Gnostic descriptions of the cosmos, one encounters a bewildering array of these entities, with strange and unusual names.
In the Master DK’s Treatise on Cosmic Fire through Alice Bailey, however, we see the very same picture of multiplicity, the same descriptions of the higher and lower forces influencing mankind for good or for evil. The whole intent of the Gnostic path was to extricate itself from the influence of the archons, to learn to manipulate the lower forces rather than constantly being at their mercy. In this way the Gnostics themselves became participants in the creative process.
Denigration Of The Demiurge
In the Palestine of Jesus’ day people in general viewed their Gods as intimately watchful of their private lives. Personal success was counted as a demonstration of righteousness – failure and misfortune as punishment for wrongdoing. Worship was, therefore, centered around placating the Gods.
The Jewish priesthood held an iron grip on the minds of the people. Their temples were the center of sacrificial rites, and worshippers went to great expense to mollify the Gods. In breaking free of this narrow religious model, the Gnostics directly confronted the Jewish idea of God. Because of the biblical descriptions of him as a jealous and wrathful God, they introduced the idea that Jehovah, whom they called the Demiurge (Gk. demiourgos, builder or public worker) is not the highest God, the Unknown God over all, but a much lower one. He is merely one of the lower emanations, the builder of the physical planet earth, and though powerful in his own sphere of material creation, overall he occupies a very low plane on the ladder of evolution. They said, in fact, that humanity could surpass the Demiurge in spiritual attainment.
Blavatsky expresses this idea of the lower and the higher creators (emanations) in her concept of creative hierarchies, classes of beings or entities which are responsible for producing the various kingdoms and forms of manifested life. She says that there are seven hierarchies which fashion our present world. The four lower are responsible for purely physical creation, the world of forms visible to the eye. The three higher groups, though, cannot work on the physical plane. They create in subtle matter, producing thought, intuition and spiritual faculties that the human kingdom is just beginning to sense. She says that Jehovah belongs to one of the lower class of creators. He is able to create purely physical man but cannot endow him with the spark of mind and soul that will enable him to become truly human. That Divine Spark has to come from a higher plane.
In this sense the Gnostics could make the claim (considered outrageous at the time) that humankind could surpass Jehovah, the Demiurge. Because humanity has been endowed with a soul, fashioned by the higher order of creators, it belongs to an order of evolution beyond the physical, and can, therefore, aspire to the heights of the spiritual kingdom. The Gnostics considered those who worshipped the Demiurge to be centered on the material plane; they had not yet found their connection to the spiritual universe. It is the attainment of the human stage of evolution that marks the transition from the lower world of the physical into a higher spiritual realm. Ideas such as these were bound to cause great resentment in both Jewish and orthodox Christian circles and further threaten an already tenuous relationship with these groups, but few there were who could grasp the subtle distinctions that the Gnostics drew.
The Gnostics understood God on a mystical level and suggested a much more mature relationship. Instead of being at the whim of the Gods, they spoke of man himself as a potential god, with the capability of assuming power over the physical world. Thus could Jesus heal the sick and walk on water. This the Gnostics understood.
Overshadowing By The Christ
Many of the Gnostics accepted the idea that the Christ occupied the body of the disciple Jesus from his baptism to the crucifixion. Irenaeus reported that Cerinthus and other teachers understood this concept in the following way: “Jesus was not born of the virgin, but rather he was the son of Joseph and Mary, just like all other men, but more powerful in righteousness, intelligence and wisdom. After the baptism Christ descended upon him from the authority which is above all in the form of a dove and thereafter proclaimed the unknown Father and accomplished wonders. But at the end Christ again departed from Jesus and (only) Jesus suffered, and rose again; Christ however remained impassable, since he has a spiritual being.” (Gnosis, p165)
Modern scholars, not knowing what to make of such ideas call this docetism (Gk. dokesis, to appear), meaning, in this case, that Christ appeared only in semblance and did not really suffer or die. The Gnostics had a unique way of expressing why the Christ chose this way of manifestation. They taught that the lower world of the archons and rulers had managed in the early days of creation to capture some of the heavenly light, and that it was the task of the Christ, as Savior, to recapture the light and release it again into the higher spheres. He could do this, the Gnostics said, because he was able to trick the archons by disguising himself in the body of Jesus. They therefore did not know that he was of a higher order.
Path Of Initiation
The central motif of all of the Gnostic scriptures was the liberation brought by Christ’s death and resurrection. They understood this in a different sense from the atonement and redemption of later Christianity. They understood it as an example for humanity to follow. There is indication in many of the texts that they understood the five initiations. In Trimorphic Protennoia we read: “These are the glories that are higher than every glory, that is, [the Five] Seals complete by virtue of Intellect. He who possesses the Five Seals of these particular names has stripped off [the] garments of ignorance and put on a shining Light. And nothing will appear to him that belongs to the Powers of the Archons. Within those of this sort darkness will dissolve and [ignorance] will die.” (NHL- 521/XIII,1 49,25-35)
The Gospel of Philip lists five steps: “The lord [did] everything in a mystery, a baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber” (NHL-150/II,3 67,28-30). The bridal chamber was considered the final step of redemption, the heavenly marriage between the initiate and the Christ.
The Word Of God
In Blavatsky we read that the whole process of creation was carried on by the means of sound or speech or the Word. Every letter has its occult meaning and rationale. The vowels are the most potent and the vowel combination OEAOHOO is “the septenary root from which all proceeds” (SD I, pp68-9;93-6).
The Master DK says that: “Speech is one of the keys which opens the doors of communication between men and subtler beings. It gives the clue to the discovery of those entities who are contacted on the other side of the veil…. Magic consists … in addressing the Gods in Their own language; therefore the speech of average man cannot reach Them.” (Treatise on Cosmic Fire, pp977-82)
The Gnostics must have experimented with the magical formulas. In a number of their texts we find long strings of phonetic utterances. For them Christ was The Logos, “The Word” who had shown the way to triumph and rule over the lower elemental powers of the world. The Gospel of the Egyptians, and Marsanes are tractates which give particular attention to such expressions of the creative powers.
In the early years of Christianity there was a long and heated debate about the parousia or Second Coming of Christ. There was a widespread belief that humanity was about to enter a glorious era and that it would begin when the Christ returned to set up his kingdom, to reward the faithful, punish the wicked, and restore physical life to those who had died in his favor.
The Gnostics held no such beliefs. We find no mention of the parousia, an imminent Second Coming, or a physical resurrection. Just as the crucifixion was understood in a totally different way from many of the Christian groups, so were these concepts. A physical resurrection held no attraction because they knew that the true victory lay in transcending the physical body, not carrying it into the afterlife. For them, the resurrection was something that happens inwardly, in the present-day living of the mysteries that Jesus taught.
The Myth of Sophia
In Atlantean days the Spiritual Hierarchy which directs our earthly affairs worked alongside humanity, instructing it in the sacred arts. But when that civilization fell, torn apart by internal conflict, the Hierarchy removed itself from the external world and worked instead behind the scenes. Since that time the ancient truths have been released to the masses of humanity in the form of allegory. The Myth of Sophia is such an allegory. It is the central motif of the Gnostic books. Sophia is the Greek name for wisdom; to the Gnostics she was revered because she was another symbol of the Gnosis. Most of their cosmological texts contain variations of this story. The story itself has parallels in many religious traditions. First we will outline the myth, then present an explanation, seen esoterically. There are many layers to any allegory; Blavatsky says there are seven keys to unlock the secrets. These thoughts are offered merely as an overview, a glance at a few of the most obvious aspects.
Sophia And The Demiurge
“And when she saw (the consequences of) her desire, it changed into a form of a lion-faced serpent. And its eyes were like lightning fires which flash. She cast it away from her, outside that place, that no one of the immortal ones might see it, for she had created it in ignorance. And she surrounded it with a luminous cloud, and she placed a throne in the middle of the cloud that no one might see it except the holy Spirit who is called the mother of the living. And she called his name Yaltabaoth.This is the first archon who took a great power from his mother…. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said: ‘I am God and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”- The Apocryphon of John . (NHL-110/IV,1 10:7-20)
Sophia-Achamoth is a very high spirit, an emanation (along with her consort, the Christ) of her mother, the Elder Sophia. They all live in the spiritual land beyond the earth called the Pleroma. Gazing down into the world of matter, the younger Sophia sees reflected there a transcendent light. Drawn by desire to possess this light and duplicate its image she leaves her heavenly consort, the Christ, and descends into the world of matter. There she rushes about, hovering to and fro, trying to impart life to the chaotic inert elements. Finally she becomes helplessly immersed in mud, unable to extricate herself. Nevertheless, just by sheer contact with matter, she produces a being – an odd, lion-faced entity, whom she calls Ildabaoth (Ilda, child; Baoth, chaos).
When she sees the imperfection that she has produced, she realizes she has acted in ignorance. She escapes from the lower space and builds a strong barrier, or veil, between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Ildabaoth is, therefore, the “son of darkness” who cannot see that there exists anything above him. Ildabaoth is ambitious and proud but despite his many imperfections he has captured some of the pure light from his mother Sophia-Achamoth.
In his domain he produces seven sons, declaring himself the highest God, demanding they do only his bidding and exalting himself above them. In his great ambition Ildabaoth decides to create a man after an image he had seen reflected in the waters of space. He employs all the powers of his various creations, but the creature proves a failure, helpless and ignorant and crawling on the ground like a worm. So he is forced to call on the help of his mother who sends him an impulse of divine light. This animates the man and he rises to life. But seeing the newly made creation soar higher and higher because of the spiritual light from Sophia, Ildabaoth flies into a rage of jealousy. Angrily staring into the deep abyss of matter, his image is reflected back to him and there arises a serpent with eyes flashing red. It is Satan, the Ophiomorphos (having the form of a serpent), an embodiment of envy and cunning. After this Ialdabaoth encases his creations, symbolized in Adam and Eve, in mud to keep them closely tied to the earth. He builds for them the Garden of Paradise, giving them all of the gifts therein. But lest they taste death, he forbids them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Sophia-Achamoth, from her kingdom above, is always watching over and protecting humanity. Seeing the world that Ialdabaoth has fashioned, she sends her own serpent, the Ophis or Agathodaemon (a divine instructor), who induces Adam and Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Though they are cast from the Garden of Eden, and do indeed learn the sorrow of death, the divine wisdom stays with them through every trial of worldly life. In the final act, after watching mankind struggle through aeons of pain and conflict, constantly pursued by Ialdabaoth’s cunning, Sophia-Achamoth begs her mother, Sophia the Elder, to send the Christ to help humanity in its unending torment. It is through his crucifixion and resurrection that the kingdom of matter is finally subdued and Ialdabaoth’s reign of blindness comes to an end. From his throne in the heavens the Christ continues to reign, collecting all of the souls who have triumphed like him, each one freeing a portion of light encased in the kingdom of matter.
Creation Of Humanity
The Myth of Sophia can be seen as a retelling of cosmological events that focus on the creation, or individualization, of the human kingdom on earth. The Elder Sophia is the creative force behind our 2nd-ray solar system of Love-Wisdom. Just as the job of the former 3rd-ray solar system was to develop physical life, so the job of our 2nd-ray system is to develop the mentality that will lead us out of purely physical living into a greater expression of spirituality. The creation of humanity is a key element of that profound evolutionary step, as the human kingdom is the one which develops the quality of mind or manas, which bridges between the world of matter and the world of spirit.
In the myth we see a variety of creators. The lower Sophia does the bidding of the higher Sophia and the Christos acts as a go-between, but each, in a different way, expresses the 2nd ray, or the higher light that is trying to be born. When Sophia-Achamoth goes about her task of creating she can only produce a creature of the lower order – Ialdabaoth, who becomes the creator of our physical world. The Gnostics say he is identical with the Demiurge or Jehovah of the Old Testament. He and his seven sons represent the lower order of material creators. Just as we say that matter is blind, so, in the story, is Ialdabaoth (known also as Sakla, “the blind”), because when Sophia sees the imperfection that she has created she draws a veil, or “ring-pass-not”, which keeps him from seeing the higher light. What we see in the allegory is the tremendous power which Ialdabaoth thinks he possesses. Because he is blind to the higher realms he thinks he is the only God and arrogantly declares (as does Jehovah): “I am God and there is no other God beside me.” He represents, in a personal sense, our own narrowness of vision, our blindness to the higher realms, which, when accessed, can animate and enlighten all of our efforts. He also represents the resistance to growth of the lower to the higher order, the duality and ‘evil’ discussed in the section ‘Second-Ray Solar System’.
In The Secret Doctrine II Blavatsky writes of the creation of a human being and her story parallels that of Ialdabaoth and his sons, their trials and retrials in attempting to fashion an upright and thinking human being. She recounts a story identical to the myth – the lower creative spirits try and try again to fashion a human but they all fail, and the entity is left amorphous, crawling on the ground, like a worm. We see, therefore, that the allegory is a true telling of a true and ancient happening. She goes on to describe how it took a higher order of creator to give life to man.
The Master DK relates that it was the energy of Venus, the alter ego of the earth, which instilled the quality of mind, or manas, into the animal kingdom 18.5 million years ago and evolved the human being. This is analogous to the action of Sophia, who gives her higher light to man and endows him with a soul. Ialdabaoth is lion-headed because astrologically Leo rules the crisis of self-individualization. During the Age of Leo nascent humanity came to the first realization of its evolutionary step beyond the animal kingdom. In many of the Gnostic symbols we see portrayed the lion, the serpent, or the dual lion-headed serpent. These symbols represent human beginnings. Ultimately we see that the efforts of both Sophia and Ialdabaoth (spirit and matter) are needed to fashion the human being. It was only through a combined effort, beset by blunders and setbacks, that all of the creative hierarchies are able to create a breathing, walking, and thinking being. Lest these concepts seem like the mere splitting of esoteric hairs, we can remember that both the Master DK and Mme Blavatsky repeatedly remind us that the mystery involved in humanity, that of the divine being within the earthly being, is great indeed.
In the unraveling of its secrets can be found answers to the puzzles of creation. The eternal conflict that we see expressed in such ancient allegories is generally personified in one or more figures like Ialdabaoth and Sophia, but this, of course, is a purely symbolic device – they represent the various energies behind manifestation. Conflict is inherent in the universal scheme. In the end, we are told, when the vast plan of the Unknown God is finally accomplished, there will be harmony. Until then we must learn the secrets of duality, for it is that mysterious energy which propels evolution on its upward advance.
Garden Of Eden
The allegory’s story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of man mirrors our own Genesis myth. Though many Christians have interpreted it as illustrative of an inherent and possibly permanent flaw on the part of mankind, Blavatsky tells a different tale. The serpent is a dual symbol, both of good and evil. First we see it as a symbol of evil, actually created by Ialdabaoth in his jealousy and rage. We see again that the resistance of the old form, in failing to give way to the new in itself creates evil in the world. Later, in the Garden of Eden, we see it as a symbol of wisdom, the opposite side of the duality, when it appears as the serpent which tempted Eve. This is precisely where Blavatsky opens a whole new world for us. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she says, represents all of the Arhats, Adepts and Masters of the Spiritual Hierarchy who have taught humanity everything it has learned since its first cautious steps into intelligent awareness.
The knowledge humanity has accumulated in the present day does not represent the mere growth of its own inherent mentality so much as stimulation given by the Hierarchy through many cycles of evolution. In Lemurian days millions of years ago, when individualization occurred, the Spiritual Hierarchy stimulated and ensouled the lower kingdom of animals to produce humanity. Later, in Atlantean days, the process of Initiation was begun when another stimulation was given by Hierarchy to hasten mankind’s entry into the Spiritual Kingdom. But all of this did not happen flawlessly or without cost.
The Garden of Eden represents the easy way of material living and the mindless instinctual way of the lower life forms. The serpent of duality represents the climb upward onto the next plane of growth when animal man takes a soul, develops mentality, and steps into the most difficult stage of the evolutionary journey. When Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation, they ‘disobeyed’ the lower law of physical creation in order to respond to a higher law of spiritual growth. The stimulation from the Hierarchy and the spark of soul received by Adam and Eve became their means of receiving the higher knowledge that would lead them into the kingdom of spirit. This is the story of the human kingdom. It is caught, so to speak, between the enticements of spirit and those of matter, often not knowing which voice to hear. It is still strongly tied to its past evolution in the lower worlds, but it has a new voice from the higher realms that beckons it upwards.
This is why it so strongly experiences the pull of dualities. Its path of progress lies in finding the middle way between the opposites. The only way to do this is to embark on the long journey of human evolution, willingly to open itself to all of its trials – the pain, sorrow and death of terrestrial life. It is a phase that every kingdom in creation must pass through, and is the only way to move into the higher realms, because nothing is given without merit. Every entity must forge its own way and earn its right to progress on the path of evolution. Without this eternal rule, the evolutionary journey would be meaningless. When Adam and Eve, symbolizing humanity, left the Garden of Eden, they did so by choice, leaving the comforts of a known existence for an insecure and probably treacherous future. As we hear it from Blavatsky, it is anything but a shameful act. It is the journey of the Hero, pure and simple. It is a labor of Redemption, symbolized in its final act by the long path of initiation. Sophia prevails on her mother to send her consort of higher light, the Christ, as go-between, for the final stage of the human journey. He is the “Son” or the Redeemer of physical creation.
In every myth of every Sun God we find him acting as a link between the higher and lower. What we often fail to realize is that each human being is itself that same link. In their deep comprehension of this, the Gnostics did not represent Jesus so much as a savior, but rather as one who issues a call to humanity to awaken from a long sleep and remember its godly mission. He shows the way by his sacrifice – the crucifixion and resurrection. This is our pattern for the final abnegation of matter and birth into the Spiritual Hierarchy.
Jewel Of Uncommon Price
A body of writings has been attributed to St Didymus Jude Thomas, the apostle of the East, who traveled to Syria, Mesopotamia and India. He was said to be the identical twin or double of Jesus. ‘Didymus’ means twin in Greek and ‘Thomas’ means twin in Syriac. In the ancient tradition this twin motif does not necessarily mean a physical relationship, but could suggest the idea of relationship between a Teacher and his disciple. Some of the Thomas literature survived into modern times. It has little of the cosmological imagery and extreme dualism of the other Gnostic works. It is known for its loftiness of thought, purity of expression, and noble system of ethics. There is little speculation about the life beyond, but a simple realization of the kingdom of God as a present and living reality, attainable by all.
Benjamin Creme claims that one work, called The Gospel of Thomas, is, “more or less, a genuine account of the acts (less so of the words) of Jesus.” (Share International, December 1986)
The Hymn Of The Pearl
The Hymn of the Pearl is of the Thomas tradition and is one of the most poetic and mystical of all Gnostic works. It is the story of the Divine Pilgrim’s sojourn on the earthly plane. The central figure is a young Prince who is asked by his royal mother and father to journey to the land of Egypt. There, they say, he will find a precious jewel, a pearl of uncommon lustre. It is guarded, though, by a fearsome dragon. The prince must somehow charm the dragon to release the sacred jewel. In leaving the palace of his homeland, the little Prince must leave behind the exquisite garments of his office, a princely robe, luminous and covered with jewels. He dons a simple dress and starts on his way. Arriving in Egypt he takes care to dress in the clothes of the land, but is recognized as a foreigner and given tainted food to eat. He falls into a deep and forgetful sleep. The Prince’s parents, on hearing of his trials, send a messenger with a letter reminding him of his stately birth and promised task.
He awakens and reads the letter. Heartened by its message, he remembers the dragon, and in a great act of courage snatches away the precious pearl. Triumphant in his mission, he leaves for home. His former life seems far and distant, for when he left he was just a boy. But when his parents greet him in joy and celebration, returning to him his jeweled robe, he remembers all that he has forgotten. “As I now beheld the robe, it seemed to me suddenly to become a mirror-image of myself: myself entire I saw in it, and it entire I saw in myself, that we were two in separateness, and yet again one in the sameness of our forms…. And the image of the King of kings was depicted all over it. “Once I had put it on, I arose into the realm of peace belonging to reverential awe. And I bowed my head and prostrated myself before the splendor of the father who had sent it to me. For, it was I who had done his commands, and likewise it was he who had kept the promise. And I mingled at the doors of his archaic royal building. He took delight in me, and received me with him in the palace.” (The Gnostic Scriptures, 374-5/77, 78, 86, 98-102)
In esotericism, it is the Monad, the divine spark, which informs the human entity. Since it is too spiritual to be involved in physical-plane happenings, it uses the soul as its means of communication with the lower personality. It is known as the eternal Pilgrim, which waits and watches through aeons of evolution while the lower personality becomes increasingly purified. By the time the soul is subsumed at the 4th initiation, the lower personality can finally contact the Monad directly. In The Hymn of the Pearl the mother and father can be seen as the Solar Logos, the highest entity which holds the plan of evolution for our system. The little Prince can be seen as the Monad. Leaving behind the Vestures of his high estate, he puts on those of the common man (the lower personality), and embarks on a long and lonely journey, suffering the painful trials of earthly life. The pearl, in antiquity, was a symbol of the soul, the link between Monad and man. The journey of the lower man is to find the soul (pearl), his connection with his true and princely self, the Monad. Braving the challenges of physical life, at times he forgets his royal birth. But when he awakens and remembers who he is, he steals the precious pearl from the fearsome dragon (the serpent of matter/evil).
He returns triumphant to his father’s kingdom, throwing off the old clothes of the lower, material personality and reclaiming his rightful heritage, the princely Vesture, or spiritual body. The Gnostics would call it recapturing the light, redeeming the kingdom of matter, like Adam and Eve facing the fearful challenges of the unknown when they leave their Paradise in Eden. The evolutionary journey is of unimaginable duration and the human cycle is particularly shrouded in mist and forgetfulness. But in the end, however long the years, we are assured that victory will be won. The light will be recaptured; the triumphant Pilgrim will return to the home of his family. This is known, in the sacred books, as the great day “Be with us,” the day at the end of the cycle of manifestation, when all are gathered back into the embrace of the One and Unknown God, resting for a while until the next great cycle of manifestation begins.
The ‘Triumph’ Of Christianity
Alas, alas! How little has the divine seed, scattered broadcast by the hand of the meek Judean philosopher, thrived or brought forth fruit. He, who himself had shunned hypocrisy, warned against public prayer, showing such contempt for any useless exhibition of the same, could he but cast his sorrowful glance on the earth, from the regions of eternal bliss, would see that this seed fell neither on sterile rock nor by the wayside. Nay, it took deep root in the most prolific soil; one enriched even to plethora with lies and human gore! (IU II, p303)3
The ‘triumph’ of Christianity cannot be separated from the political influence of the Roman Empire. When the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the only state religion one of his motives was almost certainly to fuse the disparate parts of a flagging empire. What happened afterwards can largely be seen as a wedding between church and state – leaders of the church became veritable monarchs and Constantine became a ‘saint’. It happened in increments and had worldwide effects. But even before its official acceptance, the Church had already begun to adopt Roman characteristics – admirable genius in the arena of political organization and law, and a somewhat vacuous approach to religious ideas.
The Roman giant which had proved so grand in forging a kingdom was a fumbling child in the subtle air of the philosophical arts. Consequently, a major concern of the Church leadership became, not theology, but the elimination of those elements which stood in the way of absolute power. The first thing to go was diversity, the lifeblood of the early movement. Towards the end of the 1st century, the Church theologians Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome began to systematize and monitor the teachings of the various groups, with the idea of making them accountable to a central federation, ruled by bishops. As a justification for this kind of centralization, the will of the bishop began to be identified with the will of God. Consequently, God became accessible only to the hierarchy and not the individual.
The morality that Jesus taught began to assume an air of abstraction when Ignatius postulated the idea that belief in the historical events of his life was enough for salvation. Whereas the Gnostics were intent on moving beyond what they considered the narrow view of the Old Testament, orthodoxy maintained an affiliation, particularly pointing to the prophetic books as proof that Jesus was the Messiah. The Christian Apologist Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) decreed that Jesus’ life held the final revelation for humanity, and declared an end to further prophecy or revelation.
Thus was lost the idea of personal participation in the mysteries and the cyclic return of avatars. Irenaeus and his successors divorced Jesus even further from the world by making him co-equal with God, the creator of all. They also began the insidious doctrine of mankind as a flawed creation devoid of the divine spark because of the sin of Adam and Eve.
Eve was presented as the female temptress; this began the degradation of both women and the sexual function. Macchio tells us that Irenaeus single-handedly negated the idea of the Unknown God, of emanations, and the inherent divinity of every person. He taught that since mankind’s original ‘fall’ came by an act of disobedience, salvation was gained by adhering to the law. The outline of that law was only available through the Church. Any other path meant personal damnation. In this way Christian believers were forced to view themselves as lowly and subservient, robbed of both self-esteem and any hope of influence over their own destiny. The final debasement came from Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430). His doctrine of original sin stripped away what few shreds of dignity may have been left to the Christian believer. To his mind we owe the doctrines of eternal hell, infant damnation, predestination, and the abrogation of free will. The debates of many of these early apologists of the faith were hardly conducted in a spirit of scholarly exchange.
They were vicious, employing all manner of character condemnation and personal defamation, presaging, perhaps, the cruelty of the Church’s later actions – the inquisitions and crusades. Gnosticism became a primary target of attack and by AD 200 its influence began to wane. In AD 325 Roman orthodoxy was sealed in two ways. Constantine declared Christianity the only state religion and the Council of Nicea declared that Jesus was identical with the one and only God of the universe. Thus was formed an eternal chasm between the world of God and the world of man. Humanity could now be but a passive observer of the divine mysteries. Dissenting voices were tolerated a while longer, but in AD 381 the Emperor Theodosius I officially recognized one single branch of orthodox Catholicism. This opened the way for even more extensive sanctions, including violence, against the Gnostics and other non-Christians.
In its zeal for absolute authority the Roman church attacked with equal fervor those expressions that it labeled the pagan religions. In a rampage it destroyed ancient temples and monuments. When its attack extended into systems of pure philosophy and science, the library at Alexandria, a repository of the greatest learning in the East, was burned to the ground. Thus did the Church forge its legacy. The Roman empire, begun on the banks of the Tiber 1,000 years before, extended its hand of brute force into the future, to become in time the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by pope and king alike. It was only the military genius of no less a commander than Napoleon which brought the awful marriage to its rightful end. In 1798 his General, Berthier, entered Rome, imprisoned the pope, and decreed that no pope would ever rule the secular world again.
After The Fall
After the triumph of orthodox Christianity, we don’t know how many Gnostic sects survived in secret. The Persian prophet Mani (AD 215-277) inspired a later sect, the Manichaeans, which survived publicly until the 13th century. In its day, despite bitterly persistent and bloody persecutions, it rivaled Christianity in number of adherents. The Mandeans of Iran and Iraq, who claim a direct lineage from John the Baptist, today still practise a form of Gnosticism. Blavatsky also writes of the Druzes of Mount Lebanon as descendants of the Gnostics (IU II, Ch.VII).
From a psychological perspective Carl Jung has been instrumental in reawakening the world to Gnostic thought. Claiming a lifelong affinity with their ideas, he has inspired other authors to view the ancient texts in a modern framework. The true importance of the Gnostic Scriptures is that they give us back a Christianity that, even in its own time, barely saw the light of day. They offer an answer to the restlessness of modern Christians who question the representation of the Jesus that has been presented to them, his place in history, the purpose of his life, his meaning in modern times.
The Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls are like priceless time capsules, unearthed long after the original civilization has decayed into the elements. They are the thoughts, unedited and pure, of people who lived in one of the most significant periods of history, who participated in events of profound importance to the evolution of the race. The Christ himself may well have known that the vision he brought would not be easy of accomplishment, the peace he sought to give would only be won through centuries of struggle. The Gnostic teachers sensed the same, yet for them the fire never dimmed, they sheltered its flame through every dark night, preserving its brilliance for a future dawn they knew would someday shine. In turning from a world of turbulence and clamor, rejecting fame and favor and the wiles of man, they followed the way of their brilliant leader and entered a realm of pure abstraction. For them it did not matter, the only blessing was in action, expressing the truths that were blazing in their hearts. For them it did not matter what history wrote or what award was theirs, they knew that the cross and the crown were of equal glory. These were the true inheritors of the teachings that Jesus brought and through their writings we can view the sublimity which enveloped their minds, the fiery aspiration which enlivened their hearts. This is the real Christianity, sought by our scholars and people of thought, but not yet found. These are its scriptures, which speak to us now, with ancient beauty and grace, unveiling the power of those momentous times returning a legacy, lost and buried for 1,500 dark and silent years.
(1) Ray structures: Basilides: S: 3; P: 4(6); M: 3(7); A: 4(6); Ph: 3(7). PoE: 1.57. Marcion: S: 2; P: 6(4); M: 7(2); A: 4(6); Ph: 3(7). PoE: 1.5. Valentinus: S: 6; P: 1(6); M: 3(7); A: 2(4); Ph: 7(3). PoE.1.6. (As given in Share International and Maitreya’s Mission Volume Three (Share International Foundation)
(2) Editors’ note: Benjamin Creme has confirmed that The Gospel of Truth and the Pistis Sophia (another Egyptian Gnostic document procured by the British Museum in 1785) were composed by Valentinus. (SI April 1997)
(3) For part of the contents of this article, the writer is indebted to Joseph Macchio, the author of The Christian Conspiracy, for his brilliant work in tracing, step by step, the destruction of Gnosticism and esoteric doctrines by the Roman Church.
Translations of codices are from two sources (reference numbers designate book and page, then number of codice, tractate, page, and line):
Robinson, James. The Nag Hammadi Library (NHL).
Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures (GS).
Esoteric information is from the following sources:
Alice A Bailey. A Treatise on Cosmic Fire (TCF).
Helena Blavatsky. The Secret Doctrine I, II, III (SD I, SD II, and SD III);
Isis Unveiled II (IU II).
Share International magazine (SI).
Benjamin Creme. Maitreya’s Mission Volume Two (MM II)
On suppression of Gnostics “… we limit our defense merely to those Christian sects whose theories were usually grouped under the generic name of Gnosticism. These are those which appeared immediately after the alleged crucifixion, and lasted till they were nearly exterminated under the rigorous execution of the Constantinian law. The greatest guilt of these were their syncretistic views, for at no other period of the world’s history had truth a poorer prospect of triumph than in those days of forgery, lying, and deliberate falsification of facts.” (From Isis Unveiled II, p326)
On overshadowing “Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.” (NHL- 365/VII,2 56,4-19) From “The Second Treatise of the Great Seth” “And I (Peter) said: ‘What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?’ The Savior said to me: ‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus, But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.'” (NHL-377/VII,3 81,6-25) From “Apocalypse of Peter”
Gospel of Thomas “These are the obscure sayings that the living Jesus uttered and which Didymus Jude Thomas wrote down. And he said, “whoever finds the meaning of these sayings will not taste death.” (GS-380/1) Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (tr. by Pagels-70) “Jesus said, “People probably think that it is peace that I have come to impose upon the world. And they do not recognize that it is divisions that I have come to impose upon the earth – fire, sword, battle. Indeed, there will be five in a house. There will be three over two and two over three, parent over child and child over parent. And they will stand at rest by being solitaries.” (GS-383/16) “Jesus said: “Be passersby.” (GS-387/II40:19) “Jesus said: “If two make peace with one another within a single house they will say to a mountain ‘go elsewhere’ and it will go elsewhere.” (GS-389/48) “Jesus said: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted in their hearts. It is they who have truly come to be acquainted with the father. Blessed are they who hunger for the belly of the needy to be satisfied.” (GS-392/69) “His disciples said to him: “When is the kingdom going to come?” Jesus said : “It is not by being waited for that it is going to come. They are not going to say, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it.” (GS- 399/113) (From The Gospel of Thomas. © 1987 by Bentley Layton.)
Irenaeus on overshadowing
It is reported by Irenaeus that the Gnostic teacher Cerinthus (as well as other Gnostics) taught: “Jesus was not born of the virgin, but rather he was the son of Joseph and Mary, just like all other men, but more powerful in righteousness, intelligence and wisdom. After the baptism Christ descended upon him from the authority which is above all in the form of a dove and thereafter proclaimed the unknown Father and accomplished wonders. But at the end Christ again departed from Jesus and (only) Jesus suffered, and rose again; Christ however remained impassable, since he has a spiritual being.” (Gnosis, pg. 165)
Professor of religion identifies parts of “lost gospel”
An American professor and a colleague have identified fragments of a “lost gospel” containing conversations between Christ and his disciples. Paul Mirecki, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, said he is confident the text is an authentic early account of the teachings of Christ. The newly discovered gospel places a strong emphasis on individual knowledge, urging its readers to reject the confines of institutional religion. “It’s a non-orthodox text … Salvation comes to these people through knowledge rather than faith,” Mirecki said. Mirecki said the manuscript is written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language that uses Greek letters. It was probably the work of an early Christian group called Gnostics, or ‘knowers’, he said, and recounts a rare “dialogue gospel” of conversations between Jesus and his disciples that supposedly took place after Christ was resurrected. Mirecki discovered the manuscript in 1991 in Berlin’s vast Egyptian Museum, and it has taken him until now to piece together the document’s content. He does not know how the manuscript found its way to the museum. The newly-found gospel was written in the first or second century, Mirecki said. “The context here is that there were many gospels written in the first two centuries. This text is … identical to similar texts that are called gospels. It fits the literary pattern and the contents.” Only 15 pages remain of the manuscript. Mirecki said it was probably the victim of an orthodox book-burning in about the 5th century. Mirecki has been editing and translating the manuscript with Charles Hedrick, Professor of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Their book on the new gospel will be published this summer by Brill Publishers in the Netherlands. (Source: Reuters)
Reprinted with the kind permission of Share International Magazine.