The Scandals of the Scrolls, Part IV: The Codex Conundrum

At the beginning of this series we asked: Just exactly how firm are the historical foundations of Christianity and Judaism? This question arises because, seventy-five years ago, there began a series of momentous archaeological discoveries that yielded vast hoards of well-preserved ancient documents. It was clear from the outset that these had the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the early history and theology of these religions. The first discoveries to have a big impact were the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Conundrum We turn now to the second great hoard of materials found around the same time, the Nag Hammadi Library of ancient Gnostic codices (that is, large leather-bound books pictured above) from Egypt, and associated ancient documents. These include the extraordinary Gospel of Thomas, which presents 114 gnomic sayings of Jesus, and the Gospel of Judas, which similarly portrays Jesus as a master of arcane knowledge who is exasperated with his followers and has confidence only in Judas, to whom he imparts a devastating secret. There is also the purported Secret Gospel of Mark and the alleged Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, both of which make unprecedented (and scandalous) claims about Jesus’s personal life. The implications of these and other extremely interesting documents present institutional Christianity with a vital intellectual challenge if is to preserve its theology and historical self-understanding, a challenge equal to that it faced in the nineteenth century when historical-critical method fundamentally undermined the notion that the Bible was divinely inspired and inerrant. It is this “Codex Conundrum’” that we will now explore.

The Gnostic Enigma Almost all of these codices are concerned with Gnosticism, which is a modern term for a mysterious religious movement that has at its centre a gnosis (that is, arcane knowledge), and is one of the most fascinating enigmas in the history of religion. A complex amalgam of traditions, ideas and influences, it was an important religious phenomenon that flourished for several centuries during the Early Christian era, but then seems to have been almost completely suppressed. It took many forms, and it appears to have been especially attractive for the intellectual classes scattered around the Roman empire. It was characterised by a sense of extreme alienation from the world, and this appears to reflect episodes of profound spiritual, psychological, social and cultural upheaval. It may have been an independent religion or a type of mystical mood or tendency, but it took hold in “mainstream” religions like Judaism and Christianity, later found expression in the “lost” dualist religion of Manicheanism, survived through the millennia in underground and heretical forms, like Bogomilism and Catharism, and versions of it live on today.

Knowledge of What? The name Gnosticism is derived from a Greek word for knowledge, but knowledge of a very special form. The gnosis at the heart of Gnosticism was secret, esoteric and quite disturbing. It concerned the true (and very alarming) nature of the universe and of humanity’s place in it, but also involved some form of deep, transformative self-knowledge: “Knowledge of who we really are, what we have become; where we came from, how we got here, and how we can return; what birth is, and what is rebirth,” as the Gnostics summarised their mission. Gnostics maintained that this special form of knowledge brings salvation. But salvation from what?

Fall It is salvation or liberation from this world, in virtually all its aspects. As the pathbreaking editor of the English translation of the Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson (left), observes in his introduction, it involves “an estrangement from the mass of humanity, [and] an affinity to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it”. In various ways, the gnostic teachings depicted this material world as a place of imprisonment for sparks of the divine (what we might consider “souls”), which have “fallen” from the highest, divine, spiritual realm and become entrapped here, in physical bodies, because of a primordial cosmic disaster. Gnostic beliefs were therefore dualistic, contrasting the noble and eternal realm of the spirit to the base and transitory world of corporeal and material existence, and the enlightened state of gnosis to the catatonic state of everyday ignorance. Gnostics shared the conviction that the mundane world in which we live out our lives is really an evil, foggy, prison-like realm of ignorance, fear and futility.

Two Gods?! For Gnostics, this realm of oppression was created and maintained by an evil Demiurge (a lower “craftsman god”) and his minions. This meant that there were two “Gods”, a higher and a lower; and, for many Gnostics, this involved the idea that the “Jewish God” of the Old Testament was different from the “Christian God” of the New Testament: that the former is a “God of Wrath” who bears responsibility for the shocking state of this world, and the latter is a “God of Love” who sent Jesus as His emissary to redeem it. Such ideas were and are grossly heretical to “mainstream” Jews and Christians.

The Gnostic Myth How this hideous cosmic situation came about is the focus of the underlying “Gnostic Myth”, which has been laboriously reconstructed by scholars largely on the basis of the Nag Hammadi Library, and which we will outline shortly. This myth is “the creation of theological poets, an elaborate theological symbolic poem” of a kind that “was generally fashionable in the 2nd Century AD, following the revival of interest in Plato’s mythic tale of creation, the Timaeus” (Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures). It is extremely complex and quite baroque in its detail and elaboration, and this made it an easy target for rebuttal and ridicule by Christian heresiologists (experts in combating heresies) who were unable or unwilling to confront or deal with the underlying message it was attempting to communicate.

Athens v Jerusalem As the reference to Plato indicates, at the centre of the Gnostic phenomenon was the process of Hellenisation sweeping across the Middle East and Mediterranean world two millennia ago. Indeed, one great historian described Gnosticism as “the acute Hellenisation of Christianity”, while another said it represented “Platonism run wild”. Gnosticism emerged at a time when scholars in both Judaism and Christianity were seeking to reconcile the account of the origin of the universe in Plato’s influential tract, Timaeus, with the biblical account of creation provided in the Book of Genesis. The challenge here was reconciling the Platonic “One”, seen as the source of all existence, with the personal God of the Bible, seen as the Creator of the universe, thus realising the Hellenistic goal of “marrying” Athens with Jerusalem. This provoked the famous complaint of the second-century Christian apologist Tertullian, in his Prescription Against Heresies, targeting Gnosticism: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he asked dismissively. Tertullian recognised that philosophical modes of thought (from Athens) formed the foundation of heresies in early Christianity (Jerusalem), and therefore any association must be eradicated.

Erased from History Gnosticism was officially declared heretical, suppressed, and virtually erased from history in the fourth century, after the definitive victory at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) of the Christian orthodoxy that we know today. Almost all records of the existence and nature of Gnosticism disappeared or were destroyed. Information about it had to be derived from scattered remnants of its teachings or from the accounts of it provided by its critics, especially the second-century Church Fathers, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, Tertullian of Carthage, and Hippolytus of Rome (below). These heresiologists were unrestrained in attacking their Gnostic opponents, who they denounced for espousing ridiculous myths, misleading the innocent, and for engaging in wild and licentious activities that revealed their true demonic nature. This version of Gnosticism dominated scholarship until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library.

Prohibition It is likely that the Library was hidden around 367 AD by monks from the Monastery of St Pachomius near Nag Hammadi after the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, issued an Easter Letter demanding the destruction of “secret writings” that encourage the pursuit of “revelations” and mystical insights unregulated by either the Church or by Canonical Scriptures.

Monumental Importance It wasn’t until 1945 that the great shroud drawn over Gnosticism began to be lifted with the discovery of this buried library. This, and some other earlier archaeological discoveries, made it possible to form a more objective view of Gnosticism, illuminating its teachings and practices and their relationship to “mainstream” Judaism and Christianity, and to other spiritual movements of the time. These discoveries show that the Gnostic thinkers seem to have attempted three things of monumental intellectual importance: (1) To comprehend the entire universe in ontological, moral and psychological terms, using the intellectual resources of the times; (2) To explain the pervasive and apparently ineradicable presence of evil, chaos and corruption in the world, and how humanity is trapped within it; and (3) To devise a mystical Way out of this lamentable situation.

The Discovery The discovery of a collection of original gnostic documents in 1945 was one of the most important archaeological finds of the modern era, rivalled only by the Dead Sea Scrolls. While details remain sketchy, it is said the find occurred in December 1945, when six Bedouin camel drivers were digging for fertiliser next to a cliff in the wilderness of Upper Egypt, near a bend of the Nile, some 320 kilometres south of Cairo and 72 kilometres north of Luxor, close to the small village of Nag Hammadi. Digging with a mattock, one of them uncovered a human skeleton, next to which was an earthenware jar, with a bowl over the top, sealed with bitumen. Breaking this open, they found the thirteen codices.

Kindling and Cannibalism The leader of the group, Mohammed Ali, took these objects back to his village. That night, his mother tore out several pages and used them to start the fire in her stove. Mohammed Ali realised that the volumes might be worth something and he decided to put them somewhere for safekeeping. This was made all the more necessary because he and his brothers were police suspects over the recent attack on a man who had killed their father and who had then been murdered as he slept and had his heart cut out and eaten. At any rate, Mohammed Ali gave one of the codices to a local priest for safekeeping, who showed it to his brother-in-law, a travelling teacher who recognised that it might be of some value. Eventually, word got out to antiquities dealers and the black market, and the scholarly quest began to track them down.

Treasure Trove Scholars who eventually learned of the discovery were astounded by its significance. It was literally an archaeological treasure trove, a priceless collection of original writings by Gnostic Christians. Contained within the volumes (a sample below) were fifty-two tracts written on papyrus, representing about 1300 pages of text. While the volumes themselves were produced some time in the late fourth century, the tracts within them are much older, many dating back to the second century or earlier, with some elements possibly dating back to the time of Jesus. The Library included texts that were known since antiquity to have existed but had been lost for nearly 1500 years and had never been seen by Western scholars.


The First Scholars The first scholars to have knowledge of the discovery were French. The key figure was Jean Doresse (1917–2007) a young French researcher working for the Louvre. He was one of the first to hear about the find and he hunted down many of the manuscripts that had become dispersed as the Bedouins bargained for the best deal with anyone who was interested and well-funded. He conducted field investigations to identify the exact location of the original find and undertook the first inventory of the texts; he also carried out the first readings of the least damaged portions of the codices. Doresse published The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (1958) in which he provided a valuable introduction to the texts, recounted what the Gnostics claimed was the origin of their faith, and also warned of the “curse” that followed anyone who interfered with the codices and had already claimed some victims! Doresse’s teacher was Henri-Charles Puech, Professor of the History of Religions at the Collège de France. A specialist in Gnosticism and Manichaeism, he recognised that the significance of the Nag Hammadi find could ultimately eclipse that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and with another scholar, Gilles Quispel, he worked to exclude Doresse and to get access and publication rights to the Library for themselves.

Contents Eventually, it was determined that the tracts contained in the Nag Hammadi Codices are all translations of Greek originals, written in the Coptic language (that is, Ancient Egyptian). They include:

♦ New Testament texts, including gospels, apocalypses and epistles associated with Jesus’s disciples, including Peter, Paul, James and Philip, such as The Apocalypse of Peter.

♦ Sayings sources, containing sayings and activities attributed to Jesus, such as The Gospel of Thomas.

♦ Mystical and mythological cosmogonies exploring how the divine realm, the world and human beings came into existence and what their destiny might be, such as On the Origin of the World.

♦ Theological expositions of important doctrines, on such things as the nature of reality and the soul, and the resurrection of Jesus, such as The Gospel of Truth.

♦ Wisdom writings, concerned with Sophia, considered as the feminine metaphysical principle, such as The Sophia of Jesus Christ.

♦ Liturgical, sacramental and initiatory texts, such as The Prayer of Thanksgiving.

♦ Hermetic treatises and prayers, such as The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth; The Prayer of Thanksgiving; Asclepius 21–29.

♦Platonic texts, including a partial translation of The Republic.

Suppression Despite the obvious richness of the discovery and the Library’s enormous significance for scholarship, the Library was immediately confiscated by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities and placed in a minuscule “Coptic Museum”. Initially, its officials allowed access to only French scholars and then, after the Suez Crisis of 1956, to only German scholars. Consequently, as with the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the first decade or so little was published, apart from the revelatory Gospel of Thomas (to be discussed in depth later in this series) and this only because other partial copies of it existed elsewhere. As with the Dead Sea Scrolls, a few scholars were able to establish a monopoly over an invaluable archaeological discovery and apparently suppress vital information.

James Robinson After much struggle, this monopoly was broken, thanks mostly to the American New Testament scholar James M. Robinson, an expert in Early Christian history who published The New Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1959. Robinson also played a central role in the identification and study of the mysterious document, Q. This was the hypothetical lost “Sayings Source” embedded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that appears to have been a principal record of the sayings of Jesus (until the Gospel of Thomas turned up with its apparently alternate collection, as we will see). Trained in America and Europe (where he was a graduate student of the pre-eminent New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann), in 1964 Robinson became Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University where he founded the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. He remained there as director until 1999, during which time he was a driving force behind the study of Gnosticism and its relationship to Early Christianity. He also mentored younger scholars, including the redoubtable Elaine Pagels (below), whose book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) was named by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century.

Busy Weekend In 1965-66, Robinson visited Cairo hoping to study the Nag Hammadi Library but was refused access by the government, and it appeared that the suppression of the documents would continue. He then approached UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, which had a complete photographic collection of the texts, but he was allowed only limited access. Inspecting the few copies made available to him, he suggested to the administrators that the collection wasn’t being kept in a publishable condition. Alarmed, UNESCO commissioned him to inspect the entire collection over a weekend and write a report on their condition. Half the collection was in photograph form, and he photographed all these; the other half was in negative form, and he took these to a photography shop to be developed. By the end of the weekend he had a complete photographic collection of entire Library—and UNESCO had its report.

The Messina Congress Using this collection as a database, Robinson set up the Coptic Project at his Institute, attracting a team of keen young translators who made transcriptions and translations of the Library. These were circulated privately among interested scholars with each page stamped with a warning that users had no publication rights. In 1966, the world’s top scholars held a conference on Gnosticism in Messina, at which various theories about the origins of Gnosticism were presented. These included the strong argument that it originated in Persian Zoroastrianism, which had introduced dualism into the Western religious tradition. Other proposals included Egyptian and Buddhist sources. A notable theoretical shift was away from Early Christianity towards Judaism as the essential matrix for the birth of Gnosticism. All of these possibilities have profound implications for the history of Early Christianity; indeed, any one of them would have immense theological implications.

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Breaking the Monopoly The Congress also highlighted how little progress had been made on the publication front—only 10 per cent of the texts had been translated into English, and barely 25 per cent of the codices had been published. The reasons for this slow pace were unclear and the process was described as “shrouded in a veil of mystery”. It seemed the same strategy of obfuscation and deliberate lethargy that had bedevilled the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls was being implemented, and it was decided to campaign more forcefully for full official access to the codices. This met with some success, and in 1970 UNESCO appointed Robinson secretary of its International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices, and by 1977 a facsimile edition and an English translation had been published (The Nag Hammadi Library in English). Gnosticism scholarship has proceeded significantly since then, but whether it has progressed is another question.

The Gnostic Worldview We now turn to a more detailed exploration of the Gnostic worldview. This found expression in a cosmogonic myth, a narrative account of the birth of the universe and humanity’s place within it that differs significantly from the Genesis account. It is extremely arcane, and a summary is provided as an appendix to this article, with the key points listed below. It appears Gnosticism evolved around the following tenets:

♦ Emanationism It assumes an Emanationist cosmology, according to which the universe “flows forth” from the First Principle (the One, the Godhead, the Absolute) through a series of stages or realms until the material universe, which is the human abode, comes into being. It is contrasted with the creation ex nihilo cosmologies of monotheism, which maintain that God is utterly separate from the world.

♦ The Pleroma The One emanated the Pleroma (“totality”, “entirety” or “fullness”), a heavenly realm populated by various spiritual deities known as Aeons, which exercise power over this world. The Gnostic Myth seeks to explain why and how the One emanated this realm.

♦ The Fall and Creation Furthermore, the Myth explains how one of these Aeons, Sophia (Wisdom), inadvertently generated an imperfect divine being, “Ialdabaoth”, a Demiurge (“craftsman god”) that was banished from the Pleroma to a lower realm from where it created the subordinate material and corporeal world in which humanity dwells.

♦ The Demiurge The Demiurge reigns as “God” over this material world with its inferior state of existence. Some Gnostic systems identify this Demiurge with the Old Testament God, Yahweh, who rules harshly over it, ignorant of his own subordinate place in the universe.

♦ Dualism As a result of these “downward” processes, the Gnostic universe is dualistic: all reality is composed of two fundamental components: spirit and matter, and these are irrevocably opposed to each other. Gnosticism opposed the higher (“good”) realm of the spirit to the base (“evil”) world of material existence and contrasted the enlightened state of spiritual gnosis achievable by the few to the materialistic ignorance engulfing the masses.

♦ The Supernatural Realm Moreover, the universe is profoundly supernatural—the bulk of it lies predominantly beyond the natural world to which human beings are largely restricted. It is populated by Aeons, demons, angels and other supernatural beings that have some capacity to interact with humans.

♦ The Divine Spark The Demiurge captured Sophia and imprisoned her by distributing her spiritual essence throughout the material realm, entrapping this in human bodies. Consequently, some humans have sparks of the divine within them. The Gnostic system is designed to show how these can be identified and liberated.

♦ Redemption Liberation for these divine sparks comes primarily through acquiring the true knowledge of what the spark is, where it came from, how it came to be here, and how it can escape—through acquiring the crucial gnosis.

Divine Emissary This knowledge cannot adequately be acquired through natural means (that is, through the senses) because these are implicated in the corrupt material world. Such crucial gnosis can come only from above via a divine emissary who descends to this material world specifically to impart it. (In Gnostic versions of Christianity this is the role of Jesus.)

♦ Attitude to the Body The Gnostics’ negative attitude to the physical world expressed itself in a disregard for corporeal existence. Critics said this led to libertinism—sensual indulgence—but it seems in fact to have encouraged radical asceticism—sensual renunciation.

♦ Types of Humans The crucial gnosis cannot be imparted to just anyone, as not everyone possesses the divine spark, or is receptive to the profound message.

Gnosticism and Christianity Many of these Gnostic notions were current, albeit contested, in the Early Christian movement, and its influence can be detected in the New Testament, including the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul, and in apocrypha and other extra-biblical sources. However, as Tertullian and others realised, it profoundly challenged what was becoming the mainstream of Christian Orthodoxy, and warnings against it are recorded in New Testament epistles. For example, I Timothy 6:20 warned of a dangerous heresy that “is falsely called knowledge” (cf. 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, 1 John). Such warnings indicate that Gnosticism existed at least as early as the second half of the first century, which would make its emergence contemporaneous with Early Christianity, with further profound implications for religious history.


Gnostic Christianity It seems this Gnostic form of Christianity reached such a high level of theological sophistication and influence in the second century that its condemnation as “heresy” became inevitable. Aside from its cosmogony, dualism and emphasis on the salvific role of mystical gnosis, it also differed from what became Christian orthodoxy in many other important areas. These included: its conception of God and the divine realm(s); the redemptive role of Jesus; the meaning of the Crucifixion; the nature of Creation; the status of the material world; the role of the body and sexuality; the nature of sin and salvation; the question of the resurrection of the body versus immortality of the soul; and its apparent elitism.

The Key Difference Overriding all of the differences between Gnosticism and Christianity is one absolutely fundamental issue: Is the world good or evil? In the Christian tradition the world is basically good. Consequently, as Robinson explains in his introduction, “the evil system that prevails in the world is not the way things inherently are. In principle, though not in practice, the world is good. The evil that pervades history is a blight, ultimately alien to the world as such.” Indeed, it was the mission of Jesus to liberate the world from this evil. However, a far bleaker view took hold in the early centuries of the Christian era and found expression in Gnosticism. This saw the world as irredeemably evil: “increasingly for some the outlook on life darkened; the very origin of the world was attributed to a terrible fault, and evil was given status as the ultimate ruler of the world, not just a usurpation of authority.” For these folk the world was evil in its very nature—it was the abode of the Demiurge—and “hence the only hope seemed to reside in escape”. The emphasis shifted from salvation in the world to liberation from it.

Origins The question of the origins of Gnosticism is of fundamental importance for understanding the history and theology of Early Christianity and Judaism. For example: Was it integral to the Jesus Movement from the start? Or was it an alien belief system that attached itself to the new religion and threatened to derail it? For most of the past 2000 years, before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, the official Church position, beginning with Irenaeus, was that Gnosticism originated with the mysterious Simon Magus, “the father of all heresies”, whose encounter with St Peter is described in Acts 8:9–24. There he appears as an accomplished sorcerer from Samaria, who travelled always with Helen, an ex-prostitute, whom he presented as an incarnation of the Sacred Feminine. He had himself baptised as a Christian, sought a place in the early ministry, gained much influence, but was subsequently denounced after trying to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit (hence the sin of “simony”). However, if Simon was a leading figure in the emergence of Gnosticism it would have been at the head of a broader underlying religious movement, which still leaves open the question of its origins.

Cultural Crisis In fact, it appears Gnosticism emerged as a theodicy—“a justification of God” that attempts to account for the miserable and unjust state of things in the world—and that it was responding to a fundamental crisis in culture and mass psychology in “the Age of Anxiety” of the early centuries of the Roman empire (see E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, 1965). As Robinson explains in his introduction, this manifested itself as a pervasive mood or shift in consciousness—a “withdrawal to inwardness or despair of the world”, that contemporaries tried to articulate in religious and philosophical terms. And it seems that it was here that tensions arose: “The ancient world’s religious and philosophical traditions and mythologies were all that was available to express what was a quite untraditional stance”, expressing a metaphysical nihilism that had never been seen before. Indeed, as it turned out, “the stance was too radical to establish itself within the organised religions or philosophical schools of the day”, and so an independent Gnostic worldview emerged, which the Church was driven to condemn as heretical (a ban that the Gnostics saw as a predictable victory for the forces of evil).

Radical Ideas What were these ideas that so challenged the intellectual and religious framework of the time? In summary, it appears they included the following:

 ♦ Cultural Pessimism As we’ve seen, a very pessimistic view of existence prevailed, and this seems to have reached an extreme level of intensity amongst intellectuals.

♦ Zoroastrian Dualism Since the Babylonian Captivity a cosmic dualism derived from Persian Zoroastrianism had infiltrated Judaism, and hence Early Christianity.

♦ A Reinterpretation of Genesis Some Jewish or Jewish-Christian communities (most likely in the intellectual powerhouse of Alexandria in Egypt) were undertaking a radical re-interpretation of the biblical account of Genesis. Yahweh came to be seen as a jealous, wrathful God who enslaved rather than liberated humanity. A higher God lying beyond Yahweh was postulated.

♦ A New Wisdom Tradition It seems there was an obscure “Wisdom Tradition” nurtured by the intellectual elite that held that the soul was intrinsically divine but was entrapped in this world. The sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Thomas may have been expressions of this.

♦ Magic and Mythology Magical and mythological ideas from Eastern and Western sources were being “rationalised”—given philosophical form and incorporated into popular religion.

♦ Cosmic Ascent A theory of salvation from this world was derived from popular forms of Platonism in which the soul could ascend to union with God/the One.

♦ Cosmic Redeemer It came to be believed that a divine entity was commissioned by the God/the One to descend from the heavenly realms to transmit a message of salvation to (only some of?) humanity, before re-ascending with this elect.

Syncretism Where did such a comprehensive and challenging set of ideas come from? There are various theories; one is that it may have been an independent and syncretic proto-religion. Trevor Ling, in A History of Religion East & West (1969) points out:

at least since the time of the Persian Empire of Cyrus, on through the time of the Greek empire of Alexander and his successors, religious ideas and practices from India (mainly Hindu) and Persia (mainly Zoroastrian) had been spreading westwards to mingle with Greek and Minoan elements to form a new religious syncretism which was found throughout the Mediterranean world. One of the most outstanding products of this is the family of cults and doctrines known as Gnosticism.

Champions of this type of theory were some of the most brilliant scholars from the History of Religions School. This treated Christianity as one religion among others, searched for important characteristics it shared with them, and was especially alert to syncretic tendencies.

The Redeemer Myth Such scholars argued that Gnosticism was a pre-Christian religion that attached itself to Christianity like an alien parasite whose infection produced the Gnostic heresy. At the core of this theory is the notion of a “redeemed Redeemer”. This conception has been summarised as follows by Rudolf Bultmann:

A heavenly being is sent down from the world of light to the earth, which has fallen under the sway of the demonic powers, in order to liberate the sparks of light, which have their origin in the world of light, but owing to a fall in primeval times, have been compelled to inhabit human bodies. This emissary takes a human form and carries out the works entrusted to him … reveals himself in his utterances (“I am the shepherd”, etc.) and so brings about the separation of the seeing from the blind (to whom he appears as a stranger). His own harken to him, and he awakes in them the memory of their home of light, teaches them to recognise their own true nature, and teaches them also the way of return to their home, to which he, as a redeemed Redeemer, rises again.

Redeemed from What? It’s theorised that this myth influenced the theology of St Paul and St John, eventually blossomed into the great Gnostic systems of the second century, and that echoes of it can be found in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed. This describes Jesus as “the only begotten Son of God … who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven … and was made man, and was crucified also for us … suffered and was buried; and on the third day He rose again … and ascended into heaven”. The key difference between the Christian and Gnostic versions of this redemption narrative concerns what each saw as the root cause of the predicament from which humanity had to be saved: for Christianity, it was sin; for Gnosticism, it was ignorance. Accordingly, the Christian Jesus “died for our sins” on the Cross in a sacrificial act; while the Gnostic Jesus brought enlightenment to those capable of receiving it—and didn’t really die, as we’ll see. 

A Christian Heresy? The theory that Gnosticism was an independent, pre-Christian religious movement characterised by the Redeemer figure has fallen out of fashion. An alternative is that Gnosticism emerged within Early Christianity. We have already noted the famous conclusion of Adolf von Harnack, that “Gnosticism is the acute Hellenisation of Christianity”. Harnack recognised that Christianity was deeply influenced by the Hellenistic world in which it emerged and developed. He argued that the simple message of Jesus encapsulated in the Gospels was reformulated in terms of Platonic philosophy and Greek religion, and that Gnosticism was a particularly acute consequence of this development. It introduced beliefs such as a distinction between the higher One True God and lower Creator God; a strong spirit-body dualism; and a vision of Christ as a Cosmic Redeemer, rather than as the Messiah. Meanwhile, central beliefs of Christianity, such as bodily resurrection and the coming Day of Judgment, were rejected or sidelined. Seen this way, Gnosticism was a heresy produced by allowing Greco-Roman philosophy to pervert the essence of the Christian Gospel.

The Seeds of Seth A more recent version of this theory argues that the Gnostics were “Sethians”, a Syrian Christian cult that placed a great emphasis on their version of baptism, by which the five sensory organs are sealed with myrrh, invoking in the subject a vision of the spiritual (that is, non-sensory) realm. They also demonised sexuality as a trap used by the Demiurge (the Old Testament God) to keep the divine sparks ensnared in the corporeal world and unable to undertake the ascent to the divine realm. Consequently, they avoided sexual activity, were intensely ascetic, and shunned all the temptations of this world. They found themselves in tension with orthodox Christians over their negative portrayal of the Old Testament God and over their “High Christology”—their disproportionate emphasis on Jesus’s divinity over his humanity. Forced to the margins, they embraced Seth, the third son of Adam, identified themselves as the “seeds of Seth”, and considered themselves to be God’s elect. Christian heresiologists like Irenaeus campaigned against them and they were ultimately suppressed.

Jewish Origins? Another theory of Gnosticism’s origins has moved towards centre stage, one that links up with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars point out that Gnosticism derives a great deal from Judaism, especially from the opening chapters of Genesis, and that many Gnostic texts are obsessed with the nature of the Jewish God and His creation. But how could Gnosticism, with its dualistic conception of two Gods supported by a myriad of other divine entities, emerge from Judaism, with its strict monotheism? The answer to this question may lie in a radical theological response to the trauma of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period, culminating in the series of wars between 65 and 135 AD. These wars devastated the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, especially in Alexandria; destroyed the great Temple in Jerusalem, then the city itself; saw the ethnic cleansing of the Jews and the enforcement of the Jewish diaspora; and caused the deaths of over a million people. How could the Jews have made theological sense of all this?

The Chosen People One of the earliest theological beliefs attested in ancient Israel and encapsulated in Exodus was that God had made Israel His people when He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. However, this conviction was challenged many times by historical realities, as the Jews endured a perpetual struggle for survival against military and political enemies. In response, the ancient prophets explained Israel’s suffering as a punishment from God and called for repentance and reform.

Abomination This explanation became unsatisfactory as the cycle repeated itself and the righteous continued to suffer while the wicked prospered, and God was conspicuous by His absence. Things came to a head in the second century BC when the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, decided to completely suppress Judaism and fully integrate Judaea into his Hellenistic empire. The Jerusalem Temple was re-dedicated to the worship of Zeus, the Jews were directed to adopt Hellenistic customs, the practice of Judaism was outlawed as a crime punishable by death, and a great multitude were martyred for adhering to their faith.

Crisis This horrendous situation produced a theological revolution. Clearly such oppression and sacrilege couldn’t be expressing the Will of God because it involved the persecution and death of His own people who were devoutly following His law. It seemed there had to be some other reason for the suffering and some other agent responsible for it. As Bart Ehrman explains in Lost Christianities (2003), the conviction emerged that “God had a personal adversary, the Devil, who was responsible for suffering, that there were cosmic forces in the world, evil powers with the Devil at their head, who were afflicting God’s people”. According to this terrifying scenario, although “God was still the creator of this world and would be its ultimate redeemer [he had withdrawn] for the time being, the forces of evil had been unleashed and [they] were wreaking havoc among God’s people”.

Apocalypticism Nevertheless, the faithful were convinced that God would shortly intervene to wrest control back from Satan, and this conviction found expression in Apocalypticism. Derived from the Greek term, apokalypsis (revelation, unveiling) these dramatic writings purport to reveal God’s salvific plan in a time of crisis, usually entailing confronting and defeating the evil powers that have usurped God’s place in the world. Such expectations reached a peak in the first century AD, as can be seen in the War Scroll and other Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the New Testament. For decades the conviction persisted that God would soon intervene with unimaginable power to overthrow and destroy the evil forces controlling the world.

The Gnostic Realisation But God didn’t intervene. Instead, the Jewish people endured the catastrophes of 65 to 135 AD. And so there was one further theological revolution, one far more radical than any of the previous ones. Among influential thinkers the realisation arrived that, as Bart Ehrman explains:

Maybe this world is not the creation of the One True God. Maybe the suffering in this world is not happening as a punishment from this good God or despite His goodness. Maybe the god of this world is not good. Maybe he is causing suffering … because he is evil, or ignorant, or inferior, and he wants people to suffer or doesn’t care if they do, or maybe he can’t do anything about it.

The One True God Obviously, if this appalling, hitherto unimaginable situation is the case, then the god of this world can’t be the One True God; there must be a greater God above this world, in the divine spiritual realm that far transcends this material squalor. This ultimate God does not govern this world, because He did not create it and never had anything to do with it; it is an evil place, created by a malevolent deity. Those confronting this realisation therefore lifted their eyes above the traditional horizon of salvation to a vastly more elevated conception of God: “There must be a nonmaterial God unconnected with this world, above the creator God of the OT, a [higher] God who neither created this world nor brought suffering to it.” And it is this higher God that will deliver salvation, “not by redeeming this world but by delivering His people from it, liberating them from their entrapment in this material existence”. Salvation therefore cannot be achieved in this world but only from it. “That is the Gnostic view.”

But is it? But is it just that? Such an interpretation of the origins of Gnosticism places all the stress on the negative impact of the catastrophes that the Jews faced in this period. However, it leaves unexplored its gentile appeal and the positive dimensions of the Gnostic phenomenon: the quest for personal salvation, mystical experience, and a pathway out of this world to the divine through gnosis. This was a project that was pursued by an untold multitude of the faithful, living and dying amongst ecstatic aspirations, spiritual experimentation, marginalisation, antagonism, suspicion, oppression and brutal victimisation, as we will see in further parts of this series.

And, just what is this gnosis?


Appendix: The Gnostic Myth

The Gnostic Myth is a cosmogony, a narrative account of the birth of the universe. The clearest statement of it is provided in the Apocryphon of John, and represented in a diagram in Bentley Layton’s The Gnostic Scriptures.

Narrative What follows is a brief synopsis. At the beginning, before time and space, is the One,  the perfect, ultimate and omnipresent divine origin and First Principle of all existence. This is the final source and destination of all spiritual questing. The Myth then proceeds in four stages, based on a process of emanation (self-alienation) from the One.

Act 1: In a primordial emanation the One constitutes the Realm of Light, giving birth to the full spiritual (non-physical) universe, the Pleroma/Totality/Entirety. Here are found the Barbēlō (the Second Principle), the Aeons (divine beings), the Christ, and then an array of lesser divine beings, including Sophia (Wisdom).

In Act 2, we pass into the Realm of Darkness as we witness the obscure catastrophe via which Sophia gave rise to “Ialdabaoth”, the Demiurge (the Craftsman God), who in turn created his minions, and the material universe, including the stars, planets, earth and hell.

In Act 3 we then see the creation of Adam and Eve and their children, including the third son, Seth, and the entire human race (a portion of which descends from Seth, is alone receptive to the gnosis, and can be saved).

In Act 4 we see the subsequent history of humanity, including the redemption of the Gnostics. Cutting across this orderly procedure is the “subplot” involving Sophia that explains the cosmic drama in which humanity finds itself embroiled. This concerns a primordial cosmic catastrophe involving jealousy, pride, betrayal, ignorance, loss, usurpation, theft, deception and, above all, the fall and ultimate redemption of the divine sparks.

Prison and Release As the Myth explains, this world came into existence as a result of the primordial catastrophe, and it serves as a prison for the sparks of the divine spirit that fell from their origin in the higher divine realm beyond the Demiurge and became entrapped here, in pitiable physical and psychological human form. In order for these divine elements to be liberated from this worldly prison, they need to learn who they really are—to grasp their true spiritual nature and how they can escape and traverse the difficult path back to their divine source past the Demiurge and his minions. This vital lesson is brought to them by a Redeemer/Teacher/Messenger sent from the divine realm to save at least some of humanity. According to the Gnostic Christians, Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah, but the Gnostic Redeemer. As such, his message concerns not sin and repentance, but ignorance and enlightenment.

Mervyn Bendle is the author of Anzac and its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity. The first three parts of this series appeared in the March, April and May issues, and the fifth part will appear shortly.


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