Archive for the ‘gnosticism’ Category

Here is what I wrote to my sister way back when I read this book.

Right now I’m reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels (she’s at Barnard I think). It’s really interesting. 1600 years ago, around 370 when Christianity started to get the backing of the Imperial administration and military, a monk in Egypt put thirteen books in this huge jar and hid them deep in some caves. They became the time capsule. They have the gospels and epistles that didn’t make it into the New Testament, the ones the Church wanted to burn or get rid of and stunt milleniums of Christian imagination.

What these “gnostic” gospels show is an alternative vision of Christianity that didn’t make it, one where God is male and female, where there is no dogma or hierarchy, where God is not an aloof master, but within in each person,where in the Garden of Eden the snake was right and “God” was wrong and an imposter besides (reread Genesis 2: who lies and tells the truth?), where its illusion vs enlightenment not sin vs repentance, where Jesus wasn’t resurrected on the third day, where the gospels tell what happened after the crucifixion, where Mary Magdelene, not Peter, is Christ’s favorite, etc. It was Buddhistic in certain ways (indeed trade routes to India were opening up then).

The reason Pagels gives why orthodox Christianity survived and gnostic Christianity didn’t isn’t because one had the Truth and the other didn’t. Gnostics are heretics only because they didn’t win. The reason they didn’t win, says Pagels, is because their beliefs didn’t reinforce political and institutional survival. Their Christianity wasn’t wrong or wicked, it’s just that it wasn’t dogmatic, hierarchical, and matyristic enough to survive. They thought Jesus’s divinity transcended the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, that he laughed during the crucifixion and danced the night before, so that gnostics didn’t take martyrdom seriously. They didn’t think Jesus was physically resurrected and wouldn’t be on tap again till the End, but instead thought that each believer had direct spiritual access (some Protestant sects believe this)and didn’t have to go through any church or cadre of priests to achieve salvation. Thus they weren’t as well organized and institutionalized as orthodox Christianity. Nor as dogmatic since each believer could find out the Truth himself and didn’t have to rely on the say-so of priests. They thought the violent, jealous God the Master of the Old Testament was an imposter, so their religion didn’t support hierarchy and dogmatism.

In the second century (Jesus was crucified in 30) the gnostics and the orthodox were about equal, but 200 years later the orthodox had gained the upper hand by their greater organization and cohesiveness and so stamped out the only significant rival vision of Christianity that there’s ever been.

What is most interesting is how Pagels shows there was a Darwinian natural selection of various interpretations of Christianity, how the mere fact of institutional survival warped Christianity: Jesus had to be human for any one to be willing to be a martyr, that he had to be physically resurrected so that the Church can be seen as preserving the only surviving link back to Jesus, that there can only be one God so you can have a monolithic hierarchy, etc. Subtract any of these and Christianity wouldn’t’ve had enough cohesiveness to survive.

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Nag-Hammadi Library

The Nag-Hammadi Library has fourteen leather-bound books from the late fourth century containing Gnostic writings. It was found in Egypt in 1945. The books contain 52 works, including the only known complete copy of the gospel of Thomas. The books are in Coptic but seem to be translated from Greek.

Among other things they say:

  • God is male and female.
  • In the Garden of Eden, the serpent was right, God lied.
  • Life is a battle not agains sin but against ignorance.
  • Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene mouth to mouth
  • Jesus preferred Mary Magdalene to Peter as the head of the church
  • Jesus laughed on the cross and danced the night before.
  • The God of Moses is a tin-pot god who could not even create the world right. He even attempted to seduce Eve.

In the library are Christian writings that do not appear in Scripture. Among others:

  • The gospel of Thomas
  • The gospel of Philip
  • The gospel of Truth
  • The apocryphon of James
  • The apocryphon of John (three different ones)
  • The apocalypse of Paul
  • The acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
  • The treatise on the Resurrection
  • The three-part treatise

There are also three pages of Plato’s Republic (588a-589b).

The books do not belong to just one sect of Gnosticism, but include writings from the Valentinians, Sethians and even the Neoplatonists.

The books were hidden near the monastery of St Pachomius in the late fourth century by a monk. He saw the (Gnostic) faith disappearing from the world and so he hid these books for the end of the world.

The library is named after the nearby town of Nag-Hammadi. The Gospel of Judas, which has also come to light, was hidden nearby at about the same time.

The mother of the two brothers who discovered the books burnt up most of one of the 14 books in her oven. The books gave her a bad feeling.

Before we found these books, most of what we knew about Gnosticism came from what St Irenaeus wrote against it in the late second century. The real surprise, it turns out, is that even though Irenaeus was against Gnosticism, he gave us a true picture of it. So even though the Nag-Hammadi books are a wonderful find, they do not reveal any deep dark secret that had laid hidden through the ages.

The secret is that there is no secret.

Reading them now most of them seem half mad, but the religion that made sense of these books is gone.

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Gnosticism was the most common form of the Christian faith among the rich in the first three centuries after Christ.

Gnosticism says that Jesus saves us not by his death on the Cross, as most Christians now believe, but by the secret knowledge – the gnosis – that he told certain disciples, such as Thomas or Judas or Mary Magdalene. The death on the Cross thing comes from Peter and Paul. It was widely believed among the poor, but what did they know?

So there were Gnostic gospels: a Gospel of Thomas, of Judas and so on. As you will soon see, they did not make it into Holy Scripture.

In Gnosticism the Demiurge, the god of the Jews, is not God Himself and is not even a good god. He created this evil world of matter which has become our prison. Our souls are not from this world but from a high heaven. Jesus was sent by the real God to show us the way back. That is the secret knowledge or gnosis that he has come to tell us. It is not a place we can get to now, but only after death. But to make it back, we need to know the way now.

When the Greek philosopher Plotinus speaks about the Christian faith, he is thinking of Gnosticism, not the sort we know. There was an exchange of both people and ideas back and forth between Gnosticism and his school of Neoplatonism.

Gnosticism was not one church, like the Catholic Church, but a family of sects. Many were small – just a teacher and his followers. Some grew into real churches complete with martyrs, lasting centuries, such as the Marcionites.

Gnosticism reached its high point in the early 200s. A century later, however, the Catholic Church saw the Arians as a greater threat than the Gnostics. Still, what Gnostic sects remained were either crushed by persecution or became part of Manichaeism.

Why did the Catholic Church win and not the Gnostics? Some say it was divine providence. Others point out that the Catholic Church had a unity the free-wheeling Gnostics could never match and, later, the backing of the Roman Empire. To be fair, by the time the Catholics had the power of the state Gnosticism was already close to dead.

But perhaps it is much simpler than all that: the Pauline gospels are, at least to me, much more believable than the Gnostic ones. And I doubt I am alone in that.

Because the Catholic Church won its gospels became part of Holy Scripture, not the Gnostic ones. But the Church said that the Gnostic gospels were not merely wrong, they were made up!

For centuries the Gnostic gospels were lost, but in the late 1900s they came to light again from finds in Egypt. The largest of these finds was the Nag Hammadi Library.

See also:

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Written: c. 150
Read: April 2006

In this gospel Judas is Jesus’ true disciple, not the other Eleven. Jesus takes him aside to reveal the real truth of things, the secrets that he will not tell the others. Judas still turns Jesus in, but it seems to have Jesus’ approval.

It all sounds interesting- you cannot wait to get to the part about those secrets. National Geographic paid fortune to have it translated. But when Jesus takes Judas aside, what does he tell him? About aeons, generations, stars, angels, heavens and all the rest of the Gnostic bathwater. You know, the six impossible things that Elaine Pagels believes before breakfast. What a let-down!

The book had been lost for centuries, but it was found in the sands of Egypt in 1978. It was not a scroll, but a real book with a leather cover and everything. Some of the pages are torn out (and may come to light later) and the rest are in bad condition after seventeen centuries in the sand. Restoring it was like putting a partly broken egg back together. But in the end we can make out about two thirds of it. It is in Coptic but seems to have been translated from a Greek original. The original was written sometime before 180, when Irenaeus was the first to mention it in his book about the Gnostics.

As one of the many Gnostic gospels, it was never regarded as Holy Scripture by the Church. Read it, all seven pages, not the AP story about it, and you will see why.

Did you see how I was hoping that maybe it had some deep dark secret? Why did I think that? There is a current of feeling (not thought, yet) in at least this country that the Catholic Church has been hiding some deep dark secrets. Not just about the dark doings in our own lifetime, which we all know about now, but way way back to the very beginning. Elaine Pagels has made a living out of it. It has made Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, a very rich man. And it is what drives the interest in this gospel.

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