“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 in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’”
The Gospel of Thomas
I’m fascinated by history. And as the saying goes, it’s always written by the victors. One of the most amazing aspects of being apart of this “Information Age” is our access to alternative information, histories, and answers to questions time has never satisfied.
So why I am writing about Gnosticism? Because it is a huge part of our history, and a perspective all too often overlooked.
Gnosticism: The Untold Story
In December 1945, an accidental discovery was made along the Upper Nile in Egypt. An Arab peasant unearthed sacred Gnostic texts, written on papyrus and buried in jars of clay for sixteen centuries. The writings were discovered in a cave on a mountain called Nag Hammadi. After traveling through the black market, the manuscripts eventually ended-up in the hands of a well-known religious historian in the Netherlands, Professor Gilles Quispel. After careful deciphering, Quispel was astonished to discover the texts were early Gnostic writings, and contained previously unknown Christian gospels. (Pagels xiii)
Until the discovery of the Gnostic library in Nag Hammadi Gnosticism had been widely dismissed by many Christian scholars as an esoteric, fourth century heresy. All that was previously known about the Gnostic Christians was through the viewpoint of their opponents. Now, through recent study of Gnostic manuscripts, scholars have discovered a rich, ancient spiritual tradition, with origins that pre-date Christianity. Why these writings were banned and unknown for nearly 2,000 years is part of an intricate and intense “campaign against heresy,” led by orthodox Christians in an attempt to form and maintain Christianity as a purely orthodox religion:
By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the forth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. (Pagels xviii)
The Orthodox Church criminalized many Gnostic teachers during the reign of Constantine as “blasphemers” and perverters of the “one true faith.” Yet interestingly enough, many Gnostic writings refer to biblical scriptures and most Gnostics at that time referred to themselves as Christians, believing Jesus to be the ultimate redeemer and liberator. (Hoeller 58)
Nevertheless, notable differences exist between Gnostic teaching and Orthodox Jews and Christians. Orthodoxy speaks of a separation – a great chasm dividing God from humanity. Gnostics, however, believe true knowledge of God is found in knowledge of self; “the self and God are identical.” According to Gnostic gospels, Jesus speaks not of sin and repentance, but rather “illusion and enlightenment.” “Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal – even identical.” (Pagels xx)
While orthodoxy maintains Jesus is the only Son of God, according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus and mankind come from the same place and are made from the same source. (Pagels xx) These contrasting beliefs make Gnosticism distinctly unique from Christianity and more closely related to eastern religions and philosophies.
The Gnostics’ unique understanding of Jesus and his teachings, as well as their claim to a “secret knowledge,” infuriated the Christians of the fourth century, who were attempting to form a unified set of “right practice” and belief.
Led by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, members of Orthodox Christianity (by this time an institution believing themselves to have the only true interpretation of Christianity), set out on a mission to overthrow the “falsely so-called knowledge” of the Gnostics. It was Irenaeus himself who asserted that salvation was found only through his one true church, and that this church was to be catholic (literally meaning, universal). Anyone claiming to be Christian outside of this universal church was considered heretical (and many were toured and killed for it).
Shortly after Constantine converted to Christianity, the fight against heresy gained military support. According to Elaine Pagles, a religious historian from Harvard University, and author of The Gnostic Gospels, “the efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical ‘blasphemy’ proved so successful that, until discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning alternative forms of Christianity came from the massive orthodox attacks upon them.” The recovered Gnostic writings offer us new insight into early Christianity.
What makes Gnostic interpretation of Christianity so diverse (and therefore, so threatening to orthodox Christians) is their emphasis on personal experience and “inner knowing.” Rather than relying solely upon the original Apostle’s accounts and experience of the resurrected Jesus, (and therefore, the Apostle’s authority alone), Gnosticism teaches that the resurrection can be experienced, not merely as an event of the past, but rather, a present reality. Each person’s own personal experience of Jesus is expected to be unique, because each individual is different. (Pagels 20)
Stephan A. Hoeller, director of Studies of the Gnostic Society states, “Gnosticism has always acknowledged that the potential for gnosis, and thus salvation, is inherent in every man and woman, and that salvation is not vicarious and collective, but individual.” (19) Thus, emphasis on individual experience and divine potential makes a very clear deviation from Orthodox theology of sin (mankind as fallen, broken, and in need of a savior).
Rather than adopting the orthodox view of humanity as inherently sinful, Gnosticism holds that “humans are essentially not the product of the material world.” (Hoeller 17) The great Gnostic teachers believed that every human is born with a “divine spark,” a piece, or essence, of the Divine within them. Yet, these divine sparks are held captive in the world, desperately longing to be reunited with The Divine – the true source of life.
To the Gnostic, salvation comes not through an external provision, but from within, through knowledge – or liberating gnosis. (Hoeller 18) Jesus is recognized by most Gnostic teachers as the ultimate liberator and teacher of gnosis, and therefore is revered and even called upon as “savior.” These claims to salvation posed a huge threat to the Orthodox belief that salvation was solely available through their tradition.
Today, Christianity is diverse and malleable, with multiple churches claiming their interpretation is the only true way to attain salvation. Pagels argues that although many Christians see this diversity as a new phenomenon, (believing the early Church to be the “golden age” of pure, simple, unified Christian faith), the discovery of the Gnostic library shows us that “early Christianity was far more diverse than nearly anyone expected.” (xxii)
For spiritual seekers and religious admirers alike, Gnostic teachings offer a refreshing perspective and a new way of interpreting the familiar accounts of Jesus. Although little was known about Gnosticism for nearly 1,600 years, many scholars believe its rediscovery in the 20th Century is a treasure for our society, as we seek to further understand, with greater awareness, the events that helped shape the western world as we know it today.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. Random House: New York, 1979.
Hoeller, Stephan A. Gnosticism: A New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Quest Books: Wheaton, IL, 2002.