The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.
Part One: “History is written by the winners…”
The disappearance of Gnostic Christianity within the public eye, started well over a millennium ago due to politics within the religion. Gnosticism is a form of religious mythology promoting knowledge of one’s self, pacifism, and veganism. The Orthodox Christianity at the time of this conflict promoted blind faith, a powerful tool in a world of illiterates. In the 5th Century the newly found Roman Catholic Church went to war with all other forms of Christianity and won. The result would be the burial of alternative Christian beliefs to the public eye for nearly 1600 years. It wouldn’t be until the findings at Nag Hammadi that the world would get a second look at the origins of Christianity through the Gnostic Gospels.
In 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in Upper Egypt. The discovery laid hidden in mystery as its contents were sold in the black market, and illegal activity. 30 years later Muhammad Ali al-Samman came forward as the discoverer and described his story of what happened.
One day while digging near a massive boulder he came across a jar containing papyrus books, bound in leather. When he brought the jar home his mother, not seeing any value in the old books, is said to have burned some to kindle a fire. Muhammad Ali and his brothers, a few weeks later, avenged their father’s death and were now wanted men. Fearing the police would confiscate the books he put them in the procession of a preacher by the name of al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih. Raghib, a local history teacher, sent the collection to Cairo to have it appraised. When it arrived in Cairo is was stolen again and sold on the black market. The buzz surrounding the manuscripts eventually caught the Egyptian governments ears who later obtained 11 1/2 of the original books, now called codices, and deposited them in the CopticMuseum in Egypt. During transportation several books got smuggled out of Egypt to be sold in America. Professor Giles Quispel attempted to find investors to purchase the codex but realized pages were missing. He flew to Egypt in 1955 to find them in the CopticMuseum. Borrowing photographs of several texts, he began to decipher them. Quispel was startled to read: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” The journey to decipher the Gnostic Gospels began.
Much of the controversy surrounding the text is its authenticity. If it is indeed secret gospels from the time of Christ it paints several different images of the ideology within Christianity and its original meaning. Several sayings from the Gnostic writings are also found in the New Testament but placed in unfamiliar contexts, riddled with other dimensions of meaning. What Professor Quispel held in his hands at the time is now known as the Gospel of Thomas, one of 52 texts discovered in the city of Nag Hammandi.
Within the Gospel of Philip, it speaks of Christ’s love for Mary Magdalene and of Christ kissing Mary on the mouth. Several disciples are described as feeling Christ had a closer connection to Mary then any of the other disciples. Other sayings were critically of the virgin birth and bodily resurrection, and mentioned both as misunderstandings.
The text were analyzed and found to be 1,500 year old copies of even older ancient manuscripts. The originals were written in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Some believe the texts go back to 350-400 A.D. while others argue closer to 120-150 A.D. Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, wrote in 180 A.D. that the heretics, “boast that they possess more gospels than there really are.”
The Testimony of Truth gospel tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent, the hero in this version. The serpent in Gnostic literature appears to be the principal of divine wisdom and convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while “the Lord” threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it.
The Gnostic Gospels were buried during the beginning of the Christian era, when it was denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century. It is well known that early followers of Christ were condemned by other Christians as heretics, but nearly all we know about them was from information obtained from their attackers. Often times in history, one culture would annihilate another and then deem their gods pagan. History is written by the winners.
When Emperor Constantine dubbed Christianity as the state religion of Rome, books deemed heretical were outlawed and it was a criminal offense to possess any. It is believed during this time (touched upon in my previous blog; The Separation of Christianity & the Evolution of Freemasonry) is when the Gnostic Gospels were transferred and buried where they would remain for nearly 1,600 years.
The original circulators didn’t deem themselves as heretics. Most of the writings use Christian terminology and claim to offer traditions of Jesus that were hidden by the Roman Catholic Church. Gnostic comes from the Greek word Gnosis, which is usually translated as knowledge. It can also mean insight, as in to know thyself. To know oneself at the deepest level is to simultaneously know God; that is the secret of gnosis.
Almost all of the writings found at Nag Hammadi are Gnostic. They claim to offer secret teachings with many of the texts referring to scriptures of the Old Testament, letters of Paul and the gospels of the New Testament; Jesus and his disciples. Yet the differences are striking.
Orthodox Jews and Christians insist God is wholly other. Several Gnostic gospels say self knowledge is knowledge of God for the self and the divine are identical.
The New Testaments “living” Jesus speaks of sin and repentance, the Gnostic “living” Jesus speaks of illusion and enlightenment. Instead of coming to save us from sin, Jesus is depicted as a guide to spiritual understanding.
Orthodox Christians recognize Jesus as Lord and Son of God, duality to some, while the Gnostics proclaimed that Jesus is identical to us, not our spiritual masters but our equals. In some ways its teachings can be perceived as rather similar to the Hindu or Buddhist traditions.
What we consider Eastern and Western religions was not clearly differentiated 2,000 years ago. A heretic is defined as someone who deviates from the true faith. But who defines what the true faith is? History is written by the winners.
Many Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox agree that the separation of Christianity is a rather recent and deplorable development. They claim that earlier Christians during the time of the apostles worked together and shared land, money, etc. The Nag Hammadi seems to disagree painting the picture of separation from the very beginning through multiple interpretations of Jesus’ true message.
The formation of the three basic premises for nearly all Christian faiths are as follows; accepting the Canon of the New Testament, the confession of apostolic creed and forms of church institution, all arrived towards the end of the second century. Before that time, numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups. Some were apparently discovered at Nag Hammadi while others were lost.
It was by 200 A.D. that the three-rank hierarchy of bishop, priests and deacons emerged as the guardians of true faith. The majority of these initial churches, which the Roman Catholic Church took a leading role in, rejected all other viewpoints as heresy. Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted there could only be one church, and preached to the public that those outside of it will never find salvation. He deemed this church Catholic for meaning universal. Once this church received military backing from Emperor Constantine in the fourth century the penalty for heresy escalated.
The efforts of many to destroyed heretical “blasphemy” was so successful that until the discovery at Nag Hammadi, all information concerning alternative views into early Christianity came from the point of view of the orthodox Christians who won the war. Needless to say no group in history has ever painted a positive picture of those they oppressed or conquered.
What we consider Christian tradition, actually only represents a small section of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others in the early stages of Christianity. Several Gnostic ideas go completely against common, orthodox Christian beliefs. For example, that suffering is not the result of sin. That the divine possesses feminine elements and we should celebrate God as Father and Mother. The resurrection of Christ is symbolic, not literal. Several texts even describe Catholicism as heretical. Who made the selection of traditional Christian beliefs and for what reasons? Why were the other writings banned as “heresy” and what made them so dangerous that they had to be removed from the public viewing? History is written by the winners.