The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.
The God of Israel was deemed a masculine God with no female divinity. He is normally characterized with such masculine epithets as king, lord, master, judge and father. The absence of feminine symbolism for God marks Judaism, Christianity and Islam in contrast to the religious traditions in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, etc; all of which have feminine symbolism included. While many believe God is not to be considered in sexual terms at all, much of the actual language used to describe him (much like I did right there) gives off the impression of a masculine deity. Even within Catholicism which calls upon Mary the mother of God; not God the Mother.
In the Gospel of Thomas it states:
Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Other texts found at Nag Hammadi use sexual symbolism to describe God. Not like Mother Goddess as found in archaic pagan influence, but in languages specifically Christian, unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Instead of a monistic and masculine God, many of these texts speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements.
God stated in the beginning, “Let us make man [Adam] in our image…” Several Gnostic texts conclude since humanity was created to include male and female, God must be masculine and feminine.
In one Gnostic writing called Great Announcement; the origin of the universe is described. It states; from the power of Silence appeared “a great power, the Mind of the Universe, which manages all things, and is male… the other… a great Intelligence… is a female which produces all things.” These powers joined in union, “are discovered to be duality.” The divine is considered to be described as harmonious, yin and yang, and in terms of the dynamic relationship of opposites.
In the Apocryphon of John it tells of John being in such great grief after the crucifixion that he had a vision of the Trinity. In the light, a likeness of three forms came forth. The vision said to him, “Why do you doubt, and why are you afraid? I am the one who [is with you] always. I [am the Father]; I am the Mother; I am the Son.” The third term for spirit is usually deemed to be asexual as it is in Greek terminology; [pneuma meaning spirit]. But in Hebrew the term for spirit is ruah, a feminine word. That would conclude in their terms the 3rd spirit would be feminine thus making the Trinity; The Father and The Son being conjoined by The Mother. One must look at this from the standpoint of how things are relayed during translation. An original story in Hebrew detailing the spirit as Father, Son & Mother once translated into Greek would translate that same spirit as Father, Son & Spirit substituting Mother for an asexual “Person” due to the differences in their languages.
The Gospel of Philip makes radical suggestions about the doctrine that later developed as the virgin birth. It goes on to say; The Spirit is both Mother and Virgin, the counterpart of the Heavenly Father. The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down, that is the Holy Spirit descending into the world. The process is symbolic, not literal, the Spirit remains a virgin. Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin Earth; therefore Christ was born from a virgin, the Spirit. The author argues that the virgin birth signifies to the mysterious union of the two divine powers, the Father of All and the Holy Spirit. Not that Mary conceived apart from Joseph.
The divine mother is also translated as Wisdom. One Biblical passage in Proverbs states, “God made the world in Wisdom.” Could Wisdom represent the feminine power in which God’s creation was “conceived”?
It is concluded through Gnostic writings that God is dyadic (“Let us make humanity”) but also that “humanity, which was formed according to the image and likeness of God (Father and Mother), was masculo-feminine.”
With all of the sources cited- secret gospels, revelations, mystical teachings- none were included in the New Testament collection. Every one of the texts were omitted from the canonical collection and branded as heretical by those who called themselves orthodox Christians. By the time the original writings were finally sorted, roughly around 200 A.D., virtually all the feminine imagery for God disappeared from orthodox Christian tradition.
Believers of the “separate creator for Earth” theorize that the Creator was ignorant of his own Mother. He let his arrogance get in the way and decided to take claim to the universe not recognizing that the Mother “infused him with energy.” It is said that’s why it states in the Old Testament, “I am God; there is none beside me.” For if the Creator was truly alone why would this statement even be necessary?
In Gnostic writings anytime “the creator” is castigated for his arrogance it is by a superior feminine power. This could explain Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” Wisdom, once again, being translated as the divine mother.
All of these examples though are mythical explanations. The larger question would be can we find actual, historical explanations as to why some ideas became classified as Heretical and others Orthodox at the beginning of the 3rd century. One clue may be found if we ask whether Gnostic Christians derive any practical, social consequences from their conception of God in terms that included a feminine element.
Bishop Irenaues notes with dismay that women especially are attracted to heretical groups, detailing in his own district “many foolish women” being attracted to the Gnostic congregation. He concluded that Marcus, one of the Gnostic teachers, was a diabolically clever seducer and a magician that victimized and defiled his prey. Irenaeus stated Marcus would seduce women by “telling them to [prophesize]” something strictly forbidden within the Orthodox Church. Tertullian expressed similar outrage stating: “These heretical women-how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!”
It’s an extraordinary development considering in the earlier Christian years the movement showed openness towards women. Jesus himself violated Jewish convention by talking openly to women and including them among his companions. 10 to 20 years after Jesus’ death women held positions of leadership in local Christian groups; acting as prophets, teachers, and evangelists. Presiding rituals often announced that “in Christ… there is neither male nor female.”
Paul felt differently about the equality between men and women. Often quoting Genesis 2-3; “a man… is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)”
Contradictory attitudes towards women reflected a time of social transition. In Jewish communities women were excluded from public worship and social and political life outside of family. In Egypt women took part in various religious cults, and by the first century had obtained a rather advanced state of emancipation. By the second century upper class women in various locations insisted upon “living their own lives.” Women were in discussions of literature, mathematics, philosophy as well as wrote poems, plays and music.
Despite many Christian women participating in public activity, Orthodox Christian churches still held an antifeminist approach mostly pushed by the rich or what we would call bohemian circles.
While in earlier Christian times men and women sat together to worship, during the middle of the second century (precisely at the time of the struggle between Orthodox and Gnostic Christians) orthodox communities began to segregate women from men. And any group that still allowed women leadership roles were branded as heretical.
The change could have been due to the influx of Hellenized Jews into the movement influencing the church or it could have been due to a change I’m social status, with Christianity moving from the Lower class to the Middle class. Primarily in the lower classes, more labor is needed so women aren’t excluded from such activities.
Several secret texts suggest that there was a bit of a rivalry between Peter and Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel of Mary the disciples ask Mary what Jesus said to her in private. As she begins Peter, furious, asks, “Did he really speak privately with a woman, (and) not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Another argument is discussed in Pistis Sophia (“Faith Wisdom”) when Peter complains that Mary is dominating the conversation with Jesus and displacing the rightful priority of him and his brother apostles. He urges Jesus to silence her but is quickly rebuked. Later Mary admits to Jesus that she hardly dares to speak to Peter freely because, in her words, “Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race.” Jesus replies that whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.
Considering many Orthodox Christians regarded Peter as the leader of the Apostles, this could explain the beginning of the segregation of the church. If Peter truly felt such disdain towards Mary it would also explain why several writings about her were deemed necessary to omit from the New Testament and branded heretical. Considering that many Gnostic writings held Mary Magdalene to a higher regard the separation between the two sects could stem from the differences between the beliefs of Peter and Mary. The Catholic Church (the original Orthodox Church of a state) deems Peter their first Pope and the King James Bible focuses heavily on Peter.
Much like anything else, all Gnostic and Orthodox Christians do not think this way. There were several Gnostic groups that felt Eve was created to fulfill Adam as well as there are Orthodox groups that did not denigrate women including one revered father of the church; Clement of Alexandria.
One puzzling saying by Jesus can be found in the Gospel of Thomas. In it he tells Mary she must become male in order to become a “living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Considering being Male is not the only requirement to gain access to the Kingdom of Heaven, this could be looked at from a symbolic point of view. What is merely human (therefore female) must be transformed into what is divine (the “living spirit” the male). In this gospel Salome and Mary become Jesus’ disciples when they transcend their human nature and so “become male.”
Nearly 2,000 years later Pope Paul VI, Bishop of Rome, declared in 1977 that a woman cannot be a priest “because our Lord was a man!” The Nag Hammadi sources challenge us to reinterpret history and re-evaluate our present situation.
In the next blog we will take a look at the persecution of Christians and who that possibly effected the movement and its beliefs.