The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.
The Gospel of John is one orthodox book that the Gnostics also claim “as their own” and is used as a primary source of teaching. Within the emerging church, there was opposition to include John in the New Testament. What made John acceptably “orthodox” while the church rejected the Gospel of Thomas and other “Gnostic” writings?
In the Gospel of John, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus replied to Thomas; “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” It is a very popular saying indicating that one finds God only through Jesus or in its contemporary context implies one finds Jesus through church. In the first centuries of Christianity, Christians concerned with strengthen the institutional church could use John for support.
Gnostic writings have different responses from Jesus for similar questions. In Dialogue of the Savior when the disciples ask, “What is the place to which we will go?” Jesus states, “…the place which you can reach, stand there!” In Gospel of Thomas Jesus replies, “There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the world. If he does not shine, he is darkness.” Instead of legitimizing any institution, both direct one instead to one’s inner capacity. Find one’s direction in the “light within.”
As the Church emerged politically, it could sustain within itself many contradictory ideas and practices as long as the disputed elements supported its basic institutional structure.
The terms “monk” and “monastic” comes from the Greek word monachos meaning “solitary” or “single one.” The Gospel of Thomas frequently uses this word to describe the Gnostics. Rather then exclude the monastic movement, in the fourth century, the church moved to bring the monks into line with Episcopal authority.
Scholar Frederik Wisse suggested the monks who lived at the monastery of St. Pachomius, which happens to be in sight of the cliff where the texts were found, quite possibly had the Gnostic Gospels in there devotion library. It’s possible that in 367 A.D. when Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria sent orders to destroy all “apocryphal books” with “heretical” tendencies, someone from the monastery could have placed the manuscripts in the jar and buried them.
What was the exact problem that Bishop Irenaeus had with the Gnostics and their texts? Why were Irenaeus and his church so determined to destroy them all? The answer may be for several of the Gnostic beliefs that varied from the institutional churches belief; the organization of authority, the participation of women, martyrdom. Or maybe simply it was that all Gnostic groups had a fundamental religious perspective that remained antithetical to the claims of the institutional church.
Gnostics focused on exploring the psyche in what one may call a religious quest. When seeking interior direction, a religious institution could be considered a hindrance to progress. The Valentinian sect of Gnosticism believed you could use church as an instrument into your own self discovery but it isn’t the “ark of salvation.”
Another opinion that Gnostic and orthodox Christians varied on was human condition. The Orthodox agreed more with traditional Jewish teaching; what separates humanity from God is human sin. The New Testament term for sin is hamartia. It comes from the sport of archery and literally means “missing the mark.” New Testament sources suggest we suffer distress because we fail to achieve the moral goal toward which we aim. Mark announces in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus alone could offer healing and forgiveness of sins; only those who receive his message in faith experience deliverance.
Gnostics disagreed. They insist that ignorance is what causes a person to suffer. The Gnostic movement shared an affinity with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques. Without self knowledge one is prone to be driven by impulses they do not understand.
Problem is most people live in oblivion or in more modern terms unconsciousness. Those living in this nightmare experience terror, confusion, instability, doubt and division for they have no root in self. “Whoever does not understand how he came will not understand how he will go…”
Jesus states in the Gospel of Thomas; “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.”
Such insight comes gradually through effort. “Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you.” “Wisdom calls you, yet you desire foolishness.” “A foolish man… goes the ways of the desire of every passion.”
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus also states; “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over all things.”
He continues to state that the “Kingdom of God” should not be thought of in literal terms. “If those who lead you say to you, ‘Look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ the birds will arrive there before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the Sea,’ then the fish will arrive before you. Instead, it is a state of self-discovery.
What the “living Jesus” of Thomas rejects as naive, the idea that the Kingdom of God is an actual event expected in history, is the notion of the Kingdom that the New Testament most often attributes to Jesus as his teachings. All three Gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew) warn that the Kingdom will come in the near future, though some passages suggest it is already here.
Gnostic belief is that one must become a “disciple of his [own] mind,” and discover that it “is the father of the truth.”
The New Testament Gospels, concern themselves with Jesus as a historical person. They rely on prophets’ predictions to prove the validity of the Christian message. But in the Gospel of Thomas, when the disciples speak of the prophets speaking of Jesus, he replies, “You have ignored the one living in your presence, and have spoken (only) of the dead.”
Psychoanalyst C.C. Jung interprets the Valentinus creation myth as a description of the psychological processes. Valentinus believes everything originates from “the depth,” the “abyss”. From that “depth” emerges Mind and Truth, and from them, in turn, Word and Life. The Word is what brought humanity into being. Jung interprets this as a mythical account of the origin of human consciousness.
In his myth, Valentinus tells how Wisdom was seized by a passion to know the Father which she interprets as love. Her attempts could lead to self-destruction if she had not encountered a power called The Limit, which frees her of emotional turmoil and restores her to her original place. I’ll let your spirit interpret that anyway you would like.
The Gospel of Philip explores the experiential truth to verbal description. He says that, “truth brought names into existence in the world because it is not possible to teach it without names.” But truth is clothed in symbols: “Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. One will not receive truth in any other way.” He explains that ordinary speech refers to external phenomenon but religious language is the language of internal transformation. For whoever perceives divine reality “becomes what he sees.”
Gnosticism was more than a protest movement against orthodox Christianity. It conveyed a religious perspective that did not need the kind of institution that became the early Catholic Church. Those who expected to find Christ “within” did not need bishops, priest, creed, canon or ritual as the ultimate authority.
The Book of Thomas the Contender states, “…whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depths of things.” Whoever explores human experience simultaneously discovers divine reality. This marks Gnosticism as a distinctly religious movement as opposed to the psychotherapeutic profession that follows Freud. For even though they share similar ideas of exploring thyself, Freud refused to believe real existence or the secrets of the universe could be found in the “figments of [one’s] imagination.”
Simon Magus, as reported by Hippolytus, believed each human being is a dwelling place, “and that in him dwells an infinite power… the root of the universe.” But since that infinite power exists in two modes, one actual, the other potential, this infinite power “exists in a latent condition in everyone,” but “potentially, not actually.”
How can one realize this potential? Discovering that for oneself is apparently the first step to self-knowledge. In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus if they should fast, pray, etc.? Jesus tells them, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate…”
The Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus attacked the Gnostics when his own students started becoming attracted to Gnosticism. He complained, “They say only, ‘Look to God!,’ but they do not tell anyone where or how to look.”
Zostrianos, the longest text in the Nag Hammadi library, does tell how one spiritual master attained enlightenment. First, he removed himself from physical desires. Second, he had to reduce “chaos in mind,” stilling his mind with meditation. Then he says, “after [setting] myself straight, I saw the perfect child.” The vision of divine presence.
Gnosis involves recognizing the limits of human knowledge: “…(whoever) sees (God) as he is in every respect, or would say that he is something like gnosis, has sinned against him… because he did not know God.”
Much of Gnostic teachings on spiritual discipline remained unwritten. For anyone can read what is written down, even those not “spiritually mature.” Gnostic teachers preferred to share their secret instruction verbally to ensure each candidate’s suitability to receive it. This required individualized attention to each candidate from their teacher as well as energy and time devoted from each candidate.
In all, Gnosticism teaches methods of ‘high levels of individual teachings as well as individualized soul searching’ which did not bode well with mass religion. In this respect it was impossible to compete with the organization of the Catholic Church which simply asked for faith and celebrated rituals such as baptism. The basic framework of this early Catholic Church lives on in many Christian churches whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant and has lived on for twenty centuries.
“Ideas alone do not make a religion powerful. Equally important are social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation.”