Did Jesus teach a Secret Doctrine?

(Original title: Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, IV)

In the preceding article of this series we have seen that the Gnostic writings present varied accounts of Gnostic doctrine (Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, III). But in spite of this disordered state it would be wrong to say that the Gnostic writings contain no valid historical or spiritual insights. To the contrary, the Gnostic writings allow insight into the legacy of Jesus and his doctrine that “orthodox” Christians would rather we didn’t see. Orthodox Christians want to define Christianity in the narrowest terms based on equally narrow and dubious evidence. They insist on only “four” Gospels; yet these Gospels are themselves filled with an array of contradictory theological elements—as I have shown in part II of this series. And again, the four Gospels provide summaries of supposed eye-witness accounts that would be dismissed in any court (part I). The Gospels prove nothing and convict no one.

In truth the “four” Gospels present a very narrow summary of Jesus’ teaching which renders his wisdom as incomplete. This limited and inadequate perspective may be clearly seen in the legacy of “orthodox” tradition. Orthodox Christians find their unity in the Nicene Creed; yet their scriptures are a theological mess. They find their salvation in a savior and mediator named Jesus; but the Gospels don’t give a clear consensus of his life and doctrine. They look to the prophecies of this Jesus as a final solution to the world’s problems: but the hard evidence in the scriptures shows that these prophecies are self-refuting. Obvious prophetic failures and logical contradictions are explained away as unfathomable mysteries; and healthy skepticism is suppressed in favor of a stupefying blind faith. Indeed this is what “orthodox” Christianity has evolved into: illogical superstitions supported by blind faith. But does this superstitious faith really express the spirit of the early Christian tradition? And, more importantly, does this really reflect the original fullness of the teachings that were attributed to Jesus?

If we listen to the “orthodox” crowd then we must inevitably face the conclusion that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet—whose fabled resurrection cannot be substantiated by reliable eye-witnesses. Fortunately for us there are options where Christian tradition is concerned. There are choices we can make. Historically the early Christian movement was much wealthier and offered a greater spectrum of meaning than what is offered in the mainstream today. In ancient times many Christians viewed Jesus in a radically different light; and they attributed a profoundly different set of teachings to him. For many of these early Christians, the teachings of Jesus involved an initiation and a knowledge that transformed people at the very core of their being. For them, Christianity was not simply about blind faith in contradictory doctrines and prophecies. Instead, Christianity was about the revealing of secrets, and the revelation of a knowledge that empowered people and gave them the gift of Liberty.

In the Letters of St. Paul we can see evidence that early Christianity involved something more than the dogmatic blind faith that dominates Christianity today. Paul’s Letters contain elements of an early mysticism that never made it into later orthodoxy, and remains like a skeleton in the closet of “orthodox” tradition. An historic witness to Paul’s mysticism can be seen in the Letters of Ignatius (c. 110). In Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians there is the following acknowledgement to the Ephesian church regarding Paul. Ignatius writes to the Ephesians:

“I know both who I am and to whom I write. … I am a condemned man, ye have been the objects of mercy; I am subject to danger, ye are established in safety. … Ye are initiates in the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul…” (Ignatius, Ephesians, 12; emphasis added) [1]

The statement above is pregnant with meaning and implications as to what early Christianity was all about. At the very least there is the question of whether the Pauline mysticism of the Ephesians can be reconciled with Ignatius’ own notions of piety that are expressed throughout his letters? But this is a question for another article. We only need to note here that Ignatius never claims to be initiated: and that this initiation theme is not found in later “orthodox” Catholicism. Our immediate question of concern regarding the passage is this: What does it mean to be initiated, to be “fellow-initiates” (“summustai”) in the mysteries of the Gospel?

The four NT Gospels contain no such concept of initiation. The Gospel of John denies that Jesus taught anything in secret [2]. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke report that Jesus revealed the “mysteries of the kingdom of God” to his disciples but spoke of these mysteries to the masses in “parables” (Mk. 4:11, Mt. 13:10–11, Lk. 8:9–10). These Gospels purport to reveal what Jesus taught; but these Gospels do not refer to a secret tradition or initiation as is referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 2:6f., 14 (see below; cf. Mk. 4:21–23, Lk. 8:16–18). Paul writes of a “spiritual wisdom” which cannot be grasped by the “natural man” (1 Cor. 2:14). Overall the four NT Gospels do not report the existence of a secret doctrine or tradition as Paul does, or as Ignatius does, or also Clement of Alexandria (who also cited Paul).

In the writings of Clement of Alexandria Paul’s mystical piety is expounded upon; but at the same time is rejected by other Catholic leaders (e.g. Clement, Stromata 1:1, 12. cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.1. and Tertullian of Carthage, On Prescription Against Heretics, 26). This shows that there was a tension between the Gospels and Paul’s doctrine that early Catholic leaders were not able to agree upon in terms of harmonizing these diverse ideas.

The mystical elements in Paul’s writings meant that there was an initiation in Christianity, and that there was more to the “gospel” than the simple idea of “justification by faith”. This meant that the Christian was to be initiated into a higher spirituality and a higher understanding of theology and ethics. This duality of concepts can be clearly seen in Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 2:

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, I came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom… For I determined not to know anything among you except Christ, and him crucified.”

But then Paul also writes:

“Howbeit, we speak wisdom among them that are perfect (initiates: teleiois) yet not the wisdom of this world…we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the aions…” (1 Cor. 2:1–2, 6–7)

In the above passage Paul admits that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more than simply a doctrine of Christ crucified. Hence there is the doctrine of “Christ crucified” and then there is the “hidden wisdom” which is spoken in a “mystery.” This duality of doctrine is also reflected in the Epistle to Hebrews:

“Therefore leaving elementary doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection (teleioteta: initiation); not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment…” (Hebrews 6:1–2)

Here again it is stated that there is something beyond the narrow elementary doctrines that “orthodox” Christians remain obsessed with. This critically important issue involves the higher teachings that are attributed to Jesus, and which remain in the wider field of the Christian tradition that is preserved, but remains outside of “orthodoxy.” This in turn brings us back to the questions of Who was Jesus really? What was the nature of his earthly existence (if any)? And what is the true scope of the doctrine that is attributed to him? In other words: Did Jesus teach a secret doctrine?

Inevitably it is to the Gnostic tradition that we must look if we want to find the answers to the questions above. The same is true of those mysterious elements in Paul’s letters, or in Hebrews. Orthodox tradition can provide no complete explanation of the ideas in these passages as cited above. Orthodox tradition is like a tree trunk with all the branches cut off. The trunk remains, and we can tell that the tree had branches; but what happened to the branches? The remnants of those branches are preserved in the remains of ancient Gnosticism; and most of those remains are preserved in the Nag Hammadi Library. What do these writings tell us about Jesus that “orthodoxy” has chopped away and discarded?

There is a whole list of issues that we will look at, in which we will take various unorthodox themes from the New Testament, which remain largely unexplained, and we will compare and see how these themes are reflected and explained in the Nag Hammadi Library. We will look at the concept of Mysteries (secret doctrines) and initiations, the Divine Vision, theological implications, and the material vs. non-material nature of Jesus, and the historical nature of Jesus. In our exploration we may perhaps get an idea of what Paul meant by the “hidden wisdom…spoken in a mystery” or where Jesus said “O righteous Father, the world hath not known you.” It is to Gnostic writings that we must look in order to find an explanation of these ideas and how they were developed. (Note: all quotes herein from the Nag Hammadi Library are derived from the HarperCollins 1990 edition, ed. by James Robinson. Other sources will be identified accordingly.)

Let us first delve into the issue of Mysteries or “secret” doctrines and the related concept of initiation. The foundation for this discussion has already been laid above. In Paul’s writings and in Ignatius, and in Clement of Alexandria (Stromata), there is evidence that there was a secret doctrine that was imparted by Jesus to the Apostles. Clement, for example, tells his readers that “It is requisite therefore to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught. … He certainly did not disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few whom he knew that they belonged…” (Stromata, 1:1, 12) Clement also referred to this secret as gnosis: “the gnosis itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the Apostles” (ibid., 6:7). That Clement really did hold to a secret tradition can be seen in these words: “The Stromata will contain the truth mixed with the dogmas of philosophy…so that the discovery of the sacred traditions may not be easy to any one of the uninitiated” (ibid., 7:18). Clement’s Stromata contains a bizarre combination of orthodox dogma and pagan mystical philosophy. Clement states that this mixture is arranged so as to conceal a secret. Whatever this secret was that Clement referred to, it did not survive in Catholic tradition: and he was accused, posthumously, of heresy and blasphemy (Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy., pg. 56).

So what can the Nag Hammadi writings tell us about this concept of mysteries that appears in Paul and Clement, yet “orthodox” Christians know nothing about today? When one looks at even the titles of the books in the Nag Hammadi Library it becomes obvious that there is a concern with secrets and revelations of secrets. Thus some writings are identified with words like Apocryphon (“secret book”) or Apocalypse (“revelation”). There are three such secret books named after James, and one named after John, and another named after Peter.

There is a pattern in the Nag Hammadi Library where some emphasis has been placed on the brother of Jesus, James the Just, who is portrayed as a mystagogue (an initiator or revealer of secrets). For example, the Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying “It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries” (#62). And, in the same text Jesus tells his followers that after he is gone they must go to “James the Just” (#12). In the Nag Hammadi Library there are three books attributed to James, and which are concerned with secrets and the revelations thereof: hence there is the Apocryphon of James, and then there is the first and second Apocalypses of James. In the Apocryphon there is the following passage which can be compared to Clement above: “Since you asked that I send you a secret book which was revealed to me and Peter by the Lord, I could not turn you away or mislead you; but I have written it in Hebrew letters and sent it to you, and you alone. …take care not to rehearse this text to many—this that the Savior did not wish to tell to all of us, his twelve disciples” (1). This passage reflects the same attitude that Clement wrote of above regarding the need to keep some information away from the uninitiated. The Apocryphon of James also affirms the statement in the Gospel of Thomas that James the Just was appointed to lead the church in his place; hence James was privy to information that even some Apostles didn’t know.

The Apocryphon of James portrays James the Just as a mystagogue who imparts the mysteries through secret books. However this text is ironic in that these mysteries are not discussed, and the text focuses instead on the theme that even mystagogues can become complacent and lose their spiritual enthusiasm. Jesus warns James and the others that they are spiritually empty, not full (3f.). This enigmatic theme raises the question of whether this is meant to be an allusion to the conflict between James and another mystagogue, Paul, as reported in Galatians 2. But we can only speculate. At the end of the book Jesus reveals to the Apostles that “children” will be revealed after them, and the Apostles are displeased at this (15:35ff.). Again, it begs the question of whether this foreshadows the ministry of Paul and the conflict over the gentiles. In this context the Catholic Fathers report that the Gnostic tradition maintained that Paul ultimately bore the torch of gnosis, whereas James and Peter lapsed under the influence of Judaism. The Apocryphon of James may allude to this legacy. In practical terms this would mean that James and his fellow Apostles were at fault because they confined their initiations to circumcised Jews only; whereas Paul was initiating people of all nations as Jesus intended.

The most important and relevant initiation material is contained in the latter two books, viz. the first and second Apocalypses of James. The first Apocalypse is a revelation/initiation dialogue between Jesus and James; which takes place the day before Jesus’ execution. The dialogue contains a classic revelation of Valentinian theology straight from the mouth of the Lord. Hence James was the source of the secret doctrine (imparted by the Savior) regarding “Sophia” and “Achamoth.” (35)

The second Apocalypse of James contains the final speech of James the Just, wherein he divulges the mysteries of God in the Temple, and is led promptly to his execution by the ‘orthodox’ Jews. This text begins with a most interesting passage: “This is the discourse that James the Just spoke in Jerusalem which Mareim, one of the priests, wrote. He told it to Theuda, father of the just one.” Right away I must point out that this statement resembles a tradition of the Naassenes as reported by Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies: “These are the heads of the numerous discourses which the Naassene asserts that James, the brother of the Lord, handed down to Mariamne…” (Refutat., 5:2) These words mark the beginning of the notorious and arcane “Naassene Sermon” which is a fascinating combination of Gnostic doctrine and pagan symbolism and mystery. If these passages are derived from a common source then it appears that Mareim and Mariamne may refer to the same person. Also mentioned in the opening passage of the 2nd Apocalypse is the name “Theuda.” This brings to mind a certain “Theudas” from whom Valentinus was said to have been initiated (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 7:17). It seems then that the Nag Hammadi tradition of James actually reflects an historic Gnostic tradition of James as a mystagogue, as someone who imparts the secret teachings of Jesus.

Another example of the mystery/initiation theme can be seen in the Apocryphon of John. In this case John was not initiated into full Gnostic doctrine until after the crucifixion; whereas James was initiated by the Savior the day before the event. If we rely on the first Apocalypse of James and the Apocryphon of John then we may propose in theory that the Sethian tradition came through John, as he understood the Savior, whereas the Naassene and Valentinian traditions came through James via Mariem (Naassenes) or Theuda (Valentinus). Both the first Apocalypse of James and the Apocryphon of John are focused on revealing the hidden spiritual realm, and the hidden God, that are far above the biblical Creator.

Our next example is the so-called “Apocalypse of Peter.” This text was supposedly written by Peter, and is a first person record of an important conversation that “Peter” had with the Savior. Here again, secret knowledge is being revealed; hence Jesus says to Peter: “Be strong, for you are the one to whom these mysteries have been given…” (82:18f.) The Savior reveals to Peter that the living Savior and the crucified Christ are separate entities. Peter is instructed to reveal the true Savior to those who are descended from the immortal race, whereas the material souls must worship the vessel that belongs to “Elohim” and was nailed to the cross (82f.). Thus, according to this text, the Gnostic concept of docetism was a secret doctrine that was revealed originally by the Savior to Peter, and was imparted by Peter. Note also that this includes the revelation that “Elohim” is not the supreme Being.

There are also two books which are named after Thomas, and purport to contain the secret sayings and teachings that Jesus imparted to Thomas. The so-called “Gospel of Thomas” has this opening statement: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down…” And, as documented above, Jesus himself states “It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries.” In the Gospel of Thomas these “mysteries” are disguised mostly in parables.

And then there is the book entitled “The Book of Thomas The Contender writing to the Perfect (Initiates).” This book contains the secret teaching that Jesus gave to Thomas after the resurrection. Thomas asks of the Lord: “I beg you to tell me what I ask before your ascension, and when I hear from you about the hidden things, then I can speak about them” (138:21f.). Jesus teaches Thomas about the realm of the invisible and how that souls must avoid the desires of the visible realm. Jesus reveals that all life forms which consume other life forms, and which procreate, and are generated through procreation, are all subject to corruption and death. This is the order of the visible world. It is the desire for sex and procreation that binds the material order together. Jesus warns Thomas: “Woe to you who love intimacy with womankind and polluted intercourse with them!” and also “Listen to what I am going to tell you, and believe the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in fire…” (144:8f., 142:10f.). An important detail to be noted in this book is that Jesus’s teaching is set forth in plain words, whereas in the Gospel of Thomas the mysteries are concealed in parables. This may in turn explain the wording in the title which says that the “Book of Thomas” is written to the Initiated or “Perfect.”

A doctrine remarkably similar to the “Book of Thomas” is present in the Naassene Sermon as reported by Hippolytus. The Naassenes say that James the Just and Mariamne taught that intercourse between men and women was an “extremely wicked and filthy practice” (Refutat., 5:2). The Naassenes encouraged abstinence from sex and procreation; and that this was symbolized by the castration of Attis in the Mysteries of the Great Mother (5:3).

Gnostic tradition maintains that Mary Magdalene was equal to the Apostles and received her share of the initiation from the Savior. This report is preserved in the so-called “Gospel of Mary.” This text reports the parting words of Jesus and his ascent to heaven. The Apostles become discouraged and Mary tries to encourage them. It is at this point that Peter asks Mary to share what Jesus told her alone: “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words which you remember—which you know and we do not… Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you” (10). An important point in this text is that Mary’s initiation is in the form of the Divine Vision, which is an important initiatory experience in gnosis (see below). Mary reports her conversation with Jesus regarding the Vision, but unfortunately this part of the text is lost (10f.). The extant dialogue with Jesus is a revelation of what happens when a departed soul ascends through the heavenly spheres and is confronted by the cosmic rulers (16). Peter reacts with jealousy to the doctrine that Mary has shared. But the Apostles finally agree that she has spoken the true secret words of the Savior. Hence, Mary too was initiated.

Our next source is the Gospel of Philip. This text contains a loose collection of wisdom sayings which are derived from the teachings of Jesus and was supposedly compiled by the Apostle Philip. The Gospel of Philip also has its peculiar ideas regarding mysteries and initiation: “Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. The world will not receive the truth in any other way” (67:10). The meaning here is that the true doctrine must be concealed in symbols or mysteries: “For the Lord did everything in a mystery, a baptism, an anointing, a eucharist, a redemption, and a bridal chamber” (67:29f.). These five “mysteries” conceal the five steps to achieve union with the Godhead. These steps involve a complete transformation in theology and one’s understanding of the universe and its origin, and what lays beyond it. These truths must be concealed in mysteries. The second Apocalypse of James shows us what can happen when the truth is revealed to the uninitiated, or to material, worldly mankind.

St. Paul too agreed that the truth, the “hidden wisdom”, must be “spoken in a mystery” and that spiritual wisdom is “foolishness” to the “natural man” (1 Cor. 2:6–7, 14); and that if “our gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing…” (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Paul further says that “solid food” cannot be given to “babies” (1 Cor. 3:1–3); and also “Let us be accounted as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). In all these statements Paul is admitting that there are mysteries which must be guarded, and are not to be shared with everyone. As we noted above, Clement of Alexandria likewise believed that the mysteries of the Gospel could not be disclosed to everyone. He believed that the majority of people lacked the moral discipline or respect to be exposed to the truth:

“The method of concealment…was referred to by the Egyptians as the “adyta” and the “veil” by the Hebrews. … All then, in a word, who have spoken of divine things, both Barbarians and Greeks, have veiled the first principles of things, and delivered the truth in enigmas, symbols, allegories, metaphors, (etc.).” (Stromata, 5:4)

And again of the Egyptians Clement wrote: “The Egyptians did not entrust the mysteries they possessed to all and sundry, and did not divulge the knowledge of divine things to the profane…” (Stromata, 5:7) Clement cited the pagan Mysteries as positive examples and precedents showing why the Christian mysteries must also be concealed, just as Paul had done, and as the Gnostics were doing, and to whom Clement was making a concession. Clement’s statements reveal the ancient cultural and religious environment which is the context behind such statements as in the Gospel of Philip: “Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images…” (67:10) The Gnostics believed that “Philip” was initiated in the secret teachings of Jesus.

And finally, the Gnostics also had their texts which were ascribed to St. Paul. There are two such texts preserved in the Nag Hammadi Library, both of which are short fragments. The “Prayer of the Apostle Paul” has this notable line which is clearly derived from Paul’s interpolation of Isaiah 64:4 in 1 Corinthians 2:9. “Grant what no angel eye has seen and no archon ear has heard, and what has not entered into the human heart which came to be angelic and modeled after the psychic god when it was formed from the beginning…” This line alone is an excellent encapsulation of all the theological problems that Paul’s statements raise in 1 Corinthians 2 and Galatians 3. An entire article could be written on this passage alone. First, it is obvious that whoever wrote this prayer recognized that Paul’s quote of Isaiah 64:4 was theologically inverted. Isaiah 64:4 in fact says that no ear or eye or heart has known the plan of any god besides the Lord (YHWH). In 1 Corinthians 2:9 Paul twists the passage so that it says the opposite: God’s plan has remained unseen, unheard, and unknown to the hearts of the uninitiated, viz. the true “hidden wisdom” which is “spoken in a mystery” among the “perfect” (1 Cor. 2:6–7). In the Prayer of the Apostle it is understood that the natural (psychic) man cannot know the plans of a spiritual God; which is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Paul believed that only the “spiritual” man could be initiated and understand the spiritual wisdom. The “Prayer” fully conveys this concept, and it is one of the few extant fragments from ancient Gnostic circles which confirms that they regarded Paul as a mystagogue initiated in the secret teachings of Jesus. 

The second text, “The Apocalypse of Paul”, is an expanded account of Paul’s ascent to the “third heaven” as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:1–4. Paul writes of himself in the third person: “It is not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, whether in or out of body I cannot tell; God knoweth, who was caught up to the third heaven. … How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” In the above passage Paul alludes to the initiation through the vision which is an event that was referred to in the pagan mysteries (in Greece) as the “Epopteia” (Samuel Angus, Mystery Religions, pg. 135). (Of note is that Paul never affirms the ‘road to Damascus’ story as reported in Acts.) Paul also reports that he heard things which it is “unlawful for a man to utter.” This reflects again the piety of the Mysteries and that there are secrets which must not be divulged to the uninitiated. The Apocalypse of Paul is supposed to be Paul’s first hand account of what he saw and heard in the realm beyond the third heaven. Naturally, the ancient Gnostics were the heirs to not only the secret teachings of Jesus, but also the mysteries concealed by Paul.

The Divine Vision itself is part of the process of initiation. One may be initiated into a teaching by a master or mystagogue; but that is only the first step. The true initiation, the catalyzing event, is when one experiences the Vision. (This is not to say that mystical encounters of another nature don’t apply. My opinions here not meant to be exclusionary.) The ancient mystics believed that the Vision of the gods is what made one divine. This was the goal of the initiate in the Mystery religions; an example may be seen in the initiation into the Mysteries of Isis as reported in Apelius’s comedy “The Golden Ass.” Plato also wrote of the Vision in his dialogue Phaedrus where Socrates says “[We] were ushered into the Mystery that we may rightly call the most blessed of all. And we who celebrated it were wholly perfect…and we gazed in rapture at sacred revealed objects… That was the ultimate Vision, and we saw it in pure light because we were pure ourselves, not buried in this thing we are carrying around now which we call a body…” (Phaedrus, 250c; ET: by Alexander Nehamas, Paul Woodruff; see J. Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, Hackett Pub., pg. 528) Plato believed that this Vision was the experience that the soul had when it recovered its memory of its original divinity and its presence in the primeval company of the gods, and their presence before the unknown “Maker and Father of this Universe” (Timaeus, 28c, 41b). Paul also believed in the Vision; and he wrote that Christians would be transformed “from glory to glory” through the vision of the life giving glory that radiated in the open face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18, 4:6). In 2 Corinthians 12:1 Paul admits that he has had “visions” and “revelations.”

With the possible exception of 1 John, Paul’s writings are the only writings in the New Testament that really describe the mystical life and initiatory experiences of being a Christian. It is only in Paul that we learn that the Vision is part of the process of spiritual growth, and the spiritual life. Orthodox Christianity in the West has lost track of this; although I have heard rumors that some form of this mysticism still continues in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. (Even if this is so, I still question to what extent the Spiritual Truth is sacrificed on the altar of “orthodoxy.”) It is only in the extant Gnostic writings that we learn about the importance of the Vision in the life of the aspiring Christian/Gnostic. The Gospel of Philip speaks clearly on the matter:

“It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. [Note: The “things which actually exist” refers to the higher incorruptible and unchanging/eternal spiritual order. —jw] This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the Sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became Spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw [the Father in the Son] and you shall become Father. In this place you see everything and not yourself, but in that place you do see yourself and what you shall become.” (61:20ff., interpretation in brackets is mine. Cf. 74:23f.) 

Here again is another important passage from the Gospel of Philip which adds clarification to the concept of the Vision:

“The human being has intercourse with the human being. The horse has intercourse with the horse, the ass with the ass. Members of a race usually associate with those of like race. So spirit mingles with spirit, and thought consorts with thought, and light shares with light. If you are born a human being, it is the human being that will love you. If you become a spirit, it is the spirit which will be joined to you. … If you become light, it is the light which will share with you.” (78:26–79:2) 

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus speaks regarding the Vision. His disciples ask him “When will you become revealed to us, and when shall we see you?” Jesus replies: “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread upon them, then will you see the Son of the living One, and you will not be afraid.” (#37) Jesus also speaks of the Vision of the Father: “The images are manifest to man, but the light in them remains concealed in the image of the Light of the Father. He will be manifested, but his image will be concealed by His Light.” (#83) The latter passage alludes to a truth that has been experienced and reported by many people; who have had ‘out of body’ experiences and have encountered God in the form of a bright Light.

In the real world the Vision can be experienced by anyone at any time. There are aspiring mystics out there who have sought it without success; and then for other people the event is triggered by, say, a tragic car accident, and has nothing to do with seeking. People die temporarily on the operating table and their souls ascend from their bodies. They see the doctors and nurses below. Next they go through a tunnel and into a bright light—brighter than any light they saw with their material eyes. They feel an incredible power, and an incredible sense of Joy and Love. They find themselves in the presence of God, or Jesus, or angels, or light beings. Usually they are consoled and are advised to return to their broken bodies; the time is not yet.

The Vision is a life-transforming event. One never forgets it. The greatest Mystery has been revealed. The reality of God, and the Goodness of God, have been experienced first hand. This experience is accompanied by a tremendous sense of relief and liberation. I believe that this Vision is at the core of both Gnostic tradition and the Mystery religions, and the Greek philosophers. Philo too knew the concept of the Vision, as did the Apostle Paul.

In some Gnostic texts the influence of the Vision is evident. An example is in the Apocalypse of Peter, where Peter has visions while in the presence of Jesus. Jesus tells Peter to cover his eyes: “And there came in me fear with joy, for I saw a new light greater than the light of day. Then it came down upon the Savior. And I told him about those things which I saw.” (72)

The Tripartite Tractate tells us that the Vision represents the archetypal saving act of the Savior (or “Son”) who was produced by the Pleroma on behalf of the fallen Logos (which corresponds to the fallen Sophia). The Tripartite Tractate says that the Son “revealed himself first to the one who lost his faculty to see and showed himself to those who wanted to gain vision, by shining forth with that perfect light. He first filled him with inexpressible joy, and made him whole and complete…” (88) According to this treatise, if you experience the Vision of the Light of Joy then you have encountered the Savior who was generated by the Pleroma. I remain uncertain if the author of the Tractate was fully initiated himself. But certainly he had contact with people who were.

The Nag Hammadi writings allow us to see what is alluded to in the New Testament (Paul) but which so-called “orthodox” Christians refuse to acknowledge and explain. The Vision was part of the Spiritual life of early Christians. A religion without the Vision is nothing more than an empty political creed. Christians who lack the spirit are incapable of comprehending God as God truly is: Light. Hence, “God is Light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). So-called “orthodox” Christians can only conceive of God in the image of a political ruler or tyrant; which is exactly what we see in the Old Testament. Hence the Ruler of this world proclaims: “I form the light and create darkness…” (Isaiah 45:7) Truly these are the words of one who manipulates the light (read: truth) and creates darkness.

Now again it cannot be said that the Vision is represented as a systematic doctrine in the New Testament. But certainly there is evidence of a theological transformation that occurs as the result of a powerful initiation experience—or which reflects the teaching of someone who has been initiated. In all of my articles I have tried to show the pattern of a foreign theology in the New Testament writings. The Old Testament says that God was revealed to the world through Moses and the Prophets; but the NT writings can be quoted to the contrary. Jesus proclaimed aloud to his Father: “O righteous Father, the world hath not known you” (Jn. 17:25) and John the Baptist said “For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:17–18); and John the Apostle wrote “No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:12). Paul and Stephen both affirmed that the Law was “ordained by angels” (Gal. 3:19, Acts 7:38, 53). And Paul blatantly accused the Israelites (“after the flesh”) of worshipping an “idol” at the Temple (1 Cor. 10:18–19).

All of the passages cited above reflect a remarkable transformation in theology which I believe was inspired by a powerful initiation experience (the Vision). This was the reason that these writers could no longer conceive and write of God in traditional biblical terms. But only in the Nag Hammadi/Gnostic tradition are these ideas given the wider development that they deserve. Only here can we see the larger picture of the doctrine that Jesus is said to have taught.

The last issue we will address here is what the Gnostic writings tell us about Jesus the man. Again, “orthodox” tradition cites the four Gospels to the effect that Jesus was a fleshly being both before and after the resurrection; and that Jesus came to save the flesh. But in Paul we can already find language that calls the “orthodox” consensus into question.  In Philippians 2:7 Paul writes that Jesus was in an estate equal to God, but that he set this aside, and took the lowly “form” and “likeness” of a man. In Galatians 1:11–16 Paul states of his conversion that he conferred “not with flesh and blood.” And in 1 Corinthians 15:50 Paul proclaimed that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Paul’s writings most certainly do not reflect the “orthodox” consensus; and all the hard evidence we have shows that the four Gospels were not named and quoted as we know them before Irenaeus (c. 180). (In comparison, both Justin Martyr and Marcion know some form of the Gospel of Luke; but neither quote this gospel by name, c. 160.) When Paul was writing the four Gospels we know did not exist.

An additional fact here is that Irenaeus was the first to quote both the NT Gospels and Gnostic writings by name. Thus Irenaeus is the first (extant) source to name the “Gospel of Matthew” and the “Gospel of Truth.” Irenaeus is among the first to quote the Gospel of John by name; but at the same time he admits that the Gnostics also quoted “John” by name (Against Heresies, 1.8.5). So, this notion that the New Testament Gospels take some massive precedence over Gnostic writings is based on weak historical evidence. Only the authentic letters of Paul, and the Revelation of John, can be shown to predate the second century in solid forms. The claim that the four Gospels were written by Apostles or secretaries thereof is every bit as dubious as the claim that some of the Nag Hammadi writings originated from the Apostles (although I’m not ruling the latter proposition out completely). My point here is that the New Testament Gospels do not hold any precedence over Gnostic texts as this concerns testimony regarding Jesus.

So what do the Nag Hammadi writings tell us about Jesus the man? All of the texts cited above describe Jesus as an historic personality who imparted secret teachings to various Apostles. Jesus revealed the pre-existent Father, Sophia, Achamoth, and the heavenly rulers who block the ascent of the soul. He also revealed that the Father is Good and is not identical with the God of wrath who declares that “there is no other God” (Isaiah 45:4–7). He also revealed that sex and procreation serve to confine the soul to the world, and to a state of condemnation. Jesus also caused his disciples/Apostles to have visions. And Jesus also revealed that he never truly suffered and that he was not in the body that hung on the cross. All of these reports can be found in the Nag Hammadi texts I have quoted above.

Here are two of the most important examples of Jesus’s words about himself and the passion. In the 1st Apocalypse of James Jesus is quoted as reassuring James: “James, do not be concerned for me… I am he who was within me. Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed.” (31:14ff.) These were Jesus’s words to James before he went to the cross. Jesus informs James of how the departed soul must confront the heavenly rulers.

In the Apocalypse of Peter Jesus causes Peter to have a vision of Jesus where he is being crucified while at the same time he is on the “tree” laughing. Jesus explains the vision to Peter: “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came to being in his likeness. But look at him and me. …he whom they crucified is the first-born and the home of demons, and the material vessel in which they dwell, of Elohim, of the cross, which is under the Law. But he who stands near him is the living Savior…” (81, 82)

In the Apocryphon of John Jesus returns to John after the crucifixion to console him, and to reveal the mysteries. Jesus informs John that the fleshly body was created by Yaldabaoth and the rulers in order to confine human souls in the material realm of spiritual oblivion (21). The flesh will not be saved because it is created from material elements.

The Book of Thomas portrays Jesus as imparting certain mysteries to Thomas after the crucifixion and before the ascension. In this text Jesus condemns the flesh; but the resurrection doctrine remains unexplained. Of note is that Jesus here condemns those who say that souls were placed in fleshly bodies in order to learn about evil (141:20–25). (Thus Jesus would have condemned the Tripartite Tractate, cf. 107:19–35)

The Gospel of Mary records the words of Jesus immediately before his ascension. Jesus tells the Apostles that all substances must be separated and restored to their roots. The desire to sin originates from the intermingling of substances (spirit and matter) which leads to inner conflict, sickness and death (7). The implication here is that flesh does not inherit the resurrection. Jesus tells Mary in secret that the “soul” (sans the body) must ascend through the heavenly spheres and confront the rulers.

The Gospel of Philip gives the following description of Jesus’s incarnation: “Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which he could be seen. He appeared to the great as great. He appeared to the small as small. He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to men as a man.” (57:28ff.) This writer also gives a brief pseudo-orthodox commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:50. He questions whether it is true that flesh cannot rise and inherit the kingdom. He cites John 6:53 to the effect that flesh and blood correspond to the “word” and “holy spirit” of Jesus. These represent the “flesh and blood” which will rise and inherit the kingdom (56f.).

All of these texts above, which purport to be from Apostolic sources, seem to convey the opinion that Jesus appeared in the world and revealed previously undisclosed doctrines to a small group of men, and one woman. These sources do not clearly deny that Jesus had a fleshly body; but they do deny that the fleshly body was the essence of who Jesus was. The fleshly body seems to be little more than a vehicle through which Jesus interacts with human kind. Jesus, in his essence, is a supernatural being: he cannot really suffer, and he cannot really die. Jesus performed these events as mysteries on behalf of those who would some day be initiated into the truth; which is to say that all of Jesus’s acts conceal a hidden meaning.

In a general way the Gnostic concept of Jesus is consistent with Paul. Paul himself used vague and inconsistent language to describe Jesus in substance. In Romans 1:3 Paul confesses to the Roman church that Jesus was a fleshly descendant of David. But does Paul really believe this? Or is he the mystagogue who speaks to the weak as weak? (1 Cor. 9:19–22, cf. Rom. 1:11–13) In Romans 8:3 Paul says that Jesus appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh, implying thereby that Jesus could never appear or have contact with real, sinful flesh. Again, in Philippians 2:7 Paul says that Jesus appeared in the form and likeness of a man; and that Jesus pre-existed in the company of God as a supernatural being. In 1 Corinthians 15:45–50 Paul says that Jesus bore the “image of the heavenly” and that earthy man bears the “image of the earthy.” (!!) And then the Apostle goes on to proclaim that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, neither can corruption inherit incorruption” (vs. 50). In these verses Paul fails to affirm that Jesus was a fleshly being. Paul’s rhetoric is open to interpretation; and Gnostic writings reflect that. The later four Gospels appear to reflect the “orthodox” consensus; but these writings are in fact late, and they are anonymous. The Gnostic texts cited above at least have somebody’s name on them.

Some scholars have construed the Gnostic texts to mean that there was no real difference between Gnostic doctrine and so-called “orthodox” doctrine where Jesus’s body and “humanity” are concerned. But the consensus I have presented above shows that this is not true. The Treatise on the Resurrection is cited as evidence that the Gnostics also affirmed the flesh and humanity of Jesus. But this text has to be examined in context. Does the Treatise reflect the same consensus as other Gnostic texts? I think the answer is no. I believe we must allow for the possibility that the Treatise on the Resurrection is a letter written by a Gnostic to an “orthodox” Christian. I recall how Irenaeus fumed about the Valentinians who affirmed “orthodox” doctrine in public, and imparted their “mysteries” in private, and admitting that the orthodox Catholics were “vulgar” and “ecclesiastic” (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.15.2).

The Letter of Peter to Philip has also been cited as evidence that Gnostics really were preoccupied with the “flesh” and “humanity” of Jesus after all. In this case even if this text were as simple as it appears, it would not represent the general consensus of doctrine as found in other texts. On close scrutiny this text does not really say that Jesus suffered. It says that Gnostics inevitably must suffer for the truth. But it also says that “Jesus was a stranger to this suffering. But we are the ones who have suffered through the Mother’s (Sophia’s) transgression. And because of this he did everything symbolically among us” (Marvin Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 593). The latter statement is similar to what is said in the Gospel of Philip: “For the Lord did everything in a mystery.”

In summary: what do the Gnostic writings tell us about Jesus that “orthodox” tradition fails to explain, and which is hinted at in the NT Gospels, and reflected in Paul? I’ll let the readers go back over this article and answer that question for themselves. All I can add here is repetition; and there is not enough space for more analysis. Let me conclude by saying that I think the Nag Hammadi writings reflect all those theological elements in the NT that “orthodox” Christians would rather ignore.

1) The New Testament writings have a recurring theme that Moses was not in contact with God (Mt. 11:27, Lk. 6:35, Jn. 1:17–18, 17:25, 1 Jn. 4:12, Acts. 7:38, 53, Gal. 3:19, Col. 2:13–18, Eph. 1:21, Heb. 2:2f., Jas. 1:13–18). The Nag Hammadi writings provide the background for this theme and expound upon it.

2) The New Testament writings make puzzling references to “mysteries” and “visions” but only in the Nag Hammadi writings are these ideas given a full development. The Gnostic writings also present a much fuller account of Jesus’s teaching. Jesus teaches his followers about self knowledge (maturity; see part III) and the spiritual Vision—which probably represents the real fulfillment of the Parousia. These ideas are alluded to in the NT but are never fully explained.

3) The Nag Hammadi writings provide a background for the inconsistent ideas that are found in the New Testament regarding Jesus’s nature and substance (as documented above). The Gnostic writings portray Jesus as a supernatural being from beyond the cosmos; he was not sent from the god of the Old Testament. He has come to share secret wisdom with his followers. He initiates his Apostles into the mysteries of the realm above. He is not a fleshly being in the strict sense of the word. He only appears in flesh, but flesh cannot contain what he really is. Jesus has not come to save our flesh, but to save us from the flesh, and from the one who created flesh to begin with: Jehovah (as revealed by “Moses”). Paul can be shown to allude to all these concepts in his writings—but again, only the Gnostic tradition has given these ideas a full development, whereas “orthodox” tradition has retained Paul’s name, but has steadfastly ignored the Apostle’s doctrine. (The four NT Gospels in comparison all show the signs of being phony witnesses contrived in support of the “orthodox” consensus. But again, the four Gospels prove nothing and convict no one.)

Did the Gnostics really believe in Jesus as an historic figure and supernatural being? Against the modern thinkers and philosophers I would have to answer yes. Gnostic tradition conveys the idea that perfect truth, or “gnosis”, entered this cosmos through a specific person at a specific time. That the Gnostics subscribed to this idea cannot be denied. In this modern/post-modern age I can’t help but feel cynical about all the hype around Jesus. But then again the Gnostic conceptions of Jesus and the theology they imputed to him have never ceased to amaze me. Did this Jesus ever really exist? I don’t know; but I believe that the doctrines are based on something that is perfectly true. Personally I believe the Holy Spirit is the One Truth behind it all.

In closing I must confess that we have only scratched the surface of the issues in this brief article. Hopefully I have allowed my readers the opportunity to see that early Christian tradition included a profoundly different view of Jesus and the teachings attributed to him. Orthodox tradition insists on portraying Jesus as the fulfillment of Bible prophecy—even as Jesus’s own prophecies end in failure (as does the Revelation of John). In contrast with this, many early Christian sources defined Jesus on the basis of a different set of issues. These early sources often portrayed Jesus as a supreme Mystagogue who imparts new and profound philosophical and theosophical truths. Again, some of this unique material is reflected in certain passages of the New Testament as I documented above. But only in Gnostic sources are these ideas given a wider explanation and development. The shared ideas between the New Testament and Gnostic texts shows that there was a foreign school of theology that was connected with Jesus, and that this school is either ignored or suppressed by later orthodoxy. This evidence shows that some part of earliest Christianity was a school of mysticism that imparted secret teachings. This early Christianity was not a faith based sect that regarded Jesus simply as a messianic figure or prophet. In recovering this obscure tradition we are in fact recovering the original Fullness of the Gospel, and we are saving the Christian heritage from devolving into a blind faith that regards its own contradictions as a species of miracles. —jw 



 1] Quoted from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 54f.

 2] The Gospel of John actually denies that Jesus taught anything in secret: “I spake openly to the world…in secret have I said nothing” (Jn. 18:20). The many parables as reported in the synoptic accounts are not found in John.


By Jim West. Copyright © 2008; revised October 5, 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

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