The Pattern of Gnostic Truth

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

In the preceding articles of this series we have looked at some good examples of the pros and cons of the New Testament Gospels. I have shown where these writings make for the poorest quality historical records; hence the four Gospel witnesses would not stand up in court (Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, I). And I have shown where these writings contain certain core elements which resemble a Gnostic theology as opposed to orthodox doctrine (Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, II). Thus in certain passages both Jesus and John appeal to a God other than the conventional God of the Old Testament. But again this is in the context of conflicting themes. In some passages Jesus speaks of the jealous God of Old; and in other passages Jesus appeals to a God who knows no jealousy.

The reality here is that the Gospels do not represent an orthodox consensus of Jesus, his doctrine, or his theology. And indeed the Gnostics were the ones historically who actually grasped this issue and its significance. They were the ones who gained the higher end of Christian theology; whereas the “orthodox” Christians resorted to the use of violence, and the power of the state, in order to maintain their dubious concept of a theological unity (the Nicene Creed).

Then again the Gnostic movement also had its problems in reaching a clear and uniform theological consensus. They may all agree that there is a better God above Jehovah, and that Jesus brought the true gnosis of God into the cosmos; but inevitably there is the problem in that no two Gnostic teachers can get this gnosis straight. The Catholic Fathers reported this fact about their Gnostic opponents; and the Nag Hammadi texts confirm it (see below). Of course I do not see where this is any terrible revelation. It’s only natural for people to disagree on issues, especially when this involves difficult philosophical questions or abstract mythological symbolism. Certainly it is not my intent to portray the Gnostics in a bad light. I bring up the issue of diversity because I think there is something to be learned from this situation.

The Catholic Fathers reported on the supposed scandal in that the Gnostics could not agree on their doctrine (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.2.1; Tertullian, Against Valentinians, 4, 38f.; Hippolytus, Refut., 6:30, 33f.). Each Gnostic teacher is portrayed as someone who split off from another school, and made a name for himself by concocting a new version of the myth that he learned from his former teacher. But is any of this really a problem the way the Fathers want it to appear? Adding to or changing a myth or doctrine may be a problem, or maybe not. This is really a matter of perspective and of what one considers to be important. Personally I believe that all the Gnostic myths and theologies are valuable sources of insight, and that they evolve and change for a reason. The diverse Gnostic systems may reflect excesses, but they can also reflect the unique perspectives of people in different situations and mindsets. One Gnostic teaches that our troubled world was created by fallen angels; another Gnostic teaches that it came from the miscarriage of a fallen goddess. Both of these symbols reflect in different ways on the difficult philosophical questions of life: If the Creator is perfect and good then why do women have terrible miscarriages? Or are miscarriages really a clue showing that the Creator is not perfect? Similar questions were raised regarding the celestial bodies, which many ancient people believed were the “gods” who governed the world. The ancient Gnostics identified the celestial powers as wicked angels because they refused to believe that a world filled with evil and suffering could be consistent with a God who is essentially good. The Gnostic myths were developed and shaped by diverse groups of people who contemplated the meaning of the darker side of life, and who attempted to define that darkness in terms of theological implications. Diverse systems were bound to evolve.

The Catholic Fathers portrayed the diverse Gnostic groups as a scandal. But the reality is that the Gnostics were mystics and philosophers who had divergent points of view. Most important is that the Gnostics were peaceful in their disagreements; which is a testimony to the spiritual virtues they aspired to. In history it was among the so-called “orthodox” theologians that the disagreements over theology actually came to blows; and people were actually being murdered. This is where the real scandal is. This was the situation that drew the Roman Emperor Constantine’s attention to the Arian controversy, which was leading to riots and bloodshed. This outbreak of violence was the result of Catholic theologians who were unable to resolve their theological differences in a mature, peaceful way. The Roman emperor had to step in and broker a solution; which amounted to one faction being vindicated, and the other faction (the Arian minority) being outlawed. Soon the good emperor was issuing edicts against any Christian faction or sect that his “orthodox” friends complained about… but that’s a subject for another article. My point is that the Catholic Church was actually responsible for introducing violence and state repression into the Christian legacy: whereas the Gnostics were a peaceful culture of diverse groups. It is with full justification that the famous historian, Edward Gibbon, referred to the Gnostics as the “most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 15).

In this article we will look at this pattern of diversity among the Gnostics, and we will see what these paradoxes can teach us about the Gnostic tradition and the quest for a true spiritual gnosis. The single most important point that I hope to bring forward is that no one Gnostic tradition contains the whole truth. What the historic Gnostic tradition preserves for us is a pattern of Gnostic truth that each one of us, as individuals, must access in our own ways (hence, the name of this article). By their very nature the terms Gnostic and Gnosticism can never have a concrete standard definition as this would apply to some officially established theological system. True Gnostics are people who may agree on a short list of issues; but in the bigger picture Gnostics are people who must inevitably agree to disagree.

Historically the Gnostic movement was divided among various leaders and sects: Valentinus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Saturnilus, Cerinthus, the Naassenes, Sethians, etc., etc. And the Valentinian school itself was divided among several teachers: Ptolemy, Heracleon, Secundus, Marcus and Theodotus. Let’s look at some of the specific issues on which some of these groups disagreed.

The older schools (i.e. Carpocrates, Saturnilus, Cerinthus) generally agreed that there was one supreme Being above, and that the cosmos was a lower realm that was created by fallen angels led by the arch-angel Jehovah. Jesus is sent by the Unknown Father above out of compassion for the slave race created by Jehovah. These were the central points on which these schools agreed. But the data supplied by the Catholic Fathers also reveals that these schools disagreed on ethics, and on what it meant to be liberated. In this case the Saturnilians are reported to have been an ascetic sect which discouraged sex and procreation. Presumably the rationale was that these conventions lead to attachments and to the inevitable enslavement of the soul to worldly cares and pleasures. Irenaeus remarked that many Christians were drawn to this school because of the “feigned temperance” of Saturnilus’ followers (Against Heresies, 1.24.1-2). In contrast, Irenaeus tells us that the Carpocratians believed that liberation was achieved only through the experience and exhausting of all sinful urges. Only when the desire to sin has been satisfied and exhausted, only then is the soul purified and is released from the power of the angels (ibid., 1.25.4). Clement of Alexandria wrote of the Carpocratians that their liberation “is out of responsible self-control and into sexual immorality. Their philosophy is the gratification of their pleasures and passions. They teach a change from self discipline to indiscipline. The hope they offer is the titillation of their genitals. … Under the name of falsely so-called gnosis they have embarked on the road to outer darkness” (Stromateis, 3.109.2. ET: by John Ferguson, CatholicUniversity of America Press).

In the testimonies of Irenaeus and Clement it is important to note that some Gnostics believed that spiritual liberation was achieved only through abstinence; whereas others maintained that liberation was achieved only through indulgence. These radically different approaches indicate the existence of radically diverse systems of theology, ethics and interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. To say that the Saturnilians and Carpocratians both agreed on the unknown God is to oversimplify the doctrinal issues involved. (Of note is that Clement’s damning statements above applied to the Carpocratians. In the same treatise he referred to the Valentinians as if they were actually setting a good example; Stromateis, 3:1.1., 3.4.29., 3.7.59.)

The Naassenes, Sethians, and certainly the Valentinians, represent a later and more sophisticated development of Gnostic thought and myth. They introduced concepts of the universe that reflected the cosmology and dualism of Plato (Timaeus). They maintained that the visible cosmos was an inferior copy of a spiritual primeval realm, called the Pleroma in Gnostic jargon. The Gnostics introduced their innovations in that they taught that the primeval material chaos (without origin in Plato) came into existence as the result of a disunity in the Pleroma. A certain primeval goddess of Wisdom (an “Aion” in Gnostic jargon) conceives within herself a wrong idea of the Father (in Greek: enthymesis); this idea is born as a miscarriage (ectroma; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.2.3-4; Hippolytus, Refutation., 6.26, Tertullian, On Prescript., 7). This miscarriage is removed from the Pleroma and this causes a deviate parallel universe to come into existence…

The myth I have described above is known as the Myth of Sophia. The Naassenes, Sethians and Valentinians all agree that the plan for salvation revolves around the fall, redemption and restoration of Sophia. When Gnostics are initiated into this mystery of her fall and redemption, they themselves participate and partake in her redemption and restoration – which they will inherit when Sophia is united with the Savior in the Bridal Chamber. The entrance into the Bridal Chamber signifies the point when all spirit and soul substances have been redeemed from the material cosmos, and the latter will be dissolved in fire (Irenaeus, ibid., 1.7.1.; Tertullian, Against Valentinians, 32; cf. NHC: On the Origin of the World, 26).

The Naassenes, Sethians and Valentinians seem to agree on these basic points as stated above. But there are also some important points on which they disagreed. For example, the Sethians and Naassenes believed that Sophia’s miscarriage took the form of the wicked Yaldabaoth, who was ejected from the Pleroma. Yaldabaoth creates the deviate parallel universe in opposition to his mother and the Pleroma (NHC: Apocryphon of John, 9:25-10:15; Irenaeus, ibid., 1.30.4-5). In comparison, the Valentinians maintain that the cosmos and the “Demiurge” were created through the will of the Savior (i.e. the primal chaos of the deviate universe was brought into a state of order; Irenaeus, 1.5.1). The Demiurge in this case is not wicked – he merely lacks an awareness and understanding of the spiritual order, and of spiritual virtue (ibid., 1.5; cf. Ptolemy, Letter to Flora). The Valentinians maintain that the Demiurge is redeemed through the Gospel; whereas the Sethians say that he is in Tartaros awaiting his final destruction (NHC: Hypostasis of the Archons, 95). Thus there are two opposing doctrines between these schools. One doctrine maintains that the cosmos, and its creator, exist in opposition to God; and the other says that these exist as part of God’s plan for salvation. Also: one doctrine maintains that evil is rooted in the nature of the Demiurge, i.e. Yaldabaoth; whereas the other maintains that evil is rooted solely in matter itself.

Another example of conflict may be seen in a comparison of the Nag Hammadi treatise The Tripartite Tractate and the Valentinian tradition as reported by the Catholic Fathers. Both of these sources report the same basic myth. But whereas the traditional Valentinian myth identifies Sophia as the fallen feminine Aion, the Tripartite Tractate says that this was a masculine logos who fell. Also of note is the action taken by the supreme Being to stabilize the Pleroma following the misadventure of the fallen Aion. The Valentinian tradition maintains that two “Aions” named “Christ” and the “Holy Spirit” were generated so as to bring order to the Pleroma, and to inform the Aions that the Father is incomprehensible, and that they can only learn of him through his only-begotten Son “Monogenes” or “Nous” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.2.1, 5; Hippolytus, Refut., 6:26). But the Tripartite Tractate tells us that the Father wanted the Aions to know him directly and not through his Son; and that he brought the logos forth into error as a means of revealing this knowledge (62, 72, 76f.).

Thus in the Sophia myth the Father wants the Aions to be restrained and to understand that they can never fully know him; whereas the Tractate says that the Aions will know the Father completely – and that the Father initiated this process by drawing the youngest Aion out of his place, knowing that he would fall, and that the material cosmos of evil, suffering, and injustice, would result (ibid., 107; see below). Between the Sophia Myth and the Tripartite Tractate two irreconcilable conceptions of God, and of divine providence, emerge. In one, the primeval disharmony in the Pleroma is the result of an Aion who, of her own will, seeks what cannot be known (Sophia). In the other, the Father willfully draws an Aion (logos) forth into a disharmony so that the Father, and evil, can be known (62, 72, 76f., 107).

In the examples above I have shown where the ancient “Gnostic” movement was actually divided by irreconcilable concepts of theology, providence and ethics. The ultimate problem now is that all of these Gnostic schools attribute their doctrines to one figure who supposedly revealed all this in the form of a secret teaching: I refer to Jesus. In this situation we are faced with the same problem as we are faced with in the New Testament Gospels. In both the “Gnostic” and “orthodox” traditions we cannot find a clear consensus of what the true doctrine of “Jesus” supposedly was. The New Testament writings that “orthodoxy” depends upon contain no clear consensus of Jesus’ doctrine or theology; and the Gnostic traditions likewise contain no unified consensus of the secret doctrine which they also attribute to Jesus.

This same pattern of variance and contradiction also appears among the Gnostic writings of the Nag Hammadi Library. Scholars have already shown that not all of these writings are of Gnostic origin. Let us look to those writings which are “Gnostic” and let’s take note of the diverse and conflicting ideas which appear among the texts.

First we will look at what some of these writings say concerning the nature of the supreme Being. In this case all of these writings agree, in principle, that there is no jealousy or evil in the supreme Being. The supreme Being is benign in nature, is complete, is not jealous, is incorruptible, and is in need of nothing (Gospel of Truth, 18, 40; Tripartite Tractate, 51-53; Apocryphon of John, 2-4; Holy Book/Invisible Spirit, 40f.; Eugnostos the Blessed, 71-76; Wisdom of Jesus Christ, 94f.; cf. Gospel of Philip, 75; Testimony of Truth, 45-50). In one form or another the texts cited agree that there is an unknown, perfect, and incorruptible God, and this God is distinguished from the biblical God who proclaims that “there is no other God besides me” (Deuteronomy 4:35, Isaiah 45:5-7).

It is concerning the origin of ignorance and evil that the consensus becomes a little more complicated among the texts, and the consensus regarding the unknown God begins to fray. This pattern of diversity is evident in the examples below. (Note: All citation numbers for the Nag Hammadi texts correspond to the bold-typed numbers in the texts as published in the HarperCollins edition.)

1) The Gospel of Truth tells us that evil began as the result of “Error” who in turn had “her” origin in the ignorance of the Father (17). We are advised to “despise Error” because she “has no root” in the Father (ibid.). The Father reveals knowledge of himself through his Son (18, 24, 38). This knowledge destroys Error and liberates all under her control (18). Nothing happens without the will and pleasure of the Father, who is unlimited. But at the same time the Father’s Will is inscrutable and unknowable. Why the Father allowed Error to exist cannot be determined (37).

2) The Tripartite Tractate tells us that evil came into existence through the vanity and error of a certain logos (77-80). The logos tried to grasp the incomprehensible Father and this led to the propagation of wrong and vain ideas. These ideas became spiritual entities which in turn became the lords of chaos, which the logos arranges into the material cosmic structure, via the Demiurge, who is the creative agent of the said logos (100-104). It was the Father who drew this logos forward so that error and evil would come into existence, so that the Aions would know good from evil, and know about the nature of the Father (62, 72, 76f., 107f.). It is also the Father’s Will that “man should experience the great evil, which is death, that is complete ignorance of the Totality, and that he should experience all the evils which come from this and, after the deprivations and cares which are in these, that he should receive of the greatest good… Because of the transgression of the first man, death ruled. It was accustomed to slay every man…because of the organization of the Father’s Will, of which we spoke previously” (107f. ET: H. Attridge, D. Mueller, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pg. 89).

3) The Apocryphon of John tells us that evil began with Sophia. Sophia tried to beget something by herself without her partner, and without the consent of the Great Invisible Spirit (9f.). What comes forth is a mutant: it has the body of a snake and the head of a lion (10). She names the mutant “Yaldabaoth” and she hides it outside of the Pleroma (ibid.). While outside the Pleroma Yaldabaoth is able to steal power from his mother; and he creates the cosmos and the celestial rulers (10f.). Yaldabaoth blasphemes and proclaims that he is the only God (Is. 45:5-7). All evil comes from Yaldabaoth, who is by nature wicked (11). When Sophia realizes what has happened, she repents (14). In response to Yaldabaoth’s arrogance the Father reveals an image of Himself to the powers below (ibid.). Yaldabaoth is ignorant of the origin or meaning of the image; but he is inspired by the vision to create a copy of the image, i.e. mankind, for his own glory (15). The creation of mankind in turn is part of the divine plan to bring about Yaldabaoth’s downfall, and to restore the power that he stole from his mother (19, cf. On the Origin of the World, 103).

4) The Gospel of Philip tells us plainly that “The world came about through a mistake. For he wanted to create it as imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire. For the world never was imperishable, nor for that matter, was he who created the world” (75) and also “Ignorance is the mother of [all evil]” (83f.).

5) The treatise On the Origin of the World explains that the existence of evil began with the desire of the aion “Pistis” (Faith) to be like the “first Light” (98). This desire appears in the form of Sophia (Wisdom), who is likened to a shadow, and who becomes a veil between the immortal realm and everything that comes to exist in the shadow. Out of the Shadow (Sophia) comes the realm of darkness and chaos: and from chaos all deities and powers emerge. Sophia (the “Shadow”) realizes that she is not alone and that someone exists who is greater than her. Sophia becomes jealous and gives birth to Envy, which comes forth like an “aborted fetus” (a miscarriage). Bitter wrath also came forth from Sophia at this moment. Matter also passed out of Sophia like an “afterbirth” (99). Pistis then descends into chaos and is disturbed by what has transpired. Her sense of disturbance becomes an entity which Pistis names “Yaldabaoth” (100). She appoints him to rule over chaos. As ruler, Yaldabaoth organizes chaos into the form of the cosmos; but he has no awareness of Pistis or the region above. Yaldabaoth arrogantly proclaims that he is the supreme Being (Isaiah 45:7). Pistis rebukes Yaldabaoth and reveals the divine plan for the creation Humanity, through which Yaldabaoth will be destroyed (103). Pistis then chooses Yaldabaoth’s son “Sabaoth” to rule in his place; Yaldabaoth assumes the role of Satan (103f., 106). The creation of man and Human history are portrayed in terms of the struggle between Pistis and Yaldabaoth. The destiny of the elect Humanity is to judge Yaldabaoth and the rulers (124). The supreme Being is assigned no role in this account. Like the God of the Epicureans, the supreme Being is detached from the world, and the fate of the cosmos is focused primarily on the struggle between Yaldabaoth and Pistis/Sophia – who are likened to two single women who struggle with their unruly bastard children.

6) The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit tells us that the “material Sophia” was created in order to “rule over chaos and Hades” (56f.). Sophia in turn generates a pair to rule under her, viz. Sakla (Yaldabaoth) and the demon Nebruel (Sakla’s wife; 57). The “Self Generated One” (i.e. the supreme Being) determines the order that Sakla and Nebruel will establish over Hades (58). A host of angels are generated and which are arranged in one order of seven and another order of twelve (corresponding to the celestial bodies and the twelve houses of the Zodiac: these are the cosmic rulers). As the ruler of Hades, Sakla declares himself to the only “jealous” God, and he rebels against the realm above (58f.). This is the origin of evil. In response to the rebellion an image of the Father is revealed from above; which Saklas and his host set out to duplicate, and which culminates in the origin of Humanity. The Father sends the aion “Metanoia” (“repentance”) on behalf of the rulers. And the great Seth is sent to plant the seeds of the incorruptible race among Humans (59f.). The seeded Humans are part of the plan to bring about repentance and restoration of the region below (59, 63). Saklas and the rulers persecute the Humans who have the seed; and who are identified with Sodom and Gomorrah (60, 61). The great Seth himself incarnates as Jesus and condemns the Law of the rulers (65). In this account evil comes about through the rebellion of Sakla and the domain he established in the realm of Hades/chaos. Saklas and his angels rebelled against the supreme “self-Generated One” who appointed them (57). (There is language in this obscure text which indicates that this rebellion is rooted in the offspring of the “material Sophia”, i.e. Saklas and the demon Nebruel. This is implied in the passage which reads: “When [Metanoia] came, she prayed for the seed of the ruler of this aion (Saklas) and the authorities derived from him, which is the defiled seed of the god who produces demons (material Sophia?) and who is destined to be destroyed…” ; 59. Thus it appears that evil has its root in material Sophia – no other Sophia is mentioned.)

7) The Wisdom of Jesus Christ is a record of the teachings that Jesus shared with his disciples after his resurrection (90f.). Jesus discloses the mysteries of the Godhead to them. He also explains that the creation, and evil, came into existence because Sophia generated offspring without her mate (117f.). The Father allowed this so that Sophia would be allowed to confront and wrestle with her own error (118). The Father therefore lowered a veil in order to separate Sophia’s generation from the eternal realm. The Human image is given to Yaldabaoth (to create as his own) in order to sew the seeds of his destruction. This is the “judgement against the chief Creator, called Yaldabaoth” (119). (This brief summary is based on the translation by Marvin Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pp. 287, 295.)

The brief summaries above represent an effort on my part to set forth the varying myths among the texts regarding the nature of God and the origin of evil. I realize that my summaries may not be the only possible interpretation. I recommend that my readers examine these writings for themselves.

Let us briefly consider some of the profound differences in the accounts above. First there are the varying roles of the supreme Being in these accounts. In #7 Jesus tells us that the Father allowed Sophia to proceed so that she would have to confront her own error. #6 tells us that the supreme Being approved Sophia and Saklas as rulers over chaos. Saklas rebelled against the Father. In #5 the supreme Being plays no role; and the struggle of the creation and evil revolve around to feminine aions, Pistis and Sophia, who struggle with their own vain offspring and desires. #4 tells us that Ignorance is the origin of evil; and that the Creator failed in his endeavors. #3 is basically the same as #7; evil begins with the error of Sophia, in spite of her good intentions. #2 is strikingly different from the rest of the accounts in that evil is traced back to the very Will and designs of the Father. Whereas the other Gnostic accounts attempt to separate God from evil and materiality, the author of the Tripartite Tractate seems to accomplish the opposite: he forms a direct connection from the Father to the origin of evil. The Father is behind it all. In #1 we are told that evil has its origin in Error; and that the latter has its origin in ignorance apart from the Father. This account admits that the Father allowed evil to exist: but, unlike #2, the author admits that the Father’s purpose in this cannot be known.

The accounts above also contain strikingly different profiles of Sophia. In #s 1 and 2 there is no Sophia figure. In #s 3 and 7 Sophia is described in the classic form of the tragic figure who has good intentions. In #s 5 and 6 the picture is different. In #5 Sophia is the “Shadow” of Pistis or Faith. Sophia is described as the darkness in which chaos, matter and the cosmos come into existence. The origin of evil and matter come out of Sophia’s jealousy, and which appear as a grotesque miscarriage and afterbirth. In #6 Sophia is described both as “material” (hylic) and as a nebulous “Cloud.” She is appointed to reign over chaos. This account is obscure; but it appears that Saklas and Nebruel come forth out of Sophia as flawed entities who beget powers and rebel against the realm above. In both 5 and 6 Sophia is portrayed not as a tragic heroine, but as a figure of darkness, and a mother of demons.

These accounts maintain a general consensus regarding the Demiurge; he is corrupt and incompetent. The exception is #2 which portrays the Demiurge as the neutral creative arm of the logos. #1 gives no account of the Demiurge, but we may presume that the Demiurge is part of the reign of Error.

As for the purpose of Human existence, accounts 3, 5, 6 and 7 agree that Humanity was created in order to bring judgment against the Demiurge. Accounts 1 and 4 give no clear explanation; we may assume in this case that Humanity exists through Error, or the flawed Creator. Account #2 represents the exception in that we are told that Humanity was created so that evil and death could be revealed for the Pleroma.

Again, on the various points above we can see that the Gnostic writings provide diverse and irreconcilable doctrines. All of these writings contain valuable insights, and provide food for thought and reflection. For better or worse all of these treatises (except #4) attempt to provide an explanation for how a good God and an evil world can exist at the same time. In the end these writings cannot provide the final answer. Only you, the reader, can discover that answer by searching within yourself.

The notion of soul-searching touches upon the true Wisdom that can be found in Gnostic writings. This is part of the pattern of truth that can be found in these texts. Only through self-understanding and maturity can we truly understand the things that pertain to God and spirituality. Self understanding means that our consciousness is not polluted by the vain ideas that come about through ignorance, unruly passions, and wrong thinking. This is the pattern of thought that has defined our world and its tragic and bloody history. To discover God, and the Goodness of God, we must aspire to goodness and purity ourselves. We must love goodness because we know that it is good: that goodness is its own reward, and is better than evil. If we love goodness then it is because the seed of Goodness is within us. Goodness seeks its own, and that is why all Good people are destined to know God. The world is not good because it is not out of God. These essential points are the message behind most of the Gnostic writings and the arcane symbols and speculations therein.

There is, to be sure, a pattern of Gnostic Truth in these writings; by which I mean, more specifically, a pattern of Wisdom. And in this respect the Gnostic writings are clearer than the writings of the New Testament. In the New Testament theology the theology of the good God and the Creator are grafted together: in the Gnostic texts these theologies are separated. In principle (at least) the Gnostic texts establish a separation between God and the world. God is described as pure light, and as being purely good. This represents the standard of spiritual goodness that we are seeking within ourselves.

It is a simple common sense truth that the most important virtue a person can have is maturity. An immature person cannot discover true knowledge about anything; because such a person is blinded by childish misconceptions. This is why such a person can never know God: they can only know some distorted image of God that they have created within themselves, on the basis of their foolish expectations. (It is a foolish misconception to say that the Bible has only one theology.)

The wisdom I have just shared is something that I learned from Gnostics and my study of Gnosticism. I was raised a Christian: but these lessons were never clearly explained to me by my pastors, or in the writings of the New Testament. It is true that the notion of self-knowledge is implied in some passages. Paul tells us that we are the “Temple of God” and that the “spirit of God dwells in us” (1 Cor. 3:16). This information is a matter of self knowledge. The knowledge of whether we are “spiritual” or “natural” men or women is also a matter of self-knowledge (1 Cor. 2:14). In 1 John 4:12 we are told that “No man has seen God” and that “God dwells in us.” This again is a matter of self-knowledge. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells his followers that he abides in them (Jn. 15:4-5). And in Matthew 5:8 Jesus tells his followers “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Again, this is a matter of self-knowledge.

All of these sayings above allude to the Truth. But the language is indirect. It is never explicitly stated that the followers of Christ must know themselves, i.e. must seek maturity. Again, I realized what those passages meant only after I studied Gnosticism, and I learned some important lessons from the great modern mystics like Jiddu Krishnamurti. (I personally consider Krishnamurti to be the greatest Gnostic of the modern age.)

It is only in the Gnostic Christian writings that this need for self-knowledge is specifically explained. Thus, for example, in the Gospel of Thomas we read:

“When you know yourselves…you will realize that it is you who are the children of the living Father.” (3)

And also:

“That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. That which you do not have within you will kill you if you do not have it within you.” (70)

And again in the Gospel of Philip:

“Is it not necessary for those who possess everything to know themselves?” (76) And also: “As for ourselves, let each one of us dig down after the root of evil which is within one, and let one pluck it out of one’s heart by the root.” (83)

And in the Book of Thomas the Athlete:

“For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time achieved knowledge about the depth of the All.” (138)

These statements above express this doctrine clearly. And this concept is implicit in diverse passages throughout the texts. An example is in the Tripartite Tractate where we read of the Father that “he alone knows himself as he is” (55). The idea here is that we should follow the example of the Father and know ourselves as well. The Gospel of Truth tells us that the Son discovered his followers in himself; and that his followers discovered him within themselves (18).

Unfortunately this fundamental wisdom has been omitted from the “orthodox” New Testament, and is alluded to indirectly as I have shown. This is the essential wisdom that is missing from “orthodox” Christianity. Orthodox Christians just hang on in blind faith to their empty dogmas, contradictory creeds, and self-refuting prophecies. And some of them even accept unclean spirits into their souls, which cause them to babble like deranged fools, having no knowledge of what comes forth from their mouths (cf. 1 Cor. 14:11-12).

Soul-searching and self-knowledge represent the true path to gnosis. The Gnostic writings and traditions represent the various ways that the truth is explained on a lower intellectual level. Everyone has a different frame of mind; and not everyone understands the truth equally. The author of the Tripartite Tractate was still unable to completely let go of his “orthodox” notions of the Monarchy of God, which still influenced his theological conceptions. And then there are the “noble” Carpocratians, as reported by Clement of Alexandria. They failed to understand the true purpose of Liberty (just as many Americans have failed today). In both the Nag Hammadi Library and the reports of the Catholic Fathers there is preserved a Pattern that reflects what true Gnosis is. There is no “Canon” in Gnosticism. And if anyone expects to find such a standard in writing then they will be disappointed. Gnosticism is a tradition of Liberty. It is tolerant. It allows for variance and does not condemn other points of view (unless it is anti-Gnostic, intolerant, and materialistic). The Gnostic culture is a culture of liberty and diversity, which is united by their aspirations toward a pure Vision of God which is not polluted by the world.

As a concluding statement I want to affirm that the Nag Hammadi writings do corroborate the general litany of charges by the Catholic Fathers. These writings reject the supremacy of the Creator; they generally agree that Jesus did not suffer the passion; and they place no emphasis on Jesus as a “fleshly” being; and they maintain that Jesus taught a secret doctrine to his Apostles – to which the Gnostics were the sole heirs.

In the next installment of this series we will look at what the Nag Hammadi writings say regarding the mystical aspect of Jesus’s ministry (link). Our concern will be with what these writings say about the nature of Jesus, the way he taught his disciples, and the mystical experiences his disciples had as the result of their contact with him. –jw

By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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