Popular opinion often comes from obscure sources. Many conceptions about Jesus now
current and credible in New Age circles are rooted in a movement of spiritual protest
which, until recently, was the concern only of the specialized scholar or the occultist.
This ancient movement Gnosticism
provides much of the form and color for the New Age portrait of Jesus as the illumined
Illuminator: one who serves as a cosmic catalyst for others' awakening.
Many essentially Gnostic notions received wide attention through the sagacious persona of
the recently deceased Joseph Campbell in the television series and best-selling book, The
Power of Myth. For example, in discussing the idea that "God was in Christ,"
Campbell affirmed that "the basic Gnostic and Buddhist idea is that that is true of
you and me as well." Jesus is an enlightened example who "realized in himself
that he and what he called the Father were one, and he lived out of that knowledge of the
Christhood of his nature." According to Campbell, anyone can likewise live out his or
her Christ nature.1
Gnosticism has come to mean just about anything. Calling someone a Gnostic can make the
person either blush, beam, or fume. Whether used as an epithet for heresy or spiritual
snobbery, or as a compliment for spiritual knowledge and esotericism, Gnosticism remains a
cornucopia of controversy.
This is doubly so when Gnosticism is brought into a discussion of Jesus of Nazareth. Begin
to speak of "Christian Gnostics" and some will exclaim, "No way! That is a
contradiction in terms. Heresy is not orthodoxy." Others will affirm, "No
contradiction. Orthodoxy is the heresy. The Gnostics were edged out of mainstream
Christianity for political purposes by the end of the third century." Speak of the
Gnostic Christ or the Gnostic gospels, and an ancient debate is moved to the theological
Gnosticism as a philosophy refers to a related body of teachings that stress the
acquisition of "gnosis," or inner knowledge. The knowledge sought is not
strictly intellectual, but mystical; not merely a detached knowledge of or about
something, but a knowing by acquaintance or participation. This gnosis is the inner and
esoteric mystical knowledge of ultimate reality. It discloses the spark of divinity
within, thought to be obscured by ignorance, convention, and mere exoteric religiosity.
This knowledge is not considered to be the possession of the masses but of the Gnostics,
the Knowers, who are privy to its benefits. While the orthodox "many" exult in
the exoteric religious trappings which stress dogmatic belief and prescribed
behavior, the Gnostic "few" pierce through the surface to the esoteric spiritual
knowledge of God. The Gnostics claim the Orthodox mistake the shell for the core;
the Orthodox claim the Gnostics dive past the true core into a nonexistent one of their
own esoteric invention.
To adjudicate this ancient acrimony requires that we examine Gnosticism's perennial
allure, expose its philosophical foundations, size up its historical claims, and square
off the Gnostic Jesus with the figure who sustains the New Testament.
Gnosticism is experiencing something of a revival, despite its status within church
history as a vanquished Christian heresy. The magazine Gnosis, which bills itself
as a "journal of western inner traditions," began publication in 1985 with a
circulation of 2,500. As of September 1990, it sported a circulation of 11,000. Gnosis
regularly runs articles on Gnosticism and Gnostic themes such as "Valentinus: A
Gnostic for All Seasons."
Some have created institutional forms of this ancient religion. In Palo Alto, California,
priestess Bishop Rosamonde Miller officiates the weekly gatherings of Ecclesia Gnostica
Myteriorum (Church of Gnostic Mysteries), as she has done for the last eleven years. The
chapel holds forty to sixty participants each Sunday and includes Gnostic readings in its
liturgy. Miller says she knows of twelve organizationally unrelated Gnostic churches
throughout the world.2 Stephan Hoeller, a frequent contributor to Gnosis,
who since 1967 has been a bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica in Los Angeles, notes that
"Gnostic churches...have sprung up in recent years in increasing numbers."3
He refers to an established tradition of "wandering bishops" who retain
allegiance to the symbolic and ritual form of orthodox Christianity while reinterpreting
its essential content.4
Of course, these exotic-sounding enclaves of the esoteric are minuscule when compared to
historic Christian denominations. But the real challenge of Gnosticism is not so much
organizational as intellectual. Gnosticism in its various forms has often appealed to the
alienated intellectuals who yearn for spiritual experience outside the bounds of the
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, a constant source of inspiration for the New Age, did
much to introduce Gnosticism to the modern world by viewing it as a kind of proto-depth
psychology, a key to psychological interpretation. According to Stephan
Hoeller, author of
The Gnostic Jung, "it was Jung's contention that Christianity and Western
culture have suffered grievously because of the repression of the Gnostic approach to
religion, and it was his hope that in time this approach would be reincorporated in our
culture, our Western spirituality."5
In his Psychological Types, Jung praised "the intellectual content of
Gnosis" as "vastly superior" to the orthodox church. He also affirmed that,
"in light of our present mental development [Gnosticism] has not lost but
considerably gained in value."6
A variety of esoteric groups have roots in Gnostic soil. Madame Helena P.
founded Theosophy in 1875, viewed the Gnostics as precursors of modern occult movements
and hailed them for preserving an inner teaching lost to orthodoxy. Theosophy and its
various spin-offs such as Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy,
Alice Bailey's Arcane School, Guy and Edna Ballard's I Am movement, and Elizabeth Clare
Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant all draw water
from this same well; so do various other esoteric groups, such as the
groups share an emphasis on esoteric teaching, the hidden divinity of humanity, and
contact with nonmaterial higher beings called masters or adepts.
A four-part documentary called "The Gnostics" was released in mid-1989 and shown
in one-day screenings across the country along with a lecture by the producer. This
ambitious series charted the history of Gnosticism through dramatizations and interviews
with world-renowned scholars on Gnosticism such as Gilles Quispel, Hans Jonas, and Elaine
A review of the series in a New Age-oriented journal noted: "The series takes us to
the Nag Hammadi find where we learn the beginnings of the discovery of texts called the
Gnostic Gospels that were written around the same time as the gospels of the New Testament
but which were purposely left out."7 The review refers to one of the most
sensational and significant archaeological finds of the twentieth century; a discovery
seen by some as overthrowing the orthodox view of Jesus and Christianity forever.
GOLD IN THE JAR
In December 1945, while digging for soil to fertilize crops, an Arab peasant named
Muhammad 'Ali found a red earthenware jar near Nag Hammadi, a city in upper Egypt. His
fear of uncorking an evil spirit or jin was shortly overcome by the hope of finding
gold within. What was found has been for hundreds of scholars far more precious than gold.
Inside the jar were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books (codices), dating from
approximately A.D. 350. Although several of the texts were burned or thrown out, fifty-two
texts were eventually recovered through many years of intrigue involving illegal sales,
violence, smuggling, and academic rivalry.
Some of the texts were first published singly or in small collections, but the complete
collection was not made available in a popular format in English until 1977. It was
released as The Nag Hammadi Library and was reissued in revised form in 1988.
Although many of these documents had been referred to and denounced in the writings of
early church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, most of the texts themselves
had been thought to be extinct. Now many of them have come to light. As Elaine Pagels put
it in her best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels, "Now for the first time, we
have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time,
the heretics can speak for themselves."8
Pagels's book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, arguably did more than
any other effort to ingratiate the Gnostics to modern Americans. She made them accessible
and even likeable. Her scholarly expertise coupled with her ability to relate an ancient
religion to contemporary concerns made for a compelling combination in the minds of many.
Her central thesis was simple: Gnosticism should be considered at least as legitimate as
orthodox Christianity because the "heresy" was simply a competing strain of
early Christianity. Yet, we find that the Nag Hammadi texts present a Jesus at extreme
odds with the one found in the Gospels. Before contrasting the Gnostic and biblical
renditions of Jesus, however, we need a short briefing on gnosis.
THE GNOSTIC MESSAGE
Gnosticism in general and the Nag Hammadi texts in particular present a spectrum of
beliefs, although a central philosophical core is roughly discernible, which Gnosticism
scholar Kurt Rudolph calls "the central myth."9 Gnosticism teaches
that something is desperately wrong with the universe and then delineates the means to
explain and rectify the situation.
The universe, as presently constituted, is not good, nor was it created by an all-good
God. Rather, a lesser god, or demiurge (as he is sometimes called), fashioned the world in
ignorance. The Gospel of Philip says that "the world came about through a
mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell
short of attaining his desire."10 The origin of the demiurge or offending
creator is variously explained, but the upshot is that some precosmic disruption in the
chain of beings emanating from the unknowable Father-God resulted in the "fall
out" of a substandard deity with less than impeccable credentials. The result was a
material cosmos soaked with ignorance, pain, decay, and death
a botched job, to be sure. This deity, nevertheless, despotically demands worship and even
pretentiously proclaims his supremacy as the one true God.
This creator-god is not the ultimate reality, but rather a degeneration of the unknown and
unknowable fullness of Being (or pleroma). Yet, human beings
or at least some of them are in the position potentially
to transcend their imposed limitations, even if the cosmic deck is stacked against them.
Locked within the material shell of the human race is the spark of this highest spiritual
reality which (as one Gnostic theory held) the inept creator accidently infused into
humanity at the creation on the order of a drunken
jeweler who accidently mixes gold dust into junk metal. Simply put, spirit is good and
desirable; matter is evil and detestable.
If this spark is fanned into a flame, it can liberate humans from the maddening matrix of
matter and the demands of its obtuse originator. What has devolved from perfection
can ultimately evolve back into perfection through a process of self-discovery.
Into this basic structure enters the idea of Jesus as a Redeemer of those ensconced in
materiality. He comes as one descended from the spiritual realm with a message of
self-redemption. The body of Gnostic literature, which is wider than the Nag Hammadi
texts, presents various views of this Redeemer figure. There are, in fact, differing
schools of Gnosticism with differing Christologies. Nevertheless, a basic image emerges.
The Christ comes from the higher levels of intermediary beings (called aeons) not as a
sacrifice for sin but as a Revealer, an emissary from error-free environs. He is not the
personal agent of the creator-god revealed in the Old Testament. (That metaphysically
disheveled deity is what got the universe into such a royal mess in the first place.)
Rather, Jesus has descended from a more exalted level to be a catalyst for igniting the
gnosis latent within the ignorant. He gives a metaphysical assist to underachieving
deities (i.e., humans) rather than granting ethical restoration to God's erring creatures
through the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
NAG HAMMADI UNVEILED
By inspecting a few of the Nag Hammadi texts, we encounter Gnosticism in Christian
guise: Jesus dispenses gnosis to awaken those trapped in ignorance; the body is a prison,
and the spirit alone is good; and salvation comes by discovering the "kingdom of
God" within the self.
One of the first Nag Hammadi texts to be extricated out of Egypt and translated into
Western tongues was the Gospel of Thomas, comprised of one hundred and fourteen
alleged sayings of Jesus. Although scholars do not believe it was actually written by the
apostle Thomas, it has received the lion's share of scholarly attention. The sayings of
Jesus are given minimal narrative setting, are not thematically arranged, and have a
cryptic, epigrammatic bite to them. Although Thomas does not articulate every
aspect of a full-blown Gnostic system, some of the teachings attributed to Jesus fit the
Gnostic pattern. (Other sayings closely parallel or duplicate material found in the
The text begins: "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which
Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, 'Whoever finds the interpretation of these
sayings will not experience death.'"11 Already we find the emphasis on
secret knowledge (gnosis) as redemptive.
JESUS AND GNOSIS
Unlike the canonical gospels, Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection are not narrated and
neither do any of the hundred and fourteen sayings in the Gospel of Thomas directly
refer to these events. Thomas's Jesus is a dispenser of wisdom, not the crucified and
Jesus speaks of the kingdom: "The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you.
When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it
is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you
dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."12
Other Gnostic documents center on the same theme. In the Book of Thomas the Contender,
Jesus speaks "secret words" concerning self-knowledge: "For he who has not
known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already
achieved knowledge of the depth of the all."13
Pagels observes that many of the Gnostics "shared certain affinities with
contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques."14
This includes the premises that, first, many people are unconscious of their true
condition and, second, "that the psyche bears within itself the potential for
liberation or destruction."15
Gilles Quispel notes that for Valentinus, a Gnostic teacher of the second century, Christ
is "the Paraclete from the Unknown who reveals...the discovery of the Self the divine spark within you."16
The heart of the human problem for the Gnostic is ignorance, sometimes called
"sleep," "intoxication," or "blindness." But Jesus redeems
man from such ignorance. Stephan Hoeller says that in the Valentinian system "there
is no need whatsoever for guilt, for repentance from so-called sin, neither is there a
need for a blind belief in vicarious salvation by way of the death of Jesus."17
Rather, Jesus is savior in the sense of being a "spiritual maker of wholeness"
who cures us of our sickness of ignorance.18
Gnosticism on Crucifixion and Resurrection
Those Gnostic texts that discuss Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection display a variety
of views that, nevertheless, reveal some common themes.
James is consoled by Jesus in the First Apocalypse of James: "Never have I
suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no
In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says, "I did not die in
reality, but in appearance." Those "in error and blindness....saw me; they
punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I.
They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I
was rejoicing in the height over all....And I was laughing at their ignorance."20
John Dart has discerned that the Gnostic stories of Jesus mocking his executors reverse
the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where the soldiers and chief priests (Mark 15:20)
mock Jesus.21 In the biblical Gospels, Jesus does not deride or mock His
tormentors; on the contrary, while suffering from the cross, He asks the Father to
forgive those who nailed Him there.
In the teaching of Valentinus and followers, the death of Jesus is movingly recounted, yet
without the New Testament significance. Although the Gospel of Truth says that
"his death is life for many," it views this life-giving in terms of imparting
the gnosis, not removing sin.22 Pagels says that rather than viewing Christ's
death as a sacrificial offering to atone for guilt and sin, the Gospel of Truth
"sees the crucifixion as the occasion for discovering the divine self within."23
A resurrection is enthusiastically affirmed in the Treatise on the Resurrection:
"Do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth!
Indeed, it is more fitting to say that the world is an illusion rather than the
resurrection."24 Yet, the nature of the post-resurrection appearances
differs from the biblical accounts. Jesus is disclosed through spiritual visions
rather than physical circumstances.
The resurrected Jesus for the Gnostics is the spiritual Revealer who imparts secret wisdom
to the selected few. The tone and content of Luke's account of Jesus' resurrection
appearances is a great distance from Gnostic accounts: "After his suffering, he
showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared
to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).
By now it should be apparent that the biblical Jesus has little in common with the Gnostic
Jesus. He is viewed as a Redeemer in both cases, yet his nature as a Redeemer and the way
of redemption diverge at crucial points. We shall now examine some of these points.
DID CHRIST REALLY SUFFER AND DIE?
As in much modern New Age teaching, the Gnostics tended to divide Jesus from the
Christ. For Valentinus, Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism and left before his death
on the cross. Much of the burden of the treatise Against Heresies, written by the
early Christian theologian Irenaeus, was to affirm that Jesus was, is, and always will be,
the Christ. He says: "The Gospel...knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary,
who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who
was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose
Irenaeus goes on to quote John's affirmation that "Jesus is the Christ" (John
20:31) against the notion that Jesus and Christ were "formed of two different
substances," as the Gnostics taught.26
In dealing with the idea that Christ did not suffer on the cross for sin, Irenaeus argues
that Christ never would have exhorted His disciples to take up the cross if He in fact was
not to suffer on it Himself, but fly away from it.27
For Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the apostle John), the
suffering of Jesus the Christ was paramount. It was indispensable to the apostolic
"rule of faith" that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross to bring salvation to
His people. In Irenaeus's mind, there was no divine spark in the human heart to rekindle;
self-knowledge was not equal to God-knowledge. Rather, humans were stuck in sin and
required a radical rescue operation. Because "it was not possible that the man...who
had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself," the Son brought
salvation by "descending from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to
death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation."28
This harmonizes with the words of Polycarp: "Let us then continually persevere in our
hope and the earnest of our righteousness, which Jesus Christ, "who bore our sins in
His own body on the tree" [1 Pet. 2:24], "who did no sin, neither was guile
found in his mouth" [1 Pet. 2:22], but endured all things for us, that we might live
Polycarp's mentor, the apostle John, said: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus
Christ laid down his life for us" (1 John 3:16); and "This is love: not that we
loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our
The Gnostic Jesus is predominantly a dispenser of cosmic wisdom who discourses on abstruse
themes like the spirit's fall into matter. Jesus Christ certainly taught theology, but he
dealt with the problem of pain and suffering in a far different way. He suffered for us,
rather than escaping the cross or lecturing on the vanity of the body.
THE MATTER OF THE RESURRECTION
For Gnosticism, the inherent problem of humanity derives from the misuse of power by
the ignorant creator and the resulting entrapment of souls in matter. The Gnostic Jesus
alerts us to this and helps rekindle the divine spark within. In the biblical teaching,
the problem is ethical; humans have sinned against a good Creator and are guilty before
the throne of the universe.
For Gnosticism, the world is bad, but the soul when freed
from its entrapments is good. For Christianity, the world
was created good (Gen. 1), but humans have fallen from innocence and purity through
disobedience (Gen. 3; Rom. 3). Yet, the message of the gospel is that the One who can
rightly prosecute His creatures as guilty and worthy of punishment has deigned to visit
them in the person of His only Son not just to write up a
firsthand damage report, but to rectify the situation through the Cross and the
In light of these differences, the significance of Jesus' literal and physical
resurrection should be clear. For the Gnostic who abhors matter and seeks release from its
grim grip, the physical resurrection of Jesus would be anticlimactic, if not absurd. A
material resurrection would be counterproductive and only recapitulate the original
Jesus displays a positive attitude toward the Creation throughout the Gospels. In telling
His followers not to worry He says, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or
reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them" (Matt. 2:26).
And, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the
ground apart from the will of your Father" (Matt. 10:29). These and many other
examples presuppose the goodness of the material world and declare care by a benevolent
Creator. Gnostic dualism is precluded.
If Jesus recommends fasting and physical self-denial on occasion, it is not because matter
is unworthy of attention or an incorrigible roadblock to spiritual growth, but because
moral and spiritual resolve may be strengthened through periodic abstinence (Matt.
6:16-18; 9:14-15). Jesus fasts in the desert and feasts with His disciples.
The created world is good, but the human heart is corrupt and inclines to selfishly misuse
a good creation. Therefore, it is sometimes wise to deny what is good without in
order to inspect and mortify what is bad within.
If Jesus is the Christ who comes to restore God's creation, He must come as one of its
own, a bona fide man. Although Gnostic teachings show some diversity on this
subject, they tend toward docetism the doctrine that the
descent of the Christ was spiritual and not material, despite any appearance of
materiality. It was even claimed that Jesus left no footprints behind him when he walked
on the sand.
From a biblical view, materiality is not the problem, but disharmony with the Maker. Adam
and Eve were both material and in harmony with their good Maker before they succumbed to
the Serpent's temptation. Yet, in biblical reasoning, if Jesus is to conquer sin and death
for humanity, He must rise from the dead in a physical body, albeit a transformed one. A
mere spiritual apparition would mean an abdication of material responsibility. As Norman
Geisler has noted, "Humans sin and die in material bodies and they must be redeemed
in the same physical bodies. Any other kind of deliverance would be an admission of
defeat....If redemption does not restore God's physical creation, including our material
bodies, then God's original purpose in creating a material world would be
For this reason, at Pentecost the apostle Peter preached Jesus of Nazareth as "a man
accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22) who, though put
to death by being nailed to the cross, "God raised him from the dead, freeing him
from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him"
(v. 24). Peter then quotes Psalm 16:10 which speaks of God not letting His "Holy One
see decay" (v. 27). Peter says of David, the psalm's author, "Seeing what was
ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave nor
did his body see decay. God raised Jesus to life" (vv. 31, 32).
The apostle Paul confesses that if the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact,
Christianity is a vanity of vanities (1 Cor. 15:14-19). And, while he speaks of Jesus'
(and the believers') resurrected condition as a "spiritual body," this does not
mean nonphysical or ethereal; rather, it refers to a body totally free from the results of
sin and the Fall. It is a spirit-driven body, untouched by any of the entropies of evil.
Because Jesus was resurrected bodily, those who know Him as Lord can anticipate their own
JESUS, JUDAISM, AND GNOSIS
The Gnostic Jesus is also divided from the Jesus of the Gospels over his relationship
to Judaism. For Gnostics, the God of the Old Testament is somewhat of a cosmic clown,
neither ultimate nor good. In fact, many Gnostic documents invert the meaning of Old
Testament stories in order to ridicule him. For instance, the serpent and Eve are heroic
figures who oppose the dull deity in the Hypostasis of the Archons (the Reality of the
Rulers) and in On the Origin of the World.31
In the Apocryphon of John, Jesus says he encouraged Adam and Eve to eat of the tree
of the knowledge of good and evil,32 thus putting Jesus diametrically at odds
with the meaning of the Genesis account where this action is seen as the essence of sin
(Gen. 3). The same anti-Jewish element is found in the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas
where the disciples say to Jesus, "Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and all of
them spoke in you." To which Jesus replies, "You have omitted the one living in
your presence and have spoken (only) of the dead."33 Jesus thus dismisses
all the prophets as merely "dead." For the Gnostics, the Creator must be
separated from the Redeemer.
The Jesus found in the New Testament quotes the prophets, claims to fulfill their
prophecies, and consistently argues according to the Old Testament revelation, despite the
fact that He exudes an authority equal to it. Jesus says, "Do not think that I have
come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill
them" (Matt. 5:17). He corrects the Sadducees' misunderstanding of the afterlife by
saying, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures..." (Mark
12:24). To other critics He again appeals to the Old Testament: "You diligently study
the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the
Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39).
When Jesus appeared after His death and burial to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus,
He commented on their slowness of heart "to believe all that the prophets have
spoken." He asked, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then
enter into glory?" Luke then records, "And beginning with Moses and all the
Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning
himself" (Luke 24:25-27).
For both Jesus and the Old Testament, the supreme Creator is the Father of all living.
They are one and the same.
GOD: UNKNOWABLE OR KNOWABLE?
Many Gnostic treatises speak of the ultimate reality or godhead as beyond conceptual
apprehension. Any hope of contacting this reality a spark
of which is lodged within the Gnostic must be filtered
through numerous intermediary beings of a lesser stature than the godhead itself.
In the Gospel of the Egyptians, the ultimate reality is said to be the
"unrevealable, unmarked, ageless, unproclaimable Father." Three powers are said
to emanate from Him: "They are the Father, the Mother, (and) the Son, from the living
silence."34 The text speaks of giving praise to "the great invisible
Spirit" who is "the silence of silent silence."35 In the Sophia
of Jesus Christ, Jesus is asked by Matthew, "Lord...teach us the truth," to
which Jesus says, "He Who Is is ineffable." Although Jesus seems to indicate
that he reveals the ineffable, he says concerning the ultimate, "He is
unnameable....he is ever incomprehensible."36
At this point the divide between the New Testament and the Gnostic documents couldn't be
deeper or wider. Although the biblical Jesus had the pedagogical tact not to proclaim
indiscriminately, "I am God! I am God!" the entire contour of His ministry
points to Him as God in the flesh. He says, "He who has seen me has seen the
Father" (John 14:9). The prologue to John's gospel says that "in the beginning
was the Word (Logos)" and that "the Word was with God and was God" (John
1:1). John did not say, "In the beginning was the silence of the silent silence"
or "the ineffable."
Incarnation means tangible and intelligible revelation from God to humanity. The Creator's
truth and life are communicated spiritually through the medium of matter. "The Word
became flesh and made his dwelling place among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of
the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). The
Word that became flesh "has made Him [the Father] known" (v. 19). John's first
epistle tells us: "The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we
proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We
proclaim to you what we have seen and heard..." (1 John 1:2-3).
Irenaeus encountered these Gnostic invocations of the ineffable. He quotes a Valentinian
Gnostic teacher who explained the "primary Tetrad" (fourfold emanation from
ultimate reality): "There is a certain Proarch who existed before all things,
surpassing all thought, speech, and nomenclature" whom he called "Monotes"
(unity). Along with this power there is another power called Hentotes (oneness) who, along
with Monotes produced "an intelligent, unbegotten, and undivided being, which
beginning language terms 'Monad.'" Another entity called Hen (One) rounds out the
primal union.37 Irenaeus satirically responds with his own suggested Tetrad
which also proceeds from "a certain Proarch":
But along with it there exists a power which I term Gourd; and along with this
Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and
Emptiness, since they are one, produced...a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and
delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a
power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon.38
Irenaeus's point is well taken. If spiritual realities surpass our ability to name or
even think about them, then any name under the sun (or within the Tetrad) is just
as appropriate or inappropriate
as any other, and we are free to affirm with Irenaeus that "these powers of the
Gourd, Utter Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude
of the delirious melons of Valentinus."39
Whenever a Gnostic writer ancient or modern simultaneously asserts that a spiritual entity or principle is
utterly unknown and unnameable and begins to give it names and ascribe to it
characteristics, we should hark back to Irenaeus. If something is ineffable, it is
necessarily unthinkable, unreportable, and unapproachable.
ANCIENT GNOSTICISM AND MODERN THOUGHT
Modern day Gnostics, Neo-Gnostics, or Gnostic sympathizers should be aware of some
Gnostic elements which decidedly clash with modern tastes. First, although
Jung, has shown the Gnostics in a positive psychological light, the Gnostic outlook is
just as much theological and cosmological as it is psychological. The
Gnostic message is all of a piece, and the psychology should not be artificially divorced
from the overall world view. In other words, Gnosticism should not be reduced to
psychology as if we know better what a Basilides or a
Valentinus really meant than they did.
The Gnostic documents do not present their system as a crypto-psychology (with various
cosmic forces representing psychic functions), but as a religious and theological
explanation of the origin and operation of the universe. Those who want to adopt
consistently Gnostic attitudes and assumptions should keep in mind what the Gnostic texts to which they appeal for authority and credibility actually say.
Second, the Gnostic rejection of matter as illusory, evil, or, at most, second-best, is at
odds with many New Age sentiments regarding the value of nature and the need for an
ecological awareness and ethic. Trying to find an ecological concern in the Gnostic corpus
is on the order of harvesting wheat in Antarctica. For the Gnostics, as Gnostic scholar
Pheme Perkins puts it, "most of the cosmos that we know is a carefully constructed
plot to keep humanity from returning to its true divine home."40
Third, Pagels and others to the contrary, the Gnostic attitude toward women was not
proto-feminist. Gnostic groups did sometimes allow for women's participation in religious
activities and several of the emanational beings were seen as feminine. Nevertheless, even
though Ms. Magazine gave The Gnostic Gospels a glowing review41,
women fare far worse in Gnosticism than many think. The concluding saying from the Gospel
of Thomas, for example, has less than a feminist ring:
Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of
Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may
become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male
will enter the kingdom of heaven."42
The issue of the role of women in Gnostic theology and community cannot be adequately
addressed here, but it should be noted that the Jesus of the Gospels never spoke of making
the female into the male no doubt because Jesus did not
perceive the female to be inferior to the male. Going against social customs, He gathered
women followers, and revealed to an outcast Samaritan woman that He was the Messiah which scandalized His own disciples (John 4:1-39). The Gospels
also record women as the first witnesses to Jesus' resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10) and this in a society where women were not considered qualified
to be legal witnesses.
THOMAS ON TRIAL
Fourth, despite an emphasis on reincarnation, several Gnostic documents speak of the
damnation of those who are incorrigibly non-Gnostic43, particularly apostates
from Gnostic groups.44 If one chafes at the Jesus of the Gospels warning of
"eternal destruction," chafings are likewise readily available from Gnostic
Concerning the Gnostic-Orthodox controversy, biblical scholar F. F. Bruce is so bold as to
say that "there is no reason why the student of the conflict should shrink from
making a value judgment: the Gnostic schools lost because they deserved to lose."45
The Gnostics lost once, but do they deserve to lose again? We will seek to answer this in
Part Two as we consider the historic reliability of the Gnostic (Nag Hammadi) texts versus
that of the New Testament.
The Nag Hammadi text that has provoked the most historical scrutiny is the Gospel of Thomas. Because of its reputation as the lost "fifth Gospel" and its frequently esoteric and mystical cast, it is frequently quoted in New Age circles. A recent book by Robert Winterhalter is entitled, The Fifth Gospel: A Verse-by-Verse New Age Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas. He claims Thomas knows "the Christ both as the Self, and the foundation of individual life."31 Some sayings in Thomas do seem to teach this. But is this what the historical Jesus taught?
The scholarly literature on Thomas is vast and controversial. Nevertheless, a few important considerations arise in assessing its veracity as history.
Because it is more of an anthology of mostly unrelated sayings than an ongoing story about Jesus' words and deeds, Thomas is outside the genre of "Gospel" in the New Testament. Yet, some of the 114 sayings closely parallel or roughly resemble statements in the Synoptics, either by adding to them, deleting from them, combining several references into one, or by changing the sense of a saying entirely.
This explanation uses the Synoptics as a reference point for comparison. But is it likely that Thomas is independent of these sources and gives authentic although "unorthodox" material about Jesus? To answer this, we must consider a diverse range of factors.
There certainly are sayings that harmonize with biblical material, and direct or indirect relationships can be found to all four canonical Gospels. In this sense, Thomas contains both orthodox and unorthodox material, if we use orthodox to mean the material in the extant New Testament. For instance, the Trinity and unforgivable sin are referred to in the context of blasphemy: "Jesus said, 'Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.'"32
In another saying Jesus speaks of the "evil man" who "brings forth evil things from his evil storehouse, which is in his heart, and says evil things33 (see Luke 6:43-46). This can be read to harmonize with the New Testament Gospels' emphasis on human sin, not just ignorance of the divine spark within.
Although it is not directly related to a canonical Gospel text, the following statement seems to state the biblical theme of the urgency of finding Jesus while one can: "Jesus said, 'Take heed of the living one while you are alive, lest you die and seek to see him and be unable to do so'" (compare John 7:34; 13:33).34
At the same time we find texts of a clearly Gnostic slant, as noted earlier. How can we account for this?
The original writing of Thomas has been dated variously between A.D. 50 and 150 or even later, with most scholars opting for a second century date.35 Of course, an earlier date would lend more credibility to it, although its lack of narrative framework still makes it more difficult to understand than the canonical Gospels. While some argue that Thomas uses historical sources independent of those used by the New Testament, this is not a uniformly held view, and arguments are easily found which marshall evidence for Thomas's dependence (either partial or total) on the canonical Gospels.36
Blomberg claims that "where Thomas parallels the four gospels it is unlikely that any of the distinctive elements in Thomas predate the canonical versions."37 When Thomas gives a parable found in the four Gospels and adds details not found there, "they can almost always be explained as conscious, Gnostic redaction [editorial adaptation]."38
James Dunn elaborates on this theme by comparing Thomas with what is believed to be an earlier and partial version of the document found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, near the turn of the century.39 He notes that the Oxyrhynchus "papyri date from the end of the second or the first half of the third century, while the Gospel of Thomas...was probably written no earlier than the fourth century."40
Dunn then compares similar statements from Matthew, the Oxyrhynchus papyri, and the Nag Hammadi text version of Thomas:
Matthew 7:7-8 and 11:28 — "...Seek and you will find;...he who seeks finds...Come to me...and I will give you rest."
Pap. Ox. 654.5-9 — (Jesus says:)|
'Let him who see(ks) not cease (seeking until) he finds;
and when he find (he will) be astonished,
and having (astoun)ded, he will reign;
an(d reigning), he will (re)st'
(Clement of Alexandria also knows the saying in this form.)
Gospel of Thomas 2 — 'Jesus said:
He who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds;
and when he finds, he will be bewildered (beside himself);
and when he is bewildered he will marvel,
and will reign over the All.'41
Dunn notes that the term "the All" (which the Gospel of Thomas adds to the earlier document) is "a regular Gnostic concept," and that "as the above comparisons suggest, the most obvious explanation is that it was one of the last elements to be added to the saying."42 Dunn further comments that the Nag Hammadi version of Thomas shows a definite "gnostic colouring" and gives no evidence of "the thesis of a form of Gnostic Christianity already existing in the first century." He continues: "Rather it confirms the counter thesis that the Gnostic element in Gnostic Christianity is a second century syncretistic outgrowth on the stock of the earlier Christianity. What we can see clearly in the case of this one saying is probably representative of the lengthy process of development and elaboration which resulted in the form of the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi."43
Other authorities substantiate the notion that whatever authentic material Thomas may convey concerning Jesus, the text shows signs of Gnostic tampering. Marvin W. Meyer judges that Thomas "shows the hand of a gnosticizing editor."44 Winterhalter, who reveres Thomas enough to write a devotional guide on it, nevertheless says of it that "some sayings are spurious or greatly altered, but this is the work of a later Egyptian editor."45 He thinks, though, that the wheat can be successfully separated from the chaff.
Robert M. Grant has noted that "the religious realities which the Church proclaimed were ultimately perverted by the Gospel of Thomas. For this reason Thomas, along with other documents which purported to contain secret sayings of Jesus, was rejected by the Church."46
Here we find ourselves agreeing with the early Christian defenders of the faith who maintained that Gnosticism in the church was a corruption of original truth and not an independently legitimate source of information on Jesus or the rest of reality. Fitzmyer drives this home in criticizing Pagels's view that the Gnostics have an equal claim on Christian authenticity: "Throughout the book [Pagels] gives the unwary reader the impression that the difference between 'orthodox Christians' and 'gnostic Christians' was one related to the 'origins of Christianity'. Time and time again, she is blind to the fact that she is ignoring a good century of Christian existence in which those 'gnostic Christians' were simply not around."47
In this connection it is also telling that outside of the Gospel of Thomas, which doesn't overtly mention the Resurrection, other Gnostic documents claiming to impart new information about Jesus do so through spiritual, post-resurrection dialogues — often in the form of visions — which are not subject to the same historical rigor as claims made about the earthly life of Jesus. This leads Dunn to comment that "Christian Gnosticism usually attributed its secret [and unorthodox] teaching of Jesus to discourses delivered by him, so they maintained, in a lengthy ministry after his resurrection (as in Thomas the Contender and Pistis Sophia). The Gospel of Thomas is unusual therefore in attempting to use the Jesus-tradition as the vehicle for its teaching. . . . Perhaps Gnosticism abandoned the Gospel of Thomas format because it was to some extent subject to check and rebuttal from Jesus-tradition preserved elsewhere."48
Dunn thinks that the more thoroughly the Gnostics challenged the already established orthodox accounts of Jesus' earthly life, the less credible they became; but with post-resurrection accounts, no checks were forthcoming. They were claiming additional information vouchsafed only to the elite. He concludes that Gnosticism "was able to present its message in a sustained way as the teaching of Jesus only by separating the risen Christ from the earthly Jesus and by abandoning the attempts to show a continuity between the Jesus of the Jesus-tradition and the heavenly Christ of their faith."49
What is seen by some as a Gnostic challenge to historic, orthodox views of the life, teaching, and work of Jesus was actually in many cases a retreat from historical considerations entirely. Only so could the Gnostic documents attempt to establish their credibility.
1 Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, ed. Betty Sue Flowers (New
York: Doubleday, 1988), 210.
2 Don Lattin, "Rediscovery of Gnostic Christianity," San Francisco
Chronicle, 1 April 1989, A-4-5.
3 Stephan A. Hoeller, "Wandering Bishops," Gnosis, Summer
5 "The Gnostic Jung: An Interview with Stephan Hoeller," The
Quest, Summer 1989, 85.
6 C. G. Jung, Psychological Types (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1976), 11.
7 "Gnosticism," Critique, June-Sept. 1989, 66.
8 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979),
9 Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San
Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 57f.
10 James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco:
Harper and Row, 1988), 154.
11 Robinson, 126.
12 F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 112-13.
13 Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City, NY: Doubleday
and Co., Inc., 1987), 403.
14 Pagels, 124.
15 Ibid., 126.
16 Christopher Farmer, "An Interview with Gilles Quispel," Gnosis,
Summer 1989, 28.
17 Stephan A. Hoeller, "Valentinus: A Gnostic for All Seasons," Gnosis,
Fall/Winter 1985, 24.
18 Ibid., 25.
19 Robinson, 265.
20 Ibid., 365.
21 John Dart, The Jesus of History and Heresy (San Francisco: Harper and
Row, 1988), 97.
22 Robinson, 41.
23 Pagels, 95.
24 Robinson, 56.
25 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.16.5.
27 Ibid., 3.18.5.
28 Ibid., 3.18.2.
29 "The Epistle of Polycarp," ch. 8, in The Apostolic Fathers,
ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 35.
30 Norman L. Geisler, "I Believe...In the Resurrection of the Flesh,"
Christian Research Journal, Summer 1989, 21-22.
31 See Dart, 60-74.
32 Robinson, 117.
33 Ibid., 132.
34 Ibid., 209.
35 Ibid., 210.
36 Ibid., 224-25.
37 Irenaeus, 1.11.3.
38 Ibid., 1.11.4.
40 Pheme Perkins, "Popularizing the Past," Commonweal,
November 1979, 634.
41 Kenneth Pitchford, "The Good News About God," Ms. Magazine,
April 1980, 32-35.
42 Robinson, 138.
43 See The Book of Thomas the Contender, in Robinson, 205.
44 See Layton, 17.
45 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity
Press, 1988), 277.