13 Introduction to the Gnostic Gospels
Having finished my 7-part series on Ecstasy and the Holy Ghost, my plan was to begin a series on the Acts of the Apostles. As you will remember, about a year ago I finished a review of the Synoptic Gospels, so it seemed about time to hit the rest of the New Testament. I've never been that interested in Peter or Paul, that is to say: I was not as interested in what they had to say as in what Jesus had to say; but recently I have been attracted to the Acts, as directed by Steiner you may recall, so I began to read the book systematically, for the first time in maybe thirty years.
I had just delved into the first chapter, when the telling of the death of Judas caught my eye. The death of Judas, as told in the first chapter of Acts, is quite unlike the story told in the synoptic Gospels:
"(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled
out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)"
The image of Judas dying in a field that he has just bought for 30 pieces of silver, (his guts exploding everywhere), is very different from the image of Judas hanging himself. This discrepancy led me to investigate Judas. In so doing, I found that there was in fact a Gnostic Gospel of Judas. A little more investigating revealed that there are also Gospels of Mary Magdalene, James, Thomas, Phillip, and Judas. These Gospels constitute the so-called Gnostic Gospels, which were thought to have been rejected by the Church fathers in the First Council of Nicaea:
This concise summary of that meeting is taken from Wikipedia:
"The First Council of Nicaea (/naɪˈsiːə/; Greek: Νίκαια [ˈni:kaɪja]; Turkish: Iznik) was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. This first ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.
Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the nature of the Son of God and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Creed of Nicaea, establishing uniform observance of the date of Easter, and promulgation of early canon law.
The First Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Church. Most significantly, it resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent local and regional councils of Bishops (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy—the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom. . . . ."
[Sidebar: The Nicene Creed is important for more than one reason. Of primary interest to me, of course, are the many beautiful musical settings of the Credo. Compared to some of the other, much shorter, texts in the Catholic Ordinary (like the Kyrie, or the Agnus Dei) the Credo is very wordy; because of this, many settings are prosaic, and run through the text, syllabically, like a speed reader (or a chanter, ha, ha); and yet some masses have credos that take 30 minutes to play through, each movement dwelling on, and glorifying, a single idea or image in the text.
But the Nicene creed is most important because it sets a tone, an attitude toward religious belief: it fixes Christian doctrine in an inflexible conceptual straight jacket. It tells people that the church assumes absolute authority in directing its flock's thinking, and makes it heresy to believe anything that is in disagreement with what the church fathers have agreed upon. To be sure, some such direction moth be considered necessary in an ignorant illiterate society, but I'm not sure we need such pervasive protections now. It has always struck me that the words of the Credo are written in stone.
Here, for the record, is the:
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen."
This is indeed a wonderful text. But it must still be admitted that it carries with it some of the moral baggage of its time--prejudices which, in subtle manifestations, compromise some the universal resonance that pervades MOST of the text. The Credo has been used as a weapon, more times than I care to recall.
Going on with Wikipedia:
"A number of erroneous views have been stated regarding the council's role in establishing the biblical canon. In fact, there is no record of any discussion of the biblical canon at the council at all. The development of the biblical canon took centuries, and was nearly complete (with exceptions known as the Antilegomena, written texts whose authenticity or value is disputed) by the time the Muratorian fragment was written. . . .
The Muratorian fragment is a copy of perhaps the oldest known list of the books of the New Testament. The fragment, consisting of 85 lines, is a 7th-century Latin manuscript bound in a 7th or 8th century codex from the library of Columban's monastery at Bobbio; it contains features suggesting it is a translation from a Greek original written about 170 or as late as the 4th century. Both the degraded condition of the manuscript and the poor Latin in which it was written have made it difficult to translate. The beginning of the fragment is missing, and it ends abruptly. The fragment consists of all that remains of a section of a list of all the works that were accepted as canonical by the churches known to its anonymous original compiler. . . . .
In 331 Constantine commissioned fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople, but little else is known (in fact, it is not even certain whether his request was for fifty copies of the entire Old and New Testaments, only the New Testament, or merely the Gospels), and it is doubtful that this request provided motivation for canon lists as is sometimes speculated. In Jerome's Prologue to Judith he claims that the Book of Judith was "found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures"."
So, you can see that one of the big problems with talking about ancient texts is the question of authenticity. The pedigrees of all these ancient books are shrouded in mystery, and nobody knows quite where what came from what. The questionable pedigrees, of some of these ancient texts, make it difficult to forge an allegiance with a text, because it might end up being proven to be spurious, and what fools we were for believing it!
I have long been aware of the gospel of Thomas, but stumbling onto the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of James, The Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Judas, was a very inspiring discovery. Discovering the so-called Gnostic Gospels was like discovering ANOTHER piano concerto by Mozart, or finding the missing last page of The Art of Fugue. More Jesus stories, oh goody! And I tell you, the stories are REALLY good, although they demand a widening of many of our pre-conceptions of the personality of Jesus as portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels.
So a cursory survey of these rogue gospels sounded like a good, casual, fun idea. At first, I was just going to present a single sermon on Judas; but, looking closer, I saw that the wealth of material to be gone over demanded multiple presentations, not only about Judas, but about the other Gnostic Gospels as well. Therefore today's sermon is going to be an introduction to the whole Gnostic Gospel scenario. We will soon see a common thread that runs through all the Gnostic Gospels, unifying characteristics which make them of a piece, but which also make them distinct from the synpotic versions. In a moment we will take a first look at some of these characteristics as exemplified in the Gospel of Judas.
First, here is a Wikiedia summary of the Gnostic Gospels:
"The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two texts based upon the teachings of several spiritual leaders, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. The sayings of the Gospel of Thomas, compiled circa 140, may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, possibly as early as the second half of the first century. These gospels are not part of the standard Biblical canon of any mainstream Christian denomination, and as such are part of what is called the New Testament apocrypha. Recent novels and films that refer to the gospels have increased public interest.
The word gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge", which is often used in Greek philosophy in a manner more consistent with the English "enlightenment". Some scholars continue to maintain traditional dating for the emergence of Gnostic philosophy and religious movements. It is now generally believed that Gnosticism was a Jewish movement which emerged directly in reaction to Christianity.
The name Christian gnostics came to represent a segment of the Early Christian community that believed that salvation lay not in merely worshipping Christ, but in psychic or pneumatic souls learning to free themselves from the material world via the revelation. According to this tradition, the answers to spiritual questions are to be found within, not without. Furthermore, the gnostic path does not require the intermediation of a church for salvation. Some scholars, such as Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels, have suggested that gnosticism blends teachings like those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.
The documents which comprise the collection of gnostic gospels were not discovered at a single time, but rather as a series of finds. The Nag Hammadi Library was discovered accidentally by two farmers in December 1945 and was named for the area in Egypt where it had been hidden for centuries. Other documents included in what are now known as the gnostic gospels were found at different times and locations, such as the Gospel of Mary, which was recovered in 1896 as part of the Akhmim Codex and published in 1955. Some documents were duplicated in different finds, and others, such as with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, only one copy is currently known to exist.
Although the manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi are generally dated to the 4th century, there is some debate regarding the original composition of the texts. A wide range and the majority of scholars date authorship of the Gnostic gospel of Nag Hammadi to the 2nd and 3rd century. Scholars with a focus on Christianity tend to date the gospels mentioned by Irenaeus to the 2nd century, and the gospels mentioned solely by Jerome to the 4th century. The traditional dating of the gospels derives primarily from this division. Other scholars with a deeper focus on pagan and Jewish literature of the period tend to date primarily based on the type of the work:1. The Gospel of Thomas is held by most to be the earliest of the "gnostic" gospels composed. Scholars generally date the text to the early-mid 2nd century. The Gospel of Thomas, it is often claimed, has some gnostic elements but lacks the full gnostic cosmology. However, even the description of these elements as "gnostic" is based mainly upon the presupposition that the text as a whole is a "gnostic" gospel, and this idea itself is based upon little other than the fact that it was found along with gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi. Some scholars including Nicholas Perrin argue that Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron, which was composed shortly after 172 by Tatian in Syria. A minority view contends for an early date of perhaps 50, citing a relationship to the hypothetical Q document among other reasons.
2. The Gospel of the Lord, a gnostic but otherwise non-canonical text, can be dated approximately during the time of Marcion in the early 2nd century. The traditional view holds Marcion did not compose the gospel directly but, "expunged [from the Gospel of Luke] all the things that oppose his view... but retained those things that accord with his opinion". The traditional view and dating has continued to be affirmed by the mainstream of biblical scholars, however, G. R. S. Mead His Gospel was presumably the collection of sayings in use among the Pauline churches of his day. Of course the patristic writers say that Marcion mutilated Luke's version, and have argued that Marcion's gospel predates the canonical Luke and was in use in Pauline churches.
3. The Gospel of Truth and the teachings of the Pistis Sophia can be approximately dated to the early 2nd century as they were part of the original Valentinian school, though the gospel itself is 3rd century.
4. Documents with a Sethian influence (like the Gospel of Judas, or outright Sethian like Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians can be dated substantially later than 40 and substantially earlier than 250; most scholars giving them a 2nd-century date. More conservative scholars using the traditional dating method would argue in these cases for the early 3rd century.
5. Some gnostic gospels (for example Trimorphic Protennoia) make use of fully developed Neoplatonism and thus need to be dated after Plotinus in the 3rd century.
Though there are many documents that could be included among the gnostic gospels, the term most commonly refers to the following:
• Gospel of Mary (recovered in 1896)
• Gospel of Thomas (versions found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1898, and again in the Nag Hammadi Library)
• Gospel of Truth (Nag Hammadi Library)
• Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi Library) 4 Period
• Gospel of Judas (recovered via the antiquities black market in 1983, and then reconstructed in 2006)."
So you can see, there is a great deal of material to look at, and I felt a moral imperative compelling me to look at it. It seems to me that an investigation of the Gnostic Gospels is really required of the seeking, literate Christian: i.e., the Christian who seeks a personal experience of Jesus, and not mere literal conformity to some moral law, generated out of the prejudices of a society. We call ourselves the Basin Bible Church, which means we place tremendous emphasis on the meaning contained in the preserved sacred writings of this time; whether they are divinely inspired, or merely historically inspired, these writings are the backbone of our faith, and provide the cognitive framework upon which we may hang our subjective, intuitive experience of grace and spirit.
Now, as I began to familiarize myself with the Gnostic Gospels, the first question I asked myself was this: why were the Gnostic Gospels rejected? Why did the church fathers feel that the material exposed in these Gospels was not acceptable? Well, one pattern that I perceived right away, that distinguished the Gnostic Gospels from the synoptic Gospels, was that the Gnostic Gospels have more magic in them; there are more Angels, and trans-dimensional travel, more miracles, and more mystic states. For instance, next week we will review the report of a vision that Judas had of his own death, and his first sight of heaven; it is very similar to the apocalyptic images portrayed in Revelation, and yet it also presages literary works such as Dante's the Divine comedy, and those many many other reports of people walking the boulevards of heaven after death-- very new age. Even the language in which these mystical experiences are expressed cross the border from mainstream Christianity into the realm of the new age--(the new age in the case of the Gospel of Judas is about 200 A.D. Can this be the problem? That in an effort to civilize religion, man has chosen to delete from his doctrine the most mystical elements of Christianity, perhaps because these most transcendent elements are also the most frightening?
The time of the creation of the Gnostic Gospels was the same exact time as for all the other Gospels. In fact, many of the accepted texts were written much later than the events which they describe, and later than some of the stories told in the Gnostic Gospels. But it cannot be denied that the Gnostic Gospels do contain some problematical content, content which, I imagine, the church fathers felt might lead the poor, stupid peasants astray. It was therefore necessary to delete this material for the sake of the peasant population of the time.
But it is not necessary for us to delete these texts now; if they truly enjoy the same status of creation as the accepted Gospels, they deserve equal attention. This is not the 3rd century, and we do not need to protect ourselves from deeply mystical reports of Jesus and his sayings. We must take the Gnostic Gospels just as seriously as the accepted ones, and make an effort to resolve the many seeming contradictions between the texts.
Of course the most popular conventional objection to the Gnostic Gospels centers around the problem of authenticity. Where, in fact, do these texts come from, and who, in fact, wrote them? Always afraid of the false prophet, the Christian must sincerely doubt any new discoveries, statements, descriptions, or ideas which have not been thoroughly tested by religious authority. The Nicene authority, which decided on the original definitive form of the Bible, must have been, in an age of superstition, very careful to direct the layman's attention away from those mystical dimensions of life which might lead him down Satan's path to hell. Nevertheless, to deny this dimension of religious experience is to starve the soul of those seekers who wish to experience more fully the heaven on earth which was promised by Jesus.
One wonders, in the light of the good which is expressed in these Gospels, "Who cares if the manuscript is a fake, if it was written by medieval commentator, or by some completely unknown ancient author?" It seems to me that the truth would be trans-temporal, and not depend on when it was written for its validity. Indeed, what is a holy Scripture? What makes these words holy, and these words unholy? We usually say, that the words of the Bible are divinely inspired, and in so doing we give the impression that a very few people in history have been divinely inspired. This seems sort of exclusive, and la dee dah. The fact is, the most attractive aspect of the Gnostic Gospels is the narratives they feature; the stories, that the Gnostic Gospels add to the portfolio of Jesus' earthly activities, are very welcome. The stories are universal, just like all the other stories of Jesus' career; they are extravagantly human, and this humanity transcends temporal origin and legitimate authorship. My feeling is that if new material is not in contradiction with the accepted holy Scriptures, then the spirit has been served.
The archaic language in which these stories are told seem to me to conceal a secret truth. The stories, imbued with divine resonance, become myth. Indeed, perhaps it was the mythological character of the Gnostic Gospels which deterred the Nicene church fathers from accepting these new myths.
Now before we go on, let me make it clear that I am not presenting any of this material as alternatives to any doctrines you may already be upholding. It is not that I am being namby-pamby about it, it is just that I really have not quite made up my mind how much of this material to take seriously, let alone believe. I merely present this material as historical fact, and leave it to you to decide how much of it you can incorporate into your personal theology. As I indicated before, some of the Gnostic Gospels give a completely new portrait of Jesus, and many unsuspected miracles are revealed. I find these items invigorating in the extreme, but they do require leaps of recognition that you may be unwilling to risk.
For instance: an example of a Gnostic story which might possibly be considered to be in conflict with accepted biblical stories, is the account in Judas of the creation of the world; in Judas, the narrative begins before "the beginning". It describes a great luminous cloud with no name, no beginning and no end, out of which the first Angel emerges. From this point on, several other items in a progression take place, before the world is even created.
I find the whole image of a cloud to be archetypal. Disappearing and reappearing, from clouds, are a events depicted in many many theologies. The cloud is of interest; consider the symbolism of a cloud: a cloud is a loosely put together thing, which prevents you from seeing clearly in front of you. Thus is the literal mind defeated by a dispersal of egoic energy outwards into the cosmos. The "cloud" is an item which appears, universally, in religious symbology in just about every global religion you can name.
I find this pre-Genesis story to be not only charming in its mythological idiom, but also very helpful in developing an image of eternity and the character of God and the religious experience. The luminous cloud is necessary not only as a visual prop to the story, it is a central feature not only of Judas' cosmology, but of his spiritual translation from the physical to the heavenly. It will not escape your notice that the luminous cloud described at least once in Judas as a "Cloud of Knowledge" is very much like the "Cloud of Unknowing" of which we have spoken many times. Cute, huh? That a cloud of knowing and a cloud of unknowing could be the same thing!
The cloud of Knowing is perceived by the subject from the outside, from which vantage point he witnesses the All-Knowingness of God. However, if the cloud is witnessed from inside, the subject finds his ego dispersed in a radiant rain of Un-Knowing; all of what he thought he knew is dispersed into a fog of discontinuous bits. What we usually consider to be knowledge is reduced to a blur. By analogy, pretend that all the things you think you know are like a tangle of wires and strings; when you untangle those strings you lose your focussed self, but, by way of this opening, you are granted clarity, a vision of higher, laser-like knowledge. So the Cloud of Un-Knowing turns out to be "the cloud of tearing-away-the-chains-you-have-wrapped-around-your-literal-mind", so that your consciousness may expand into the higher knowing of the Cloud of Knowing.
Here is the story of creation contained in the Gospel of Judas:
"JESUS TEACHES JUDAS ABOUT COSMOLOGY:
THE SPIRIT AND THE SELF -GENERATED
Jesus said, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, [in which] there is [a] great invisible [Spirit], which no eye of an angel has ever seen, no thought of the heart has ever comprehended, and it was never called by any name.
“And a luminous cloud appeared there. He said, ‘Let an angel come into being as my attendant.’
“A great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated, emerged from the cloud. Because of him, four other angels came into being from another cloud, and they became attendants for the angelic Self-Generated. The Self-Generated said, ‘Let him come into being,’ and he came into being. And he [created] the first luminary to reign over him. He said, ‘Let angels come into being to serve [him],’ and myriads without number came into being. He said, ‘[Let] an enlightened aeon come into being,’ and he came into being. He created the second luminary [to] reign over him, together with myriads of angels without number, to offer service. That is how he created the rest of the enlightened aeons. He made them reign over them, and he created for them myriads of angels without number, to assist them.
[Sidebar: The next section makes reference, constantly, to the term "aeon"; I looked it up:
"In many Gnostic systems, the various emanations of God, who is also known by such names as the One, the Monad, Aion teleos (αἰών τέλεος "The Broadest Aeon"), Bythos ("depth or profundity", Greek βυθός), Proarkhe ("before the beginning", Greek προαρχή), the Arkhe ("the beginning", Greek ἀρχή), "Sophia" (wisdom), Christos (the Anointed One) are called Aeons. In the different systems these emanations are differently named, classified, and described, but the emanation theory itself is common to all forms of Gnosticism.
In the Basilidian Gnosis they are called sonships (υἱότητες huiotetes; sing.: υἱότης huiotes); according to Marcus, they are numbers and sounds; in Valentinianism they form male/female pairs called "syzygies" (Greek συζυγίαι, from σύζυγοι syzygoi).
Similarly, in the Greek Magical Papyri, the term "Aion" is often used to denote the All, or the supreme aspect of God. "
Back to Judas:]
"ADAMAS AND THE LUMINARIES
“Adamas was in the first luminous cloud that no angel has ever seen among all those called ‘God.’ He created the image of Man after the likeness of [this] angel. He made the incorruptible [generation] of Seth appear. He made seventy-two luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation, in accordance with the will of the Spirit. The seventy-two luminaries themselves made three hundred sixty luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation, in accordance with the will of the Spirit, that their number should be five for each.
“The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments ...]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments.
THE COSMOS, CHAOS, AND THE UNDERWORLD
“The multitude of those immortals is called the cosmos— that is, perdition—by the Father and the seventy-two luminaries who are with the Self-Generated and his seventy-two aeons. In him the first human appeared with his incorruptible powers.
And the aeon that appeared with his generation, the aeon in whom are the cloud of knowledge and the angel, is called. And Saklas said, ‘Let twelve angels come into being [to] rule over chaos and the [underworld].’ And look, from the cloud there appeared an [angel] whose face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood.
His name was Nebro, which means ‘rebel’; others call him Yaldabaoth. Another angel, Saklas, also came from the cloud. So Nebro created six angels—as well as Saklas—to be assistants, and these produced twelve angels in the heavens, with each one receiving a portion in the heavens.
THE CREATION OF HUMANITY
“Then Saklas said to his angels, ‘Let us create a human being after the likeness and after the image.’ They fashioned Adam and his wife Eve, who is called, in the cloud, Zoe. For by this name all the generations seek the man, and each of them calls the woman by these names. And the [ruler] said to Adam, ‘You shall live long, with your children.’”
I have to admit that it is nice to have an expanded Christian version of the Creation, like a lot of other world mythologies. I do not mean I believe this, literally, any more than I believe the world was created in six days, but the story (whatever it means) adds a dimension to my religious background and adds to the wonder and miracle of it all. Next week we will present one or two stories from the Gospel of Judas, including the one that makes Judas a hero rather than a villain.
For now let us pray for guidance in these murky philosophical waters, and hope for insight in the paradoxical personality of Jesus.
Let us pray: Jesus, thank you for this opportunity to add to our knowledge of the Infinite You. Give us both the powers of discrimination, and the power of an open mind. Amen.