Know what is in front of your face
and what is hidden from you
will be disclosed.
– Gospel of Thomas
The gnostics were religious mystics who proclaimed gnosis, knowledge, as the way of salvation. To know oneself truly allowed gnostic men and women to know god directly, without any need for the mediation of rabbis, priests, bishops, imams, or other religious officials. Religious officials, who were not pleased with such freedom and independence, condemned the gnostics as heretical and a threat to the well-being and good order of organized religion. Heresiologists—heresy hunters of a bygone age who busied themselves exposing people judged dangerous to the Christian masses—fulminated against what they maintained was the falsehood of the gnostics. Nonetheless, from the challenge of this perceived threat came much of the theological reflection that has characterized the intellectual history of the Christian church.
The historical roots of the gnostics reach back into the time of the Greeks, Romans, and Second Temple Jews. Some gnostics were Jewish, others Greco-Roman, and many were Christian. There were Mandaean gnostics from Iraq and Iran; Manichaeans from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and all the way to China; Islamic gnostics in the Muslim world; and Cathars in western Europe. The heyday of their influence extends from the second century CE through the next several centuries. Their influence and their presence, some say, continue to the present day.
Gnostics sought knowledge and wisdom from many different sources, and they accepted insight wherever it could be found. Like those who came before them, they embraced a personified wisdom, Sophia, understood variously and taken as the manifestation of divine insight. To gain knowledge of the deep things of god, gnostics read and studied diverse religious and philosophical texts. In addition to Jewish sacred literature, Christian documents, and Greco-Roman religious and philosophical texts, gnostics studied religious works from the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and Buddhists. All such sacred texts disclosed truths, and all were to be celebrated for their wisdom.
Gnostics loved to explore who they were and from where they had come, and hence they read creation stories such as the opening chapters of Genesis with vigor and enthusiasm. Like others, they recognized that creation stories not only claim to describe what was, once upon a time, but also suggest what is, now, in our own world. The gnostics carried to their reading a conviction that the story of creation was not a happy one. There is, they reasoned, something fundamentally wrong with the world, there is too much evil and pain and death in the world, and so there must have been something wrong with creation.
Consequently, gnostics provided innovative and oftentimes disturbing interpretations of the creation stories they read. They concluded that a distinction, often a dualistic distinction, must be made between the transcendent, spiritual deity, who is surrounded by aeons and is all wisdom and light, and the creator of the world, who is at best incompetent and at worst malevolent. Yet through everything, they maintained, a spark of transcendent knowledge, wisdom, and light persists within people who are in the know. The transcendent deity is the source of that enlightened life and light. The meaning of the creation drama, when properly understood, is that human beings—gnostics in particular—derive their knowledge and light from the transcendent god, but through the mean-spirited actions of the demiurge, the creator of the world, they have been confined within this world. (The platonic aspects of this imagery are apparent.) Humans in this world are imprisoned, asleep, drunken, fallen, ignorant. They need to find themselves—to be freed, awakened, made sober, raised, and enlightened. In other words, they need to return to gnosis.
This distinction between a transcendent god and the creator of the world is all the more remarkable when it is recalled that many of the earliest gnostic thinkers who made such a distinction seem to have been Jews. What might have led them to such a conclusion that seems to fly in the face of Jewish monotheistic affirmations? Could it have been the experience of the political and social trauma of the time, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, which prompted serious reflection upon the problem of evil and stimulated the production of Jewish apocalyptic compositions? Could it have been the reflection of hellenistic Jewish thinkers who were schooled in Judaica and Greek philosophy and recognized the deep philosophical and theological issues surrounding the transcendence of the high god and the need for cosmic intermediaries to be involved with this world? Could it have been that among the creative Jewish minds, representative of the rich diversity of Judaism during the first centuries before and of the Common Era, who boldly addressed the real challenges of Jewish mysticism before Kabbalah, of the wisdom and Hokhmah of god, of world-wrenching apocalyptic, of theodicy and evil in the world, there were those who finally drew gnostic conclusions? We know the names of some of these creative Jewish people: John the baptizer, who initiated Jesus of Nazareth and preached apocalyptic ideas in the vicinity of Qumran, where Covenanters and Essenes practiced their separatist, ethical dualism; Simon Magus and Dositheos, who lived about the same time as Jesus and advocated their ideas in Samaria and beyond; Philo of Alexandria, a hellenistic Jewish thinker who provided Greek philosophical perspectives on the Hebrew Bible; Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, nicknamed Aher, “Other,” who dabbled in dualism; and there were more. We shall encounter some of these Jewish thinkers in this volume. John the baptizer becomes the gnostic hero of the Mandaeans, Jesus of the Christian gnostics. Simon Magus may lurk in the background of several gnostic texts, and Dositheos is said to be the compiler of the Three Steles of Seth. Others, mostly unnamed, may have made similar contributions to the discussion of the profound question of the transcendent god and the demiurge.
The role of the gnostic savior or revealer is to awaken people who are under the spell of the demiurge—not, as in the case of the Christ of the emerging orthodox church, to die for the salvation of people, to be a sacrifice for sins, or to rise from the dead on Easter. The gnostic revealer discloses knowledge that frees and awakens people, and that helps them recall who they are. When enlightened, gnostics can live a life appropriate for those who know themselves and god. They can return back to the beginning, when they were one with god. Such a life transcends what is mundane and mortal in this world and experiences the bliss of oneness with the divine. As the divine forethought, or Christ, in the Secret Book of John says to a person—every person—in the pit of the underworld, “I am the forethought of pure light, I am the thought of the virgin spirit, who raises you to a place of honor. Arise, remember that you have heard, and trace your root, which is I, the compassionate.”
Gnostic literature includes a typical cast of spiritual or mythological figures and realms, but they are referred to by different names.
Above and beyond all is the transcendent deity. In the Book of Baruch this deity is called the Good and is identified with the fertility god Priapos. In the Secret Book of John and elsewhere this deity is called the One, or monad, as well as the invisible spirit, virgin spirit, and father. It is said that the One should not be confused with a god, since it is greater than a god. Elsewhere the transcendent is called the boundless, depth, majesty, light. Poimandres reveals itself as the light, mind, first god. Mandaeans call this deity the great life and lord of greatness, Manichaeans the father of greatness, Muslim mystics the exalted king, Cathars the invisible father, true god, good god.
The glory of the transcendent is made manifest in a heavenly world of light. In the classic literature of gnostic wisdom this exalted world is often called the pleroma or fullness of god, and the inhabitants of this world are called aeons or eternal realms. The first of the aeons is usually the divine mother. For Simon Magus she is Helena, or ennoia, the thought of god. In the Secret Book of John she is Barbelo, or pronoia, the first thought or forethought of god. Thunder, in the text by that name, has certain similarities as well. Sometimes the transcendent father and the divine mother produce a child in spiritual love. Often the aeons are identified as spiritual attributes of the divine, are given names, and are joined together as couples, spiritual lovers in the fullness of the divine. In the Mandaean divine world the great life is surrounded by other lives and a host of Jordans, or heavenly waters; in the Manichaean kingdom of light the father of greatness is surrounded by 12 aeons and 144 aeons of aeons; and in the Mother of Books the exalted king is surrounded by seas, angels, lights, and colors.
Among the aeons and manifestations of the divine is often a figure who represents the divine in this world, fallen from the light above yet present as the light of god with us and in us. In many gnostic texts this is the figure called Sophia or wisdom, as mentioned above. In Valentinian traditions two forms of wisdom are evident, a higher wisdom called Sophia and a lower wisdom called Achamoth. Wisdom is closely linked to Eve in the creation stories, and Eve is portrayed as the mother of the living and a revealer of knowledge. Wisdom may also be linked to the gnostic revealer, and wisdom may take part in the process of salvation. In the Gospel of John and other texts the divine logos, or word, plays a similar role. Such is also the case with Ruha, the spirit, in Mandaean texts, and perhaps Salman, including great Salman and lesser Salman, in the Islamic Mother of Books.
As noted, the demiurge or creator of this world is commonly distinguished from the transcendent deity in gnostic texts. The demiurge is ignorant, tragic, megalomaniacal. In the Secret Book of John he is depicted as the ugly child of Sophia, snakelike in appearance, with the face of a lion and eyes flashing like bolts of lightning. He is named Yaldabaoth, Sakla, Samael, and he is the chief archon and an arrogant, jealous god. In the Gospel of Judas he is given another name, Nebro, said to mean “rebel.” In the Gospel of Truth error behaves like the demiurge, for it becomes strong and works in the world, but erroneously. Similar, too, are the actions of nature in the Paraphrase of Shem, Ptahil in Mandaean literature, the five evil archons in Manichaean literature, Azazi’il in the Mother of Books, and Lucifer or Satan among the Cathars.
The gnostic revealer awakens people who are under the spell of the demiurge. Within a Jewish context the gnostic revealer is Seth, the child of Adam and Eve, or Derdekeas, probably Aramaic for “male child,” or the first thought or the afterthought or the wisdom of the divine. Within a Christian context the revealer is Jesus the anointed, within a Manichaean context Jesus of light, as well as others. More abstractly, the call to revelation and knowledge—the wake-up call—is a winged divine messenger in the Song of the Pearl, instruction of mind in Hermetic literature, and enlightened Manda dHayye, knowledge of life, in Mandaean literature. In other words, the call to knowledge is the dawning of awareness, from within and without, of “what is, what was, and what is to come.” It is insight. It is gnosis.
In gnostic literature those who come to knowledge are described in different ways. Occasionally they are specifically called gnostics; the Mandaeans are also called by the word that means “gnostics” in Mandaic. More often they are named the unshakable race, or the seed or offspring of Seth, or the generation without a king, or the elect or chosen, or, in the Mother of Books, the ones who know. With a mystical flourish the Gospel of Philip recommends that rather than be called a Christian, a person with knowledge might be understood to be at one with the gnostic revealer and be called Christ. This recalls the Gospel of Thomas, saying 108, where Jesus says, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.” Such people of knowledge know how to live profoundly and well in the truth and light of god. The Gospel of Truth concludes, “It is they who manifest themselves truly, since they are in that true and eternal life and speak of the perfect light filled with the seed of the father, which is in his heart and in the fullness, while his spirit rejoices in it and glorifies him in whom it was, because the father is good. And his children are perfect and worthy of his name, because he is the father. Children of this kind are those whom he loves.”
The sacred texts presented in this volume [The Gnostic Bible] all help to clarify what gnosticism is and who the gnostics were. The similarities and differences among these texts are equally instructive, as are the connections among them, whether historical or phenomenological. The early “wisdom gospels” of Thomas and John, both perhaps dating from the first century CE, portray Jesus as a speaker of wise words or even as the divine word itself, which is itself “wisdom.” These early wisdom gospels represent incipient gnostic perspectives, and they were used extensively by later gnostics, so that their impact upon the history of gnosticism was huge. The classic literature of gnostic wisdom dates from the second century CE, and some materials in the literature are probably even older. Justin’s Book of Baruch illustrates a Jewish form of gnosticism with Greco-Roman allusions. So does Sethian gnostic literature, with its provocative Jewish interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis and its emphasis on the special roles of Eve, the mother of the living, and Seth, whom the Sethian gnostics claimed as ancestor. Valentinian gnostic literature is named after the great second-century teacher Valentinos, who, along with his students, seems to have made use of Sethian insights in order to fashion an elegant gnostic system for reflecting upon the origin and destiny of true life and light. In Syria, the sacred literature relating to Thomas is closely related to the wisdom gospel of Thomas; Thomas is understood to be the twin of Jesus and the guarantor of his wisdom and knowledge.
The Hermetic literature dates from the first century CE and after. It is named after the Greek god Hermes, the divine messenger, nicknamed Trismegistos, “thrice-greatest,” and depicted in a syncretistic way, once again with Jewish and Greco-Roman themes, along with Egyptian motifs. The Mandaeans consist of Middle Eastern gnostic communities that exist to the present day, now in locales around the world. The Mandaeans interpret the opening chapters of Genesis in a typically gnostic manner, but they reserve a special place for John the baptizer, whose style of Jewish baptismal piety they considered to reflect the origin of their communities. Manichaean literature dates from the time of the prophet Mani, the third-century prophet who, with his followers, created a world religion intended to be universal. Manichaeism draws from Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Christian sources, likely including the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic texts, in order to announce how the divine light of the cosmos may be saved from the machinations of the forces of darkness and gathered into the kingdom of light. Some of the songs in the Coptic Manichaean Songbook appear to be related to Mandaean literature, and Manichaeism and Mandaeism show connections with each other.
Such Islamic mystical texts as the Mother of Books, as well as Cathar sacred literature, are sometimes described by scholars as late gnostic or neomanichaean, because of similarities with the traditions of Mani and his followers. The Mother of Books comes from the eighth century CE and represents a form of Islamic ghuluw, which literally means “exaggeration.” The Cathar texts come from medieval Europe and offer a dualistic message of the triumph of light over darkness. The Cathars, too, like so many gnostics, venerated the Gospel of John. The Gospel of the Secret Supper features John and cites a portion of the Gospel of John as it announces the glory that will finally come to the children of the good god of light: “The just will glow like a sun in the kingdom of the invisible father. And the son of god will take them before the throne of the invisible father and say to them, ‘Here I am with my children whom you have given me. Just father, the world has not known you, but I have truly known you, because it is you who have sent me on my mission.’”
In assembling a “Gnostic Bible,” what definitions have we used? Where have we drawn the line? Let us examine our definitions more carefully.
The term gnostic is derived from the ancient Greek word gnosis, “knowledge.” Gnosis is a common word in Greek, and it can designate different types of knowledge. Sometimes, as in the sacred texts included in this volume, gnosis means personal or mystical knowledge. Understood in this way, gnosis may mean acquaintance, that is, knowledge as personal awareness of oneself or another person or even god, or it may mean insight, that is, knowledge as immediate awareness of deep truths. These ways of understanding gnosis are not mutually exclusive, for knowledge may entail the immediate awareness of oneself or of another, in a personal union or communion that provides profound insight into the true nature of everything. As we have already noted, the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus articulate just such a mystical personal knowledge.
The gnosis sought by the authors of these texts is hardly ordinary knowledge. A text from the Nag Hammadi library, the Exegesis on the Soul (included in this volume), declares that the restoration of the soul to a state of wholeness “is not due to rote phrases or to professional skills or to book learning.” Indeed, mystics commonly have emphasized, in many books, that mystical knowledge cannot be attained simply by reading books. Other texts describe this sort of gnosis by listing questions that need to be addressed if one is to be enlightened by knowledge. In the Secret Book of John the savior or revealer announces that she or he will teach “what is, what was, and what is to come,” and in the Book of Thomas the revealer commands, “Examine yourself and understand who you are, how you exist, and how you will come to be.” To attain this knowledge—to become a gnostic—is to know oneself, god, and everything. Or, in the words of the maxim from the ancient oracular center dedicated to Apollo at Delphi, Greece, a maxim cited frequently in the texts in this volume: gnothi sauton, “know yourself.” According to many of these sacred texts, to know oneself truly is to attain this mystical knowledge, and to attain this mystical knowledge is to know oneself truly. Gnostic knowledge, then, relies on lived mystical experience, on knowledge of the whole timeline of the world, past, present, and future, and on knowledge of the self—where we have come from, who we are, where we are going—and of the soul’s journey.
Thus, the Greek word gnosis was used extensively by people in the world of Mediterranean antiquity, including the people who wrote the texts in this volume, but among the heresiologists the word was employed in a particularly polemical fashion. The heresiologists were heresy hunters who, as the guardians of truth and watchmen on the walls of Zion, were trying to expose people judged to be dangerous to the masses, especially the Christian masses. The more famous of the heresiologists include Irenaeus of Lyon, whose major work was Adversus haereses, “Against Heresies”; Hippolytus of Rome, who wrote Refutatio omnium haeresium, “Refutation of All Heresies”; Pseudo-Tertullian (an author writing under the name of Tertullian), who wrote Adversus omnes haereses, “Against All Heresies”; and Epiphanius of Salamis, who authored a particularly nasty piece entitled Panarion, “Medicine Chest,” with an orthodox remedy for every heretical malady. The neoplatonist philosopher Plotinos of Lykopolis also wrote a heresiological treatise, Against the Gnostics, according to his student Porphyry. All these heresiologists focused, to one extent or another, upon the supposed gnosis of the heretics, and they suggested that at least some—even if only a few—of the heretics could be called gnostikoi,gnostics, or referred to themselves as gnostikoi. While these heretics used the word gnosis, they did not necessarily call themselves gnostics. Irenaeus wrote five volumes against heresies, and he claimed to have composed an “exposé and refutation of falsely so-called knowledge.” Irenaeus and his fellow heresiologists, motivated by a religious zeal to expose and refute people with whom they disagreed, were rather sloppy and imprecise in their use of terms and their enumeration of heresies. Yet their presentations of gnosis, “falsely so-called gnosis,” have played a role, albeit a polemical one, in defining the terms gnosis, gnostic, and gnosticism in modern discussions.
The widespread use of the word gnosis (and similar words in other languages, for example, in Coptic and Latin), and the polemical application of this word and related words among the heresiologists, have created a challenge for scholars and students who wish to understand gnosticism. What is gnosticism, the religion of gnosis? Gnosis is a word widely attested in the ancient world, but the word gnosticism itself is a term not attested at all in antiquity or late antiquity. Rather, it first was used in the eighteenth century to designate the heretical religious groups discussed by the heresiologists. Are gnosticism and gnosis valid categories for analysis? Who actually were the gnostics? These questions have become even more interesting when scholars have reflected upon gnosticism and gnosis in relation to hermetic, Mandaean, Manichaean, Shi‘ite, and Cathar religions. Further, the discovery and publication in recent times of primary texts (as opposed to the secondary texts of the heresiologists) generally considered to be gnostic has raised the issues of definition and taxonomy in new and exciting ways. Among these primary texts are those from the Askew Codex (Pistis Sophia, or Faith Wisdom), the Bruce Codex, the Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and the Nag Hammadi library. The Nag Hammadi library is a treasure trove of Coptic texts, most previously unknown and many considered gnostic by scholars. The texts in the Nag Hammadi library were discovered around December 1945 near Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, and they are now becoming available in editions and translations. A substantial number of texts in the present volume are from the Nag Hammadi library. One text, the Gospel of Judas, is from the recently published Codex Tchacos.
Scholars of ancient and late antique religions have attempted to sort through the issues of definition and taxonomy in order to reach some clarity regarding gnosis and gnosticism. In 1966 many of the leading scholars of gnosis gathered at an international conference in Messina, Italy, and produced a set of statements that are meant to define gnosis and gnosticism. Gnosis, they maintain, is “knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an élite,” and this is a term of very broad application. On the other hand, gnosticism is “a coherent series of characteristics that can be summarized in the idea of a divine spark in man, deriving from the divine realm, fallen into this world of fate, birth and death, and needing to be awakened by the divine counterpart of the self in order to be finally reintegrated.” Gnosticism is thus a religious movement represented by religious groups that emerged in the second century CE and after, especially within the context of Christianity, groups such as the followers of Basilides and Valentinos, two particularly significant early Christian teachers of gnostic religion.
This distinction between gnosis and gnosticism resembles that of Hans Jonas in his books The Gnostic Religion and Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, in which he distinguishes between the gnostic principle—“the spirit of late antiquity”—and the gnostic movement or movements. The gnostic religion, Jonas suggests, is a religion of knowledge, with “a certain conception of the world, of man’s alienness within it, and of the transmundane nature of the godhead.” This knowledge is communicated creatively in myths, which contain themes borrowed freely from other religious traditions and which employ an elaborate series of symbols. The end result, according to Jonas, is the expression of religious dualism, dislocation, alienation—“the existing rift between God and world, world and man, spirit and flesh.” Whereas Valentinian gnostics (and others) seek to derive dualism from a primordial oneness, Manichaean gnostics begin with a dualism of two opposing principles. But both options remain dualistic. For Jonas, these expressions of gnostic dualism can be articulated in terms of modern philosophical existentialism. The gnostic drama highlights the self-experience of a person as Geworfenheit, “thrownness,” abandonment of self in the world. As the Secret Book of John and other texts describe it, one is thrown into this world, into a body, into the darkness. Yet, Jonas states, “There is no overlooking one cardinal difference between the gnostic and the existentialist dualism: Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti-divine and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit.” Ancient gnostics and modern existentialists may both be nihilistic, but we modern folks, in our post-Christian world, face the more profound abyss: the uncaring abyss. For gnostics, there is light in the darkness and hope in the abyss.
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© 2003, Willis Barnstone & Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Bible