Manicheism in its original form ceased to be a major factor in the Christian world by about the sixth century, but its name has often been applied to other basically similar movements. Sects believing in a purely spiritual God higher than the creator God, and spirit as alien to body in humankind, were particularly strong at first in Asia Minor and Armenia. They spread westward during the remainder of the first Christian millennium, through Bulgaria and Bosnia, along the northern rim of the Mediterranean, including northern Italy and southern France.
The region between the Rhone and the Pyrenees had long been an arena of conflict between the Catholic church and dissidents, particularly those who regarded Jesus as an inspired prophet but denied his divinity. It became the major center of the Cathars (Cathari = Pure Ones), spiritual descendants of Manicheans. By the end of the twelfth century most of the population were Cathars. Many of the local nobility, including some of the most powerful, were either Believers or friendly protectors. The willingness of nobles and knights to defend the faith was heightened by awareness that their brethren and the king in northern France coveted the southern territories. Combining piety with cupidity, the northerners were ready to conquer the Languedoc in the name of orthodox faith.
In ll45 no less a personage than St. Bernard of Clairvaux unsuccessfully tried to persuade Cathars to return to orthodox paths. The Church and northern potentates turned to stronger measures. In l208 Pope Innocent declared the "Albigensian Crusade," so called because the city of Albi was one of the Cathars' major strongholds. In twenty years of warfare the northern French forces overcame many Cathar resisters, until the Catholic leader was killed before the walls of Toulouse.
The war was renewed, and another weapon was unsheathed: Pope Gregory ordered a "general inquisition" throughout southwestern France, the first inquisition to be directed against people who called themselves Christians. Dominican friars ferreted out heretics, for burning by the civil authorities, while the king's army razed towns and villages. The last major military stand by the Cathars was in the fortress of Montsgur, nearly impregnable atop a rocky cliff about five hundred feet high in the foothills of the Pyrenees. In March l244, after a nine-month siege, Montsgur capitulated. More than two hundred Cathars who refused to abjure their faith were burnt to death on a communal pyre.
Like early Gnostics and Manicheans, Cathars had a hierarchy of the faithful: Perfects (Parfaits ), Believers, and Hearers. According to available evidence, including the records of the Inquisition, Perfects were notable for the austerity of their lives. They abjured sexual relations, meat, wine, and private property, relying on Believers or Hearers to provide them with vegetables, bread, and occasionally fish. They observed long fasts, including one lasting a month before Christmas. Compared to the lax and worldly Catholic clergy around them in that period, they were paragons of spirituality.
"Hearers" were not held to so austere a standard. One of the records from the Inquisition, reported by the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, may indicate their general attitude. A village woman who had a long liaison with the local Catholic priest defended her behavior before the Inquisition. In the beginning, she said, it had pleased both her and the priest "that he should know me carnally and be known by me." Therefore she did not regard their actions as sinful. But later, when bedding with him no longer pleased her, she would think it a sin. The villagers had a relaxed attitude toward love affairs outside marriage. Strict abstinence was expected only of the Perfects.
Even after the disaster at Montsgur, Catharism lingered on in the mountain pasture lands on the border between France and Spain. There the Inquisition under a zealous bishop ran down this remnant of heretics in the fourteenth century. The testimony of one of the last Perfects to be put to the stake is a reminder of the movement's origins in the Euphrates-Indus belt, where belief in transmigration of souls was one of the marks distinguishing its adherents from church Christians.
This Perfect, Guillaume Bibaste, spoke of the spirits' fear of being destroyed by evil demons when they came out of dying people, and their urgent need to find new receptacle: "When the spirits come out of the fleshy tunic [the body] they run very fast, for they are fearful," and a terrified spirit "hurls itself into the first hole it finds free!" The new receptacle might be a female dog, rabbit, or horse, or woman. The round of rebirths would continue until the spirit is finally saved by being "hereticated," that is, by receiving the consolamentum: "until they are hereticated, spirits are condemned to wander from tunic to tunic," as another Cathar put it. The rite of consolamentum, the sacred thread, the belief in transmigration of souls, the rejection of the creator-god as the true God, were carried through the centuries from the Manicheans' early beginnings in the lands of Asia.
During the years when Cathars were fighting unsuccessfully for their own survival, a mystical movement highly colored by gnostic ideas was taking place within Judaism across the Pyrenees in Spain . Kabbalah ("Tradition" or "Doctrine") developed from currents that were bubbling within Judaism in the time of Christ and perhaps even earlier. Jewish orthodoxy always discouraged speculation on ultimate questions not dealt with in approved scripture: What is the nature of God? What are the origins of evil? But the questing mind was not to be cut off from such probings, even within Judaism. The development of Kabbalah probably has little to do with the Thomas as such, but much to do with Christian Gnosticism, and deserves to be briefly noted. Some scholars think that the Christian variety grew out of the Jewish; in any event there are striking parallels.
For much of its history this mystical current in Judaism took a definitely gnostic form. Its principal chronicler, the late Gershom Scholem, regarded the mystical Kabbalah an essential and persistent, and for a long period predominant, element in the Jewish experience. Kabbalists accepted the authority of the Torah, but speculated on its hidden meanings in ways alarming to orthodoxy, producing a mixture of subtle metaphysics and elaborate mythology.
For several centuries in its early development, Jewish mystical symbols were centered on the Merkabah, the chariot-throne of God seen by the prophet Ezekiel in a vision. Yahweh's throne-world was imagined as a series of resplendent palaces. The mystagogue's task was to guide one's soul in its ascent through seven heavenly structures, peopled by hierarchies of angelic powers, to the final throne room. Techniques by which an adept prepared for the ascent included purification through fasting, meditation, chanting, and prayer.
In two respects, Jewish mysticism always differed, at least in expression, from other systems: there could not be complete union with God, who remained always the Other, the creator of the human creature; and no Jew who wanted to remain within the community could suggest that Yahweh was not the sole and good God. Committed to strict monotheism, Jewish Kabbalists speculated as to what went on within the godhead. They could speak of emanations "on the other side." They could, rather daringly, think of two aspects of God, a light and a dark, a loving and merciful in contrast with a sternly judgmental.
These ideas were developed at length in a thirteenth-century text called the Zohar (Sefer Ha-Zohar , Book of Splendor), the centerpiece of the most influential of several Kabbalist systems to be found in Spain in the thirteenth century. The Zohar spoke of ten attributes or qualities (sefirot , or sefirah in the singular) of the ultimate, infinite Being (Ein-Sof ). Among these interacting elements are Wisdom, Intelligence (in the sense of ability to make rational distinctions -- the differentiating function of mind), Love (or Mercy), and Activity. Each of these has a negative counterpart. One of the negatives is Din , the judgmental quality. Some Kabbalists thought that it was excessive activity of Din, conflicting with and overcoming other qualities, that brought suffering and evil into the world.
According to the Zohar, interaction of the sefirot brought about creation. First came the impulse to create (from Wisdom), then the process of dividing or differentiating (Intelligence), through seven stages. The world known to humankind parallels that made by the sefirot on the higher plane. Salvation -- liberation of souls -- comes by a reverse process, restoring harmony within and with the divine power, healing divisions that took place during creation.
Suffering and evil arise from the separation of things that, in the divine order, belong together -- of the sefirah of Judgment from that of Mercy, or of Adam (the divine prototype of Man), fallen through his willfulness, from God. Individual souls, which have always existed on the spiritual plane, temporarily inhabit bodies, but will return to the upper realm unless they have committed the worst of sins -- failure to obey the Torah's commandment to be fruitful and multiply. A soul guilty of this offense is doomed to be reborn again. But each rebirth provides a new opportunity to complete the task of reconciliation.
Far from prescribing sexual abstinence as a means of freeing spirits from their earthly prison, the Zoharic Kabbalah held that connubial relations are essential to the restoration of harmony, both in the spiritual realm of the sefirot and on earth. Union of husband and wife delights God and the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect necessary for creation. Sexual activity within marriage is not only a God-given pleasure, but a duty and a form of worship. A man without a wife is not fully a man, and the Shekhinah shuns him. Din, the harsh feminine Sefirah of Judgment, is counteracted when united with male attributes.
When Jews were expelled from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, the profound shock to Jewry sent its stream of mystical speculations into new channels and the center of Kabbalism shifted to Palestine. A mythology and theosophy developed, as complex as those of early Christian Gnostics, which they closely resemble. The sefirot became rearranged in new configurations, male and female, which helped to counteract the effects of excessive Din and to renew creation along more beneficent lines. But only human beings can complete the restoration. By their actions, spirit can be fully liberated. The persecutions suffered by Jews led them to think they were experiencing the apocalypse that marked the early advent of the messiah.
In the 1660s a messiah did appear in Turkey, in the person of Shabbatai Zevi. It was a period when various Christian groups awaited the second coming of their own messiah. Millenarianism was in the air. More than the man, Shabbatai's message -- the final end of the long exile of soul and community -- fired Jewish people of all classes, of all ages, to great enthusiasm. His movement swept from Kurdistan to Holland, from Russia to Morocco. It deeply affected Jewish history and religious thought, says Scholem, for more than a century, with effects that endure to this day.
Antinomianism, an end to the Law, was a central feature of Shabbatai's teaching. He was given to "strange actions": he called on his followers to eat ritually forbidden fat of kidney; he publicly pronounced the Ineffable Name of God; he was accused of sexual debauchery; he used a blasphemous benediction, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who permittest that which is forbidden." Scenting political trouble ahead, the Turkish authorities gave Shabbatai an ultimatum: he would either embrace Islam or be put to death. Shabbatai chose to live. For the Messiah to renounce his religion at the climax of his world-redeeming mission was, of course, a staggering blow to his followers. And yet the movement he had begun survived, evolved, and flourished -- as Christianity did after the blow of Jesus's. crucifixion.
Disciples put forth various explanations of the messianic mission. The holy sparks among gentiles, said some, were now concentrated in captivity among Muslims and must be rescued. Conversely, a temporary alliance with Muslims was necessary in the fight against the ultimate enemy -- Christians. Or, before the final glory must come the greatest abasement. Or, evil must be fought with evil, and the messiah must wrestle with the remaining dark forces at close grips.
Shabbatai's principal apostle, Nathan of Gaza, expounded a new Law. It was higher than the old Torah, which had come to an end. Old values were no longer valid, old rules no longer binding. All of God's work was good, and if it had become so tainted by evil that its true goodness was no longer apparent, then it was necessary to seek out the hidden good in the most unlikely and apparently basest places.
It was only a short step to a theory and practice of "holy sin." What was previously unlawful becomes a holy act for the new man, if performed with a purified mind and purpose. In the time of redemption the sin of Adam is wiped out. The wicked material world is seen to be an illusion, and those filled with awareness of spiritual reality need not worry about laws laid down for conduct in this sham world.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.