Saying 22 of the Gospel states most vividly and fully the recurrent theme. Jesus sees infants being suckled. He tells his disciples that these infants are like those who enter the kingdom. "Shall we then," they ask, "as children, enter the kingdom?" This prologue calls to mind, of course, the familiar saying from the canon: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
"Little children," however, became a code-word for the Gnostic elect, who, like them, were or ought to be free of carnal attachments, living lives undistracted by allurements of the flesh. (In three other Sayings, Jesus refers to those who will find the kingdom as "children.")
The main interest of Saying 22, however, lies in what follows the disciples' question. Jesus replies: "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner as the outer, and the upper as the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male shall not be male, and the female shall not be female: . . . then you will enter [the kingdom]."
The theme of two-in-oneness appears repeatedly in Gnostic literature. Three variations on it come from the Acts of Judas Thomas . In addition to Mygdonia's words, already quoted, we might remember that her husband Karish dreams of the eagle that snatches up two partridges and two doves. The following morning he is puzzled when he puts his left shoe on his right foot. In Thomas's long prayer before his martyrdom, he recites his efforts to carry out his mission, and says: "The inside I have made outside, and the outside [inside], and thy whole fullness has been fulfilled in me."
In the apocryphal Acts of Peter , to explain why he is being crucified upside down, Peter says: "Concerning this the Lord says in a mystery, 'Unless you make on the right hand as what is on the left and what is on the left hand as what is on the right and what is above as what is below and what is behind as what is before you will not have knowledge of the kingdom.'"
A writing traditionally called 2 Clement , possibly from second-century Egypt, is an anti-Gnostic preaching. (The document is usually paired in later collections with a letter from Pope Clement I in Rome to the church in Corinth, called l Clement , although there no connection in date or origin or subject matter between the two texts). It quotes, as coming from "the master himself," the saying "When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with female neither male nor female," but strips it of mystical meaning and gives it a bland interpretation more palatable to anti-Gnostic Christians.
Here, says the writer in 2 Clement , the two are one when we speak truth to each other; the inside is the soul and outside the body, and we should let the soul be evident in good works just as the body is visibly evident. As for "the male with the female," it simply means that a Christian brother should not think of a sister-Christian as female, nor the sister think of him as a male. "When you do these things, he says, my father's kingdom will come."
The most interesting thing about the passage from 2 Clement is the obvious effort to counteract a Gnostic interpretaton of a saying that was acknowledged by the writer to be the authentic words of Jesus.
The so-called Gospel of Philip (one of the Gnostic, probably Valentinian, texts found at Nag Hammadi) says that light and darkness, life and death, right and left, "are brothers of one another, they are inseparable."
The core message of the Gospel of Thomas appears in Saying 22 and the other logia that ring changes on the theme of two-becoming-one, looking back toward the androgynous unity that existed before the diversity found in worldly creation. Sayings 11, 16, 22, 61, 87, 106, and 114 bear on this theme of unity, and some readers find a similar message in sayings that give the "solitary" or "single one" a special status. Some, who agree that the two-becoming-one theme is at the heart of the Gospel, regard it principally as part of an early baptismal rite. It can be seen. as a dramatization of "the initiate's putting off the body, putting on light, and returning to sexual oneness"--to the androgynous primal Adamic human being. It was, in this view, a mystery rite ensuring the initiate of oneness with God and with one's heavenly mate.
It is often said that unitive or mystical experiences cannot be described in words, for the phenomenon lies outside the rational system of language. We cannot define the mystical; we can only point toward it. A huge literature does what it can to put the phenomenon into meaningful words. Unitive moments are said to share some or all of certain characteristics: a feeling of being at one with everything; an intense awareness, without awareness of any particular thing; a sense of knowing what is really real, what truly is ; a paradoxical state of being full but empty, of grasping everything and yet nothing, with an awareness of the connectedness of all things; a loss of concern for self; intense euphoria or ecstasy.
As Alfred North Whitehead said of mystical experience, "Words don't convey it except feebly; we are aware of having been in communication with infinitude and we know that no finite form we can give can convey it. . . . "
In many religious systems the union of man and woman is considered an apt metaphor for the unitive experience: a cessation of self-awareness in a moment of intense awareness. In literature, art, and ritual, ultimate Oneness has long and often been expressed in erotic imagery. Tantric Buddhism, a mystical system in which the commodious word "love" has been explored to its utmost, offers the yabyum , joined figures of the male god embracing his female counterpart, holding her close before him, face to face, body to body. They form a union of Compassion and Thought -- the two central ideas of this late school of Buddhism, the two final states of the human consciousness before it realizes nirvana. A Taoist symbol is more familiar in the West; yin and yang , female and male energies, enfold each other to form a circle, itself a universal expression of perfect unity.
One of the Upanishads, sacred texts in the Hindu system, puts it this way: "As a man when in the embrace of a well-loved woman knows nothing, either within or without, so does that man, when in the embrace of the intelligent self, know nothing within or without."
Another symbol of unity is widespread: man and woman as two beings in one person -- neither male nor female, but both, combined in one. ("Androgyne" the term for this symbol of union, should not be confused with "hermaphrodite," a person with physical attributes of both sexes, although writers do not always make this distinction.)
In many Gnostic systems the Anthropos -- an aeon in the Pleroma, one of the attributes of the Ultimate Oneness, the Ideal of earthly humans -- was regarded as an androgyne. And so was its first earthly manifestation -- the first human. We are told that some early rabbinical writings present Adam in that guise. One version of the old Greek translation (Septuagint) of Genesis reads: "male and female created He him " instead of the familiar "them ." In the first century A.D. some Jewish writers combined this reading with two other scriptural passages: one speaks of the Lord's shaping "me back and front;" the other, from Genesis , reads "the Lord God . . . took one of his sides." These rabbis also knew Plato's myth of the severed spheroids who were the first human beings.
From these diverse sources a Talmudic story was developed that sounds much like Plato's: God made the first human two-sided and two-sexed, then split this creature and made two bodies and turned them around to effect the creation with which we are familiar. The ingenious interpretation of the combined texts was designed to reconcile the two creation stories in Genesis, and to point to a monogamous moral: the two sides, man and woman, had been and should be again, in marriage, one flesh. According to later medieval Jewish mystics, marriages are indeed made in heaven; every soul, originally two-sexed, is divided at birth, and is incomplete until it finds its missing half.
Saying 22 finds clear echoes in the mystical teaching of third-century Neoplatonist Plotinus. In his mature years in Rome, Plotinus became a sharp critic of Gnostics, although he speaks of them as friends and may have been a Gnostic himself at some time. He had several complaints. The Gnostics' chief offense was in departing from ancient Greek philosophic teaching, of Plato and his followers. Gnostics erred in their pessimistic view of human origins and fate. They did not recognize that the creation emanating from the One was Good; they regarded the cosmos of stars and planets as hostile forces instead of Plato's harmonious and beneficent divine creation.
And many of the Gnostic myths had an extravagant plethora of aeons, powers, archons, and other intermediaries between the highest and the human whereas, for Plotinus, the chain descending from the One was simpIe: After the One, universal Intellect or Nous , then Soul, then Human. And for him the way to human reunion with the Oneness was through rigorous reason and virtue, with no Gnostic shortcuts. Nevertheless, he was in many ways very close to the Gnostic way of thinking. For the moment we are concerned only with his use of the two-in-oneness motif.
Porphyry, his follower and biographer, reports that Plotinus had four mystical experiences during the five years they were together (and says that he himself had one such moment at the age of sixty-eight). Plotinus describes his attainment of oneness several times. When the soul has reached this height, there "is no longer a duality but a two in one; for, so long as the presence holds, all distinction fades: it is as lover and beloved here long to blend, in a copy of that union; the soul has now no further awareness of being in body . . . "
In Saying ll4, which closes the Gospel of Thomas , the Twin reports an encounter that seems, at first sight, to demean women. Simon Peter says to the gathered disciples that Mary Magdalene should leave them, "for women are not worthy of life." Jesus replies that he himself will "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."
The Saying is not necessarily, as some readers tend to find it, a statement echoing the prevailing attitudes in Jewry and in Greco-Roman society that assigned an inferior position to women, or a repetition of the familiar Jewish and Christian theme that Eve was the source of sin and caused separation of the human species from the Almighty.
Equally possible -- and more probable, in its Gnostic context -- is a reading that makes this simply another example of the union of male and female as a symbol for the ultimate unitive experience. There is an overcoming of the division of Adamic man-woman in Eden, which was the beginning of differentiation, and the restoration of oneness as a result of their reunion. A French scholar finds collaboration of such a view in the Pistis Sophia , where "Mary Magdalene feels this interior man in herself, and, identifying with him, understands All."
It appears that women played a more prominent role in the myths and communities that arose among Christian Gnostics than they did in society at large. In the capital of King Mazdai, wherever that may have been, Thomas had an important following among women -- the wives of notables at the court, including the queen herself. And early Christian heresiologists accused Gnostic leaders of seeking out women, ones described by the heresy-hunters as weak and gullible, as easy converts. In Marcion's church women were full participants and could administer baptism. Apocryphal writings of Gnostic origin made certain of the women in Jesus's inner circle recipients of secret learning from him after his resurrection. They as well as men could be inspirited.
Salome (not to be confused with the princess who demanded John the Baptist's head) and Mary Magdalene were confidantes of this sort. In the canonical gospels, Salome appears by name only in Mark , who gives her a role of highest importance : she is a witness of both the crucifixion and the empty tomb. The later gospels --Matthew, Luke , and John -- do not refer to her at all. It has been suggested that she was left out because the later gospel-writers disapproved of various Christian groups who invoked her as authority for what had become, in their eyes, dubious doctrine. The prominent role she plays in Gnostic literature and the conspicuous silence of later orthodoxy writers strongly support such a view.
Salome's identity remains mysterious although some scholars, having to explain the references in Mark, regard her as in some way a kinswoman of Jesus, perhaps his mother's sister. Some apocryphal tales make Salome the midwife at the birth of Jesus. And others make her a Doubter, like Thomas himself: she is said to have demanded tactile proof, by touching the relevant parts, that the mother of Jesus was still a virgin after she gave birth.
In the Gospel of Thomas ( Saying 61b) Salome says to Jesus that he had come up on her couch (presumably referring to reclining at meals) and eaten from her table. "Who are you, man," she asks. Jesus replies, "I am he who exists from the undivided." He goes on to say that someone who is divided will be filled with darkness, but someone [presumably "undivided": translators point out that there is a gap in the text] will be filled with light. This is one of the notable sayings on the theme of Oneness.
Clement of Alexandria singles out for refutation a Julius Cassianus, otherwise unknown, who preaches extreme sexual asceticism. According to Cassianus a saying of the Lord to Salome -- that "death will have power" as long as women bear children -- meant that the kingdom would come when you have trampled on the garment of shame and when the male and female become one. These words, by now familiar to us, were apparently also known in Clement's time (late second and early third centuries) from a long-lost Gospel of the Egyptians. (Clement explains that the Lord's words do not really mean, as the Encratites held, that child-bearing was an evil: they were pointing out a fact of nature: so long as lusts are powerful the soul will die.)
Mary Magdalene is much more prominent than Salome as a confidante and interlocutor of Jesus before and after the resurrection. The Gospel of Philip describes her as the consort of Jesus, who loved her and frequently kissed her. In Pistis Sophia ("Faith-Wisdom", a group of Gnostic writings from the late third and early fourth centuries) the risen Jesus appears to his closest followers (who include Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Thomas) in an indescribably brilliant light. He relates how he has rescued Sophia, his spiritual partner, from her exile in the intermediate zone between the Pleroma and the cosmos, and restored her to the Fullness.
Jesus then invites questions, to which he gives extensive answers. Thirty-nine of the forty-six queries come from the Magdalene. And Jesus is reported as saying that "Mary Magdalene and John, the virgin, will surpass all my disciples and all men who shall receive mysteries in the Ineffable; they will be on my right hand and on my left, and I am they and they are I . . ."
"And I am they and they are I": here the unity of the Gnostic's quest seems to be expressed in extreme form, but as a statement of the inwardness of God in man it is not novel. In the much earlier Gospel of Thomas , Jesus says (Saying 108), "Whoever drinks from my mouth shall become as I am and I myself will become he, and the hidden things will be revealed to him"
Hans Kung, out of favor with his church as a leading theologian but still prominent in the search for a common ecumenical fund of basic religious ideas, suggests that "Without doubt what was fascinating for many people [early in the Christian era] was that in the Gnostic system the world was often described with the help of polar opposites, in which human bisexuality appeared through couples in a quite different way from a God envisaged in masculine terms."
Whether all these images of spiritual union spring from an idea that literally traveled by ship and camel-back among the homelands of the movements concerned or from a universally shared collective unconscious, as Carl Jung and his followers would probably have it, they were notably lacking in the emerging mainstream of Christianity.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.