We left Thomas in the bridal chamber of the king's only daughter. There, after the demonstration of his prophetic powers in the incident of the cupbearer's hand, he was to bless the newlyweds . Thomas prayed to his Lord, invoking him as, among other things, "he that reveals hidden mysteries and makes manifest words that are secret." At the end of his prayer he blessed the young couple, and then he left the room. When the newlyweds thought they were alone, they found to their astonishment that Thomas was still standing before them. Rather, he seemed to be Thomas; in our apocryphal account, the intruder identified himself as Jesus, taking on the appearance of Judas Thomas, his twin.
Thomas/Jesus sat the two down for a talk. Abstain from this filthy intercourse, he admonished them. He spoke to them thus, he said, in order that they might become pure and holy temples and be saved from many afflictions, including "the heavy care of children, the end of whom is bitter sorrow." He urged them to save themselves chaste for the time when they could enter the incorruptible and true marriage, and "you shall be therein groomsmen entering into that bride-chamber which is full of immortality and light."
The young bride and bridegroom were persuaded. The marriage was not consummated, as the king and queen, to their consternation, learned the next morning. "I am in great love," the bride explained to her mother, "and I pray my Lord that the love which I have perceived this night may abide with me, and I will ask for that husband of whom I have learned today." She would not bed with her earthly spouse, for she was "yoked unto a True Husband."
The groom likewise renounced worldly marriage, and was thankful that Thomas/Jesus had set him free from temporal things and held him worthy of those that are immortal and everlasting. He thanked the Lord also for showing him how "to seek myself and know who I was and who and in what manner I now am, that I can again become that which I was." Outraged, the king ordered that Thomas be brought before him. The apostle, however, had already left town, on his way to the court of Gundaphorus.
"To seek myself and know who I was and who and in what manner I now am, that I may again become that which I was:" This is a characteristic formulation of the Gnostic goal. According to Gnostics, we must realize that there is at our core a spark of spirit which was once part of the universal spirit; that this individual spirit has become embedded in gross matter, in the body, through activities of lesser powers (often called archons or rulers), like the creator-lawgiver god of the Jews, who wish to keep the human spirit in thrall; that we can escape this bodily prison by recognizing our true original home and evade the grasp of the archons and ascend again to that home -- the spiritual Pleroma, the Fullness -- to be reunited in Oneness. To put it another way, a human being can overcome the differentiation of this world, its dividedness into multiplicity, and merge again into the primordial unity.
Gnosis is a Greek word for knowledge -- not, in this context, knowledge in the sense of rational learning but intuitive knowledge reaching beyond the limits of reason to truths hidden from ordinary experience and intellect. One leading scholar of Gnosticism, Bentley Layton, translates "gnosis" as "acquaintance," comparing it to the French "connaitre" rather than "savoir." There can be no precise counterpart of so imprecise a term as gnosis, but we presumably ought to read into whatever word is used some sense that the Gnostic -- the Knower -- felt seized by a great truth that dominated his or her view of life and being.
Gnosis was thought to lead to a unitive, or mystical, experience in which the composite world would be left behind and a primordial, undifferentiated Oneness regained. A close resemblance to Indian notions of "enlightenment," "illumination," and "release" is readily apparent, and as we explore the Thomas lore we will find many clues suggesting a strong affinity with Indian thought in at least part of the early Christian world. And the quest for an inner spiritual or mystical truth beyond the experience of worldly life is found among later Christian mystics, Muslim Sufis, Jewish Kabbalists, and various contemporary religious movements in the West.
Scholars have long debated the possible origins of the Gnostic movement, without conclusive results. There is evidence linking it from an early period in the Christian era to various Greek philosophies, to currents within Judaism, to Egyptian religious systems influenced by Greek thinking, to Iranian ideas of good and evil as contending forces, and to the India-born mystical systems. We will here be concerned mainly with Gnostics who considered themselves Christians, and, more specifically, with Christian Gnosticism as reflected in the Thomas writings -- those ancient texts purporting to be linked in some way with the apostle Thomas.
Gnostics of early Christian centuries believed that the true God -- the Father of Truth of whom Thomas sang in the wedding hymn, the unknowable, pure, indescribable, primordial spiritual Oneness -- could not have been directly responsible for the creation of a world afflicted with misery, suffering, and evil. There must have been intermediaries, whose carelessness or folly or malice had caused something to go awry in the process of creation. The original emanations of pure light from the true Godhead had weakened or thickened or taken unexpected forms. The world (gross matter) and the human species (material bodies imprisoning sparks of spirit) eventually had come into being.
The notion of intermediaries between an infinite, eternal, ineffable supreme entity and this world was by no means new with Gnostics. From the Mediterranean world, Plato's outline of such a development in his fourth-century-B.C. Timaeus is among the best known. Above and beyond anything imaginable was the realm of pure, universal Idea. A lower force -- the demiurge or world-creator -- had made order out of chaos, harmoniously blending the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air into a perfect sphere. Then, taking the universal Forms or Ideas as a model, this artificer had created the material things familiar in this world.
The gods, as the artificer's intermediaries, had created humankind, a mixture of spirit and matter. The demiurge was the author of everything spiritual, "but he delivered to his offspring the junior Gods the fabrication of mortal natures." Rationality, that part of the human soul that comes from the demiurge, is immortal, but that part bestowed by the gods -- passions and appetites -- is mortal, and dies with the body.
In his Symposium Plato playfully puts in the mouth of the comic playwright Aristophanes the fancy of spherical forebears. The original human beings were orbs, like the cosmos itself. They had four arms and four legs and two faces, looking in opposite directions, and pairs of other organs. They were so strong and intelligent that the gods were jealous. Zeus decided to cut them down to size, as it were. To make them weaker and less of a threat he sliced them in two. But the two halves so longed to be reunited that they were perpetually locked in mutual embrace.
Plato adds that if some god were to offer to reunite them as they once were, there would not be a one of them who would deny that "this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love." For Plato the demiurge is unknowable and indefinable but is a beneficent force, whose creation is wholly good. For most Gnostics, the demiurge is a mixture of good and evil. Some thought him ignorant of his inferiority to the true Godhead, often arrogant and petty; some considered him malevolent. The optimism of Plato was shared to a considerable extent by Valentinians -- followers of Valentinus, an influential Christian Gnostic leader in Egypt in the second century. More extreme Gnostics offered a severely negative view of the creator and his creation, especially humankind.
In this more typical Gnostic view, creation was a catastrophic series of events; the material world was a monstrous perversion of activity within the godhead; both good and evil exist. The Fall came, not in Eden, but in heaven. As Elaine Pagels has put it, in the Gnostic view "suffering is built into the structure of the universe itself." Gnostic systems are rich in colorful and elaborate mythologies to depict the scarcely imaginable transition from pure spiritual Oneness to tainted diversity.
In the third century A.D. Neoplatonists elaborated a system of thought about the origins and destiny of humankind that was in many respects similar to that of Gnostics: by strict moral and intellectual discipline, a good and wise human being can rescue the soul from its bodily prison and be united in love with the original Good, which transcends all intellectual powers. The system of Plotinus was among those that used the notion of Descent -- from the indescribable One through Intellect (or Spirit) and then Rationality (or Soul) to the natural human being -- and the individual soul's possibility of a return Ascent to the original Oneness.
Plotinus could say, with the Gnostics, that "to find ourselves is to know our source," and "the ultimate source whence [we] came is the One." But despite many points in common, Neoplatonists were among the sharpest critics of Gnostics, for they held creation to be basically good . The Gnostics "should desist," says Plotinus, "from the horror stories of the frightful things which allegedly take place in the cosmic spheres, those spheres which in truth are givers of everything beneficial." He spurned the Gnostics' elaborate myths of many aeons and powers between the One and humankind. And Gnostics did not insist on the importance of the virtuous, rational life as a condition of the soul's ascent.
Even sternly monotheistic Jews had been moving cautiously toward recognition of a possible intermediary between Yahweh and humankind. Philo was a leading Greek-speaking and Hellenized Jew in Alexandria, roughly contemporary with Jesus. About one-seventh of Egyptians were Jews, with a heavy concentration of "the second race," as they were known in the Roman empire, in Alexandria. Jews in that city had had the Jewish scriptures translated into Greek -- the Septuaginta. One of Philo's hopes was to explain the Jewish faith in philosophic, especially Platonic, terms familiar to Greek-speaking Alexandrian Jews.
For Philo the Logos (or Word) was an aspect of God, the formative principle and creative agent in the godhead, the intermediary between pure universal Idea and the composite material cosmos. But Philo also spoke at times of Sophia (Wisdom in English; Hakhmuth in Hebrew, often corrupted into Achamoth) as a feminine creative agent. At times, following earlier Hellenized Jews, he called her the mother of the Word.
In the centuries before Philo, Wisdom had been emerging among Jews, hazily and hesitantly, as God's creative agent: "Yahweh begat me in the beginning of his way, as the first of his works," she says in Proverbs. During the creation she "was at his side, as a master-workman." Sophia appears even more boldly in the later Wisdom books of the Jewish Apocrypha -- books written after the age of the prophets, in the late centuries B.C. and the first century A.D. Wisdom is the beloved consort of God, "who poured her out upon all his works." Sophia was coming to be seen as part of the godhead, yet somewhat apart, a partner in creation.
The shock of the exile in Babylonia in the sixth century B.C., the pervasiveness of Hellenistic culture following Alexander the Great's conquests in the fourth, Roman rule and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the dispersion of large numbers of Jews into Egypt and Mesopotamia, opened Jewish thinkers to new speculations and influences from the wider world, from East and West.
The writers of Wisdom books were still much preoccupied with life in this world, giving advice on such matters as how to discipline children, how to treat slaves, how to keep order in the family, how to deal with the rich and powerful. But they also reached beyond this-worldly interests to speculate in more spiritual terms about the righteous life in harmony with God's will, with intimations of immortality. In these books Hakhmuth is even more definitely a specific emanation from the godhead, creating and keeping order in the cosmos, a distinct personality, hardly distinguishable from the Logos or "Word" of Stoic philosophy and later of Christianity.
Some Gnostic systems carried the role of Sophia further. Sometimes they spoke of only one agent of creation. But there were many more complicated creation myths in which various entities had a role. There were distinctive qualities known as aeons (such as Mind and Life) within the Fullness. ( "Aeons," familiar in modern usage to indicate vast stretches of time, also appear in Gnostic myths as personifications of vast powers within the Fullness -- manifestations or qualities of the supreme divinity.) And there were agents of a lower order, outside the spiritual Fullness, in making the cosmos. They were known as rulers, angels, archons, and powers. In some systems the devolution from primal spiritual oneness to the cosmic diversity took place through emanation, in some through propagation by pairs of aeons and powers.
Among the archons or powers appears the world-creating, lawgiving demiurge, the author of our world. He was sometimes identified with the Jewish Yahweh. Yaldabaoth, Samael, and Sakla are among his distinctive sectarian names. Whatever his appellation, he possessed only a portion of the primordial spiritual light that emanated from the true godhead, and so did his human creatures. It was in this deity's interest to keep these creatures, with their imprisoned sparks of spirit, in thrall. It was in humankind's interest to contrive the release of their sparks of spirit for reunion with the true Father.
Sophia-Wisdom, too, appears sometimes as the progenitor of the demiurge. There are many versions of her story, which will not be told here. In a Valentinian system she appears at three levels: at the top, as part of the godhead's Fullness; at the bottom, as part of the cosmos (realm of the seven planets), and intermediately, in the eighth sphere (ogdoad) beyond the cosmos but not yet rejoined to the godhead.
The Savior, like Sophia, appears at three levels in the Valentinian system, in the lowest taking on human form in Jesus to impart to humankind the liberating gnosis. And there were three classes or grades of Valentinians.
The hierarchical structure, with modifications, was familiar in many settings, then and now. Plotinus had his own version, with not much of a place for the common ruck. Life on earth, he says, has two distinct forms: the way of the philosopher-sage "intent upon the sublimest" (available to very few) and the mass, "those of the more strictly human type". He then divides "the more strictly human" into two groups -- those who know something of virtue and are not completely out of touch with the Good, and the "mere populace, serving to provide necessaries to the better sort." True friends of God, he comments, mildly acquiesce "with the cosmic dispensation when in the total course of things some pain must be brought to them."
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.