Episode 83: Gnosticism

The Nag Hammadi Library, Codex Tchacos, and Berlin Codex, as they came to light in the twentieth century, radically changed our understanding of early Christianity.

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Gnostic Texts from the Nag Hammadi Library, Codex Tchacos and Berlin Codex

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 83: Gnosticism. This program covers Gnosticism, a diverse and energetic branch of early Christianity popular from roughly 100-400 CE, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean and in North Africa. Gnosticism encompassed a variety of beliefs and practices that were deliberately stamped out and erased from the history of Christianity by the slowly hardening consensuses of some of the early church’s theologians and bishops. The most ancient Christian church fathers, prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325, were themselves a diverse lot, with different interests and intellectual projects. But one thing that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and other very early Christian thinkers shared was a sense that the Gnostics were not like them – that the Gnostics were something else.

Up until quite recently, Gnosticism remained mostly a mystery. Early Christian theologians, including those mentioned above, had written about Gnostics, and maligned them as heretics, and that was what scholars had to go on – a body of secondhand sources that generally aimed to portray Gnosticism as wayward and blasphemous departure from the form of Christianity slowly being institutionalized and standardized over the second and third centuries. However, in the middle of the twentieth century, all of that changed with the discovery of some extraordinary, and often lengthy and complete Gnostic texts. The Berlin Codex, discovered around the turn of the twentieth century, the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in 1945, and the Codex Tchacos, which came into circulation in the 1970s together form a sprawling group of Gnostic scriptures that dwarf the New Testament in both size and theological diversity. In this episode, we’re going to look at some of these once lost texts, and from them, learn the basics of what Gnosticism was.

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and other Gnostic scriptures upended many long held assumptions about the history of Early Christianity. To quote scholars Marvin Meyer and Elaine Pagels,
Most of us who set out to find out about Jesus and the early history of Christianity imagined that we could find in first-and second-century sources a kind of “golden age” of early Christianity, a simpler, purer Christian teaching that existed when Jesus wandered with his disciples around the hills of Galilee. . .And since we assumed that there must have been only one original, pure form of Christianity back at its beginning, we never imagined that we would be asking the question that [these archaeological discoveries] now [raise] for us: what different Christian groups – and thus what kinds of early Christianity – were there at the beginning of the movement?1

Prior to the discovery of the Gnostic scriptures, in other words, it was fairly easy to take Christian church fathers at their word and accept the proposition that what Christians were doing in the first century was pretty much the same thing they were doing in the second and third, and on and on – that there was a main tradition that extended directly from the first century, and a few odd ducks who didn’t get with the program and naturally went extinct. The Gnostic scriptures, though, upon their discovery, told a different story. They showed that if you were dropped off in Rome in 150, or northern Syria in 200, or Anatolia in 300, you would encounter Christians quite unlike those down the street from you today. In these centuries, there were Christians who believed in celestial beings called aeons, Christians who believed that just as Jesus had a twin brother called Judas Thomas, and that they themselves had otherworldly counterparts. There were Christians who believed in a divine mother called Barbelo who had engendered an entire citadel of heavenly beings, all with names and known attributes, and Christians who believed the spirit of Christ had possessed an earthly man, and then withdrawn, laughing, as this man was crucified. There were Christians who thought that they had been divorced from their divine natures by the abominable act of the creation of the material world, and, fascinatingly, Christians who wrote that Yahweh was actually a gruesome monster called Yaldabaoth – a jealous and petty deity far removed from the Great Invisible Spirit that was the true prime mover of the universe.

When we get the existing Gnostic scriptures in front of us, which span to nearly 800 pages in a recent HarperOne anthology, and can be tentatively dated between the late first century and the early third, something dizzying happens.2 We realize, with a certain sense of vertigo, that the religion that so famously swept through the Roman Empire during this period, though Jesus Christ was most often at its center, was not one religion, but instead a number of religions yoked to a single figure – one who appears quite different from text to text. [music]

Gnosticism: A Basic Definition

nag hammadi, where the most important library of gnosticism was found

Nag Hammadi, Egypt, where the Nag Hammadi library was discovered.

Before we go any further, let’s get a basic definition of Gnosticism in our heads. First of all, following scholars like Michael Williams, today, historians are cautious about the term “Gnosticism” in the first place. What we find in the so-called Gnostic scriptures is actually a pretty wide plurality of ideas, and within Gnostic scriptures there are subdivisions we’ll get into a little later on – the Sethians, the Valentinians, Thomas or Twin Christianity, the Platonizing Gnostic texts, and more. But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s start, once again, with what I believe are three basic characteristics shared by almost all the writings that today get labeled Gnostic.

And listen carefully – the next two minutes are likely the most crucial part of this episode. First, Gnostics wrote a lot about what we might call heaven. The Gnostics called the celestial realm the pleroma, or the “fullness” or “totality” of the spiritual world. Christians have, excepting Dante’s Paradiso and a few other outliers, been fairly reserved when it comes to writing about heaven, but the Gnostics were all over it. A number of Gnostic scriptures are full of org charts and roll calls of the ethereal realm – above is the highest god, and then this set of beings, each of which have their own sets of beings underneath them, and that kind of thing. So, first characteristic – the Gnostics extensively, unabashedly wrote all about a spiritual realm beyond the sensory world, who was up there, what the hierarchy was, and how it had come to be. Okay, second characteristic – a connected one. The Gnostics firmly believed that the material world was a crude, ugly, lesser emanation of a spiritual world. Various stories we read in the Gnostic scriptures explain why the material world is so debased and cruddy, and we’ll look at some, but it will suffice to say that the Gnostics, like Plato, believed that the material world was one of coarse illusions and vulgar echoes of a more genuine and divine reality. Third, and final characteristic. The Gnostics get their name from the word gnosis, a word which in this context we can translate as “secret spiritual knowledge” or “esoteric knowledge.” What the Gnostics believed that they had knowledge of was that they themselves were emanations of the heavens above, trapped in the squalid muck of the material world. The gnosis, or esoteric knowledge, that they had, was their awareness of having come from this divine realm above.

Those three characteristics, in my opinion, having gone through the Gnostic scriptures in their entirety, are a good start to understanding Gnosticism – the Gnostics wrote extensively about heaven and what was up there, they saw the earth as a dingy shadow of the spiritual realm, and they believed that secret knowledge of their spiritual origins could console them and save them from rotting away in the material world. While all of that sounds pretty exotic and not like say, the Book of Matthew or the Book of Romans, it’s extremely important to remember that Jesus Christ figures into dozens of Gnostic texts – sometimes as a teacher and interlocutor, other times as a storyteller, others as a savior figure inbound at some point to restore fallen Gnostic believers to their rightful place above, and others still as a rather distant, cryptic figure – a powerful angelic being, but one of many.

Jesus takes many roles in the Gnostic scriptures because there really are so many of them. There were 46 texts discovered in the Nag Hammadi Scriptures alone – 31 of these are nearly complete, and this isn’t even to mention the other two major Gnostic codices, so we have a lot to choose from. What I think we should do, though, to go a little deeper into this forgotten archive of Early Christianity is to begin with a single Gnostic text, and actually spend some time with it. The text I want to start with is called the Apocryphon of John, or the Secret Book of John. This is a long scripture, and it’s no coincidence that its author is purportedly the Apostle John. Of all the Gospels, after all, it is the Gospel of John that has the most distantly spiritual, heavenly Jesus, and which begins with the verse, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), a verse that dared to grapple with how a son came from a father if the two were coequal and coeternal. While the canonical Book of John is elegantly ambiguous on the relationship between father and son, the Secret Book of John draws back the curtains and leads us up behind the proscenium and up into the lights and rigging over the stage of the material world, giving us something like a Christian Theogony – an origin story of the heavenly Jesus and his celestial attendants.

So, let’s delve into the Secret Book of John. This book had likely come together in some form by about 180 CE – the Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon makes reference to it, and the book today survives in four different manuscripts.3 While I certainly can’t promise that the Secret Book of John is the canonical scripture that reflects all Gnostic ideas, I can tell you that this is one of the more startling and blockbuster pieces of writing from the Christian apocrypha, and one that definitely introduces a lot of ideas that we find throughout other Gnostic texts. So here’s once again the Gnostic scripture called the Secret Book of John – it should take us perhaps twenty minutes to go through, at the end of which you’ll be acquainted with a lot of the ins and outs of Gnostic theology. In the following summary, I’m quoting occasionally from the John Turner translation, published by HarperOne in 2007. [music]

The Secret Book John: The Opening and Story of Heaven’s Creation

Nag Hammadi Codex II Gnosticism

Folio 32 of the second Nag Hammadi codex. The top of the page shows the ending of the Secret Book of John, while the bottom shows the opening of the Gospel of Thomas.

Some time after Jesus died, the Apostle John was wandering around Jerusalem near the Temple. A Pharisee, seeing this wandering Apostle, asked John, perhaps with some derision in his voice, where Jesus had gone to. John only said that Jesus had returned to the place from whence he’d come. It was a good enough answer, but still, the question troubled the Apostle John, who wandered off to an isolated place in the country to think. Distressed, the Apostle John speculated about why Jesus had been sent down to earth – and John wondered why Jesus hadn’t taught the Apostles about the incorruptible, eternal realm of the aeons, or angels – the realm to which believers would go. A quick note on the word aeon. This is a Greek word, and it’s the word from which our word “eon” comes – it’s spelled a-e-o-n, and the Greek pronunciation is “eye-OWN,” rather than “EE-yawn,” so I’ll pronounce it “eye-OWN” in this program.

As John descended into these speculations about Jesus, suddenly the clouds broke overhead and light suffused the earth, and John saw a figure – or a superimposition of multiple figures looking at him, both young and old. It was Jesus, and Christ asked the Apostle John why he was apprehensive. The divine figure proclaimed, “[D]o not be fainthearted. I am with you always. I am [the Father], I am the Mother, I am the child. I am the incorruptible and the undefiled one.”4 Jesus said he had come to teach John about the architecture of the universe and the things to come, and the long teaching session that takes up most of the Secret Book of John then began – the bulk of the rest of this book is going to be Jesus lecturing to John about the secrets of the cosmos.

So Jesus began by describing the central deity of Gnosticism – a figure Jesus calls the One in the Secret Book of John. Jesus said that “The One is a sovereign that has nothing over it. It is God the Parent, Father of the All, the invisible one that is over the All, that is incorruptible, that is pure light at which no eye can gaze” (108). And Jesus explained what this One was by explaining what it was not. The One, Jesus assured John, was “illimitable,” “unfathomable,” “immeasurable,” “invisible,” “eternal,” “unutterable,” “unnamable,” “not large [and] not small,” and not comprehensible (108-9). Jesus, using what literary scholars call apophasis, and theologians call apophatic theology, defined this so-called “One” in purely negative terms initially, only explaining what it was not. But a moment later, Jesus explained the highest being’s attributes in a bit more detail. The One was majestic and pure, Jesus said, and it was a wellspring of blessedness, knowledge, goodness, and grace, like water suffused with pure light.

This One, Jesus told John, had existed alone in his perfect realm, up until the time his thought emanated a new being. The One had conceived this being in isolation, without a mate, and her name was Barbelo. She was the highest of the aeons, a being born from pure spirit. Though Jesus describes Barbelo as female in the Secret Book of John, she is also an androgynous being, given such names as “the Mother-Father” (110), “the androgynous one with three names, / the aeon among the invisible beings” (110). In different Gnostic scriptures, she is called Protennoia, and she may have influenced the way that Christian writers described “the holy spirit.”5 But to return to The Secret Book of John, though, Barbelo, the first of the aeons, requested that the One emanate five other aeons. These other aeons were “Thought,” or mind, then “Foreknowledge,” then “Incorruptibility,” then “Life Eternal,” and finally “Truth.”

Hearing Barbelo’s request for the other aeons, the One emanated all of them – six including Barbelo. And after this, Barbelo mingled her spiritual essence with that of the One in order to produce another being – a seventh being. This seventh being was anointed with the goodness of the One, and the anointed child of the One and Barbelo was Christ. Christ worked together with the aeon called Thought or Mind, and Mind began its own process of creation. To quote the text, “Mind wished to create something by means of the word of the Invisible Spirit. Its Will became a reality and appeared, with Mind and the light, glorifying it. Word followed Will” (112). Side note here for a moment – to return to the canonical Gospel of John – this book of the New Testament opens with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him” (John 1:1-2) and you can see parallels here between the canonical Gospel of John and the Gnostic Secret Book of John, as whoever was writing the latter was likely reading the former. Anyway, to continue with the apocryphal Book of John, in solemn silence, the created aeons, together with the anointed child, celebrated the One and the mother Barbelo, who had ushered them all into existence.

Soon, more divine beings came into existence – a number of additional aeons, subdivided into four spiritual realms. Now the Secret Book of John seems to love laying out taxonomies of divine beings, and though what I’m about to tell you will be nearly impossible to remember, I’ll lay out the four antechambers of the spiritual realm, just like the Secret Book of John does. The four antechambers of the spiritual realm were ruled over by four luminaries, who each ruled over three aeons. The first was the realm of the luminary Harmozel, whose aeons included grace, truth, and form. The second was the realm of the luminary Oroiael, whose aeons were Insight, perception, and memory. The third luminary was Daveithai, whose aeons were understanding, love, and idea. And the fourth and final realm was that of Eleleth, whose aeons were perfection, peace, and Sophia. All of this had happened according to the mandate of the One, and everything was in harmonious order.

Now so far, while what you’ve heard is non-canonical, it’s not too far off the mark from the Bible. We even noted a pretty specific link between the Gospel of John and the Secret Book of John. The Secret Book of John, so far, has given us an origin story of something like the Trinity, with the initial deity akin to the father, Barbelo the Holy Spirit, and the anointed child the Son, Jesus. This is certainly unconventional, and we can imagine that for many practitioners of Christianity, drawing the curtain back to expose what we might call the creation of heaven goes a bit too far. However, up to this point, the Secret Book of John could still be read as relatively orthodox. Its next section, however, begins a rather radical departure from the conventions understood by modern Christian churches.

With the perfect realm of the spiritual built, more entities were soon created, including one called “the perfect human, the first revelation, the truth. . .the human Pigeradamas” (114). The name Pigeradamas, you’ll notice, contains the word “adam,” and other manuscripts of this book have the name Geradamas, and so this archetypal first human’s name is, from the Greek, literally “Adam the stranger,” or “holy Adam,” or sometimes “old Adam.” This first and oldest of humans, or Pigeradamas, was appointed to dwell in the realm of the luminary Harmozel – the first of the four holy realms mentioned above, and there, Pigeradamas praised the One, and Barbelo, and the anointed child Christ. Pigeradamas’ son, Seth, was appointed to dwell in the realm of the luminary Oroiael. And Seth’s children dwelt in the realm of the luminary Daveithai. In the fourth realm – that of the luminary Eleleth, were more wayward souls – those who didn’t acknowledge the fullness of the uncorrupted spiritual realm.

Moving from the subject of heavenly humans back to the aeons, or angels, the very last of the created aeons was Sophia, and she lived in the fourth realm of the luminary Eleleth, which housed the slightly more wayward souls who did not celebrate the radiant fullness of the spiritual realm. Sophia, a product of her realm, had a delinquent side to her. Because the aeon Sophia sought to create something, just as the One that ruled over all of them had. Sophia, ignoring the wishes of the One, conceived without a partner. And Sophia gave birth. As the Secret Book of John tells us, “Something came out of her that was imperfect and different in appearance from her, for she had produced it without her partner. It did not resemble its mother and was misshapen” (115). The thing that came out of Sophia quickly “changed into the figure of a snake with the face of a lion” (115), and its strange eyes flashed with thunder. Still, Sophia was the misshapen creature’s mother, and she hid it from everyone other than the One. This creature’s name was Yaldabaoth.

The Secret Book John: Yaldabaoth and the Creation of Earth

Jesus continued his narration, in the Secret Book of John, to Apostle John about the evil child of the aeon Sophia. The thing called Yaldabaoth was not long idle. It was an archon, or a ruler, and it created twelve other archons – Athoth, Harmas, Kalila-Oumbri, Yabel, Sabaoth, Cain, Abel, Abrisene, Yobel, Armoupieel, Melcheir-Adonein, and Belias – rulers that likely align with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. With rulers appointed for the Zodiac signs, Yaldabaoth created seven kings for each of the seven planets. Yaldabaoth, Christ tells John, actually had three names. Yaldabaoth, in Aramaic, likely means “child of chaos.” The creature’s second name, “Sakla,” in Aramaic means “fool,” and its third, Samael, means “blind god.”6 And as Yaldabaoth began his ascendency over the lower world, he announced, “I am God and there is no other god beside me,” echoing the Ten Commandments and passages in the Book of Isaiah (45:5-6, 46:9). The seven kings Yaldabaoth created six powers each, which in turn created seven angels each, so that there were 365 lower angels – one for each day of the week. Jesus spends some time explaining the seven archons, or rulers of the lower realm, which had, respectively, the face of a sheep, a donkey, a hyena, a snake with seven heads, a snake, an ape, and a face of pure fire. The fourth of these was called Yao – that snake with seven heads, and Yao, we should note, is a form of the name “Yahweh,” and in a number of Gnostic texts Yao takes on a greater role.

To stick with the Secret Book of John, having created so many creatures, Yaldabaoth was ascendant in the lower realm, the only creature there to be a direct descendant of the upper realm. Yaldabaoth reminded his creations constantly of his great power. The archons that Yaldabaoth had created – those named above – each had a sphere in the lower realm, and Yaldabaoth created a dark mirror of what was above, not revealing to any of his creations that he had come from the pure uncorrupted realm of spirit, or in Greek, pleroma. I want to quote a passage of the pivotal juncture of the Secret Book of John here – this is the Marvin Meyer translation, published by HarperOne in 2007:
When [Yaldabaoth] saw creation surrounding him, and the throng of angels around him that had come forth from him, he said to them, “I am a jealous god and there is no other god beside me.”

But by announcing this, he suggested to the angels with him that there is another god. For if there were no other god, of whom would he be jealous? (117).

Quite an apt question, if you think about. There are many reasons why an inner cadre of proto-orthodox theologians maligned Gnostic ideas as heretical, and one was that the Gnostic scriptures asked some pretty punchy questions from time to time.

To continue on with Christ’s story in the Secret Book of John, far above the realm of the jealous Yaldabaoth, his wayward mother Sophia repented. Sophia had not known that she was creating Yaldabaoth all on her own, without a partner, and the pleroma, or fullness of the heavens, forgave her, though she was to dwell in a realm close to Yaldabaoth until she had been restored.

The Secret Book John: The Creation of Earthly Humans

Paradiso Canto 31

Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Paradiso, Canto 31. Dante followed Gnostic, Manichaean and Markabah visionary writings on the manifold architecture and sprawling population of heaven, such as we see in the Secret Book of John, Gospel of Judas, and other Gnostic texts.

Meanwhile, down below, the anointed one usually associated with Christ went into the realm of Yaldabaoth. As the Secret Book of John tells us, “The entire realm of the first ruler quaked, and the foundations of the abyss shook” (118). Yaldabaoth, seeing the outline of the anointed one reflected in some water, decided it was time to create humanity. Yaldabaoth said, “Come, let’s create a human being after the image of God and with a likeness to ourselves, so that this human image may give us light” (119). The line is an echo of one of the very first lines in the very first chapter of Genesis, and is a little bit confusing in the context of the Secret Book of John, because already, high above in the heavenly pleroma, that being called Pigeradamas, or “Adam the stranger,” or “old Adam” has already been engendered, along with his son Seth. Yaldabaoth’s creation of Adam, not to be confused with the heavenly Pigeradamas, is the earthly creation of humanity, just as there was once a creation of humanity in heaven. The Secret Book of John makes clear that Yaldabaoth’s creations are sooty reflections of the bright pleroma of heaven – merely copies, so to speak, and so Yaldabaoth’s creation of earthly Adam down below is one such lower copy of a higher thing.

As you’ve noticed so far in this episode, Christian mystics of the first few centuries CE were enamored with numbers and numbered lists of things. We’ve already seen numbers of luminaries, numbers of aeons, quantities of kings, powers, and archons, each of the named and defined in a few words. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, Yahweh makes Adam in a single act. But the creation of Adam in the Secret Book of John is more incremental. Seven powers created bone, sinew, flesh, marrow, blood and skin. And then, a huge inventory of seventy-four named angels created Adam’s seventy-four physical parts, with no details spared, including his molars, his left armpit, his right butt cheek, his toenails, and his private parts. Seven more angels oversaw the assembly of all of these components, and then a team of thirty named angels activated Adam’s main components, these overseen by a team of seven angels. Another team of five named angels awakened the lower, earthly Adam’s senses, his perception, imagination, and other basic cognitive capacities. And also at this time, the shortcomings of humankind were created, including things like jealousy, envy, conceitedness, greed, shame, and so on. Jesus, in the framing narrative of this book, told John the Apostle that the process of creating the earthly Adam was even more sophisticated than this, but, having gone on about it for several pages, Christ concluded that if John wanted to learn more, he could find other sources on the subject. Then Christ returned to the central story of the Secret Book of John.

Yaldabaoth and his assembly line of angels had thus knit together all of the parts of the first earthly human Adam. But the earthly human Adam was not alive yet. And it was at this time that Yaldabaoth’s mother Sophia decided she would try and counteract all of the power she’d given to Yaldabaoth. She told her son to breathe into the recently created Adam’s face. Yaldabaoth did so, and Adam came to life, just as he did so taking Yaldabaoth’s divine power, and the power of Yaldabaoth’s host of lower angels. And after this happened, as Christ tells the Apostle John in the framing narrative,
Although Adam came into being through all of them, and they gave their power to this human, Adam was more intelligent than the creators and the first ruler [Yaldabaoth]. When they realized that Adam was enlightened and could think more clearly than they and was stripped of evil, they took and threw Adam into the lowest part of the whole material realm. (125)

Out of pity for Adam’s plight, the One – remember that highest of beings in the Secret Book of John – the One created a woman to be with Adam – a woman called Zoe in this text and the Septuagint, but who is of course generally known as Eve. Eve, the Secret Book of John tells us, helped Adam by teaching him the biological and spiritual basics of life.

Now naturally, having their power stolen away did not sit well with the volatile Yaldabaoth and the lower deities he’d created. They couldn’t have a created being of sinew and bone strutting around – even in the lowest material realm – who was smarter and more enlightened than them. And so Yaldabaoth and his emanations made Adam mortal. Specifically, to quote the HarperOne Marvin Meyer translation again,
[Yaldabaoth and the] rulers brought Adam into the shadow of death so that they might produce a figure again, from earth, water, fire, and the spirit that comes from matter – that is, from the ignorance of darkness, and desire, and their own phony spirit. This figure is the cave for remodeling the body that these criminals put on the human, the fetter of forgetfulness. (125)

It’s not the clearest passage, but the gist of it is that Adam, made to live forever initially, was brought down into the crudest of the material realms and made mortal. In a dark cave, the figure of forgetfulness was created and then placed over Adam, and Adam forgot the connection to Sophia and the heavenly fullness of the pleroma.

The passage has multiple close ties to Plato, as do many in Gnosticism. His dialogue Timaeus (41b-c) discusses the initial incarnation of spirits into mortal bodies as an imprisonment, and the Allegory of the Cave and Myth of Er in the Republic both reinforce the notion that humanity is ignorant of true knowledge, and that greater spiritual forces compel us to forget our ties to cosmic eternity. This ideological school, as scholars have long noted, very likely lies behind the greater Gnostic movement, alongside, of course, Christianity.

The Secret Book John: The Plight of Adam and Eve

Blake’s illustration of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the first few centuries CE, Enochican legends of angels descending to impregnate human women evolved into non-biblical stories of Satan’s jealousy toward humanity, and several Gnostic scriptures tell versions of this apocryphal story.

To continue with The Secret Book of John, although Adam had been demoted to the status of a mortal, he still had the germ of enlightened insight stowed away in his mind. Adam was placed in Eden, and Yaldabaoth and his debased forces continued to work against Adam. Now, in the Secret Book of John, there’s not one, but two very consequential trees in Paradise. One of them is the Tree of Life, which is a sort of corrupting tree that causes those who eat its fruits to forget the realm of the spiritual and only think of the baser stuff of the material world. And the other tree is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And in a plot twist in the Secret Book of John, Christ tells John that he, Christ, told Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, precisely so Adam would have the knowledge of the divine which Yaldabaoth and his minions were trying to take from Adam. So Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil at Christ’s request, and Yaldabaoth, still wanting to get his powers back from Adam, compelled Adam to fall asleep.

Through this duration of Adam’s darkest hours, a subcomponent of what he was, which the text calls Enlightened Insight, continued to be with Adam. This part of Adam, Enlightened Insight, had appeared when Eve had been created, and after Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a part of him – a rib, in fact, detached itself and turned into a woman. She was thereafter called “Life” and the “Mother of the living,” and she would play no small part in things to come. Then, in another sharp revision of the traditional Genesis tale, Jesus told John the Apostle that he – meaning Christ – had appeared as an eagle atop the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and cried out. This, Christ says, was what caused Adam and Eve to realize that they were naked and fallen – this was perhaps the moment that led them to understand that they were a long way off from the heavenly fullness of pleroma, although each of them contained some of its divine essence.

Though Adam and Eve had been given awareness, they were still frail mortals in a giant world ruled by Yaldabaoth, and Yaldabaoth was jealous and angry. Yaldabaoth raped Eve, and Eve became pregnant with two sons. These sons were called Elohim and Yahweh, and they had the faces of a bear and a cat, although Adam and Even knew them as Cain and Abel. The rape of Eve and birth of her children, Christ tells the Apostle John in the framing narrative, was the inception of sexual desire. And while Eve had two sons by Yaldabaoth, she had a third – Seth, by Adam, whom the Secret Book of John calls “the child of humanity.”

At this point, Adam and Eve had two sons by Yaldabaoth and then young Seth, and Adam and Eve remained in a perilous position – animated with that divine spark that the text calls Enlightened Insight – in other words awareness of their celestial origins – and yet still powerless there in the realm of Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth forced the two to drink the waters of the River Lethe, which compelled the first humans to forget their divine origins. This, by the way, is exactly what happens to souls about to be reincarnated in Plato’s Myth of Er – they drink amnesia water and forget their spiritual origins – yet another parallel between Platonism and Gnosticism, but let’s finish up with Christ’s words to John in The Secret Book of John.

The Apostle John, hearing this long story, wanted to know what it all meant. Everything Christ had told the Apostle John about had happened quite some time ago, after all. If indeed humanity were filled, at least in part, with the essence of celestial divinity – of the fullness of the heavenly pleroma, then – John asked – when would they be able to return to the higher spiritual realm and be saved? Jesus’ answer in the book sounds like a piece of stoic philosophy. The saved, Jesus said, would be those who focused on the incorruptible world of heaven, and they would be “without anger, jealousy, envy, desire, or greed for anything” (128). This elect lot, Jesus told John, due to their indifference toward the material world, would join the holy light of the One. John wanted to know about the rest of humanity – those who fell into forgetfulness of their divine origins. Now we might expect the doctrine of damnation to appear here, but it doesn’t – Christ instead offers John the Apostle a story about transcendence from the wheel of reincarnation.7 Christ says,
After the [wayward] soul leaves the body, she is handed over to the authorities who have come into being through the archon. They bind [the soul] with chains and throw her into prison. They go around with her until she awakens from forgetfulness and acquires knowledge. This is how she attains perfection and is saved. . .This soul will be made to follow another soul in whom the spirit of life dwells, and she is saved through that one. Then she will not be thrust into flesh again (129).

No lakes of fire here, in other words – Christ describes a sort of posthumous reformatory in which the forgetful can be taught to remember by another enlightened soul, and thus avoid being born into the material world once more through reincarnation. It’s an unfamiliar doctrine within Christian theology and we might say a hell of a lot different from what Catholicism was generating around the same time, but again if you know the Platonic Myth of Er, and its Pythagorean and Orphic backgrounds, it all sounds pretty familiar, this idea that the best souls can transcend the unending wheel of reincarnation, and the rest of us are just stuck on spin cycle.

Christ’s teachings in the Secret Book of John, however, do still reserve a place for eternal torture – a place where those who have had glimpses of the world of the spirit, but turned away from it, are fated to go. But more than hell, Jesus told John about a force on Earth that was awakened by the minions of Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth’s underlings raped Yaldabaoth’s mother Sophia. And this coupling produced a being called Heimarmene, or fate. Now, in Greek mythology the Fates are often seen as more powerful than anything, including even Zeus, and thus Christ tells the Apostle John, “To the present day fate is tougher and stronger than what gods, angels, demons, and all the generations have encountered” (130). It was fate, Jesus said, that had blinded so many humans to their celestial origins, and set in motion some of the most disastrous events in human history.

Fate had led Yaldabaoth, incensed at the great mess that he had engendered, to flood the earth, although Noah had been warned of the flood by that part of him called Enlightened Insight. Just as perilously, humanity had been plagued by angels having sex with human women, which had produced half-breed figures that led humanity further astray. Christ’s final words to John in the Secret Book of John were a hymn illustrating what Christ himself was, and how he had gone down into the underworld and rattled chaos itself with his luminous presence. And with his final words to John transmitted, Christ told the Apostle John to tell everyone else what he’d heard that day, and then disappeared, after which the Apostle John met with the other disciples of Jesus and told them what he’d learned. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story told in The Secret Book of John, just one of more than thirty surviving pieces of Gnostic writing. [music]

Gnosticism: Beyond the Secret Book of John

So far in this episode, we’ve learned about the history and timeframe of Gnosticism – that from about 100-400, in the Eastern Mediterranean, a variety of Christian ideologies existed generally interested in a division between the material and spiritual worlds, and the secret spiritual knowledge that was available to right-minded believers. We learned that Gnostics wrote extensively of the heavens, or pleroma, that the pleroma was a higher reality than the degraded material world that we see with our senses, and that through revelation of esoteric truths, or gnosis, Gnostics believed they could reunite with the celestial world from which their souls had descended. And we spent a while with the Secret Book of John, which gave us a long narrative from Christ himself to the Apostle John that led us deeper into the lost world of Gnosticism – its vision of the One, elsewhere called the Great Invisible Spirit at the pinnacle of the Gnostic heavens; how the One emanated to form Barbelo and the Anointed Christ and the many antechambers and halls of the realm above; how the wayward angel or aeon Sophia created Yaldabaoth, who himself created the material world and whose many corrupt and profane lieutenants ruled there; how Yaldabaoth created humanity, but in doing so, was tricked into giving humanity that single spark of divinity that he had; how Yaldabaoth hated and resented humanity for this, and made them mortal; and how Christ helped teach Adam and Eve to seek out their own divine sparks, even as they were cursed to be mortals living in a debased material world. The cover I have used for this episode is a picture of a snowy white feather against a background of grime and twigs – I believe a pretty good image to show the Gnostic view of humanity. We are, the Gnostics believed, creatures animated with the light of heaven, but trapped in darkness of a false material world.

So up to this point, then, we’ve had a general overview of this ancient ideology and read a single representative text, opening the door to what looks like what would happen if we put Plato, the Old Testament, the New Testament, Stoicism, and maybe some pot brownies in a blender and switched it on. One other morsel of information is relevant to any basic understanding of Gnosticism, and that is the link between Yaldabaoth and a figure whom Plato calls the demiurge in the dialogue Timaeus. The demiurge, or dēmiurgós in Greek, or “craftsman” or “artisan” in Plato himself is the being who creates the world in Platonic philosophy. Plato’s demiurge in the dialogue Timaeus is, unlike Yaldabaoth in the Secret Book of John, depicted neutrally at worst, and often positively. Plato describes how the demiurge “fashioned [the earth] to be One single Whole, compounded of all wholes, perfect and ageless and unailing. . .He wrought it into a round, in the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities, which of all shapes is the most perfect and the most self-similar. . .And on the outside round about, it was all made smooth with great exactness, and that for many reasons” (33a-b).8 Plato’s creator deity, then, or demiurge, was no monstrous Yaldabaoth, the jealous and predatory deity of a number of Gnostic scriptures. Plato’s creator deity is simply the artisan who chisels and molds the material of the world into the one all around us today. Thus, Plato’s demiurge was likely an influence behind Gnostic writings on Yaldabaoth.

But the Gnostics took a different direction in their tale of the creation of the material world. Perhaps out of a revisionist desire to move the emerging Christian movement further away from its old roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gnostics took the striking step of vilifying the act of material creation that’s described in the opening chapters of Genesis. They depicted Yahweh as a deluded, insecure minor god, lording his limited sovereignty over the grimy world he’d engendered, and Christ as the only figure who could enlighten Christians as to the Great Invisible Spirit that was actually at the heart of the cosmos. While even the canonical books of the New Testament stake out some different ideas on Christianity’s relationship with its Jewish roots, many Gnostics departed completely from the ancient account of creation in the Pentateuch. The Gnostics were more interested in Greek philosophy and the future of gentile Christianity than the religion’s old Jewish heartwood.

Thomas Christianity, Sethian Gnosticism, and Valentinian Gnosticism

So in the remainder of this episode, I want to sample broadly from the surviving Gnostic scriptures to give you a fuller sense of what we know about this ancient theological movement. I want you to hear some more Gnostic texts – what they sound like, and how some of them differ from one another. In fact, we’ve now covered some of the movement’s foundations, and we can talk about some of what are commonly understood as the main branches of Gnosticism. Or, I really should say, branches of thought in the Nag Hammadi scriptures. The Nag Hammadi texts and their related codices are reasonably well represented by what you’ve heard so far – the introduction to Gnosticism that I offered together with the colorful narrative available in the Secret Book of John. But before we begin to consider the contents of the other thirty or so Nag Hammadi texts we have available, I think a few categories will be helpful. These categories, as defined by scholars Marvin Meyer, John Turner, and Einar Thomassen in the HarperOne anthology of Nag Hammadi and other Gnostic texts, are as follows. The categories include, first, Thomas Christianity; second, Sethian Gnosticism; and third, Valentinian Gnosticism – three fairly consistent subdivisions of this greater movement within Early Christianity. Let’s begin with what scholars call Thomas Christianity.

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602). In Gnostic traditions, the Apostle Thomas is Judas Thomas, Jesus’ twin brother, and their relationship a model of the way that all Gnostics have celestial twins.

Thomas Christianity is associated with the Apostle Thomas, a figure notorious in Christianity today for his skepticism toward Christ’s resurrection in the Book of John (20:24-9). The Apostle Thomas’ name comes from the Aramaic word t’om’a, or “twin,” and in Greek he is called Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the Twin, or Judas Thomas, “Judas the Twin,” not to be confused with Judas Iscariot. Let me give you the low down on Thomas Christianity. Jesus, in the canonical Gospels (Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3) is said to have some siblings. One of these is, due to a reference in the Epistle of Jude, understood to have been named Judas, who in early Syrian Christian traditions was called Judas Thomas – once again not to be confused with Judas Iscariot.9 Significantly, this meant that a sect of Early Christian writers, from whom we have a number of surviving texts, believed that Jesus Christ had a twin brother named Judas Thomas, or “Judas the Twin,” the same person as the Apostle Thomas. We will take a look at some of the texts of Thomas Christianity later in this episode, but what the basic thing you need to know about it is fairly to easy to understand, considering what you’ve heard so far. Thomas Christianity, a subdivision of Gnosticism, was fascinated by the idea of twins. Specifically, in Thomas Christianity, there is a pervasive idea that all of us have an astral or celestial twin in the pleroma or heavenly overworld. We may be largely material beings, fallen into the dumpster of the lower world, but – as Thomas Christianity tells us – we have ethereal counterparts in the heavens, and in dying we reunite with them and become whole. It’s a bit like the doctrine of the Zoroastrian urvan and fravashi that we covered last time. And that’s basically the core of Thomas Christianity – you have an otherworldly counterpart that, sadly, you’re separated from, and when you bite the dust, if all goes well, you’ll be with your heavenly twin, and be complete. In other Thomas Christianity traditions, baptism is the sacred rite that puts you into communion with your celestial twin or angel. So Thomas Christianity, one of the terms we use to describe a set of surviving Gnostic scriptures, was highly interested in pairs of twins. From the archives of Thomas Christianity we have important apocryphal Christian texts like The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Thomas, and the Acts of Thomas, all important works for our understanding of Early Christianity and all, to varying degrees, concerned with the Apostle Thomas and more generally, twins.

The second of the three subdivisions of Gnostic writings you’d learn in a college course on this subject would be the Sethian Gnostic texts. The Secret Book of John¬ – that scripture we’ve already looked at in this episode, is a good example of a Sethian text. Just as Thomas Christianity focuses on the Apostle Thomas, Sethian Gnosticism displays a concerted interest in Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, following the train wreck of Cain and Abel. Seth, while he doesn’t get a lot of page space in the Book of Genesis, seems to have been a decent person, and the Sethian Gnostics took it much further than this. The Sethian Gnostics saw in Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, their specific ancestor – it wasn’t from the main stock of humanity that they had descended, or at least, it wasn’t just the general Old Testament patriarchs whom they revered. To the Sethian Gnostics, Seth was a sacred figure, forged in the heavenly pleroma, who could help guide them to their own spiritual awakenings and transcendence. Some Sethian Gnostic texts have exclusivist overtones to them – in other words they imagine a core of humanity descended specifically from Seth who are the special ones with the genuine seeds of divinity burning in them, but the best general definition of Sethian Gnosticism is that it is a branch of this ancient theology that places great emphasis on Seth, third son of Adam and Eve.

The final branch of Gnosticism to get in our heads is not known for having some central doctrinal feature. The final branch, which often gets called Valentinian Gnosticism, is named after a Christian theologian named Valentinus, who was at work during the years between perhaps 130 and 160. It is almost impossible to tell what Valentinus actually taught – the records that we have of him are either from Christian critics disparaging Valentinus or his followers, and these critics are not always very reliable when writing derogatory tracts about other Christians whose ideas they found disagreeable.10 There seems to be a concerted interest in Valentinian Gnostic texts in the aeon Sophia – that figure who inadvertently becomes the mother of Yaldabaoth and by extension the material world and humanity – a wayward angel who makes the mistake of trying to imitate the real God’s acts of creation. But generally, Valentinus is important in the history of Gnosticism for being a sort of arch-villain for writers criticizing the movement. The church father Tertullian, around the year 200, wrote that
Valentinus had expected to become a bishop, because he was an able man both in genius and eloquence. Being indignant, however, that another obtained the dignity by reason of a claim which confessorship had given him, [Valentinus] broke with the church of the true faith. Just like those (restless) spirits which, when roused by ambition, are usually inflamed with the desire of revenge, [Valentinus] applied himself with all his might to exterminate the truth; and finding the clue of a certain old opinion, he marked out a path for himself with the subtlety of a serpent.11

To this church father Tertullian, the Gnostic Valentinus was a bitter failure whose unconventional theology was fueled by spite toward an institution that had snubbed him.12 Whether or not this story is true, Valentinian Gnosticism, a third category useful for studying Gnosticism, commonly means Gnostic texts associated with the theologian Valentinus, again a fairly early figure within the movement active between about 130 and 160.

There are other categories pertinent to the Nag Hammadi library and the history of Gnosticism more generally. The Alexandrian theologian Basilides was a contemporary of Valentinus, and early Christian critics of gnosticism also used Basilides as a sort of mug shot of a Christian intellectual gone wrong. And within the Nag Hammadi library there is a whole additional flavor of texts associated with what we call Hermetic religion – which focused on Hermes Trismegistos, or thrice great Hermes, and a bundle of Greek texts on alchemy, magic, astrology, and philosophy attributed to this Greco-Egyptian deity. But let’s keep focused here, and stick with the core ideas of the Gnostic tradition and some of the texts that demonstrate this tradition. We’ve now covered the basic definition of Gnosticism, read one of its most important texts, and defined three of its subcategories, these being Thomas Christianity, Sethian Gnosticism and Valentinian Gnosticism – categories that blend and interpenetrate with one another in the archive of Gnostic texts available to us today, but ones that are still useful. What I want to do now is to essentially give you a tour of Gnostic reality, from the highest deity at the summit of all the Gnostic gods down to the material world and all of us who live here. To do this, I’m going to use a lot of what has survived from the Nag Hammadi library so you can also hear what these Gnostic texts actually sound like. They are often ecstatic, revelatory, weird, and surprising – in some places showing a Zoroastrian hue, in others soaked through with Platonic or stoic philosophy, and in others still showing unique characteristics that were lost to history for over 1,500 years. So to begin, I want to start with the chief God of Gnosticism.

The most famous Christian heretics of the early second century – and these were Valentinus, Basilides, and Marcion, whom various church fathers attacked relentlessly – they all shared a rejection of the god of the Hebrew Bible – in Marcion’s case, the Hebrew Bible itself. In the 130s, 140s, and 150s or thereabouts, these early Christians concurred that Yahweh was a belligerent, inconsistent, graceless figure and that something older and more wise and majestic must have been the thing that was the father and co-equal of Jesus Christ. There is a ghost of this tradition, as I said before, in the first two verses of the canonical Gospel of John, which tell us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). These famous verses try to square the Jesus with Yahweh in a manner that is elegantly enigmatic, emphasizing that Christ was there at the beginning of creation, and that he wasn’t some latecomer who showed up at the dawn of the Roman Empire. Gnosticism, however, did not take this path. The Gnostics, refusing to ignore the moments at which even the most pious of us have to admit that Yahweh behaves rather viciously or inexplicably in the Old Testament, simply said that Yahweh was a minor deity in a multi-tiered reality run by a vastly older and more powerful god. And this real god, in Gnostic texts, often gets called the Great Invisible Spirit. [music]

The Great Invisible Spirit of Gnosticism

One of the most heavily studied texts in the Nag Hammadi library is called The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. This text is about the beings at the summit of heaven, and how, after the tragedy of the material world’s creation and the dawn of humanity, baptism emerged as a sacred rite that would allow select believers access to the gnosis or knowledge of their heavenly origins, and with this knowledge, ascend to the heavens and attain eternal life. The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit is certainly what we would call a Sethian Gnostic text – in this Gnostic scripture it is Seth who establishes the rite of baptism in the fallen world, and Seth is also the human favored most by the heavens – Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, is given a host of 400 angels in order to protect his descendants. But the figure at the core of The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit is its title character, the central god of Gnosticism, also frequently called The Uncreated One. Let’s hear some of the opening verses of The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. In the HarperOne Marvin Meyer translation, this book opens by describing the Gnostic deity as
the Parent, the Father whose name cannot be named,
who came from the heights of Fullness,
light of light of the realms of Light,
light of the silence of Forethought
and the Father of silence,
light of word and truth,
light of the incorruptions,
infinite light,
radiance from the realms of light
of the unrevealed, undisclosed,
unaging, unannounced Father,
aeon of aeons,
self-generated, self-generating,
self-producing, foreign,
truly true eternal realm.13

These are representative Gnostic descriptions of the highest Gnostic being, or the Uncreated One. Such descriptions often make use of literary tropes like tautology – above, you heard phrase like “truly true” and “light of light of the realms of light.” Elsewhere the Uncreated One is described using apophasis, in other words, described in negative terms – he is a being who cannot be described, who is not physical, not comprehensible, not within time as we know it, and so on. Unlike the God of the Old Testament, Gnosticism’s Uncreated One isn’t down there on earth, appearing as a burning bush or killing Egyptians, or asking for the fragrant smoke of burnt offerings, or wrestling with Jacob or exhaling into Adam’s mouth, demanding impalements or attacking Moses for not circumcising his son. The Gnostic Uncreated One is more of a Stoic prime mover deity, the ultimate force behind the providence of the cosmos, but nonetheless one that doesn’t need wade into the ruck of the material world to get things done. If the Old Testament’s Yahweh looks, at certain moments, more like the anthropomorphic thunder war gods of the Bronze Age, the Gnostic Uncreated One appears more like the deity of Thomas Aquinas and High Middle Ages.

At the beating heart of Gnosticism is the sense that the sacred knowledge of the Uncreated One is unknown to humanity until we experience gnosis, or once again a spiritual awakening and awareness of the celestial world from which we’ve come. A Gnostic book called the Gospel of Truth, associated with the aforementioned theologian Valentinus, tells us that “The Father’s depth is profound, and the thought of error is not with him. It is something that has fallen, and something that can readily be set upright.”14 Speaking of the common rut of humanity, this same Gnostic text argues that people “were ignorant of the Father, for they did not see him. Since there had been terror and confusion and uncertainty and doubt and division, there were many illusions among them, and inane ignorance – as if they were fast asleep and found themselves a prey to nightmares” (42). And in another Gnostic scripture, this one called the Second Discourse of the Great Seth, Jesus describes how those down on the earth do not have the sacred knowledge of their heavenly provenance and the Great Invisible Spirit that rules over everything. Jesus tells his listener in this text that the worldly “do not have the knowledge of the Majesty, that is from above, from the fountain of truth and not from slavery, jealousy, fear, and love of the material world. . .Noble people of the fatherhood, however, are not controlled, since they control themselves by themselves. . .They belong to the thought of the fatherhood, and they are one with their will, that the fatherhood may be perfect and inexpressible through the living water.”15 This passage – especially Christ’s mention of the “people of the fatherhood,” invites us to remember that at least some Gnostics – especially the Sethian Gnostics – placed an emphasis on the difference between themselves and all the ignorant people around them. They could commune with the luminous world of truths, but the rest of us could not. Judaism and Christianity’s apocalyptic prophecies variously guarantee that all outside of their groups will be destroyed at some future juncture. Gnosticism’s exclusivity, however, is more Platonic than, say, the Book of Revelation’s. The Gnostics, like Plato, simply believed that a small faction of humanity knew the sacred watchwords and could see the real sun and stars, and everyone else was stuck in a cave. In the same text – again the Second Discourse of the Great Seth, Christ says that he has made the knowledge of the heavens available but that “You do not know this because of the cloud of flesh that overshadows you” (486). Once again along with Plato, and the Pythagoreans before him, the Gnostics believed that material embodiment was a curse – something that brought with it illusions and forgetfulness of the true reality.

So, we have gone over the highest Gnostic being – the Great Invisible Spirit or Created One, that ineffable, incomprehensible force above even the glittery chandelier of the Gnostic heaven. And we now understand that to the Gnostics, the creation of the material world had been a cosmic accident, and that by extension, the process of individual incarnation – in other words of you and I being born into material bodies – was also a tragedy – one that fills us with confusion and misconceptions. This is fairly complicated stuff, but at its heart is simply a notion of embodied fallenness and sacred awakening – that amidst the mud and slop and crude desires of materiality, we can still apprehend divine truths, that we are white feathers in the mud, though only some of us know it. The core of Gnosticism is precisely this Pythagorean and Platonic idea – that in the stinky junkyard of the material world you can still comprehend the highest truths if you follow the correct path. [music]

Gnosticism and the Jewish Roots of Christianity

Now, we’ve heard the long account of the general Gnostic understanding of heaven and earth already, in The Secret Book of John ¬– that first text that we read the entirety of. But there are others, and they are equally fascinating. Jesus shows up all over the place, but so, too, do other figures from the Old Testament – Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and on and on. Gnosticism takes the stories of the Old Testament and turns them upside down, radically changing the narratives of the most sacred parts of the Pentateuch. Out of the entire Nag Hammadi library, for sheer heresy, for passages that you really wouldn’t want to read aloud in a synagogue or church, perhaps one passage from that long text called The Second Discourse of the Great Seth stands out the most. We heard a bit from it earlier, but let’s listen to the words of Christ in this Gnostic text – essentially, Jesus telling us what we ought to think about the Old Testament. Jesus says in the Gnostic Second Discourse of the Great Seth,
Adam was a joke. . .Abraham was a joke, as were Isaac and Jacob. . .David was a joke. . .Solomon was a joke. . .The twelve prophets were a joke. . .Moses was a joke. . .He did not know me, and none of those before him, from Adam to Moses and John the Baptizer knew me or my siblings. They had instruction from [Yaldabaoth’s] angels to observe food laws and submit to bitter slavery. They never knew truth and they never will, because their souls are enslaved and they can never find a mind with freedom to know, until they come to know [the immaterial Christ]. . .[Yahweh] was a joke, for he said ‘I am God, and no one is greater than I. I alone am Father and Lord, and there is no other beside me. I am a jealous god, and I bring the sins of the fathers upon the children for three and four generations’ – as though he had become stronger than I and my siblings. . .He was a joke, with his judgment and false prophecy. (483-4)

As you can see there, that text, the Gnostic Second Discourse of the Great Seth, is ready to toss the Jewish roots of Christianity into the waste bin – to dismiss the entire Old Testament as a misguided and illusory fable.

Now, we’ve talked before about the Apostolic generation and first century Christianity and how they dealt with the glue that held together the New Testament and Old Testament. New Gentile converts off the streets and alleys of the Roman Empire were unlikely to show a lot of enthusiasm for the rules lists of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, to get in line for circumcision, and to be overly concerned with the history of the faraway province of Judea. Parts of the New Testament seem to be written or catered toward this audience – in Matthew and Mark Jesus says the only commandment you really need to pay attention to is loving your neighbor (Matt 22:37-9, Mark 12:29-31), and the Book of Hebrews (7.27) tells us that Christians are all set in terms of animal sacrifices – Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity, and that was quite enough. Paul declares his fate is to be an apostle for the Gentiles, and not Jews (Rom 11:13, Gal 1:15-16, 2:7-8). The Book of John, unlike the other Gospels, often simply calls Jesus’ adversaries “the Jews,” rather than Pharisees or Scribes, which scholars have long understood as evidence of Gentile Greek authorship. Throughout the New Testament, then, there are numerous pieces of evidence that the earliest Christians were taking different paths in terms of what to do with the Hebrew Bible and Christianity’s Jewish roots. By the second century CE, though, as the 130s, 140s, and 150s passed, Christian theologians like Valentinus, Basilides, and Marcion had emerged who were ready for a radical departure from Judaism – a departure as total as you just heard in the Gnostic Second Discourse of the Great Seth, which deems the entirety of the Old Testament, and its God, all a bad joke.

Christianity’s first officially recorded heretics, then, were partly vilified because they were too radically progressive. They were, to their critics, too willing to toss the Old Testament patriarchs under the bus and teach a version of Christianity that was more Platonic and Zoroastrian than Jewish. To me, it is endlessly fascinating that the theological efforts of Valentinus, Basilides, and Marcion, which had concluded by about 160, and the bishops who most immediately responded to them – these are Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyon – that this progressive theological evolution, and the institutional backlash against it, may have been the single most important disputation in Christian history. There was a very real possibility, as the 140s and 150s passed, that mainline Christianity would disentangle itself completely from Judaism and, propelled by Platonic and Zoroastrian ideas about the apprehension of esoteric knowledge and highest god, become something else.

But this, however, was not to be. To the first major church fathers who wrote tracts criticizing Gnosticism, Christianity was already quite progressive enough, and its slow institutional expansion, its well-known generosity toward the poor and powerless, and its bookish clergy,– none of this needed to be scratched out or replaced by some grass roots, new age sounding version of Christianity that promised enlightenment through secret knowledge. And it wasn’t just what the Gnostics had to say about the Old Testament, either – it was also the specific ways that the Gnostics imagined Jesus himself. In fact, let’s talk about Christ in Gnosticism. Christians critical of the movement had a bone to pick with Gnosticism’s exotic org charts of heaven and hierarchies of the ethereal realm. They didn’t, as we’ll see a little later, especially like the idea that humans might save themselves merely through the apprehension of divine truths. But what maybe ruffled their feathers the most was the way that Gnosticism imagined Jesus Christ – what Jesus really was, and what his sacrifice had actually meant. [music]

Gnostic Christology

Spas vsederzhitel sinay

A sixth century icon of Christ in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. The Gnostic Jesus is not a flesh-and-blood figure, sacrificed for humanity’s sins – he is more of an ethereal teacher, and at times even comes across as a sort of trickster.

For the first eight centuries of Christianity’s existence, the main controversies in the religion, culminating in seven ecumenical councils, attempted to sort out the complex problem of what Christ was, and what his sacrifice had meant. The problem, simply put, was that if Christ were a deity coeternal and coequal with Yahweh, then he hadn’t really died in Jerusalem in 30 CE or so, and thus there really hadn’t been much of a sacrifice made in the Gospel stories. But if Jesus had been a man at the moment of his creation, who had died in agony, then he wasn’t really on par with Yahweh, and thus was not coequal and coeternal, and still, had been resurrected thereafter, and so his sacrifice had been more of an exercise of premeditated divine theatrics than a great cosmic tragedy. Through Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, the Three Chapters Controversy, Monothelitism, and Iconoclasm, from the Council of Nicea in 325 until the Second Council of Nicea in 787, early Christian theologians worked out various schemas for what Christ had really been – this much human and this much divine; or no, not divine at all – thoroughly human; or no, not human at all, but thoroughly divine; and everything in between – in a five hundred year series of well documented discussions and arguments.

Gnosticism’s contribution to this discussion came along early. Gnosticism chose to stake out a clear, and extreme position in the great Christology debate – Christology being the study of the nature of Christ. Because the Gnostics, once again following the Gospel of John, more than Mark, saw Jesus as absolutely spiritual – a celestial being for whom crucifixion was a matter of no great concern. To repeat, the Gnostics saw Jesus’ coming to earth as the visitation of a spirit, or apparition, or even a spirit possessing a man, and not an actual flesh and blood man, however that divine power coexisted with his physical body. In a Gnostic scripture called the Second Discourse of the Great Seth, Jesus tells us about how he came to be in human form. In this Gnostic text, there was no annunciation, no Joseph and Mary, no nativity in a manger, and no precocious boy Jesus disputing with temple officials. Instead, as Jesus puts it in the Gnostic text, “I approached a bodily dwelling and evicted the previous occupant, and I went in” (478). With so many stories of Jesus performing exorcisms in the Gospels, it is quite bizarre to hear him talking about possessing someone else. He says, again in the Gnostic Second Discourse of the Great Seth, “For those offering praise I died, though not really, that their archangel [Yaldabaoth] might be useless” (479). And then, once again in the HarperOne Marvin Meyer translation of the Gnostic Second Discourse of the Great Seth, in what to me might be the most shocking passage in all the Christian apocrypha, Christ tells us that in Jerusalem, his adversaries
[H]atched a plot against me. . .I was not hurt at all. Though they punished me, I did not die in actuality but only in appearance, that I might not be put to shame by them, as if they are part of me. I freed myself of shame, and I did not become fainthearted because of what they did to me. . .They nailed their man to their death. . .They were striking me with a scourge, but someone else. . .wore the crown of thorns. And I was on high, poking fun at all the excesses of the rulers and the fruit of their error and conceit. I was laughing at their ignorance. . .It was a joke, I tell you, it was a joke. (482, 4)

This extraordinary scene of Jesus laughing during the crucifixion is not unique to the Second Discourse of the Great Seth. Another Nag Hammadi text, the Revelation of Peter, depicts Jesus “smiling and laughing above the cross” – laughing because his deluded persecutors think they are actually harming him.16

Now, these passages are highly unconventional in their depiction of Christ’s crucifixion. Even in the Book of John, which features the most stoic and spiritual version of Jesus in the Gospels, Christ is solemn and subdued at the moment of his death, while in Mark, he is calling out in Aramaic that his father has forsaken him. But in later Gnostic scriptures, stunningly, there is mirth and levity at the moment of the central tragedy of Christianity. The Gnostic Christ, in the two texts you’ve just heard and elsewhere, is not so much the tragic sacrificial figure we meet in the canonical Gospels. He is a teacher, a revealer of the truth, and a chastiser of those who harbor false illusions, and crucifixion – if it’s even him being crucified – is depicted as more of a colorful stunt to draw attention to the falseness of the material world and its god Yaldabaoth than an actual divine death.

The longest revisionist treatment of Christ’s crucifixion in the surviving Gnostic scriptures takes place in a text called the Gospel of Judas. This Gospel is not a Nag Hammadi text – it’s a text from a Coptic manuscript called the Codex Tchacos, discovered in the 1970s and in fact not translated until 2006, so this is a pretty recently recovered document from early Christianity, and I’m happy to share it with you here and now. Let’s take a look at the Gospel of Judas – the Judas in question being Christ’s betrayer Judas Iscariot rather than the Apostle Judas Thomas. The Gospel of Judas purports to be the record of a secret talk between Jesus and Judas Iscariot just prior to Christ’s crucifixion. And in the Gospel of Judas, which tells a thoroughly Gnostic story, Jesus’ apostles realize that he is not the son of the demiurge Yaldabaoth and his false priests, and that he is certainly not there to die for anyone’s sins, but instead, that Jesus had come to correct people and offer them a genuine path toward the Great Invisible Spirit. So, here we go, we’re going to spend about five minutes with the Gospel of Judas, which helps clarify what the Gnostics thought of Christ. [music]

The Gnostic Gospel of Judas

Codex Tchacos p40 Gnosticism Gospel of Judas

A page from the Gnostic Gospel of Judas in the Codex Tchacos.

The Gnostic Gospel of Judas opens with Jesus in conversation with his Apostles, who are in the midst of offering thanksgiving prayers for their bread. Seeing his apostles praying, Jesus laughed. He told them that they were praying over their bread so that their false god would be glorified. The Apostles were puzzled. Jesus told the Apostles that in reality, the real god was in all of them, but none of them would ever know him. The Apostles, hearing this, became confused and angry, and only Judas Iscariot came up to stand before Jesus. And Judas Iscariot said, “I know who you are and from what place you have come. You have come from the immortal realm of Barbelo, and I am not worthy to pronounce the name of the one who has sent you.”17 Judas Iscariot, then, understood that Jesus had come from something more luminous than Yaldabaoth, and his illusory world, and his misguided clergy in Jerusalem.

In a subsequent series of episodes, the Apostles began to grasp at the truth of what Jesus might be. They began to understand that Christ was not, in fact, the son of the demiurge who had made covenants with Noah and Moses. Soon, the disciples of Jesus had a dream – a dream in which twelve priests, in a giant temple, made offerings to honor Jesus. Only the priests, in this dream of the apostles, were doing illicit things – sacrificing their children, and wives, practicing homosexual intercourse, all the while praising Jesus and laying offerings to him on their altar. Jesus, once again to the disconcertion of his followers, told them that they themselves were the people they’d seen in their dream vision – they were leading cattle to the altar, and were undertaking acts of fealty to a false vision of the divine.

Some time later, in the Gospel of Judas, Judas had a vision of himself being ostracized and stoned, and Jesus offered Judas some new information. Jesus told Judas that Judas was going to undergo a lot of suffering. But Jesus also told Judas Iscariot that Judas would eventually ascend to a position of leadership. And of all of his disciples, Jesus chose to give Judas Iscariot a sense of the celestial reality that lay beyond the false material world. Jesus told Judas “there is a great and infinite realm, whose dimensions no angelic generation could see, [in] which is the great invisible [Spirit]” (765). What followed was a long explanation of the heavenly realm, a lot like what we read about in the Secret Book of John, an explanation that included the dark angel Yaldabaoth, and another dark angel often associated with him, Sakla, which means “fool” in Aramaic. Just as in the Secret Book of John, in the Gospel of Judas, Adam and Eve are created by the dark angels as poor copies of the original, celestial Adam. But, once again as was the standard account in Gnosticism, Jesus told Judas that the lower, earthly Adam had still been given knowledge so as to transcend the base prison of materiality. Still, Jesus told Judas Iscariot, generations to come would worship him – meaning Jesus – and they would do grotesque things in his name, and kill their children, and after saying all of this, Jesus laughed.

Jesus also told Judas Iscariot that Judas would betray him, but that with this betrayal, “you will exceed all of [the other disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me” (768). And shortly after Jesus gave Judas this counsel, Judas awakened from his vision, and indeed he took a bribe from Jerusalem’s temple officials in order to betray Jesus. And by the way, Jesus’ words here are open to interpretation – again Jesus tells Judas Iscariot, “you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me.” In other Gnostic scriptures, as we heard earlier, Jesus makes light of the crucifixion – he’s one of the universe’s chief entities, after all, who’s just commandeered someone else’s physical body for a time, and so he’s not batting an eyelash about that body’s crucifixion. When he tells Judas that Judas will exceed all of the other disciples, this assurance either means that Judas will act according to Jesus’ great plan and make sure that Jesus is, in fact, sacrificed, which was the divine agenda all along, and which Judas is serving. Or, when Jesus tells Judas that Judas will exceed all the other disciples, Jesus may mean that he will exceed them in wickedness and devotion to the niceties of the material realm, like the silver he is about to acquire for his betrayal. Either way, that is the highly unconventional Gospel of Judas, which has only recently been available in English translation.

Now, it doesn’t take a divinity school graduate to see how some of these Gnostic texts might rub second and third century Christian bishops the wrong way, not to mention modern Christians. The Gospel of Judas not only radically reinterprets Christ’s crucifixion as more of a pedagogical exercise than an actual sacrifice. The Gospel of Judas not only disparages Jewish history and worship practices. The Gospel of Judas, which the church father Irenaeus castigated around the year 180, actually disparages the early Christian movement itself, with Christ telling Judas that eventually people would do idiotic things in his name, believing, ignorantly, that he was the son of Yahweh. The Gospel of Judas, then, tells us that by 180 CE, the feud between key Christian bishops and Gnostic leaders was characterized by mutual opposition – each group thought that the other had fundamentally missed the meaning of Christ’s manifestation on Earth, a pretty important sticking point in the religion, obviously.

We’re already a ways into this episode, and pound for pound, I think we’ve done a good job covering some of the salient features of Gnostic literature. From basic definitions, to reading some of the main texts, to reviewing some of the more striking departures Gnosticism seems to have made from the theology of the early church fathers later considered orthodox, we have seen how Gnostics deemed Yahweh false, and the coming of Christ as something engineered to reveal this falseness, and to awaken in believers a knowledge of their origins in the heavenly pleroma above. We have seen some of the doctrinal discrepancies between the progressive Gnostics, ready to toss all of Judaism by the wayside, and the more cautious approaches of the church fathers whose work was preserved, and who found Gnosticism’s revolutionary tendencies reckless, if not deeply disrespectful and unsettling. What I want to talk about now, before we really zoom out and think about Gnosticism’s long term impact on Christianity – what I think we should talk about now is Gnosticism and salvation.

Salvation is probably too specific a word – we might say “enlightenment,” “awakening,” or “deliverance” – but in any case what we should consider now is what the Gnostics wanted; what the spiritual objectives of the Gnostics were, and what they did to meet these objectives. In past episodes in this season on the New Testament, we saw how the Pauline and later Epistles have different ideas toward salvation, with Paul being a bit more amenable to salvation by faith and not works, and some of the later Epistles, like James, are not so ready to forget about the importance of laws and works. Into the already complex dichotomy that we can see in the New Testament – are we saved by faith and grace? Or are we saved by good works? Or some combo? – into this dichotomy, Gnosticism threw a third idea – that we might be saved by gnosis, or knowledge of our spiritual origins. So let’s conclude our look at Gnosticism with gnosis itself – I think this will really drive home the core of what we know about this ancient theology. [music]

Gnostic Salvation and the Revelation of Adam

Gnostics reworked all sorts of the most revered parts of the Bible as we know it today. We’ve already heard how they wrote alternate accounts of creation, of the heavens, of Jesus, and of his crucifixion. They also had a different take on the creation of Adam and Eve. Earlier, in the Secret Book of John, we heard most of this story – Yaldabaoth engendered Adam and Eve and inadvertently gave humanity the small vestiges of the heavens that were within him, sacred parts of the divine. The Gnostic act of gnosis was precisely the awakening toward awareness of the celestial shards within each of us. But what caused this awakening to happen? Was it caused by Christ? By individual spiritual work – prayer and meditation? By some future cataclysmic event? Let’s begin getting to the heart of the gnosis of Gnosticism by looking at one final text – this one called the Revelation of Adam.

Adam, in the Old Testament, as important as he is, doesn’t exactly appear as a three dimensional character. He molded and breathed into by Yahweh, sets up lawn chairs in Eden with Eve, takes a bite of apple, gets chewed out and exiled, sires some kids and bites the dust. In the Gnostic Revelation of Adam, though, spoken to his son Seth, Adam talks a lot more, filling us in on creation – on who really created him, and how it actually went down. So, let’s lean over the Gnostic Revelation of Adam for a couple of minutes – our last full Gnostic scripture for the episode, to get a better idea of what gnosis in Gnosticism means.

The Revelation of Adam is once again a long speech from Adam to his third son Seth. Adam told Seth, in the HarperOne Marvin Meyer translation, that:
After God created me out of earth, along with your mother Eve, I went about with her in a glory that she had beheld in the eternal realm we had come from. She instructed me in the knowledge of the eternal God. We resembled the great eternal angels, for we were superior to the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know.18

That’s an arresting little passage, I think, because in it, Adam and Eve are happy in Eden not because they are sinless and innocent and munching cantaloupe all day, but instead because they know that they are part of the holy emanations of the Great Invisible Spirit above. To continue with the story Adam tells in the Gnostic Revelation of Adam, Adam then told Seth that the evil archon – we assume Yaldabaoth or Yahweh or Sakla, though this archon is never named – who ruled over earth then divided Adam and Eve from themselves, and “After those days, the eternal knowledge of God of truth left your mother Eve and me, and from then on we learned about mortal things, like human beings. . .Then we came to recognize the god who had created us, for his powers were not foreign to us. We served him in fear and subservience. And after that we grew dim in our minds” (347). The tragedy of Adam and Eve, then, in this Gnostic Revelation of Adam, was not that the couple ate forbidden fruits and acquired forbidden knowledge. Their tragedy is that they lost the knowledge of their own divinity.

Center detail, Buddha Seokgamoni (Shakyamuni) Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak LACMA AC1998.268.1 (1 of 11) (cropped)

An anonymous Korean painting (1755) of Buddha preaching to an assembly. Gnostic and Manichaean doctrines of salvation through awakening and enlightenment may have eastern roots, as Greco-Buddhism is attested as early as the third century BCE.

As in other Gnostic scriptures, in the Gnostic Revelation of Adam the demiurge made Eve pregnant with Cain, after which Adam desired Eve sexually. This – the inception of corporeal desire – was the moment that Adam says he and Eve lost the power of eternal knowledge, and became mortal. Adam told Seth that he had been given a vision – a standard trope in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature – and this was a vision of the Biblical flood. The earth would be suffused with water, and “The whole population of fleshy beings will be lost in the [waters]” (349), and those who were aware of their celestial origins would have this knowledge wiped out. Then, Noah would take center stage. Adam says that Noah is one whom “generations will call Deucalion” (349), a fascinating moment of a piece of Christian mystic literature drawing an explicit parallel between the Jewish and the Greek flood narratives – Deucalion and Pyrrha show up in Book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Anyway, humanity, according to The Revelation of Adam, following the birth of Adam’s sons, would subdivide into two different parts. The descendants of Noah would follow the demiurge – that base creator of the earth associated with the Old Testament God. The descendants of Noah would establish a covenant with the demiurge, worshipping him and ignoring their own celestial roots. But in contrast, the descendants of Seth would dwell apart, in a place other Gnostic literature identifies as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.19 Wherever exactly this fabled place was, the Gnostic Revelation of Adam describes it as a “land where the great people will be, who have not been defiled and will not be defiled by any desire” (350). But, partly following the events of the Old Testament, the Gnostic Revelation of Adam describes how the Old Testament god rained fire and brimstone down on the descendants of Seth in Sodom and Gomorrah. However, Adam told Seth, though this spiteful attack would temporarily blind the descendants of Seth from holy knowledge, they would regain this knowledge. They would regain the knowledge by means of a figure called the Illuminator. This Illuminator, Adam told Seth, had all sorts of origin stories. In a stunning display of comparative mythology, the Gnostic Revelation of Adam reveals fourteen origin stories from fourteen kingdoms about this “Illuminator” or “Luminary” figure, stories that range from six to seventeen lines in length and contain parallels to a number of Ancient Mediterranean stories.20 The Revelation of Adam does not explicitly identify this Illuminator figure with Jesus Christ, but his arrival on earth is the event that clarifies to the descendants of Seth their divine origins and instills in them an awareness of baptismal purification. The Gnostic Revelation of Adam closes by telling us “These are the revelations Adam disclosed to his son Seth, and his son taught them to his offspring” (356).

So, the Revelation of Adam is a famous Sethian revision of some of the most well known parts of Genesis. In it, Adam and Eve had divine knowledge, the demiurge took it from them, their son Seth had a special capacity to recall this knowledge, but his descendents, first in the Cities on the Plain, and later the Biblical Flood, had this facility taken from them. In the future, though, the descendants of Seth would, by a savior figure, be gifted the capacity to understand their true spiritual essence, through the sacred rite of baptism. The Revelation of Adam communicates one of Gnosticism’s prevailing ideas – that indeed humanity is condemned to mortality, and that we dwell in a grimy and debased tier of reality, but also that this is not our fault.21 For the Gnostics, then, our imprisonment in the basement of the material world, and our delusions, were not due to some original transgression on our part, as in later Christianity, nor imperceptiveness and a lack of rationality, as in Plato. For the Gnostics, our misconceptions and our confinement were due to hostile entities working directly against us. [music]

The Two Main Schemas for Gnostic Salvation

To understand how Gnostics thought about salvation, the question we need to explore now is what the Gnostics proposed to do, since they perceived themselves shackled to material bodies and tempted always with errors and misapprehensions. How, in other words, did Gnostic salvation actually work? There are two answers. To put them simply, the first is that a powerful being from heaven would show up at some point on down the line and dispel all the illusions of material existence. The second is that Gnostics, through various rituals, readings and contemplations, could by themselves, and with their devout communities, enlighten and awaken themselves. So let’s talk about the first approach – the Gnostic idea that awakening toward one’s own place in the heavenly pleroma would be spurred on by the arrival of a savior figure.

The Revelation of Adam, which we looked at a moment ago, is Adam’s version of what happened to him, and he tells his son Seth that a sacred figure, eventually, would clear away the fog of the earthly mirages and carnal desires and point a finger up toward heaven. Often, in Gnostic texts, this figure is Jesus, and at other times a figure called Protennoia, associated with the first created female aeon, Barbelo.22 Whoever it is that shows up, and sometimes there is a sequence of manifestations, one group of Gnostic texts envisions a divine chronological moment – more of an “awakening day” than a judgment day, when some or all of humanity will be helped along to an understanding of their heavenly origins. This is a familiar narrative both the Old and New Testaments – in other words, sit tight and divine beings will sort stuff out at this or that future juncture.

The second Gnostic schema for salvation is again that the Gnostic believer might, through the exercise of correct thought, study, and certain rituals, be able to chaperone her own path to enlightenment.23 And very often in this journey to awakening, the subject of baptism comes up. Baptism is pervasively important in Christian history, but in Gnosticism baptism had a special significance. Baptism wasn’t just a purification rite, or a rite during which one confirmed one’s adherence to the Christian God. In key Gnostic texts, baptism was the very moment of spiritual enlightenment – the juncture at which a person understood, completely and intuitively, through the journey she’d been on, the connection that she had to heaven – sometimes the connection she had to her celestial twin, to return to that theme of Thomas Christianity, or twin Christianity, I mentioned earlier. Let’s take a quick look at a Gnostic text related to baptism.

The aeon, or archangel Protennoia, also called Barbelo, is the primary figure in a piece of Gnostic literature called the Three Forms of First Thought. And in this text, Protennoia is associated with the divine word of the highest Gnostic god, and is a sort of gatekeeper for Gnosticism’s baptismal rituals, which involved a metaphorical breaking through five seals. The Gnostic’s baptismal ritual was an awakening – a moment at which, in the aeon Protennoia’s words, “you [will] enter the light. . .you will become exceedingly glorious, / as you were in the beginning, when you were light.”24 Later, Protennoia promises that the Gnostic who undertakes baptism will have the false truths of the material world fade away in their minds, announcing,
One who possesses the Five Seals [of Gnostic baptism] has stripped off garments of ignorance and put on shining light. And nothing will appear to one who belongs to the powers of the rulers. In them darkness will dissolve and [ignorance] will die. And the thought of the [false creation] that [is scattered] will have a single appearance, and [dark chaos] will dissolve. (734)

To the aeon Protennoia, then, in the Gnostic text Three Forms of First Thought, Gnostic baptism was that moment when one’s awareness of one’s divine origins burned away the illusions of the material world in a sudden illumination of genuine consciousness.

Gnosticism’s second schema for salvation – self-guided salvation through baptism and the breaking of sacred seals, eventually seems to have become increasingly popular. Ever since Plato’s Phaedo and surely before, Ancient Mediterranean readers had been jumping for joy at the thought of poking their heads above the fabric of a false reality, or hustling out of caves and into the true sunlight, or emerging from a veil of illusions to apprehend the truthiest truths of all truths. I don’t mean to be glib here, but the mechanism for adherence to cult religions that we have on record – Mithraism, for instance, and likely the Eleusinian mysteries, and the whole of Platonic philosophy and many whom it inspired attracted adherents through various talk of enlightenments and awakenings and related salvations and passports to eternal life. Gnosticism fits into this familiar structure, and what scholars often identify as later Gnostic texts become increasingly Platonic, abandoning the advice to keep your fingers crossed and wait for the savior and more often telling readers to go ahead and give enlightenment a shot all by themselves.

The later Gnostic text Zostrianos is a particularly rich example of the intellectual world of Gnosticism. Gnostics wrote of the titular character of Zostrianos as the father of Plato’s character Er – of that “Myth of Er” that ends the Republic. And Gnostics assumed that this Zostrianos was also the great grandfather of the prophet Zoroaster, thus yoking together their Zoroastrian influences from the east with their Platonic influences to the west in one handy ancestor. Now we’ve been at this for a while, so I don’t want to go into too much detail about Zostrianos, but to simplify this later Gnostic text I can simply tell you that it is a sort of Siddhartha-like tale of a man who rejects the pleasures of the material world, and after a number of lumps and bumps, levels up to a more lucid understanding of the radiant world of the heavens and his own spiritual origins. The most famous Neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus read and critiqued the story of Zostrianos, showing that the Platonic elements of Gnostic philosophy had come full circle, back to a Platonist, who accused them of not being Platonic enough.

While around the year 250 Plotinus the Neoplatonist found certain strands of Gnosticism not Platonic enough, around the same time, the Christian church fathers Origen and Tertullian found Gnosticism not Christian enough. And indeed ,certain third century Gnostic texts are so eclectic that they seemed to gratify none but those who wrote them. The later Gnostic scripture Allogenes the Stranger, with shovels full of Plato’s Symposium and Republic, a troop archangels and angels, and a step-by-step blueprint for enlightenment, when you reach it, almost 700 pages deep into the Nag Hammadi library, is a dull gruel of familiar Gnostic ideas with the occasional bland chunks of Plato’s greatest hits. This later Gnostic text, and others, are interesting in their eclectic theology. But the later, explicitly Platonic Gnostic literature also invites us to remember that part of Christianity’s success was that through defining a canon and holding ecumenical councils to settle theological debates, it sought doctrinal consistency at an early point and then, often, stuck to its guns. Gnosticism, which continued to blossom in different directions, seems not to have held still in quite the same way, and the looseness of its doctrines, the diverse origins of its ideas, and the relatively hackneyed nature of its systems of salvation may have led to its natural extinction even without the criticisms of Early Christian church fathers. [music]

Second- and Third-Century Responses to Gnosticism

Tertullian (BM 1879,1213.146) anti-Gnosticism theologian

Tertullian in a 1584 manuscript. The proto-orthodox reponse to controversial Gnostic doctrines from 180 CE onward helped solidify a consensus in church fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and those who came after them.

What I want to do in the last few minutes of this program is to tell you very briefly about the church fathers’ response to Gnosticism – where they were coming from in their responses to Gnosticism, and why they wrote the things that they did about it. I opened this episode with a quote from scholars Marvin Meyer and Elaine Pagel, who wrote that the Nag Hammadi library had surprised them, as “we assumed that there must have been only one original, pure form of Christianity back at its beginning.” Many church historians still make this case. Their argument goes that Jesus taught the Apostles, and one Apostle – John the Evangelist, author of the Gospel of John, taught and ordained Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and then Polycarp taught Irenaeus, Irenaeus being one of the early church fathers who, by 180, was going toe to toe with Gnosticism. We’ll learn all about this tradition in a later episode. Most biblical scholars don’t think that John the Apostle is the author of the Gospel of John, due to chronological references in John, and the fact that the highly learned, Gentile-oriented Greek prose of John likely wasn’t written by an Aramaic speaking Jewish fisherman from the sticks of Galilee. But the authorship of the Book of John doesn’t especially undermine the lineage traced out by church fathers like Jerome, who once again propose a lineage of teaching that went from Jesus, to John the Apostle, to Polycarp of Smyrna, to Irenaeus, one of the main church fathers who argued against Gnosticism. While this genealogy is fairly well known, it’s still important to remember that in the ancient world, pedagogical genealogies that described how this man taught that man, and that man taught the next man were a common means of tracing intellectual history, one that relied on a notion that a single individual’s teachings can be passed down, again and again, directly, faultlessly, and in person, the transmission unaffected by its transmitters. Jerome and the other church fathers who drew the daisy chain between Jesus, John the Apostle, Polycarp of Smyrna and Irenaeus were products of a world that placed stock in such ideological genealogies, and they are also not unbiased sources on this subject. It is quite possible that this neat and tidy ideological genealogy is a work of fiction, intended to sink a tap root back toward Jesus, when the real soil of Early Christianity was messier, more multidirectional, and involved more generations up to the mid-second century. Certainly, the diversity of Gnostic writings suggests that people who worshipped Christ by 150 CE did so in highly variant ways.

For this reason, scholars often talk about Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria – and these are two of the earliest church fathers whose work has survived – as proto-orthodox Christians, rather than simply Christians, indicating that these theologians were part of a generation that lived and operated while even the fundamentals of Christianity were still under construction. Out of respect to the tradition that Jesus taught John, who taught Polycarp, who taught Irenaeus – in other words that Christianity as we know it today is largely a tradition that came together during and immediately after the life of Christ – I should say it is possible that a core of Christianity passed directly from Jesus himself to the Apostles and beyond, largely unmodified between the generations. We don’t hear Saint Paul, after all, saying a single word about aeons, or Yaldabaoth, or Barbelo, or the Great Invisible Spirit, and Paul did know the Apostles, who knew Christ, and so it seems improbable that Gnosticism was out there during the Apostolic generation. The bottom line here is that there just isn’t much evidence in the texts that survive from the first century that indicate that Gnosticism existed prior to the year 100. To the church fathers who wrote about Gnosticism, it was a newfangled, made up thing.

I read two works of heresiology – or studies of heresies and heretics – to prepare this episode – Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, done in about 180, and Tertullian’s book Against the Valentinians, done perhaps in the 220s or 230s. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to reading them. My doctoral work, as I’ve mentioned before, was in nineteenth-century American literature and culture, and from the First and Second Great Awakenings, some very famous English language sermons loved to revel in the idea of sinners and heretics being variously burned and tortured for their impieties. This was what I expected to read when I approached Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and the church father Tertullian’s Against the Valentinians – again both tracts written in opposition to the Gnostic doctrines we’ve talked about today. And instead, I discovered something else. Both of these ancient texts, the first in Greek and the second in Latin, were learned, detailed, firm, but also civil critiques of Gnosticism. The church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian, writing in the long tradition of ancient Mediterranean scholarly disputation, list specific objections that they have to Gnosticism, and they offer their reasoning. Irenaeus compares Gnosticism to a bunch of mushrooms springing up everywhere out of the ground (1.29) and elsewhere, to a wildly erratic beast that’s dashing around and causing chaos (1.31.5). To Tertullian, Gnosticism is extravagant and embarrassing as much as it is heretical. The church father Tertullian, writing about Gnosticism, tells us
Let. . .any man approach the subject from a knowledge of the faith which he has otherwise learned, as soon as he finds so many names of Aeons, so many marriages, so many offsprings, so many exits, so many issues, felicities and infelicities of a dispersed and mutilated Deity, will that man hesitate at once to pronounce that these are ‘the fables and endless genealogies’. . . Deservedly, therefore, must they be regarded as wanting in simplicity. . .[I]t is marvelous what storeys upon storeys and what heights upon heights, they have hung up, raised and spread out as a dwelling for each several god of theirs.25

Coming to this passage from Tertullian from Gnostic works like the Secret Book of John and the Gospel of Judas, it’s easy to agree with Tertullian. Parts of the Gnostic scriptures feel like what would happen if a devout Christian, a Zoroastrian, and a Platonist ate a bunch of psychedelic mushrooms and just started writing stuff on a whiteboard together. Reading Irenaeus and Tertullian, we discover that Proto-Orthodox Christians found Gnosticism offensive in its dismissal of the religion’s Jewish roots and its highly unconventional portraits of Christ, but that they also found it odd and absurd.26

As I read the surviving Gnostic scriptures some years ago, I didn’t have any blinding revelation. I privately speculated about the Gnostic mother angel Barbelo – parallels between her and the Christian Holy Spirit, and between Barbelo and the later reverence of the Virgin Mary.27 I wondered why Catholicism had eventually embraced the doctrine of Original Sin after Augustine, when Gnostics had the rather optimistic idea that all people have sparks of heaven in them, and are only disadvantaged at birth by circumstances out of their control. I pondered how in spite of all the hard work the Old Testament God puts into creating the material world, Gnosticism and some Christian texts adopt the old Platonic disdain toward material existence, as though the first chapter of Genesis really does capture some nasty divine mistake. I gawked at passages describing Christ laughing at his own crucifixion, and my eyes widened every time Yahweh was maligned as a false god. All of this is compelling stuff, and I strongly, strongly recommend the HarperOne anthology called The Nag Hammadi Scriptures – there’s a link to it in this show’s notes. As I read this book, though, along with the usual other secondary sources, I think the most interesting thing that happened for me was that I caught the scent of a whole different species of Early Christianity. You can detect this species just a bit in the canonical Gospel of John, and in some of the Epistles once you learn to recognize it. I understand and actually sympathize with Irenaeus and Clement’s anti-Gnostic tracts – these theologians felt that their vulnerable young religion was under fire from a weird, alternative, mystic offshoot and they were doing what they could to stabilize Christianity as they knew it.

But to me, Gnosticism doesn’t seem blasphemous so much as it does very familiar. It is one of the stranger stories of theological history that by around 150 CE, a wildly unorthodox group of texts that might be categorized as psychedelic Christianity were blazing new creeds around the Mediterranean. Gnostics taught that we could be raised to higher levels of consciousness, and they deployed a colorful concourse of angels and dark angels in their texts to tell us how to get there. Ancient Mediterranean cult movements like Orphism had always had freewheeling leaders – personages who customized their miscellaneous packages of theology and philosophy to whomever was in front of them, and from the annals of Gnosticism we learn that his happened early and pervasively in Christianity, as well. [music]

Moving on to Manichaeism

In the next program, we’re going to go on to a third and final movement pertinent to Early Christianity, now that we’ve spent some time with Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism. And this third movement is Manichaeism. Manichaeism, born in the Persian Empire under the prophet Mani in the 220s and 230s CE, was a deliberate and self-conscious fusion of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and to a lesser extent, Hinduism and Buddhism. A smelting of all of these religions, Manichaeism was intended as a final capstone to the development of ancient Eurasian religions. But like Gnosticism, Manichaeism was a religion with a bewildering number of moving parts, a novel and complex creation story, and a number of doctrines extremely distasteful to theologians who wrote about it. And also as with Gnosticism, we once only knew about Manichaeism second hand, through the tracts of its critics, but today, thanks to archaeological discoveries and translations of Manichaean manuscripts in Parthian, Sogdian, Tocharian, and Uighur, we now know a lot more about this ancient Christian sect than we ever have before. So join me next time, and we’ll learn about another ancient religion we might have all been practicing had history gone a bit differently. I have a quiz on Gnosticism available there in a link in your podcast app if you want to check it out, along with a link to the wonderful HarperOne Nag Hammadi Scriptures anthology. For you Patreon supporters, I have recorded the entirety of Plato’s Myth of Er, a text that just keeps coming up in our show – a short narrative that I now firmly believe to be the most important text ever written about the afterlife. A tale of reincarnation, posthumous rewards and punishments, and transcendence of reincarnation through righteous conduct, the Myth of Er was the ancient Greek world’s most important narrative about what we might now call heaven and hell. For everybody, there’s a song coming up – stay on if you want to listen to it, and if not, the Prophet Mani and I will see you next time.

Still listening? Well, Gnosticism, yeah. I got to thinking – I didn’t even really get to thinking, to be honest – I knew what I thought. There’s a lot to like about Gnosticism, but honestly, I, personally, just don’t like horizontal dualist systems that disparage the physical world and tell me that my reality is false and illusory, and try to sell me some other reality. I think humanity is liable to enough clannishness and tribalism, and wish that we could at least all agree that mountains are awesome and summer mornings are glorious and beautiful, and strawberries are tasty, and falling stars are really neat. I think that horizontal dualist systems, which tell us that we live in illusory caves and only special people who know the secret password to the treehouse have access to the real truths – I think these systems are stupid, and pretentious. And so I wrote the following song, which is called “Too Cool for the World,” which makes fun of that old Platonic idea that most of us are blind and deluded, and only some special dipshits in togas know the truth. Here’s the song, thanks again for your interest in this wonderful material, and I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks.

[“Too Cool for the World” Song]


1.^ Meyer, Marvin and Pagels, Elaine. “Introduction.” Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 8

2.^ For the dating see Turner, John. “The Sethian School of Gnostic Thought.” Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, pp. 780-8.

3.^ Turner, John. “The Sethian School of Gnostic Thought.” Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 788.

4.^ The Secret Book of John. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 108.

5.^ The Trimorphic Protennoia (38,7-16) exhibits this tendency.

6.^ See The Nag Hammadi Scriptures p. 116n.

7.^ Another of the text’s many parallels to the Platonic Myth of Er.

8.^ Printed in Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

9.^ See Meyer, Marvin. “Thomas Christianity.” Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 779.

10.^ Origen compiled some of Heracleon’s work on The Gospel of John, for instance, and Clement wrote about Theodotus, another writer associated with the Valentinian tradition.

11.^ Aversus Valentinianus (IV). Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Tertullian. Delphi Classics, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 6698.

12.^ The colorful vilification of professional rivals is a textual tradition with deep roots in the Ancient Mediterranean, stretching back through some of the more mean spirited passages of writers like Seneca, Cicero, Catullus, and Aristophanes, and early Christian theologians didn’t hesitate to include libelous biographies of theologians whose work they found objectionable. Epiphanius’ story of Marcion seducing a virgin is another example of yellow journalism within Early Christianity.

13.^ The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 252.

14.^ The Gospel of Truth. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 44. Further references noted parenthetically.

15.^ The Second Discourse of the Great Seth. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 482. Further references noted parenthetically.

16.^ The Revelation of Peter. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 496.

17.^ The Gospel of Judas. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 761.

18.^ The Revelation of Adam. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 347.

19.^ The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit (55).

20.^ I would venture to guess, the Egyptian myth of Atum, the Ovidian tale of Myrrha and Adonis, Mithras and perhaps Cybele and Persephone, Zeus’ upbringing in the cave of Ida, and perhaps the Zoroastrian Saoshyant, another savior figure born of a virgin.

21.^ Comparably, a Gnostic text called The Gospel of Philip emphasizes that the demiurge and his minions “wanted to fool people, since they saw that people have a kinship with what is truly good. They took the names of the good and assigned them to what is not good, to fool people with names and link the names to what is not good. So, as if they are doing people a favor, they take names from what is not good and transfer them to the good, in their own way of thinking. For they wished to take free people and enslave them forever.” The Gospel of Philip. Translated by Marvin Meyer. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 163.

22.^ Scholar John Turner lists the Secret Book of John, Revelation of Adam, Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, Three Forms of First Thought, and Gospel of Judas as possessing this schema for salvation. (Turner, John. “The Sethian School of Gnostic Thought.” Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 787.)

23.^ In this school of thought Turner lists Zostrianos, Allogenes the Stranger, Three Steles of Seth and Marsanes (ibid, p. 787), also emphasizing that the self-guided salvation of these texts is part of a sort of “Platonizing Gnosticism” that came along a bit after Gnosticism first appears in the historical record in the second half of the first century CE.

24.^ Turner, John. Three Forms of First Thought. Printed in Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 730. Further references noted parenthetically.

25.^ Tertullian. Adversus Valentianus (1, 3). Delphi Classics, 2018. Kindle Edition, Locations 6689, 6743.

26.^ Catholic orthodoxy was hardening, however, by the fourth century – that period leading up to that crucial decade of the 380s, when Theodosius proclaimed Nicene Trinitarian Christianity the sole orthodox religion with the Edict of Thessalonica, and Augustine dropped Manichaeism. By the time we come to Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion (published just before 380), we find at least one heresiologist engaged in a criticism of Gnosticism that was more libelous than academic – Epiphanius writes that a sect of Gnostics had sex all the time, practiced rhythm and withdrawal and drank one another’s semen and menstrual blood in their grotesque nocturnal rituals (Panarion 26.8).

27.^ The Proto-Gospel of James, Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, Latin Infancy Gospels, and History of Joseph the Carpenter are the main apocryphal gospel documents that expand Mary’s story in a non-Gnostic tradition, but these texts don’t focus on the divinity of Christ’s mother the way that Gnostic accounts of Barbelo do.