UPDATING OUR CHRISTOLOGY II GNOSTIC CHRISTIANITY
Saturday, September 9, 1996
In my first talk, I sketched the beliefs of some early Christians who saw Jesus as
a new Moses. I shall not review that material now, but I should like to repeat the
view of the New Testament which underlies this series.
Let me start by saying that as Swedenborgians, I think we are a bit ambivalent
about the literal sense of Scripture. On the one hand, we are aware that
Swedenborg himself points out inconsistencies in that level of meaning, and uses
them as indications that there must be a deeper level. On the other hand, we do
tend to accept the literal story as true, especially when it comes to the Gospels.
We rarely take the time to face the fact that the four accounts of the Lord's life
contain their own share of inconsistencies. There is ample evidence that these
accounts were written after the fact, and that people's memories were selective.
If we want to be at all careful, we cannot be sure about particular details.
In fact, Jesus' contemporaries did not know what to make of him. The Gospels
testify to a wide range of opinions, ranging from the sublime to the demonic. The
disciples were often bewildered. In general, as Nicodemus expressed it, they knew
(or at least suspected) that there was some special divine presence involved
because no one could perform such miracles unless God were with him. In typical
fashion, Jesus seems to have required even his closest disciples to figure this
out for themselves. His followers went on trying to figure things out after his
death and ascension, and the history of the Christian church is full of arguments
about the nature or natures of the Christ. We should, I think, regard the Gospels
less as an explanation of the Lord's nature than as material to help us figure it
out for ourselves, less as a didactic treatment of the subject than as accounts of
a very confusing debate.
The people we will be looking at this morning had a radically different view of
Jesus' nature and mission than did the Judaic Christians of the first talk. These
were the people known as gnostics, and it is only recently that we have had much
solid information about them. Thereby hangs a tale marginally relevant to our
topic, but interesting enough to relate at least briefly. For details, I would
refer you to Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House/Vintage,
1981), a book which I highly recommend.
Like the Ebionites, the gnostics were declared heretical. Their literature was
suppressed, and wherever possible destroyed. Until fairly recently, virtually all
we knew about them came through the pens of their orthodox opponents. Irenaeus of
Lyons wrote a massive, five-volume refutation of their doctrines about 180 A.D.,
and some fifty years later Hippolytus wrote similar refutation in Rome. In 1769, a
Scottish tourist bought a Coptic (late Egyptian) MS in Upper Egypt, which was
published only in 1892, and in 1773 another Coptic text turned up in a London
bookstore. In 1896, a German Egyptologist bought a manuscript that contained no
less than four gnostic texts.
The present breakthrough started in 1945, when an Arab peasant digging for fertile
soil to carry to his garden uncovered a large red earthenware jar, which turned
out to contain no less that thirteen leather-bound codices. His mother used some
of the sheets for lighting fires in her oven; but when the peasant was about to be
investigated by the police in connection with a blood-feud, he took the remainder
to a local priest for safekeeping. A local history teacher looked at them and
suspected their value. He had one sent to Cairo, where it was sold on the black
market. This caught the attention of Egyptian officials, and most of the material
was confiscated and placed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo--all over some four
years, in an atmosphere of intrigue in which James Bond would have felt quite at
Disputes as to ownership were finally settled in 1952, and from then on, the story
becomes one of academic jealousy and intrigue. In 1961, nothing had yet been
published, and UNESCO intervened. In 1972, the first volume of photographic
reproductions appeared, and this project was complete in 1977--the same year in
which the first complete edition in English appeared. That is, it took a full
thirty-two years from the first discovery to the first full publication. One
authority wrote in 1962,
Unlike the Dead Sea finds of the same years, the gnostic find from Nag Hammadi has
been beset from the beginning to this day by a persistent curse of political
roadblocks, litigations, and most of all, scholarly jealousies and "firstmanship"
(the last factor has grown by now into a veritable chronique scandaleuse of
What texts did these codices contain? A sampling of titles is suggestive (there
are forty-seven in all). The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Apocryphon of James,
The Gospel of Truth, The Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of
Philip, The Gospel of the Egyptians, The Dialogue of the Savior, The Apocalypse of
Paul, The First (and the Second) Apocalypse of James, The Acts of Peter and the
Twelve Apostles, The Testimony of Truth, and The Gospel of Mary--all familiar
names, but in unfamiliar groupings.
The underlying claim of many of them is simple and startling. The Gospel of Mark
(4:33f.) tells us that " . . . with many such parables spake he the word unto
them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them:
and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples." These
manuscripts claim to contain those teachings which were shared only with the inner
circle, with the spiritual initiates.
I suspect you'd like some samples, and they are easy to come by. Let me quote the
opening lines of The Gospel of Thomas.
These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didumos Judas
Thomas wrote down.
(1) And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not
(2) Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds,
he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he
will rule over the All."
(3) Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, `See, the Kingdom is in the
sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, "It is in
the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you,
and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become
known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.
But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are
(4) Jesus said, "The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven
days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will
become last, and they will become one and the same."
(5) Jesus said, "Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from
you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become
(6) His disciples questioned Him and said to Him, "Do you want us to fast? How
shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?
Jesus said, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for all things are
plain in the sight of Heaven. For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and
nothing covered will remain without being uncovered."
(7) Jesus said, "Blessed is the lion which becomes man which consumed by man; and
cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man."
I suspect you will agree that this is an interesting little collection. There is a
mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and it is quite possible that if some
of these sayings were in the received Gospels, we would have come to accept them
as perfectly genuine. Suppose, for example, that the sayings about plucking out
one's eye or cutting off one's hand were not in the received Gospels, but turned
up in manuscripts like these. I suspect that we would regard them as at best
exaggerated versions of what Jesus actually said.
But there is much more to the Nag Hammadi literature than collections of sayings.
There is a highly developed mythology, and there is a good deal of
theologizing--far too much material to sample fairly, so with the help of
Professor Pagels, I shall just do some summarizing. The first thing that needs to
be said is that the gnostics seem to have had no particular regard for literal
consistency. While the mainline church was especially concerned to define the
faith clearly and to insist on assent to it throughout the church, the gnostics
had a very different agenda. Their central premise was that Jesus' mission was to
open the path for every believer to have a direct and personal relationship to the
Divine. As far as they were concerned, that Divine was beyond any literal
description, so it did not matter if different individuals expressed their
understandings in different or even contradictory ways. That was to be expected,
and in a sense, the more the merrier.
Let us look at an example. Irenaeus' major complaint against the gnostics is that
they claim "there is another God besides the creator." In the light of the Nag
Hammadi texts, this turns out to be a polemical oversimplification. By "the
creator," the gnostics understood God as portrayed in the Old
Testament--arbitrary, vengeful, demanding, and above all jealous, claiming an
exclusive omnipotence that no deity of such a nature could possibly have. To
regard this deity as the true God is to take an obviously human conception of God,
and equate it with the full reality. The full reality, for the gnostics, was
profoundly and unfathomably one, and utterly beneficent. To experience that Divine
was to know transcendent peace and unity. It was utterly unlike the experience of
a remote and unforgiving deity laying down laws, rewarding the obedient, and
punishing the disobedient. "There is another God besides the creator" meant that
there was a genuine God behind the inadequate images that were held up for
Professor Pagels makes a very persuasive case for believing that there were vital
issues of church polity involved. She cites the first-century Bishop of Rome
Clement, as follows (Pagels, pp. 40f.):
Clement argues that God, the God of Israel, alone rules all things: he is the lord
and master whom all must obey; he is the judge who lays down the law, punishing
rebels and rewarding the obedient. But how is God's rule actually administered?
Here Clement's theology becomes practical: God, he says, delegates his "authority
of reign" to "rulers and leaders on earth." Who are these designated rulers?
Clement answers that they are bishops, priests, and deacons. Whoever refuses to
"bow the neck" and obey the church leaders is guilty of insubordination against
the divine master himself.
That is, the warrant for an autocratic church is found in the insistence on an
But there is another equally serious way in which gnosticism threatened the
authority of the church. The gnostic who had had a personal experience of the
transcendent divine was not likely to let some priest or bishop impose any
particular set of theological definitions. The whole trend of the developing
mainline church was toward defining a single set of beliefs in relatively compact
form, an authoritative creed, and in making acceptance of that definition a
primary prerequisite for membership. The whole trend of gnosticism was to lead the
initiates into their own personal encounters with the divine; and it was
characteristic of such experiences that they could not be reduced to
straightforward theological propositions.
As to Christology in specific, we find in the Nag Hammadi texts no problems
whatever in regarding the Christ as a divine figure. The concept of the logos, the
creative "word" familiar to us from the first chapter of John, occurs some forty
times in the various manuscripts. The Christ is assumed to be a direct expression
of the ineffable Divine, sent to rescue a world enslaved to the powers of evil.
The context of this view, however, is likely to strike the modern reader as
bizarre. The gnostic texts are full of rather obscure descriptions of a complex
spiritual realm, with different aeons emanating from the Divine, with some
seventy-two heavens, each with its own set of angels or archangels, all named--a
cast of characters that would take a while to memorize. The Christ's spiritual
battles are with "principalities and powers" such as these, and his role on earth
is primarily that of teacher.
In fact, the preoccupation with other-worldly dramas seems to go to unhealthy
extremes. There is occasional mention of living together with other human
beings--a few very nice statements about human relations, in fact--but the
dominant feel of the texts is that mystical knowledge is a blessing and a joy in
and of itself. Concern for others emerges most often as a desire to lead them into
this mystical knowledge. When worldly concerns are mentioned, they are normally
seen as dangerous distractions from the true quest. Sexuality and wealth in
particular are problematic, and the prevalent view is that only by refusing all
worldly desires can one attain to enlightenment.
Perhaps the most extreme view is found in The Teaching of Silvanus (98, 5-21).
This is is classified more as "wisdom literature" than as "gnostic literature,"
but its inclusion in the Nag Hammadi Library certainly indicates that its thought
was regarded as congenial. I quote:
My son, do not have anyone as a friend. But if you do acquire one, do not entrust
yourself to him. Entrust yourself to God alone as father and as friend. For
everyone proceeds deceitfully, while the whole earth is full of suffering and
pain--things in which there is no profit. If you wish to pass your life in quiet,
do not keep company with anyone. And if you do keep company with them, be as if
you do not. Be pleasing to God, and you will not need anyone.
Interestingly, the acceptance of Jesus' divinity did not always result in a
literal acceptance of Gospel accounts. A strong trend of gnostic thought is
rightly referred to as "docetic," accepting only the divine nature of the Christ,
and esentially denying the reality of the human nature. There are stories, for
example, in which Jesus after the "resurrection" shows the disciples what really
happened at the crucifixion. The body on the cross was constructed out of the
imaginations of his persecutors; and all the while, the true spiritual Jesus was
loking on from above--in one account, actually laughing at the folly taking place.
It should be noted that elswhere, Jesus' suffering is referred to as real and
important, but the fact does remain that the gnostic view of Jesus tended to
elevate him above any merely human attributes.
Underlying this notion is the gnostic determination to focus attention on the
presence of the risen Christ in the believer in the present, rather than on the
resurrection of the historical Christ in the past. What is the value of believeing
that Jesus rose from the tomb, in comparison with an actual encounter with the
Professor Pagels again points convincingly to issues of church polity involved in
this theological controversy. She calls attention to the decision of the eleven
after the ascension, to fill out the number twelve, and especially to the way this
is worded in Acts (1:22). "It is entirely fitting, therefore, that one of those
who was of our company while the Lord Jesus moved among us, from the baptism of
John until the day he was taken up from us, should be named as witness to his
resurrection." It had become important for the church to designate clearly who the
"official witnesses" of the physical resurrection were, and to distinguish them
from other individuals who might have had personal spiritual experiences of the
risen Christ. The number of these official witnesses was small, and since the
resurrection was a one-time event, it could never be expanded. The leadership of
the apostles--and their duly designated successors--was secure.
There was another side to this as well, which becomes inescapably obvious if we
look at the phenomenon of martyrdom. In the view of the mainline church, because
Jesus actually suffered and died on the cross, suffering and dying for the faith
was fully following his example. On his way to martyrdom, Ignatius wrote a letter
to the Christians in Rome, including the following request:
I am writing to all the churches, and I give injunction that I am dying willingly
for God's sake, if you do not prevent it. I plead with you not to be an
"unseasonable kindness" to me. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I
can attain to God" (Pagels, p. 99).
And Irenaeus says of the gnostics that they ". . . pour contempt upon the martyrs
. . . who are killed on account of confessing the Lord, and who . . . thereby
strive to follow in the footsteps of the Lord's passion" (Pagels, pp. 104f.).
What the gnostics actually objected to was the orthodox teaching that martyrdom
guaranteed complete forgiveness of all sins. It was folly, in their view, to
believe that anyone could be saved without the inner knowledge of the Christ, and
this certainly was not guaranteed by martyrdom.
This was an emotional issue. The mainline church prized both martyrdom and its
martyrs, and there is no question that the heroism of the martyrs made a profound
impression both within and outside the church. The accounts of people facing
martyrdom disclose great determination, it is true, but also a terror of being
found wanting, of "not passing the test," and an intense desire for guaranteed
salvation with no strings attached. It is arguable that the focus on the atoning
power of Jesus' death, as opposed to the power of his life, relates directly to
this will to believe that martyrdom is intrinsically redemptive.
From our point of view, perhaps the most congenial note in the gnostic attitude
would be their insistence that salvation involves a fundamental change in the
person saved. It is not a judgment imposed from the outside, but a profound
transformation of the individual. Speaking of baptism as the gateway to the
church, the Gospel of Philip says that many people "go down into the water and
come up without having received anything" (Pagels, p. 125). One could assent to
the creed--as many in fact did--with little idea of what it meant.
The two groups were engaged in very different tasks, in a way. The gnostics took
the spiritual world with ultimate seriousness, sometimes to the neglect of the
physical. For all their excesses, they seem genuinely to have tried to focus
solely on the relationship between the individual and the divine. The mainline
church was trying to build an organization that could compete in a hostile world.
This meant having "objective" criteria for membership, clear boundaries, and clear
lines of authority. Ignatius had reasons for saying, "To join with the bishop is
to join the church; to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not
only from the church, but from God himself" (Pagels, p. 127). To the gnostic, the
mainline church looked hopelessly materialistic. To the mainline church,
gnosticism looked like a kind of spiritual elitism.
By any historical criteria we may think of, the mainline church was the more
successful. It did found an organization which has persisted now for almost two
thousand years, in spite of schisms. It is a church that reaches people of many
different sorts, not just those who are ready for some kind of intense religious
devotion. It can be argued that the church impoverished itself by its rigid
rejection of what the gnostics had to contribute, but it was not a simple choice
between spirituality and materialism. There is some justice to the orthodox
critiques of the gnostics' radical individualism; and we may well wonder whether
Christianity would have survived if it had consisted wholly of such unstructured
Perhaps, in fact, we can sympathize more with the efforts of the church to
centralize authority if we appreciate what the "orthodox" must have seen as the
alternative. In Irenaeus' view, the gnostics trusted nothing but their own
intuition. They believed only what they found confirmed by their own inner
experience. In the words of The Treatise on Resurrection, "Why do you not examine
your own self, and see that you have arisen?" And from the point of view of anyone
involved in an institutional church, the variety of the gnostic texts is daunting
In my last talk of this series, I shall try to suggest a way in which our own
theology might sort out all this confusion. The result, I hope, will be a somewhat
different way of seeing the relationship between our Christology and the Gospels,
a way that may be intelligible to other contemporary Christians.
:. Hans Jonas, in Journal of Religion (1961) 262, cited in Pagels, p.