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

contemporary academia).[1]

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

experience death."

(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

that poverty."

(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

autocratic God.

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

living Christ?

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.


[1]:. Hans Jonas, in Journal of Religion (1961) 262, cited in Pagels, p.


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