I would like to offer some insights into this poorly understood religious/spiritual movement called Gnosticism. The earliest phases of this tradition, I believe, help to point us in the direction of this Wisdom New Dispensation. Please note, I am not promoting Gnosticism as being THE carrier of truth and I do not consider myself to be a “practicing” gnostic. Rather, I honor how this incredibly rich religious tradition has fed into the underground streams of so many depth and wisdom traditions, from the Kabbalah to the Cathars, from medieval alchemy to Carl Jung. This multi-streamed “esoteric” tradition, sometimes referred to as the Perennial Philosophy, is vast and I believe its many rivulets, including Gnosticism, are attempting to grasp phenomena that is far beyond any one group’s capacity to fully systematize.
This is not to be confused with the term “agnostic”, meaning “I don’t know and I don’t pretend to know”. Some would argue that is the best bottom line for everybody to stay humble with “beginner’s mind”. However, this is different from what is being presented here.
Gnosticism is a religious and spiritual movement that emerged generally after 100 CE (2nd century) and flourished for roughly 300 years before it was largely extinguished or assimilated into orthodox Christianity (and neo-Platonism). It spanned a wide distance from Rome to Babylon, but it originated primarily in two locations; Alexandria Egypt and in the ancient regions of northern Syria, specifically in a city called Edessa, in modern day Sanliurfa in southern Turkey. Judea/Palestine is an important epicenter of this movement as well but it was quickly run out of town, generally in 1st/2nd centuries, and so had little chance of finding roots there.
The word gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis which means knowing, or according to its own tradition, a sort of non-intellectual direct mystical knowing of something which is beyond the hard facts of this material world.
Problems with the word Gnostic
To even call this unique and fleeting tradition by this name is to invoke, often without knowing why, a sort of distain, even disgust, so thorough has been the campaign to discredit and demonize it by the Roman based Christian church. Though Gnosticism has enjoyed a revival of interest in the last few decades, still, so battered has the word gnostic been over the centuries that some even today, scholars such as those within the famed Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute (1), play with throwing the term out altogether.
Since the 4th century to today, Gnosticism is generally not welcome in Christian churches, as I found out first hand. I brought my interest in this early Christian philosophy to an Episcopal priest in Santa Rosa, CA some years ago, where we had what I thought was an open and respectful dialogue. However, the following Sunday, this priest, who clearly had little academic familiarity with the gnostic tradition, made it quite clear in his sermon that this sex obsessed, conspiracy riddled heresy cult, popularized by The DiVinci Code, was not welcome in the church. Feeling a little betrayed, I realized that, though he clearly believed that gnosticism was basically evil, he was also doing his job, upholding his priestly vows that are designed to guard against such heresies. Once again, just as has been happening for much of the past 1700 years, this largely misunderstood and often misrepresented form of mystical Christianity was told to just get lost. (2)
Given all of this, it is tempting to avoid the term gnostic completely because the very word invokes such controversy, leading many, including myself at times, to consider other alternative labels. “Proto-Christian”, “early Christianity mysticism”, “Coptic Christianity” or the “way of Gnosis” have been proposed, and to some extent these are helpful descriptors. However, they are more general and do not accurately identify this specific spiritual and religious movement that is a specific constellation of beliefs, especially as it relates to this figure Sophia. To use these terms, I believe, could fall into trap of continuing to marginalize this unique tradition and further obscuring its already highly elusive history.
In 1966 at the International Congress on “the origin of Gnosticism”, held at Messina, Italy, there was a consensus decision to use the term “Gnosis” to mean “knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite” and the term “Gnostics” was agreed upon to identify this religious group that emerged largely in the second century AD. (3)
This idea that gnosticism is “reserved for the elite” is a framing, I believe, that might be more accurately described as being “private and guarded to avoid persecution”, because, as history will prove, people who find this set of beliefs to be threatening will do what they can to tear it down (just as I experienced). It is interesting to note that gnostics in general were quite open to the emerging Christian religion, and worked hard to translate their system into a Christian one (becoming more “Christianized”). Unfortunately, Christianity did all it could do to demonize and discredit it and, given how intense the persecution was from outsiders, it is no wonder these people sought some level of privacy in their teachings and practices.
And so, with this, I have concluded, at least for this work in the Sophia Project, that no other term better identifies this novel psycho spiritual movement of the first few centuries AD than Gnostic. Indeed, I believe that reclaiming this very word is part of unearthing the spiritual treasures within this tradition that have long been buried and suppressed. And so we shall proceed.
The Gnostic Texts
According to Bentley Layton in The Gnostic Scriptures, the various gnostic schools had specific features that made them uniquely gnostic and specifically not Christian. They utilized certain linguistic terms that were specific to them, and there was a strong sense of group identity that was built around not only this language, but also religious rituals, specifically various baptisms. Most importantly for this Sophia Project is their “complex and distinctive myth of origins” (4) that is so prevalent in their literature. It is this myth of origins, this creation cosmology, that is the prime source material for this website’s rendition of the Creation Story of Sophia.
Regarding the survival of the writings of the gnostics, so thorough was the elimination of the core texts from this tradition that for much of the last 1700 years, we have only known of this unique religious movement from Christian writings that sought to discredit them. Known as “heresiologists”, these early Christian writers took upon themselves the task of picking apart what they saw as Christianity-gone-rogue. Gnosticism indeed became identified as the “first heresy” and was what actually put the derogatory use of very word “heresy” on the map. Ironically, it was the extensive writings of 2nd and 3rd century Christians like Irenaeus, Epiphaneous and Hippolytus who documented the heresy of their tradition that was the main source that preserved any mention that this tradition even existed. Most research of gnosticism prior to the late 1970’s relied largely on these writings.
In the late 18th century, the first recovered texts (that we know of) from the time of the Gnostics were discovered. These were incredibly rare codices or books from prior to the 5th century AD, that survived the persecution by the Romans especially after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the famed anti-heresy campaign of Athanaseus.
There are four main codices, or collections that were dug up from either layers of dirt or in old library collections. The Bruce Codex was bought in Egypt by an antiquities dealer named Bruce in 1769 and contains extremely rare gnostic inner teachings, specifically the Book of Jeu, a text that, I believe, falls quite close to the epicenter of the highly advanced download of proto-gnostic teachings. First translated into German in 1892, this rare and highly obscure manuscript was only made more widely available in English in 1978.
The Askew Codex emerged from the shady antiquities dealers in 1785 when it surfaced and was purchase by the British Museum, containing 356 pages of rare script, including Coptic translations of the Pistis Sophia. Also, this codex contain a fragment of what has become known as The Gospel of Mary, and also what G.R.S. Meade calls “extracts from the Books of the Savior.” (5) These last two collections were initially translated in the 1890’s with a high degree of scholastic rigor by German Coptologist, Carl Schmidt, although the value of his work was not fully appreciated until they become more widely available in English translations in the late 1970’s.
Another 5th century collection called the Berlin Codex, discovered in Egypt in 1896, was found wrapped in white feathers in a Christian burial site and includes The Gospel of Mary, Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Apocryphon of John and the Act of Peter.
The Nag Hammadi Library
In 1945, a fourth massive stash of gnostic codices, or books made from papyrus paper, from the 4th century was discovered and finally published in 1978 in English as the Nag Hammadi Library. These documents that escaped the Roman heresy hunters exploded the numbers of early gnostic books by forty, giving us far more insight into who these people were and also giving us more detail about the specifics of their creation story. The Gospel of Thomas is perhaps the most well known of this collection, with the sayings of Jesus. This text is a good introduction to the gnostic tradition, and is less complex as it generally avoids more complex creation cosmology.
I want to highlight that it has only been since the late 1970’s that nearly all of these recovered texts became readily available to the public and it was Elaine Pagels’ book The Gnostic Gospels that opened the doors to many of us who knew little to nothing about this tradition. Before this time, we only had the materials written by the Christian heresiologists that denounced this tradition. Scholars such as G.R.S. Meade and Carl Jung did much to help further our understanding of this extremely spare body of work prior to the publication of this collection. But it was the 1978 publication of the Nag Hammadi Library and also of the Pistis Sophia and Books of Jeu that we have had a far greater ability to assess what was going on in this movement, from their own writings. Hence, it has been a mere forty years that we have had to fully fathom the significance of the magnitude of these texts that were now freed from the heresologists who worked so hard to denounce and discredit it. We are now in this amazing time period where this treasure can more thoroughly be mined, as this whole field of study is still so young and there is still so much to discover. Therefore, in my own 25 years of research, especially into the Sophianic component of these texts, I offer my insights, which may at times include bold claims. Such is the excitement as well as the risks of really exploring and fathoming this gnostic tradition that has been so taboo for so long.
The Nag Hammadi Library is often confused with the other significant discovery in 1948, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These Jewish scrolls, according to scholar Robert Eisenman, were a valuable stash of first and second century AD books associated with the Jamesian or Jewish zealot and messianic movement to reclaim the Nation of Israel in first century AD that led to the Jewish wars and Rome’s sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Hence, they are of a completely different lineage than the gnostic Nag Hammadi library as I will describe, though there are many dovetails between the two.
Like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there are endless variations of the gnostic tradition, with many sects, side streams and offshoots. The Nag Hammadi Library itself is a varied collection that includes gnostic, hermetic and platonic writings that were popular amongst this group in the mid 4th century when it is believed that this set of books was sealed in a jar and hid under a rock until they were found by a farmer looking for dung for his wife’s home cooking. (6) In 367 CE, the famous St. Athanaseus, (who that Santa Rosa Priest told me he had learned in seminary about the gnostics), banned all “non-canonical” Christian books, which was likely the impetus for some anonymous (and heroic) monk burying this most precious stash of gnostic books just outside the St. Pachomius Monastery near modern day Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
The Earliest Gnostics: Called “Sethian”
It is within this collection that scholars have identified some of the earliest writings of this extensive gnostic tradition. John D. Turner used the term Sethians, as was known by the Roman Bishop Epiphanius (4th century), due to how this lesser known offspring of Adam and Eve named Seth enters into the creation story. This earliest wave of 2nd century gnosticism is generally known to have originated in both Egypt and Syria (and modern day Southern Turkey). The feature of these specific texts that distinguishes them the most is their myth of origins.
The Sethian Apocalyphal (Secret) Book of John was likely the most popular book of the gnostics from that time as no less than three copies of it were found in the Nag Hammadi Library. The famed Valentinian tradition, perhaps the most well known of the Gnostic schools, was influenced by the earlier Sethian materials.
Three main ideas are unique to this Sethian Gnostic system. 1) The Cosmology of Sophia, 2) a unique interpretation of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and 3) a specific ritual of baptism, that involved an esoteric process of being influenced by, not water, but by the immersion in a sort of divine Light, known as the “living waters.”
This myth of origins is a central feature of this text and is the main text from which I developed my first “bardic” presentation of the Myth of Sophia in 1997.
This Sethian grouping is one slice of into what might be called the earlier tradition of the Deep Christ. Many other gnostics books that are not specifically identified in this grouping contain the specific creation mythology of Sophia and hence, we might consider a broader category of texts that could be called “Sophian”, that speak to this Sophianic cosmology. Later more Christianized texts such as the Tripartite Tractate and the Gospel of Truth show how Sophia is deleted from the story and generally overlaid with the Logos or the Church.
Books within the Sophianic category include; Pistis Sophia, Books of Jeu, Apochrypon of John, Eugnostos the Blessed, Sophia of Jesus Christ, Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Trimorphic Protennoia, Apocalypse of Peter, Acts of Thomas, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, and the Exegesis on the Soul.
In this entire collection of texts, no complete rendering of the creation story survived. For my work with this myth in The Sophia Project, I am using more than just the Apocalypse of John in developing the narrative. The Pistis Sophia includes extensive teachings around the fall of Sophia and her rescue.
As I will describe more at length in future posts, not only is this figure Jesus Christ himself featured as a main character in the creation story, he himself is, at times, the one who is the author of the story. This is extraordinary and is what brings us to this theme of what I am calling the Deep Christ. How do we reconcile that Jesus is featured so prominently in these texts, which is so different from how he is portrayed in the New Testament? It is this question that points us to the jewels of the first century Wisdom New Dispensation and the more original teachings from which the Sophian tradition emerged.
Next, we will step into the mysteries of Sophia.
- https://www.westarinstitute.org/resources/forum/reflections-on-the-category-gnosticism/. “The April 2016 issue of Westar’s academic journal, Foundations and Facets Forum, has just been posted online. The articles in this issue, from Westar’s Fall 2014 meeting, acknowledge that the category of ‘gnosticism’ is not an ideal tool for making sense of the first- and second-century movements that led to the emergence of Christianity.”
- My wife at the time was a choir director in that church and hence I was actively involved in the congregation. I found that in order for me to maintain my participation within that religious community, this gnostic interest of mine was forced to go underground, so to speak, into the privacy of my own world. Why would the priest not at least be curious about this topic? And why was it so important for him to root out from his own church this work of crack pots? There is a creative tension, I believe, between an established religion that seeks stability and continuity, and mysticism which is personal and can be highly subjective, leading to endless variations. Indeed the exoteric and the esoteric need each other, a point addressed most eloquently by Gersham Scholem in his book. (Reference coming.)
- Haar, Simon Magus, the first gnostic?. pg. 73.
- Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures. Doubleday: NY. 1987. p. 14
- I cringe knowing that an unknown number of pages from the Codex XIII were used as kindling by that farmer’s wife. Fortunately, the most precious Trimorphic Protennoia survived the flames.