The Deep Christ
Part II: Via Negativa
“That is not to say that the Jesus of history did not exist, only that the evidence is skewed and that the problem is more complex than many think.” Robert Eisenman
This past 2000 years in the processional turning of the ages has been marked by the astrological symbol of Pisces. As this cycle slowly shifts into the Aquarian age, we might be able to look back with some perspective into this past Christian epoch to see that indeed, something fishy was going on.
In the Introduction and in Part I of this Deep Christ mystery thriller inquiry, I opened up the subject of how Jesus is portrayed in the gnostic texts in contrast to depictions in the New Testament. The great gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels posed the question in her book The Gnostic Paul, how do we reconcile how St. Paul is celebrated as being a key player in the formation of both Christianity and Gnosticism. In the same way, how do we account for how both the Christians and the Gnostics attribute their inspiration and their origins to this man Jesus who is depicted so differently in these two traditions? It is this question that leads us deep into the mystery thriller of what was going on with this Christ and his cosmic consort, Sophia.
This investigation into these two competing versions of Jesus is not some academic exercise for mere entertainment. This is serious business because, somewhere along the way, I believe, a more original message from this man and his close associates has largely been lost. Sophia, a main clue on this trail, was not only written out of the Jesus teachings, so also was the most central enigma, the greatest buried treasure of this lost tradition, the divine spark within. Recovering what might be perhaps a more original historical footprint of this savior figure could help to uncover the raw material of these mysteries.
As part of this investigation, in the Deep Christ Part II, we will take a deep dive, Via Negativa, into the descent of this enigmatic figure Jesus Christ as he 1) came down to this aeon to rescue Sophia and 2), how he descended from first century, through the mysteries of gnosis and into the fog of Christian history and 3) is represented in various theories about the historical Jesus.
I am circling around the first century with so called “soft eyes”, holding off on making any focused conclusions. There are too many questions about what happened historically and too many layers of misinformation to get a clear picture of this Jesus story, much as the Bible would have us believe. In fact, as we step into this whole enigma of the early Jesus, it might be easiest to just wipe clean any prior conceptions one has of this man. This is not to abandon one’s own relationship with him, whatever that might be, but just for the purposes of this investigation, I find that it is easiest to just start from scratch.
Gnosticism is Not a Christian Corruption (heresy)
I understand that Gnosticism grew and developed alongside Christianity in the first few centuries CE as two separate religious systems that, from their earliest beginnings, formed cross fertilizations between the two.
From their unknown origins, these “ante-Nicene” (prior to 325 CE) gnostic texts, particularly the Sethian texts, were specifically not Christian. They were novel. They were not later corruptions or heresies of the Jesus gospels that we are so familiar with, a point that counters the overwhelming consensus of Christian theologians. C. Barth in 1911 concludes that “the basic concepts of Valentinian teaching (who were inspired by the Sethian texts), as of any gnosis, clearly were older than Christianity itself…” (1) This is why the texts that survived the orthodox Nicene purges of what they considered to be heresies are all the more remarkable.
The editor in chief of the first edition publication of the 1700 year old Nag Hammadi Library (1977), James M. Robinson posits that instead of Gnosticism distorting and corrupting more original and more pure Christian themes, rather, the completely independent gnostic movement, overtime, gradually adopted Christian themes.
“In non of the Sethian instances can one derive their texts or their mythologies primarily from Christian tradition. For the Christian ingredient seems so external to the main thrust of the text that one is inclined to think it was added by a Christian editor, translator, or scribe to what had been originally composed as a non-Christian text, even though the purely non-Christian form is no longer extant. For example, the Trimorphic Protennoia, where a secondary Christianizing has taken place, has nonetheless its roots in the same Jewish wisdom speculation as does the prologue of the Gospel [Apochraphon] of John. … Thus one concludes that though the Sethian corpus was obviously usable by Christians (as were other non-Christian texts such as the Old Testament), it derives from non-Christian ‘Jewish’ Gnosticism.” (2) (3)
This raises the question of the origins of this gnostic tradition which scholars have not been able to come to any clear conclusions, even today. As Robinson suggests, this system emerged from some vague “Jewish gnosticism” though at the same time and unlike Barth quoted above, he is not saying that gnosticism is pre-Christian.
From my own research, I am proposing in this web series a novel thesis that gnosticism sprang originally from a sole source in the first century CE. This theory of a New Dispensation of Wisdom I have introduced and offered some historical context to it in previous posts. This point of origin provided the raw material upon which a proto-orthodox Christian system began to take shape in the later first century CE. This thesis hinges on the unique and novel way in which Jesus is depicted in the gnostic texts in contrast to how he is presented in the New Testament and on how the orthodox tradition made editorial changes to their scriptures with a specific agenda in mind, as Eisenman has written about extensively.
Does the Jesus of the Gnostic tradition offer a wholly separate, novel and possibly more original depiction of the Biblical savior? What are the implications of his teachings if indeed they were more complex and presents a more comprehensive cosmological view of human history that includes a strange kind of otherworldly enslavement? What has been the price that humanity has paid with the erasure of this profound gnostic meta view as we stumble towards spiritual maturity and, indeed, liberation?
To begin, I will first sketch an overview of the Jesus of the Gnostic texts.
The Gnostic Jesus
As I have outlined in the previous sections on the Creation Story of Sophia, there are very distinct references to how the main character in these texts is Jesus who is giving extensive explanations of the origins of creation.
The gnostic texts where Jesus is the one who is talking in first person include Pistis Sophia, Apochryphon of John, Second Treatise of the Great Seth, First Apocalypse of James, Book of Thomas the Contender, Gospel of Thomas, Apocalypse of Peter, Sophia of Jesus Christ and Letter of Peter to Philip. In some of the gnostic texts, Jesus being specifically the one who is presenting the teaching is added to an earlier version of the text, such as in the example of how Eugnotos is the name of the teacher who then becomes Jesus in the later version of that text, called Sophia of Jesus Christ. This is also seen in the earlier and later versions of the Secret Book of John and I assume this has happened with Pistis Sophia as well. Some texts in this Nag Hammadi collection, such as the Gospel of Truth and Tripartite Tractate are written as a third person account of Jesus’ teachings.
References to Jesus in the Gnostic Texts
1. The Gnostic Jesus’ Voice in the Gnostic Gospels
Following are quotes attributed to Jesus in the gnostic texts.
“I am Christ, the Son of Man, the one from you who is among you.” (Second Treatise of the Great Seth. Robinson, 1978, p. 369)
“I am Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who is exalted above the heavens.” (Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Robinson, p. 370)
“It is the Lord who spoke with me: ‘See now the completion of my redemption. I have given you a sign of these things James, my brother.'” (The First Apocalypse of James, Robinson, p. 262)
“The savior said, ‘Brother Thomas, while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind.'” (Book of Thomas the Contender, Robinson, p. 201)
“The teachings of the savior and the revelation of the mysteries together with those things hidden in silence and those things which he taught to John the disciple… He said to me, ‘John, John, why do you doubt, or why are you afraid? You are not unfamiliar with this image, are you? this is do not be timid! I am the one who is with you alway. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son.'” (Apochryphon of John, Robinson p. 105)
“Jesus said…” 114 sayings in the The Gospel of Thomas.
“And he (the Savior) said to me, ‘Be strong, for you are the one to whom these mysteries have been given…'” (Apocalypse of Peter, Robinson, pg. 377)
“The Perfect Savior said, ‘I came from the Infinite that I might tell you all things.'” (Sophia of Jesus Christ, Robinson, p. 225)
Much like in the ascension story account in Pistis Sophia, Peter is recounting Jesus’ revelation appearance on the Mount of Olives. “Listen to my words that I may speak to you. … I am Jesus Christ who am with you forever.” (Letter of Peter to Philip, Robinson, p. 434)
2. The Gnostic Jesus describes the Cosmology of Origins
Following are quotes from the Gnostic Jesus where he is describing the complex cosmology of original creation.
Jesus said, “The Monad [is a] monarchy with nothing above it.” (Apochryphon of John, Robinson, p 106).
“He is immeasurable since there was no one prior to him to measure him.”(Apochryphon of John, Robinson, p 106)
“This is the first thought, his image; she became the womb of everything for it is she who is prior to them all…” (Apochryphon of John, Robinson p. 107)
“And Its thinking become a thing. She appeared. She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the light; she is the power which is before the All. It is she who appeared, she who is the perfect Pronnoia of the All, the light.” (Apochryphon of John, Robinson p. 105)
“And Sophia of the Epinoia, being an aeon, conceived a thought from herself and the conception of the invisible Spirit (Higher Sophia/Pronnoia) and foreknowledge (Divine Father Image).” (Apochryphon of John, Robinson p. 110)
“And he looked at Barbelo with the pure light which surrounded the invisible Spirit and with his spark, and she conceived from him. He begot a spark of light with a light resembling blessedness. But it does not equal his greatness. This was an only-begotten child of the Mother-Father which had come forth; it is the only offspring, the only-begotten one of the Father, the pure Light.” (Apochryphon of John, Robinson p. 108)
“The son is perfect in every respect. He is the word who originated through that voice, who came from on high, who has within him the name, who is light. The son revealed the everlasting, and all the unknown was known. He revealed what is hard to interpret and what is secret, and he preached to those who live in silence with first thought, and he revealed himself to those who are in darkness, and he clarified himself to those in the abyss. To those in the hidden treasuries he told ineffable mysteries, and he taught unspeakable doctrines to all those who became children of the light.” (Trimorphic Protennoia) (4)
3) The Gnostic Jesus came from “The First Mystery”, or the “Great Power”
Following are quotes that appear to link the higher (Christ) self of the Gnostic Jesus with the earliest stages of source creation.
“…he decided to have his likeness become a great power.” (Sophia of Jesus Christ)
“In the beginning, he decided to have his likeness become a great power.” (Eugnostos The Blessed)
“A great power was put upon you, which the Father of the All, the Eternal, put upon you before you came to this place.” (Allogenes)
4) He Identifies Himself as The Father, The Mother and The Son.
“He said to me, ‘John, John, why do you doubt, or why are you afraid? You are not unfamiliar with this image, are you? – that is, do not be timid! – I am the one who is with you (pl.) always. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son. I am the undefiled and incorruptible one.'” (Apochryphon of John)
5) The Gnostic Jesus Describes the Region of the Right and the Region of the Left.
As part of this cosmology, Jesus describes areas that are both inside and outside the arena of the higher cosmology and the area that is outside of this. These are called respectively The Region of the Right and the Region of the Left.
“And if I lead you into the Light-land, that is into the Treasury of the Light, and ye see the glory in which they are, then will the region of those of the Right count for you as the light at mid-day in the world of men, when the sun is not out; and if ye look at the region of those of the Right, it will have for you the condition of a speck of dust because of the great distance the Treasury of the Light is distant from it.” (PS1 Chap 84)
“Let all the powers (archons) of the Left go to their regions.” (PS1 Chap 141)
“And it giveth the apology of all the rulers of all the regions of the Left,–whose collective apologies and seals I will one day tell you when I shall tell you the expansion of the universe.” (PSIII:112)
6) The Gnostic Jesus’ “descent” from the Region of the Right into the Region of the Left (ruled by the Archons), disguised so as to go by undetected by the archons.
In these passages, Jesus disguises himself as the archons themselves in order to pass through the gates of the archons undetected.
“For as I came downward, no one saw me. For I was altering my shapes, changing from form to form. And therefore, when I was at their (the archon’s) gates, I assumed their likeness. For I passed them by quietly, and I was viewing the places, and I was not afraid nor ashamed, for I was undefiled.” (Second Treatise of the Great Seth)
“I am the one who was sent down in the body because of the seed which had fallen away. And I came down into their mortal mold. But they did not recognize me; they were thinking of me that I was a mortal man.” (The Letter of Peter to Philip, Robinson, p. 435)
“It came to pass then thereafter that Jesus gave command: ‘Let all the powers of the Left go to their regions.'” (PSV:141)
“And I went into the realm of darkness and I endured till I entered the middle of the prison. And the foundations of chaos shook. And I hid myself from them because of their wickedness, and they (the archons) did not recognize me.” (Apochryphon of John)
“The Third time I revealed myself to them in their tents as Word, and I revealed myself in the likeness of their shape. And I wore everyone’s (archons) garment, and I hid myself within them, and they did not know the one who empowers me. For I dwell within all the Sovereignties and Powers, and within the angels, and in every movement that exists in all matter.” (Trimorphic Protennoia)
“As for me, I put on Jesus.” (Trimorphic Protennoia, Robinson, p. 521)
“And I hid myself within them until I revealed myself to my brethren. And none of the archons) knew me, although it is I who work in them. Rather, they thought that the All was created by them, since they are ignorant, not knowing their root, the place in which they grew.” (Trimorphic Protennoia) (5)
7) He Identified the Jewish God YHWH with the Demiurge, he named Yaldabaoth.
“‘I am God and there is no other beside me.’ But I laughed joyfully when I examined his empty glory.” (Second Treaty of the Great Seth, Robinson, p. 364)
“And when he saw the creation which surrounds him, and the multitude of the angels (archons) around him which had come forth from him, he said to them, ‘I am a jealous God, and there is no other God beside me.’” (Apochryphon of John)
“Now the archon who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, ‘I am God and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come. (Apochryphon of John)
8) The Gnostic Jesus was known as the Christ.
“I am Christ, the Son of Man, the one from you who is among you.” (Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Robinson, p. 369)
His higher self is equated with what is termed The Logos, The Word, The Standing One, The Christ, THE Prototype (in St. Paul’s Romans). Pagel’s refers to him as The One Man, the “Anthropos”. He is also identified with an aspect of that original trinity that seems to be associated with the figure of the Logos, also called the Word, but which is associated with this archetypal divine figure of “man”, called Anthropos in Greek, and Adam Kadmon or the Primal Adam in the esoteric Jewish texts of Kabbalah. The Greek word Christos would be the title associated with this aspect of his higher self. Another languaging of this higher identity uses the word “Standing,” “stood up” and “being upright within himself because he exists in everyone.” This “Word” is also associated with the “epinoia” or “ennoia” which is equated with the Divine Inner Spark of Sophia, and also of Christ. This is what she brought here and he worked to make sure the experiment was not caught in the clutches of these archons.
9) The Gnostic Jesus Came to Rescue Sophia who was Trapped and Persecuted by the Archons
He came to down specifically to rescue Sophia, his consort on the higher levels of original creation.
Hippolytus refers to the parable of the lost sheep as a metaphor for the rescue of Sophia. In the Gospel of Thomas (#107), Jesus said, “The (Father’s) kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, ‘I love you more than the ninety-nine.'”
“…[it was] a lion-faced ruler in the chaos, of which one half is fire and the other darkness, –that is Yaldabaoth, of whom I have spoken unto you many times. When then this befell, Sophia became very greatly exhausted, and that lion-faced light-power set to work to take away from Sophia all her light-powers…” (PSI:31)
“It came to pass then, when Pistis Sophia had finished saying these words in the chaos, that I made the light-power, which I had sent to save her, become a light-wreath on her head.” (PSI:59)
“And the lion-faced power and the serpent-form and the basilisk-form and the dragon-form and all the other very numerous emanations of Self-willed surrounded Pistis Sophia all together, desiring to take from her anew her powers in her, and they oppressed Pistis Sophia exceedingly and threatened her. It came to pass then, when they oppressed her and alarmed her exceedingly, that she cried again to the Light and sang praises, saying: ‘1. O Light, it is thou who hast helped me; let thy light come over me.’” (PSII:66)
10) He Descended to Rescue the Divine Spark Within Individuals
“I have awakened that drop that was sent from Sophia, that it might bear much fruit through me, and be perfected and not again be defective, but be joined through me, the Great Savior, that his glory might be revealed…” (Sophia of Jesus Christ)
“I am the Light that illumines the All. I am the Light that rejoices in my brethren, for I have come down to the world of mortals on account of the Spirit (spark) that remains in that which descended and came forth from the innocent Sophia.” (Trimorphic Protennoia, Robinson, p. 520)
11) He Descended to Save Humanity from the Clutch of the Archons
“Now I have taught you about Immortal Man and have loosed the bonds of the robbers from him.” (Sophia of Jesus Christ)
“Lord, tell us: In what way shall we fight against the archons, since the archons are above us?” Then a voice called out to them from the (Savior) saying, ‘Now you will fight against them in this way, for the archons are fighting against the inner man. And you are to fight against them in this way: Come together and teach in the world the salvation with a promise. And you, gird yourselves with the power of my Father and let your prayer be known. And he, the Father, will help you as he has helped you by sending me.'” (Letter of Peter to Philip, Robinson, p. 435-436)
12) Teaching Lasted well past the time of the crucifixion.
His teachings lasted well past the time of the crucifixion.
“It came to pass, when Jesus had risen from the dead, that he passed eleven years discoursing with his disciples…” (PSI:1)
“For my death which they think happened, happened to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death.” (Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Robinson p. 365) (Note: I will address the issue of the crucifixion in a later post.)
A Brief Look at How this Gnostic Jesus became the New Testament Jesus
In contrast to this strange and otherworldly gnostic Jesus, let us step back and review the very familiar story of the origins of Christianity.
A Reader’s Digest version of Christian Origins
“Once upon a time, historians of the early church wrote a simple story of a pristine faith received from Jesus Christ and communicated to his disciples. With an agreed gospel summed up in the Apostles’ Creed, they dispersed to spread the word in all directions. In time, however, this unified message was frustrated by distortions called heresies, which produced their own offspring, multiplying and diversifying, by contrast with the one truth entrusted to the apostles. Despite heresy and persecution, however, Christianity triumphed with the conversion of Constantine.” (6)
This Cambridge history here is stating that this simple narrative has been the definitive and largely unquestioned version of Christianity’s origins for most of this religion’s history. The point is well taken that this formula is oversimplified, and this Cambridge history seeks to fill in with far more scholastically responsible detail. “Doubtless that is an over-simplification of an over-simplification, yet it is towards the goal of emancipation from such a schematized view of earliest Christianity (a perspective inherited from the ancient sources themselves) that much modern critical scholarship has been directed.” (7)
It is not by chance that this story book version of Christian history is what has been gospel for much of the past 2000 years. This version of Christian origins was shaped by many hands amidst the social, political and religious influences of the times.
Christian Heresiologists: How Orthodoxy Won the Narrative Game
One of these hands, in its early stages, was a relatively small group of Christian writers who were instrumental in narrowing down and defining what true Christianity was. They presented the case for a cohesive Christianity by picking apart the “heterodoxical” (diverse) threads that lie outside of the parameter of what became established “orthodoxy” (uniform). These authors were known as the “heresiologists” because they wrote about what was seen as the corruption or heresy of a more pure and “original” Christian doctrine.
The writings of the heresiologists are a valuable record of not only the way in which they were shaping the emerging orthodoxy, but they also provide a rare record of the writings of the gnostics.
Here is an excellent and concise overview of the hereseologists and I refer the reader to this well researched history.
“When most of the heresiologists were writing – the second and third centuries – there wasn’t any standard of orthodoxy that was officially codified or enforced, because there wasn’t an official church that could have codified or enforced it. Christianity was still a very decentralized and diverse religious movement. Several different varieties of Christianity existed, each of which was claimed by its adherents to be normal, true Christianity, while the rival versions were riddled with dangerous errors. Effectively, each type of early Christianity saw itself as orthodox and the others as heresies.” (ref)
“An official church that championed one of these varieties of early Christianity – the heresiologists’ variety – at the expense of the others only arose with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century.” (ref)
“Finally, the Gnostics differentiated between who was a true Christian and who wasn’t based on the spiritual maturity of the person in question. As the Gospel of Philip puts it, some people “go down into the water and come up without having received anything.” The proto-orthodox, on the other hand, used simple, outward criteria: does this person profess to be a Christian? Is he or she willing to undergo martyrdom? Has he or she been baptized? Does he or she submit to the clergy? If so, then he or she is a Christian. The Gnostics saw the proto-orthodox as shallow and small-minded, while the proto-orthodox saw the Gnostics as confused, obscurantist, and snobby.” (ref)
The French Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus (~155 – 202 C.E.), embarked on one of the earliest and most rigorous campaigns to dismantle this novel cosmology and replace it with a more exoteric, generalized, less complex religious system.
In a strange irony, these writings from the hereseologists preserved the only record of Gnosticism since the times of their virtual elimination around the late 300’s AD, until the discoveries of the Bruce and Askew Codices in the late 1700’s. If it wasn’t for these writings, Gnosticism might have been fully lost to history, as just one more odd blip on the screen of innumerable sects of that time period.
Peter was the disciple who became the anchor for the orthodox tradition and, as we shall see, by emphasizing Peter’s teachings, this was a means by which the Roman church created a boundary from other teachings, such as the gnostic teachings St. Paul and of St. Thomas, for example.
Clement who succeeded St. Peter as the Pope of Rome, opposed “false Gnosis with the true Gnosis of the Christian. By means of good, healthy living, knowledge of the principles of faith and growth in the spiritual dimension, the Christian is able to achieve the status of a true Gnostic, of one who aspires to know God through the Son.” (8) Here a depth wisdom process and individual spiritual empowerment was replaced by moral guidance as accessed “through the Son.”
The Move to Orthodoxy Had its Value, With a Purpose that was Not Just About Control.
It is easy to feel anger towards these hereseologists at how they tore up the sacred scriptures of gnosis. Or as is popular in our modern day, one might want to look for some sinister conspiracy that worked over the centuries to make sure these sacred writings were kept safely away from the masses.
However, the work of the hereseologists made sense when we look at it from within the effort of this fledgling new religion’s effort to survive through its infancy. The gnostic system was too complex, too esoteric for a “universal” religion that needed to speak to the common man. This was advanced teaching that required a more rigorous degree of study to be able to grasp. Strange alien beings and a creation story of this super angelic Sophia who could not easily fit into any familiar Athena-like feminine goddess figure of the times.
Gnosticism complex and strange and later schools and writings of this tradition sought to systematize it in a way that was more easily understood, with more affinity with the emerging Christian orthodoxy.
The Valentinian Gospel of Truth is a good example of this, where there are more concrete concepts upon which this text is built, making it more understandable, less cosmological, and more focused on Jesus as the central motif. The Valentinians were like a second generation of the earlier Sethian tradition. If the original cosmology came from some first hand mystical account, then later writings tended to be more philosophical than directly mystical.
“Christianity needed definition because during the first generation of its existence, it exhibited a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices, sometimes manifest in splinter groups making exclusive claims… Christianity needed identity because unlike other ancient Mediterranean religions, it had ceased to remain tied to a particular ethnic group… Christianity needed legitimation because no religious movement or philosophical sect could be credible unless it was rooted in antiquity. (9)
Even though this Christian orthodox trend worked to bury the novel gnostic system, the very survival of the fleeting school of mysticism owes its very survival to these hereseologists. For much of the last 2000 years, our only record of these people and their teachings came from the writings of the hereseologists. Had they not been so thorough in writing down what it was they were exactly denouncing, this whole system might well have been lost.
Gnosticism was an esoteric tradition that requires careful study to grasp, and hence it was generally too difficult the average reader to appreciate. Indeed, Paul sought to write with cryptic reference to these more esoteric teachings, while also packaging it in a way that could more easily be accepted with less rigorous study. Gnosticism is seen as “reserved for the elite” which smacks of elitism and hence is automatically suspect, especially when the emerging Catholic or “universal” church was seeking to make itself available to all people, which was clearly a noble cause.
Marcion as an example of how Orthodoxy Conquered Gnostic Motifs
Marcion of Sinope (85 – 160 CE) was a wealthy ship owner from north eastern Turkey, who went to Rome where he became involved in the formation of early Christianity. Marcion is notable for three very significant things.
First, he compiled what became the first prototype of the New Testament that included a collection of Paul’s letters as well as the Gospel of Marcion which has many similarities to the four gospels. Marcion claimed that this gospel was the original Gospel that the emerging Roman orthodox architects then edited it into their own versions with their own spin. (Marcion hypothesis)
Secondly, Marcion developed an extensive network of churches in Asia Minor that, like his bare bones Bible, became a prototype for how Christian congregations began to be organized.
And lastly, Marcion had core assertions, according to his detractors the hereseologists, that were clearly gnostic. He believed that Paul was the sole inheritor of a true teachings of Jesus, and an account of his divine revelation is found in the Nag Hammadi library, the Apocalypse of Paul. Marcion worked with the famed Valentinus in Rome where he rejected the theory of the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teachings. To him, Jesus descended from a higher place than this lower god called Yahweh, a figure he equated with the famed gnostic demiurge. He completely rejected the notion that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Jewish Messianic but rather asserted that he was coming from a completely novel, specifically non-Jewish place, (a new dispensation?) which included a rejection of the Jewish God as opposed to the true God, referred to in some gnostic texts as “the Ineffable.” Most notably, like Valentinus, he was denounced as a heretic and expelled from what was beginning to take firm hold in 2nd and 3rd century Rome as the orthodox tradition.
The hereseologists did to Marcion what they did to gnosticism in general; they obscured and buried his teachings, turning him from a valuable early Christian pioneer into a villain. The hereseologist Tertullian was particularly masterful in making sure that the writings of Marcion were seen as a corruption of the Gospels and of Acts, rather than, what some scholars believe, were perhaps their earliest versions. (10).
I will look more into Paul later in this series, but it appears that Marcion carried forward Paul in a similar way that Paul carried forward the gnostic Jesus. Both of them took a more esoteric teaching and worked it in a way that could be more easily assimilated into the dominant culture of the first two centuries C.E.. In both cases, however, their gnostic teachings were eventually dissolved, where Jesus was no longer the gnostic sage but rather the one who spoke in parables. Just as Marcion became the thesis upon which the antithesis of the proto-orthodoxy was being crafted, so were Paul’s gnostic leanings drawn into the less esoteric Peter who became the apostolic foundation upon which the new Roman religious institution was built.
A prominent German scholar, Ferdinand Bauer (1792-1860) was one of the first to try to untangle the head-tilting orthodox version of Christian history. He argued that one of the key heresiologists named Eusebius worked to rewrite early Christian conflicts to where the proto-orthodox Christian model was seen as the original version that came straight from the teachings of Jesus.
In 325 AD, Constantine gathered bishops from across the land and locked in the core belief framework for what was to become the orthodox Christian tradition. The Nicene Creed was a big nail in the gnostic coffin, where Athenasius’ proclamation in 367 forbade possession of any non-canonical texts. (11) (12) One Baptism, not the multiple baptist rituals of the gnostics, just Jesus with no Sophia, just God the Father and the Holy Ghost without that messy cosmology of origins. (13)
By 380 AD, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the national religion for its vast empire, a move whose motivations were as political as they were religious.
One motivation for this was to establish a quality control system of institutionalizing the church through “apostolic succession” from it’s head office in Rome. Starting with Peter, this centralized quality control system established a uniform doctrine to guard against endless variation (heterodoxy). There was great diversity of the gnostic sects from Rome, Babylon to Southern India with no anchor of coherence between the sects, something which Christianity sought to avoid. The gnostic system over time was becoming increasingly speculative and endless variations were drawn up to try to make it easier to grasp this complex and strange cosmology.
There of course was also the need to foster more people’s dependency on this central savior image as well as on the church itself, both being necessary intermediaries with the divine. The church as an institution, by its very nature, needed people to depend on it for it to grow and stay in control of the narrative.
Gnosticism grew and developed along side Christianity where there were both cross fertilizations and completely separate story lines. However, from its origins, according to scholars, these pre-orthodox gnostic texts, particularly the Sethian and Sophian texts, were largely relics of a pre-Christian theology. They were novel. They were not later variations of the Jesus gospels that we are so familiar with. This is why the texts that survived the Nicene purges are all the more remarkable.
This is a hinge upon which the fishiness of the Christian era seems to squeak. The Gnostic system that emerged in late 1st century CE had virtually no relationship to what we now know of as orthodox Roman Christianity. However, as the victorious writers of Christian history will have it, those writings were corruptions of the more pure orthodox writings.
This view that the gnostics were Christian heretics is so deeply entrenched in the western psyche, that it has lasted in some form or another even to this day. Most people, I think, have an instinctive cringe with the very word gnostic, not knowing why.
The Gnostics had little chance in the face what ultimately became a Roman state supported “orthodoxy”. In time, largely up to the mid 4th century, the gnostic tradition became increasingly suspect and the focus of ridicule, censorship, and persecution where books such as those found within the Nag Hammadi resorted to being buried in large clay pots in the desert to survive. In the following many centuries, the Roman based Christian priests and theologians continued to define their religions to where the history became so heavily reinforced and matter-of-fact that only in the last hundred years has there been any crack in their historical narrative to where an alternative view could be considered.
An Undifferentiated Jesus
From my investigation, I have come to suspect that a clear understanding of this strange gnostic portrayal of Jesus has been virtually impossible for even modern scholarship to easily unpack from the now numerous ancient gnostic scripts. There appears to be an almost unconscious tendency to just want to complete the picture, the gestalt in the mind’s eye, that the Gnostic Jesus is just simply another way of looking at the Biblical Jesus and just leave it at that. Forget that these texts claim that he continued his teachings for years after the crucifixion. Ignore how this Gnostic Jesus spoke at length with tremendous detail about the nature of the original trinitized creation, something which is completely absent in the New Testament.
The Fog of the Historical Jesus
“That is not to say that the Jesus of history did not exist, only that the evidence is skewed and that the problem is more complex than many think.” – Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus.
We will now circle around the earliest developments of Christianity and Gnosticism that can be caught in the blur of the intersection between history and myth. Theaters both old and contemporary have used artificial fog to create a mood or to obscure a scene. As we begin to settle into this next Act of our Mystery Play, we will wade through the confusion of an historical portrayal of the figure of Jesus, to stumble through the fog in the theater of Christian history.
Jesus was a real man, who lived in the early part of the first century AD in the area we know now as Israel. Many modern day gnostics, I was surprised to find out, actually do not believe this and instead, they subscribe to the idea that he was a spirit who had direct contact with his disciples and that his teachings were delivered from his disembodied presence. This is a philosophy known as Docetisism and it harkens back to the age-old debate that plagued Christian theology about whether Jesus was human or divine or some combination of the two.
To be clear, I fully subscribe to the idea that Jesus was a mortal, living, breathing man, and that he was indeed at the epicenter of the origins of a new religion. However, his story is so shrouded with smoke and mirrors that it is hard to find the historical bedrock upon which this man stood in this world.
As many who have investigated the historical Jesus have found, there are only slim correlations between the Biblical stories of Jesus and those of the historians of the day, such as the most prominent and significant historian of that time and place, Josephus (37 – c. 100 AD). (14)
Included in Josephus’ writings were detailed descriptions of characters we are familiar with in the Bible, such as Pontius Pilate, the Herod’s etc. In 44 AD two brothers, who were players in the Jewish zealot uprisings against the Romans, were crucified. However, apart from one very questionable exception, there is no Jesus crucifixion to be found in Josephus.
There is one reference to this man Jesus in his writings, and this is a mere mention that he was a brother of a figure of historical significance to Josephus, known as James.
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…”. (italics mine) (15)
There is another reference in the paragraph known as the Testimonium Flavianum that is written so differently than the rest of his writing that it is undoubtedly added in a later edition of Josephus’ works, in the same way that the orthodox writers were by and large steering the emerging narrative. (16)
If Jesus had such a dramatic presence and impact in this time period, why has he not gotten more press at that time?
So much has been written about this that have included every theory under the Son, so to speak. Some believe that he was just a fabricated myth constructed from past savior myths. Was Jesus a Jewish zealot (Aslan), a wand wielding magician (Huston Smith), a recreated Pagan God from a Greco-Roman mystery cult (Freke) or a political messiah (Reimarus)? Did he go to India and Tibet in his missing years? Was he a creation of the late first century AD Flavian attempts to conflate Titus with a messianic Jesus? (17). Or was he simply an apocalyptic prophet as most scholars seem to agree on? Why, in the earliest Jewish texts of the Talmud which began to be assembled after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD is there is no mention of this rebel Jew named Jesus? (18). This debate will unfortunately never be resolved for, “There is no physical or archaeological evidence for Jesus; all existing sources are documentary.” (19)
Robert Price is a lead proponent of the Christ Myth theory. So elusive is this Jesus in the historical record that Price and others believe that this savior figure is basically a construct, a fictional character that was created and superimposed into history. This theory points to the numerous ways in which details about Jesus in the New Testament can be drawn from earlier pre-Christian Jewish, Greek and Egyptian mythologies. Though I believe that the New Testament characterization of Jesus indeed has been largely constructed by those hands of orthodoxy, I believe that it doesn’t account for how there indeed was a first century historical Jesus, one who was a lead figure in what could be considered a new dispensation.
What is lacking here is a critical understanding of how this narrative was forged over some hundreds of years in the furnaces of an orthodoxy where edits were made with an agenda that is gradually becoming more clearly recognized. Thought I do not agree with the findings in Aslan’s book Zealot and do not see this Jesus figure as being solely rooted in a context of Jewish “zealot”, he nevertheless contributes to this challenge of bringing more clarity in the fog of the historical Jesus. (20)
Aslan writes, “Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. This was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosuis (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher’s movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity emerged.” (21)
Robert Eisenman has conducted perhaps one of the most exhaustive studies into first century Christian history and the question of the historical Jesus. Referring to the earliest recorded writings about Jesus, from St. Paul. “Only two historical points about Jesus emerge from Paul’s letters; firstly, that he was crucified at some point – date unspecified (1 Tim. 6:13, which is not considered authentically Paul), and, secondly, that he had several brothers, one of whom was one called James (Gal. 1:19, largely believed to be authentic to Paul). In fact, taking the brother relationship seriously may turn out to be one of the only confirmations that there ever was a historical Jesus.” (22)
The material in this Deep Christ Part II has been the most difficult to write of all the sections so far. If it feels dense, you are not mistaken as this is like bushwhacking a path through the thick jungle of Christian and Gnostic history.
I am not a scholar in the same way that established academic scholarship requires. Rather, I am a storyteller. As an artist, I am striving as much as possible to honor the historical and textual resources from which this story is found. Undoubtedly, the Deep Christ is a tough mystery to crack.
That being said and despite this section being fairly dense, I found no other way to present a backdrop to what I believe has been a radical and profound discovery. This is a discovery that is incredibly hard to grasp, and yet, like a found missing puzzle piece, suddenly the whole picture starts to make sense.
Up until now in this series, I have been holding back on bringing in a key figure in this mysterious origins of both Gnosticism and Christianity. I have been circling around him without mentioning him because he deserves a place on the stage that is not cluttered by all of the preliminaries that were needed to get to this point in our story. The extent at which the character of this man has been completely destroyed by Christian orthodoxy is equal to the extent at which gnosticism has been destroyed as well, so closely related is this man to gnosticism. Indeed, the hereseologists Irenaeus himself, credits this man as being the founder of Gnosticism.
It is with great pleasure to introduce a new lead character in this Deep Christ mystery thriller, Simon Magus.
- Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Paul, Gnostic exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Harrisburg, PA, Trinity Press International. 1975. p. 3
- Robinson, James, M. General Editor. The Nag Hammadi Library: Revised edition. the definitive new translation fo the gnostic scriptures complete in one volume. San Francisco: Harper and Row. 1978. p. 8
- At the same time, his emphasis on the Jewish roots of Gnosticism may come into question in the thesis of this Deep Christ series, with the idea of a first century new dispensation that was distinctly non-Jewish, and where efforts such as Luke’s attempt to pin the Christ with a Jewish Pharsiac lineage may well be part of the effort to circumvent the role that gnosticism played in the early formation of Christianity
- It is quite interesting to note how the Gnostic texts have so much focus on the concept of this original trinity whereas in the New Testament, there is barely mention of this, and it is only later in the development of Christianity that the trinity becomes a primary doctrine.
- A major focus of Christian theology for hundreds of years after Jesus lived, was on whether he was divine, human or some combination of both. Literally, massive divisions were fought over this one point. But in the gnostic texts, Jesus speaks quite clearly of how, as a specific deity who existed in the highest levels of creation came down into a body, as in the case of The Second Treatise of the Great Seth. “I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it first, and I went in. And the whole multitude of the archons became troubled.”
- Mitchell, M and Young, F.M. The Cambridge History of Christianity; From Origins to Constantine. Cambridge University Press. 2008.
- Mitchell, M and Young, F.M. The Cambridge History of Christianity; From Origins to Constantine. Cambridge University Press. 2008.
- Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell. 1990. p. 5.
- Haar, Steven. Simon Magus, The First Gnostic? Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 2003. p. 78
- Tyson, Joseph, B. Marcion and Luke-Acts, A defining struggle. Columbia South Carolina: U of SC Press. 2006.
- Couliano, Ioan, P. The Tree of Gnosis. Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism. SF: Harper. p. 31
- The Episcopal Nicene Creed from the Book of Common Prayer: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
- In an original version of the Nicene Creed, a tag line was added; “We don’t accept this line ‘There was a time when he was not.’” Here they are clearly disputing the gnostic claim that the Jewish God was a later and far inferior God than the Ineffable, Unknowable Source God.
- Josephus was an educated Jew from Jerusalem who fought in the Jewish uprising but was captured by the Roman army. He then turned on his cause, and, likely as a means of gaining favor, managed to get word to the Roman military commander Vespasian that Vespasian himself would be the one to fulfill the long-awaited Messiah (Meshiach). To Josephus’ good fortune, this “prophecy” was fulfilled, at least to some degree, when, in the wake of Nero’s suicide, the revered Vespasian became Emperor of the Roman Empire. Josephus was adopted into this Flavian family where he spent decades meticulously documenting the history of that era, including a whole book on the Jewish wars. Though there is a need to recognize his bias in favor of the Romans, still he was incredibly meticulous in his descriptions and historical accuracy, having the unique viewpoint of being both a prominent Jew and Roman citizen.
- Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews. Book 20, Chapter 9 paragraph 1.
- Josephus, Book VIII, Chap 3, paragraph 3. “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”). If we take this paragraph at face value, it appears to align with the story of Christ that we all know so well, but if we look at this paragraph in the context of not only Josephus’ writing in general but the paragraphs that both precede it and proceed it, like most scholars agree, it stands out like a sore thumb.
- Atwill, Joseph. Ceasar’s Messiah; The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus. Charleston, SC. CreateSpace. 2011.
- Throughout the first century AD in Palestine, there was an increasingly threatening Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupation that festered as a thorn in the side of the foreign rule that culminated in a horrendous four year battle for Jerusalem and massive slaughter, enslavement and exile of the whole of the Jewish population from that area in 70 AD. The idea that Jesus, as Aslan suggests, was a part of this Jewish Zealot uprising, was something which the Roman sponsored editors of the Bible had no desire to promote. Indeed, throughout the New Testament, there is a tone of being soft on the Roman’s and hard on the Jews. As some argue the forgers of this orthodox doctrine made sure that no new religion would pose the challenge to Roman rule that these Jewish zealots did, and hence, much of the context of this historical uprising disappeared from the story of Jesus, as did any elements of a religious system that could once again pose such an enormous challenge to Roman authority.
- Aslan, Reza. Zealot. NY: Randon House. 2013. p. xxx
- Eisenman, James. James the Brother of Jesus. The key to unlocking the secrets of early christianity and the dead sea scrolls. NY: Penguin Books, 1997. p. xxx.