How Did the Gnostics View the Crucifixion of Jesus?
Easter weekend is the culmination of the Christian faith, every other aspect of the religion being merely a footnote. Yet the death and resurrection of Jesus also holds relevance in Christian Gnosticism, which may come as a surprise since Gnosis is assumed to be its central tenet.
And, as will be revealed, what is perhaps more surprising is that Gnosis and the Cross are not mutually exclusive – although the blood atonement doctrine is virtually nonexistent in Gnosticism.
Like with all their theologies, the Gnostics held varying attitudes on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These fell between the basic literal to the extreme metaphoric. Grab your cross and let’s go up to various Golgotha’s to find these different attitudes.
The Valentinian view
In The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the Valentinians, Einar Thomassen presents various interpretations on how the Valentinians saw the Passion of the Savior. One of the most interesting ones is that at the moment Jesus died, a cosmic explosion erupted that fully awakened the Pneumatic (the Elect) and gave a final choice to the Psychic (those straddling the fence between the spiritual and material realms). One could call Christ’s death a Gnosis Bomb.
In The Gospel of Truth, Valentinus himself writes a very inspirational passage on the crucifixion:
For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.
Valentinus also declares:
This is the book which no one found possible to take, since it was reserved for him who will take it and be slain. No one was able to be manifest from those who believed in salvation as long as that book had not appeared. For this reason, the compassionate, faithful Jesus was patient in his sufferings until he took that book, since he knew that his death meant life for many. Just as in the case of a will which has not yet been opened, for the fortune of the deceased master of the house is hidden, so also in the case of the All which had been hidden as long as the Father of the All was invisible and unique in himself, in whom every space has its source. For this reason Jesus appeared. He took that book as his own. He was nailed to a cross. He affixed the edict of the Father to the cross.
In other words, the death of Jesus and Gnosis are truly one and the same in many Valentinian belief systems. In a sense, the Cross is the Tree of Knowledge (Gnosis). (It is also interesting that Sophia takes the form of the Tree of Knowledge in The Secret Book of John).
The Valentinian Gospel of Philip makes a connection instead between the Cross and the Tree of Life:
Philip the apostle said, “Joseph the carpenter planted a garden because he needed wood for his trade. It was he who made the cross from the trees which he planted. His own offspring hung on that which he planted. His offspring was Jesus, and the planting was the cross.” But the Tree of Life is in the middle of the Garden. However, it is from the olive tree that we got the chrism, and from the chrism, the resurrection.
In the Secret Book of James, also a Valentinian work, Jesus plainly states: “Remember my cross and my death, and you will live!”
The Sethian and other views
Not all Gnostic sects viewed the Passion narrative in such positive terms. Although mostly lukewarm about the crucifixion, the Sethians in the Gospel of Judas express disdain for any atoning death. This attitude is revealed in a passage where Jesus mocks the Apostles and their belief in Jewish Temple rituals that includes blood sacrifice. However, some scholars argue that Jesus does not see his fated execution as wholly negative since it means discarding his human clothes and once again becoming an Aeon. I argue with this stance in my article on Judas and the dark power of fate.
Many Gnostic texts, like the Letter of Peter to Phillip and the Gospel of Mary, simply see the death and resurrection drama as a small intermission in the imparting of Gnosis by Jesus – as well as a test of faith for his followers. Echoing the Sethian attitude, the great mysteries are truly passed on after Jesus has returned in an angelic manifestation and can no longer be harassed by the Archons (the Pistis Sophia has Jesus teaching his disciples for 12 years after his resurrection!).
Some Gnostics were simply against the idea that Jesus Christ could suffer on Earth (or that he even possessed a human form). In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus mocks his execution and the spectacle around it, in some translations stating that it is actually Satan who has been replaced on the Cross:
Be strong, for you are the one to whom these mysteries have been given, to know them through revelation, that he whom they crucified is the first-born, and the home of demons, and the stony vessel in which they dwell, of Elohim, of the cross, which is under the Law. But he who stands near him is the living Savior, the first in him, whom they seized and released, who stands joyfully looking at those who did him violence, while they are divided among themselves. Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind.
In the Acts of John, Jesus appears to the Apostle John after the crucifixion. He explains to the “Beloved Disciple” that there were two crosses at Golgotha. One was the Cross of Light that stands above the material world and is the doorway to faith, hope, wisdom, and the Pleroma itself. The other was the Cross of Wood that represents the lower nature of humanity dominant within all those who witnessed the crucifixion of nothing more than a phantom.
The Gnostic Sage Basilides also believed that the crucifixion was a hoax to mock the Demiurge and his angelic mafia, except that poor Simon of Cyrene was nailed to a cross. The Second Treatise to the Great Seth has a Simon replacing Jesus, but it’s unclear which Simon.
The idea of Jesus avoiding his death by a sleight of divine hand was later adopted by Islam, raising the issue that Mohammed might have been in contact with Gnostic sects or that the idea itself was still circulating among some Christians in the six century.
Oddly, the most popular Gnostic scripture, the Gospel of Thomas, makes no mention of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In saying #55, Jesus does call for those to carry a cross as he does, but some scholars believe it was a common expression in those days of widespread Jewish executions by the Romans.
An eternal and mythic view
Despite the varied beliefs in Gnosticism, there is a common thread on most versions of the Passion narrative: The Savior arrives in a form recognizable to humans; his form is destroyed by the demonic agents that rule the universe (the blame is never on the Jews or Romans); and lastly he returns in an astral manifestation to impart his greatest teachings to those who both had faith and understood his message from the beginning.
Most Gnostic and Protestant Churches will follow the lead of the Bishop of Rome and celebrate Easter this Sunday. But the celebration is actually far deeper and timeless, since the death and resurrection of a Godman is a classic motif found in many cultures representing the renewal of various aspects of Creation and beyond.
And because Gnostics believe in becoming Christlike while alive, the death and resurrection of the Savior symbolizes part of the process of Gnosis itself. An individual who seeks ultimate spiritual freedom must die to his lower self that is attached to the material world. Then he must arise as a transformed being that is not only firmly connected to the Godhead but can teach the way of soul-ascension to others. A person is no longer part of the crowds under the Cross of Wood staring at phantoms but within the Cross of Light, filled with faith, hope, wisdom and even the Pleroma. Beyond this beautiful imagery, the Acts of John further expands on this promise:
Understand me then as the slaying of a Word, wound of a Word, hanging of a Word, suffering of a Word, fastening of a Word, death of a Word, resurrection of a Word, and defining this Word, I mean every man!
Christ and human can become one when the Gnosis Bomb goes off and spreads in the shape of what must look like a cross of light.