It’s always a cosmic delight when Robert Price materializes at the Virtual Alexandria to orate about Gnosticism. Bob was my first guest many Artemis moons ago, and he’s always been a great ally and pedagogue of Gnostic thought.
His recent appearance to discuss the Gospel of Thomas was no exception in imparting rewarding Gnosis. The discussion was based on an in-depth chapter on the Gospel of Thomas from his upcoming book, Holy Fable Volume 4.
Just as cool, the chapter on Thomas provides a crisp but expansive summary of Gnosticism – and Bob is allowing its repurposing right here, right now. Beyond happily promoting the work of the “Bible Geek,” my reason for publishing the section is simple: as Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio continues to grow, many new listeners want to understand Gnosticism. And there are always long-time listeners seeking a refresher on their favorite and perennials heretics.
So without further ado, here is Bob’s outstanding summary of Gnosticism:
The third great family of early Christian movements was Gnostic Christianity.[i] This category embraces a wide variety of sects and mystical societies. Here we can only mention a few ideas common to all Gnostics. By our humanistic, compromising standards, Gnosticism would be considered “super-spiritual.” Only spirit is good; it is light. Matter and flesh are sinful and darkness. As such it can scarcely have been the creation of a wise and righteous Deity. The Hebrew Scriptures depict God as being petty (he jealously guards his privileges of knowledge and eternal life, lying to protect them if he has to), ignorant (he must ask where Adam and Eve are hiding), and vengeful. He assigns pointless and disgusting laws to his people. This, the God of conventional Judaism and Catholic Christianity, cannot be the pure Spirit that is alone worthy of worship. That Deity, by contrast, exists in blissful repose in the Pleroma (divine “fullness”) of light, in glorious harmony with the aions, personified extensions of his own essence, spiritual entities emanated from himself. How are the two deities connected? Sophia (“Wisdom”) was the latest and the least of the emanated aions. Whereas the others were emanated in pairs (Syzygies), each pair begetting the next pair, she was at a loss. She wanted to “conceive,” i.e., to have her own offspring and to understand the secrets at the heart of the Godhead, from which she stood at the extreme distance, on the border, the Limit. At this distance the divine glory had grown pale and weak. She did bring forth a son, a malevolent, bungling megalomaniac. He was Jehovah, the Creator God! This Creator (“Demiurge”) constructed the disgusting material world and rules it with his created angelic henchmen, the archons (“rulers”), who are the old elemental spirits, or angels in charge of nature, as well as the Babylonian planetary deities. But the world as created is inert. In order to vivify it, the archons manage to steal sparks of the divine light from the Pleroma. This they do, according to some versions of the myth, by trapping and dismembering one of the aions, the Primal Man who henceforth sleeps as dormant sparks of light within the elite of humanity (the Gnostics and those whom they hope to recruit). In another version, they steal the reflected light of Sophia as she stoops down to look into the swamp of the earth.
By Gnostic reckoning, most humans were unworthy hylics (“wooden heads”) bereft of any real spirit. Others were psychical (“soulish ones”). Only the elite possessed one of the original divine pleromatic sparks, i.e., a soul. These were the pneumatics, or “spiritual ones.” They believed that Christ had appeared in the world for their sake, but he had not exactly been incarnated (though some Gnostics pictured him with a body of flesh, e.g., The Hymn of the Pearl). Most believed the Christ-aion (somehow identical with the slumbering Primal Man) had temporarily joined with the human Jesus (as Cerinthus and Basilides taught). Some believed the Christ only appeared (dokeo) to have a fleshly body, an illusion to make communication with humans easier. The poor disciples had enough trouble coping with a visible Christ: imagine them following a disembodied voice! This is the doctrine of “docetism,” and it was independently evolved by Mahasangika Buddhists and applied to Gotama Buddha,[ii] as well as by Alawi Muslims who believe Ali the Imam was Allah incarnate and only feigned humanity.[iii] In all these cases, believers just could not imagine their savior sullying himself by truly taking on our lot.
Gnostics claimed to have their doctrines from certain disciples of Jesus whom he deemed worthy of his inner teachings. Some Gnostics made Thomas, Philip, James, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Matthias (or Matthew, it’s hard to tell) the channels of transmission of the gnosis (secret knowledge). Peter had taught his secretary Glaukias who passed it on to Basilides, while Paul had taught the esoterica to his disciple Theudas, who taught Valentinus. After all, had not Paul admitted that “among the perfect we do impart wisdom, a secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 2:6, 7)?
Important early Gnostic leaders include Simon Magus and others just mentioned. They credited Paul as the great fountainhead of their doctrine, while Church Fathers traced all Gnosticism back to Simon Magus. And in fact Simon Magus and Paul are connected, perhaps even identical, one a fictive counterpart of the other. The New Testament canon contains, by my reckoning, just a few Gnostic texts, some of them bowdlerized: Colossians, John, and Ephesians. On the other hand, we do have plenty of Gnostic scriptures including most of the Nag Hammadi texts discovered along with the Gospel of Thomas, plus the Pistis Sophia, the two Books of Jeu, the Acts of Thomas, and the Acts of John.
Did that hit the Sophia spot?
In case you’re wondering about the other three early Christian movements (or “families) Bob discusses, here they are:
- Jewish Christians (Ebionites, Nazarenes, and followers of Cerinthus)
- Hellenistic Christians (hello, Paul!)
- Encratites (don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?)
If you’re still unclear on Gnostic thought or need a more Twitter-length definition due to the mind-raping of Archons, here is another definition by Bob from another post:
There is an anti-cosmic dualism. This world is considered as absolutely evil, irredeemable, and under the despotic control of evil powers and demons. Certain individuals may be saved from this vale of tears. They are the rare ones who harbor a true soul or spark of the divine light. To them God has sent a Redeemer or Revealer, who saves them by revealing to them the hitherto unsuspected fact of their heavenly identity. Knowing who they truly are, destined for better things, they will be able to slough off the gross body at death and ascend to heaven. This is basically the soteriology of Gnosticism.
You’ll notice it’s a tad more hardcore.
I can’t add anything else, here in the Desert of the Real, except provide a visual understanding of Gnosticism:
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 So I argue, adapting the thinking of Hermann Detering, in my forthcoming book The Amazing Colossal Apostle (Signature Books).
[i]Rudolf Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting. Trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: Thames and Hudson, 1956), pp. 162-174; Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Random House, 1979);
Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2nd ed., 1963); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The History and Nature of Gnosticism. Trans. P.W. Coxon, K.H. Kuhn, and Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983); Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism. Trans. Hillary S. Wiesner and Ioan P. Couliano (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992); Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism. Trans. Anthony Alcock (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990).
[ii] Edward J. Thomas, The History of Buddhist Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), pp. 40, 173-174.
[iii] Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects. Contemporary Issues in the Middle East (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988), pp. 315, 359.