Esotericism (XII): Gnostic Christianity

Esotericism (XII): Gnostic Christianity

- in Esotericism


1. It is now certain that apart from the 27 documents in the NT (=New Testament) there were c 100 CE (=AD) many other writings expressing Jesus’ teaching. These did not make it into the NT. Some of them, now categorized as “Gnostic”, were known and their titles were mentioned by ancient writers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In many cases fragments of them survived in the writing of the early Church Fathers, like Irinaeus of Lyon or Clement of Alexandria. Some very few like the Gospel of Mary and the Apocalypse of Peter survived independently but in incomplete form. Thus Gnosticism has been known as a heresy but with insufficient reliable information over a very long time.

2. In 1945, at Nag Hammadi, South Egypt, was discovered a collection of 52 tractates, written in Coptic. One of them is a fragment of Plato’s Republic (588A-589B) and three are Hermetic texts, all known from other sources. Some are in the Judaic Gnostic tradition. The rest are Christian Gnostic – some being Apocalypses, Apocrypha or Gospels attributed to John, James, Peter, Thomas and other disciples, including Mary.

It took several years before anything was published, mainly due to difficulties with the Cairo Museum. Interested scholars and laymen were astounded when The Gospel of Thomas was first published in 1957, I think, in several countries and languages. Consisting of 114 sayings of Jesus (some of which had appeared independently in the Oxyrhnchus Papyrus), it had many similarities with statements of Jesus in the FCG but also ideas that diverged very significantly.

3. Here follows a selection of sayings 3, 50, 77, 111.

«The Kingdom is within you and without … When you know yourselves then you shall be known, and you shall know, that you are the sons of the Living Father. But if you don’t know yourself, you live in poverty…// We came from the light, the place where the light came into being of its own accord …// It is I who am the light which is above all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up a stone, and you shall find me there.// The heavens and the earth will be rolled up in your presence. And the one who lives from the living one will not see death …Whoever finds [=comes to know, realizes] himself is superior to the world».

Here we have some major ideas of esotericism. The kingdom is within man; it is not some future second coming. Self-knowledge is essential and it will reveal that man in his True Self is the same as the Father in heaven and ensures transcendence of death. Pantheism is stressed and the world(s), the Whole [universe], issue from the substance («from me») of God and not from Nothing (ex nihil). This is Unity.

4. In subsequent years all the treatises were published and a wholly new picture of Christian Gnosticism emerged. In 1988 J. Robinson published the third and definitive edition of the Nag Hammadi Library (Harper–Collins, San Francisco) which contains translations of all tractates, including the Judaic Gnostic texts (Apocalypse of Adam, The Steles of Seth etc.).

The idea of Unity and self-development is  succinctly expressed in the Gospel of Truth: «It is within Unity that each one will attain himself from multiplicity unto Unity» (Robinson, 25: lines 10-15).

The Gospel of Philip also refers to the self-development and merging into the Godhead: «You saw the spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw [the Father], you shall become the Father … you see yourself» (Robinson 61: 30-35). In this same Gospel we find the idea of reincarnation: «If you become the light … If you become one of those who belong above … If you become horse or ass or bull or dog or sheep …»

5. In these texts Jesus is not the one and only Son of God as he is in the NT, nor has he come to suffer and save the world. He is a specific Teacher, come to save those who wish to be saved, not through belief and faith, but through Selfknowledge and the subjugation of all negative aspects in ones being such as anger, envy, fear, greed, pride and, of course, ignorance.

The Self that is to be known is not that of the common notion with the mechanical habits and negative feelings like envy and hate. It is the Self that is one and the same in all beings and no different from the Godhead. And ignorance is ignorance of this fundamental unity.

The process starts with an inner «call» and, naturally, requires guidance from a teacher and effort and discipline on the part of the disciple.

Final salvation is the ascent above the common level and the eventual merging into the Godhead which is the Source of all. Naturally there are degrees and levels in all this.

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