There has always been a certain mystery surrounding the Gnostics. Modern novels such as Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” and films such as “The Matrix” have drawn on some of the mystical beliefs of Gnosticism. My essay this week will try to throw a little light on the little known and seemingly greatly misunderstood, Gnostics.
In the early centuries of Christianity there were quite a few different groups of believers. They can, however, be divided into two principal schools – the Literalists and the Gnostics.
The Literalists have been so defined because they take the Jesus story literally. They believe the gospels of the New Testament are a literal account of historical events. It was this school of Christianity that was adopted by the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE becoming Roman Catholocism and all its subsequent offshoots.
But there was another movement prominent in the development of early Christianity that did not take the Jesus story as the literal truth but saw it as a parable pointing to many great truths. This group of Christians was later persecuted out of existence by the Roman Church. Because of this there few records of what the Gnostics actually believed.
This was remedied in 1945 when two Arab camel-drivers stumbled on a whole library of Gnostic gospels hidden in an earthen-ware vessel in a cave near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. When they smashed the vessel open they found 12 codices (one of which had another pamphlet bound into it so that the books are now numbered as being 13 in total). The codices are written in Coptic which is the final form of the ancient Egyptian language. Translation of the codices was made easier because by this time Coptic script had adopted the letters of the Greek alphabet (as opposed to its original form which utilized hieroglyphs)
Scholars who studied the texts were intrigued by the belief of the Gnostics that the Jesus story was not a biography at all but a carefully crafted allegory created by Jewish Gnostics which encompassed many essential truths for those who were perceptive enough to see beyond the literalist interpretation.
The problem with the Gnostics (at least in the eyes of their critics) was that they did not have a unified body of belief. It would seem that Gnosticism is a loose network of related ideas, texts, groups and individuals. Tertullian, who has been called “the father of Latin Christianity” complained about this ambiguity and the lack of defined hierarchy among the Gnostics. “First one does not know which is a catchumen or a believer. They enter on equal terms, they listen on equal terms, they pray on equal terms …. They do not care if they confess different doctrines, provided that they all help to destroy the truth….and so today one man is a bishop, tomorrow another. Today one is a deacon who tomorrow will be a lector. The presbyter of today is the layman of tomorrow. Even the members of the laity are charged with the duties of a priest.”
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (authors of “The Jesus Mysteries” and “Jesus and the Goddess”) argue that the Jesus story, as the Gnostics believed, should be treated as a fable. “Who,” they challenge us, “would read this story for the first time and believe it was an historical account of a real man who was born of a virgin, who had walked on water and returned from the dead?”
They pose the following question:
“Why should we consider the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Atticus, Mithras and other pagan mystery saviours as fables, yet come across essentially the same story told in a Jewish context and believe it to be the biography of a carpenter from Bethlehem?”
Gnostics interpret the stories and the teachings of their spiritual tradition as signposts pointing beyond words altogether to an essential mystical experience.
Literalists, on the other hand, believe their scriptures are actually the words of God.
I suppose if you wanted to draw the comparison between the two belief sets to its sharpest contrast we would attest that Literalists associate their faith with its outward manifestations: sacred symbols, scriptures, rituals, ecclesiastical leaders, and so on. Gnostics on the other hand, see themselves as being on a spiritual journey of personal transformation.
Literalists see themselves as fulfilling a divinely ordained obligation to practice religious customs as a part of their national or cultural identity. Gnostics understand they are on a journey of self-exploration that might also, in the end, open up a new vista of spiritual understanding.
Literalists believe that their particular spiritual tradition is different from all others and has a unique claim to the Truth. They obsessively formulate dogmas which define membership of their particular cult. Whereas (as we saw previously) Gnostics are happy to associate with anyone trying to gain an understanding of spirituality that is not obsessed with the literal truth of the received dogma.
The Gnostics challenged the literalists in many ways. They asserted that the God of the Old Testament was not God at all but a seriously compromised figure (Demiurge) who (as the Old Testament attests), is jealous, wrathful, vengeful and endowed with an ego that needs to be stroked! They came to the conclusion that this “God” lies about himself and is not the ultimate Deity. (Fascinating as this is, I don’t have time to elaborate on this!)
But surely the distinguishing feature of the Gnostics is that they believed that their essential essence was not about what they did (praxis) nor what they believed (pistis) but what they knew (gnosis). They believed that their defining knowledge was arrived at by direct and personal knowing. Such knowing was an outcome of dealing with the inferences and the truths that the allegorical writings pointed to.
Freke and Gandy suggest that a twentieth century Gnostic would have come to these conclusions:
• Original sin is a myth
• The Bible is not the word of God
• There is not one exclusive path to God
• The Day of Judgment and the Resurrection of the flesh are nonsensical ideas
• Eternal damnation is a grotesque idea
• God doesn’t like some people more than others based on their belief systems which they never consciously chose
• Sex isn’t evil
• It is absurd to believe the God is male
• Similarly men do not have any special place above women in the arena of spirituality
• God has opinions and that only some special people (anointed by the traditional religions) know what they are
It would be easy to elaborate on this list that exposes many of the bad ideas of traditional Christianity (and of course Islam).
Apropos to my previous blog “Blind Faith” I find it difficult to believe that people can accept that the Jesus story is a literal portrayal of actual history. There are many useful things to be learnt in considering the Jesus story but much more so when you realize that it is a parable pointing to some fundamental truths that the world would do well to heed.
You might argue that the beliefs of the Gnostics are no more objective than the beliefs of the Literalists. And perhaps that is true. But the redeeming feature of the Gnostics is that they don’t ask you to take on without question the belief of others (“blind faith”) but ask you to come to your own understanding. And rightfully (in my mind at least) ask you to step outside the literal framework of “the Jesus story” and be intuitive enough to see the deeper truths that this wonderful fable points to.
And Now for Christmas
Many years ago I used to concoct a story for my staff when we had our annual Christmas get-together. Here is one that I vaguely remember!
The little town of Burwillamumpah was largely a pastoral community, whose economy was mostly dependent on the beef industry. In fact the town had been established on a stock route which in the past had been used to transport large numbers of stock from one area to another. Through this accident of history the main street which neatly divided the town was in fact a designated stock route.
But, as is normal, time had inexorably moved on. And with a younger population, including some who had migrated from the city, the aspirations of some of the citizens began to change. This finally culminated in the election of a new Mayor who had progressive ideas. The notion of a stock route running through the town was abhorrent to him and his supporters. They wanted coffee shops, patisseries and alfresco dining and the like.
And as is the way of local government, buoyed by the support of these new progressives the Mayor moved to shut down the stock route and construct a pedestrian mall in the main street of Burwillamumpah. He posted for public discussion a design that incorporated specialty shops, eateries and fashion outlets.
This incensed the local pastoralists and they vowed to oppose the development.
The leader of the resistance was Wally Brumpton. Wally was in the unfortunate position of having large landholdings on either side of town and he had traditionally used the stock route to walk his cattle from his pastures on one side of the town to the other. With the advent of the mall he would be forced to truck his cattle at far greater expense. As a result Wally was incensed.
Despite the most vigorous protests of the pastoralists the mayor went ahead with the development of the mall. The council started paving the area in the centre of town and let tenders for traders to acquire the rights to occupy shops around its precincts.
This was a cause of great exasperation for Wally and his supporters. Wally convened a meeting of the pastoralists to plan what they might do.
It was the time of the year when Wally traditionally moved his cattle from his northern pastures to his southern pastures using the stock route. After a long and heated meeting Wally, urged on by his supporters, determined he would move his cattle as he always did.
On of the less aggressive pastoralists interjected, “But, Wally if you push your animals through the mall it will be destroyed.”
This caused an eruption of great guffaws from the gathering.
“A good thing,” shouted one.
“Isn’t that what we want/” enquired another.
And within a minute it seemed willful damage was just what the incensed group were out for.
“Let’s do it Wally,” shouted Ben Curtis.
“Yeah, let’s get started’” rejoined Bill Krump.
And so on that fatal day Wally marshalled his cattle on the north side of town. Here he was joined by all the local pastoralist because they wanted to protest at what they deemed the council’s thoughtless act. Fired up by the meeting, off they marched to town, all 65 of the farmers marching in unison. Behind them came Wally’s cattle with a few stockmen guiding them.
As they neared the town the assemblage broke into song.
“Wreck the mall with cows of Wally – trala lala lah lala la lah.”
[I can hear the groans already! And if you hear any Christmas joke more pathetic than that I trust you’ll share it with me! (But don’t bother with “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear” – its worn out its welcome!)]