By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As a boy, Hoeller’s own access to unfiltered Gnostic writings was limited to the three “codices” then in existence. One of these, the Askew Codex, includes the famous Pistis Sophia, the story of how Sophia (Wisdom), a distinctly feminine emanation of the godhead, was drawn into the dark sea of chaos by a reflection of her own radiance, ultimately conceiving through the error of self-desire the misshapen Ialdabaoth (Childish God), also known as Samael (Blind God), or Saclas (Foolish God), creator and Chief Archon of the Lower World. This, not the sin of Eve, is the Fall that Gnostics mourn, and Sophia herself went to great pains to reverse it. The revelation of God’s feminine face in this alternately tender and harrowing myth would have been enough to rock a Catholic boy’s world. But there was more to come.
Due to suppression and concealment of authentic texts, would-be Gnostics like Hoeller had been left for more than 17 centuries to comb through the anti-heretical screeds of early Church fathers for shards of meaning, an exercise which may explain the Gnostic knack for finding truth in opposites. Then, in December of 1945, it all changed. A fortuitous find in Upper Egypt brought Gnosticism home to Jesus.
On a cold, moonlit night, Mohammed Ali al-Samman and his brothers sheathed their knives and set off from the desert village of Nag Hammadi to avenge their father’s murder, stopping en route to fill their sacks with mineral fertilizer from the great caves at Jabal-al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with hiding places. While digging through the soft soil, they dislodged an earthenware jar a meter tall, and the rest, as they say, is history. Once Mohammed’s lust for booty trumped his fear that the jar might contain a jinni, he took a hammer to it and found 13 papyrus volumes, bound in leather, comprising 52 Coptic translations of sacred texts from the early Christian era, including “previously unreleased” gospels attributed to the apostles Thomas and Philip, and, most surprisingly, abundant references to the special status of Mary Magdalene. Once these fragile manuscripts had made their way through the black market into the hands of biblical scholars and archaeologists, there was no question of authenticity, only of orthodoxy — with an edge of shock and awe.
The Gospel of Thomas opens with the enigmatic line, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” You can almost hear the text’s first translator, Gilles Quispel, take a gulp. None of these “secret words” had been allowed into the canon we now know as the New Testament, yet it’s possible they were recorded before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John put quill to papyrus.
The Jesus who comes across in what are now known as the Gnostic Gospels is less a lawgiver and moralist than a kind of Zen master–cum–depth psychologist: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” He is alternately loving and stern, playful and sober, even sensual. He dances, drinks and, in the Gospel of Philip, kisses Mary Magdalene on the mouth, stirring a hornet’s nest of resentment among his male disciples.
Moreover, the Gnostic Jesus powerfully suggests that the words “I and the Father are One,” attributed to him in John 10:30, do not describe a unique relationship. Again, from the Gospel of Thomas: “He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am; I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” Anyone who attains gnosis, the knowledge of the greater self, will know that God resides both in a far country andwithin us (thanks to Sophia’s descent), just as in Indian religion, the atman (the soul) is one with boundless Brahman. If this is what Eve learned from the serpent, it’s no wonder Ialdabaoth wanted her uppity ass off the set. (See sidebar.) Seasoning his apocalyptic Judaism richly with Tao-like insights, the Christ of the Gnostic Gospels becomes the augur of the New Age, and “Know Thyself” is the one law that matters.
Historically speaking, what the Gnostic scriptures reveal is that Christianity in its earliest phase was far from monolithic. The Church did not, in fact, become “Catholic” until the end of the second century. In a Mediterranean world with Alexandria as its intellectual capital, Christianity was a vibrant counterculture, more a new way to be than a new law to obey. At the beating heart of it was a conviction that the teachings of the Nazarene Jesus had sprung mankind from its prison; that the fallen world could go to Hell. The imperial right hand of Christ’s new church hammered this into self-serving dogma; the heretical left hand stirred it into ecstasy. The left hand was amputated and the Gnostics cast off. A New Rome, the orthodoxy said, could not be built on do-it-yourself salvation.