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Features & profiles

 

Gnostics, the sacred feminine, & Constantine's corporate takeover of Christianty

20 December 1988

 


Published in The Age (Melbourne) & The Advertiser (Adelaide)


In 312 AD, not long before what we now celebrate as Christmas, history's largest corporate takeover was set in train. The effects of this takeover were profound. It fatally damaged the movement founded, some 250 years earlier, by the Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. In the longer term, it all but dictated the history of the western world for the next 1600 years.


The strategist behind the successful bid was the Emperor Constantine. The takeover vehicle was his family company, the Roman Empire (West). The directors Constantine convinced to capitulate, with the standard mixture of naked threats and promised rewards, were the bishops of the target company - the fledgling Christian Church.


Constantine used the new corporation as an expansion vehicle - so successfully, in fact, that the one-time fringe group became the ideological force behind the world's major economic power.


The historic merger between the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire found its origins in a simple dream. On the night of October 27, 312 AD - the night before he was to lay siege to Rome in the hope of consolidating the Empire under himself - Constantine dreamed of the Greek letters Chi-Rho: then the symbol of the persecuted minority group, the Christians. He woke with the words, "By this sign you shall be the victor!" ringing in his ears. By dawn every soldier's shield had been painted with the monogram. Despite the defenders' superior numbers, Constantine, by the end of that day, had captured the city and claimed the mantle of Caesar.


In gratitude to the Christian God, Constantine began worshipping it (alongside others he favoured), and took the young Church under his wing. So began the rapid process by which a pacifist sect was transformed into a creed for a series of bloody conquerors. History tells us the Church converted Constantine. The reality is that he converted it.


Constantine was a lacklustre Christian, even after 312 AD. He had his own son killed - and his wife boiled alive in her bath. But it was this theological illiterate who summoned the various Christian leaders - from as far afield as India in the east, and Britain in the west - to the historic Council of Nicaea in the summer of 325 AD. (Nicaea is in the north-west of today's Turkey.) The reason for this first "world council" was to put an end to the squabbling among Jesus Christ's heirs - factions of whom were describing each other, in their righteous fury, as "maniacs", "atheists", "cuttlefish" and "eels".


The chief source of contention was Christ's divinity. Was he a human being who had been given life to serve God's will in a special, divine way - or had he been inseparable from God since the beginning of time?


The delegates rolled in from every corner of the Empire. "Saint" Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) arrived from Asia Minor. The renunciate Jacob of Nisibis appeared in goatskins, pursued by a cloud of gnats. Most delegates were bishops, and a bit more on the gaudy side.


Nothing, however, to compare with Constantine himself, who appeared dripping jewelery and gold. It was this quite worldly potentate, uneducated in theological matters, a mass murderer (even since his "conversion"), whose favourite god was probably Sol Invictus, the Syrian sun god - who then made a decision which altered the nature of the Christian religion as no other decision has.


Constantine sided against the "Antiochene" party - who believed Christ to be human - in favour of the Alexandrians, who had pronounced him indistinguishable from the Father himself. The delegates were "invited" to sign a document Constantine had drawn up to formalise this decision. Those who signed were to stay on in Nicaea, as Constantine's guests at his twentieth anniversary celebrations. Those who refused were to be banished immediately.


All but two signed. However, on returning home, several signatories realised they had betrayed their consciences - and wrote to the Emperor accordingly. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote, "We committed an impious act, oh Prince, by subscribing to a blasphemy from fear of you."


It was too late. The ink had dried. Jesus, against the evidence of the Gospels themselves, had become "Very God" for all time. Mary, a mother of several children who had never drawn much theological attention, soon became "Ever Virgin" and "Mother of God". (Difficult though it may have seemed after such a good start, she improved her position through the centuries: in 1854 she was pronounced as incapable of sin from the moment of her conception, and in this century Pope Pius X11 threw in the title "Queen of Heaven".)


After the takeover a major problem for Constantine and the bishops was the dissident members in the original movement. Many of these were "gnostic" Christians. These adherents to Christ's original, inward-looking teaching were finding themselves about as relevant as a Menshevik after the Russian Revolution.


In answer to these internal critics, Christianity quickly learned a trick that would stand it, and other great political powers, in good stead thereafter. It pronounced them the transgressors of the creed. Just as Stalin branded many of his former colleagues "traitors" (and just as traditional reformists within the ALP have now been pronounced "irrelevant") the bishops branded the gnostic Christians "heretics". Their scriptures were banned and burned, and they themselves were, with the help of the Roman Empire's soldiery, hunted down and killed.


So who were the these people? Gnosis is a Greek word meaning intuitive, spiritual knowledge. Gnostics set this experience, which affected them profoundly, above all dogma and ritual. They said "gnosis" was, first and foremost, what Christ had come to teach.


Gnostics worshipped a supreme being who was both male and female: the Matropater, or Mother/Father God. This recognition of the feminine extended to Earth too: women in gnostic communities had equality with men. Those in today's Church who refuse to countenance female ordination look a bit silly when we consider that the very earliest Church, the one closest to the time of the Apostles, had female priests and female bishops.


It's important to examine the gnostics' credentials as Christians. After all, if they were just an eccentric minority, modern Christians can rest easy that their tenets are not part of the true Christian tradition.


In 1945 a significant scriptural discovery took place: the Nag Hammadi find in Egypt. In an earthenware jar a metre high, buried in the side of a hill, an Egyptian peasant discovered 13 ancient leather-bound codexes (books). The 52 scriptures contained in them still represent almost the sum total of our knowledge of gnostic Christianity. (Constantine's bonfires had been effective.) Whereas the four New Testament gospels were written between AD 60 and AD 110, one of the most significant gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas, contains material which is dated by Harvard's Professor Helmut Koester to AD 50-100. That is, possibly even earlier than the New Testament gospels.


While some gnostic texts are sourced near the same period, others were written at various times throughout the first three centuries AD. The identities of their authors are no more or less distinguished than those of the New Testament. That is, like New Testament texts, they often take the name of an Apostle, or other divine figure, who would not actually have penned them. Thus we have the Gospel of Philip, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Book of Thomas the Contender - and the Gospel of Mary.


(It should be pointed out that few scholars today believe the New Testament gospels were actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.)


Perhaps a second question, where the gnostics' credentials are concerned, should be as to the number of early Christians who regarded themselves as gnostic. According to Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, gnostic and "orthodox" populations may have been in the same ballpark - at least till the purges began.


The gnostics' celebration of the feminine wasn't the only reason they were purged by the emerging patriarchy. Christianity was, in the first three centuries AD, quickly becoming a quite external religion. That is, it increasingly tended to deal in behavioural codes rather than religious experience. The gnostics protested this trend vigorously. They saw the orthodox clergy as "waterless canals". Their own "clergy" were often chosen on an ad hoc basis, by the drawing of lots. This casual approach to holy office enraged the orthodox:


"Let no-one do anything pertaining to the Church without the bishop... To join with the bishop is to join with the Church; to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not only from the Church, but from God."


This was written by the orthodox writer Ignatius - who was, needless to say, a bishop.


The gnostics wanted to stick to the historical facts of Christ's life where possible, and above all to retain his emphasis on the inner spiritual life. Thus they treated the Resurrection as a symbol of spiritual rebirth, rather than an historical event. Today, interestingly, we have good (non-Christian) evidence for the Crucifixion - but little for the Resurrection.


The Virgin Birth, too, they regarded as a latter-day invention. And the gnostics had further "undesirable tendencies": They questioned the value of suffering and martyrdom. They worshipped a succession of masters, who came in the centuries after Jesus Christ. And they did meditation. Here is "Peter" describing his initiation by Christ:


The Saviour said to me..."Put your hands upon your eyes...and say what you see." ...And there came into me fear with joy, for I saw a new light, greater than the light of day.


Lastly, many gnostics had a more relaxed view of sex than, say, St Paul. The would-be censors of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ would probably be interested in the following, from the Gospel of Philip:


The companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the Disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.


The gnostics' emphasis on Christ's "kingdom of heaven within" deeply embarrassed a Church dedicated, increasingly, to establishing its powerbase in the outer world. The gnostics had to go. But the third century Apocalypse of Peter gets in a parting shot. Here is Christ's chilling prophecy to Peter on Christianity's future:


"And they praise the men of the propagation of falsehood, those who will come after you. And they will cleave to the name of a dead man, thinking that they will become pure. But they will...fall into the hand of an evil, cunning man, and they will be ruled heretically."


The purge by the "men of the propagation of falsehood" was so effective that, until the Nag Hammadi find, we knew more about the gnostics from Church denunciations than from their own scriptures.


The gnostic movement recurred from time to time - most notably in thirteenth century France. Here the Cathars, in the Languedoc region, also had masters (of both sexes) who revealed gnosis. Cathars believed in reincarnation, recognised the feminine principle in spirituality, meditated, were largely vegetarian - and were essentialy non-violent. Coveting their fertile lands, but ostensibly because of their "heretical" views, in 1209 the Pope sent an army of 30,000 into the Languedoc. Every Cathar man, woman and child was put to the sword. Every town and crop was razed, and virtually every relic of their civilisation annihilated.


Examples from Francis of Assisi and St Joan right down to Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King show us that Christianity has thrown up some powerful forces for good. Yet one wonders why the establishment itself has so often been on the side of the oppressors. Do, as Plato told us, great ideas always degenerate within social institutions? With the fortieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights so recently behind us, that may be something to ponder through Christmas.


 


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