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The Gnostic Gospels - women bishops, a female God

13 June 1985

Published in Social Alternatives

In 1945 an Egyptian peasant by the name of Muhammed Ali committed the ritual murder of his father's killer. He and his brothers then dismembered the man's body.

Shortly afterward, while he was digging for soft, fertile soil near his home town of Nag Hammadi, Ali struck a large earthenware jar. He smashed it open with his mattock. Inside were 52 texts from the early Christian era, which many people now regard as the most explosive documents in the history of Christianity.

The texts were penned by early Christians known as gnostics, and were apparently hidden when the mainstream Church began to clamp down on such "heresies". The Nag Hammadi Library, as it is now known, sheds a light on the life and times of Jesus Christ which pales most other sources into insignificance.

When Ali first found the texts he too hid them: he feared the police, who were by then investigating his homicide. In this interlude his mother not infrequently used them to get the oven going.

When the remainder did finally reach the hands of scholars for translation and analysis, there was endless red tape, and academic squabbling, which delayed their publication in English till 1978 - an astonishing (and scandalous) 33 years after their discovery.

Professor Elaine Pagels, from Princeton University's Department of Religion, has now written by far the most believable, and succinct, book on the Nag Hammadi find. Having slogged my way through ten or twelve books on the subject by self-proclaimed Christian "heresiologists", I found The Gnostic Gospels refreshingly sensitive, devoid of academic preconceptions, and consequently far more revealing.

For years the belief has persisted that Jesus Christ either went to India, or was influenced by the Eastern religions. This was given good fictional treatment in The Aquarian Gospel. The myth was reiterated more recently by Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children - in which an Indian boatman claiming to be thousands of years old "remembers" the visit of the Palestinian messiah.

Jesus' perigrinations (to France, this time) have also been given sensational, but admittedly well-documented, treatment in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.

All this has raised temperatures and sold books by the million. Less sensational, but far more interesting in the long term, is the speculation that Christianity in its formative years - and even Christ himself - may have been influenced by Buddhist and other Eastern mysticism.

For the Christ of the gnostic gospels, in Pagels' words, often "speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans". For example:

Jesus said, "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 said to them, "You read the face of the sky and of the earth, but you have not recognised the one who is before you, and you do not know how to read this moment."

The Nag Hammadi texts have impressive historical credentials - as impressive, in many cases, as anything in the New Testament. They are 1600-year-old Coptic translations of still older Greek documents. The Greek originals were apparently written in the First, Second and Third Centuries. The older ones seem to contain narrative which even pre-dates Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That they have often been written off as heresy since their discovery is thus not only unjust, but absurd.

What secrets do they let us in on, then, regarding what Jesus Christ - surely the most over-interpreted human being in history - arrived to tell his contemporaries? 

Primarily, they say, there was a gnosis - the Greek word for intuitive knowledge - which Christ revealed to a select few. This knowledge had nothing to do with doctrine, or indeed intellect: rather it was a profound spiritual experience. Gnosis - it must be grasped - was quite distinct from Jesus' moral and religious teaching.

The Gospel of Thomas tells us:

Jesus said, "I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched, and what has never occurred to the human mind."

Gnostics were just as much the Apostles' heirs as any other member of the Church. Their numbers may have even rivalled those of non-gnostic Christians. Yet the Jesus they describe talks not of sin and repentance, but illusion and enlightenment. Not of separation from God, but oneness. And not of moral codes, but inner transformation. He even teaches meditation. In this meditation gnostic initiates see a light "brighter than the light of day", and fathom "indescribable depths". They find "the beginning of the power that is above all powers" and, in the words of one:

a stillness of silence within me, and I heard the blessedness whereby I knew myself as I am.

What they are saying, then, is in tune with much Eastern philosophy. That is, that one's religion is not a "philosophy" at all, but an inner experience, and connection with God, to which one returns time and again for personal renewal. Whether this demonstrates gnosticism's "Buddhist and Hindu influences" - as Pagels postulates - is unknown.

Parallels with other religions, too, are more than apparent. Not only Buddhism, but Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Taoism all talk about meditation on light - or their founders do. So, of course, does the New Testament - though not as often nor as directly as the gnostic writings. "Parallels", of course, is a cautious scholar's word: really they are common features.

Pagels is a scholar too, but mercifully not a polemicist. She is admirably restrained, and always allows us to draw our own conclusions. Even her feminism is quite unobtrusively woven into the fabric of the book, rather than being thrown at us like a lance. It is far more convincing that way. One reads with horror, for example, that women were once equal with men in Christian communities (or at least gnostic ones), and that the mainstream Catholic Church, once it had gained sufficient dominance, put an abrupt end to this.

God the Father, too, survived a more "bisexual" divinity by virtue of the fact that those who believed in "him" had greater organisational clout. Gnostic Christians not only had women as bishops and priests, but often worshipped a wholly androgynous Superior Power. Their God, the one who sent their Jesus Christ, was the Mother-Father God: or Matropater.

For example in the gnostic text, Thunder, Perfect Mind (a title which sounds more zen than Zen), a divine power tells us:

For I am the first and the last

I am the honoured and the scorned one

I am the whore and the holy one

I am the wife and the virgin

I am the mother and the daughter...

I am the barren one, and many are her sons...

I am the silence that is incomprehensible...

I am the utterance of my name.

Back in the earthly realm, the Gospel of Philip tells us that Christ loved Mary Magdalene "more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on the mouth".

Such "feminism" got short shrift with the Church. The orthodox Tertullian summed up gnostic females:

These heretical women - how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument...even to baptise!

And, regarding a particular female "viper" in North Africa:

It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptise...nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function...

And so, Pagels says,

By the time the process of sorting all the writings ended - probably as late as the year 200 - virtually all the feminine imagery for God had disappeared from orthodox Christian tradition.

The contemporary Church, of course, maintains the Bible was inspired by God, and compiled with his authority. Christians sometimes say, indeed, that it "has God's signature on every page". But Pagels, without preaching, without fervour, leads us to the observation that the Bible is, in fact, a very human and highly political document. Without detracting from either its spiritual or lyrical content, it does seem that the New Testament was compiled by a deeply conservative element in the early Church, to consolidate its own power. Gnostic books, which proliferated at the time, were largely omitted.

Why? What threat did they pose? Well, one of the few gnostic texts to give credence to the resurrection, for example, had women witnessing it. The acceptance of this into mainstream Christianity would have upset at least one theo-political applecart: the Apostles, and therefore the popes, derive their authority largely from the fact that they were the "only"witnesses to Jesus' resurrection. Pagels cites many other examples. Most commonly, perhaps, that gnostic texts flatly describe priests and bishops as unnecessary mediators - "waterless canals".

And so to suffering. Contemporary Christians frequently discuss Christ's blood, passion, persecution, and so on. Pagels has dedicated a chapter to discussing the sources of all this institutionalised pain, and once again her conclusions will not be cheered in the Vatican.

She shows us that the glorification of Christ's suffering was introduced, well after his death, to lend meaning and validity to a terrifying prospect then facing many Christians: that of their own state-sanctioned murder.

Gnostics, on the other hand, had a distinctly pragmatic approach. They thought martyrdom was silly, and usually avoided it at all costs. If Christians thought they would be "saved" by confessing their faith then handing themselves over to the Romans, they were making a grave mistake. "These things are not settled in this way...They do not have the Word which gives life."

So suffering became passion, and murder became martyrdom, we learn, not for religious reasons, but for very earthbound political ones. As The Gnostic Gospels unfolds, we gradually see that this is so of nearly every institution within the Church. (Pagels has subsequently told me she feels religious and political imperatives operated together to form these institutions, although I wonder if she isn't being too charitable.)

Anyway, despite their skeptical view of suffering, most gnostics - she tells us - accept that Christ was actually crucified. This is interesting, as we have good historical (and non-Christian) evidence to corroborate the crucifixion. There is, however, none whatever in support of a resurrection: which the gnostics themselves regard as ridiculous. Pagels wonders if this suggests the resurrection was cooked up by the early Church, in order to advance its own claims, and the authority of its leaders.

As well as disputing the resurrection, the virgin birth (another myth, they say), the value of suffering, and male dominance, the gnostics talk of a succession of divine masters, after Christ, who go on revealing gnosis to succeeding generations. Mention of these "other masters" is a phenomenon unprecedented in Christian literature.

How long do these lines survive? It's a question I put to Professor Pagels. The information is scant, she replied. In the second century we have Valentinus, then Heracleon, Ptolemy and Proteus. "Perhaps there were others; the extant sources don't tell us."

Pagels doesn't really explore the question of Jesus' successors in her book. To me their presence is striking - and in keeping with many other religions, where an ongoing chain of incarnations is recognised. This is, therefore, a significant departure from the usual Christian stance: that God incarnated once and once only.

Most significantly of all, perhaps, the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library tell us the "Kingdom of Heaven" does not exist as an actual place: it's a state of transformed consciousness. And it was this - the experience of gnosis - which caused most trouble with the early Church. Christian leaders were infuriated by claims to a knowledge subtler than their own. (So, apparently, are contemporary Christian scholars: most books prior to Pagels strenuously attempt to convince us gnosis is heresy.)

Additionally annoying was that gnostics managed to band together with no apparent need for a power heirarchy. The gnostic Tripartite Tractate, in fact, tells us that gnostic Christians joined together as equals, in mutual love, whilst non-initiates (ordinary Christians) "wanted to command one another, outrivalling each other in their empty ambition".

Gnostic gatherings, on the other hand, were informal affairs, at which lots were drawn (!) for the roles of bishop, priest and prophet. Men and women were given an equal chance to perform these roles. Speakers frequently talked spontaneously of their own experience, rather than from a text.

Needless to say, such tendencies were of dire concern to those who wished to protect the fledgling Church from the evils of diversity. Particularly alarming was the gnostic assertion that spirituality was personal, and did not require the mediation of bishops and priests. This idea was again rebutted, interestingly enough, by Pope John Paul II only last week. 

The canonical broadsides began to multiply. Indeed, until Nag Hammadi, nearly all we knew about gnosticism derived from critics like this one:

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.

And soon enough condemnation became repression. Pagels writes,

By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimised by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical became a criminal offence. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed.

In the end gnostics themselves were being hunted and murdered. The movement died out entirely, it seems, by the end of fourth century.

It recurred of course. Most notably, perhaps, in the Thirteenth Century - when the Cathars, who lived in an area of France known as the Languedoc, also had masters (of both sexes) who revealed gnosis. They believed in reincarnation, and recognised the feminine principle in spirituality. Like early Christian gnostics, they too saw priests and heirarchies as superfluous. They practised meditation, and were largely vegetarian. Additionally, they developed a level of civilisation - embodying philosophy, poetry, language and courtly love - which would not be seen in Europe again till the Renaissance. They were essentially non-violent. In 1209 the Pope sent an army of 30,000 into the Languedoc. There was a terrible purge. Eventually every Cathar man, woman and child had been put to the sword. Every city and crop was razed, every relic of their civilisation annihilated.

What is it about gnosis that provokes such reaction? Does religion, which so frequently survives on people's irrational fears, and on their gullibility, recognise its nemesis? Does it see a shadow of its former self?

Who can say? At the very least gnosis did act as an alternative to institutional religion: a connection to God that was both personal and direct.

Gnostic meditation, it seems, uncovered an awesome inner dimension - as illustrated by this passage from the Apocalypse of Peter:

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.

But what is gnosis, exactly? The Greek word (which differs sharply from their word for "rational knowledge") means knowledge through experience: knowledge through insight. The Gospel of Truth helps us out:

As with someone's ignorance, when he comes to have knowledge, his ignorance vanishes by itself; as the darkness vanishes when the light appears.

The Dialogue of the Saviour takes the explanation to a deeper level:

If one does not understand how the body he wears came to be, he will perish with it... Whoever does not understand how he came will not understand how he will go.

Yet actual definitions are not really forthcoming. Gnosis is indefinable - but not vague, apparently. Candidates were put through an initiation: they were given techniques by which they could go within, to "the revealing of what truly exists".

What were these techniques? We may never know, for gnosis was "secret knowledge", and most such methods were possibly never written down. But it seems clear that candidates would experience transcendental emotions - joy, peace, awe, even terror - and that the "pure", "brilliant" inner light was visualised.

In their meditations gnostics also listen to "hymns sung in silence"; they perceive Christ's eternal nature, known as Logos, or the Word; and they have visions of divine personalities.

It was tragic, but possibly inevitable, that the subtlety of gnosis was increasingly overlooked by those in search of salvation, in favour of the more relatable Christian orthodoxy. Such an obvious, physical theology is the very antithesis of gnosis. I fail to see that the two streams were, in the last analysis, at all compatible.

So a supreme irony was in motion. A central element of Christ's teaching - some say the central element - was being systematically stamped out by its ordained defenders.

The Apocalypse of Peter gets in a parting shot, however, with a chilling Third Century prophecy on Christianity's future. This is Jesus supposedly talking to Peter, the founder of his Church:

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 become greatly defiled and they will fall into a name of error, and into the hand of an evil, cunning man and a manifold dogma, and they will be ruled heretically.

Did anything of gnosticism survive? If we accept that gnosis is the perennially recurring gift of a whole series of "living masters" - yes. But most people don't accept this. And so, as far as early Christian gnosticism is concerned, no, nothing survived: gnosis was wiped off the face of the earth by the mainstream Church.

More than any other phenomenon, perhaps, gnosis cannot be appreciated through a purely academic approach. Elaine Pagels comes the closest that anyone yet has, to transcending the restrictions of her training, and to seeing gnosis as it really was.

It's a pity her many colleagues fail to do likewise. This myopia is nowhere better illustrated than when they "explain" why the mainstream Church moved away from female equality. All kind of sociological, political and religious theories are put forward. Not one "expert" remembers that gnosis is not a dogma, nor a social code, nor even a religion - but an experience. An experience, by all accounts, which was able to wreak profound, even total alterations in individual consciousness. Surely it is tenable, even predictable, that such catharsis could dissolve many illusions in the process - including groundless fears and prejudices which men often have against women.

This is even easier to accept when we consider that the disappearance of gnosis from Christian religion parallels very closely the rise of male domination, and the ascendancy of God the Father.

The Nag Hammadi Library is remarkable for the beauty of its lyrical poetry and the depth of its mysticism. Academics, of course, are frequently attracted to the study of mystical experience, and lyrical poetry - I often think to compensate for deficiencies of their own. They catalogue, compare, contextualise...and miss the essence.

Elaine Pagels is an exception. She has written an account of the Nag Hammadi gospels which is erudite, lucid, and outstandingly original.

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