The Gnostic Christians Notes by Dr. Honora M. Finkelstein According to Elaine Pagels, who wrote the definitive book The Gnostic Gospels, the Gnostics differed from the orthodox church on the following points: They believed that individuals had the ability to experience “gnosis”—i.e., divine revelation, enlightenment, and “knowing” of higher states of consciousness on their own, without having church officials tell them what to think or how to worship. Hence, they didn’t believe anyone needed to have known Jesus the Christ personally or have had an encounter with Him in the flesh after his resurrection to “know” Him. As a result, they didn’t believe in the “Apostolic Succession,” which gave only those who had been apostles, or those who were their duly church-appointed successors, the right to tell people what to believe or how to think about their spiritual life. They believed that the resurrection of Jesus was symbolic, not literal. Hence, they saw his appearances to people after his death as vision, not as reappearances “in the flesh.” Hence, anyone who had “gnosis” could experience valid visions. The church on the other hand said that besides the visions of the apostles during the first 40 days after the resurrection (before Pentecost), only the “vision” of St. Paul, and later others as determined by the church, could be considered valid. Hence, any Gnostic who came along with his/her own vision of Jesus would in all likelihood be determined a heretic by the church. They challenged the church view that a god who was all loving could have created a world with evils in it (e.g., scorpions, snakes, hunger, pain, large people-eating animals, etc.) They also suggested that the god who described himself in the Old Testament as a “jealous” god, by implication, was neither all-powerful nor all-loving. Hence, they argued there must be a god above the creator god who was represented in scripture. They believed that God was both Father and Mother; in the Trinity, they saw the Holy Spirit as a feminine force (sometimes referred to as Sophia, Sapientia, or Shekinah). (Remember the feminine aspect of the Tree of Life in Kabbala?) They did not agree that being persecuted by the Romans or otherwise martyred necessarily meant one would go directly to Heaven upon death by martyrdom. Only experience of “gnosis” made one a member of the true church. That is, neither baptism nor suffering/sacrifice were as important as this individual experience of enlightenment. They believed that self-knowledge was knowledge of God. Remember that above the doors of the ancient mystery schools was the injunction: “Know thyself,” and that perhaps the most important injunction of the Greek philosopher Socrates was “Know thyself.” This is very close to modern concepts of Jungian psychology as well, which teaches the principle that when you peel away the layers of the mind like the layers of an onion, you’ll find, according to Jung, that “Mind, at base, is universe.” However, the martyrdom of the early Christians did bring in many converts from other religious disciplines to the orthodox church. The early orthodox church also got a big boost from Emperor Constantine, AD 306-337, who furthered the cause of Christianity after a battlefield vision of the Christ when in 313 he declared Christians could not be persecuted for practicing their religion. He apparently had in mind to unite the Roman Empire with Christianity, and he chose the orthodox version of the religion to further his cause because he thought this would be the best way to keep the Roman Empire together. (Christianity finally became the official state religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius toward the end of the century.) Unfortunately, Constantine turned the power of the army and the police over to the church to eliminate any factions that might be operating antithetically to the furtherance of orthodoxy, and as a result, the Gnostics, who probably were closer to the spirit of Jesus Christ in their teachings than was the orthodox church, were persecuted and declared heretical; their writings were collected and burned. Hence, the documents found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi are the only surviving examples of many of these writings. The Gnostics themselves went underground; their ideas have appeared again and again in later movements and in some of the secret societies that appeared throughout Europe, but they did not survive at the time as a viable form of Christianity. For more information and for texts of the Gnostic Gospels, go to The Nag Hammadi Library. For an excellent discussion of the Nag Hammadi texts, see the following text: Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Constantine also had a long-lasting influence by his dividing the empire in half and establishing an imperial capital in Constantinople, now Istanbul, in Turkey on the Bosporus where Asia meets Europe. When the Roman Empire was in the process of falling, the Eastern half didn’t fall because it was wealthier and better able to defend its borders, so Constantinople kept the ideas and consciousness of this time period intact for future generations, and it became the capital of the Byzantine Empire. (And with Constantinople as a base of operations, what eventually became the Eastern branch of the orthodox church eventually began to Christianize parts of the world to the north and east, such as the areas that became Russia and the Ukraine.) However, there is evidence that Constantine himself did not become a Christian until shortly before he died; his deity of personal choice for most of his life was a sun god named Sol Invictus; in all probability, he didn’t see any real difference between the Son of God and the Sun God, and for practicality, Christianity fit the bill of a religion that could syncretize many other practices throughout the empire by adopting some of the pagan practices and turning their deities into Roman Catholic Saints. And homogeneity of religious worship was greatly to be desired since the empire had become so farflung. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily