Gnostic Breakthrough

By Bruce Chilton
Author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000). His most recent book, The Way of Jesus: To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), has just been published.
May 2010

Gnosticism emerged as an important and influential stream of thought in the West, but its depth and diversity have been obscured by clichés. Present discussion, even while claiming to be fresh and original, often perpetuates the reduction of Gnostic insights to banal truisms of fashion. Fortunately, the wealth of text available today offers the prospect that Gnosticism might break through the prejudgments that have consigned it to marginal status.

Between the late first century and the end of the fourth century of the Common Era, Gnosticism sought for a single, integrating insight into the divine world amid conflicting religious traditions. Gnostics wanted direct contact with the divine apart from parochial requirements, peculiar customs, and ethnic preferences. Traditional religions talked about transcendence, but they restricted the delivery of their truths to their different constituencies, which were limited and often mutually exclusive, defined by race, history, family, or status.

The power of Gnosticism transformed the face of Greco-Roman religion: many religious movements were influenced by it. Gnostic questers pioneered an approach to religious truth that was based on knowledge rather than faith, practice, or formal organization. The Christian church, the Jewish synagogue, the guild of adepts in the Mysteries find no real counterpart among the Gnostics. They pursued knowledge (gnosis in Greek) so intently that they came to be called gnostikoi. If the word “knowledgist” existed in English, that would be a good translation.

The intellectual environment established by Gnosticism was one of the factors in Christianity’s emergence as a viable religio in Antiquity, rather than as a superstitio, the legal status the Roman Empire initially gave the new faith. Christ became a symbol of how any person, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, could come to know God and be known by God (as Paul said in Galatians). But as often happens in the history of persecution, those who had been victims, after attaining a position of privilege, were not inclined to renounce the methods of repression under which they once suffered. For example, Christian mobs rioted against pagans in Alexandria in 415 CE, encouraged by Cyril, the local bishop; they dragged the Neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia from her chariot, stripped and flayed her -- and then burned her alive. The emergent Orthodoxy sanctioned by the Empire clearly put limits on the understanding of how much knowledge was compatible with faith.

The rise of restrictive forms of Orthodoxy brought the repression of texts as well as people. The fear that Gnostic sources might be destroyed is the most likely reason for which an entire library of works was deposited near Nag Hammadi in Egypt during the fourth century. The discovery of that library in 1945 opened up a fresh interest in these gospels and related writings.

Perhaps inevitably, scholarly interest sometimes tipped into uncritical enthusiasm. It is frequently said, for example, that scholars never had direct access to such sources before the discovery, but only to what the Gnostics’ opponents (Irenaeus, and Clement and Tertullian above all) had to say. In fact, the Pistis Sophis (which means “Faith-Wisdom”) has been known since the eighteenth century and the Gospel of Mary since the nineteenth century.

This enthusiasm has fed the rise of neo-Gnosticism, a modern revival greatly encouraged by the discovery at Nag Hammadi. In co-opting these ancient sources, the neo-Gnostics are unlike their ancient counterparts. They want to embrace the earth, while Gnostics often shunned the earth; they don’t wish to be elitist, although many Gnostics claimed to be a class apart from humanity at large. Above all, neo-Gnostics want to insist on the gender-equality of women with men. Those are aims I happen to agree with, but you need to cherry-pick Gnostic sources and ignore a great deal of what they say to make that picture work as an account of the Nag Hammadi library.

Gnosticism has yet to be evaluated in the light of its own sources because two prejudgments have stood in the way of fair reading. One prejudgment dismisses Gnostics as heretics, in the tradition of Cyril of Alexandria. The other imagines that, because Gnostics were repressed by the Orthodox, it must be that the Gnostics themselves embraced diversity. Neither of these pictures is plausible.

To judge from the rich literature discovered near Nag Hammadi, Gnostics were not only productive of a diverse literature, they also pursued different kinds of gnosis. Some of them took up the ancient Near Eastern theme of Wisdom as a divine personification so that knowing Wisdom – accepting her as one’s Mother, as The Teaching of Silvanus says -- meant that a person could come to an awareness of the divine in its intersection with the world all around us. Yet other texts from Nag Hammadi are dualistic in insisting upon an impermeable divide between good and evil, light and dark, in the manner of Zoroastrianism, another source of the movement. For dualistic Gnostics, Wisdom is not truly divine, but actually an hysterical divinity, who in her confusion produced the phenomenal world that seems alive, but is only corruption.

The distinction between non-dualistic and dualistic Gnosis is basic, and some scholars focus on that distinction to the exclusion of others. In my opinion, however, two other types of gnosis (which sometimes intersect with one another as well as with other types) also need to be taken into account as one reads the Nag Hammadi library. In order to investigate sources far more particularistic than the universal gnosis they sought, some Gnostics raised revisionist reading to an art form: making the snake in Eden and Cain into heroes, for example, and portraying Jesus as laughing during the crucifixion, since his true nature could not be harmed. And finally, many Gnostics eagerly entered into philosophical inquiry and engaged the Neo-Platonists of their age in debate concerning the ultimate structure of reality and how people could be understood as eternal.

In its vigorous quest for different kinds of knowledge, sometimes gnosis of the Wisdom that unites all things in heaven and earth, sometimes gnosis of the stark contrast between true reality and this false world in which we live, sometimes involving radical revisionism regarding ancient sources as well as philosophical debate, the Gnostics we meet in the pages of the Nag Hammadi speak beyond the fashions that later lined up for and against them. Instead, they inform us of how meaning can be sought and parochial truths transformed in the thirst for enduring knowledge.

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