Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library

Book Review: The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library  by Marvin Meyer (Harper-Collins 2005)

This is nice non-technical foray into so-called Gnosticism and the history of the discovery and impact of the codices found in the 1940’s in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Meyer is a knowledgeable scholar and seems to have a genuine interest in Gnosticism, or what he seems to call “gnosticizing writings”. There was no official sect or sects called Gnosticism – it is apparently a term applied by the heresiologists though at least one noted that that is what they called themselves. I use the term throughout this review. I also read, enjoyed, and reviewed Meyer’s analysis of Ancient Mystery Cults. The story of the discovery of the codices in a jar buried in the barren sands beyond the black soil of the Nile floodplain is told. Unfortunately the poor Egyptians who discovered it did not right away recognize the potential value of such things, damaging and destroying parts of the ancient texts.

Meyer speaks positively about other scholars of Gnostic movements such as Elaine Pagels, Kurt Rudolph, and Hans Jonas and often passes on their ideas. Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts and other Gnostic texts the only information about Gnosticism came from the early Christian heresiologists who presented them as flawed and heretical Christian beliefs. The works of the heresiologists are mainly refutations that are biased and often distort some of the beliefs. Even so, Meyer suggests that a careful reading of them combined with what we now know from discovered and translated texts can be revealing. He lists significant Gnostic figures from the first and second centuries: Simon Magus, Helena, Marcellina, Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcus. Other textual Gnostic sources mentioned include the Askew Codex which contains the Pistis Sophia, the Bruce Codex, Hermetic texts such as the Corpus Hermeticum, and Mandean and Manichaean texts from the Middle East and Asia.

He compares the staunch opposing dualism of Manichaeism to the dualism arising from oneness of the Valentinians. I speculate that this may be due to the Manicheans being closer to the source area of light/dark, good/evil dualism ideas among Persians and likely transferred to Judaism from the time of Cyrus the Great.

Nag Hammadi texts are complemented by equally recently discovered texts found in a rubbish heap at Oxyrhynchus now known as the Berlin Codex. These texts can be classified into various ‘traditions’ says Meyer: the Thomas tradition, Sethian, Valentinian, Hermetic, and others not easily classifiable. Meyer gives many snippets of translated texts, most his own translations from his other books.

Meyer gives an account with a few pictures of the discovery of the texts in 1945 in a desert area beneath a large rock outcrop in Nag Hammadi Egypt. This area is just beyond the black soil of the Nile Valley and into the infertile red desert soil. In an allegorical sense one could say the texts were cast out like the Egyptian god Seth to his red desert as they were cast out of the developing orthodoxy that Christianity became. Meyer notes this and in that sense the Gnostic texts are metaphorically akin to Set as the great outcaste heretic. The texts are in an Egyptian language called Coptic but most are thought to have been translated from Greek. The Gospel of Thomas is thought to have been composed in Syria and the Hermetic fragments in Egypt since they refer to places there. There is an excerpt from Plato’s Republic and the Sethian texts are thought to have Platonic characteristics. Meyer notes some arguments about dating of texts and suggests that those who want to marginalize controversial texts such as the Gospel of Thomas routinely assign it a later date.

Gnosticism was not a specific movement but an aspect of Christianity, Judaism, Hermeticism, or possibly even Platonism that was likely syncretic as a Hellenized and Romanized Middle East was syncretic. Texts classified as Gnostic emphasize ‘gnosis’ or knowledge as the key function of the cult in contrast to redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus. Heresiologists such as Clement and Irenaeus of Lyon referred to the heretics as Gnostics and even said that is what they called themselves. The present day Mandeans of the Middle East refer to themselves as Mandaye, or “knowers” and this may be a related attribution. Meyer proposes the following description of Gnostic religion:

“Gnostic religion is a religious tradition that emphasizes the primary place of gnosis, or mystical knowledge, understood through aspects of wisdom, often personified wisdom, presented in creation stories, particularly stories based on the Genesis accounts, and interpreted by means of a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, including Platonism, in order to proclaim a radically enlightened way of life and knowledge.”

The group of texts that were found buried in the jar at Nag Hammadi may have been texts that were recently cast out since changes to the official orthodox canon were frequent after Constantinian times when different Church leaders came to power. The debates that determined orthodoxy and heresy probably went on for a few hundred years at least. An important event regarding the canon happened in 367 when Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria proclaimed in a letter which canonical texts would be included in the bible and which discarded. This suggests that the Pachomian monks who utilized the texts were compelled to seal them away as inappropriate to the canon.

In a section about wisdom the author presents examples of wisdom veneration from throughout the Middle and Near East – Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Judea, and among the philosophers of Ancient Greece. The Gospel of Thomas and other Thomas texts record wisdom sayings of Jesus which are not unlike the sayings of philosophers. He notes that a few sayings of Jesus survive in a lost text called Q that was probably used to compose the books of Matthew and Luke. The Jesus presented in the Gospel of Thomas does not perform miracles, healings, or prophesies nor does he die for sins and become mystically resurrected. He is not born of a virgin. He is not addressed in this text as the Christ or the Messiah, just as Jesus. Here he is a purveyor of Jewish parables, some cryptic, some a bit shocking, and some quite sensible and even humorous. Some of the sayings are riddle-like and have been referred to as hidden sayings that require interpretation. Meyer makes a good case for dating the Gospel of Thomas to the first century. This is the text that was said to be recorded by Judas Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus. The author notes that the character of Judas Thomas does not seem to match that of Thomas in the Gospel of John. Some sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas have also survived in Islamic tradition as just that – the sayings of Isa, or Jesus. Al-Ghazali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences is one text where they can be found. The final saying is outwardly anti-woman, saying that women are not worthy of life and need to transform to a male form to enter the kingdom of heaven. Meyer suggests that the interpretation of this may be allegorical with the female referring to the perishable matter and the male referring to the imperishable spirit.

Other Thomas texts in the codex are the Book of Thomas and the Dialogue of the Savior. These are described as Hellenistic Jewish works drawing on Platonic philosophy. Much as in Plato there is emphasis on the notion that people are imprisoned by their own fiery passions or the concept that the body imprisons the soul.

Meyer also notes a contrast between these Gnostic texts emphasizing wisdom and the canonical texts emphasizing the sacrifice of the crucifixion. He thinks that this enhances the historical understanding of Jesus.

Next is an examination of - the Fall and Restoration of Sophia - in the Secret Book of John and other Sethian Texts. This is one key mythos that is characteristic of “Gnosticism” but notably absent in conventional Christianity. Hebrew personifications of Wisdom as Chokmah and Sophia are female. The Gnostic Sophia is entangled in the myth which involves her fall and redemption. This has been revived in a slightly different sense in Aleister Crowley’s notion of the redeemed woman becoming the once despised now redeemed/redeemer Babalon. Early wisdom goddesses of the Ancient World include Inanna/Ishtar of Mesopotamia and Maat of Egypt. In Ancient Greece it was Metis, the first wife of Zeus and their daughter Athena (who rose from the head of Zeus after he swallowed her) who are associated with wisdom. Meyer notes that the story of Sophia in the Sethian Secret Book of John is very similar to the model of the story of Zeus, Metis, and Athena, told by Hesiod. One of the earliest formulators of the doctrine of gnosis is said to be Simon Magus who the heresiologists noted was venerated by the heretics. His place in the canonized biblical tradition was relegated to the status of a cheap and selfish wonder-worker. He travelled with Helena, a former prostitute from Tyre and to both of them are attributed Gnostic texts and indeed Helena may well be a version of personified wisdom as wisdom or the soul (Psyche)  - often depicted as female and there are myths of “Her” spending time as a prostitute during her fallen stage. The folly of Sophia is said to be in trying to imitate the creation of the Father – and Meyer notes this is much like Hera in Hesiod’s Theogony where out of jealousy she tries to create without Zeus.

Another model of the fallen woman is of course that of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Greek, Eve is Zoe, or life. The Sethians are also called Barbelognostics after Barbelo, the divine mother. Meyer seems to think that the Secret Book of John was originally a Jewish Gnostic text with Greco-Roman elements that later became Christianized. In some versions the goddess emanates as divine forethought (Pronoia, also Barbelo the mother) - the revealer, and insight (Epinoia). Another version has her revealed as the “Trimorphic Protennoia” or Three Forms of First Thought – voice, speech, and word. Her first thought is word, or logos. In the canonized biblical accounts Jesus is the revealer as well as the bearer of the logos. Another section recounts the emanation of the many from the one, the Pleroma from the Monad. Much like Hera forming Hephaistos and Typhon, Sophia forms her deformed and flawed child, the megalomaniacal Yaldabaoth. Sometimes the creation stories are said to be the unfolding of the mind of God and there are many versions of creation around the Ancient World including those recounted in the Qabala and the Chaldean Oracles of Zoraster though those may have been later in their current forms and owe much to Neoplatonism. Not too dissimilar are the manifestations from the Infinite described in the Vedas and Upanishads. The fall of Sophia, much like the fall of Eve can be considered the descent of spirit into the prison of matter. The idea seems to exist in earlier form in Persian dualism with the descent of light and its subsequent fragmentation and the imprisonment of spirit in matter. Valentinian texts suggest two wisdoms: the incorruptible Sophia of spirit and the flawed Sophia of matter. Yaldabaoth the flawed and the Archons become the demiurge(s) that create the world which is also flawed. The origin of evil and the way to subdue it with gnosis is a key theme of Gnosticism and a key complaint of Augustine when he refutes the Manichean Gnosticism he used to practice. Augustine said that Manicheism was overly concerned with the origin of evil.   

Meyer mentions Elaine Pagel’s suggestion in her book Beyond Belief that Epinoia, or insight, is a key concept in gnostic thought. . The idea is that we have an innate capacity to know the divine and as Pagels describes it: “ Eve symbolizes the gift of spiritual understanding, which enables us to reflect – however imperfectly – upon divine reality. The Secret Book of John also seems to have some offspring in Islamic texts including the Shia Um al-Katib, or Mother of Books, though the ideas were changed to reflect the family of Mohammed.

Meyer notes that Sethian Gnosticism is related to Platonic tradition but also that there is a geneaology of the Gnostic descendents of Seth who keep the Adam and Eve mystical tradition alive. Dositheos and his student Simon Magus are part of this Sethian Gnostic lineage. Indeed everyone who follows the teachings is called the offspring of Seth.

Sethians practice baptismal ritual like many Jewish, Christian, and Persian sects of the time. This is to remove the stain of the fall of Sophia rather than the “original sin” of humans recounted in mainstream Christianity. Sophia may be flawed but she is also God and in this scheme it is God that made the mistake, not humans.

Valentinus is described as a mystic. Meyer describes Valentinian Gnosticism as an adaptation of Sethian Gnosticism. He notes that the Valentinians likely described themselves as devoted Christians rather than Gnostics or Valentinians. Apparently, the Valentinians would attend the services of the other Christians but also convene amongst themselves. The main Valentinian text in the Nag Hammadi library is called – The Gospel of Truth. Valentinus was an African born in Egypt, had a Hellenistic education, a was one of the most famous church leaders of the 2nd century. He was a contender for the bishop of Rome, an equivalent of the pope at that time. His writings were poetic and according to the author, among the most beautiful of any Christian tradition. By the 4th century there was strife among the sects as orthodoxy and heretical strains were decided and some Valentinian temples were burned. In the Gospel of Truth it is metaphorical “error” that causes the crucifixion and Jesus, nailed to a tree, was called the fruit of the tree, the fruit of the knowledge of the father. This text has several parables that have allegorical interpretations. Valentinians had a particular metaphysical interpretation of the emanation of the pleroma of the divine. First everything came from the divine depth, the bathos. The emanation is arranged into 15 aeons, or divine couples, for a total of 30 or more aeons. Most important are the first two groups of four (the tetrads). According to Irenaeus of Lyon these are the divine couples of: depth and thought (or grace and silence), mind and truth, word and life, and human and church. Owing to the fall of Sophia two other aeons are emanated: those of Christ and the holy spirit. “Christ assists with the restoration of Sophia, but her desire is thrown out of the divine realm of fullness, and it becomes Achamoth, a lower wisdom, from whose passions our world here below is created. Christ is often referred to as the son of Sophia and is thought to represent her incorruptible manifestation.

The Gospel of Phillip is another Valentinian text from the Nag Hammadi library. Regarding the idea that Mary the mother of Jesus was impregnated by the holy spirit the text ridicules the notion: “When did a woman – Mary – ever get pregnant by a woman – the holy spirit?” The Gospel of Phillip also talks about Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) as the companion of Jesus: “The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth].” (Meyer does note that “mouth” may not be the right interpretation here). The Gospel of Mary is another Gnostic text that describes the special love between Jesus and Mary of Magdala. The Gospel of Phillip also mentions Sophia as barren, and as the mother of angels.

The healing of the separation of the male and female recounted in the Adam and Eve mythos is part of Valentinian tradition. This re-union occurs in the bridal chamber. This is not just sexual union but a sacrament for salvific union. Meyer notes five main sacraments, or mysteries, identified in the Gospel of Phillip: baptism, chrism, eucharist, redemption, and bridal chamber. It seems likely that Valentinian married couples practiced the mystery of the bridal chamber as a mystical form of sex in order to pass the spiritual seed as the – semen of light. There was also an esoteric version of baptism where one attains spiritual understanding rather than forgiveness of sins. There are similarities here to the methods of sexual tantra and there are those who see the impetus for the tantra of the East deriving from the Near East, particularly the Heiros Gamos (sacred marriage) rites associated with Inanna/Ishtar of Sumeria/Babylonia but this is only speculative as there is no direct evidence thus far. It is far more likely that the Heiros Gamos of Mesopotamia influenced the bridal chamber sacramental rites of the Valentinians. 

There is another Valentinian text from the discovery called – The Treatise on Resurrection. This is an esoteric interpretation of the resurrection – the resurrection of the spirit – that builds on the idea that one must become the Christ and the father. It seems to me that many of the metaphysical ideas in the various Gnostic creation schemes were perhaps part of a more flexible and contemplative Judeo-Christian tradition than the more rigid and dogmatic forms of Pauline and orthodox Christianity.

The last chapter of Nag Hammadi texts explored are those of Hermes, Derdekeas, Thunder, and Mary. These are all other revealers of wisdom. Hermes Trismegistos (thrice-greatest Hermes) is the revealer of the Hermetic wisdom. He is a composite of Greek god Hermes and Egyptian god Thoth, and so is thought to be a mythic figure. The Hermetic text in the Nag Hammadi library concerns the 8th and 9th levels (beyond the realms of the seven planets). These may correspond to realms in the Secret Book of John where Yaldabaoth dwells in the 8th realm and his mother Sophia in the 9th realm. The text has some similarities to the – Three Steles of Seth. To me this combination of Hermeticism and Gnosticism suggests the syncretic and perhaps non-dogmatic approach of the Alexandrian esotericists who were more cosmopolitan and less sectarian before the mandatory implementation of orthodox Christianity. During the throws of the struggle a mob of Christians burned the magnificent library of Alexandria, perhaps a low point in human culture, and symbolically at least, a harbinger of the Dark Ages. The Hermetic text is clearly Egyptian and prescribes hieroglyphics and typical Egyptian art and magic. There is also a Hermetic prayer of thanksgiving to the Womb and the Father. After the prayer there is a prescription to embrace and share a sacred vegetarian meal. Next is another Hermetic text given by Hermes Trismegistus to the student Asclepius. Here is revealed the mystery of metaphorical sexual intercourse as the communion between gods and people. Here Hermes reveals an apocalyptic scenario for Egypt followed by a restoration.

The next text is called the - Paraphrase of Shem – and is revealed by Derdekeas to Shem. Shem is the son of Noah and father of the Semitic people. “In the beginning, Derdekeas says, there were three primal powers, the light above, the darkness below, and the spirit in between, and somehow the darkness had control of mind:” (text quote follows) “Light was thought full of hearing and word united in one form. Darkness was wind in the waters, and darkness had a mind wrapped in restless fire. Between them was spirit, a quiet, humble light.” After this the darkness stirs which noise surprises the spirit and the uneasy peace ends. Spirit discovers the existence of darkness. Darkness sees that spirit is enlightened and lifts up to partake. The darkness may be similar to Sophia trying to imitate the spirit. This is one of several Gnostic scenarios of darkness and light becoming intermingled. The liberation of the mind of darkness and the light of the spirit is achieved (in a convoluted manner according to Meyer) through the use of sexual weaponry. Darkness ejaculates into nature, the cosmic womb. Derdekeas, the revealer of this text, is the savior of light, and descends to have sex with nature, which itself is a world of sexuality. Here I think we see an attempt at equating metaphysical creation of the world with biological creation/reproduction.

Next we come to the revelation of a female called Thunder. The title of the text is given as – Thunder: Perfect Mind. This consists of “I am” statements and shows a marked similarity to statements attributed to Isis. She identifies herself as Sophia, Eve (Zoe), and Epinoia (insight). Meyer and others connect her to Sethian thought, particularly to Barbelo. One similarity to Barbelo who was sent from above is recounted:

“I was sent from the power
and have come to those who contemplate me
and am found among those who seek me”

In the poetic lines she often invokes one thing then its opposite:

“For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin
I am <the mother> and the daughter”

“I alone exist,
and I have no one to judge me.
For there are many sorts of seductive sins
and deeds without restraint
and disgraceful desires
and fleeting pleasures that people embrace,
until they become sober
and rise up to their place of rest.
They will find me there,
and they will live and not die again.”

Lastly there is – The Gospel of Mary – which is fragmentary. There are fragments preserved in other codices as well but this is the most complete. There is debate how Gnostic the text is as some consider it more a Stoic text. This is due to the language of the text. The Stoics considered matter to be a thought construct and matter to be intertwined with nature. Gnostics tended to promote the avoidance of the material world as defiled while the Stoics simply guarded against being overly influenced by it. The final message in this text from Jesus to his disciples before he is crucified is that the son of man (child of humankind) is within and that there is no rule to lay down beyond this. As Jesus is leaving Mary speaks to the disciples about the inner journey of the soul beyond the passions of desire, ignorance, anger and such. In the Gospel of Mary we again find that the most favored disciple was this Mary of Magdala: “… in the Gospel of Philip, the Dialogue of the Savior, Pistis Sophis, and a song from the Psalms of Heracleides from the Manichaean Psalmbook – Mary of Magdal receives similar high praise, but in the New Testament gospels her role is limited and her praise is muted.”

“In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great completed the work of marginalizing Mary Magdalene by equating Mary with the prostitute of Luke 7, and Mary became the paradigmatic repentant whore thereafter.”

So we see fairly clearly that this Mary has been defamed (historically and mythically) and in line with Gnostic mythos she is a woman that should be restored to her proper place.

Meyer notes that there are quite a few Gnostic saviors: Jesus, Derdekeas, Thunder, Seth, Hermes, even Mani – the Iranian “messenger of light.” Mani was a syncretist in the 200’s who combined the teachings of the Hebrews, Jesus, Zoroaster, and later of Buddha. Meyer also acknowledges the influence of Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian traditions on Gnostic thought. The trinity of Isis/Osiris/Horus certainly influenced the Christian trinity. Later church leaders came to embrace male revealers and church leaders and attack the female Gnostic revealers for their boldness and audacity to perform religious actions!

Indeed, with the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria and the loss of the feminine traditions of the Near and Middle East – long powerful, particularly in Anatolia – we see a degradation and imbalance that darkened humanity yet it can also be said that the unity of tradition and conversion enforced by the sword also allowed for a more homogenous society and all that it entails.

The pre-orthodox Christian world was one of diversity and one might note that the birth of religious wars was at the end of this time and likely influenced the Islamic conversions by the sword that swept the world a few centuries later. Incidentally, the Islamic world inherited pockets of Gnostic-minded practitioners and that became part of later, mostly Sufi and Shia traditions along with Hellenistic and Neoplatonic thought.

Finally, Meyer goes through some even more recent Gnostic texts discovered. Perhaps more will be unearthed in the future and reveal more of the unknown of the religious ideas of this time and place. At the end there is a list of each text in the Nag Hammadi Codex with a description of its contents and character.

This is an excellent overview of the Nag Hammadi library and of so-called Gnostic thought in general by an accomplished author with a genuine interest in the subject matter. Much is revealed especially about the early history of Christianity and more especially about the character of it that was lost to orthodoxy.



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