From Not in His Image, pages 410-430
Gnosticism: Reading and Research
1. Primary Sources
Nag Hammadi Library (abbreviated NHL or NHC)
The standard edition, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (NHLE) edited by James Robinson, first appeared in 1977. Editions from several publishers are now in print. The NHLE is intended for mainstream readers, while scholars use the multivolume hardcover edition, The Coptic Gnostic Library (CGL), uniquely published by E. J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands. Brill also published a facsimile edition of the Codices in oversized folios with photographic reproductions of every page. The CGL presents the Coptic text on the left with facing line-by-line translations. It includes elaborate commentaries, glossaries, and meticulous scholarly detail work. The translations in the CGL differ in places from the NHLE.
The CGL also contains essential Coptic writings not found in the NHLE: the Pistis Sophia (Askew Codex), the Untitled Treatise, and the two Books of Jeu (Bruce Codex). A third non-NHL text, the Berlin Codex (BG), contains the Gospel of Mary, the Act of Peter, and drafts of two NHL codices, the Apocryphon of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ. The first two documents are included at the end of the NHLE, and the drafts are merged into the corresponding NHL texts. Thus, you get the Berlin Codex in the NHLE, but you have to go to the CGL for the Askew and Bruce Codices.
In 2000 Brill published a condensed five-volume paperback edition of the CGL with Coptic text (cost, around $550), but without the Bruce and Askew Codices.
Pistis Sophia translated by G. R. S. Mead is an early version of the Askew Codex, not recognized by Gnostic scholars. But at least you can lay your hands on it. Outside the CGL, the Bruce Codex is more difficult to find, but there is a valuable translation by Charlotte Baynes, published at Oxford in 1939.
There are no other complete English translations of the Coptic Gnostic material apart from the NHLE and the CGL, but there are some partial alternative translations. The Gnostic Scriptures translated by Bentley Layton present some NHL material and other ancient writings of a Gnostic character. The Other Bible edited by Willis Barnstone is an excellent compilation of selected NHL passages and related materials.
Organization of the Codices
There are in all 52 documents in the NHL, ranging in length from a few lines to 40 pages. Scholars number the codices by Roman numerals, I through XIII, and the treatises in each codex by Arabic numbers, and by a title. For example, V, 4, the fourth treatise in codex V, is titled The Second Apocalypse of James. Some materials occur in more than one draft, notably the long cosmological treatise, the Apocryphon of John, found in codices II, III, IV, and the Berlin Codex. In the CGL the different drafts of this important treatise are printed side by side. In the NHLE they are all merged into one translation.
Scholars number the pages in each codex consecutively, straight through the packet from the first papyrus leaf to the last. For instance, codex VII contains five treatises (or tractates), a total of 127 pages counting each side of a papyrus leaf as a page. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (VII, 2) runs from pages 49 through 69. The NHLE indicates these page numbers in bold. The pages of the codices average about 30 to 36 lines each, also numbered. Thus there is a four-level notation system: codex, treatise, page, line. NHC VII, 2, 54.10 indicates line 10 on page 54 of treatise 2 in codex VII, titled The Second Treatise of the Great Seth: “And the plan they devised about me, to release their Error and senselessness — I did not succumb to them as they had planned.” This is a Gnostic master exposing the subterfuge of the Archons, and how he has foiled it. Scholars also use abbreviations for the titles: Treat Seth, for instance. Apoc Peter 83.1–5 is the same as VII, 3, 83.1–5, but the abbreviated title makes it easier to remember the text being cited. Apoc Peter 83.1–5 is a famous passage that describes “the laughing savior” on the cross: “He laughs at their lack of perception, knowing they are born blind.” The crucified savior laughing scornfully at the ignorance of the mob below is one of the more sensational events in the Gnostic corpus.
The four-level notation system allows us to pinpoint the location of particular and outstanding lines like this. It is absurd to read any translation of the NHC straight from start to finish, as if it were an ordinary book. These documents have to be read selectively, approaching each one with some idea of what is to be found in it. The genuine, unadulterated message of Gnosis comes in specific glimmers or “bursts” such as the lines cited above, because the vast bulk of the surviving material is murky, dense, and incoherent. It is practically impossible to wring a clear, consistent paragraph out of many documents in the NHC. The entire opus is a terrible muddle of hand-me-down materials hurriedly rendered in a weird, conceptually impaired stenographic language, Coptic. For an in-depth guide to the reading the NHL, see the Gnostic Reading Plan at www.metahistory.org. To my knowledge, this is the only commentary that emphasizes the value of the Gnostic message as such, rather than treating it as an accessory to, or outtake from, Christian doctrines of salvation.
Non–Nag Hammadi Writings and Apocrypha
These include the Askew, Bruce, and Berlin Codices, as already noted. Apart from these documents, no other surviving Coptic materials can be identified as originating from Gnostic circles or the Mysteries, but there are diverse materials in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Aramaic. The primary source of Greek-language materials is the New Testament Apocrypha (NTA) compiled by Edgar Hennecke in 1904 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2 volumes). It contains papyrus fragments, nonbiblical material on Jesus, Jewish-Christian gospels, unknown sayings of Jesus, discussions with disciples after the resurrection, acts of various apostles, and many gospels of a Gnostic and pseudo-Gnostic nature.
There is some stunning Gnostic material in the NTA, even though these works, which were excluded from the canon of the New Testament, are predominantly Christian in character. They provide glimpses of the Pagan-Jewish background of early Christian beliefs, and here and there they reveal the complex body of pre- and non-Christian literature that had to be pillaged to establish the Jesus narrative and the apostolic mission.
The NTA is a mixed bag, with large a dose of evangelic cant, but some of its material is deeply engaging. The Acts of John describes a mystical dance performed by Jesus at the Last Supper, accompanied by a poem that contains lines such as “To the universe belongs the dancer. Who does not enter the dance, does not know what is happening.” Pope Leo the Great (ca. 450) considered this document so scandalous that he condemned it as a “hotbed of manifold perversity,” and demanded all copies be burned, mainly because it refutes the redemptive value of suffering and proposes ecstasy in its place. The Acts of John replaces the gruesome act of crucifixion by a mystical dance. This is the high point of the NTA.
There are also masses of Old Testament apocrypha, outtakes from the standard Old Testament, also called pseudoepigraphia. The most accessible of these works were compiled by Edgar Goodspeed in The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden, including the Book of the Maccabees with historical background on the Gnostic-Qumran connection (category 3, below). The Books of Enoch and the Apocalypses of Ezra, Isaiah, and Baruch contain some clues to the Archon-Annunaki scenario (“the Watchers”), as well as other strange material that has now been incorporated into ET/UFO mythology. “Wisdom literature” or sapiential writings such as the Odes of Solomon present mystical poetry focused on Sophia, the wisdom goddess. (Sapientia is the Latin word for the Greek sophia, “wisdom.”) The Other Bible edited by Willis Barnstone offers some tantalizing extracts from the Odes. A lot of this obscure material can easily be found on the Internet. For instance, www.gnosis.org.
Among classical writings in Greek, Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries presents the most complete and authentic testimony from an accomplished teacher of the Mysteries. Iamblichus (d. ca. 330 C.E.) was the head of the Syrian school of Neoplatonism to which Hypatia is thought to have belonged. Unfortunately, the sole existing English translation by the English Platonist Thomas Taylor is extremely tough going. (Taylor’s own work, The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, is unreliable for a modern view of Gnosis because it presents an allegorical interpretation of Mystery teachings, inconsistent with firsthand instruction by the Light.) Iamblichus is rarely cited as a source of Gnostic ideas, whereas Plotinus, who confessed with exasperation that he could get no information out of the Gnostics, often is! Our grasp of the NHC would be hugely enhanced by reading known initiates such as Cicero and Plutarch, as well as other classical writers.
The NHL contains a fragment (VI, 5) from Plato’s Republic, translated from Greek into Coptic. This means that at least one work in the cache dates from about 400 B.C.E., setting it apart from the other materials that are generally dated 200–350 C.E. Six to seven centuries is a huge separation in time, it would seem, but scholars do not consider the possibility that the “Greek originals” of other NHC texts could of an age comparable to Plato. So far there has been almost no comparison of NHC with classical Greek and Latin writings.Incredible as it seems, the Gnostic message has not so far been evaluated against the background of the Pagan intellectual tradition in which it stood!
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the single and supreme testament of Pagan ethics consistent with the Gnostic view of life. Stoicism represents the mundane ethical profile of the telestai. I recommend the clear but somewhat overelegant translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books).
Plato and Plotinus, the superstars of ancient philosophy in the West, are unreliable and misleading references when it comes to genuine Pagan Gnosis. They both emphasize otherworldly criteria and out-of-the-body mysticism (Plotinus even confessed embarrassment at the fact of having a body), totally contrary to the psychosomatic illuminism of the Mysteries.
Many scholars consider the Hermetic writings to be compatible, if not identical, with the Gnostic message, but (big surprise) I tend to disagree. The Hermetica, a corpus of thirteen texts that surfaced in the Renaissance, is widely considered to be the remnant of original teachings from Egyptian Mystery Schools. These works are named after Hermes, Greek name for the Egyptian Thoth, god of wisdom, also called Trismegistus, “Thrice-Great,” the formal title of a hierophant. The NHL contains a fragment of a Hermetic text, Aesclepius (VI, 8). Gnostic scholar G. R. S. Mead also wrote a major work on the Hermetica, Thrice-Greatest Hermes (three volumes, reprinted in a single volume by Samuel Weiser). To discuss how the Hermetica compares to the NHC would go beyond the limits of this book, but I will say that I find in Gnostic writings more evidence of firsthand, Gaia-oriented Mystery knowledge than in the pallid cogitations of the Hermetica. Be warned that the Hermetic writings fudge on the Gnostic Demiurge, making it a benevolent instrument of the gods rather than a malevolent and deceitful pseudogod.
By this term I mean repressed spiritual movements in antiquity and afterwards that reflect some elements of Gnosis and the Mysteries. Principal among these are Mandeism, a first-century heresy that rejected Jesus in favor of John the Baptist as the true messiah, and Manichaeism, a third-century resurgence of Zoroastrian split-source duality. On the former, see The Templar Revelation by Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett; on the latter, see your local psychiatrist. Sufism, considered in certain aspects relating to the Divine Beloved, could be regarded as a para-Gnostic heresy. So could be the Jewish Kabbalah, and the Catharist heresy of the Middle Ages. I have ignored these and other para-Gnostic movements in this book: one life only gives you time for so much explanation.
The Polemics or Patristic Literature, Writings against the Gnostics
This is the record of the prosecution penned by the Church Fathers to condemn Gnostic heresy. It is a massive dossier that runs to dozens of thick volumes of stilted reasoning and outraged rhetoric. The standard edition is The Writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1904; Eerdmans reprint, 1996.) “Ante-Nicene” refers to the period before the first Nicene Council of 325 C.E. Not all patristic literature comes under this rubric because the defenders of Christian doctrine continued to write against Gnostic and Pagan religion for many centuries. Indeed, they continue to this day.
The main polemic writers were Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Epiphanius, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, and Saint Augustine, who was writing his City of God in the year Hypatia was murdered. Irenaeus of Lyons by Robert M. Grant gives a good account of the influential ideologue who established the canon of the four Gospels and condemned all alternatives to oblivion. Unfortunately, Grant’s translation of Against Heresies, although highly readable, compresses the key passages on the fall of Sophia and the Christic intervention. The scant material on these events is uniquely found in Irenaeus, so it is worth consulting the older, more complete translation of Book 1, Chapter 4, which can be found on gnosis.org.
The Panarion of Epiphanius, a Christian convert who entered a Gnostic cult to spy on it, contains a lurid account of an orgy in which participants consumed their sexual fluids as holy sacraments. Apart from such rare titillating items, reading the Church Fathers is not a pastime I would recommend to anyone, but the Clementine Recognitions provide some amusing anecdotal glimpses of encounters between Gnostics and early Christians. All these works can also be found on gnosis.org.
This is the “woman who knew all,” whom Jesus loved in a carnal and intimate way, if some stories are to be believed. Some scholars identify her as the author of the the Gospel of Mary(Berlin Codex), appended to the NHLE. Medieval legend presents an alternative story of Mary Magdalene that has expanded into an item of modern folklore, lavishly embellished with esoteric speculation. The popular cult of MM began with Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Lincoln, and Leigh, and peaks out (let’s hope) in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. With the unparalleled success of Brown’s airport novel, books about MM have proliferated. Most of them are terrible and purely redundant. The best book on this important figure is the earliest, Venus in Sackcloth by Marjorie M. Malvern, which is out of print. Mary Magdalene by Lynn Picknett is not too bad. It summarizes the Magdalene-Cathar connection and suggests that we distinguish the message of Magdalene from teachings attributed to Jesus—without, however, telling how to do so. The Goddess and the Gospels by Margaret Starbird uses Magdalene as the vehicle for a critique of patriarchy and a symbol of ideal marriage, but otherwise remains strictly conventional. Metahistory.org contains a large section on MM, “The Magdalene Connection.”
For my heretical review of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala by orthodox Gnostic scholar Karen King, see www.metahistory.org/SheWhoAnoints.php.
2. Scholars on Gnosticism and the Mysteries
May 2006 Flanders
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.