More on Gnosticism

Last week we had a surprising number of letters to the editor (i.e. three) expressing an interest in learning a little more about Gnosticism. It’s pretty bizarre, but definitely worth three bullets this week.

Here are the basic tenets:

  • Matter vs spirit. The Gnostics thought that everything is made up of matter and spirit. Spirit is good. Matter (e.g. the body) is bad.
  • Myths. This is where the going gets weird. Grab a beverage.
    • Before there was Earth … or anything … there was a universal God that was comprised of pure spirit.  
    • There were also a bunch of divine entities emanating from this divine God. They were called Aeons (just go with it). The Aeons made up this thing called the Divine Realm.
    • Everything was great until one day, one of the Aeons (Wisdom) fell from the Universe. And it caused a cosmic disaster. Ultimately, this lesser divine being created the Earth (that was the bizarre part — the big God did not create Earth). And after that Wisdom broke up into a lot of individual spiritual pieces. And these ended up inside us humans.
    • The goal of the Gnostic religion is to release that divine spark that was left within us. And we can do that by acquiring the ‘secret knowledge.’
    • Secret knowledge? Yeah, all good mystical belief systems have secret knowledge. According to the Gnostics, the secret knowledge is a discovery of who you are, where you came from, how you got here, and how you can return (sounds a lot like Buddhism).
    • Who can get secret knowledge if it is secret? That’s where the connection to Christianity comes in. Jesus came from the Divine realm to set us free from the material trappings of our body. And according to some Gnostic accounts, Jesus gave this knowledge to certain disciples (and Paul) after his resurrection. Unfortunately, the Nag Hammadi library documents don’t have those specific instructions.
  • Fake News. The more traditional Church fathers thought the Gnostics conducted wild sex orgies in their Sunday worship service. Ultimately they decreed that the Gnostics were heretics (because that’s what you do) and banned the Gnostics from the Christian church. Hence, the buried scripts at Nag Hammadi. In reality, the Gnostics did not have sex orgies, and they used the New Testament sources (especially John) as a basis for their doctrine.  

Where did we get this information? The Chief Editor has no first-hand knowledge of Gnosticism. So the R&D department watched Bart Ehrman’s lecture on Gnosticism, and reviewed the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia.

The Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism

This week when we ran across a new site (to us) called Religion for Breakfast. It is produced by Dr. Andrew Henry. Despite being a doctor in religious studies, Dr. Andrew works with more secular publications such as The Atlantic. The Chief Editor believes this gives him additional credibility. Plus he is a younger guy and sports some awesome facial hair.

This week he talked about the Gospel of Thomas, which is as good a reason as any to post three bullets about it here.

  • Summary please. The Gospel of Thomas was found in Egypt in the 1940s as part of the Nag Hammadi texts. The texts date back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE, possibly earlier. It’s 114 sayings of Jesus. No narratives. No sermons. Some of the sayings are similar to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But many scholars believe the G of T was produced by the Gnostic splinter group of early Christians. 
  • Gnostic splinter group? Yes, contrary to most Christian church publications, there was not a uniform system of beliefs that evolved spontaneously after Jesus’ life on earth. One of these groups was called the Gnostics. They had an interesting set of beliefs:
    • There were two Gods — one good (Monad) and one not-so-good (Demiurge). The bad one set up Adam & Eve for failure in the Garden.
    • There was no physical resurrection, but the soul of Jesus (and everyone else) escapes the wretched physical body at death and continues on in the ethereal realm.
    • There were some secret sayings by Jesus that only a few people know about. For example, Judas and Jesus had a ‘talk’ in private right before the betrayal.
  • Why did the Gospel of Thomas miss the cut? A few reasons. 1) the primary four gospels had already been making the rounds and had gained an exclusive fan club in the Christian community before the G of T was published. 2) The early church leaders considered the Gnostic system of beliefs to be the arch-heresy of all heresies. 3) The early church leaders thought the Gnostics ate babies during communion. 

Well, that was fun.