Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gnostic Gnotes

One of my seminary classes has a requirement to write a short paper on 1st - 2nd century Gnosticism.  This isn't supposed to be a huge effort, but I decided to make it one by going through Irenaeus' Against Heresies one more time.  The Librivox recording is just short of 1,500 minutes long.  There are a lot of other related works, including a "neo-Platonist" work against the Gnostics as well (Enneads, book II).  Recently the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic writings has gotten some press, so I felt it would be good to take a glance at it.  Much of it follows what Irenaeus wrote.  Then there is the Gospel of Thomas.  Since I have been given a rhetorical, "What about the Gospel of Thomas?" from neo-Gnostics, who usually style themselves as "agnostics", I decided to take a look.  Here is what you get:

"These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke.  And Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down."

Apparently Thomas was the insider, and not Peter, James and John.  So what are the hidden words?

"Jesus says:

   'The one who seeks should not cease seeking until he finds.
    And when he finds, he will be dismayed.
   And when he is dismayed, he will be astonished.
   And he will be king over the All.'"

This is the first example.  The entire collection has 113 sayings that seem to be more or less garbled versions of what is in the gospels, but divorced from their context.  The actions of Jesus are as important as his words.  The above quote is a variant of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." - Matthew 7:7

But these in turn appears to be shorthand for Old Testament passages:

"But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul." - Deuteronomy 4:29

And this is one of the key problems:  The New Testament and the Old Testament are bound together by their theology and symbols.  The Gnostic writings are entirely divorced from the Hebrew Old Testament.  The OT and NT together result in a clearer and simpler meaning.  The Gnostic writings simply muddle and take things further from anything that might be sensibly understood.


Delirious said...

This talk is a little lengthy, but I found it to be very interesting! Hugh Nibley used to tend to ramble a little when he spoke, so I have to read it as if I were listening to him in person. But he was a very well read scholar of ancient religious texts. He also had a photographic memory which became especially useful when giving talks. Anyway, I thought you might be interested in some of the things he gleaned from ancient manuscripts.

Looney said...

I do enjoy reading Nibley. His comments about this classical literature are quite along my way of thinking:

"But I will say that there might be something very wonderful there if you went and looked, but nobody goes and looks. It's just too much trouble."

Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

First of all, loved the title - extremely creative.
Second, I enjoy the Gospels contained in the Nag Hammadi writings and I believe they are the direct teachings of Jesus, his mystical teachings. It is a shame that they are incomplete.

"And when he finds, he will be dismayed"

This is a very important passage. When he finds the truth, he will be dismayed; but why? What is it in the Truth that will dismay us so much?

"And when he is dismayed, he will be astonished"


But you are right in one thing: the OT and the NT flow together; but we have to take into account the incompleteness of the Nag Hammadi writings.

Great post.


Looney said...

To follow on those questions, the Christian response to why someone will be dismayed on seeing the truth is that we are sinners separated from God with no hope. We are astonished, however, at what Christ did for us on the cross to reconcile us with God.

But how did the gnostics interpret this?

Max Coutinho said...


But why would Christians believe that because people are sinners they are separated from God with no hope? In Judaism, your sins are cleared upon each Yom Kippur (as per God's Mitzvah) and thus brought closer to God:

“I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud
And your sins like a heavy mist.
Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.” - Isaiah 44:22

He, the Lord, cleanses us by His will; so why would Christians deviate from His words and assume that because we are sinners we are hopelessly away from God?
By admitting our sins and by wanting to atone, we are closer to Him.

"We are astonished, however, at what Christ did for us on the cross to reconcile us with God."

Indeed, what Jesus endured to accomplish his mission is astonishing.

Now, how did the Gnostic interpret this? I can't answer that. I can only share my interpretation as a mystic.

Looney said...

Of course Isaiah 44 is a prophecy of what would come in the future. So 44:6 says:

"Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: 'I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.' ..."

Of course the Redeemer is Jesus, and the price of the redemption was his crucifixion. So for Christians, Yom Kippur was just a celebration of what was to come.

Max Coutinho said...


The future is continuous. But Isaiah 43:25 (which is not a prophecy but a reaffirmation of God's sovereignty over Israel) says:

"I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake,
And I will not remember your sins."

This can only be done by obeying the law concerning Atonement:

"On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict your souls and present an offering by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. " - Leviticus 23:27-28

"Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: 'I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.' ..." - Isaiah 44:6

But is this Redeemer the Christian Messiah or the Mashiach? In my opinion, it is the other side of God.
I was following a conversation between a Christian and a Jewish individual where the Christian was saying that Jesus is God incarnated, even though God is Incorporeal. At the time, I thought of you and what your opinion on this might be (I know that Catholics do not share this view).

"So for Christians, Yom Kippur was just a celebration of what was to come."

But nowhere in the Bible says that after the Messiah would come Yom Kippur should stop being celebrated.

Looney said...


Of course the temple was part of the ceremony associated with atonement. This was destroyed, yet not by Christians. Nor has it been Christians who prohibited the rebuilding.

But back to the saying from the book of Thomas: What is your interpretation? In particular, the last phrase "and he will be king over all"?

Max Coutinho said...


I agree, of course, but I am simply trying to comprehend why Christians deviated so much from something that Jesus, himself, followed...I wonder about the need to do it.

Yes, back to the saying:
My interpretation is that it speaks of the strength of faith and belief; the power of perseverence that faith instils in us. We want something, we pray for something and we must not give up before obstacles - we seek until we find. When we often find what we think we want, we get dismayed because it was not what we needed after all, and this realisation astonishes us because then we have an epiphany about ourselves, we know ourselves.
To be king over the all would have to mean that mind rules over matter.