The discovery of the gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 is one of those historical events I can hardly believe is true. What is done for knowledge? What will be done to conceal it? What is it to to seek knowledge, to write it down, to suppress it, bury it in earthenware jars, to literally unearth it, to bring it back into the folds of human consciousness sixteen centuries after it was concealed, for it to reveal itself to us again, to be rediscovered by two brothers in the midst of a blood feud? For knowledge of God? For knowledge of oneself? And are they the same?
My god, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body. -Monoimus
They say that God is light, not light like one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise. -Hippolytus
Scholars today conclude that what we refer to as gnosticism was a composite tradition drawing from a variety of sources–Christianity, Egyptian mystery cults, Platonism, and Buddhism among the dominant influences. Gnosticism co-arose with orthodox Christianity, which sought (quite successfully) the consolidation of Christians under an organizational hierarchy headed by bishops and deacons, their power understood to be derivative of the apostles and Christ before them.
Gnostics sought no ecclesiastical hierarchy, in fact some sects are recorded as deliberating undermining such power dynamics by daily rotating all spiritual responsibilities across genders and perceived spiritual status (a practice which Irenaeus truly detested). True status was inside the gnostic himself, only measurable by the extent to which he had dispelled ignorance and sought the experiential knowledge of God, or gnosis.
Many gnostics provided alternative explanations for what later became orthodox Christian creed. Did Jesus truly rise from the dead? Was the virgin birth literal or symbolic? Did Christ die on the cross or was that just his corporeal form? Was his spirit body laughing above the Christ as he was crucified? Who is the God we call God? Is it a name for God the creator, a linguistic stand-in for the ineffable? Is God male or female or both? Who holds spiritual authority? What is the way to God? Through ritual or the leadership of bishops? Through self-examination and mediation? Is man synonymous with God?
Before 1945, much of what we knew about the gnostic tradition was aggregated from sources penned by men passionately opposed to “heretical” questions. Irenaeus and Tertullian were especially incensed–who are these heretics, they asked, who understand intuition to be the ultimate arbiter of the truth, who eschew the power of bishops, who speak of perceiving not seeing, of knowing mysteries otherwise unknown, who deny the church of Rome? Who is this God beyond God they speak ok?
Why do you not examine your own self, and see that you have arisen? -Treatise on Resurrection
For whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but whoever has known himself has simultaneously achieved knowledge about the depth of all the things. –Gospel of Thomas
According to gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels, such gnostic views were antithetical to the power structure orthodox Christians sought to predicate the church upon. Authority would be derived from bishops, those who could claim direct appointment by the apostle Paul and Christ before him. The Gnostics ridiculed such presumption of spiritual authority, instead heralding the individual’s ability to seek the truth inside themselves, in their own experience, without the mediation of any bishops of Rome.
Gnostic ascetics dotted the desert. They took residence in caves. They eventually consolidated into monasteries, sharing duties of sustenance and home. And when Athanasius sought to purge Christianity of “apocryphal books” in the 4th century, we imagine such monks quickly took the codices of the gnostic gospels from their extensive library, deposited them in meter-high jars and buried them in the cliff of Jabal-al-Tarif. They hid the texts from destruction, from the eyes of those who sought to stamp out the sight, from the reach of those who could not defeat an internal resurrection.
I am perception and knowledge, uttering a Voice by means of Thought. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within. -Trimorphic Protennoia