I will reveal to you what no eye can see,what no ear can hear,what no hand can touch,what cannot be conceived by the human mind.Jesus, The Gospel of Thomas1
A JOURNEY OF INITIATION
Like all spiritual movements, early Christianity covered a broad spectrum of individuals and schools with differing levels of perception, so we have chosen to focus on what we regard as their best and most enduring insights, which may still be valid for us today.
Why isn’t the gospel of Gnosis common knowledge? First, because the Roman Church has spent over 16 centuries systematically destroying the evidence that it ever existed. For much of this time, merely to possess Christian works unacceptable to the established Church was punishable by a cruel death. Thankfully some of these texts have nevertheless survived. In recent decades they have been augmented by fabulous archaeological finds such as the discovery of a library of ‘heretical’ Christian scriptures in a cave near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The implications of this find, and the advances in our understanding of early Christianity that it has led to, have yet to be widely appreciated.
Inadequate translation has also played a significant role in disguising the secret teachings of Christianity encoded in the New Testament gospels and alluded to frequently by Paul in his letters. Rendering these works into familiar ‘churchy’ English lulls us into the reassuring illusion that we have understood what is being said, when in fact we have not even begun to scratch the surface of the real significance of the original Greek. The ‘heretical’ Christian gospels, on the other hand, are regularly rendered into unfamiliar English, making them sound strange and inaccessible. One translator was even in the habit of remarking that such texts were ‘not supposed to make any sense’2. Little wonder, then, that an artificial division has been created between the orthodox canon and other Christian gospels. However, when the New Testament Jesus story is understood in its original context, as part of the whole Christian myth cycle, and the ‘ heretical’ gospels are interpreted sympathetically, they can, at last, be seen as expressions of one profound mystical philosophy.
In our examination of these texts we have made one assumption which other commentators often do not make: that our ancestors were not idiots. We have postulated that although they lived in very different physical conditions, they still faced the same great enigmas of existence as we do today and that their answers are potentially as valuable as contemporary views. We have, in short, approached the people we are studying with the respect which they deserve and which they have been denied for nearly two millennia.
Academics have often failed lamentably to understand the spirituality of the original Christians because they have lacked mystical insight. The Gnosis is not an intellectual theory. It is a state of being. It an inner ‘Knowledge’ which can never be truly understood from the outside. Trying to comment on the Gnosis without ever having personally experienced its life-changing impact is like writing a travelogue for a country you have never visited. Any native would find it laughably absurd. We approach this work not only with a commitment to rigorous scholarship, but also as lifelong students of experiential mysticism. We are not, however, members of any cult or affiliated to any religious organization. This, we feel, makes us ideally placed to take up the challenge of recovering the ancient Gnosis for modern readers.
New ideas can take decades to travel from scholarly circles to the general public. We have attempted to circumvent this process by making the main text of the book as accessible as possible while offering notes for those who wish to see more detailed evidence in support of our ideas or to check our sources.
For us, putting together this book has been much more than an academic study. It has been a revelation. For the original Christians, the process of initiation involved meditating on their myths to tease out the allegorical significance. In writing this book we ourselves have had to undertake a similar in-depth study of Christian mythology. This has been an initiatory experience which has left us transformed in ways we did not anticipate.
It has been a philosophical journey of cosmic proportions. Yet at its conclusion we have found that the secret teachings of the original Christians, although seemingly arcane, are actually about understanding the miracle of life just as it is. We have struggled to penetrate indecipherable riddles. Yet we have found that, although seemingly complex, these teachings are in essence astonishingly simple. We have time-traveled back into the ancestral mind. Yet although the gospel of Gnosis belongs to a so-called ‘dead’ spiritual tradition, we have found it to be as relevant and challenging today as it was two millennia ago.
‘Much that is written in Pagan books is found also in the books of God’s Church. What they share in common are the words which spring from the heart, the law that is inscribed on the heart.’ – Valentinus, On Friends3
GNOSTICS & LITERALISTS
To understand something in a new way, we often need to think using new terms. When writing about the history of spirituality, scholars usually classify people according to the religion to which they are affiliated Pagan, Jew, Christian, Muslim, and so forth. We would like to suggest that this way of thinking conceals a much more significant classification, which categorizes individuals according to spiritual understanding rather than religious tradition.
From our studies of world spirituality, we have observed that religious movements tend to embrace two opposing poles, which we call ‘Gnosticism’ and ‘Literalism’, with particular individuals inhabiting the whole spectrum between the two extremes. This classification is important because Gnostics from different religious traditions have far more in common with each other than they do with Literalists within their own tradition. Whilst Literalists from different religions clearly hold conflicting beliefs, Gnostics from all traditions use different conceptual vocabularies to articulate a common understanding, sometimes called the ‘perennial philosophy’4. It is not that all Gnostics agree. Different schools argue vehemently with each other, but these differences are minor compared to their shared essential perspective.
To get an accurate understanding of the development of spiritual ideas, we need to view Gnosticism as an identifiable spiritual tradition which transcends the accepted divisions into regional religions. Those who embrace Gnosticism and have been born into a Jewish culture tend to remain within their national tradition and become Jewish Gnostics, while those born elsewhere tend to become Muslim Gnostics, and so on. But all Gnostics need to be understood as essentially parts of one evolving tradition, whatever their race or culture.5
The goal of Gnostic spirituality is Gnosis, or Knowledge of Truth. We have chosen to use the name ‘Gnostics’, meaning ‘Knowers’, because in the various languages used by different religions, individuals who have realized ‘Gnosis’ or achieved ‘Enlightenment’ are often referred to as ‘Knowers’: Gnostikoi (Pagan/Christian), Arifs (Muslim), Gnanis (Hindu), Buddhas (Buddhist).6
Gnostics interpret the stories and teachings of their spiritual tradition as signposts pointing beyond words altogether to the mystical experience of the ineffable Mystery. Literalists, on the other hand, believe their scriptures are actually the words of God. They take their teachings, stories and initiation myths to be factual history. They focus on the words as a literal expression of the Truth. Hence we have chosen to call them ‘Literalists’. Gnostics are concerned with the inner essence of their tradition.
Literalists associate their faith with its outward manifestations: sacred symbols, scriptures, rituals, ecclesiastical leaders, and so on. Gnostics see themselves as being on a spiritual journey of personal transformation. Literalists see themselves as fulfilling a divinely ordained obligation to practise particular religious customs as a part of their national or cultural identity.
Literalists believe that their particular spiritual tradition is different from all others and has a unique claim on the Truth. They obsessively formulate dogmas which define membership of their particular cult.7 They are prepared to enforce their opinions and silence those who dissent, justifying their actions by claiming that they are fulfilling God’s will. Gnostics, on the other hand, are free spirits who question the presuppositions of their own culture. They follow their hearts, not the herd. They are consumed by their private quest for enlightenment, not by the goal of recruiting more adherents to a religion.
Gnostics wish to free themselves from the limitations of their personal and cultural identities and experience the oneness of all things. They therefore have no reluctance in adopting the wisdom of other traditions if it adds something to their own. Literalists use religion to sustain their personal and cultural identity by defining themselves in opposition to others. This inevitably leads to disputes with those outside their particular cult. It is Literalists who fight wars of religion with Literalists from other traditions, each claiming that God is on their side. Literalists’ enmity also extends to Gnostics within their own tradition who question their bigotry. Most spiritual traditions have a tragic history of the brutal oppression of Gnostics by intolerant Literalists. Interestingly, it is never the other way around.
We know that we are radically changing accepted terminology and run the risk of affronting some classicists and Christian scholars, but we feel that thinking in these terms enables us to understand the origins of Christianity much more accurately. This way we can circumvent the dead end of looking for a particular ‘parent’ religion. Christianity certainly adopted many elements from Judaism, as is generally accepted. It was also heavily influenced by Paganism, as is being increasingly realized.8 But it is best conceived as a product of neither and a reaction against both.
THE SAVIOUR KING
At the heart of the perennial philosophy of Gnosticism is a simple but powerful idea. It is the idea of God as a Big Mind which contains the cosmos and which is becoming conscious of itself through all conscious beings within the cosmos. The purpose of Gnostic initiation is to awaken in us a recognition of this our shared divine essence.
The Pagan Gnostics mythically represented the idea of the one Consciousness of God that is conscious in all by the image of the ‘King’.9 Plotinus, for example, writes:
Consciousness is the King. And we are also the King when we are transformed into the King.10
Based on this Pagan image the original Christians created the image of the ‘Christ’ which, as we discussed previously, is equivalent in meaning to ‘King’. Paul describes Christ as ‘the consciousness of God’11 and teaches that we are all Christ’s body.12 When we are ‘baptized into union with him’ through Gnostic initiation, ‘there is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus’.
If we replace the word ‘King’ in the previous passage from Plotinus with the Jewish synonym ‘Christ’, we can see just how similar Pagan and Christian teachings are:
Consciousness is the Christ. And we are also Christ when we are transformed into the Christ.
Pagan and Christian Gnostics imagined the initiatory journey to be about awakening the King within. In the Pagan Mysteries, the initiate was ‘enthroned’ as a king as part of the initiation ceremonies.13 Pagan Gnostics of the Cynic school called the realized initiate a ‘King’ in the ‘Kingdom of God’.14 Likewise, Christian Gnostics taught that when we realize Gnosis we will become ‘self-ruled’ kings in the Kingdom of God and ‘reign over the All’. They imagined the triumphant Christian initiate crowned with a halo of light, declaring: ‘The light has become a crown on my head.’15
THE EVOLVING JESUS MYTH
The Jesus story as we now know it was not created all at once, or by only one person. Nobody sat down surrounded by big piles of books containing Jewish and Pagan myths and proceeded to ‘cut and paste’ the new myth of the Saviour King together. Rather, it developed bit by bit, as different Gnostics added new motifs and refined old ones, fashioning a progressively more complex allegory in the form of an ever more colourful and emotive story. Later the Jesus story fell into the hands of those with a more political agenda and became distorted and confused, but the underlying initiation allegory which is its foundation remains.
The earliest Christian texts we possess are the genuine letters of Paul written in the first half of the first century. Paul quotes older hymns to Christ, which suggests that he is developing a Joshua/Jesus cult that may have already been in existence, perhaps for centuries. Unlike the New Testament gospels, written some 50-100 years later, Paul does not teach a quasi-historical narrative about Jesus. Paul’s Jesus is a clearly mythical figure who does not inhabit any particular time or place. Paul never quotes Jesus and does not portray him as a recently deceased Jewish master.16 Indeed, he doesn’t treat him as someone who had actually lived at all.17 He writes, ‘ If Jesus had been on Earth, he wouldn’t have been a priest,’ not, ‘ When Jesus was on Earth, he wasn’t a priest.’18
When Paul reveals to us ‘the secret’ of Christianity, it has absolutely nothing to do with an historical Jesus. The secret he declares is the mystical revelation of ‘Christ in you’ – the one Consciousness of God in all of us.19 His Jesus is a mythic figure whose story teaches initiates the path they must follow to realize the Christ within. The only narrative elements of the Jesus myth important to Paul are Christ’s baptism, death and resurrection, which he understands as symbolizing the stages of initiation. By identifying with Jesus’ baptism initiates are washed clean of their past and begin the quest for Gnosis. By vicariously sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection, they symbolically die to their ‘old self’ and resurrect ‘in Christ’.20
In the writings of Paul, then, we find the basic Jesus myth as a three-stage initiation allegory, adapted from the three-stage initiation structure of the Exodus Moses-Jesus myth: baptism (crossing Red Sea), the death of Jesus (death of Moses), resurrection (Jesus arrives in the Promised Land). Later Christians will expand this simple allegorical foundation to create the complete Jesus story.
Christian gospels began to be written down at around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century. These include The Sophia of Jesus Christ, The Dialogue of the Saviour, The Gospel of Thomas, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Exegesis of the Soul, The Hypostasis of the Archons, The Apocryphon of John, The Secret Gospel of Mark and Pistis Sophia,21 all now rejected as heretical by the Roman Church.
It is currently accepted amongst most scholars that also written at this time were the anonymous gospels that were later attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which turn Paul’s timeless Christ myth into a pseudo-historical drama.22 The evidence for dating these gospels so early, however, is very flimsy. Once we have jettisoned the untenable idea of these texts being eye-witness reports, it seems likely that future scholarship will date them later and later into the second century — and even then with no certainty as to just how similar the gospels of that time were to the versions with which we are familiar today.23
The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest of the New Testament gospels, but scholars have shown it to have been created from pre-existing fragments which contain sayings and a non-time/place specific Jesus story to which someone has added a geographical and historical context.24 Matthew and Luke based their versions of the Jesus myth on Mark, copying sections of it right down to the same Greek particles,25 while The Gospel of John presents a significantly different version of the myth. All of the New Testament gospels contradict each other in many important details!26 This is because the Gnostics saw their scriptures as initiation allegories and so had no compunction about adapting them to suit their own particular requirements.
The Pagans had for centuries expressed their myths in the form of plays. The Jews had no dramatic tradition, but did write the first Greek historical novel — an allegorical story which portrays Judaism as a Mystery religion!27 It should not surprise us, therefore, that some 200 years later the Jesus allegory, the central myth of the Christian Mystery cult, was likewise written in the form of a quasi-historical novel.28
Historical myths were the Jews’ speciality. The Exodus initiation allegory, which also appears to have no basis in actual history, is written in the form of a pseudo-historical narrative.29 When Jewish Gnostics developed their new myth of Jesus the Jewish dying and resurrecting Godman, it was inevitable they would eventually also set this allegory in an historical context. As with the Exodus myth, the creators of the Jesus story mixed together mythical figures, such as Jesus and Mary, with a handful of historical figures which were also used to play symbolic roles in the initiation allegory. Unlike Exodus , the new Jesus myth could not be set in archaic times, because it was portrayed as a revelation of a new Messiah. It was set, therefore, in the recent past and incorporated figures who were important to Jewish Gnostics, such as the much revered John the Baptist and the much hated Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judaea.
At the end of the first century CE, when the original Christians were casting the Jesus myth in an historical setting, Israel was in deep crisis. Jews needed an explanation for the terrible events which were befalling them. In 70 CE the Jerusalem Temple, the very heart of Jewish Literalism, had been torn down by the Romans. By 135 CE the whole of Israel would be laid waste and cease to exist for 2,000 years. Jewish Gnostics deliberately set the Jesus story in the years in which the crisis began.
It was precisely at the time that Jesus was portrayed as being born that Rome imposed direct taxation on Judaea, forever ending its independence,30 and Pilate signalled the irrelevance of Jewish culture by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem.31 It was a defining moment in Jewish history, which reached its terrible crescendo in the holocaust of 70 CE. In Israel and the Diaspora, the first century felt like the ‘end days’, as indeed it was for the Jews as a sovereign nation. The original Christians therefore really had no choice about when they set their Jesus myth. If the Messiah didn’t come at this time, when he was most needed, he just couldn’t be the Messiah.
The original Christians portrayed their Gnostic hero Jesus as a harbinger of these turbulent times who came to offer mystical liberation as an alternative to the futile attempts at political liberation which, in retrospect, the Jews could see had destroyed them completely. The Gnostic Messiah Jesus offered defeated and dejected Jews meaning and new hope.
“That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginnings of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christianity.” – Augustine, Retractions32
THE LITERALIST HERESY
Once the Jesus myth had been set in an historical context, it was only a matter of time before a group of Christians began to interpret it as a record of actual events. By the middle of the second century a Literalist school of Christianity had begun to emerge in Rome, with autocrats such as Irenaeus as its spokesmen.33 The Gnostics’ understanding of the Jesus story as an initiation allegory leading to salvation through Gnosis was replaced by the Literalists’ idea of salvation through belief in an historical Messiah.34
Literalists did not claim Christian teachings to be radically different from Pagan philosophy and were well aware of the similarities between the story of Jesus and the Pagan myths of Osiris-Dionysus. But they had one unique eye-catching selling-point — the other Mystery cults had myths that may or may not have referred to actual events in the archaic past, but Literalist Christians claimed that their myth of the dying and resurrecting Godman had recently been realized in real life. This is Literalist Christianity’s one claim to uniqueness, which is made by Augustine, the great spokesman of Christian Literalism. As someone who had been a follower of both the Pagan Gnostic Plotinus and the Christian Gnostic Mani before becoming a Catholic, Augustine knew there was nothing exceptional about Roman Christianity but this one incredible idea: ‘Christ came in the flesh.’
Christian Literalism was destined to dominate the West with an iron fist for nearly two millennia, but it began as an insignificant sect with a macabre enthusiasm for the imminent end of the world. The Gnostic myth that Jesus would appear at the culmination of time was an allegory expressing the idea that when all souls were reunited with the Consciousness of God there would be a return to the primordial state of Oneness and the cosmic drama would be over. Literalists took this myth literally, developing the grotesque idea that Jesus was about to arrive to destroy the world, rescue a small group of Christian Literalists and condemn everyone else to eternal torment. Thankfully, they turned out to be wrong.35
However, replacing the mythical sacrificed Godman with an historical martyr led to Christian Literalism becoming a sort of ‘suicide cult’ which, much to the horror of the Gnostics, encouraged its members to imitate Jesus by also seeking out a sacrificial death.36 In the Literalist version of Christian history the Roman authorities are pictured as singling out the Christians for terrible persecution. Actually they were often appalled at Christian Literalists’ eagerness to be martyred.37
Literalism replaced the enlightened Gnostic sage at the centre of a small group of initiates with a hierarchy of bishops at the head of an expanding evangelical cult. The whole purpose of Gnostic initiation was to bring initiates to spiritual maturity, where they would experience themselves to be completely free of any external authority and become their own ‘Christ’ or ‘King’.38 Literalists, by contrast, wanted to enlarge their religious powerbase and worked hard to keep their flock securely in the fold. Despite the fact that in The Gospel of Luke Jesus teaches, ‘Everyone when his training is complete will reach his teacher’s level,’39 the Gnostic idea that Christianity was about oneself becoming a Christ became branded as blasphemous heresy.
The role of the Gnostic master was to undermine all of an initiate’s opinions and encourage them to directly confront the Mystery of Life. The role of the Literalist bishops, on the other hand, was to tell people what to believe and to discipline those who disagreed. Free intellectual inquiry was actively discouraged and blind belief became exalted as a spiritual virtue.40 As long as the Jesus story was understood as myth, Christians were at liberty to interpret it and change it as they felt appropriate.
Once it became seen as a biography, the development of intolerant dogmatism was inevitable. Literalists would argue vehemently for centuries over what Jesus actually did and said, as they still do today. But, as the argument is about supposed historical events, they all agree that there is only one accurate version of what really happened. And if only one version is right, that means everyone else must be wrong.41
- The Gospel of Thomas , NHC, 2.2.17, in Robinson, J. M. (1978), 128. The Church Father Hippolytus records this as part of the oath of secrecy for those being initiated into the ‘Gnosis of the Father’, Hippolytus, Ref., 5.24, see Pagels, E. (1975), 58. It also occurs in the First Letter of Clement , see Louth, A., (1968), 37, and The Acts of Peter , 3.39, see Davidson, J. (1995), 306. Paul also uses this in 1 Corinthians 2.9. The Old Testament source for this saying is Isaiah 64:4. The Pagan Mysteries were often referred to as arreta or aporreta , literally ‘unspeakable’ or ‘unsayable’, not simply because it was forbidden by oath to describe what happened, but more mystically that these things cannot be put into words.
- Hoeller, S. A. (1989), xviii. After quoting this translator’s remarks Hoeller states: ‘It is time that a Gnostic interprets the Gnostic scriptures.’ As Mead writes, ‘It is of course quite natural that orthodox scribes should blunder when transcribing Gnostic documents, owing to their ignorance of the subject and the strangeness of their ideas.’ Mead, G. R. S., The Gnostic Crucifixion (1907), 20.
- Quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Strom ., 6.52.3-4. There is a useful collection of the extant fragments of Valentinus in Layton, B. (1987), 229ff.
- See especially Huxley, A. (1946). Huxley states that the phrase was coined by Leibniz, (intro., 1); however, Agostino Stueco used it in 1536 and other researchers have traced it back to the Neoplatonists. Copenhaver, B. P. (1992), xlviiii.
- The Greek term gnostikos was used by Plato as a rare philosophical term meaning ‘leading to knowledge’ or ‘capable of knowledge’. Plutarch used it in this sense: ‘Human souls have a faculty that is gnostikos of visible things.’ (Layton, op. cit., 8.) As will become clear, this book extends the conventional use of the term ‘Gnostic’ to include the classical esoteric tradition on which Jewish and Christian Gnosticism is so obviously and heavily dependent. At the head of this classical tradition stands Pythagoras, closely followed by his disciple Parmenides, who brought these teachings to Athens in the middle of the fifth century BCE and had a profound effect on the young Socrates (Plato, Parmenides , b-d). In his initiatory poem written c.480 BCE, Parmenides describes how he was led ‘on the renowned way of the Goddess, who leads the man who knows through every town’ (Kirk and Raven (1957), 266). As Kingsley notes, ‘In ancient Greek this was the standard way of referring to the initiate.’ (Kingsley, P. (1999), 69.) Only by uniting Jewish and Christian Gnosticism with its Pagan predecessor can any sense be made of the elaborate Gnostic mythology of the Nag Hammadi library. By a reverse process much new information can also be gleaned about what took place in the Pagan Mysteries.
- For Arifs , see Nicholson, R. A. (1926), 24.
- The fact that Christianity has split into over 20,000 denominations worldwide is evidence of this tendency.
- Both the Church Fathers and Pagan critics such as Plotinus and Celsus accused the Gnostics of deriving their doctrines from Greek philosophy. This charge was not taken seriously until the discovery of the Gnostic gospels. At the first conference of specialists in Platonism and scholars of Gnosticism held in 1992 in New York, J. P. Kenney described the Nag Hammadi texts as reading like ‘a riot in Plato’s cave’ (see ‘The Platonism of the Tripartite Tractate’, NHC, 1.5, in Wallis, R. T. (1992), 204). Nock likewise described Gnosticism as ‘Platonism run wild’. (Nock, A. D. (1972), 949)
- As Jung points out, the ‘King’ is a ubiquitous symbol of the self (quoted in Segal, R. A. (1992), 69). It is an obvious image of the self-ruled sage.
- Plotinus, Enn ., 5.3.3-4
- Romans 8:9 and see 1 Corinthians 2:11, 2:14, 3:16.
- Colossians 1:24
- The ‘enthronement’ of the initiate was a ritual carried out in the Pagan Mysteries, see Harrison, J. (1922), 514. The Christian Dion Chrysostom tells us that in the Mysteries the initiate is seated as if enthroned whilst his instructors dance around him. Aristophanes parodies this ritual in his comedy Clouds , 254-5: ‘Socrates: You want to know the truth about the gods, what they really are? Strepsiades: By God I do, if it’s possible. Soc: And to enter into communion with the Clouds, who are our deities? Streps: I’d like to very much. Soc: Then sit yourself upon the sacred sofa. Streps: I’m ready. Soc: Very well. Now take hold of this wreath. Streps: A wreath? Good heavens, Socrates, you’re not going to sacrifice me? Soc: Oh no. We perform this ceremony for everyone we initiate.’ Plato alludes to the same ritual in Euthydemus , 277d.
- See discussion in Doherty, E. (1999), 160.
- Pistis Sophia, 1.59
- Paul alludes to (but does not quote) several sayings that are later attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Stanton observes: ‘Paul fails to refer to a saying of Jesus at the very point where he might well have clinched his argument by doing so.’ Stanton, G. (1995), 130
- Most scholars agree that the gospels were written between c.70 ce and 100 CE, which makes Paul’s epistles, written c.50 CE, the earliest Christian texts we possess. However, Paul tells us very little that could relate to an historical Jesus, apart from that fact that he was born of a woman, baptized, died and resurrected — all of which Pagans could equally claim of Osiris-Dionysius, without intending to imply that he had been an historical figure. Paul makes no mention of the cleansing of the Temple (which according to Mark and Luke was responsible for the decision of the chief priests and scribes to kill Jesus), there is no conflict with the authorities, no agony in Gethsemane, no trial, no thieves crucified with Jesus, no weeping women, no word about the place or the time and no mention of Judas or Pilate, no mention of Mary or Joseph, the Sermon on the Mount or any miracles performed by Jesus. G. A. Wells quotes the words of several New Testament scholars who refer to the ‘scantiness of Paul’s Jesus tradition’ as ‘surprising’, ‘shocking’ and a ‘matter of serious concern’. Stanton remarks that ‘Paul’s failure to refer more frequently and at greater length to the actions and teaching of Jesus is baffling’ (op. cit., 131). As Wells also notes, Paul’s complete silence on the historical Jesus ‘remains a problem only for those who insist that there was a historical Jesus to be silent about’ ( Did Jesus Exist? , 21). In fact, Paul tells us quite specifically that he never met an historical Jesus but a being of light whom appeared to him in a vision. As we note in TJM , 167, in his Letter to the Colossians Paul describes himself as having been assigned by God the task of delivering his message ‘in full’; of announcing ‘the secret hidden for long ages and through many generations’ which is now being disclosed to those chosen by God. And what is this great secret? Is it, as we might expect from an orthodox apostle, the ‘good news’ that Jesus had literally come and walked the Earth, worked miracles, died for our sins and returned from the dead? No. Paul writes: ‘The secret is this: Christ in you.’ Colossians 1:25-8
- Hebrews 8:4
- Colossians 1:25-8
- Romans 6:4-6, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3: 9
- Rudolph considers that these Gnostic texts date to the beginning of the second century and in parts to the first. See Rudolph, K. (1987), 307. The Epistle of Barnabbas and The Shepherd of Hermas are also both believed to date from the first century, although like the Gnostic texts they were also excluded from the canon of the New Testament.
- See TJM , 144ff.
- Despite the widespread assertion that the gospels originated c.70 cE-110 cE, the only ‘evidence’ to back this up are some vague allusions in Papias and Polycarp, whose testimony has in turn been through the ‘Holy Forgery Mill’ of Irenaeus and Eusebius. We suggest that the texts we now call the gospels are in fact late second-century constructs. It is profoundly suspicious that Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century in Rome, never mentions Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in his entire extant works and yet just a generation later in the same part of the world Irenaeus states that there are only four gospels and the canon is closed. Celsus, writing c.170 CE, knows nothing about Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but refers to gospels of Helen, Mariamme, Salome and a host of other women, and the texts known to Plotinus in Rome at the beginning of the third century are Gnostic works, copies of which have now been found in Nag Hammadi. Nor does ‘hard’ archaeological evidence support a first-century date for the gospels. In 1992 Carsten Thiede’s The Earliest Gospel Manuscript? claimed that the three fragments stored for a long time in Magdalene College, Oxford, date from the middle of the first century. However, the eminent papyrologist Graham Stanton has clearly demonstrated that the fragments are written in the ‘Biblical Uncial’ handwriting which only emerged in the late second century (Stanton, op. cit., 13). In addition, these tiny fragments can tell us nothing about the texts they came from and for whole texts we must wait until the fourth century – a suspicious fact in itself.
- According to Clement of Alexandria, there were originally three gospels attributed to Mark – the one in the New Testament, a second Secret Gospel of Mark , of which we have fragments, and a third oral gospel too profound to be written down, but passed on from master to master. See The Secret Gospel of Mark in Barnstone, W. (1984), 341. Professor Wilhelm Wrede (1859-1906) of Breslau University was the first to show that the supposedly ‘primitive’ Gospel of Mark had undergone extensive theological rewriting and editing. In 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt demonstrated that the gospel had been composed from previously existing fragments and that the connecting links between these were Mark’s own invention.
- See Wells, G. A. (1996), 95. The realization that Matthew and Luke copied Mark led to the discovery that they both also used another text which scholars have identified as Q. S. L. Davies (1983) demonstrates that both Q and Thomas are related works which depend heavily on Wisdom sayings.
- See ‘Gospel Truth?’, TJM , 139ff.
- Joseph and Aseneth , the story of the conversion of an Egyptian girl to Judaism written in the second or first century BCE, is considered by Momigliano to be the oldest Greek novel in existence. See Momigliano, A. (1971), 117. It was extremely popular with Christians in late antiquity .
- See ‘The Cruci-Fiction’ in Price, R. M. (2000), 213ff. Price draws attention to the affinity of the gospel story to the genre of the ancient romance novel. Favourite themes common to both include lovers separated by tragic events (cf the Gnostic myth of Sophia and Jesus, their tragic separation and ultimate reunion), empty tombs and heroes surviving crucifixion. Bickerman writes about Hellenistic Jewish literature and its passion for ‘modernizing’ biblical stories: ‘Because pure fiction did not exist at this date, in order to express new ideas an author had to remodel an existing factual narrative.’ Bickerman (1988), 206
- Despite the best efforts of biblical archaeologists to prove that the Exodus took place during the reign of Rameses ( Genesis 47:11), there is no evidence that this has any basis, in historical fact. As Rohl states, ‘The link between Rameses II and the Israelite bondage was an illusion without any real archaeological foundation.’ Rohl, D. M. (1995), 115,138
- Luke tells us that Jesus was born at the time of the census of Quirinius, which scholars date to 6 CE. Unfortunately for the supposed inerrancy of the gospels, Matthew 2:1 tells us that Jesus’ birth was during the reign of King Herod, who died 10 years earlier in 4 BCE.
- According to Josephus and Philo, Pilate was particularly detested by the Jews (see Brandon, S. G. F. (1969), 292). Pilate was prefect for 10 years from 26 until 36, when he was sent back to Rome to answer for a massacre. He was so hated that he is the only prefect from the years 6 to 41 to be mentioned by name by Josephus and Philo. He violated Jewish religious taboos many times and was the first Roman to defile the Jerusalem Temple. Josephus writes, ‘Pilate, during the night, secretly and undercover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as sigma . When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews: for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the city.’ Josephus (1959), 126. Old Testament Book of Esther as the story of Esther and Mordecai (Esther 8:2).
- Augustine, Retractions , 1.13.3
- The criticisms of the Gnostics by Irenaeus, and especially by the Roman lawyer Tertullian, display the typical Roman distaste for ecstasy, woman’s participation and ‘cultish’ behaviour generally. This was the complete antithesis of the sober dignity, piety and patriarchy of Roman religious practice and was regarded as superstitio — literally ‘over-enthusiastic’ religion. For example, when the Cult of the Great Mother was imported into Rome at the beginning of the second century, the high priest had to be a man, not a woman as was usual. The practice of castration in honour of Attis was also banned. When the Bacchic Mysteries were put down in 186 BCE, the hysteria whipped up against them was that they were orgiastic, oriental and led by women. The violent purge against them set the trend for attacking imported Mystery cults, collegia , burial societies and other groups for centuries after .
- See ‘Taking Things Literally’, TJM , 211ff. The Pythagoreans allegorized the works of Homer in the sixth century BCE. This technique was then taken over by Hellenistic Jews. It is used extensively by Philo, often in the most contrived fashion, to read Platonic philosophy into the Hebrew scriptures.
- Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 16:28 and Luke 21:12-36 that some of his audience would live to see the Apocalypse were, if taken literally, clearly mistaken. See TJM , 143-4.
- See for example, Tertullian, Apology , 50. Although Tertullian wished to ‘obtain from God complete forgiveness’ by martyrdom, he somehow managed to avoid this fate.
- See ‘Glorious Gore’, TJM , 225ff.
- According to Irenaeus the Carpocratians considered themselves, and the other disciples such as Paul and Peter, as ‘in no way inferior to Jesus himself’. Irenaeus, AH , 1.25.2, quoted in Hanratty, G. (1997), 27.
- Luke 6:40
- Augustine announced the triumph of Literalist Fundamentalism, writing, ‘Nothing is to be accepted except on the authority of scripture, since greater is that authority than all powers of the human mind.’ (Quoted in Fidler, D. (1993), 180.) He also declared: ‘I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not compel me.’ (Ibid., 320)
- The Bishop of Newark writes about his disillusionment with Literalism: ‘I look at the authority of the Scriptures as one who has been both nurtured by and then disillusioned with., the literal Bible. My devotion to the Bible was so intense that it led me into a study that finally obliterated any possibility that the Bible could be related to on a literal basis… A literal Bible presents me with far more problems than assets. It offers me a God I cannot respect, much less worship … Those who insist on biblical literalism thus become unwitting accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love.’ John Shelby Spong, quoted in Leedom, T. C. (1993), 116.