Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Gnostic Philosophies - discussion with a beginner

“I don’t think I like the Gnostics.”
Sebastian took a sip of coffee, frowned and continued.
“I’ve been doing some research on the web and several sites report their beliefs as anti-Christian and, well, ugly!  They say the material world was created by an evil demi-god, to entrap human souls.  They claim that only be denying God, denying the body and the world can one be holy.  It speaks against everything the Church stands for.”
“Hmm.”  I responded.  “Not sure which sites you’ve been looking at but you do have to remember that everything on the web isn’t necessarily true or factual.  My own research suggests that those types of beliefs were held by only very small and extreme sects.  Think of some of our own cults, like Waco Texas or Jonestown.  They claimed to be true Christians, but would you or I accept them as such?
Generally a Gnostic was expected to study the world and learn God’s wisdom from his study.  Some believed that if you learned enough and found the deepest secrets, you could enter heaven without actually dying.  Many Gnostics claimed that this is what Christ actually did.”
Sebastian looked surprised.
“But surely that can’t be right.  Certainly Christ ascended to Heaven, but first he died to cleanse us of our sins.  Surely without his actual death and resurrection, his ascension would be meaningless.”
“Well, certainly it opposed the basic tenet of the Christian sect which eventually became the Catholic Church.  They claimed that their teachings were the Word of the one and only God and contained all knowledge, that further search was neither required nor acceptable.  That sect said the everything we need to know to live our lives according to God’s word has already been written.  Given that fact we should not search for new knowledge, but rather accept that dispensed by the sects priests.  That’s very similar to what the apostle Paul preached.  In one of his Letters in the Bible, he tells the people to heed his words alone and do what he tells them without question.  That dogma was so strong during the Middle Ages that the simple act of questioning the Bible and searching for new truths was enough to get you branded a heretic and burnt at the stake! 
In the 1st and 2nd  centuries a surprising number of  people could read, but within the Pauline Christian sect they were told not to read the holy writings themselves, as they would become confused.  Everything they needed to know would be given to them by Paul and later by his designated priests.  That was the approach that became the dominant sect and later the Catholic Church as we know it today.   During the Middle Ages in Europe the only correct interpretation of the Bible teachings were dispensed to the common person by the priests of the Holy Catholic Church and only by the priests.  Penitents were not allowed to try and learn for themselves, so the priests became that much more powerful.” 
Sebastian was silent, thoughtful.  I watched him in silence.  He struck me as the quintessential clerical scholar.  He was dressed in turtle-neck, jacket and tweed pants.  When he spoke, his voice was soft, almost a monotone and slightly hesitant.  He always sat on the edge of his chair, slightly hunched forward, almost as if he was praying.  I could see he wasn’t happy with what I was saying.  I was having trouble accepting that someone in his profession could be so na├»ve, but it seemed his work had centered mainly on the later Greek and Latin versions of the bible books.  He’d never encountered documents as old as what we had here, nor it seemed, anything of the contents we were dealing with.  Wondering why the Professeur had hired him I continued.
“Then there was the Jewish approach, which was that every man should and must read the Jewish holy book, the Torah and that all aspects of life and the Torah teachings should be discussed so every man could understand Gods teachings.  However, like the early Catholics, while the Jews could discuss the Torah and argue about its interpretation, they were not free to question its content, for it was the word of God.   The Gnostics simply extended the Jewish approach and encouraged every believer to read and do their own research, but to also question everything, including the holy documents and apply logical thought to them, forming their own opinions of their validity.  That definitely didn’t sit well with the Jewish rabbis and caused direct conflict between the Gnostics and the jews and the Peter and Paul sects that later became the Catholic Church.”
“You don’t really care for the Church do you?”  Sebastian asked quietly, “Even though you are Catholic.”
“I care more for the truth.” I replied quietly.  From another his words might have stung, but Sebastian had such an air of naive, unquestioning, child-like acceptance about his religion that made it nearly impossible to get angry.
“I care about finding out what the truth is, getting at the facts.  If the facts support that Church then I can support the Church too.  But usually the facts disagree with the Church’s various interpretations of history.  My parents were good Catholics and so followed the Catholic teaching, quite religiously if you’ll excuse the pun.  I did too to begin with, but something happened to me when I was young which destroyed my faith.  Later, when I was taught the scientific method at college, I found it made more sense than my Catholic upbringing of blind acceptance.  It tends to match the Gnostic approach quite closely too, which may be why I find it easy to identify with these writers.”
I told him of the scroll I just finished translating, of Miri’s encounter in Alexandria. 
“Mercales’ Greek Heresy is almost the epitome of the mainstream Gnostic philosophy and he makes it quite obvious why every centralized church since the very first one has condemned it as heresy.  It’s interesting that it’s so similar to the scientific method of today, ironic that they were both branded as heresy by the Church.  Strange how history circles upon itself.
Mercales taught that we should question the world, ask to see the proof, base belief on the most likely probability, use Occam’s Razor to cut through the garbage to find the simplest and usually the most likely, answer.”
“You mean you’re saying we should question the truth of the Bible?”  Sebastian exclaimed, his jaw dropping, looking completely scandalized.  Perhaps I’d gone too far.  “Surely you accept that the books of the Bible were given to us by God and that they contain the word of God.  They are the words of God as given to Jesus and the Apostles.  The Apostles wrote the New Testament to give us guidance through this world.”
There didn’t seem to be an easy way to handle this, other than give him some hard facts to work with and hope he could swallow them without choking.
“If you do the research, you’ll find that many ‘books’ were written in the first couple of centuries after the coming of Christ.  The first two or three centuries were a time of great confusion and competition, as many competing “Christ” sects were established and they all competed to gain adherents.  In 325 AD, the Catholic Church elders finally got together at the Nicene Council under Charlemagne and codified their beliefs.  Prior to that we have letters between various church elders where they list the books that would form the accepted bible and other lists of books which would be cast out as heretical, to be destroyed on sight.  It’s probably due to this approach that the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls came to be hidden and buried.  They include many of the forbidden books and writings.  The local religious groups had a choice.  They could follow in blind obedience and destroy the books as ordered by the Bishops in far away cities, or they could hide them away and pretend they had been destroyed.  Thus the Gospels of Mary and Thomas survived originally as no more than an entry on a church list of writings to be destroyed.  Only in the last hundred years or so have the actual documents themselves been found.
The earliest list of heretical texts comes mainly from one man, a Christian priest named Irenaeus.  Somewhere around 175-185 AD, Irenaeus was sent to Rome by his Bishop, Pothinus, asking the Christian High Bishop in Rome to intercede in a squabble about doctrine and confirm that the Montanist sect were heretics.  On his arrival in Rome, to his horror, Irenaeus found that Eleutheerus, the highest Christian Bishop of Rome, had embraced the Montanist creed as the one true faith.  To make matters worse, he also met an old school buddy who had embraced yet another heresy, that of the Gnostic Valentinian.   You can see that back then there were sects galore and everyone was trying to label everyone else a heretic.  So, in a state of total confusion, Irenaeus returned to Lyons only to find that Pothinus has died a martyrs death.  Irenaeus took over as the Bishop of Lyons and immediately launched a life-long crusade to wipe out all the other heresies, Gnostic and otherwise.  He is considered to be one of the earliest and most militant of the bishops of the sect that was to became the Christian Church.
Soon after becoming Bishop, he wrote a treatise aptly named ‘Adversus Haereses’, or ‘Against Heresy’.  The full title was “Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-called”, which probably gives you an idea of his state of mind.  Ironically, this has turned out to be the greatest source of Gnostic information.  Irenaeus chose to describe the Gnostic beliefs in some detail, so he could properly refute them.  In doing so he documented the very beliefs which he spent the rest of his life trying to erase.  Not only did he document the beliefs, but he named names, people and texts.   Without Irenaeus and his ‘Refutation’ we would probably have known nothing of the Gnostics until the Nag Hammadi scrolls were uncovered.  Instead, he recorded the existence of the Gospels of Bartholomew, of Thaddeus, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot and some 34 other ‘heretical’ gospels.  We also learned of the Gnostic leaders and teachers, the originators of some of the main heresies, Valentinian and Marcion.
Irenaeus went on to develop a list of bishops acceptable to the Christian Church, carefully noting that none were Gnostics.  He decided, seemingly all on his own, that the church should be founded on the four books of doctrine, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.   He also decided that the other writings and doctrines were heresy and should be destroyed.  His justification for having four was based on the Old Testament references to the four corners of the universe, the four principle winds and the four living creatures that Ezekiel saw in a vision, supporting the throne of God.  If four was good enough for God, then it was good enough for Irenaeus.”
“Yes, but those four books do tell the true story of Christ!” Sebastian exclaimed.  “They tell us of his life, his mission among us, his words and teachings.  Surely even a doubter like you must accept that.”
“Well,” I replied, smiling at bit a being dubbed a doubter.  “It would be nice if I could but I’m afraid not.  You see, the biggest problem with that, for both me and the Church, is that no writings by Jesus himself exist.  Nothing in the Bible actually came from anything Jesus himself wrote.  Almost half the books that made it into the accepted Bible and claim to be the words of Jesus, were written by Paul, probably decades after Jesus was crucified.  The problem I and many others have with that is that Paul was the thirteenth Apostle, self-appointed some years after the death of Jesus.  Paul never met Jesus, never spoke to him and never heard him speak.   The four gospels espoused by Irenaeus reflect the views of Paul more than Jesus and they and many of the other books in the New Testament are written by either Paul or his adherents.  All the research to date suggest very strongly that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John were all written some time after 150 AD.  That’s over one hundred years after Jesus died, ninety years after Paul died and definitely long after all the original disciples were dead.  It’s extremely unlikely that any of the authors of the New testament where Jesus’ disciples.
Think about that for a moment.” 
I could hear the exasperation leaking into my voice and strove for a calmer tone.
“That’s at least three generations after the events actually happened.  Tell me, how much do you know about your great-grandfathers life and times.  Who was the lead politician of your country?  Who was the Pope.  What do you know of their actions and beliefs, their philosophies?  Why were the wars being fought?  And yet you willingly accept that someone writing two or three or possibly even four generations after Jesus would have been able to clearly relate his real words and actions.  Really?
Surely you can see that the deeper you go, the more closely you look at biblical history and think it through, the more tenuous the connection between the Christian faith and Bible as we know it today and the actual teachings and words of Jesus.  That’s why finds like this one are so important.  They give us more information and different viewpoints, from sources closer to the actual events.”
I paused, took a sip of my cold coffee and shuddered at the taste.  I don’t think my words were having any effect on Sebastian.  Taking a deep breath to calm myself again, I continued in a quieter tone.
“So, as the Catholic Christian Church sect grew in power from 150 AD onwards, it declared all the competing sects heretics.  In his Letters, Paul warns his flocks to beware of other ‘so-called apostles’, to only pay attention to his voice and his apostles.  Thus the Gnostics were suppressed and by 300 AD had essentially been removed from the picture.  By 500 AD they might never have existed.
That should have changed when the first copy of the Gospel of Mary was found in 1896, but it was deliberately ignored and buried by church scholars.  It didn’t actually reach public print until the late 1990’s, nearly a hundred years later and by then had been damaged beyond use.  Even now, discoveries like the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls have faced continued opposition from a Church more interested in preserving its position than discovering the truth about Christ.
Don’t you see Sebastian, this cave has given us an entire library full of first century writings!  So far they’re all Gnostic, but there may be other writings as well.  We may find texts here that pre-date Irenaeus.  Who knows, we may even find texts written by one of the apostles or even Jesus himself.  Even though the Gnostics were branded heretics, they too believed Jesus came with a message from God.  They may have recorded something here that will give us more insight into Jesus the man and his teachings.  Something to help us strip away the patina of two thousand years of political and theological adjustments and re-interpretations!”
Sebastian looked at me, puzzled and apprehensive, saying nothing.  He quietly rose and turned to the sink, rinsed his cup and poured another cup of coffee.  Looking at his silent back I wondered.  Had I opened his mind just a little, or was he too immured in his religious dogma to even try and question the simplistic views he’d been taught.  Would he approach the scrolls with the joy and wonder of new discoveries that I felt, or had he already condemned them as heresy and was now simply looking for a reason to discard them.  I couldn’t tell.  Maybe he didn’t even know himself.  I left the room and headed back to my computer to tackle my next scroll of Miri.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Greek Heresy - translation of the first journal scroll - lessons in Alexandria

My husband was sent to Alexandria by our fathers to learn and become wise in the ways of the world, to become a leader of men and a great general of war.  No-one expected me to learn anything, I was simply there as his wife, sent to feed and serve him and my brother, who also accompanied us.  But during our first weeks, their fear of leaving me alone in a strange city caused them to keep me by their side and so they took me with them to the talks and lectures.  Only later did they realize that I too was learning, though it seems I tended to learn those lessons that they might have preferred me not to learn.  This was the first lesson I remember clearly, as the first step on my own road to knowledge and independence.
I don’t remember what the question was, but the teacher directed it at me.  He’d been answering a question from Yoshai and I hadn’t really been paying attention.  The newness of the city and the strangeness of being in a room full of people discussing great topics still left me overwhelmed.  That he directed his question to me surprised me so much I simply sat there with my mouth hanging open.
“Come child,” he said, “what do you think?” 
“It is as my husband says,” I stammered, madly trying to recall Yoshai’s last few words.  “It is written in the Torah and thus it is so.”
The man smiled, amused at my obvious nervousness but behaving as if I had given him the correct answer to a puzzle.  He was old, his face grizzled and wrinkled, burned dark by the desert sun, long hair grey and thin, but his voice was full of power.  When he spoke the entire room listened.
“If you will,” he said, addressing himself to me but including everyone else in the room as well, “I will tell you of one of the great Greek heresies.  Perhaps you could even call it ‘The’ Greek Heresy.”  He chuckled.  “Actually, though most priests label it so, it cannot be a heresy, for it has absolutely nothing to do with religion or the Gods.  No, it simply has to do with using the mind that your God, whatever you may see that to be, has given to you.”
“Allow me to introduce to you the fine art of ‘disputation’.  By its use you may even discover the purpose that God has for us.  First you ask a question.  There may be only a single answer to that question or there may be many.  It matters not.  The discussion of the possibilities is all that matters!  Let me see now.”  He paused for a moment, studying first me and then Yoshai.  “Here’s one for you!  Why does a tree grow?”
He looked at Yoshai.  “Well?  Why does a tree grow?”
Yoshai smiled self-confidently, brashly displaying the arrogance of youth and inexperience.  “Because God wills it so!”
“So!” Mercales, as I later learned was his name, smiled at Yoshai’s facile answer.  “Thus you will become disputant number one!” he said, pointing his finger at Yoshai.  “And you, young lady,” He pointed his finger at me with such suddenness I flinched back in my chair.  “you will be disputant number two!  You will each take opposing positions on the question.”
His attention on us had resulted in the rest of the people in the room shoving the chairs around and they now formed a loose circle about us.  Obviously they had seen this man’s lectures before.  Some smiled at me in sympathetic remembrance, some grinned in anticipation of a good show.  I cringed!  Never before had I had so much attention focused on me!  My skin prickled and I could feel the sweat beginning to trickle down the back of my neck. 
“Now, for the sake of the discussion let us set aside the concepts of right or wrong.  Let us review the question using our minds, what we can observe to happen in the real world and those things and ideas that we can test.”
“Your name, my dear, what is it?”
I glanced at Yoshai.  After a slight hesitation he nodded. 
“Miri.” I responded. 
Mercales cocked an eyebrow at me and smiled again.  He’d noticed my glance for permission and for some reason that made me blush.  I realized then that he was deliberately placing me in a position he knew I’d never been in before.
“Very well Miri. You will take the position that it is the sun and the rain that causes the tree to grow.  You, young man…?” 
“You, Yoshai, will defend your statement that God causes the tree to grow and that is sufficient in and of itself.  Each of you will attempt to convince the other of the strength of your position, with the goal, hopefully, that you will end up with an agreement of some sort.”
I sat, dumbfounded and mute.  All my life I had been taught to be obedient to the men of my family.  First my father and the priests, then my brothers and later my husband.  Yes, I’d followed my mother’s instruction too, but I’d known that she followed her husband’s.  My life so far had been based on doing what I was told, to speak only when spoken to and otherwise remain silent.  Never to speak out in public and never, ever talk back to a man!  Now this heretical Greek was suggesting I should argue with my husband.  I couldn’t!
“It’s alright, Miri.” said Yoshai quietly.  “We came here to learn new things, so let us play this game and see where it leads us.  Go ahead.”  He took my hand and squeezed gently, his other hand sweeping across the table towards Mercales, encouraging me to proceed.
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “the tree needs the sun to grow.”  I stopped and the silence of the crowd hung there, waiting for more.
Yoshai cut in smoothly to cover the quiet.  “In the Torah it states that all things come from God; the land, the plants, the animals, everything.  Everything follows his plan regardless of whether we understand it or not.  The rabbis’ teach us that everything we need to know about the world is written in the Torah.”
“But it needs the rain too,” I burst out,  “for without rain it will wither and die.”  I almost choked on the words.  I was arguing with him!
The discussion, such as it was, stalled again.  I could see Yoshai searching for a quote from the Torah.  I was thinking too, looking within myself for more.  It felt very strange.  Strange, but somehow pleasurable, exciting!  I could learn to like this feeling!
“Now,” commanded Mercales, “provide some tangible proof to support your statements!”
“Well…” said Yoshai, “The Torah contains the words of God, as given to his prophets.  It is God’s word and therefore it is truth.”
“But….”  I hesitated again.  Oh, this was hard, to actually speak out against my husband and in public too.  “But, if you plant a seed in dry soil it will not germinate.  If you don’t water it, it will not sprout and grow.”
Yoshai stared at me.  I’m not sure if he was more surprised that I had dared to speak out or that I could actually think it through.
“Excellent!” crowed Mercales, rocking backwards and forwards in his chair in glee, “Excellent!  You have defined two ways to test the truth of your statement.  Without sun or rain your tree will do nothing.  Provide sun and rain and the tree will spring to life and blossom!”
“On the other hand Yoshai, your side has a bit of a problem providing proof.  You cannot prove God’s will, for you can neither provide it nor withhold it.  Thus you cannot clearly demonstrate that the tree lives or dies because of God’s will or otherwise.  In truth, you can neither prove nor disprove the very basis of your argument, that there is a God, either one or many.  You stand entirely on a blind and unquestioning faith.  In the absence of such proof, your argument stands on a foundation of unknown quality.  Like a foundation set in loose sand it cannot safely be built upon.  On the other hand, Miri’s logic provides a clear demonstration of observable fact, that any person can in turn test and substantiate for themselves and thus it can be built upon.  Knowing a tree requires sun and rain to grow allows other statements to be made and tested.  A tree needs the sun and rain.  A tree is a plant.  Wheat in the field is also a plant, therefore we can suppose that the wheat also needs sun and rain to grow.  We can then test that supposition and build further.”  
“Thus, disputation gives rise to possible answers that can be tested against reality.  Those tested answers can then be used to ask other, bigger questions.   Is the sun and rain needed for a flower to grow?  What of a rock, a man, a nation?”
“Interestingly enough though, Miri’s logic is also entirely consistent with her God’s will and thus is not in the least bit heretical.  At no time does her testing of the suppositions ever violate her faith or adherence to her religious beliefs, whatever they may be.  Thus disputation and logic can live side by side with Yoshai’s faith in his God. Not heretical at all!”
The room was silent as he drained his mug with obvious satisfaction.
“And there,” Mercales licked his lips, “the lesson ends.  Thank you children and have a good evening.”  He gave us a courtly bow, nodded briefly to the rest of the class and walked away from our table.  Around us the others began to discuss the lesson.
I picked up my mug and raised it to my lips.  My hands were shaking so much the mug rattled against my teeth.  I peeked at Yoshai over the rim of the mug.  He looked back at me, his face unreadable.  I could almost hear his thoughts though, churning over and around, pondering that odd conversation.  I lowered my eyes.  We finished the rest of our wine in mutual hesitation and discomfort, talking haphazardly about nothings – how warm it was here, what lectures Yoshai would go to tomorrow, how Laz would have to accompany me to market tomorrow so I could buy food for our meals.
Inside I was shivering.  Never before had I spoken so!  Never before had I even thought such thoughts.  If I had done so at home I would have been sharply rebuked by every man around me and probably every woman as well.  Instead, here, Mercales had congratulated me on my reasoning, as if he was suggesting that I was right and my husband wrong.  I held tight to that feeling.  Perhaps our stay in Alexandria would give me more than I had ever dreamt possible.
I said nothing more that night, but I could see the evening had troubled Yoshai.  At first I thought he was angry with me, but he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts I doubt he even knew I walked by his side.  As we entered the house I heard him muttering to himself…. “So how can you clearly demonstrate God’s will?”