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 naïve, 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment