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DESPITE THE MILLIONS OF WORDS WRITTEN and the hundreds of books published every year on the subject of Christianity, the origins of our Western religious tradition are imperfectly understood. Of course, the official representatives of the various orthodox churches would probably dispute this in the strongest terms. They generally hold that the New Testament is a completed work of revelation, a done deal. According to them, the duly vested Church authorities long ago resolved whatever few loose ends remained to be tidied up from the early period of revelatory scripture, and because the important matters of faith have not changed over the many centuries, all that modern-day Christians need do to be saved is believe, obey, and, ultimately, reap faith’s reward in the hereafter.

Today, however, increasing numbers of Christians are disenchanted with the standard salvation formula. They find the liturgy tiresome and the rituals and sacraments empty exercises. They are distrustful of doctrines and are not persuaded by pat answers to profound questions. They find neither comfort nor inspiration in tedious sermons and they resent ministers who lay guilt trips on members of the congregation. Indeed, many are angry because they believe they have been deceived or lied to by the Church. As a result, they tend to regard not only Church corruption but all of the above as symptomatic of a deeper malady: the failure of institutional religion. Some, despite their misgivings, choose to remain within the Church. Others have voted with their feet and have left. Yet all crave devotion and all are in search of deeper answers about their faith. These Christians should read on. This book has been written with them in mind, which brings us back to the matter of origins

Scholars generally agree that during its first centuries Christianity faced serious competition from numerous rivals, including Mithraism, Judaism, the official cults of Rome, various other pagan Mystery religions, and Gnostic Christianity. But among these rivals, the last was viewed as by far the most pernicious threat and why were Gnostic Christians considered so dangerous? Because, as one Church patriarch named Irenaeus wrote late in the second century, “[Their] language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different.” The Gnostics, in other words, masqueraded as Christians! Irenaeus went on: “[Their] error is craftily decked out in an attractive dress . . . to make it appear to the inexperienced . . . more true than truth itself.”

In fact, so closely did Gnostic Christians mimic the genuine article that even priests could not always discern the subtle differences between the true and the false. For which reason, we are informed, many were led into error. Bishop Irenaeus was one of the first to warn his fellow Christians about the insidious danger. He was also the first to use the term Gnostic, based on gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. The crux of the problem was that these Gnostics claimed to be in possession of an advanced form of Christianity involving secret teachings, a claim the orthodox bishops flatly denied.

Around 180 G. E. Irenaeus penned a lengthy treatise to unmask the hoax, and about forty years later another Church father Bishop Hippolytus, compiled a ten-volume opus of his own. These antiheretical writings earned Irenaeus and Hippolytus a reputation as authorities on the matter of heresy, and their views exerted an enormous influence on the subsequent development of Christianity. The orthodox bishops who came after them followed in their footsteps, which is how tradition works. Even today Irenaeus and Hippolytus hold a special place of respect among orthodox scholars and are studied by each new generation of Christian theologians.

The orthodox view is that the Christian faith owes nothing to Gnosticism. Gnostic Christianity was a later development, an errant stepchild of the second and third centuries C.E. According to this view, it played no part in the formative period of Christianity, nor was it a tradition in itself. Indeed, it borrowed (or stole) everything from orthodox Christianity. In 1967 the scholar G. van Groningen went so far as to claim that Gnosticism “became a real threat . . . as a parasitic religion feeding on Christianity.” Kurt Rudolph, author of Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, agreed. Rudolph wrote that because “Gnosticism prospered on the soil of its host religion . . . should rightly be described as parasitic.” Numerous other scholars have espoused similar ideas.

No wonder that nearly all Christian scholars and theologians have ratified the Church’s long-standing campaign to stamp out Gnosticism, generally regarded as a scourge. Such was the view of W. F. Albright, one of the leading biblical scholars of the twentieth century. Albright was a brilliant linguist and a pioneering archaeologist, and in one of his last books, History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism, he wrote, “Their belief[s] . . . stand in direct opposition to the Gospel. No wonder that the orthodox . . . reacted violently against the ideas of the Gnostics . . .” Most Christian scholars have agreed with Albright. Indeed, the unanimity of support for the Church’s suppression of Gnostic writings and teachings has been remarkable and the variety of apologetics almost endless.

Even those scholars who have struck a more sympathetic tone have usually imputed a negative value to Gnosticism, suggesting, for example, that it was a form of escapism. James M. Robinson exemplified this trend. Robinson headed up the team of scholars who prepared an important compendium on Gnostic Christianity, The Nag Hammadi Library, first published in 1977 and to which we will make frequent reference.6 Robinson was genuinely enthusiastic about Gnosticism, but he also believed it “ . . was the religion that expressed most clearly the mood of defeatism and despair that swept the ancient world in the early centuries of the Christian era.” In other words, whoever they were, the Gnostics were dreamers and escapists.

This encompasses the mainstream of opinion—.and, we note, is exclusively pejorative.

Scholarship’s dismissive attitude raises an important question:
How, then, do we account for the remarkable resurgence of interest in Gnosticism over the past two centuries? It appears that we Christians have been drawn to it, despite ourselves, like moths to the flame. Our fatal attraction to a notorious creed is no fluke; it is a real phenomenon, well attested to by the many papers and books that scholars grind out each year on the subject.

The interest in Gnosticism is genuine enough, yet there is also something irksome about the scholarship to date. Such has been my experience. I have read many of the studies, and in every single case they have failed to persuade me that the authors have done more than scratch the surface. Given the negative impression that these studies almost always generate, their typically dismissive conclusions are not surprising. If the scholars are to be believed, Gnosticism was a very strange religion. While I am the first to agree that some of the Gnostics were more than a little strange, in the following pages I hope to show that the general negative impression is a false one, a mere artifact. The problem, as we shall see, has nothing to do with Gnosticism—it has everything to do with the adequacy of scholarship itself.

In the following chapters we will break new ground by entering into the world of the Gnostics. We are going to try to understand their spiritual world as they themselves understood it—indeed, as they experienced it—an unprecedented leap for scholarship. In the process of allowing the Gnostics to speak for themselves and tell their own very different story, we will arrive at conclusions that are utterly subversive to orthodox Christianity and which, I predict, will eventually stand tradition on its head.

We are going to examine powerful evidence that the Gnostic element was present in Christianity from the beginning, and was, in fact, the very heart of the teachings of Jesus. We will discover that the Gnostic controversy that developed in the second century C.E.—the issue that obsessed Church leaders such as Irenaeus-_occurred not because pristine Christianity became polluted by Gnostic heresy, as the Church argued and still contends, but because the bishops of the fledgling Church so rearranged their priorities in their attempts to consolidate institutional Christianity that they lost contact with their own spiritual (Gnostic) roots.

This historic watershed has come within reach thanks to a serendipitous confluence of events. During the same period that witnessed the modern revival of interest in Gnosticism, archaeologists, meanwhile, were busy amassing an enormous amount of documentary evidence about the ancient world, and this included sensational discoveries. One of the most important breakthroughs occurred in 1945, when an entire Gnostic library, which had been stashed inside a clay jar~ was unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. After many frustrating delays, the trove was finally published in its entirety in 1977.8 Another stupendous discovery occurred in 1929 on the coast of Syria at a place called Ra’s Shamra: an entire cuneiform library from the ancient city of Ugarit.

In addition to these sources, we will draw upon the English translation of the Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1968) and also upon apocryphal scriptures such as the Book of Jasher (meaning the Upright) and pseudoepigraphic scriptures such as the Book of Enoch, both of which came to light after having been lost for many centuries. Our primary source document, however is the most important of all from the standpoint of illuminating Christian origins: the Refutation of All Heresies, penned in the third century C.E. by Bishop Hippolytus, one of the two heresiologists already mentioned here.

The Refutation disappeared for many centuries after it was written and was not discovered until 1842. The first English translation appeared in 1868 and stirred a brief flurry of interest, but unfortunately other archaeological discoveries at the turn of the twentieth century overshadowed it. An adequate commentary did not appear until 1984. Now, at long last, thanks to the corroborating scriptures unearthed at Nag Hammadi, its true importance can finally be established, because a portion of the Refutation, found in Book 5, is one of the keys to early Christianity.

I shall never forget the first time I opened this part of the Refutation, known as the Naassene Sermon, a remarkable polemic aimed at one of the Gnostic groups, the Naassenes. Even though I knew almost nothing about Gnosticism and even less about Hippolytus, I was captivated from the start, but it took years of further study before I penetrated the document.


It is important to realize that Gnosticism was not a religion. Many competent scholars have erred in this regard. It was an inclination—mystical, existential, and experiential—that was present to some degree in nearly all of the ancient religions. It took numerous forms; even within Christianity there were different Gnostic sects—Hippolytus mentions a number of these in his Refutation. While I do not dispute his judgment that many, perhaps most, were divergent, one of the Gnostic communities stood out: the Naassenes, so named, according to Hippolytus, because they “presumed to celebrate a serpent” (Refutation 5.6.3). The bishop derived the name from naas, which, he tells us, is the Hebrew word for “snake” or “serpent.” This was an error on his part. The actual Hebrew word for snake is nahash. The Naassenes were more generally known as Ophites, from ophis, the Greek word for “serpent.”

These Naassenes were among the first Christians to be declared heretical. Hippolytus placed them squarely at the head of his index and devoted five substantial chapters to refute them, more space by far than he allotted to any other heterodox group. This is the surest indication of the odious importance he attached to them. Indeed, Hippolytus leaves no doubt: He refers to their beliefs as “the silly and crazy notions of fools” (Refutation 5.10.1) and emphatically describes Naassene heresy as the root error from which all other heresies had sprung (Refutation 5.11.1). Likening heresy to a many-headed hydra, his intention in refuting the Naassenes is to chop off “the heads of this delusion” once and for all and to “exterminate the monster” (Refutation 5.11.1).

Whether Hippolytus believed that he had succeeded we cannot know. Too many centuries stand between then and now. We have no information about when the Naassenes were finally dispersed; Hippolytus is our only source. Indeed, we have no information about the sect at all except what he preserved in his Refutation. Fortunately, as we shall see, this is sufficient, because Book 5 of his treatise includes a long, rambling monologue that Hippolytus himself surely did not compose. Rather, it appears to have been recorded verbatim. This text, known as the Naassene Sermon, will serve as the main focus of our study, and it has a great deal to teach us about our Christian origins. (See the appendix for the text of the Sermon.)

Over years of study, as I delved deeper into the Naassene Sermon and explored its many scriptural citations, my first intuition was confirmed. I was amazed to discover that its unknown author(s) wielded an encyclopedic command of scripture, a fact that is not necessarily evident from a superficial reading. I also found buried in the text a wealth of thematic connections and, by implication, a coherent body of teachings. I was no less impressed by the clarity, insight, integrity, and originality of the Naassene interpretation of the evolving Judaic tradition that had reached its culmination in the birth and life of Jesus. I was persuaded that several scholars were right to conclude that Hippolytus had stumbled onto one or more mystical writings that were never intended for public consumption and had embedded them in his Refutation.’ This material was surely intended for the eyes of select individuals, those who were ready to receive more advanced spiritual instruction.

The Naassenes claimed to have acquired their mystical teachings from James the Just, the brother of Jesus (Refutation 5.7.1). Were they lying? Evidence that we shall examine in the chapters that follow suggests that they were not. In the process of compiling for posterity the false beliefs of the sect he most despised, Hippolytus may have unwittingly preserved a vital link to the original Nazarene community in Jerusalem—hence to Jesus himself! This is why the Naassene Sermon is so important to us. The bishop’s achievement is all the more remarkable because, as we shall see, judging from his own transparent statements, he clearly failed to understand the Gnostic material that had passed into his hands. It is ironic that his very ignorance enhances his credibility as a witness: His acerbic attempts to discredit Naassene belief are plainly refuted by the very material he compiled and recorded.

In reading the Naassene Sermon, what becomes strikingly obvious about the sect is its syncretism. Unlike the institutional Church, which sought to sever every link with antiquity, this group insisted on maintaining continuity with the past. In this respect, strangely enough, the Sermon finds strong support in archaeology, which has amply demonstrated that Christianity did not arise in a vacuum. It is an interesting bonus that in the process of rediscovering those old links we gain a deeper appreciation of what makes Christianity unique—an appreciation the Naassenes plainly shared more than 1,700 years ago.

I should mention, at this point, my disenchantment with the term Gnostic. I hesitate to use the word both because of its negative associations and because I believe that the Naassenes never referred to themselves as such, except, perhaps, in a general sense. If asked, they probably would have described themselves as disciples of Jesus. The term, however, has no suitable alternative, so I will use it throughout the following chapters with this caveat.

As I continued to delve into the text of the Sermon, I discovered a stunning attempt—insofar as I know, unprecedented in the Judeo-Christian tradition—to describe firsthand, using symbolic and figurative language, an elevated spiritual experience. I am not referring to a momentary epiphany or a flash of insight (satori); I mean the ultimate experience. In the following pages we will present this evidence and go even further by showing the precise points of correspondence between Gnostic Christianity and the spiritual traditions of India and Tibet— thus mapping out the common ground between East and West.

I am aware that this is an ambitious book. It should be read in sequence, beginning to end, with a couple of exceptions: The curious are invited to peek ahead at any time to chapters 5 and 10 for more about the Refutation of All Heresies and the Naassene Sermon. These chapters include detailed background information, an account of the rediscovery of the Refutation, a review of past scholarship, and commentary. Those who wish to follow the discussion point by point can read and refer to the complete text of the Naassene Sermon found in the appendix. Throughout the book I have included citations pertaining to the Sermon—(Refutation 5.7.1), for example—to help in this regard. Also included is a glossary of obscure terms.


In the course of my research for this book I found myself ineluctably drawn backward in time as I pursued various loose ends and antecedents. While I found that most traces played out in fuzzy lacunae—in the dangling thoughts of long-forgotten scholars or the silent ruins of dead cities—my efforts did not go entirely unrewarded. To those who persist, the ancient world occasionally does yield up its secrets. The book’s final chapters will discuss anomalous clues that hearken back and hint at remarkable events at or before the dawn of history. Because the evidence of these is still thin, we shall have less to say of them. The greatest archaeological discoveries belong to the future.


In the introduction to his landmark 1977 book, The Nag Hammadi Library, which made available for the first time in English an entire corpus of Gnostic scripture, the editor James M. Robinson, whom I have cited already, wrote:

Now the time has come for a concentrated effort, with the whole Nag Hammadi library accessible, to rewrite the history of Gnosticism, to understand what it was really about, and, of course, to pose new questions. Rarely has a generation . . . had such an opportunity!

I can only second the words of James Robinson. Were he with us today, I know he would welcome this book about the Naassenes, the purpose of which is to announce that the “concentrated effort” of which he spoke with such obvious excitement has finally borne fruit. The good news is herein, awaiting the reader.

 

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