Reading the Gnostics

Reading the Gnostics was a piece I wrote to accompany A Dictionary of Gnosticism. In a modified form it will be one of the introductory essays in Gnostic Tendencies, intended to whet your appetite for reading the Nag Hammadi Library.

Gnostic Tendencies

Reading the Gnostics


And he [Jesus] said, “The kingdom is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea; then he drew it up from the sea, full of little fish from below. Among them he found one good large fish. So he threw all of the little fish back down into the sea without regret. Whoever has ears to listen, let him listen.”


This parable, distinctively in the voice of Jesus, is found nowhere in the New Testament. It comes from the Gospel of Thomas, the best known of the ancient writings found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. The Gospel of Thomas is overwhelmingly the most famous and most read of the texts found in this cache for two reasons:- it has a good claim to contain sayings of Jesus that are as old and as authentic as those in the canonical gospels, and it is, at least superficially, easy to understand. It is one of nearly fifty different texts or tractates in the Nag Hammadi library, the bulk of which are Gnostic.

Gnosticism was a Christian-related religion that thrived in the second to fourth centuries CE, though its origins may have been a little earlier and it persisted in various forms much later. It emphasised the importance of gnosis—experiential knowledge of the divine—within a framework of myth and ritual. No two texts or Gnostic groups agreed on the details of the Gnostic myth, but it typically involves the following: the supreme, unique God emanates divine beings known as aeons. These form the Pleroma, the fullness of God. However, the youngest of these aeons, Sophia, falls from grace and in doing so creates the material world, which is ruled by her bastard offspring the demiurge, the craftsman of our world, often called Yaldabaoth. The demiurge and his minions create the soul and body of mankind but are tricked into incorporating an element of spirit in the human makeup. Thus humans contain a divine spark which may be nurtured and fanned into a flame. The subsequent history of mankind involves a struggle for the human soul, on the one side the demiurge and his archons, on the other a series of saviours or revealers who teach mankind how to attain gnosis and develop the spiritual seed within them. Abbreviated and simplified in this way, the Gnostic myth is understandable and appealing . However, the original Gnostic texts are more concerned with their individual elaborations of the myths than with clarity, and can be quite obscure.

Not all of the Nag Hammadi texts are difficult to penetrate. The Exegesis on the Soul (despite its awkward title) is a beautiful and straightforward account of the fall of the soul, personified as a young woman who drifts into prostitution and is abused by thieves and adulterers but who eventually repents and returns to her father and, in a daring use of sexual imagery, may couple with the bridegroom in the bridal chamber.

Thunder: Perfect Mind is a striking proclamation by a female voice, which includes fascinating, contrary statements —“I am the whore and the holy, I am the wife and the virgin.” Thunder has been adapted as a musical piece by David Tibet’s Current 93 band, and even into an advertisement for Prada perfume directed by Ridley and Jordan Scott.

The Nag Hammadi Library has popularly been known as the Gnostic Gospels, largely through the influence of Elaine Pagels’ popular and groundbreaking 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels. Nothing in the Nag Hammadi Library closely resembles the gospels in the New Testament, but a few of the works have ‘gospel’ in the title, and Jesus features prominently in some of the other texts. In addition to the Gospel of Thomas, we have the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth (thought the name has been deduced by scholars) and the Gospel of the Egyptians (though its preferred title is now The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit.)

The Gospel of Thomas is the only one of these to have any claim to reflect the actual teaching or life of the historical Jesus (the study of which is a fraught endeavour in itself. The Gospel of Philip, while quite a different beast to the Gospel of Thomas, is also superficially clear and full of elegant imagery, and includes a few references to Jesus, in many of which he is a mystical or theological figure. The Gospel of Philip itself consists of a series of short section—discourses, sayings, contemplations and extended metaphors—most of which do not explicitly refer to Jesus. Among the nuggets are a statement by Philip the apostle that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was fashioned by Jesus the carpenter. Another is a mysterious miracle in which Jesus threw 72 coloured cloths into a vat at the dye-works of Levi and brought them out all white. Its greatest claim to fame, though, are two brief references to Mary Magdalene. “There were three Marys who walked with the Lord at all times: his mother and his sister and the Magdalene, who is called his companion. So his mother and sister and companion are called ‘Mary.’”


“And the companion of the saviour is Mary Magdalene. The Lord loved Mary more than the other disciples and kissed her often on her [mouth].75 The rest of them saw him loving Mary and said to him, “Why do you love her more than us?”76 The saviour replied, “Why do I not love you as I do her? When a blind man and one who can see are both in the dark, they are the same as one another.”

These indirectly inspired Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and it is a pity that the work isn’t better known in its entirety.

The Gospel of Truth is a beautiful and highly metaphorical homily quite possibly written by the Gnostic leader Valentinus. The Gospel of the Egyptians, or the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, is a thoroughly Gnostic myth, full of the complex cosmology so central to Gnosticism. A classic example of what is known as “Sethian Gnosticism”, it is Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who is the primary figure of salvation; he is actually “clothed” with Jesus, making Jesus more or less an incarnation of Seth. It is also notable for a sequence of mystical vowels which were chanted by Gnostics.

In other Nag Hammadi texts, Jesus is seen post-resurrection as a bringer of knowledge. In the Secret Book of John, the Saviour gives John the son of Zebedee a revelation which consists of an extensive cosmology. In the Secret Book of James, the disciples are trying to recall what Jesus had taught them and receive a further visitation from Jesus 550 days after the resurrection, Jesus has a similar role in other writings.

Outside of the Nag Hammadi Library, though often included in modern collections, we have the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas (there are many other apocryphal gospels, such as the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Hebrews, which are not actually Gnostic, plus the little-known Gnostic Gospel of the Saviour, which is very fragmentary and owes its title to modern scholars.)

The Gospel of Mary is distinctive in the attention it gives to Mary (probably Magdalene) who has received the most secret teachings of Jesus. The focus on Mary Magdalens’s supposed role as the wife of Jesus has led many to see her as “Mrs Jesus”, but Gnostics saw her as an important figure in her own right, as the disciple who understood Jesus better than any of the others. The recently published Gospel of Judas is unusual in that its story takes place during the lifetime of Jesus, rather than post-resurrection, yet it is typical in its emphasis on the Gnostic myth that Jesus teaches to Judas. Although there are traces of a more positive view of Judas among Gnostics in the writings of the second-century heresy-hunting church father Irenaeus, recent examination of the Gospel of Judas shows that Judas is no hero, but shares the faults of the other apostles and sacrifices Jesus to the false God, Sakla. There are many other references to Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Library, which is a goldmine of alternative early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi Library gives us a different view of Jesus, one whose teaching is more important than his crucifixion. In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Simon of Cyrenea is actually crucified in the place of Jesus.

The treasures of the Nag Hammadi Library are extensive, but they must be dug out. In addition to the legions of obscure angelic and demonic names, many Gnostic terms are typically left untranslated from the Greek—words like pleroma, (“fullness,” the divine realm), archons (“petty rulers”, demonic assistants to the demiurge ) or pneumatics (not air-driven Gnostics, but those who have spiritual attainment.) To prevent others from encountering the problems I had in my study of the Gnostics, I put together the first ever Gnostic dictionary. Explore these mystical and fascinating works with A Dictionary of Gnosticism by your side.


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