The following is a draft chapter from The Secular Gospel of Sophia. It was not included in the book
The Age of Gnosis
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
~The Gospel Of Thomas
By the last year of the first quarter of the fourth century of the modern era the gnostic tradition in Christianity had successfully been suppressed by the great institutions of the growing church. During the time that the belief that knowledge was the path to salvation was part of a living, breathing part of Christianity, it was not called “Gnosticism.” But the idea of “gnosis” (Greek for knowledge, understanding and wisdom, rolled up together) played an important role in early Christianity and among some of the first followers of Jesus. The practitioners at the time may have identified themselves according to the founder or presumed éminence gries of their particular subsystem of beliefs. Thus, they called themselves Simonians, after Simon Magus, or Valentinians after Valentinius who was nearly elected Pope of Rome in the middle of the second century, or Cerdonians, after Cerdo, or Colorbasians after Colorbasus or perhaps Sethians, after the first true child of Adam and Eve. Timaeus did not refer to himself by any of these names. Some may have mistakenly called him a follower of Marcion, a second century theologian who believed that the Jewish-Creator God was evil and that Jesus of the New Testament and Paul’s epistles represented another, stronger and better god. Certainly there was some of this in what Timaeus believed. Yet, Timaeus simply called himself a seeker and eschewed names altogether. Some of the few that were left in his time called themselves Timaeans. Most, like Timaeus, simply called themselves Christians.
Generalities are impossible. Many early Christians called themselves gnostikoi (γνώστικοι), literally “knowers,” but they shared this appellation with many non-Christians, including some in the Jewish community and many who followed the Neoplatonist teachings of Porphyry. Many among the Christian knowers believed that salvation depended upon knowledge of a reality that was largely hidden from view by the physical world and the senses we are given with which to navigate the world. Often, this meant that this world, the physical realm, was the creation of a lesser, even an evil god and that people, or at least some of them, contained the divine spark from beyond the physical realm, the realm of an unknowable god and his or her or its emanations. Some groups believed that anyone capable of acquiring gnosis was from the “imperishable generation” that existed in the Pleroma before Yaldaboath’s creation. Others, such as Timaeus, believed that the pathway to knowledge was open to most people, if they would only open their eyes and have the desire to see the truth hidden by the physical world in which they lived. The purpose of life, then, was to know and understand the perfect, imperishable realm from which we were separated by the God of Abraham and this required us to know not only that the god most people worship is evil and perhaps mortal, but also the true nature of the hidden realm, beyond the physical world we know.
For some gnostics this involved the learning of a complex creation of emanations and aeons — thousands of gods and angels inhabiting multiple heavens — a taxonomy to befuddle even the best botanist. Those that learned these secrets and gained knowledge of the infinities believed that they would join the aeons in an imperishable realm. Those who did not would perish with the death of their bodies. For one with knowledge, or gnosis, the body was at best a vessel to be used to navigate the pathways on the road to knowledge and, at worst, a prison from which escape was required. To many gnostics, Jesus came from the imperishable realm not to unite people with the creator god, but to teach people how to escape from the creator god’s imperfect creation. To attain gnosis was to obtain proof that one was worthy of entering that imperishable realm. Those who failed to attain gnosis and remained ignorant would perish, as did everything else that was created by the lesser God of Abraham.
Timaeus taught a simplified version. To Timaeus, Sophia was the supreme inhabitant and the sole mind of the Pleroma, the perfect, preexisting realm of the imperishable Unknowable One.. She was the pre-existing originator of Yaldaboath, who was an accident, an abomination and a miscreant. The purpose of his quest was to understand — at a primordial level — the meaning of life and the true order of the universe. Jesus appeared on Earth to give those with ears to hear knowledge of the Pleroma or, as he sometimes said, of the infinities. Timaeus believed that Jesus’ message could be heard by all, that everybody was born with a divine spark and could realize it with sufficient effort and attention to Jesus’ teachings. Timaeus did not believe that this world was the creation of a benevolent or loving god, yet knew that on some higher level goodness and perfection existed. Whether that higher level was inhabited by other deities did not concern him because even if they existed, they were but emanations or aspects of Sophia. His quest was to know and inhabit that good and perfect world and leave behind the sink into which he was born.
Some scholars believe that the idea of salvation through knowledge, was the result of the wisdom of the east impregnating the mind of Greece following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century before Christ. Others see some Gnostics’ belief that divine knowledge is available only to a select few as springing from the philosophy of Plato. Others trace the mystic aspects of this idea to Persia or Egypt. Still others believe that Gnostic thought grew organically from Judaism as the disappointments and long sufferings of a people promised God’s favor became pessimistic and sought answer to their God’s failure – or perhaps inability – to deliver on those promises. This theory points to the book of Ecclesiastes as an early example of Jewish Gnostic thought. See, for example, Ecclesiastes 7, verse 12: “Wisdom is a shelter, as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.” Timaeus would have said that there may be some truth in all these theories of origin, but that the common source is the never quite lost or forgotten longing for Sophia and the Pleroma in which she dwells.
By the end of the second century, the emerging Catholic Church had begun to believe that these teachings to be the offspring of the Devil.
It seems certain that, as a Christian faith, the idea of Jesus as divine teacher developed contemporaneously with what became the Catholic Church. Indeed, in the early years following Jesus’ crucifixion, there was no institutional separation between the two because there was no institution at all to speak of, only disciples, apostles, advocates, preachers and proselytizers spreading the news of God crucified and man resurrected. There is much in the four canonical Gospels and even in Paul’s epistles that are subject to gnostic interpretation. As late as the middle of the second century, Valentinius, an esteemed gnostic thinker was very nearly elected bishop of Rome. Valentinius claimed to have learned Jesus’ secrets from Theudas, who learned the secrets from Paul. Even as it grew and spread, Christianity fragmented, with significantly different variations gaining ascendency east in Mesopotamia, west in Egypt, and north in Rome.
Some say that the disciples Thomas and James were Gnostics. The earliest Christian Gnostic whose identity and inclination seems probable was Simon Magus, who appears as a conjuror, almost a snake oil salesman, in Acts, Chapter 8, verses 9 through 24. Like almost every account of the early Gnostics, this book was probably written and revised by theological opponents and is, no doubt, subject to a fair amount of historical revisionism. Some scholars believe that the gnostics taught Christianity for advanced students, with what became orthodoxy providing the initial instruction and gnostic texts and ideas taught to those for whom the simple creed of salvation through profession of faith was not enough.
There is not much evidence that the gnostics wrote their own histories or biographies, perhaps because they were less interested in earthly affairs than their Catholic contemporaries. But what the gnostics did write … and write and write … were gospels, revelations, epistles, apocalypses, and other inspirations. Scores of them. One or two a year for more than a hundred years. Many scholars contend that the Gospel of John started life as a Gnostic gospel and retains that flavor in its first five verses: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” In the earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, Jesus is reported as saying to the twelve, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear,” and “unto you it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God.” Mark, Chapter 4, Verses 9 and 11. The Gnostics accepted these quotes as proof of their faith. There are several other examples of “gnostic” thinking and “gnostic” sayings of Jesus in the gospels of the New Testament.
The Gnostic texts were by turns complex, dense, vibrant, contradictory, colorful and poetic. The true God was sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes neither. It is doubtful that the male-female distinction troubled the gnostics very much. Indeed, while it is possible that the contradictions were the result of divergences of thought and belief, it is also possible that, because those gnostics still in the process of seeking it knew they had not yet discovered the Truth, they were willing to entertain any idea or pathway that might lead someone to the Truth. We do not know.
By the end of the second century some of the leaders of the Catholic Church deemed the Gnostics a threat to the homogeneity of Christian thought. Treatises were written to attack their beliefs. Bestiality, sodomy, incest and orgiastic ceremonies were among the practices ascribed to their services. They were said to bathe in feces and drink blood and urine. It is doubtful that the Church Fathers would have wasted abominations such as these on a small or innocuous sect.
So, as the Gnostics were persecuted by the Romans for being Christian, they were persecuted by the Christians for being Gnostics. The martyrs martyred them, burned their books and banished almost the very memory of their existence for almost two thousand years.
In truth, the gnostics stood little chance in this great competition. Their theological structure was not uniform enough and could not support the creation of institutions necessary to sustain their beliefs over time, at least not in the bustling, desperate and fearful Roman Empire as it slumped and surged toward its extinction. Since the quest for gnosis was an individual quest, the proclivity for rite and ritual, dogma and catechism that exists among all great religions, was not strong among its adherents. The kind of consensus necessary to forge cohesion probably did not exist between them. And more than this, the gnostics could not offer life everlasting in a resurrected body in exchange for a simple profession of faith. They could only offer the hope that with years of study and reflection on the life, teachings and meaning of Jesus, a person might be reunited, spiritually if not physically, with the All from which he was separated in some dim, distant past. In truth, the belief systems that have collectively come to be called Gnosticism were bound to fail in competition with the confidence and certainty of their institutional rival. In the religion that became Christianity, knowledge must always yield to faith.
By the time Timaeus found Sophia in a brothel in Antioch in the year 324, there were few left who could be called Gnostics. It was too dangerous. There were few teachers. Their books were destroyed as fast as they were produced. There was no institution to preserve what had been discovered. When she left with Timaeus, Sophia followed him on a quest for which there was no map or travel guide.