by R. A. Gilbert.
Gnosticism is an overworked term. Over the course of the last century it has been so misapplied, trivialised, and abused that it has become almost devoid of meaning, while a succinct and satisfactory definition of the word is now elusive almost to the point of being unattainable.
And yet, unless we can establish a working meaning of Gnosticism -- so that we have some idea of what Gnosticism is, and what the words "gnosis" and "Gnostic" mean -- we shall fail utterly in any attempt at understanding "Gnostic" texts. So, what do these terms mean?
In loose, contemporary usage, the adjective "Gnostic" tends to be applied to any belief or pattern of thought that runs counter to the prevailing religious, philosophical, political, or social orthodoxy, and which justifies itself by appealing to a moral imperative grounded in "gnosis": a personal intuition or illumination derived directly from a spiritual, or non-specific and non-empirical authoritative source.
Such applications are usually accompanied by an abdication of reason -- and often of common sense as well -- on the part of those who so apply them, and who frequently perceive themselves as being Gnostics, but tend to have the good grace not to appropriate the term "Gnosticism" to their particular beliefs.
To establish a satisfactory definition of that term, the first step must be to set the historical and cultural boundaries within which it will apply. Traditional perceptions of Gnosticism have seen it as being concerned with the beliefs and practices of certain groups of religious believers around the Mediterranean during the approximate period of the Roman Empire.
There is no consensus among scholars as to whether these beliefs and practices originated within the Judaeo-Christian stream of faith, or outside it. And because of their great variety and complexity, there is debate as to the wisdom of using a single term, Gnosticism, to describe them.
What is certain is that the word itself is not ancient. It was coined in 1669 by the English theologian and Cambridge Platonist, Henry More (1614-1687), who used it in a pejorative way in the course of his polemic against Roman Catholicism, which was for him "a spice of the old abhorred Gnosticism."
In More's sense, the word applied to the various heresies within the Christian Church described and -- to their own satisfaction -- refuted by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and other early Church Fathers. But neither the heretics nor their opponents described their belief systems as "Gnosticism"; rather, it was gnosis a special kind of saving knowledge.
Whether a particular brand of gnosis was perceived as true or false depended on one's religious perspective.
Thus, for Christians, gnosis was the knowledge of Christ's teaching and an acceptance of both His precepts and His offer to mankind of salvation by divine grace. In his Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul sets this against the "profane empty babblings, and opposing theories of the falsely named knowledge which some asserting have missed the mark concerning the faith" (1 Tim. 6:20).
Of course, for believers in these many alternative "theories," their gnosis was anything but false. With such a broad base to the concept of gnosis, it is clearly unwise to treat these belief systems as a unitary whole.
Other than Christianity, from which many of these systems unquestionably sprang, there was no underlying, all-embracing source religion, and thus no specific movement that merits the label "Gnosticism."
It is, however, convenient for students and scholars of the many forms of gnosis prevalent in the early Christian centuries to use the word "Gnosticism" in a descriptive rather than a defining sense, as an umbrella under which may be gathered a constellation of belief systems, or schools of thought, that represent a particular type of religious tendency.
Thus, at last, we begin to approach a meaning for "Gnosticism."
It must be stressed, however, that this loosely related cluster of Gnostic schools and systems had no single doctrine, or article of faith, common to all of them. Although their philosophical speculations and their practical expressions of religious feeling were -- at least at first sight -- sufficiently similar, or at least roughly analogous to one another, as to seem to be variations on a number of common themes, close examination reveals that there were just as many differences and contradictions as similarities.
But, for better or worse, Gnosticism remains the descriptive label applied to these vanished faiths, and so we must set out the features of the most significant and distinctive of these common themes.
As with the followers of all religions, the Gnostics were concerned with the nature and interrelationships of God, humans, and the universe, but in their way of perceiving, interpreting, and coming to terms with these, they differed radically from the major faiths of their day.
Most of the Gnostics were dualists, believing that there was a distinction between the supreme, unknowable God -- pure spirit, and the ultimate source of all -- and the lesser, imperfect deity, the Demiurge (lit., "Craftsman"), who had created matter: the world and everything in it, including the human race.
Consequently humankind is imperfect and intrinsically evil, but there is an avenue of escape, a way of return to the true, unknowable God for the elite few within whom a spark of divine, spiritual substance is imprisoned. This spark can be liberated only through gnosis: the revealed secret knowledge that enables the knower to recognise his or her true self and to seek the ultimate goal of reintegration with the true God.
To attain that goal, three things are required: recognition of the divine spark within; reception of the revealed but secret knowledge that is gnosis; and the performance of the appropriate spiritual practices, which are reserved to illuminated Gnostics alone.
Escape from matter is impossible for the unenlightened mass of humanity -- they must remain prisoners of the Demiurge. Such an elitist view of salvation runs counter to orthodox Christianity, for it rejects both salvation by faith alone, or in combination with works, and any form of Universalism.
Inevitably, Gnostic views on the scriptures and on the person of Christ were also far from orthodox. The creator God of the Old Testament, the God of Israel, was perceived as being the Demiurge and was rejected utterly. Thus Christ, in his role as Savior and bearer of gnosis, could not be the son of such a God and could not assume a human body; nor could He have died upon the cross.
Given these beliefs, it is not surprising that the early Church fathers condemned Gnostics as heretics.
From the historian's point of view this was fortunate, for the many anti-Gnostic writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanies, and others provide us with detailed expositions of the doctrines, personalities, and activities of Gnostics from the 2nd to the 4th centuries.
But they are also problematic texts, as polemic is never unbiased and even though extensive extracts from original Gnostic works are quoted, the reader can never be sure that what is written gives a complete and accurate portrayal of the true Gnostic ethos.
They were, however, our only comprehensive source of information on the Gnostics for some fifteen hundred years.
By the end of the 4th century, the various Gnostic schools and systems had effectively faded away, victims less of persecution than of their own inherent reserve -- elitist groups are not by nature evangelical -- but one significant dualist religion based upon Gnostic thought did survive.
Manichaeism, the religion of the Persian prophet Mani, arose in the 3rd century and survived, in China and Central Asia, until the 13th. This was a religion of absolute dualism, believing in equal and opposite eternal forces of light and dark, good and evil.
While it was significantly different from what may be termed "classical" Gnostic religion, Manichaeism was the term used by orthodox controversialists to attack heretical movements within Christianity -- Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars -- that flourished in the early Middle Ages, and which were more closely allied to gnostic doctrines.
What is significant is that such heretics were termed "Manichees": they were not thought of as Gnostics. For the Christian church, the established religion of Western civilisation, the Gnostics were a ' problem of its early history, a problem solved and in no need of resurrection.
Not until the seventeenth century, when Henry More created the term and Pierre Bayle incorporated it in his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1695), did "Gnosticism" reappear in speculative thought. Even then the Gnostics and their doctrines could be studied and judged only from patristic sources.
This situation changed in the mid to late 18th century, when two Coptic manuscripts of texts written by and for Gnostics themselves were discovered. Both of these are Coptic translations of lost Greek originals that were probably composed in the 3rd century.
The first of them, the Pistis Sophia, surfaced about 1750 when it was bought from a London bookseller by Dr. Anthony Askew (1722-1774), a prominent classical scholar and collector of manuscripts. After his death the Codex Askewianus was acquired by the British Museum Library, but its earlier history is unknown.
The second manuscript, which contains the present text -- the untitled Apocalypse that Lamplugh named The Gnosis of the Light -- is now known as the Codex Brucianus. It was obtained in Egypt, probably in 1773, by the Scottish explorer and savant James Bruce, (1730-1794).
The manuscript was purchased by Bruce at Medinet Habou, near the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, when he passed through the place on his return journey from his travels in search of the sources of the Blue Nile. In 1848 it was bought by the Bodleian Library at the auction sale of Bruce's manuscripts.
Precise details of its discovery have not been recorded, but according to the sale catalogue, it "had been found in the ruins near that place [Medinet Habou] in the former residence of some Egyptian monks."
Bruce left no account of his find, but Robert Curzon (1810-1873), a later collector of early Christian manuscripts who was at Thebes in 1833, gives a picturesque description of his adventures on a similar quest in his book, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (revised edition, 1865).
While there, Curzon learned of what seems to have been the same monastery:
Not far from the ruins of the palace and temple of Medinet Habou stand the crumbling walls of an old Coptic monastery, which I was told had been inhabited, almost within the memory of man, by a small community of Christian monks, (p. 119)
His informant was a Coptic Christian, a carpenter, who told him a surprising tale.
The carpenter related to me the history of the ruined Coptic monastery; and I found that its library was still in existence. It was carefully concealed from the Mohammedans, as a sacred treasure; and my friend the carpenter was the guardian of the volumes belonging to his fallen church.
After some persuasion he agreed, in consideration of my being a Christian, to let me see them, (pp. 120-121)
The place was well concealed -- an ancient tomb with a half-concealed doorway -- but to avoid detection they went at night,
... entered into the doorway of the tomb, and, passing through a short passage, found ourselves in a great sepulchral hall.... At the farther end of this chamber was a stone altar standing upon one or two steps, in an apsis or semicircular recess, (p. 122)
Here, to Curzon's delight, he saw that,
The Coptic manuscripts, of which I was in search, were lying upon the steps of the altar, except one, larger than the rest, which was placed on the altar itself. They were about eight or nine in number, all brown and musty-looking books, written on cotton paper, or charter bombycina, a material in use in very early times, (p. 123)
Curzon did not take the books away -- they were liturgies and martyrologies and he saw no sign of any Gnostic manuscripts, but his account of the library does indicate just how the Codex Brucianus may have survived the ravages of time and persecution.
A further century would pass before a third Coptic Gnostic manuscript -- the two Ethiopic texts of The Book of Enoch that Bruce also brought back with him were neither ancient nor Gnostic -- was discovered in 1896 at Akhmim, one hundred miles north of Thebes.
This codex, which contains three Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Mary, the Apocryphon of John, and the Sophia of Jesus Christ, was acquired by the State Museum of Berlin and is known as the Papyrus Berolinensis.
Fifty years after this codex came to light, our understanding of Gnostics and their faith was revolutionised by the discovery in 1945 of a Coptic Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt.
The impact of this extraordinary find was not immediate, but as realisation of the significance of the Nag Hammadi texts grew, so academic and popular interest rapidly increased.
The thirteen codices comprising this library were eventually brought together in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, after lengthy and complex commercial and academic negotiation, and a complete critical edition of texts and translations is gradually nearing completion.
A complete English translation of the basic Nag Hammadi texts has also been available since 1977, but it should not be assumed that the earlier Gnostic texts have in any way been superseded.
Both Pisfts Sophia and the books in the Codex Brucianus are absent from the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library, and they are still crucially important for a full understanding of the Gnostic phenomenon. Neither manuscript was known outside academic circles -- and far from widely known within them -- for a century and more after their discovery.
They were both transcribed in the 1770s by the Coptic scholar C. G. Woide (1725-1790), but nothing appeared in print until a Latin translation of Pistis Sophia, by M. G. Schwarze, was published in 1851.
A partial English translation followed in 1887, in C. W. King's The Gnostics and Their Remains (2nd edition, 1887); a French translation, by E. Amelinau, appeared in 1895, and in 1896 G. R. S. Mead published a complete English version.
A critical edition of the Coptic text of Pistis Sophia, by Carl Schmidt, finally appeared in 1905. Publication of the Codex Brucianus lagged far behind.
Schwarze had transcribed the text in 1848, but he died before he was able to translate it and it was not until 1892 that the Coptic text was published, together with a German translation, in Schmidt's magisterial edition of the Codex Brucianus. In the previous year, Amelinau had issued his own edition of the text, but this was far from satisfactory, as he was unable to compare the rapidly deteriorating original with the copy made by Schwarze.
An edition of the untitled text in the Codex, based on the original manuscript but making full use of Schmidt's transcript and with an annotated English translation, was made by Charlotte A. Baynes in 1933. Schmidt's edition of the full text was re-issued in 1978, with an English translation by Violet MacDermot.
These recent editions are of great importance as the Codex is unlikely to survive in the long term: seven of the 78 loose papyrus leaves of which it originally consisted are now missing, and those that are left have suffered from a century of maltreatment. Here it should be noted that the Codex is not a unitary work, but is made up of two quite distinct manuscripts -- in different hands and on different types of papyrus -- plus some additional, fragmentary material. Both are defective, and neither manuscript has a title, except for a line reading, "The Book of the great Logos corresponding to Mysteries" at the end of the first part of the longer one.
It is generally referred to, however, as "The First and Second Books of Jeu," on the basis of a reference in Pistis Sophia to the "two Books of Jeu," which Schmidt concluded were the first two treatises contained in the Codex Brucianus.
The second manuscript is the untitled Apocalypse that Lamplugh chose to call The Gnosis of the Light.
Once the Codex had been acquired by the Bodleian Library, it should have been in safe hands. Alas, it was not. The sad tale of its fate, summarised by Charlotte Baynes, does not make happy reading:
In 1886 the authorities of the Bodleian Library caused the loose leaves of the Codex to be bound up in book form. Unfortunately the work was not supervised by a student of the Coptic language. There is neither order nor sequence among the leaves, while many are upside down and have the recto and verso reversed.
At the same time the leaves were reduced in size, the ragged portions being trimmed off and removed. And further, four leaves [of the untitled text], in existence when Woide made his copy, disappeared, having perhaps been thrown out by the binder owing to their dilapidated condition, (p. xiv)
Worse was to follow. The paste used in binding the Codex led to damage from mildew, and despite subsequent efforts to eradicate this, deterioration of the papyrus has continued. In 1978 MacDermot noted that the manuscript,
... is now unfortunately in very poor condition. The papyrus of many leaves is defective and there are opaque dark spots due to previous mildew.... The writing is so faded as to be almost illegible, even when viewed with ultra-violet light, (p. xi)
Perhaps the Codex will eventually be restored to something like its original state, but at the present time it seems to be on the road to extinction.
And so to the "Untitled Apocalypse" itself, Lamplugh's Gnosis of the Light. It is a truly remarkable example of the speculative thought of Gnostic theologians about the structure, history, and meaning of the ultimate heaven, and about the nature of God.
This is not apocalypse in the sense of prophetic history, but rather as a visionary journey through the heavenly worlds, recounted in complex and colorful imagery.
For this reason, Michel Tardieu, a contemporary scholar of Gnosticism, has suggested that it be called the Celestial Topgraphy. But who was the author? To which Gnostic school or system did he belong, and why did he write this text?
There can be no definitive answers to these questions, but although it is far from orthodox, the Gnosis of the Light is unquestionably Christian in its ethos. It has been argued by some modern scholars that it is a Sethian text, produced within a body of Gnostics who believed that salvation is reserved to the descendants of Seth, Adam's third and righteous son.
Whether or not there really was such a distinct group is still a subject of debate, and it has been pointed out, by Charlotte Baynes and others, that the text has much in common with the system of Valentinus, the second-century Egyptian Gnostic whose systematic theology contains all the classical features commonly found under the umbrella of Gnosticism.
Ultimately the question of authorship does not matter for the lay reader, who is concerned far more with the content of the text. It was for such readers, visionary, grounded in the spiritual world and with a preference for asceticism, that the text was designed.
And it was unquestionably for such individuals that Lamplugh produced his translation. It is unfortunate that he should have used Amelinau's French translation, published in 1891 with his edition of the text, rather than Schmidt's far superior version in German, but this does not detract from either his introduction or his notes.
For Lamplugh, The Gnosis of the Light is a perfect literary expression of those subjective forms of spirituality that have descended from the first centuries of this era, and which cannot convey their enriching message save in highly symbolic language.
Such texts require an interpreter and expositor, and it was these roles that Lamplugh took upon himself. Other editors and translators of the "Untitled Apocalypse" have approached the text as historians and analysts of a dead system; only Lamplugh has treated it as a living text of real spiritual value.
But who was this obscure Anglican priest who entered so wholeheartedly into Gnostic spirituality? From the language and references in his notes it is clear that Lamplugh was well-versed in the spirituality of the Western Hermetic Tradition, and was familiar with the terminology of esoteric Freemasonry. Of his life, almost nothing is known.
The Rev. Alfred Amos Fletcher Lamplugh was the vicar of St. John's at Newtown in the city of Leeds. In 1909, he had applied for admittance to A. E. Waite's Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn (although there is no evidence that he actually entered the Order) and in 1915 he published a small book on Some Aspects of Mysticism in Islam.
Beyond this, and of greater significance, he had been heavily influenced by G.R.S. Mead, whose work he frequently utilises, and duly acknowledges, in his own text. Mead in turn gave Lamplugh due praise in his review of The Gnosis of the Light in The Quest (vol. 9, no. 4 : 674-675), recommended the book to his readers, and made his own comment on the merits of the text:
In the midst of obscurities there appear passages of such great beauty as to make immediate appeal to lovers of the mystical element in religion.
At least one of his readers took Mead's words to heart. Charlotte Baynes owed equally as much to Mead as did Lamplugh. In the preface to her edition of the Untitled Apocalypse, she acknowledges that it was Mead, "who by his writings and lectures inspired me with a desire to work on the subject of Christian Gnosticism" (p. x).
Thus it was Mead, whose extracts from the Untitled Apocalypse, in his Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (1900) were the first appearance in English of any of the text, who had unwittingly inspired their full translation not once, but twice. But it was only Lamplugh who poured his heart as well as his mind into the work.
R. A. Gilbert,
Contents of eBook
The Gnosis of the Light: A Translation of the Untitled Apocalypse Contained in the Codex Brucianus
with Introduction and Notes by F. Lamplugh
Ibis Press 2006 (first published March 1994)
Softcover, 80 pp