part 1 of 4
with James M. West.
James M. West is a recognized gnostic scholar and writer who has made significant contributions to our knowledge and understanding of Gnosticism in general and of those 1st and 2nd century Gnostics influenced by the life and teachings of Jesus, or if you will, those 1st and 2nd century Christians influenced by gnostic ideas and practices.
Mr West wrote a helpful series of four articles on the above subject which we are largely reproducing below for the benefit of those interested in early esoteric Christianity. Although the terms Gnostic and Gnosis are mentioned often on this site, and in these articles, we want to emphasize that Clearsight is not a Gnostic organization or society nor does it have any Gnostic affiliations whatever.
As the articles were written several years ago, a few passages of the original material are now dated and others have regional references, so these have been omitted here. In addition, some of the material felt to be labored, repetative or digressive have been left out for the sake of conciseness. Also, the longish paragraphs in the original articles have been split up to make the text less daunting and some parts have been 'reworked to make the meaning clearer for readers unfamiliar with the jargon of 'Gnosticism.
While Mr West's views as a Gnostic are fully respected, some polarizing passages have been toned down to make them less confrontational to 'orthodox' Christian readers.
Any wishing to see Mr West's original series of articles in full are referred to the following: Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, Gnostic Insights in the New Testament Gospels, The Pattern of Gnostic Truth, and, The Fullness of the Gospel.
As Mr West so ably points out below, there are many schools, sects or denominations of 'Gnosticism' just as there are of almost every other "... ism" and no unifying theology whatever. It is therefore, extremely difficult (we won't say, impossible, given the working of grace) for a spiritual seeker to find the truth that makes us really free simply by studying a range of Gnostic texts without an fully awakened teacher or guide. This is also the case, incidentally, for the scriptures of other religious traditions.
As you may have gathered already, it is our understanding and experience that there is a wholly (holy) liberating wisdom that has been known by seers since the dawn of time and which can be known by sincere and earnest seekers today. It has been 'discovered' by mystics in all philosophic and religious traditions including Gnosticism. In this context, the liberating wisdom is known by some as the Gnosis of Light.
It is our estimation that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed one of the greatest of history's awakened or enlightened teachers, and that after completely embodying it himself, he did all that he could to impart the Gnosis of Light to any in his circle who were ready to receive it.
Regretably, we seem only to have hints or fragments of his private or innermost secret teaching available to us today, but Mr West has done a great job in helping us to recognize the Master's pointers to the truth scattered as they are like precious diamonds among much dross in both the biblical and extant Gnostic texts.
Encouragingly, however, we are not dependent on Jesus alone to help us recognize the inner "Light that lights everyone that comes into the world." There are now many other awakened teachers, ancient and modern, we are aware of that can point us to this treasure within. Once it is recognized (and realized), we can turn with Mr West to the Gnostic tradition and discern, as it were, the diamonds from the dross.
The Gospels of the New Testament
Today, 'orthodox' Christians maintain that the biblical Gospel accounts should be accepted as literal “flesh and blood” history. Those that cannot do so are often thought of by them as liberals, heretics and unbelievers. According to many fundamentalists, those who read the scriptures and don't take them literally, in the same way as they do, are destined for 'hell' and everlasting torment!
These same 'orthodox' Christians believe the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to be the 'Word of God' and the only reliable record of the life and teachings of Jesus. They hardly know about, let alone accept, that along with these, many other Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were put together after Jesus' execution that claim to record his teachings etc.
The problem is, that following much scholarly examination and research into the biblical and other early texts, we can no longer be sure the canonical Gospels were written by only one person in each case and probably not by the person after whom a Gospel is named. This applies to the non-canonical Gospels as well.
Another thing to be considered is that the NT Gospels are not consistent in what they say or report about Jesus. Different Gospels give different accounts of this remarkable figure that has had such a profound influence on humanity over the past 2000 years. Here are just a few examples:
Both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born miraculously from a virgin. Both Mark and John omit this incredible ‘fact.’ (Mt. 1:18-20, Lk. 1:34-35, Mk. ?, Jn. ?)
Matthew says that Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt to save him from King Herod (Mt. 2:13). Luke mentions no command by Herod to slay the first-born; and says instead that Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem after the baby was circumcised (Lk. 2:21-24).
Matthew, Mark and Luke say that Jesus’ indignant cleansing of the Temple occurred near the end of his ministry; whereas John says it was at the beginning. (Cf. Mt. 21:12-17, Mk. 11:15-17, Lk. 19:45-46, Jn. 2:13-25)
Matthew, Mark and Luke claim that Jesus disclosed the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” to his Apostles in private, and spoke to the crowds in parables (Mt. 13:11, Mk. 4:10, Lk. 8:10). But John reports Jesus as telling his Temple interrogators: “I spake openly to the world ... and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:20).
None of the parables contained in Matthew, Mark and Luke are found in John; nor are most of the great "I Am" teachings of Jesus, reported by John, mentioned by Matthew, Mark or Luke.
The Gospels also diverge on Jesus’ position toward the Gentiles. Matthew reports Jesus to have said that he has come only for the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Mt. 10:5-6). Luke reports Jesus as saying that the “Law and the Prophets were until John” but that the preaching of the “kingdom of God” is for all people (Lk. 16:16).
In Matthew 28:19 Jesus is reported to have said to his Apostles: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations.” Assuming that these words are from Jesus (and were not added later) we are then faced with the problem in Acts 10. Here 'Peter' confesses that he has no knowledge of any commandment, or commission, by Jesus to preach to Gentiles: “Ye know how it is an unlawful thing for a Jew to keep company with one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Matthew and Mark report Jesus as warning about damnation and 'hell-fire' (Mt. 18:9, Mk. 9:47). Luke also mentions the concept of hell (Lk. 12:5). Yet, amazingly, no such doctrine is found in the Gospel of John nor in Paul's letters. In these texts the word 'hell' does not occur once. (See Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.)
To this day, millions of fundamentalist, 'orthodox' Christians are awaiting the literal second-coming of Jesus (the Rapture), which they believe will preceed (or follow) the fulfillment of various end time prophecies as found in Matthew 24 and in other passages of the New Testament.
Every now and then, some fundamentalist preacher will feel he knows better than Jesus, who is reported to have said, "No one knows about that day or hour ... " (Mt. 24:36) and foolishly name a date and hour, as happened not long ago in regard to May 21, 2001, 6.00pm.
This would be nothing but a bit of a joke, if it weren't for the tragic gullability of the followers of these 'false prophets' who end up blowing all their savings and assets in the vain expectation that they will not be needed after 'Jesua comes.' For more on this, just google "failed doomsday predictions" etc.
The general 'second-coming' scenario favored by these preachers is, that Jesus will, 'in the twinkling of an eye', extract all the 'saved' Christians (mostly fundamentalists) from the earth and uplift them immediately into a heavenly domain somewhere 'up there.' They will then, it is said, spend some time with the 'king of kings' (various factions of fundamentalists argue vociferously over exactly how long) and then, altogether, they return with 'the Lord' to the earth.
After a chain of events that may or may not include the battle of Armageddon (check with the factions), the glorified Jesus is expected to descend from the clouds, like lightening, onto the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem in Israel. This all-conquoring savior is expected to then fix all the world's problems (exacerbated by the short or long absence of all the 'saved') and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity.
But again, the scriptures are not consistent on this matter and the question of if or how Jesus will 'return' is wide-open to interpretation. Here are some relevant Gospel passages: In Mt 16:28, Jesus is reported to have said:
“Truly, I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste death, until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Cf. Mt. 16:24-26.)
In Mt 10:23, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are reported as to what they should do when persecuted:
“But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for truly I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over all the cities of Isarael, till the Son of man be come.”
In Mt. 28:19, Jesus is said to have commanded his followers to “teach all nations” whereas in Mt. 10:5-6, he is said to have commanded that they preach to Israelites only; and in Mt. 10:23, Jesus reportedly promises that they will not have gone through all the cities (and there weren't many in Israel at that time) before the end comes!
In Mt. 24:34-35, Jesus is alleged to have said:
“Truly I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Emphasis added)
On any fair assessment, it would seem that none of these promises or warnings have been fulfilled in a literal sense. This can only mean Jesus was not reported accurately, or, that his words were completely misunderstood and not meant literally, or, that he got it wrong and was, by biblical standards, a false prophet (Mt. 24:24).
In the NT book of Revelation. 1:1-3, the supposed author, John, has more to say on the second-coming:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly come to pass ... for the time is at hand.” (Emphasis added).
In Rev. 2:25, 'John' reports the words of Jesus which he has supposedly heard him say (in a vision) to the church at Thyatira:
“But that which he ye have already, hold fast until I come. And ye that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron.”
Obviously, Jesus did not return in person, the “church in Thyatira” did not continue to 'hold fast' and does not even exist today. Perhaps this is all for the best. Can you imagine a small villiage church 'ruling the nations with a rod of iron'?!
In Rev. 22:6, 'John' asserts that is was no less than 'God' who sent 'his angel' to show John what was about to happen:
“These sayings are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done.”
In Rev. 22:12 and 20, 'John' has Jesus saying: “Behold, I come quickly” and also “Surely, I come quickly.” To which 'John' responds to his own words with: “Even so, come Lord Jesus.” But, of course, Jesus did not, at least in the literal sense, and one almost feels sorry for this guy.
The NT book of 2 Peter is probably the earliest record of the crisis that the nascent Christian movement experienced; which was the result of the failures of the end-time prophecies as mentioned above. All the Apostles and Church fathers died, but Jesus never returned. A state of unrest began to prevail among Christians. The writer of 2 Peter warned about those who were begining to question the prophecies:
“Knowing this first, that scoffers shall come in the last days ... saying, Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.”
Incidently, the author here betrays the fact that he isn't really the Apostle Peter. If Peter were still alive, then there would be no reason for doubting: because Jesus promised Peter in Matthew that “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Mt. 24:34, cf. vs. 27-31). But obviously, this writer, pretending to be Peter, can no longer quote Jesus as Holy Writ to solve this problem. Therefore our writer offers a new formula in Peter’s name:
“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise…” (2 Pt. 3:8f.)
This isn’t what Jesus is reported to have promised Peter and the other disciples in 'Matthew' ...
Another point worth mentioning is that the Gospel of 'John' contains no end-time predictions. Instead, Jesus reportedly tells his followers that he will depart, and send the Paraclete (Jn. 14:12, 16). 'John' never reports Jesus telling his followers that he is going to come back. Only at the very end of his Gospel does 'John' make a vague mention that Jesus will return, but this idea is never explained (Jn. 21:22).
In concluding this section, it should be noted again, that in Jn 3:3-8, Jesus reportedly explains to his followers that the 'kingdom of God' (realm of being) is spiritual; that it is not a physical reality or event as is indicated in Mt. 24, or in the Revelation of 'John.' This is reportedly confirmed by Jesus in other non-canonical Gospels. The kingdom is essentially, always and already within us all ... waiting to be discovered.
Eventually, this was clearly understood and experience by those few in Jesus' inner circle able to receive his private and deeper teaching. They in turn tried to impart this liberating truth to others in small and covert church groups formed after the end of Jesus' earthly ministry.
Some of these groups became known, at the time, as Gnostics by the general populace or were subsequently branded as such by the organized Church authorities. It was these groups that valued, first the letters of Paul, and later, the Gospel of John above the other canonical Gospels. It seems they also composed and circulated 'collections' of the remembered 'sayings' of Jesus, which finally appeared as the 'Gospel of Thomas' etc.
Faced with having to 'explain' the unexplainable, the ineffable presence of the 'Christ' within the heart, these 'Gnostic Christians' or 'Christian Gnostics' sometimes resorted to metaphor, imagery and symbolism to convey to spiritual aspirants the true meaning of 'awakening' to the inner Light of Christ.
In the next article in this series, we shall note some references to the deeper teaching of Jesus in the canonical Gospels.