part 4 of 4)
with James M. West
In the preceding article of this series, we saw that the Nag Hammadi texts present differing accounts of Jesus' deeper teaching. But in spite of this inconsistency, it would be wrong to say that the Gnostic writings have no valid historical or spiritual content. On the contrary, these early Christian writings, we believe, provide insights into the innermost secret teaching Jesus that “orthodox” Christianity either did not recognize or have long forgotten.
The Christians who, in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, followed Jesus' deeper teaching asserted that the four Gospels that were later to be included in the New Testament, or any other Gospels for that matter, did not contain the full or complete message that Jesus wanted his world to know.
They would have agreed, that the four canonical Gospels certainly recorded a good deal of Jesus general teaching to the crowds that flocked to hear him, and a little of his 'private' teaching to his inner circle of followers, but by no means all. The author of John's Gospel himself admits that ... "Jesus did (and said) many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (Jn. 21:25 )
Like all great spiritual Master's or Adepts, Jesus taught on several levels according to the level of consciousness or spiritual maturity in his hearers. Obviously, the easiest things to record would have been his compassionate or, at times, astonishing deeds, and his stories which would have made a striking impression on his listeners. Occasionally, some of Jesus' disciples recorded either at the time, or from memory, things that Jesus' said to them in private ... but the reports of these private teachings of Jesus' are relatively few.
Also to be considered is that most of Jesus' disciples could not at first understand what he meant by such things as 'my Father', 'the kingdom of God', or 'the second birth' etc. so they either recorded these teachings without really knowing what they meant, or, did not recognize the importance of what the Master was telling them at the time so did not bother to record certain sayings at all!
After Jesus was no longer with them in person, there was, it seems, a deep work of grace in the hearts of many of his followers -- a kind of an awakening -- and the true meaning of his teaching became transformingly clear to them. Then they remembered all the pointers he had given them about the kingdom within (realm of being) etc. and they would have then noted down as much as they could remember ... perhaps not always with the strictest accuracy.
Of course, certain fundamentalists would have us believe that 'God' wrote all the books that make up the New Testament and no others. The theory goes that 'the Lord' promted the minds and hands of each Gospel author so that what they wrote was the exact and complete teaching of Jesus, or in the case of the Epistles, about Jesus.
Further, the fundamentalist theory states that 'God' also guided the prelates and clergy of the Church of Rome, when they sat in a committee, toward the end of the 3rd century CE, so they could pick out from the wide range of Gospels, Epistles and Treatises in use among the churches up to that time, the exact 27 documents that should make up the New Testament. 'The Lord' then appently led these worthies to condemn the non-included documents as being non-scriptural and therefore, heretical.
For the next 1200 years, the documents chosen by the Roman Church to make up the New Testament scriptures were kept from the masses but they were interpreted to them in accordance with official church dogma by the clergy. Only in the 1500s, through the efforts of reformers such as Luther, Tyndale and Wycliffe, did the Bible become more acessible to ordinary people. Now it's available in most languages and in the case of English, in dozens of translations and versions.
By this time, ordinary church-goers were unaware that there had ever been any other Gospels or Epistles read by the early Christians. These were only rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century. But for discerning Bible-readers, there were hints and subtle pointers in these canonical texts to something much deeper than the doctrine-based faith being preached from 'orthodox' pulpits.
We will now turn our attention to some of these pointers in the New Testament to the timeless wisdom, known among some Gnostic Christians as the Gnosis of Light.
Clues from St. Paul
In the letters of St. Paul to the young churches, we can see evidence that some forms of early Christianity involved a lot more than the dogmatic blind faith that dominates much of Christianity today. Paul’s letters contain references to a deeper spiritual experience and teaching that was never acknowledged by later orthodoxy, and remains like a skeleton in the closet of 'orthodox' tradition to this day.
An historic witness to Paul’s mysticical experience can be seen in the letters of Ignatius, one of the early 'orthodox' leaders (c. 110 CE). In one of his letters, there's the following acknowledgement to the Ephesian church regarding Paul. Ignatius writes to the Ephesians:
“I know both who I am and to whom I write. ... I am a condemned man, ye have been the objects of mercy; I am subject to danger, ye are established in safety. ... Ye are initiates in the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul…” (Ignatius, Ephesians, 12; emphasis added)
The statement above is pregnant with meaning and implications as to the nature of early Christianity. At the very least there is the question of whether the deeper teaching of Paul among the Ephesians can be reconciled with Ignatius’ own notions of piety that are expressed throughout his letters? But this is a question for another time. We only need to note here that Ignatius never claims to be initiated into 'the mysteries of the Gospel': and that this 'initiation' theme is not found in later 'orthodox' Catholicism.
Our immediate question of concern regarding the passage is this: What does it mean to be initiated, to be fellow-initiates (“summustai”) in the mysteries of the Gospel? The canonical Gospels contain no such concept of initiation. But this concept and language is found in Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ deeper teaching (see below).
And in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Paul’s mystical piety is expounded upon; but at the same time is rejected by other Catholic leaders (e.g. Clement, Stromata 1:1, 12. cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.1. and Tertullian of Carthage, On Prescription Against Heretics, 26).
The mystical elements in Paul’s writings meant that, at least so far as he was concerned, there was more to the Christian message than the simple idea of salvation by meritorious deeds, or, by faith in the beliefs of 'the Church'. He seemed to be advocating an initiation that led to a shift or transformation of 'consciousness', so that everything was seen in a totally new way than before.
We have an indication of this when Paul writes to the struggling Corinthian church:
“Howbeit, we speak wisdom among them that are perfect (initiates: teleiois) yet not the wisdom of this world ... we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world ...” (1 Cor. 2:1-2, 6-7)
In the passages above, Paul asserts that the Good News is much more than a celebrating of 'Christ crucified'. (BTW: We aren't sure if Paul actually used the word "Christ" as a substitute for the name, "Jesus", or whether his letters were tampered with after his death. Those who had received the deeper teaching of Jesus, knew that the Christ was an impersonal, inner presence and could, therefore, never be crucified. It was Jesus, they said, who died on the cross.)
For those Christians not yet spiritually mature, Paul could only speak of the compassionate deeds of Jesus and the significance of his crucifixion etc, as these 'events' could be understood with relative ease, but, to those who were spiritually mature, or we could say ... of a higher consciousness, he could teach the “hidden wisdom” which is spoken in a “mystery.”
This 'basic' and 'advanced' teaching is also reflected in the Epistle to Hebrews:
“Therefore leaving elementary doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection (teleioteta: initiation); not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment...” (Heb. 6:12)
It has been said, that the version of Christianity that emerged at the end of the 3rd century CE, was, and still is, like a tree trunk with all the branches cut off. The trunk remains, and we can tell that the tree once had branches; but what happened to the branches? The remnants of those branches are preserved in the early Christian documents that were not included in the New Testament. What do these writings tell us about Jesus that 'orthodoxy' has chopped away and discarded?
We will now turn again to one of the main sources of these non-canonical, early Christian documents. It is referred to as, the Nag Hammadi Library -- a cache of ancient Gnostic texts discovered in Egypt in 1945. Some of these texts are distinctly Christian in character and/or content and some of them are definitely not! (Note: all quotes herein from the Nag Hammadi Library are derived from the HarperCollins 1990 edition, ed. by James Robinson. Other sources will be identified accordingly.)
Let us first delve into the issue of mysteries and the related concept of initiation. The foundation for this discussion has already been laid above. In Paul’s writings and in Ignatius, and in Clement of Alexandria (Stromata), there is evidence that there was a deeper teaching that was imparted by Jesus to a select number of his disciples in private.
Clement, for example, tells his readers that “It is requisite therefore to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught. ... He certainly did not disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few whom he knew that they belonged…” (Stromata, 1:1, 12)
Clement also referred to this secret as gnosis: “the gnosis itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the Apostles” (ibid., 6:7). That Clement really did hold to a secret tradition can be seen in these words: “The Stromata will contain the truth mixed with the dogmas of philosophy ... so that the discovery of the sacred traditions may not be easy to any one of the uninitiated” (ibid.,).
Clement's phrase "imparted unwritten" is quite significant, as, in all likelyhood, Jesus intuitively followed the teaching method of other great spiritual masters down through the ages who imparted their deepest and most subtle teachings orally, to one prepared disciple at a time, with instructions to that disciple not to write the teaching down, but, when it was realized, to pass it on orally to a suitable student as the master had just done.
This tradition of orally passing on the timeless nondual wisdom was the modus operandi throughout the East and to a large extent still is today in esoteric communities or schools. One reason for this is that timeless nondual wisdom cannot be expressed accurately in any language and to try to do so explicitly in publically accessible print would invite a serious misunderstanding by religious fundamentalists. Such misunderstandings can still pose a real threat to seers in many communities today.
Another reason for passing on the teaching orally is, that if the deep wisdom was written down baldly with all its implications in some document, and inadvertantly, it was found and studied by a mentally unstable person or someone with psychopathic tenencies, they could use the teaching in a completey unspiritual way to justify selfish and harmful behavior toward others. Only an awakened teacher, it was thought, could recognize who was ready for (worthy of) the teaching and how much of it to give them at any one time.
Clement’s Stromata contains a bizarre combination of orthodox dogma and pagan mystical philosophy. Clement states that this mixture is arranged so as to conceal a secret. The secret Clement referred to, we know, was the Gnosis of Light. After his death, some officials in the Church of Rome thought they recognized what Clement was trying to conceal and they accused him, posthumously, of heresy and blasphemy (Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy., pg. 56).
So what can the Nag Hammadi writings tell us about this concept of mysteries that appears in Paul and Clement, yet “orthodox” Christians seem to know nothing about today? When one looks at even the titles of the books in the Nag Hammadi Library it becomes obvious that there's a concern with secrets and revelations of secrets.
Thus some writings are identified with words like Apocryphon (secret book) or Apocalypse (revelation). There are three such secret books named after James, and one named after John, and another named after Peter.
There's a pattern in the Nag Hammadi Library where some emphasis has been placed on the brother of Jesus, James the Just, who is portrayed as a mystagogue (an initiator or revealer of secrets). For example, the Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying “It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries” (#62). And, in the same text Jesus tells his followers that after he is gone they must go to “James the Just” (#12).
In the Nag Hammadi Library there are three books attributed to James, and which are concerned with secrets and the revelations thereof: hence there's the Apocryphon of James, and then there's the 1st and 2nd Apocalypses of James. In the Apocryphon there's the following passage which can be compared to Clement above:
“Since you asked that I send you a secret book which was revealed to me and Peter by the Lord, I could not turn you away or mislead you; but I have written it in Hebrew letters and sent it to you, and you alone. ... take care not to rehearse this text to many -- this that the Savior did not wish to tell to all of us, his twelve disciples.”
This passage reflects the same attitude that Clement wrote of above regarding the need to keep some information away from the uninitiated. The Apocryphon of James also affirms the statement in the Gospel of Thomas that James the Just was appointed to lead the followers of Jesus' teaching in his place; hence we can assume that James was privy to information that even some Apostles didn’t know.
The Apocryphon of James portrays James the Just as a mystagogue who imparts the mysteries through secret books. However this text is ironic in that these mysteries are not discussed, and the text focuses instead on the theme that even mystagogues can become complacent and 'fall asleep' again after a spiritual awakening.
In this context, the Catholic Fathers report that the Gnostic Christian tradition maintained that Paul ultimately bore the torch for the Gnosis of Light, whereas James and Peter lapsed under the influence of Judaism. The Apocryphon of James may allude to this legacy. In practical terms this would mean that James and his fellow Apostles were at fault because they confined their initiations to circumcised Jews only; whereas Paul was initiating people of all nations as he believed Jesus had intended.
There are also two books which are named after Thomas, and which purport to contain the secret sayings and teachings that Jesus imparted to Thomas. The so-called “Gospel of Thomas” has this opening statement: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down...” And, as documented above, Jesus himself states “It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries.” In the Gospel of Thomas these “mysteries” are disguised mostly in parables.
And then there's the book entitled “The Book of Thomas The Contender writing to the Perfect (Initiates).” This book contains the secret teaching that Jesus gave to Thomas after the resurrection. Thomas asks of the Lord: “I beg you to tell me what I ask before your ascension, and when I hear from you about the hidden things, then I can speak about them” (138:21f.).
Jesus teaches Thomas about the invisible, formless realm of being (the kingdom of God) and how that souls must avoid identification with the visible realm of form. Jesus reveals that all life forms which consume other life forms, and which procreate, and are generated through procreation, are all subject to corruption and death.
Jesus is revealing here that 'things' or 'phenomena' matter, but that they do not matter absolutely. He is saying in so many words, that phenomena in both our inner and outer worlds come and go -- they are transitory -- whereas Noumenon (the realm of being) does not come and go -- it already and always IS.
Gnostic Christian tradition maintains that Mary Magdalene was equal to the Apostles and received her share of the initiation from the Savior. This report is preserved in the so-called “Gospel of Mary.” This text reports the parting words of Jesus and his ascent to heaven. The Apostles become discouraged and Mary tries to encourage them. It is at this point that Peter asks Mary to share what Jesus told her alone:
“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words which you remember -- which you know and we do not... Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you” (10).
An important point in this text is that Mary’s initiation is in the form of the Unitive Vision, which is the essence of the Gnosis of Light. Mary reports her conversation with Jesus regarding the vision, but unfortunately this part of the text is lost (10f.). Peter reacts with jealousy towards Mary when she speaks of the Gnosis. But the Apostles finally agree that she has spoken the true secret words of the Savior. Hence, Mary too was truly awakened.
Our next source is the Gospel of Philip. This text contains a loose collection of wisdom sayings which are derived from the teachings of Jesus and was supposedly compiled by the Apostle Philip. The Gospel of Philip also has its peculiar ideas regarding mysteries and initiation: “Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. The world will not receive the truth in any other way” (67:10).
The meaning here is that the truth -- the Gnosis of Light -- must be concealed in symbols or mysteries: "For the Lord did everything in a mystery..." (67:29.). These symbols or mysteries conceal the steps to Self/God realization. These 'steps' are a progression from deep sleep to awakening, from unconsciousness to full consciousness, from the lowest state of awareness to the highest.
St. Paul too agreed that the truth, the “hidden wisdom”, must be “spoken in a mystery” and that spiritual wisdom is “foolishness” to the “natural man” (1 Cor. 2:6-7, 14); and that if “our gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing...” (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Paul further says that “solid food” cannot be given to “babies” (1 Cor. 3:1-3); and also “Let us be accounted as ministers of (the) Christ (the inwardly experienced Light of Consciousness) and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1).
In all these statements Paul is admitting that there are mysteries which must be guarded, and are not to be shared with everyone. As we noted above, Clement of Alexandria likewise believed that the mysteries of the Gospel could not be disclosed to everyone. He believed that the majority of people lacked the maturity and moral discipline to be exposed to the truth:
“The method of concealment ... was referred to by the Egyptians as the “adyta” and the “veil” by the Hebrews. ... All then, in a word, who have spoken of divine things, both Barbarians and Greeks, have veiled the first principles of things, and delivered the truth in enigmas, symbols, allegories, metaphors, (etc.).” (Stromata, 5:4)
And again of the Egyptians Clement wrote: “The Egyptians did not entrust the mysteries they possessed to all and sundry, and did not divulge the knowledge of divine things to the profane…” (Stromata, 5:7) Clement cited the pagan Mysteries as positive examples and precedents showing why the Gnosis of Light must also be concealed, just as Paul had done, and as other Gnostic Christians were doing.
Irenaeus fumed about the Valentinian schools of Gnostic Christianity that, like the Master himself, affirmed 'orthodox' doctrine in public, and imparted their 'mysteries' in private, and admitting that the entrenched institutional Church of Rome was 'vulgar' and 'ecclesiastic' (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.15.2).
The Unitive Vision
The Nag Hammadi text, “The Apocalypse of Paul”, is an expanded account of Paul’s ascent to the “third heaven” as mentioned in 2 Cor. 12:1-4. Paul writes of himself in the third person:
“It is not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, whether in or out of body I cannot tell; God knoweth, who was caught up to the third heaven. ... How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
In the above passage, Paul alludes to the initiation through the Unitive Vision which is an event that was referred to in the pagan mysteries (in Greece) as the “Epopteia” (Samuel Angus, Mystery Religions, pg. 135). (Of note is that Paul never affirms the 'road to Damascus' story as reported in Acts.)
Paul also reports that he heard things which it is “unlawful for a person to utter.” This reflects again the attitude of the deeper Gnostic Christians that great care should be taken when speaking of That which is the most sublime, the most sacred, and the most holy of all. This, they felt, applied whether one was with those who are ignorant and indifferent (don't know, don't care), of with those few who are fully awake spiritually.
We should always remember that when we casually say something like, "Conscousness is all there is ... there is nothing else." we are speaking of That which is infinite, eternal, ineffible -- the Great Mystery -- 'The Most High'. People won't respect that for which we show little or no respect. What it comes down to In the end is aware, reverential, Self-respect. True humility, awe and wonder is always the mark of those who have received the Gnosis of Light.
The Nag Hammadi, Apocalypse of Paul is supposed to be Paul’s first-hand account of what he saw and heard in the realm beyond the third heaven. If that is so, we can be sure it's an absolute fraud, for all those who have, by grace, received the Gnosis of Light know that what is 'seen' and 'heard' in that realm isn't like anything that can be seen with the eyes or heard with ears, but rather an apperception, a knowing (hence, Gnosis), of That which is incapable of any description whatever.
One may be introduced into a teaching by an awakened friend, seer, hierophant, mystagogue or master; but that is only the first step. The true initiation, the catalyzing event, is when one 'experiences' the Unitive Vision. That is, when one sees (has insight) that it's ALL God -- that there's nothing else -- that everything is an expression or manifestatin of the One.
Thus, ultimately, there can be no subject and object -- seer and seen -- only the awareness of seeing ... or knowing. Awareness becomes aware of Itself as well as what it is 'awaring'. This is the Gnosis of Light ... and then again, it isn't ... it's actually much, much more than language can ever express!
Paul mentions that visions and revelations were a vital part of his experience of being in Christ (2 Cor. 12:1). Earlier in this wondrful letter, he wrote that initiates to Jesus' deeper teaching could be transformed “from glory to glory” through the 'inseeing' of the life-giving glory that radiated in the open (empty, spacious, void) 'face' (not eyes, nose, mouth etc) of the Christ presence (2 Cor. 3:18, 4:6). This is the alive 'emptiness' (sunyata) that gives rise to and is capacity for ... everything!
'Orthodox' Christianity in the West has lost track of this transformative experience; although there are rumors that some form of this mysticism (deification?) still continues in some monastic orders of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Still, in some of the passages in in some of the Gnostic Christian writings there are powerful pointers if we're alert enough to recognize them. For instance, in the Gospel of Philip we read ...
“It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. [NB: The “things which actually exist” referred to here are not substantially 'things' but the 'no-thing', or, Spirit. One is not changed into Spirit, but identifies fully with Spirit or the Presence revealed within.]
This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the Sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things.
You saw the Spirit, you became (saw that you are essentially) Spirit. You saw (the) Christ, you became (the) Christ. You saw [the realm of the Father within] and you shall become Father. In this place you see everything and not yourself, but in that place you do see yourself and what you shall become.” (61:20, interpretation in brackets and emphasis is added. Cf. 74:23.)
Here again is another important passage from the Gospel of Philip which adds clarification to the concept of the Vision:
“The human being has intercourse with the human being. The horse has intercourse with the horse, the ass with the ass. Members of a race usually associate with those of like race. So spirit mingles with spirit, and thought consorts with thought, and light shares with light. If you are born a human being, it is the human being that will love you. If you become a spirit, it is the spirit which will be joined to you. ... If you become light, it is the light which will share with you.” (78:26-79:2)
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus also reportedly refers to the Unitive Vision as follows:
“The images are manifest to man (we see the outside appearance of people), but the light in them remains concealed (but we can't see the essential nature others, which is ...) the image of the Light of the Father (the Light of Consciousness that cannot be seen by human eyes). 'He' (not a person of any gender) will be manifested, but 'his' image will be concealed by 'his' Light (the image of God is formless and is revealed by the pure, invisible Light of total absence ... of all but Life Itself).” (#83)
The passage above alludes to a truth that has been experienced and reported by many people; who have encountered 'God' as the pure, invisible, inner, Light of Consciousness, by which and in which all lights (and thoughts, feelings, sights sounds etc.) are known.
The Unitive Vision is a life-transforming event. One never forgets it nor is ever quite the same afterwards. The Great Mystery has been revealed. The reality of God, and, paradoxically, of one's essential self, have been experienced first hand. This insight is almost always accompanied by a tremendous sense of relief, joy and liberation.
Not all visions, it should be noted, are untive. In the Apocalypse of Peter, where Peter reportedly has visions while in the presence of Jesus. Jesus, it is said, tells Peter to cover his eyes: “And there came in me fear with joy, for I saw a new light greater than the light of day. Then it came down upon the Savior. And I told him about those things which I saw.” (72)
The phrases "it came down" and "things which I saw" may indicate that Peter did not at that moment have the true Unitive Vision. The Vision is never of 'things' or 'objects' however lofty or brilliant, but an identifying with That which sees! A 'knowing' [gnosis] that seer and seen are inseparably one ... that it's all 'God' ... that there's essentiallly no 'other'.
In John's Gospel, we read that Jesus proclaimed aloud to his Father: “O righteous Father, the world hath not known you” (Jn. 17:25) and John the Baptist said “For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by (the) Christ (in) Jesus." (Jn. 1:17-18); and John the Apostle wrote “No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us (is awake and active in us), and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:12).
The writers cited above found it hard to conceive and write of their experience of the inner Light in traditional, dualistic, religious terms (I and Thou), but in many of the Nag Hammadi documents, they found or created new expressions, images and symbols to express the timeless nondual wisdom that Jesus apparently discovered and taught on several levels according to the consciousness or capacity of his hearers.
Perhaps we should follow their example, and having received by grace alone, the Gnosis of Light in the 21st century, find 21st century modes and avenues to offer this greatest of all belssings to any who desire it and who also are ready to receive it. This Web site is a small venture in the spirit of the early, enlightened, Gnostic Christians.
Jesus the Man
The last issue we will address here is what the Gnostic writings tell us about Jesus the man. Again, 'orthodox' Christian tradition cites the four NT Gospels to the effect that Jesus was a normal flesh and blood human being before the resurrection and, a flesh and blood human-being with a difference afterwards.
Post-resurrection, Jesus ate food and invited Thomas to feel his wounds (though earlier, he'd said to Mary, "Touch me not ...") The 'difference' was that it's reported that Jesus could move his physical body through a solid wall into a room with a locked door to meet with his disciples. Also, the canonical Gospels suggest the risen Jesus could 'teleport' from one part of the country to another without seeming to have to travel normally.
The Nag Hammadi texts, mentioned earlier, purport to be from Apostolic sources and seem to convey the opinion that Jesus appeared in the world, gave dualistic religious teaching to the general public, and, to a small group of men and perhaps only one woman, revealed a deeper nondual teaching, rarely known in Judaeism. Though not stated in the texts, the deeper teaching was a fresh and original expression of humanity's primordial wisdom tradition that was also known and practiced in other lands.
These sources do not clearly deny that Jesus had a fleshly body; but they do deny that the fleshly body was the essence of who Jesus was (and of who other human-beings really are!) The body/mind/personality was generally understood by Gnostic Christians as a vehicle through which unborn, undying Spirit -- the Christ -- interacts with other 'vehicles' in the social and material world. In short, they taught that there were many different 'vehicles', but only one impersonal, essential, divine nature in all.
The Gnostic Christians understood from the teaching passed down to them, that Jesus, like all sentient beings, was, in his essence, infinite, limitless, Spirit (the Christ) which, notwithstanding the transitory experiencing of bodily or mental pain, cannot really suffer, and cannot die. The prophet Isaiah seems to have intuited this same deep truth:
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." (Isa. 43:2 NIV)
The Gnostic Christian key to understanding this most insightful scripture lies in our understanding of the common word, "you". The "you" in this verse does not mean the body/mind/personality which may be drowned, say by a tsunami or reduced to ashes, say in a wild-fire, but the essential Self -- the real You -- is unborn, undying Spirit and cannot be harmed or lost in any way. It's essentially one with God ... with life itself. The opposite of death is not life, but birth. Life has no opposite. Life (and there is only one) is eternal!
So yes, a crucified body would feel excruciating pain and eventually die, but the inner Light or Spirit could never be extinguished nor lost, so continues as ever. For ordinary humans, our life is like a bubble on the surface of a stream -- death is the bursing of the bubble. But the water that made up the bubble is still part of the stream and the air that was once in the bubble is not lost either.
Sticking with this metaphor, Christian tradition has it that after Jesus' bubble burst on the cross, it was was reformed a few days later for a special purpose, but only for a relatively short time. The next time the bubble disappeared, it didn't appear again. Even so, the Gnostic Christians 'knew' that nothing was ever lost and the same Spirit that was in the man, Jesus, was in them ... and in all people everywhere regardless of their faith tradition.
A note of clarification could be important here. the deeper Christian Gnostics did not consider that the eternal Spirit or Consciousness was only in sentient beings -- that would be a kind of Pantheism. Their understanding, so far as we can tell, was closer to Panentheism, meaning that God was in all, but not confined to all. God, they taught, could exist completely without any sentient beings or manifest matter whatever, but not one sentient being could ever exist without Cosciousness, Spirit or, if you like, God.
In closing we must acknowledge that we have only scratched the surface of the “Fullness of the Gospel” in this brief article. Hopefully we have presented enough for you to see that the early Gnostic Christian tradition reveals a radically different view of Jesus and the teachings attributed to him.
The non-canonical Gospels etc. often portrayed Jesus as a superlative spiritual master who imparted both a dualistic and nondual teaching depending on who he was talking to. His private and selective teaching was a fresh and original presentation of humanity's timeless wisdom tradition and was known among some Gnostics as 'the Gnosis of Light'.
Some of this timeless wisdom is reflected in certain passages of the Old and New Testaments as documented above, but only in certain passages in some of the Gnostic texts are these truths more widely explained and developed. Both the Bible and the non-canonical texts have much in them that is confusing, distracting, useless and irrelevant, but among all the worthless ore, rare gems await the patient seeker after liberating truth.
It has always been the few who have persistently sought and found these gems of truth that point to the Gnosis of Light. If you are reading this, then I suspect that you are one of the fortunate few, otherwise you wouldn't have persisted to the end of this page and series of articles. How blessed you will be when the great Pearl beyond price is disclosed to you ... if that hasn't already happened.
With the 'orthodox' Christian tradition ever fracturing and in real decline in Western countries, it may be time to put aside old prejudices and re-examine the evidence for a deeper, more experiencial, encounter with the Spirit dimension within us all. We believe Jesus' deeper teaching holds the key to the next great revival of spirituality in our time.
2. Matthew, Mark and Luke report that Jesus revealed the “mysteries of the kingdom of God” to his disciples but spoke of these mysteries to the masses in “parables” (Mk. 4:11, Mt. 13:10-11, Lk. 8:9-10). These Gospels purport to reveal what Jesus taught; but these Gospels do not refer to a secret tradition or initiation as is referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 2:6-14. (cf. Mk. 4:21-23, Lk. 8:16-18) Paul writes of a “spiritual wisdom” which cannot be grasped by the “natural man” (1 Cor. 2:14). This concept is not found in the Gospels.
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