Plotinus Among the Gnostics: The Neoplatonic Trinity in the Late Third Century

NeoplatonismMost Christians today seem woefully unaware of the important religious interchange which gave rise to their most beloved church doctrines.  Hardly noticed are the historians who have challenged the common, whitewashed Church history perpetuated by mainstream evangelicalism, which has ever sought to paint such ecclesiastical standards at the doctrine of the Trinity (or at least the fourth-and-fifth-century creeds which are said to describe it) as not only fundamental to the Christian faith, but arrived at via the Scriptures alone (in other words, apart from pagan philosophy).  Unbeknownst to many, however, without the necessary backdrop of Platonic, Stoic, and Christian Gnostic thought, the Trinitarian theology now so widely viewed as the “Christian distinctive” would be impossible.

But just how did the “orthodox” Christians ever come to view the biblical God as “three hypostases and one ousia,” and as a scheme which featured the mysterious procession (emanation) of one hypostases from another, outside of time?  Understanding the complex relationship between the competing academic groups in the latter half of the third century will prove increasingly helpful in understanding how these radical Christian developments were possible by the fourth century.  In this post we will be focusing specifically on the triadic concepts found in early Neoplatonism.  Because of Neoplatonism’s inarguable significance for the Church Fathers who eventually laid down orthodox theology, we must consider that philosophical movement’s own divine triad, how it developed, and whether or not there are substantial enough affinities with later Christianity to suspect any influence.

Plotinus

Plotinus (d. 270 CE), the so-called founder of Neoplatonism, had not only envisioned a triad of the One, the Intellect (Nous), and the Soul, but even posited that “the latter two mysteriously emanate from the One.”[1]  Plotinus described this triad as three “hypostases” (to him, the underlying substances of existence).  One of Plotinus’ most pertinent ideas was the concept of “emanation” as an explanation of the relationship between the principles of the triad.  He utilized the analogy of the sun which emanates light without diminishing itself; in this way God expressed the logos, whom Plotinus identified with the Demiurge, and from that logos “proceeded” the World-Soul.[2]  Here, surprisingly, the exact phraseology of the pagans is readily located in the Catholic creeds, as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE states that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father [and the Son].”[3]  But how was this thinking first taken up in Neoplatonism before it was transmitted into Christian orthodoxy?

Numenius

Earlier forerunners of Neoplatonism like Numenius (2nd century) had offered an account of “three Gods,” but they had been static principles.  However, as John D. Turner reveals: “a number of Gnostic thinkers were developing schemes by which a hierarchy of transcendental beings emanated from a single source by a process of dynamic emanation.”[4]  Turner continues: “Although Plotinus has often been credited with being the first major philosopher to elaborate such a scheme, it is clear that similar models of dynamic emanation are beginning to develop in Gnostic thought, some of which chronologically precedes Plotinus.[5]

Because of Plotinus’ pointed and voluminous writings against the Gnostics (he wrote an entire book against them), scholars have long considered Plotinian and Gnostic thought to be diametrically opposed.  But today scholars are beginning to emphasize the “fundamental similarities” between them.[6]

Plotinus taught in Rome from 244-269 CE, and upon arriving in that city he had immediately found himself surrounded, not by traditional Platonists, but by “Platonizing Gnostics,” whom he held to be corrupters of Plato’s original doctrines.[7]  Around 265, Plotinus was loudly condemning teachers who were misleading his own students, and by the time of his school’s closing, dear friends of Plotinus had “fallen under the spell of the rival doctrine.”[8]  Indeed, many Gnostic texts are said to have circulated in Plotinus’ school, including the Sethian treatises and the Nag Hammadi texts Zostrianos (favored by the orthodox Christian Marius Victorinus) and the Allogenes.

Apocryphon of John (NHC)

Despite his great contest with the Gnostics, Plotinus appears to have followed in the pattern of Gnosticizing Christians like Clement of Alexandria; he publicly denounced the Gnostics while simultaneously borrowing from them.  The most important texts that Plotinus drew from were the Valentinian Tripartite Tractate and the Sethian Apocryphon of John (both found among the Nag Hammadi texts).  In the Tripartite Tractate, the supreme principle, the Father, generates the Son when the Father first thinks of himself.[9]  The Father and Son are viewed as one and the same, and their existence is described as a “self-generation.”[10]  Likewise in the Sethian texts, when the “Invisible Spirit” thinks of himself, he emanates the second intellectual principle, the “Barbelo” or the “First Thought.”  As scholars confirm, the Sethian Barbelo “corresponds to Numenius’ Second Mind.”[11]  In the same way, the later Plotinus says that “Mind” is generated by the self-contemplation of the “One.”[12]  Regarding the retention of properties, in the Tripartite Tractate we find that the Father is in no way diminished by his generation of the Son.[13]  Likewise in Plotinus the One is not diminished by the production of the Mind.[14]  As Turner concludes:

In sum, Gnostic sources such as the Sethian Platonizing treatises and the Tripartite Tractate may have had a decisive influence on some of the most distinctive features and images of Plotinus’ thinking.  In fact, not only was Gnostic thought a genuine forerunner of, and “Platonic” competitor with, some of those features of Platonic interpretation habitually thought to be distinctively Neoplatonic, such as the Being-Life-Mind triad, but also major features of Plotinus’ thought, not only because these ideas were part of a shared milieu, but also because Plotinus was involved in a dialogue with them for virtually the whole of his writing career.[15]

This information confirms that the problem of Gnostic infiltration was not confined to Christianity.  Gnosticism proved a major theological force in the late Roman Empire for far longer and on a far broader scale than popular Christian histories have allowed.  The religion of Plato was as much a victim of this exploitation as the religion of Jesus: in either case we can hardly distinguish, in the later forms of those faiths, the practical differences between many of their principles and those of the dreaded mystics they condemned.

Ultimately, the subtle Gnosticizing of Neoplatonism bears repercussions for Christianity.  There is an easily discerned harmony between the Neoplatonic philosophy and the writings of important Christian (and former Manichaean Gnostic) Augustine, who happily “discovered” the Christian Trinity in Plotinus’ works.[16]  Likewise other post-Nicene theologians, like Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 CE), “tells us himself, for example, that he discerns a Christian view of God not only in some of Plato, but also in Plotinus.”[17]  For these Christian doctors, the preceding labors of the pagans continuously provided a fertile soil where Christians might sow the subjects of the New Testament and reap an innovative and exciting blend of Jewish faith and Greek intuition.  In truth, without the pagan, Gnostic world, their own biblical interpretations would never have been possible.

 

 

[1] Dale Tuggy, “Trinity,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web. 14 December 2014.

[2] James Wilberding, Plotinus‘ Cosmology: A Study of Ennead II.1 (40): Text, Translation, and Commentary (New York: OUP, 2006), p. 81.

[3] The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 CE, emphasis added.  The controversial “Filioque” addition, championed by Augustine, is represented in brackets.

[4] John D. Turner, “Plotinus and the Gnostics: Opposed Heirs of Plato,” The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 58, emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., p. 53, emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., p. 52.

[7] “The Platonizing Gnostics have turned out to be genuinely innovative interpreters of ancient philosophical traditions, and had a far greater degree of intellectual agency with respect to contemporaneous academic philosophy than is usually supposed.  Right alongside Plotinus, these Gnostic interpreters were reading and commenting upon the very same texts as he did.  They were activist contemplatives who were spreading a doctrine of salvation that competed with Plotinus’ own” (Ibid., p. 53).

[8] Ibid.  See also Plotinus, Enneads II, 9, 10:3-6.

[9] “In Valentinian thought, at the beginning of the Tripartite Tractate, the ineffable Father has a thought of himself, which is the Son (Tripartite Tractate 56:16-57:3), and in Clement of Alexandria’s account of the Valentinian system of Theodotus, the Unknown Father is said to emit the second principle, the Monogenes-Son, ‘as if knowing himself.’  Similarly, in both Eugnostos the Blessed and its nearly identical but Christianized version, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the divine Forefather sees himself ‘within himself as in a mirror,’ and the resultant image is the second principle, the Self-Father.  In Hippolytus of Rome’s account of Simonian doctrine, the pre-existent first principle abides in absolute unity, but gives rise to an intellectual principle through self-manifestation: ‘manifesting himself to himself, the one who stood became the second’ ” (Turner, p. 54).

[10] Tripartite Tractate, 56, 1.

[11] Gerard Bechtle, “The Question of Being and the Dating of the Anonymous Parmenides Commentary,” Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2000), n. 74.

[12] Plotinus, Enneads, 5, 1; 7, 1-6.

[13] “But he is [as] he is, [for he is] a spring that is not diminished by the water flowing from it” (Tripartite Tractate, 60, 1-15).

[14] “It itself flows forth, so to speak, as if from a spring.  Imagine a spring that has no other origin; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never used up by the rivers” (Plotinus, Enneads, 3, 8; 10, 3-14).

[15] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[16] Augustine, City of God, Book 10, Ch. 23.

[17] Roy Kearsley, “The Impact of Greek Concepts of God on the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria,” Tyndale Bulletin, 43, 2 (Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1992), p. 309.

The Woman of Blood: The Gnostic Exegesis of the Gospels

 

In my last blog I provided an introduction to the Nag Hammadi codices, the so-called Christian “Gnostics”, and what evidence of early diversity within Christianity might mean for “orthodox” interpretations of Church history.  This post will offer a brief introduction to the Gnostic worldview through the unique way in which some of these Christians interpreted the Gospels.

First, what do we mean by “Gnosticism”?  Today the term describes a fluid category of spiritual traditions developing in the mid to late first century CE which emphasized the acquisition of gnosis, or secret knowledge of the divine, in order to achieve salvation.  While the movement was not exclusive to Christianity, it is best known by its manifestation in various Christian groups deemed “heretical” by the great proto-orthodox polemicists of the second and third centuries.

Irenaeus (130-202 CE), bishop of Lyon, was one such writer deeply concerned by the rising popularity of Gnostic Christianity.  Groups like the Sethians and the Valentinians took center stage in Irenaeus’ lengthy assault on Gnosticism titled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, also known as Against Heresies.  Irenaeus had borrowed his title from a Pauline warning about “knowledge (gnosis) falsely so-called” (1 Tim 6:20); the bishop obviously believed the Gnostic interpretation was putting the Church in grave danger.  Evidently Gnostic teaching was, on the surface, similar enough to his own that it might go un-detected by the novice; the Gnostic distinctives were being revealed when the initiate was in too deep.  Thus Irenaeus set out to both publicly expose and condemn their mysterious interpretations in great detail.  Though supremely concerned with building a case against Gnostic Christianity as a corruption of his own faith, which he labeled “orthodox” or “catholic”, his assessment still lends valuable insight into the Gnostic hermeneutic.

Coptic text of the Apocryphon of John, written before 180 CE.

From Irenaeus’ account we learn that Gnostic exegesis is, first and foremost, highly speculative.  Their methods may have found motivation in midrashic exercises taking place in Hellenistic Jewish circles in the first century CE.  The famed Apocryphon of John, found among the Nag Hammadi texts and representative of the so-called “Sethian” form of Christian Gnosticism, certainly evidences a strong link with Jewish sensibilities.  In this work, which was known by Irenaeus in 180 CE, we find a dramatic retelling of Genesis, a portrait of human origins and human salvation radically different than that presented by either the traditionalist Jews or the proto-orthodox Christians.  This cosmological narrative would provide the basic mythological framework facilitating the theological, soteriological, and exegetical characteristics of most Christian sects which can be confidently approached with the “Gnostic” label.

According to the myth, the god who created this world, the god of the Old Testament, is not the highest god.  He is in fact a Demiurge, a lower entity, sometimes ignorant, sometimes vengeful, and ultimately responsible for trapping human souls in material bodies.  The true God is a transcendent and unknowable being, the Invisible Spirit (often characterized as a great and immovable “Father”).  Within him (within his “Pleroma” or “fullness”) exists a descending hierarchy of distinct powers or “aeons”; they are modes of God’s being, or personalities, each embodying God’s divine attributes.  Each of these aeons is paired with another of the opposite gender which acts as its mate or consort (the “gender” of each is determined by the grammatical gender of their Greek name).

In the myth, the twelfth of these entities, the “female” Sophia (Wisdom), tragically went astray: she tried to look toward the Father, to know him on her own without the consent of her “male” consort.  In Sophia’s deviant passion, which ultimately turned into fear and shame, she inadvertently created another being outside of God.  This unfortunate offspring became the Demiurge, the wicked god of the OT, the creator of our material world (a poor imitation of the heavenly Pleroma).  The Demiurge also created his own angels and eventually human beings who have imprisoned within them a portion of the true God’s divine essence.  After this tragedy, the fallen Sophia strayed to the brink of the Pleroma, and her power began to flow out of her, nearly dissolving her completely.  Thus the Father sent other aeons to rescue her from the brink of the Pleroma, and the leading power on this rescue mission was the aeon “Christ.”  After the heavenly Christ saved Sophia with the help of other powerful aeons named Aletheia (Truth) and Horos (Border), God then moved to also rescue the human beings trapped in the Demiurge’s world.  The Father accomplished this by sending Jesus in the form of a human being to the earth in order to impart gnosis to humanity.  Through the acquisition of gnosis, man is able to realize the divine essence within him, permitting him to return to the harmony of the Pleroma (like Sophia) upon leaving the body.

These twin pictures of salvation (one heavenly, that of Sophia, and one earthly, that of mankind) provide an essential lens for the Gnostic exegesis of the Gospels.  For the Gnostics, the tale of Jesus’ earthly ministry is pregnant with the story of Sophia’s fall and redemption; the Gospel texts themselves are a sort of code which exhibits a deeper and more spiritually important message about the divine happenings in the Pleroma.  This secret truth is not revealed to all, of course, but to those worthy or capable of bearing it; for the Gnostic initiate, this information is only mystically and parabolically visible.

For example, the existence of the thirty “aeons” in God (literally: “spaces or cycles of time”) is revealed by the thirty years Jesus lived on the earth before his public ministry.  For evidence of the twelve primary aeons, one could point to the frequent occurrence of the number twelve in the Gospels: the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, Jesus’ age of twelve years when he disputed with the teachers of the law, and so on.  For proof that it was the twelfth aeon which suffered passion, one could look to the disturbance of Judas, the twelfth apostle, who according to the Gnostics brought about Jesus’ suffering in the twelfth month of the year (the school described by Irenaeus held that Jesus preached for only one year after his baptism).  One could also cite the woman who had suffered twelve years of bleeding.  This last episode in particular, related in all three of the Synoptic accounts, provides a wonderful example of the creative and surprising way in which the Gnostics handled the Gospel texts.  According to Irenaeus, the Gnostics saw the story about the bleeding woman as a spiritual reflection of the passion and dramatic rescue of Sophia by the agents of the Pleroma (Against Heresies, I, 3, 3).

Let us first examine the text in Mark 5:25-34:


the woman of blood(25) A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, (26) and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— (27) after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. (28) For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” (29) Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. (30) Immediately Jesus, perceiving in Himself that the power proceeding from Him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My garments?” (31) And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” (32) And He looked around to see the woman who had done this. (33) But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. (34) And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

For the Gnostics, when Christ said “Who touched my garment?” he was mystically revealing the following parallel to his disciples:

The earthly woman had reached the twelfth year of her sufferings, and in her despair she had stretched forth towards the Son, her life bleeding out into the world.  So too had the heavenly Sophia, full of passion and grief, stretched out and bled her essence into the Pleroma.  If the earthly woman had not touched the border of Jesus’ garment, the hemorrhaging would have continued.  Likewise Sophia’s suffering would not have ceased if she had not touched the aeon Aletheia, called “the garment” of the Son, who enabled her rescue by the power of the aeon named Horos, the “limit” or “border.”  This Horos was intimately connected with the heavenly Christ, and as Irenaeus explains, Horos “has two faculties: the one of supporting and the other of separating.”  The power traveling through the hem of the earthly Jesus’ garment had “cut off” the flow of blood from the woman, just as the aeon Horos had “separated” the flow of passion from Sophia and “supported” her in divine reconciliation.

This interpretation boldly reflected a prevalent theme in biblical literature: the passionate straying and ultimate redemption of the female.  In the book of Genesis‘ Edenic narrative, we find that Eve, apart from her male consort, had sought to gain “knowledge” (gnosis) by eating of the Tree of Knowledge.   This passion spread and ultimately engulfed Adam, leaving them in need of divine rescue.  A consequence of this straying was pain in childbirth and the suppression of female passion (Gen 3:16b).  We may find echoes of this in Sophia’s passion, which had yielded an amorphous child who apparently owed his incomplete form to a lack of male participation.  Sophia’s passion had to be “limited” and ultimately “separated” from her by the power of a male aeon Horos, under the direction of the male Christ.  In the Synoptic story of the bleeding woman, we might also take the woman’s endless menstruation as a side-effect of a lack of male participation.  Here it may be important to note that while some have thought to classify Gnostic attitudes toward women as especially misogynistic (usually through an overdrawn reading of the Gospel of Thomas), a regular theme in Gnostic teaching is the necessity of unity between male and female: the female may be the first to stray (like Eve in the Garden), but responsibility for harmony lies on both male and female (the Primal Man in both Christian and pagan Gnostic traditions often is, like the ultimate God he reflects, androgynous, both male and female).  In the Gnostic world, even the transcendent Father is found acting in conjunction with the female aeon Sige, the womb of the Pleroma, though at times he stands alone as the Invisible Spirit, being the ingenerate first principle and prime cause of the Pleroma.

Ultimately, the secret story of Sophia and the Pleromatic Christ nestled within the Gospels was said to be discernable only to those who had embarked on the path of gnosis.  But sidelined Christians like the Valentinians were not the only ones to engage in such speculative exegesis.  Gnosis-inclined “proto-orthodox” Christians, like Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE) and Origen (d. 254 CE), also employed a hermeneutic which assumed a spiritual meaning behind the text reflective of real happenings in a real spiritual world.  This affinity may provide a clue to a deeper relationship between the “Gnostic” and the emerging “catholic” Christianity of the third and fourth centuries than many have supposed.  In portions of my upcoming book I continue to explore the connection between Gnosticism and several key figures in the pre-Nicene, proto-orthodox tradition, and this exploration will remain a recurrent topic here at the Buried Deep blog.  Indeed, if we wish to ever understand how and why mainline Christianity teaches what it does today, we must regularly venture to the diverse Christian world which first produced “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, to the secret world of Gnosis.  There the Gospel texts had far more to say than what was printed, and beneath the earthly, historical Jesus which they described there lay something secret, something spiritually attainable only by the Christian mystic.  This is perhaps an  unconventional but viable starting point for approaching “orthodox” Christian theology which likewise finds, through inference and subtlety, a great mystical secret, a divine and incomprehensible reality hiding beneath the life of the historical Jesus of the Gospels.

 

 

Further Reading:

Philip Schaff, “Introductory Note to Irenaeus Against Heresies,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Against Heresies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885).

Albert Poncelet, “St. Irenaeus,” Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).

Michael J. Kok, The Gospel of the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press, 2015), Ch. 6.

 

Book Release Date & Pre-Order

Very excited to announce that Restoration Fellowship has green-lit the release of my new book!

The official release date of the paperback is August 24th, 2016.

It is now available for pre-order on Amazon here.

Completing this book has been quite the journey; I hope it is as enjoyable and challenging to read as it was to write.  Thank you to Carlos, Anthony, and Sarah at Restoration Fellowship, and all my friends and family for their support on this project.  God bless.

 

 

 

The Secret of Nag Hammadi: An Introduction

Mohammed Ali al-Samman and his brothers had approached the man while he slept. Their mother had told them to make sure their mattocks were sharp: their target was the son of a local sheriff, and they needed to work quickly. Without a sound, they tore Ahmad Hawara limb from limb. They ripped out his heart, divided it amongst themselves, and ate it.  It was the least they could do to avenge their father’s murder.

This is the bloody drama surrounding the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices in 1945, one of the most important archaeological finds in history, and a discovery with the power to change the course of the Christian religion.  In my upcoming book, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma, I refer to the Nag Hammadi discovery and its impact on how we are able to understand the theologies of important figures who shaped Christian doctrine in the first four centuries of the faith.  Since matters related to this discovery will remain a constant topic of conversation at the Buried Deep blog, it seems appropriate to begin with a brief introduction to the NHC for unfamiliar readers…

Mohammed Ali al-Samman

Mohammed Ali al-Samman

A few weeks before their mother had sent them to kill the man who had made her a widow, Mohammed Ali and his brothers had gone on a scavenging trip. They had been looking for a kind of natural fertilizer in the rocky landscape of Upper Egypt. Bobbing on their camels in the heat, they’d planned their attack on Hawara for days.

Eventually, near the city of Nag Hammadi, they’d found some promising terrain, and began digging in the rocks.  Suddenly: a large clay jar.  Mohammed was afraid to open it. There could be an evil djinn, a demon, waiting for him inside; he might be killed or cursed before he could carry out his family’s vengeance.  But the thought of gold also crossed his mind: a more powerful motivator than the fear of evil spirits.  Mohammed smashed the jar open with his mattock (not yet a weapon of murder), and indeed found gold: flecks of bright dust rising into the hot Egyptian air like embers riding smoke.  These were probably particles of papyrus.  He had found a collection of twelve leather-bound papyri books, written in Coptic.

Mohammed’s brothers told him not to take the books.  “Those belong to the Christians,” they said, “Nothing to do with us!”  But he took the strange treasures home to his mother.  They weren’t gold, but still, they might be worth something.  Certainly his mother found them useful.  Regrettably, it was later admitted that she had used many pages to start cooking fires.  After her sons returned from the slaying of Hawara, however, the family began to fear that the sheriff, now looking Hawara’s killers, would come to search their house and confiscate the books.  Mohammed gave some of them to a local Christian priest for safe-keeping.  Soon, a historian named Raghib saw the books in the priest’s collection.  After a harrowing drama, the texts made their way into the hands of antiquities dealers, and ultimately, into the hands of scholars.

The emergence of this “Nag Hammadi Library”, a collection of 52 fascinating Christian writings, rocked the academic world.  The documents themselves were mostly from the fourth century CE, but the original sources dated back to the second and third centuries.  They represented what appeared to be the long-lost writings of Christian sectarians whom ancient historians had referred to as “Gnostics,” mystics who claimed to hold a secret knowledge (gnosis) of God.  Until this discovery, accounts of what “Gnostic” Christians believed had been confined to the damning reports of their theological enemies.  Christian apologists like Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 CE), and Tertullian of Carthage (155-240 CE), had written detailed treatises against these Christians in attempts to expose their theology as a corruption of true Christian doctrine.  By comparing these writer’s descriptions of what the Gnostics believed with the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars were able to confirm that the works discovered by Mohammed Ali indeed belonged to these mysterious and condemned Christians.

HC Peuch - Pahor Labib - Gilles Quispel at the Coptic Museum 1956

H.C. Puech, Pahor Labib, and Gilles Quispel at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, 1956

Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel, and French scholar H. C. Puech were among the first to dissect and edit the writings of the NHC, revealing such now-famous works as The Gospel of Thomas.  Other scholars, like the American Elaine Pagels, wrote best-selling books to introduce these writings to the wider public.  For the first time, Gnostic thought was able to be analyzed without the bias of the ancient heresiologists.  But most importantly, the NHC challenged the traditional, official-story of Church history.

Most Christians today have been led to believe that Christian “orthodoxy” has always existed, that all legitimate Christians have always taught the same thing.  According to this narrative, the doctrines later preached by the fourth century catholics as being fundamental to the faith had been originally taught by the first century Apostles of Jesus, surviving in the care of the proto-orthodox bishops until later heresies came to challenge it.  But the NHC provided a different picture: they emphasized a Christianity which was diverse from the beginning.  The first two centuries of the religion must not have enjoyed an established and monolithic “orthodoxy” which authoritatively defined the beliefs of all Christians.  Those who called themselves Christians in the earliest centuries entertained a variety of beliefs, practices, and organizational structures, and the “proto-orthodox” framework was solidified partly in response to this diversity.  In essence, the “Catholic” Christianity which emerged from the ashes of the fourth century had only, through their polemical histories, made it look like they had always been the sole guardians of the Church’s message.  The diversity and early date of the sources of the NHC thus redefined what it meant to be a Christian in the first three hundred years after Jesus.  The possibility was opened that the “fundamental” doctrines of the so-called ecumenical councils may not have always been so fundamental after all.

James M Robinson Coptic Museum

James M. Robinson analyzing NHC fragments at the Coptic Museum

To say that the discovery of the NHC was important for not only ecclesiastical but biblical studies would be an understatement. To say that it has already changed the world, would unfortunately be an inflation of its impact. While in academic circles, the consequences of those discoveries have continued to propose revisions to traditional interpretations of Church history, that pressure towards revision has not yet trickled down into the concerns of mainstream religionists. Make no mistake, the Nag Hammadi discovery still contains within it the raw, elemental power of revolution.  As Gilles Quispel promised Mohammed Ali when he met him in Egypt: “Your discovery will change the mind of millions.”  But more than seventy years later, we still wait expectantly for that wide change.

Incredibly, just after the finding at Nag Hammadi, another archaeological revelation stunned the globe in 1946/47: the epoch-making discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran.  The recovery of the DSS, a collection of OT manuscripts and sectarian Jewish writings from the first century CE, was the only event that could ever overshadow the NHC.  Just as the NHC had challenged understandings of early Christianity, the DSS redefined what it meant to be Jewish in the first century: the apocalyptic language and ideas in those Jewish documents demonstrated a shocking affinity with the peculiar brand of “Jewish-Christianity” exhibited by Jesus and his earliest disciples in the New Testament.

Thus two forces were working from opposite directions towards the historical Jesus: the DSS were starting with first century Judaism and working forward to reveal the nature of the earliest Jesus community, and the NHC were starting with the fourth century Christian world of the Gentiles and working backward towards the same goal.  What sort of original Christianity would be discovered between them?  What sort of Jesus?

Though seventy years have passed, there is still much work to be done here.  Considering the persistence of the official story about Church history among Christians, one begins to feel like the DSS and the NHC have not yet had their chance to shock the wider world.  It is now up to us to continue to dig deep into the forgotten history these books represent, and introduce others to whatever it tell us about the state of Christianity today, and where it needs to go from here.

Looking back, perhaps Mohammed Ali did unleash a djinn after all when he smashed open that clay jar in the desert: an insatiable spirit with the hidden power to transform Christendom.  But will it ever get the chance?  Or will Nag Hammadi remain a ghost haunting orthodox history, forever groaning for change?

In future blogs, and in my upcoming book, we will continue to explore the secret, Gnostic, narrative lurking behind Christianity, and what it means for traditional beliefs about the Church, humanity, Jesus of Nazareth, and our own thrilling place in God’s history.

 

 

Sources:

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. xiii-xxiii.

Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 34-52.

Marvin W. Meyer (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009).

Willis Barnstone, Marvin Meyer (ed.), The Gnostic Bible (London: Shambala, 2003), pp. 1-19.

Ron Cameron (ed.), The Other Gospels (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982).

A New Adventure

Welcome, traveler…

My name is Kegan.  You can find out all about me here.

The Buried Deep blog is a space where I can freely explore matters related to Church history, biblical literature, and other odds and ends from the ancient world.  While this blog will entertain a variety of subjects, an underlying aim of this new venture is to promote a concern for the Bible by shedding light on the history of Christian theology.

In reality, what we call Christianity represents a great confluence of many streams of the world’s religious thought. Those interested in Christianity today, like myself, cannot hope to properly understand it if the diverse world which produced it is not confronted and dissected.  But truth often travels through subterranean channels.  The real history of the Christian religion reveals a surprising, even unsettling narrative.  Digging deep can be a painful business.  But in the end, there is nothing like the thrill of discovery, especially when those discoveries have the power to change your mind about what you value the most.

In addition to starting this personal blog, there are a few other things happening with me this year:

My new book, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma, will be coming out this summer.  More about that here.

I’ve also co-founded another website that will serve as an online Christian ministry (hosting articles, videos, audio, etc.).  That website will launch August 2016, and will be located at thegodofjesus.com

Looking forward to getting the ball rolling on this journey; check back soon for blog posts and more news about these projects!