24 October 2015

Gnostic passages in the New Testament

Several words and passages in the New Testament point to Gnosticism, or at least its direct influence.  Gnosticism was part of the same milieu that produced Christianity, and its membership met in synagogues, which suggests something of its origins.  Most schools of Gnostics borrowed from both Hellenistic and Jewish (including Christian) sources, though a few exclusively from one or the other.  Some aspects demonstrate the clear influence of Mazdayasna, or Zoroastrianism.

Much of the Gospel of John, if not outright Gnostic (several passages are), shows its writers to have been travelling in the same philosophical circles.

Other than John, most of the Gnostic references in the New Testament can be found in the letters attributed to Paul of Tarsus.  Though opinion from those quarters is far from unanimous, many scholars have identified—by shift of writing styles, abrupt shifts in subject, and other tell-tale signs—these passages as interpolations which they politely denominate “Deutero-Pauline”, but which I call what they are: “Pseudo-Pauline”.

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‘Now they had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.  And he cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”   And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.”  And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread?  Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?  Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?   And do you not remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.”  “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”  And they said to him, “Seven.”  And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”’ (Mark 8:14-21)

The feeding of  the five thousand and of the four thousand in Mark and Matthew takes on Gnostic significance in the number of baskets of broken fruit collected after the crowds were fed.  In The Sophia of Jesus Christ, after his resurrection, Jesus has twelve disciples and seven female followers, for instance, and the numbers twelve and seven also stand for the twelve zodiac constellations and the seven planets.  ‘The Twelve’ also refers to the chief apostles and ‘The Seven’ to the first seven ‘deacons’.  A more direct Gnostic reference, common to nearly all systems, would be the Twelve lowest Aeons, known as the Dodecad, and the Seven highest Archons, known as the Hebdomad, contiguous to each other on either side of the Pleroma and the Kenoma (see below).

‘Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is inside (‘entos’) each of you”.’ (Luke 17:20-21)

Nearly all translators, uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus would be telling the Pharisees, not his biggest fans, that the kingdom of God is inside them, usually mistranslate this ‘entos’ as ‘among’ or ‘within’ implied as ‘among’.  While there are Greek words that can be translated that way as well as ‘inside’, ‘entos’ is not one of those; it is quite specific in referring to being inside the boundaries of an interior.

 ‘And from his Pleroma have we all received, Charis upon Charis.’ (John 1:16)

‘Pleroma’ is a Gnostic term meaning ‘fullness’, and referred to the Gnostic “region of light”, the hidden spiritual realm of archetypes.  Below Pleroma was the Kenoma, or visible manifest world created by the Demiurge but ordered by the Logos.

 ‘Charis’ was one of the chief aeons in several Gnostic hierarchies, in many systems equated with Sige, The Silence.

‘”Now is the judgment of this Aeon; now the Archon of this Aeon will be driven out”.’ (John 12:31)

In Hellenistic philosophy, ‘aeon’ meant ‘age’, as in ‘era’, as well as this current ‘world’; in most Gnostic systems it referred to emanations of The One, beings which roughly correspond to the Yazatas of Mazdayasna mythology, though it sometimes was used in the general Hellenistic sense.  The word literally means ‘eternity’.

‘“I will no longer talk much with you, for the Archon of this Aeon is coming.  He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the Cosmos may know that I love the Father”. ‘ (John 14:30-31a)

Supernatural ‘archons’, ‘rulers’, were a major motif of most Gnostic systems.  The ‘ruler of this world’, as “archon of this aeon” is usually translated, is the Demiurge, the lesser Aeon who created the Kenoma, or manifest visible realm, identified in some schools with Yahweh, the God of the Tanakh.  The other archons were servants of the Demiurge.  In some circles, there were seven archons, roughly corresponding to the Kamiligan Dewan of Mazdayasna, and they were considered the lowest of the emanations of the Godhead.

‘“And when he comes, he will prove the Cosmos wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:  about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the archon of this aeon has been condemned”.’ (John 16:8-11)

Another reference to the Demiurge.

‘Now to the One who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was hidden in Sige for long aeons.’ (Romans 16:25)

The highest Aeon, or Immortal, in most Gnostic systems was the One, also known as the Monad, the Absolute, Aion Teleos, Bythos (Depth), he-Arke (Beginning), Proarke (Before the Beginning), Propator (‘First Father’), Afato Gonea (Ineffable Parent), Arrhetus (Unspeakable).  Among Christian Gnostics, the term Theos, literally ‘God’, was more often used.

Sige (‘The Silence’) was the primal feminine counterpart to the masculine One.  Sige was also called Ennoia (‘Intent’) and Charis (‘Grace’). 

The rest of the Aeons, some thirty of them (depending on the school), were offspring of the union of the One and the Silence and of their offspring.

‘Yet among the mature we do speak Sophia, though it is not Sophia of this aeon or the archons of this aeon, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s Sophia, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the aeons for our glory.  None of the archons of this aeon understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ (1 Corinthians 2:6-8)

While Sophia (‘Wisdom’) was one of the highest ideals in most of Hellenistic society including among Hellenistic Jews such as Philo, among Gnostic Sophia was of the lesser Aeons.  Among Christian Gnostics, Sophia was the Bride of Christ, both being of the Aeons.

‘Those who are psychikoi do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  Those who are pneumatikoi discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.’ (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)

All Gnostic systems of thought shared a three-stage ranking of consciousness, or knowledge, in humans: (1) hylics, those governed by their body needs; (2) psychics, those governed by their souls, a feature shared with many  animals; and (3) pneumatics, those governed by the divine spark within them of which they had gnosis, or ‘knowledge’.  The references here are not even barely disguised.

‘To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of Sophia, and to another the utterance of Gnosis according to the same Spirit.’  (1 Corinthians 12:8)

Here Gnosis and Sophia are linked.  In Christian Gnostics systems, Sophia is not only the Bride of Christ, the feminine counterpart to the Aeon Christ, but also the Holy Spirit.

‘So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the Cosmos. But when the Pleroma of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’ (Galatians 4:3-5)

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the Aeon of this world, following the Archon of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.’ (Ephesians 2:2)

‘For in him all the Pleroma of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:19-20)

‘For in him the whole Pleroma of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to Pleroma in him, who is the head of every Archon and Authority.’ (Colossians 2:9-10)

‘He disarmed the Archons and Authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.’ (Colossians 2:15)

‘I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the Pleroma of the Logos of God known,  the mystery that has been hidden throughout the aeons and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.’ (Colossians 2:25-26)

‘If any of you lacks Sophia, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.’ (James 1:5)

‘It is these psychikoi, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions.’ (Jude 1:19)

The following passage is taken from the late first century-early second century document commonly known as the Didache.  In the early centuries of the Church, it was deemed part of the sacred New Testament canon, before that became standardized.  The prayers are those for the Eucharistic meal, and meal it was at that time, before the blessing was divorced from the meal it blessed and reduced to the equivalent of a magic incantation.

‘First concerning the Cup: We give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through your servant Jesus; glory to you forever.

‘And concerning the broken Bread: We give you thanks, Father, for the Zoe (life) and Gnosis (knowledge) which you made known to us through your servant Jesus; glory to you forever.  As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains but was brought together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, for yours are the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

‘But after you are satisfied with food, thus give thanks: We give you thanks, holy Father, for making your holy name dwell in our hearts, and for the Gnosis and Pistis (faith) and Athanasia (immortality) which you made known to us through Jesus your servant; glory to you forever.
            ‘You, Lord Almighty, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave all humanity food and drink for our enjoyment, that we might give thanks to you, but you have blessed us with spiritual food and drink and eternal light through your servant.  Above all we give thanks that you are mighty; glory to you forever.
            ‘Remember, Lord, to deliver your Ekklesia (church) from all evil and to make it perfect in your love, and gather it together in holiness from the four winds to the kingdom which you have prepared for it; for yours are the power and the glory forever.
            ‘Let Charis come and let this Aeon (world) pass away.  Hosannah, God of David.  If anyone be holy, let them come! If anyone be not, let them repent: Maranatha.  Amen.’ (Didache, chapters 9 and 10)


The structure of this work is thoroughly Jewish in origin, yet on closer examination one finds elements of the Gnosticism which sprang from Judaic roots as did Christianity.

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