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1983 Gnosticism: Its History and Influence
The Aquarian Press, Wellingsborough UK. ISBN 0-85030-324-9
The phenomenon of Christ is a factor to be reckoned with in the history of the world. And the phenomenon in question is not so much the historical as the gnostic Christ. There were many religious leaders and rebels in Palestine immediately before and after the advent of Jesus. There were also a number of sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots. There was nothing so unusual in what Jesus had to offer, politically or socially, that sets him apart ftom the others. As has often been pointed out, there is no reason why the record of his life should not have been a mere footnote in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (d. 101).
The known facts of his life are meagre in the extreme. The English theologian and New Testament scholar Burnett Hillman Streeter calculated that apart ftom the forty days and nights in the wilderness, of which we are told virtually nothing, all that is reported to have been said and done by Jesus in all the four gospels, could not have occupied more than three weeks. Yet such were the implications of his message that St john, with the extravagance of mystical fervour, ends his gospel by saying that Christ did and said many other things, which if they were all to be written down,'I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written' (John 21:25).
The records of his life are confused, and Bible critics are left with scores of unsolved problems, which have been the source of heresies that have racked Christendom from its beginnings. Scholars have been perplexed by the contradictions, inconsistencies and improbabilities in the canonical gospels alone, which they have never been able to reconcile. The teachings of Christ are not even preserved in the Aramaic language in which they were proclaimed. His sayings, or logia, delivered with great authority, were memorized, arranged under subject headings, and translated by Greekspeaking Jewish and Gentile converts. Certain sayings, called agrapha, or 'unwritten' pieces, were transmitted orally, and when finally put down in writing did not form part of the canon.
Along with his sayings, certain incidents of his life were also set down, and by the end of the first century there were several biographies of Jesus in circulation, some highly coloured, which were being used in the churches of Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, written in Greek, Syriac and other languages. By the fourth century there were more than a hundred such records of his life, and over the centuries the flow has become a flood. More than sixty thousand works onjesus are said to have been published in the nineteenth century alone (Stewart, 198 1, P. 108).
Scholars make a distinction between the mythological Jesus, the historical Jesus, and the proclaimed-or preached Jessus. At the same time, critics are torn between a barely historical, an unknown, probably unknowable, perhaps even a non-existent, founder. Yet, in the terms of an earlier paradox, what is important is not so much whether his mission took place, as whether it took effect.
The beliefs concerning his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are irrational in the sense that they are outside the scope of reason and inexplicable in terms of ordinary human understanding. Gnosticism is not rational. It has been pointed out that the gospels do not present a biography, nor do they represent a doctrinal teaching (didache), but are a proclamation (kerygma) of a new dispensation relating to the kingdom of heaven.
This is the 'myth' of Christianity. Not a fanciful tale, or a chronicle that can be verified in terms of history, but the living expression of a profound and eternal truth. Christ then becomes a figure as conceived by the gnostics, cosmic, archetypal, apocalyptic. He opens up the deeper significance of God's hidden mysteries. The completion of his mission was symbolized by the rending of the curtain (katapetasma) that concealed ftom all mankind the world of ultimate reality.
The gnostics believed that the nations of the ancient world had been conditioned in advance for the Christian revelation. Jesus himself had been prefigured in several cult heroes of antiquity, and the principal events of his life were a recapitulation (anakepbalaiosis) of the spiritual evolution of the human race so far, summarizing and crowning, as it were, the experience and hope of mankind as expressed in primordial cycles of legend. The teachings presented in a number of early pagan philosophies were regarded as rehearsals for the new revelation. The spirit of the Logos had been present among men before the Flood. Clement of Alexandria felt that Greek philosophy was divinely inspired, and it prepared the mind for the Christian message. St Ambrose wrote, 'All that is true, by whomsoever it has been spoken, is from the Holy Spirit.'
God had made the world receptive to Christ's dispensation by creating in the hearts of people of all nations an acceptance of similar beliefs in their own myths and symbols. Such foreshadowing confirmed the truth when it was at last made manifest. The wisdom of God fell like a shower from heaven to earth, and the particles fertilized the spirit of wise men, including some of those who wrote the Old Testament. In the Gos ,pelof Thomas the disciples say tojesus:'Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and all of them spoke concerning you.' It was believed that with Christ's coming the decline of paganism was inevitable. One by one the ancient deities were overthrown, the mysteries connected with them were rendered obsolete, and the ancient oracles silenced. Already before the first century BC, the celebrated Eleusinian mysteries had begun to degenerate into a charade and few were any longer interested in them. Diodorus Siculus (d. 40 BC) called the temple of Eleusis 'a veritable brothel'. Philo of Alexandria (d. AD 50) reported that in his time it was becoming impossible to find honourable men for initiation, and they were compelled to fall back on vagabonds and courtesans (De Vesme, 1931, p. 129).
In about 40 BC the Roman poet Virgil wrote an eclogue, addressed to the consul Pollio, associating the arrival of a new epoch with the birth of a child, which was long regarded as a prophecy about Christ. He speaks of the child, 'dear offspring of the gods', and companion of divine beings, as descending from the celestial realms to usher in a new era on earth. Plutarch (d. AD 120), in his Cessation of the Oracles, records a storyhe had heard from a reliable person who was present when it happened, about a mysterious voice loudly proclaiming, as their ship passed by a group of islands on the coast of Greece, 'The great god Pan is dead'. At this there came the sound of a mighty groaning and lamentation from countless throats. Rumours of this strange event reached the emperor Tiberius who sent for witnesses who corroborated the story. This too was interpreted by some scholars as a premonition of the end of paganism and the coming of a new dispensation. The apocryphal gospels relate that when the Virgin-Mary and her child were in Egypt 'there was a trembling and quaking', and the power of the priesthood and their idols was brought to nought. Some authorities, notably J. M. Robertson, hold that the gospel passion story is not originally a narrative but a mystery drama, and that this drama is 'inferrably an evolution from a Palestinian rite of human sacrifice'. The last supper is a reinterpretation of a sacrificial feast, and Christ's death conforms to the general pattern of past redeemer figures, Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz, Attis.
Like other martyred saviours he was scourged, robed in purple, and sacrificed for the good of the community or the redemption of the world. He was like the son in the earlier trinities of the Babylonian Ea-Damkina-Marduk, the Egyptian Osiris-Isis-Horus, the Greek Zeus-Persephone Zagreus. The Church Father Justin Martyr argued that in their doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus and his passion and ascension, the Christians were reaffirming in a new context what had anciently been alleged of the son of Zeus. Justin adds that if Christians called Jesus the Word of God, here was yet another point in common with the gentiles who called Hermes the Word of Zeus.
Clement of Alexandria referred to Jesus as the Torch-bearer and the Hierophant, terms taken from the pagan mysteries. Like Orpheus, Jesus remained in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, and neither the fierce beasts nor the venomous basilisk did him harm. Like other great culture heroes of the past Jesus had a contest (agon) with the adversary, when Satan tempted him. His cursing of the fig tree was a symbolic act, signifying his break with the licentious implications of the fig in paganism. His riding to jerusalem on an ass was a symbol of his subjugation of the demiurge, one of whose forms is that of an ass. The brazen serpent being lifted up in the wilderness to counteract the poison of serpents (Num. 21:8) is a prefiguration of Christ being lifted up on the cross to counteract the poison of Satan (John 3:14).
Birth and Childhood
The genealogy of Jesus embraces all varieties and types of men. His progenitors included a Canaanitess of the line of Ham, progenitor of the black races; Terah a Chaldean, of japhetic origin; Bath-sheba a 'Caucasian'. Jesus thus united in himself the three great races of mankind, black, yellow and white. Two of his ancestors were the offspring of incestuous unions: Moab son of Lot, and Pharez son of Judah. In the New Testament, David was the forebear of both Joseph and Mary, and if Jesus's Davidic ancestry be accepted we find in his lineage four gentile women of dubious extraction: Rahab, a harlot of Jerico, Tamar a Canaanitess, Ruth a Moabitess, and Bath-sheba a Hittite, the last two named also being twice-married. Jesus was born of a virgin, the term 'virgin' being in common usage among the Jews of the time for any young woman, married or unmarried.
A talmudic text hints that the father of Jesus was a gentile named Panthers, thus making him a mamzer or bastard, an idea taken up by the Borborians. Some gnostics held that Jesus was born in the natural way to Joseph and Mary. Also, that as the physical mother of Jesus, Mary was worthy of honour but not of special homage. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus speaks of his earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, and compares them with his divine father, God, and his divine mother, the Holy Ghost. Yet the body of the man Jesus was destined to be used as the vehicle of the cosmic Christ, and since gnostics regarded the body as corrupt and sinful, they tried to avoid any implication of contamination by often fanciful theories to preserve the supernatural character of Jesus's birth.
Thus, Jesus passed through the body of Mary like water through a pipe, without receiving any taint from the womb. Later, even the orthodox sought ways of denying normal conception. The Syrian churchman Ephraem Syrus (d. 378) said that Mary had been impregnated auricularly, based on the biblical text which states that the annunciation was delivered by the angel who 'came in unto her' (Luke 1:28), bearing the message of the Holy Spirit, and it was through the ear that the divine power passed into her womb. Nestorius (d. 45 1), Patriarch of Constantinople, placed emphasis on the manhood of Christ, in contrast to those who stressed his divinity. The Nestorians referred to Mary as Christ-bearer (Christotokos), and taught that Jesus was a man who became divine, and not God who became a man.
Their opponents among the Church theologians, on the other hand, referred to Mary as God-bearer (Theotokos), and taught that she was divinely maintained in a state of purity. Faith in Mary's virginity and her unbroken hymen before birth (Lat. antepartum), during birth (inpartu) and after birth (post-partum), was to become official Christian doctrine many centuries later.
References to the 'brothers' of Jesus in the gospel texts, was believed to apply to the children of Joseph by a former wife. Joseph died before the ministry of Jesus, and Jesus is therefore spoken of as the 'son of the widow', Joseph himself seldom being brought into a context suggesting his relationship with Jesus.
The virgin birth, in the mythology of the apocrypha, was one of several natural portents that heralded an event of unparalleled importance in the history of the universe. Another took place when the heavens declared through the star of Bethlehem that a New Man was born to whom the world would have to look for its deliverance from the dominion of sin and evil. The star was seen by the three magi, three wise priest-kings of the east, descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth, representing the peoples of all the world. Balthasar belonged to the white race of Shem and brought the infant gold, symbol of the incarnation. Melchior belonged to the black race of Ham, and brought frankincense, symbol of the crucifixion. Caspar belonged to the yellow race of Japheth, and brought myrrh, symbol of the resurrection.
The gospels record only a single major instance from the childhood of Jesus, telling how, when he was twelve years old he went to the temple and discoursed with the doctors, and 'all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers' (Luke 2:47). But the apocryphal gospels of the infancy give numerous other stories of his supernatural power. Thus, he fashioned twelve sparrows out of 'Soft clay, clapped his hands and they flew off. Again, he dipped several sheets of cloth into a vat of black dye, and when the dyer complained to Mary, Jesus took them out one by one, each dyed in a different colour as the dyer asked. Another story relates that when he was being taught the alphabet, his teacher Zacchaeus said to him, as was the custom, 'Say al ha' (or in Hebrew, alef, the first letter of the alphabet), and Jesus said, 'Alpha'. When the teacher said, 'Say beta' (Hebrew, betb, the second letter), the child answered, 'First tell me what alef is and then I will tell you what beth is'. The child then proceeded to explain to Zacchaeus the construction and significance of alef.the diverging lines showing the relationship of what is above and what is below; the long middle stroke resembling the body of a man; the short descending stroke like an arm pointing down; the raising on high of the third stroke, like an arm uplifted; the dancing form as the lines come together; and the tension and balance of the whole composition that makes up the letter alef. And when Zacchaeus heard the allegories of the first letter spoken by the child he cried out in perplexity, shame and rage, Woe is me, wretch that I am. I have brought disgrace to myself by agreeing to teach this young man. Take him away. He has confounded my senses. I cannot follow his meaning. I have been humiliated in my old age by a child. I am ready to faint and die in my disgrace. I cannot endure this hour for I have been brought to nought by a stripling.'
The view held by certain gnostics was that Christ the Logos, being divine, eternal and perfect, could not assume material flesh, since matter was essentially impure and evil. According to Basilides, Christ could transform himself and make himself invisible at will (see John 8:59), because he was a bodiless power (Lat. virtus incorporales). He had a spiritual body, and although he consumed food like mortal men, there was no waste, and one could invoke the 'bowels of Christ' without impropriety. Valentinus wrote, 'Jesus ate and drank in a special manner, without evacuating the food. So great was the power of his continence that the food did not decay in him, for he himself was incorruptible and without decay.' A fundamental belief of some schools was that Christ could not take on anything of human nature. He was impassible, that is, he could not suffer in any way, as this would imply deficiency, imperfection and mortality. Christ only seemed (dokein, 'to seem') to suffer, but did not undergo actual suffering. The docetists, or 'seemers', believed that Christ was wholly spirit and that his incarnate form was not real but was a phantasmal or apparent body, having only the appearance of being real, and that Christ only seemed to suffer and die on the cross. It was not Christ who carried the cross, but someone else. According to Basilides, Christ changed places with Simon of Cyrene, who is mentioned in the Bible as bearing this burden (Mark 15:2 1). Christ then mingled with the crowd of onlookers, while Simon carried the cross, bore it to the hill, drank the gall and vinegar and was crucified and died. In the Ap[ocalypse of Peter, a Nag Hammadi text, Peter sees what appears to be Jesus being seized and prepared for the cross, and at the same time another figure above the cross who is 'glad and laughing'. On enquiry he is told that the happy person is the living Christ and the one being prepared for crucifixion is the substitute. In this view the crucifixion of Christ was an illusion.
The cross therefore has no significance, since Christ did not suffer on it. Furthermore, as an instrument of shame and punishment it should be treated as an object of detestation. In another view, held by Cerinthus and others, the historical man Jesus, a good and holy person who had led a pure and unblemished life, was chosen as an instrument of the divine Christ, the Logos. Christ descended into the physical frame of the man Jesus and became incarnate in him. This incarnation took place at the river Jordan at the moment of the baptism of Jesus by John, at which time a light came out of the water, and the divine commission became manifest.
The Bible records that it was only at this time that the Holy Spirit hovered over Jesus, now Christ, and God the Father proclairped, 'Thou art my beloved Son. This day have I begotten thee' (see NEB, Luke 3:22). Christ's mission of teaching and healing lasted till his betrayal byjudas, after which the Christ-force left the body ofjesus, and it was the man jesus who suffered and was crucified. This explains the lament on the cross,'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?', which in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter reads, 'My power, my power, thou , hast forsaken me' (James, 1924, p. 91). It is to be noted that the canonical gospels report no miracles performed by Jesus either before his baptism or after he was arrested and led out of Gethsemane.
Not all gnostics took a docetic view of the crucifixion. Many held that Christ's suffering was essential if any sense was to be made of his redemptive work. According to certain Valentinians, Christ, though clothed with immortal life, accepted the endurance of suffering, and took death to himself as his portion in order that he might confront it and annihilate it utterly. The sect of the Melchizedekians likewise proclaimed the reality of Christ's physical body and passion. The Church rejected the docetist doctrine as heretical, holding that the purpose of Christ's ministry was to identify with the human condition, know temptation, experience suffering, death and hell, in order that he might vanquish them.
Death and Resurrection
For those gnostics who did not take the docetic view, the problems connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus were: Did jesus die on the cross? Or was a drug administered, perhaps by the skilled Essenes, that would only give the semblance of death (Schonfield, 198 1, p. 110). The German scholar Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (d. 1792) suggested that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who may have been members of the Essene brotherhood, prepared Jesus to face the ordeal of an apparent death. After removing his comatose body from the cross Joseph of Arimathea used secret remedies to revive him (Stewart, 1981, p. 155).
Again, was his resurrection a normal return to consciousness after a sudden collapse into a coma that was mistaken for death? If so the disciples may have bribed the Roman guards to let him go. It has further been suggested that Jesus went to the Essene community at Qumran, became an Essene monk, and then moved to Masada and perished with the other jews when the Romans took the fortress in AD 74 (Joyce, 1973).
Graves and Podro think Jesus may have been to Rome after his resurrection. There is also a legend that he travelled to India and died and was buried in Kashmir (Faber-Kaiser, 1977). St Paul states that over 500 persons saw Jesus after the crucifixion (I Cor. 15:6). But to his intimate disciples he usually appeared as a transfigured Jesus. As the living exemplar of the divineiightjesus is frequently described as clothed in a brilliant robe of glory and with a dazzling countenance, especially when rapt in prayer and contemplation. The Bible records how on one occasion he took Peter, James and John to a high place, not named in the gospels but traditionally regarded as Mount Tabor southwest of the Sea of Galilee, and was transfigured before them as he spoke with Moses and Elias (Elijah). His raiment was white as snow and his face shone like the sun. just as gnostics make a mystery of the forty days in the wilderness, whenjesus was tempted, so they make a mystery of the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension.
Several gnostic texts, notably the Pistis Sophia, as well as such , Nag Hammadi documents as the Apocrypbon of John, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ and the Epistle of Peter to Philip, give an account of Jesus after the resurrection, when he appears to his grieving disciples as the glorified Cosmic Christ, apparelled in a vesture of blinding light greater than the light of the sun, transcending the limitations of the earth and filling the heavens with his radiance. Then, reducing the effulgence of his glory, he makes a special revelation to his disciples, ending with a secret discourse on the Mount of Olives.
Christ in Hell
After the crucifixion Christ descended into hell. This phase of his mission is said to have been prefigured in the lives of several gods and semi-divine heroes of antiquity: Osiris, Horus, Isis, Ishtar, Demeter, Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus, all of whom descended into hell. Legends of the harrowing of hell often form part of the hero's descent into the nether regions. In some of the apocryphal gospels Christ too is vividly described storming Hades and vanquishing the powers ruling there. His purpose is said to be threefold. First, he must redeem himself, for like other mortals he needs redemption, and therefore undergoes an experience of the lower planes. Secondly, he does so in order to save the souls of those who are there. And finally, and this will come at the end of time, he will assault and eventually overthrow Death and Hell.
St Paul says that Christ 'descended into the lower parts of the earth' (Eph. 4:9). St Peter writes that Christ 'preached unto the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:19), meaning hell; and also that'the gospel was preached to them that are dead' (1 Pet. 4:6). The Apostles' Creed states explicitly that Christ 'descended into hell'. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as the Acts of Pilate) speaks of Christ's decent into hell, and recounts certain dialogues that took place there.
In the gnostic view, Christ's redemptive mission did not begin on earth, nor is it confined to men. The mission of the Logos began when evil began. His work on earth is part of a long drawn-out work of salvation. Christ has a function in every region on our side of the Stauros. When he came down he came to fulfil a specific mission for every form of creation: for the fallen angels, the aeons, the archons, for man, and so on down the hierarchy of beings. He goes to other worlds in the remotest spheres of the universe. In the Naassene Psalm, Christ says, 'All the worlds shall I journey through, all the mysteries unlock.' In the Mandaean Ginza the Redeemer says, 'I wandered through worlds and generations.' The sage Silvanus speaks in his Teachings of the many forms Christ assumed in his descent through the spheres, each appropriate to the situation. According to the Pseudo-Clementines, third-century texts wrongly attributed to the apostolic father Clement of Rome (d. 100),'The true Messenger from the beginning of the world, altering his forms with his names, courses through the ages until he shall have reached his time, and, anointed by God's mercy for his tabours, attained to eternal rest.'
Christ the Logos
The gnostic conception of Christ as Logos was not far different from that of the Church. Christ is the Light-Person, the Lord (Kyrios), the image of the Most High, the Holy One of God, 'the same yesterday, and today, and for ever' (Heb. 13:8). As God said, 'I am that I am' (Exod 3:14), so the Logos declares, 'Before Abraham was, I am' John 8:58). Manifesting his self-giving love, God reveals himself in Christ, who is the personification of the Logos and represents the descent of the divine. Through the Logos made flesh (John 1: 14) God enters history and the finite universe. He bridges the gulf between God and man, and through him we meet God. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (d. AD 50), who has been called the first of the Church Fathers because of his almost Christian interpretation of the Logos, wrote, 'If there be any as yet unfitted to be called a son of God, let him press to take his place under God's first-born son, the Logos, who holds the eldership among the angels, their ruler as it were, for the Word is the eldest-born image of God.'
For mankind, Christ is not only the gracious and good one (chrestos), but the anointed one (christos), anointed with the holy chrism of God. He is the Good Shepherd, the Light, the Way, the Truth, the Life. He is a unique being, who comes from the superior world, and we are not his equals. In the early gnostic texts Christ is spoken of as Allogenes, belonging to 'another race', that is, a divine personage, and not the'brother of men'. Christ declared, 'I and my Father are one' (John 10:30).
The purpose of Christ's ministry was to enable man to establish a personal relationship with God, so that man's adoption by God might become possible. He taught a new prayer addressed to 'Our Father which art in heaven', distinguished from the 'father' of those who worship the god of this world. Without Christ, say the gnostics, man has no spiritual relationship with the divine world, no spiritual past and no spiritual future. The Gospel of Philip states that he who has not received Christ is an orphan, but when he becomes a Christian he acquires parents: God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the cosmic 'Son of man' seen in the vision of the prophet (Dan. 7:13). He shows the way by which man may ascend to heaven. In the words of the Bible, 'No man has ascended to heaven but he who came down from heaven'(John 3:13). Satan, Sophia and Adam indeed descended, but their descent was a fall. Christ alone descended voluntarily, and all things that were brought down can only ascend through him. Without Christ man cannot reach God. The biblical text commonly translated,'Except a man be born again (anothen), he cannot see the kingdom of God' (John 3:3) should read, 'Except a man be born from above...', and this is how it is translated in the Jerusalem Bible. Solely through Christ the Logos is such a rebirth possible.
Christ the Man
Certain gnostic texts speak of Christ the Logos as having come down to earth incognito, in order that Satan and the archons might not become aware of his presence on the physical plane. He therefore put on terrestrial garments, disguising himself in human shape, concealing his true forin to escape recognition by the cosmic guards and archons. But in another gnostic view the archons knew thatjesus was the Logos, and indeed Satan recognized and tempted him. The Syriac Odes of Solomon (c. AD 130), discovered at the beginning of this century, compare God's plan of salvation to a letter from on high, despatched like an arrow. The hands of many reached out to snatch the letter, but were afraid of the seal upon it, or lacked the power to break the seal. Satan therefore was ignorant of the message. He was unaware of that hidden mystery that'eye hath not seen, nor ear heard'(1 Cor. 2:9) concerning the destiny that God had in store for those about to be redeemed. Christ was bringing a messsage such as had never been heard, for, as he said, 'I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world'(Matt. 13:35).
It was essential that Christ come to earth in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). just as God withdrew and 'made place' to provide an area for the world to come into existence, so Christ, according to the doctrine of'emptying'(kenosis), emptied himself, and 'made himself nothing' (NEB, Phil. 2:7). The Prince of Glory had to take upon himself the misery of earthly existence, experience temptation and suffering, endure contempt and persecution. Though mighty, he humbled himself; though rich, he made himself poor (2 Cor. 8:9). His physical appearance was in keeping with his lowly estate. The Church Father Tertullian wrote that in the days of his flesh Jesus had an ugly countenance (see also Isa5 3:2). The phrase St Paul applied to himself could with greater relevance be applied to Christ, that he was'all things to all men' (i Cor. 9:22). He was a source of universal interpretation and a projection of every human ideal. The gnostics were well aware of the diverse reactions to Jesus. 'He appears', it was said, 'different to each of the different sects who so contentiously seek him. Each responds differently to him, but he belongs to all.' The Valentinian teacher Theodotus said, 'Each person will see the Lord in his own way, not all alike.'
The Gospel of Philip states that Christ revealed himself in a manner in which all men would be able to see and understand him. To the great he appeared great, and to the small, small. To the immature he appeared as a youth, and to the mature as a man of wisdom. One of the gnostic gospels relates that when jesus first called upon the brothers James andjohn to follow him, James sawjesus as a boy, while John saw a handsome and cheerful young man, and thought that James's eyesight must be blurred and defective.
The ministry of Jesus was directed at all manner of people. He came to the despised Samaritans, the hated Romans and the detested tax-gatherers. His disciples carried on his work, so that Peter admitted to baptism the gentile proselytes (Cornelius and his household); and Philip the Evangelist the still more despised eunuch, a class barred by the Law from participating in the full privileges of the Jewish faith. To some, Jesus was a pretender and a charlatan. To others he was prophet, priest and king. He was in turn stern lawgiver and implacable judge, as well as a champion of the poor and oppressed. He was the loving teacher and guide, and the rebel leader; the gentle preacher, and the reformer demanding social justice. He was a peacemaker who advocated turning the other cheek, and a radical declaring that he came to bring not peace but the sword. He was, in the words of Don Cupitt, 'a model for hermits, peasants, gentlemen, revolutionaries, pacifists, feudal lords, soldiers and others'. His language was down to earth. He drew illustrations both from lilies in the field, and egesta in the privy (Mark 7: 15-19). Among the examples cited by Jesus of the everyday activities that would precede his second coming were: men working in the field, women grinding corn, and'in that night there shall be two men in one bed' (Luke 17:34). His attitude to loving relationships between people was often misconstrued. St Jerome mentions a verse in the Gospel of the Hebrews in which Jesus says to his disciples, 'Never be joyful save when you look upon your brother with love', a verse which became the subject of much free interpretation among the gnostics. To certain of his detractors Jesus was an illegitimate halfcaste, to others 'a man gluttonous and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners' (Matt 11:19) He was known to associate with delinquents and harlots, forgiving, if not condoning, adultery, and promising paradise to men of violence.
In some gnostic sects he was seen as a homosexual, and in others there was a suggestion of more reprehensible practices. A modern writer gives a few more examples of the individual interpretations to which the Christ figure has been subjected in our own times. He refers to'the whimsical clown of Godspell and the strident social critic of Jesus Christ Superstar... the scheming Jesus of Schonfield, the mythical Jesus who is a phallic symbol of Allegro' (Bruns, 1976, p. 9). In L Age d'Or, a film made by the Spanish painter Luis Bunuel, Jesus appears as a 'master debauchee' who presides over the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom (Tyler, 197 1, p. 19).
In the film Theorem of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Christ is in turn sexual and divine, the picture perhaps being intended to represent, among other things, 'faith as a phallic fantasy' (Weightman, 1973, p. 178). Not many years ago another film producer, Jens Joergen Thorsen proposed making a film, with the financial backing of the Danish government, to be entitled TheLovesofjesus Christ, in which Jesus was to be presented as 'a warlord, love apostle, erotomaniac, drunkard, idealist and revolutionary', with some footage devoted to explicit portrayals of him in group sex scenes (Warner, 1976, p. 229).
In the gnostic view Christ's understanding and experience embraced all the evils. To fulfil his purpose he had not only to confront but identify with the Adversary. The temptations of Jesus are briefly recorded in the Bible (Matt. 4:1). Only three incidents are symbolically given, and we do not know the precise nature and full scope of the temptations. To believe that man can know gentle love and violent lust, tender mercy and murderous hate, and that Christ cannot, is to believe that the range of human experience and knowledge is greater than that of the Logos. And it may have been in the wilderness, about which little else is recorded during the forty days and forty nights, that Christ became as much sin incarnate as he was God incarnate.
The gnostic denigration of Christ in this context was designed to reveal a degraded Saviour, who alone could understand the extent of their own degradation. In the words of the modern revivalist, Christ raises man 'from the guttermost to the uttermost'. But, the gnostic would ask, how could he save man from the abyss of sin, unless he entered the abyss himselip This particular concept gave rise to the gnostic doctrine of the redeemed Redeemer, according to which Christ became incarnate as a man in order to fulfil in himself the process of purification and redemption. To do so he had to participate fully in the human condition. In this view redemption was necessary even for Christ (Foerster, 1974, p. 225). He was born into the inheritance of Moses so that he could free mankind from the bondage of the law (Rom. 10:4). He was 'made to be sin' (2 Cor. 5:21) in order to remove from us our inheritance of sin. He was 'made a curse'(Gal 3:13) to lift from us the curse of the Fall. He became man that we might become divine. He experienced death and hell that we might be ransomed and gain immortality.
A prominent figure in gnostic and heretical literature. Some scholars believe that the name Magdalene is the Greek rendering of the Aramaic word megadella meaning 'hairdresser'. Women practising this profession were regarded among the Jews as ladies of easy virtue. Others think it more likely that she was named after the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. She was a very wealthy woman and owned much property in the town. There is a great deal of confusion about the various Marys mentioned in the Bible and the Apocrypha. Some have identified Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman 'which was a sinner', who anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment (Luke 7:37), and some think she was the same as the woman of Bethany, also unnamed, who anointed his head (Mark 14:3), while yet others have attempted to identify both these anonymous women with Mary of Bethany who anointed his feet (John 12:3). This latter hypothesis would make Mary Magdalene the sister of Martha of Bethany and of Lazarus mentioned above. In early and medieval lore Mary Magdalene is represented as a beautiful and meretricious woman, a witch and a whore. She repents and is led to Christ, who casts seven devils out of her (Mark 16:9). She washes the feet of Jesus and anoints his head with costly oils. In many gnostic texts she is the companion of Jesus and is with him on several important occasions. In one curious case, however, Mary is not present, and this is during an event of especial significance. Before the last supper Jesus called his disciples together and asked them for the bread and the cup to bless them. At that moment Mary Magdalene laughed, whereupon Jesus asked all the women to leave. According to the gnostics, Jesus loved Mary Magdalene above all his disciples, and certain gnostic texts hint of an erotic relationship between them, as a result of which she becomes spiritually pregnant and perfect. According to the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Philip Jesus often kissed her on the mouth, a fact that offended the disciples so much that on one occas-on Peter askedjesus to make Mary leave their company. When the disciples asked Jesus, 'Why do you love her more than us?' he replied, 'Why do you suppose I do not love you as much as I love her?' It has been suggested that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were united in a form of spiritual marriage permitted by the Essene sect to which Jesus is thought to have belonged, and also that she was his legal wife (Folliot, 1978, p. 39).
She was the first to see a vision of the risen Christ after his death. He appeared to the other disciples only later, and when she spoke of her vision to the disciples Peter refused to believe her. The Nag Hammadi text the Dialogue of the Saviour praises her as excelling all the disciples and being favoured with an insight far surpassing theirs. She is in fact the most spiritual of the disciples and is described as'the woman who knew the All'. In the Gospel ofmary (Magdalene), she is the supreme initiate into Christ's mysteries and after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples say to her, 'Let us hear from you those words of his which you know and which we have not heard'. And she then discloses to them what Jesus said to her. Unfortunately, several pages of the script are badly damaged at this point, so no details of this teaching are preserved. But the narrative goes on to say that the disciples found the teaching unlike anything they remembered Jesus having taught. Much of the medieval lore about Mary Magdalene is embodied in books like the Golden Legend by the Dominican priestjacobus de Voragine (d. 1298), and her cult flourished for centuries in the south of France. In this tradition, Mary Magdalene, along with Martha her sister, Lazarus her brother, Mary the wife of Cleophas who was the half-sister of the Virgin Mary, Mary the mother of James and joses, and Mary Salome, were all washed up on the shores of Provence in a rudderless boat, after they had fled persecution in the Holy Land. The probability that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus has recently been argued afresh by more than one writer. It has even been suggested that the title Notre Dame, 'Our Lady', conferred on many great French cathedrals, also refers to Mary Magdalene (Baigent, 1982, p. 73).
If there is confusion about the scriptural and apocryphal Marys, there is still greater confusion about the Salomes. A number of women named Salome (Heb. shalom, 'peace') figure in the texts. One Salome appears in the infancy gospels as a midwife, or is otherwise present at or immediately after the birth ofjesus, and is the first to recognize him as the Christ. Sometimes she is said to be the sister of the Virgin Mary. Traditionally, Salome is the name given to the wife of Zebedee and mother of the apostles James and John, although she is not so named in the Bible. Another traditional Salome is the beautiful sixteen-year old daughter of Herodias (Mark 6:22) and step-daughter of Herod Antipas the tetrarch. According to the storyjohn the Baptist denounced the marriage, incestuous in Mosaic law, of Herod and his sister-in-law Herodias. The latter conspired with her daughter to avenge herself onjohn the Baptist. During a palace feast Salome danced a voluptuous dance before Herod, which so pleased him that he promised to give her whatever she asked. She demanded, at the prompting of her mother, the head of the Baptist on a salver. John was duly beheaded and his head brought to her. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this Salome later married her grand-uncle, Philip the tetrarch, and after his death, Aristobulus of Lesser Armenia. In the apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians a certain Salome appears as a disciple of Jesus. She asks him how long death would hold sway, and he says to her, 'So long as women bring forth, for I come to end the works of the female'. To this Salome replies, 'Then I have done well in not bringing forth.'It would appear from this text that Salome was childless, and apparently unmarried. Scholars who identify this gnostic Salome with Salome daughter of Herodias suggest that josephus's statement about her twofold marriage may in fact refer to another member of Herod's household, perhaps Herod's own daughter of the same name. Herod's household was thoroughly depraved, and Salome was part of a corrupt family, both on her mother's and stepfather's side. In a popular tradition current at the time she, like her mother, had lusted after John the Baptist and had been spurned by him, for which reason she eagerly fell in with her mother's scheme to have him executed. Strange to say, medieval folklore does not condemn Salome for demanding the head of John the Baptist. It is her mother, 'the most damned and adulterous Herodias', who enters legend as the leader of the witches, and it is Herodias who is condemned to dance without respite till the day of judgment. This would lend support to the belief about the 'conversion' of Salome, after which she becomes a follower of Jesus. To add to the confusion, she is sometimes referred to as Mary Salome. The only Salome actually mentioned in the Bible is described as watching the crucifixion from afar off, and coming after the entombment to anoint the body. In both contexts she is named with Mary Magdalene. The apocryphal Coptic Book of the Resurrection of Christ, attributed to the apostle Bartholomew, names the women who went to the tomb. Among them were: Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James whom Jesus delivered out of the hand of Satan; Mary who ministered to him; Martha her sister; Joanna (Susanna) who renounced the marriage bed; and 'Salome who tempted him.' It would seem that some time after she had contrived the beheading of John the Baptist, Salome may have tried to use her wiles to temptjesus in some way, but was converted by him and became his follower, and like Mary Magdalene remained cluse to him thereafter. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Salome and Mary Magdalene became the disciples of Jesus when they transcended their human nature and'became male'. Salome received certain secret teachings fromjesus, and these were said to have been communicated by her to a select group. The Carpocratians claimed to derive some of their tenets from Salome. In the Gospel of Thomas there is a reference to Jesus sharing Salome's couch, and of Salome's strange questioning. 'Who are you sir,' she asks him, 'that you have taken your place on my couch and eaten from my table?'Andjesus says,'I am he who is from the One, and the things that belong to the Father have been given to me.'Salome retorts,'But I am your disciple.'And Jesus answers, 'When the disciple is united he will be filled with light, but if he is divided he will be filled with darkness.'