The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
Τουτοῦ με χάριν πέμψον, Πάτερ,
"Non è puleggio da piccola barca
THE general name "Gnostics" is used to designate several widely differing sects, which sprang up in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire almost simultaneously with the first planting of Christianity. That is to say, these sects then for the first time assumed a definite form, and ranged themselves under different teachers, by whose names they became known to the world, although in all probability their main doctrines had made their appearance previously in many of the cities of Asia Minor. There, it is probable, these sectaries first came into definite existence under the title of "Mystae," upon the establishment of a direct intercourse with India and her Buddhist philosophers, under the Seleucidae and the Ptolemies.
The term "Gnosticism" is derived from the Greek, Gnosis, knowledge--a word specially employed from the first dawn of religious inquiry to designate the science of things divine. Thus Pythagoras, according to Diogenes Laertius, called the transcendental portion of his philosophy, Γνῶσις τῶν ὄντοων, "the knowledge of things that are." And in later times Gnosis was the name given to what Porphyry calls the Antique or Oriental philosophy, to distinguish it from the Grecian systems. But the term was first used (as Matter on good grounds conjectures) in its ultimate sense of supernal and celestial knowledge, by the Jewish philosophers belonging to the celebrated school of that nation, flourishing at Alexandria. These teachers, following the example of a noted Rabbi, Aristobulus, surnamed the Peripatician, endeavoured to make out that all the wisdom of the Greeks was derived immediately from the Hebrew
[paragraph continues] Scripture; and by means of their well-known mode of allegorical interpretation, which enabled them to elicit any sense desired out of any given passage of the Old Testament, they sought, and often succeeded, in establishing their theory. In this way they showed that Plato, during his sojourn in Egypt, had been their own scholar; and still further to support these pretensions, the indefatigable Aristobulus produced a string of poems in the names of Linus, Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod--all strongly impregnated with the spirit of Judaism. But his Judaism was a very different thing from the simplicity of the Pentateuch. A single, but very characteristic, production, of this Jewish Gnosis has come down to our times. This is the "Book of Enoch" (v. p. 18), of which the main object is to make known the description of the heavenly bodies and the true names of the same, as revealed to the Patriarch by the angel Uriel. This profession betrays, of itself, the Magian source whence its inspiration was derived. Many Jews, nevertheless, accepted it as a divine revelation; even the Apostle Jude scruples not to quote it as of genuine Scriptural authority. The "Pistis-Sophia," attributed to the Alexandrian heresiarch Valentinus (so important a guide in the following inquiry), perpetually refers to it as: The highest source of knowledge, as being dictated by Christ Himself, "speaking out of the Tree of Life unto ΙΕΟϒ, the Primal Man." Another Jewish-Gnostic Scripture of even greater interest (inasmuch as it is the "Bible" of the only professed Gnostic sect that has maintained its existence to the present day, the Mandaites of Bassora) is their textbook, the "Book of Adam." Its doctrines and singular application of Zoroastrism to Jewish tenets, present frequent analogies to those of the Pistis-Sophia, in its continual reference to the ideas of the "Religion of Light," of which full particulars will be given when the latter remarkable work comes to be considered (see p. 14). "Gnosticism," therefore, cannot receive a better definition than in that dictum of the sect first and specially calling itself "Gnostics," the Naaseni (translated by the Greeks into "Ophites"), viz., "the beginning of perfection is the knowledge of man, but absolute perfection is the knowledge of God." And to give a general view of the nature of
the entire system, nothing that I can do will serve so well as to transcribe the exact words of a learned and very acute writer upon the subject of Gnosticism ("Christian Remembrancer," for 1866).
"Starting, then, from this point, we ask what Gnosticism is, and what it professes to teach. What is the peculiar Gnosis that it claims to itself? The answer is, the knowledge of God and of Man, of the Being and Providence Of the former, and of the creation and destiny of the latter. While the ignorant and superstitious were degrading the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made with hands, and were changing 'the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator,' the ancient Gnostics held purer and truer ideas. And when these corrupted and idolatrous forms of religion and worship became established, and were popularly regarded as true and real in themselves, the 'Gnostics' held and secretly taught an esoteric theology of which the popular creed of multitudes of deities, with its whole ritual of sacrifice and worship, was but the exoteric form. Hence all the mysteries which almost, if not all, the heathen religions possessed. Those initiated into these mysteries, whilst they carefully maintained and encouraged the gorgeous worship, sacrifices and processions of the national religion, and even openly taught polytheism and the efficacy of the public rites, yet secretly held something very different--at the first, probably, a purer creed, but in course of time, like the exoteric form, degenerating. The progress of declination differed according to race or habit of thought: in the East it tended to superstition, in the West (as we learn from the writings of Cicero) to pure atheism, a denial of Providence. This system was adopted likewise by the Jews, but with this great difference, that it was superinduced upon and applied to a pre-existent religion; whereas in the other Oriental religions, the external was added to the esoteric, and developed out of it. In the Oriental systems the external was the sensuous expression of a hidden meaning; in the Jewish, the hidden meaning was drawn out of pre-existing external laws and ritual; in the former the esoteric alone was claimed as divine, in the latter it was the exoteric which was a matter
of revelation. To repair this seeming defect, the Kabbalists, or teachers of the 'Hidden Doctrine,' invented the existence of a secret tradition, orally handed down from the time of Moses. We may, of course, reject this assertion, and affirm that the Jews learnt the idea of a Hidden Wisdom, underlying the Mosaic Law, from their intercourse with the Eastern nations during the Babylonian captivity; and we may further be assured that the origin of this Secret Wisdom is Indian. Perhaps we shall be more exact if we say that the Jews learnt from their intercourse with Eastern nations to investigate the external Divine Law, for the purpose of discovering its hidden meaning. The heathen Gnostics, in fact, collected a Gnosis from every quarter, accepted all religious systems as partly true, and extracted from each what harmonized with their ideas. The Gospel, widely preached, accompanied by miracles, having new doctrines and enunciating new truths, very naturally attracted their attention. The Kabbalists, or Jewish Gnostics, like Simon Magus, found a large portion of apostolic teaching in accordance with their own, and easily grafted upon it so much as they liked. Again the Divine power of working miracles possessed by the Apostles and their successors naturally attracted the interest of those whose chief mystery was the practice of magic. Simon the Magician was considered by the Samaritans to be 'the great Power of God;' he was attracted by the miracles wrought by the Apostles; and no doubt he sincerely 'believed,' that is, after his own fashion. His notion of Holy Baptism was probably an initiation into a new mystery with a higher Gnosis than he possessed before, and by which he hoped to be endued with higher powers; and so likewise many of those who were called Gnostic Heretics by the Christian Fathers were not Christians at all, only they adopted so much of the Christian doctrine as accorded with their system."
The consideration of the local and political circumstances of the grand foci of Gnosticism will serve to explain much that is puzzling in the origin and nature of the system itself. Ephesus was, after Alexandria, the most important meeting-point of Grecian culture and Oriental speculation. In regard to
commerce and riches, although she yielded to the Egyptian capital, yet she rivalled Corinth in both, which city in truth she far surpassed in her treasures of religion and science. Her richness in theosophic ideas and rites had from time immemorial been manifested in her possession of Diana, "whom all Asia and the world" worshipped--that pantheistic figure so conformable to the genius of the furthest East; her College of "Essenes" dedicated to the service of that goddess; and her "Megabyzae," whose name sufficiently declares their Magian institution. Hence, also, was supplied the talisman of highest repute in the antique world, the far-famed "Ephesian spell," those mystic words graven upon the zone and feet of the "image that fell down from Jupiter;" and how zealously magic was cultivated by her citizens is apparent from St. Luke's incidental notice of the cost of the books belonging to those that used "curious arts" (τὰ περίεργα, the regular name for sorcery and divination), destroyed by their owners in the first transports of conversion to a new faith. Such converts, indeed, after their early zeal had cooled down, were not likely to resist the allurements of the endeavour to reconcile their ancient, far-famed wisdom with the new revelation; in short, to follow the plan invented not long before by the Alexandrian Jew, in his reconciliation of Plato with Moses and the Prophets. "In Ephesus," says Matter, "the speculations of the Jewish-Egyptian school, and the Semi-Persian speculations of the Kabbala, had then recently come to swell the vast conflux of Grecian and Asiatic doctrines; so there is no wonder that teachers should have sprung up there, who strove to combine the religion newly preached by the Apostle with the ideas so long established in the place. As early as the year A.D. 58, St. Paul, in his First Epistle to Timothy, enjoins him to warn certain persons to abstain from teaching 'strange doctrines,' those myths and interminable genealogies that only breed division. These same 'myths and genealogies' apply, without any doubt, to the theory of the Emanation of the Æons-Sephiroth, and to all the relations between the Good and Bad Angels that the Kabbalists had borrowed from the religion of Zoroaster."
Again, after condemning certain doctrines concerning the
obligation to complete asceticism, adopted literally from the Essenes, the Apostle adds, "Keep safe the precious charge entrusted to thee, avoiding profane novelties and the antitheses of the knowledge, falsely so-called, of which some making profession have gone astray from the faith of Christ." It was assuredly not the mere fables by which the new converts sought to enrich and complete the Christian doctrine (such as we still have samples of in the childish, though pious fictions of the Apocryphal Gospels), such things as these were certainly not the "false knowledge," which set itself up against the "true knowledge," that is, Revelation itself, as something superior to that Revelation. It must, on the contrary, have been a doctrine professing to make a science out of the Christian faith, and that, too, a science founding its principles upon antitheses. Now what are these "antitheses" (or oppositions) but the teaching of the Zendavesta, concerning the two Empires of Light and Darkness; the two grand classes of Intelligences, the good and the evil spirits, and the perpetual combat going on between them? Now these antitheses, or the principle of Dualism, is that which forms the most conspicuous feature of the Gnostic scheme; and in the Apostle's words we trace one of the most obvious ways in which such doctrines were communicated, and how they insinuated themselves into the infant Church.
In fact, the ancient commentators, Theodoret and Chrysostom, who were thoroughly conversant with the Gnosticism of their own day, apply this passage of St. Paul to that actual precursor of Gnosticism, his indefatigable rival Simon Magus himself, whose curious tenets had by that time been widely diffused throughout Asia Minor.
So deeply rooted were such speculations in the minds of many of the Ephesians, that the Apostle, in his Second Epistle to Timothy, written six years later, returns perpetually to the subject, whilst in his Epistle to the Church at Ephesus he entreats his flock not to be seduced by "vain discourses," or "new-coined appellations" (as one reading has it, and which applies forcibly to the Gnostic nomenclature), nor by human doctrines that have no more solidity in themselves than the
wind, whereof no one knows whence it cometh, or whither it goeth. Nay more, he even employs the very terminology of Gnosticism, as when he says, "Ye were dead in error and in sins: ye walked according to the Æon of this world, according to the Archon who has the dominion of the air," that is, the Demiurgus Ildabaoth. Here we have the Devs of Zoroaster, whose hosts fill the air, deceive mankind, blind their understandings, and lead them into temptation. Again when he adds, "We war not against flesh and blood, but against the Dominions, the Powers, the Lords of the Darkness, the malevolence of the Spirits in the upper regions"--all these are regular Gnostic epithets, having also their place in the Kabbalistic theology. The later Gnosticism is, in fact, as Chiflet has well expressed it, "the spirit of Asiatic antiquity seeking to assert its empire over the soul of Man by insinuating itself into the Christian Church." The Ophites, even in the early times of Hippolytus, boasted that they of all men were the only real Christians, because they alone comprehended the real nature of the Saviour. At the same time, they diligently attended the celebration of all the ancient Mysteries, notably the Eleusinian and the Phrygian, declaring that through their knowledge they had gotten the key to the hidden meaning of the whole ceremonial, which by types and figures foreshadowed the coming of the Christ. But indeed, Gnosticism, in its primitive form, had almost supplanted, by spiritualizing it, the beautiful materialism of the early Greek and Latin mythologies. Catholicism, through its unity and greater simplicity, in the end triumphed over the conflicting Gnostic philosophies, which became extinct as a professed religion in the sixth century, so far as Europe was concerned, and whose relics in Asia were at the same moment covered over with impenetrable obscurity by the sudden deluge of the Mahommedan conquest. Nevertheless, even in the first-named scene of its domination, it was not to be eradicated without leaving behind it deep traces in the writings and symbolisms of the magicians, astrologers, and seekers after the grand arcanum throughout the whole course of the Middle Ages. Thus there is a passage in Dante (Paradiso, xviii.) replete with the profoundest symbolism, and which, of course, our Freemasons claim for their
own, and that with all possible security, because the very nature of the assumption exempts them from being called upon to publish the interpretation of the mystery. The poet here tells how the five times seven letters making up the five words "Diligite justitiam qui judicatis terram" came forth in the star Jupiter, when the beatified spirits of just princes hovered over the final M, forming their hosts into the figure of an eagle. Certainly the importance given to the numerals five and seven in this revelation savours much of Gnostic phraseology, and reminds one of the thirty letters which make up the quadrisyllabic Name of God, as made known by Truth unto the heresiarch Marcus, the history of which shall be given in the fitting place. Dante had before (Canto vi.) spoken of the "awe that overcomes him before the B and I C E," evidently the initials of some mighty password, although his commentators most prosaically interpret them as the mere diminutive of the name of his lost love, Beatrice. It was to its connection with Gnosticism that primitive Christianity owed the accusation of being a Magical system--a superstition not only nova but malefica. There is a curious passage in Dio Cassius, where, mentioning how the Christian Legion in M. Aurelius’ Quadian War obtained rain from Heaven through their prayers, he remarks, "The Christians can bring about anything they desire through prayer." In later times the various factions within the Church were fond of retorting upon each other this ancient aspersion of the pagans: it was on the charge of magical practices, says Ammianus, that the Arians managed to depose and exile the great Athanasius himself.
The history of Gnosticism, written by its contemporaries, still forms a copious library, despite the losses and damages it has sustained through the injuries of time. In the carrying out of the chief object of the present work--the elucidation of the tangible remains of the Gnosis--no historical record has yielded me by any means so much service as "The Refutation of all Heresies," composed by Hippolytus, bishop of Ostia (Portus), early in the third century. Many points, hitherto seeming hopelessly enveloped in darkness, have been made clear by the careful perusal of his judicious summaries of the systems
of the different gnostic apostles. His views of their doctrines are evidently drawn up with equal candour and intelligence, and fully bear out his declaration, "that his design was not to vilify the holders of such doctrines, but merely to make known the sources whence they had really derived their pretended revelation." And he keeps his word throughout, never once indulging, like the later controversialists, in invectives against asserted practices, but exhibiting the tenets only of his opponents, and, with much ingenuity, showing up their gross plagiarism from Pagan philosophy. His eagerness for discovering the latter source in the fount of every gnostic stream, sometimes leads him to detect relationship that does not actually exist, and still oftener to pronounce a recent copy of the other what was in reality drawn directly from the same Oriental prototype--true origin of the old Greek idea with which he identifies it. But this invaluable, as well as most interesting, treatise breathes all through that spirit of charity and forbearance that made a writer belonging to a still persecuted religion, happy to be allowed to subsist through the tolerance of its neighbours. The abuse and scurrilous tales in which the later Epiphanius revels sufficiently indicate the writer belonging to an established Church, able at length to call in the secular power to assist in convincing all adversaries of their errors by the unanswerable arguments of rack, rope and faggot.
Irenaeus, a Gaul by birth, and disciple of Polycarp, himself a disciple of St. John, was elected Bishop of Lyon in the year 174. In that city he composed his great treatise generally styled "Five Books against Heresies," written in an easy and indeed elegant style, although in one place he excuses its rudeness by the fact of his having been forced during so many years to converse "in a barbarous language"--a remark of interest as showing that Celtic still remained the vulgar tongue in his diocese. He is supposed to have died soon after the year A.D. 200; and therefore is somewhat earlier than Hippolytus, who was put to death in A.D. 222, and whose "Refutation" was clearly written after the death of Irenæus, for he quotes him occasionally by the title ὁ μακάριος, "the deceased"; and has incorporated some entire chapters respecting Marcus in his own work.
The great Origen, another contemporary, has given some important details concerning the religious systems of the Ophites in his celebrated "Reply to Celsus." Two centuries after him comes Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, in Syria, during the second quarter of the fifth century, who has left very full particulars respecting the great Gnostic school flourishing in that region. The other Christian writers who have treated upon the origin and nature of the same doctrines were nothing more than ignorant churchmen, able to discern nothing in any religion beyond its external forms, and which they construed in the darkest possible sense, ever seeking for the worst interpretation of which these external appearances were susceptible. At the head of this latter class stands Epiphanius, author of the most detailed and, from its furious partisanship, amusing account of the Gnostic sects that is extant--his vast Panarion, "Breadbasket," or rather "Scrap-basket," a whimsical title intended to express the motley nature of its contents, picked up from all quarters. This immense folio (admirably translated into elegant Latin by the learned Petavius) is of the highest interest, full of pictures of the struggles of the human mind to devise for itself a revelation that shall plausibly solve all the problems of Man's other nature. Its compiler lived as Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus A.D. 367-403, and displays great zeal in raking up all manner of scandalous stories against the enemies of his adoptive Church. But there is one thing that gives immense value to his labours, the minute account given of Manichæism--that latest and grandest development of the Gnosis, which had come into existence in the interval between Epiphanius and Hippolytus.
The rule observed by all these later historians of Gnosticism is to represent it as a mere spurious offshoot and corruption of Christianity; invented, usually out of disappointed ambition, by apostates from the true faith established by the several apostles in the Eastern provinces of the Empire--a mode of representing the system than which nothing can be more unfounded. For in its earliest shape, such as it shows itself in the doctrine of Simon Magus, or of Basilides, the heaven-sent knowledge merely added upon the old foundations such articles and terms of the Christian faith as seemed capable of being
assimilated to and combined therewith, whilst on the other hand she availed herself of the machinery of the older paganism to elucidate and prove the mysteries of the new theosophy; and this was conspicuously the character of the systems of Justinus and of the Peratae; as the very curious extracts given by Hippolytus from their text-books exhibit to the astonishment of the modern reader. That sagacious controversialist was right in calling all these heresies nothing better than the old philosophies disguised under new names; his only error lay in not going back far enough to find their ultimate source. Basilides, for example, never professed Christianity (in fact, Tertullian calls him a Platonist), but he superadded upon the esoteric doctrines of the Egyptian priesthood the newly-imported notions of Buddhism--that probable source of so much that is strange in the Gnosis. The introduction of the religion of Buddha into Egypt and Palestine, a fact only recently discovered, yet substantiated by strong monumental testimony, affords the best solution for innumerable difficulties in the history of religion; but the circumstances relating to this very important question must be reserved for a separate chapter.
As for the actual TEXT-BOOKS of the Gnostics, which in their day formed so immense a library (every founder of a sect being, as if by obligation, a most prolific writer, as Hippolytus shows by the number of works he quotes), hunted up and carefully destroyed by the victorious orthodox, never perpetuated by transcripts after the sectaries became extinct, all have perished, leaving one sole specimen to attest their nature. But this survivor is of a character so wild and wondrous, that had fortune left it to our choice we could not have preserved a more characteristic representative of its class. This is the Pistis-Sophia, "Faith-Wisdom," a work to be perpetually quoted in the following pages, as it throws more light upon the actual monuments of Gnosticism than could hitherto be collected from all the other writers on the subject put together. On this account a brief summary of its contents will be the best introduction to our inquiry into the nature of the system.