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ARCHIVE: The Da Vinci Code, Gnosticism and the Gospel of Judas

1. The Da Vinci Code: A Christian Response
2. The Nag Hammadi Documents and Gnosticism
3. The Gospel of Judas
4. The Gospel of Judas - A Retake
5. Teachings in the Gospel of Judas Compared (Part 1)
6. Teachings in the Gospel of Judas Compared (Part 2)
7. Teachings in the Gospel of Judas Compared (Part 3)
8. Canonicity and the Gospel of Judas



by Ong Kok Bin

Between 1945 and 1947, two groups of ancient manuscripts that have significant bearing on biblical scholarship surfaced. One, which came to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls, was discovered in 1947. This particular group of documents contains much of the biblical texts already extant in the Old Testament, thus confirming the accuracy of our present day biblical text. They also inform us of a particular community of Jews, known as the Essenes, who were separatists. The other group, discovered earlier in 1945, and known as the Nag Hammadi Documents (or, Library) comprises thirteen codices of both religious and philosophical texts, but no canonical or biblical texts. They provide us with some much needed information about another group of people who are called Gnostics and who have a theosophical bent.

As with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Documents were discovered fortuitously. An Egyptian farmer, Mohammed Ali Samman, was looking for some sabakh, an organic fertiliser, around the foot of Gebel el Tarif near the village of Nag Hammadi when he stumbled upon a red earthen jar. At first, he was afraid to break open the jar. But curiosity and hope of some treasure soon got hold of him. This gave him the courage and strength to smash the jar to pieces. But he did not find the treasure he was hoping for. Instead, he found about a dozen books bound in brown leather cases. Disappointed, he threw the bundle of books onto a pile of straw meant for the stove fire. It was after some interesting twists and turns that the books finally found a safe haven in the Coptic Museum in Cairo and into the hands of scholars and historians who could truly appreciate their value.

The entire collection of books were written in the Coptic language spoken by the early Egyptian Christians and have been dated to around the third or fourth century C.E. Their value lies not only in their antiquity, but in their textual contents. These texts, though not canonical, provide biblical scholars with some insight into the early non-main stream Christians, particularly the Gnostics.

The word ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek gnosis, which has to do with knowledge or ‘the act of knowing’. However, knowledge to a Gnostic is not the ordinary propositional knowledge that one learns in a classroom or that one picks up from a piece of conversation with another. Gnostic knowledge is ‘the mystical or esoteric experiences of direct participation with the divine’. The attainment of this knowledge is ‘the supreme achievement of human life’ because with this attainment, salvation of one’s soul is made possible.

Gnosticism is variegated and is elusive of any single finite and systematic generalization. Yet, if one were to seek for some ‘characteristics’ of Gnosticism, it is this quest for the esoteric knowledge which can only come through direct personal experiences and not through any rote learning. Gnosticism is essentially, in Carl Jung’s words: ‘a belief in the efficacy of individual revelation and individual knowledge’.

A second characteristic of Gnosticism is what Harold Bloom describes as ‘a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or self-within-the self, and [this] knowledge leads to freedom’. The ‘uncreated self’ is the ‘seed of intellect’, the ‘light’, and is of the self-same substance of the divine. When one becomes aware of one’s ‘uncreated self’ then one is truly free - not trapped in sin or flawed by human flesh, but essentially identical with the divine. In a passage in the Gospel of Thomas, a Nag Hammadi Gnostic text, Jesus is alleged to have said:

     I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling
     stream which I have measured out...He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I
     myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.

This is not only a bold assertion but heretical since the Gnostic writer is claiming his potential identicality with Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ with him.

A third characteristic of Gnosticism is its understanding and portrayal of God as a dyad or duality - that God can both be the divine Father and Mother. Thus, as Elaine Pagels has suggested, a Gnostic could pray to God in these terms:

     From Thee, Father and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine
     being, and thou, dweller in heaven, humanity, of the mighty name...

This Gnostic duality of the ‘masculine-feminine’ principle finds one expression in the virgin birth of Christ. In orthodox Christianity, Mary is a maiden (perfectly human) and the child Jesus ‘conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 1:18-25). But the Gnostics interpret the virgin birth in a highly stylized and symbolic manner. To them, Mary represents Wisdom (sophia), the true Mother, through whom Christ comes; and the father is the ‘Father in Heaven’. Thus logion 17 of the Gospel of Philip (another Nag Hammadi Gnostic text) reads:

     Some say Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. They err. They do not know what they say.
     When did a woman become pregnant by a woman?1 Mary is the virgin whom no power corrupted.
     She is a great anathema to the Hebrews, who are the apostles and apostolic men. This virgin
     whom no power defiled...the powers defiled them (or, themselves). The Lord (would) not have said,
     “My Father, [who is in] Heaven,” if he had not had another Father. But he would have simply said:
     [“My Father.”]

We may not understand much of Gnosticism today, but the early Church Fathers knew them well and their heresies and they fought ‘tooth and nail’ to protect the purity of the orthodox Christian tradition. We will do sufficiently well if we are wary when we hear Gnosticism, even if it is ‘Christian Gnosticism’, passed off as another competing voice in ancient Christianity.

Note: This article was written almost entirely based on Internet sources.

1The Gnostics understand the Holy Spirit as female since the Hebrew word, ru’ah, for spirit is feminine.

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