by Aaron Leitch
In my last article- Gnosticism: Egyptian Origins of the Christos- we took a brief look at the evolution of the Coptic-Gnostic faith. It arose near the dawn of the Common Era among the last living inheritors of the ancient Egyptian mysteries- the Copts. It is from Egypt that many of our concepts of Christ- as both the Word and the Resurrected One- have developed. We can see the echoes of such recognizable Egyptian figures as Osiris and Thoth in the foundation of Christian spirituality.
The mythical model for Christianity, therefore, had long existed when Jesus came onto the scene. I feel it is probable that Jesus had some contact with early Gnostic teachings. However, I have found nothing concerning his life that suggests he was himself Gnostic. Rather, Jesus was likely influenced by Essene teachings. The Essenes were a Jewish mystical group, who provided much of the Judaic influence upon Gnostic mysticism.
In the 1940s, a surprising amount of ancient mystical literature was discovered in caves near the northwest bank of the Dead Sea. Apparently, they were hidden there by Christian monks at the beginning of the Catholic aggression against "heresy." The writings were already ancient at the time they were hidden, and they remained safely concealed for another 1600 years.
Though there is much debate over the issue, these Dead Sea Scrolls possibly originated with an Essene commune that once existed at nearby Qumran. Supporting this theory are references in the scrolls to the "Sons of Light" (the good-guys, the authors of the texts), and to the "Sons of Belial" (the opposition, corrupted civilization). This suggests that the authors of the scrolls followed a separatist doctrine. The Essenes were also a separatist group, due to their strict rules regarding observance of Torah Law and ritual purity. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known versions of many Christian texts, and provide several clues into the religion of Gnosticism as well.
The similarities between Essene and Gnostic teaching makes it easy to assume a connection between Jesus and Gnosticism. Perhaps because of this, the years after Jesus' execution saw a commingling of the Christian political movement*, and the spiritual principals of the Gnostics. By the time the New Testament was compiled, a Gnostic work- the Book of John- was accepted as one of the four canonical Gospels.
(*- Remember that the Christian movement founded by Yeshua ben Joseph was a pro-Jewish and anti-Roman political faction that supported Yeshua as the rightful heir to the Throne of Israel. Therefore, at that time, one had to be a Jew in order to be Christian.)
Eventually, the legends surrounding Jesus' life were incorporated into the mythology of Gnosticism. For instance, the Nag Hammadi Gnostic literature discovered last century in Egypt purports to be the "secret teachings of Jesus." That is, the teachings that Jesus reserved for his disciples, while he provided the masses with parables. Here we see Jesus as an Adept, one who has bonded with the Logos. His stated purpose is that of teaching the worthy to invoke the Logos as he had done, and to ascend past their basic human natures. The methods for doing this are strikingly similar to Jewish practices- such as Mekavah Mysticism. The Gnostics incorporated a great amount of Old Testament literature into their tradition. However, as is common when new religions evolve, the Gnostics had their own peculiar interpretation of the material. The God of the Hebrews had become the devil of Gnosticism, the Serpent of Eden was a manifestation of the Redeemer Christ (these subjects we will cover in the future), and the being who warned Noah of the coming Deluge was working against the God who flooded the world.
One of the most central mythos of the Gnostic faith is the Biblical story of Cain and Abel found in Genesis 4. In the original story, Cain and Abel were the first two children of Adam and Eve. Cain made his living as a farmer, while Abel worked as a shepherd. The world's first dispute arose between these two brothers over the subject of religion. Both brothers made offerings to God- Abel of the firstborn sheep, and Cain of the produce he grew. However, God found only Abel's sacrifices acceptable, and his brother therefore murdered him. As punishment for this crime, Cain was marked and banished- cursed to be a "fugitive and a wanderer upon the earth."
Cain does seem to have settled eventually- at least long enough to found an entire city in the land of Nod (eastward of Eden). Meanwhile, Adam and Eve had another son to replace the lost Abel- and they named him Seth. Seth remained pious throughout his life, and it was from him that descended Methuselah, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, and (therefore) the entire race of God's chosen people upon the earth.
The Gnostics considered themselves the Sons of Seth. However, as the Copts were not themselves Jewish, they did not make the claim of blood descent through Abraham. Instead, the Gnostics believed in the doctrine of reincarnation. They had descended spiritually from Seth and his family.
The Gnostics were much like the Essenes in their separatist views. As the Sons of Seth, they were an elite minority of adepts existing outside of mainstream society. The rest of humanity had descended from the murderous Cain- and the corruption, warfare, and general hardship associated with their civilization was the legacy they inherited from their unfortunate forefather. Note the similarity between this worldview and the Essene doctrine of the Sons of Light vs. the Sons of Belial.
We will end our discussion at this point for now. So far, we have seen indications of the Egyptian and Judaic influences upon Gnosticism. In the future, we will continue this exploration of the Gnostic take on Biblical tradition- specifically the Gnostic Creation Mythos. Until then, Blessings.
copyright © 2001 "Aaron" Leitch
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