A study of comparative religion suggests there are two main avenues we generally travel towards our personal, religious commitment. One leads the individual to a quest to emulate a typefigure; along the way, the character is refined and enlarged. Its adherents have been called the "searchers for the truth." They hold that in our apprehension of the life processes about us, we discern an unseen "ground" or foundation of the universe, and the closest we can approach it is by means of an "inner communion which works silently" in the soul. This cannot be uttered by any words because it is beyond the symbolism such language may be capable of expressing. However, the experience of the spiritual world previously "unknown" to us but now "sensed" is real because we feel it within our hearts and innermost thoughts. We cannot communicate it verbally and yet we cannot deny its deeply moving impact.
The second path requires belief in and acceptance of a body of texts "revealed" by or through someone supposed to be the uniquely chosen vessel of God. The three major monotheistic religions of today come within the category of belief, but each has had at one time its heart of gnostic illumination like religions of quest — for the wisdom and enlightenment gained by the direct experience of the godhead within the manifest world is a true gnosis.
This word is an old Greek term for "knowledge," and has been applied in late antiquity until the early centuries AD to a stream of religious teachings common in the Middle East and especially Iran. The knowledge meant relates to insight into the inherent nature of the universe and man; and the "salvation" referred to in the literature is the training of followers to experience the cosmos in its "total reality," rather than as it appears to us. The stream comprised many contributors: Jewish, Iranian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Oriental, and pre-church Christianity, among other possible sources. There is a gnostic inheritance in Islam, for instance, especially evident among the Sufis whose innermost teachings have been transmitted orally and the tone of which may be found within some published texts, such as the writings of Ibn 'Ata' Illah who lived in Cairo during the 13th century. One of his theses was that "gnosis must not be reduced to theology or philosophy," a reply to famous mullahs who pushed literalism upon the people, trying to shackle their freedom of soul.
Despite the seeming differences among the various contributors to this old wisdom tradition, there is discernible an underlying single thread of teaching focused upon the fundamental oneness of Life and its manifestation as a duality. This duality appears as spiritual and material poles of energies, akin to the ancient Chinese concept of yang and yin whose interaction produces the universe and everything within it. It has been said that, in a sense, the divine world is mirrored in the material, the latter "attracting spirit into manifestation, then holding it there almost as though imprisoning it." When the Empress Wu of China asked Shen Sui for an explanation of the manifestation of life the "thousand-and-one-things" — he held up a lantern made of mirrors arranged in such a way that the lighted candle in the center was not only reflected in each, but each also reflected others.
The first forms of Christian teaching before the establishment of one official church with authority over all others were gnostic, and some strands from their loom were woven into the fabric that later became canonized as the New Testament. The Gospels themselves bear signs of having been received orally long before they were committed to writing, and during that oral transmission some passages acquired gnostic overtones. For example, see the writings ascribed to Paul, and the Gospel according to John with its characteristically gnostic opening verse: "In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" — a baffling statement for the literal-minded to unravel, unless it be conceded that the Logos is the Mind of God, and then the meaning of the phrase the "Three-in-One" becomes clear, for it is of gnostic origin.
Theologians themselves have long suspected that many passages in the Gospels had connection with earlier texts believed lost and inaccessible, for instance proto-Mark or "Q" and the Gospel of the Hebrews. But in 1945 when the Christian gnostic library was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, many of the missing texts were found, and also others known previously only by name through being mentioned by the church's spokesmen who were opponents of the gnostics. It is clear from these scriptures that the gnostics adopted the approach of trying to emulate their founder, differentiating between a person called Jesus and the cosmic soul they designated "Christ."
Two interesting books open the door to an understanding of what was the purpose of the earliest Christians (who by the way called themselves Chrestians, the "worthy," i.e., disciples or students of the Christos, the "anointed"), as distinct from what their enemies interpreted of their gnosis. These are Elaine H. Pagels' two books The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John and The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. These volumes provide specific examination of St. Paul's Letters and the Gospel according to John. She gives a rigorous analysis and an in-depth study of these two texts, her approach being to take up the actual biblical statements and their interpretation by the gnostics themselves. Dr. Pagels states that the gnostics had developed a consistent and spiritually symbolic exegesis, and she suggests that the writings she uses as basis for her studies are the first real commentary upon and exposition of biblical scriptures made by the gnostics.
In The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, Dr. Pagels uses as foundation for her thesis the commentary of Heracleon, the chief disciple of Valentinus who was not only regarded as an outstanding gnostic but also as the most brilliant theologian of his time. Most of his contemporaries honored him sufficiently to consider him papal material. Only during the following generations did the dogmatists in the official church dare to challenge his teachings and the Valentinian school.
The gnostics divided mankind into three categories: the first, called hylic, was the most corporeal, i.e., the lives of such body-oriented human beings were governed by their sense impressions and material wants or desires. The sense impressions were held unreliable as a basis for understanding the world. A modern illustration is the placing of the hands of a blindfolded man in a basin of tepid water. If the left hand had previously been warmed in hot water it would now receive an impression of coolness. If the right hand had been immersed before in cold water, it would register warmth from the same tepid water the left hand had experienced as cold. These impressions would suggest to the blindfolded man that his hands had been placed in two basins of water each of differing temperature from the other.
The second class, designated psychic, were people whose "soul" aspect had been brought into activity from a latent state. The third class, termed pneumatic, referred to the spiritual or highest of the three, whose inherent pneuma or "spirit" also had to be brought out of its potential state to manifest as a potent force in daily life, suffusing it with a quality of the divine.
With this as background, we may turn to one of the central themes in Dr. Pagels' study of the gnostic view of John's Gospel: conversion. John refers to two kinds, that resulting from the healing of the centurion's child, and that of the Samaritan woman. Heracleon expounds the first by identifying the centurion as a symbol for the demiurge, the creator of the material world. For the gnostic view of the cosmos is that the divine powers or essences, called aions or aeons, emanated lesser entities that were mirror-images of themselves and materialized, called archons. The aions, being closer to the unnamable Godhead beyond all personalizing attributes, were too spiritual to be directly involved in material creations, so that task was performed by the archons. Thus the centurion who is "under authority" is a synonym for the creator of our world who is also "under authority" — the more divine entities he acknowledges as above himself, and upon whom he calls for help to save his dying son in Capernaum (a town standing for material life, indeed the "lowest extremity of materiality").
Heracleon claims that the "places" mentioned in John's Gospel refer to "places" where human beings are on their road to the manifestation within them of their highest element or innermost essence.
Capernaum, for example, a low-lying region "near the sea," signifies " those extremities of the cosmos, the hylic regions," while Bethany, where the baptist works, signifies a higher, yet still intermediate region. Jerusalem, higher still, represents the "psychic topos." The "holy of holies" of the Jerusalem temple, situated at the highest point in the city, signifies the "pneumatic topos." In this way, the topoi become a fundamental metaphor for the different "levels" of spiritual insight, . . . — pp. 52-3
So the centurion's son lies ill "in the lowest part of the mid-region near the sea, that is, in the region immersed in matter" (p. 85). The son is ill because he is immersed in matter, suffering "in ignorance and sins" even though he had been created in the image and likeness of the demiurge. The "illness" is interpreted as synonymous with "not in his natural state," but we may suggest here that actually it arises out of the condition expressed in this last phrase. That is, we believe that the expression "not in his natural state" may well hint at the inherent divine essence in the heart, which is not the creation of the demiurge but originates in the far higher realms of the aions, and indeed the Godhead itself. It is "suffering" because of being smothered in materialism. The creator cannot "save" his son so he has to appeal to divinity beyond his reach, asking for help for his son, "that is, this nature." Heracleon explains the passage by referring to the son as symbol of "the psychic nature as a whole." The son is healed and restored to the "'eternal life' which is his salvation." This could only be if our suggestion above were a valid explanation of the text, and that because of the central essence within the son, the divine guerdon was really the response to a call from like to like.
Heracleon points out that when such a "healing" happens, the creator and his "household" (that is, angels) "come to believe," and comments that it is typical "of all who have this nature" — men as well as the creator and his angels — "that they must be persuaded to believe through 'deeds and through sense-perception,* and not by the logos.'" [*This surely refers to those religionists who merely believe but do not experience gnosis.] The savior is addressing those at the psychic level when he says, "'unless you see signs and wonders, you do not believe'" (p. 85). The episode in the New Testament that refers to the centurion (who is a kind of lesser ruler) and his conversion is therefore interpreted by Heracleon to apply to the psychic experience, that of the second class of men and, presumably, of similar beings.
He expounds the story of the Samaritan woman in a different way. In the New Testament account she meets Jesus at the well and the ensuing dialogue has to do with "living water" and the well of "our father Jacob" who watered his flocks there. That she has become worldly is indicated by her decision to drink from the well from which water was drawn for Jacob's flock. Dr. Pagels differs from other interpreters of this portion of Heracleon's exegesis, with regard to the meaning of the well. She emphasizes that throughout his exposition Heracleon
interprets the figures of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob metaphorically. Each of these serves as a variant metaphor for one referent — the demiurge. Which metaphor is used depends on which aspect of the demiurge's activity is being stressed in each case. When he appears as lawgiver and judge, he is represented as Moses; when he appears as progenitor of psychic mankind, as the ruler [e.g. centurion] and as the father Abraham; when he appears as a shepherd, as Jacob. — pp. 86-7
Those beings associated with the demiurge in such representations of figures taken from the Old Testament as the above are of the psychic class. So when the woman asks whether the savior is greater than Jacob she really means whether he is greater than the demiurge. The "well of Jacob" stands for the "place" where the demiurge provides for worshipers, "sons and flocks." The metaphor stands for the religious resources of the psychics, but the so-called living water of Jacob's well is actually limited in two ways: in quantity, and because it is "stagnant." The water therefore is "perishable" and "susceptible to loss." The fact that the woman has been "drinking" from the well means she has been "worshipping" in the manner of the psychic Christians, i.e., the creator or "rather the creation." Heracleon regards this to mean her pneumatic life and her awareness of it have dried up." When she is offered "living water" her response is instantaneous as though she had known intuitively what she has now heard. Heracleon's comment is that her response is "appropriate to her nature"
since she is already one of those "chosen by the Father." She realizes at once that the psychic worship in which she has been participating is unsatisfying for her. This "water" is only a "reflection, and hard to swallow and unnourishing." — p. 87
For the literalist, the New Testament story follows with a cryptic passage about the woman being asked to call her husband although she does not have one. This request or invitation does, however, become clear if it is interpreted to mean that the "husband" is her pleroma, a word meaning Fullness and usually applied to the divine life comprising the aions as well as the uncreated monad of consciousness. Relating the term to the story then, her pleroma must surely mean not merely her "husband in the aion" but her own aionic aspect, the very core of her being, the divine spark that began its pilgrimage through material experience to call forth from itself more and more of its diviner aspects. To do this, it emanated more and more material vestures. Now there comes the long haul back to the pristine source.
So we have found represented in Heracleon's explanation of John's Gospel the "conversion," that is, development from the corporeal or hylic stage to the psychic or intermediate with its involvement in the ,'rational and ethical life of the soul," and lastly the pneumatic, which is the unfoldment from within of the spiritual level or our higher self. It is clear that Heracleon's threefold interpretation of John's Gospel taking the scripture at the literal level, then interpreting it on rational and ethical lines, and thirdly, the spiritual or symbolic — deals with more than we present here. It is likely that this method of exegesis or interpretation of biblical texts was applied generally. There have been strong claims made that the writings of Paul were those of a gnostic initiate; or else, as Dr. Pagels suggests as a possibility, what we have in the New Testament may have come down to us via the gnostics and especially the Valentinians, who were particularly devoted to the Pauline epistles.
In sum, the gnostics did not take the events, places, or personalities of the Bible literally, but interpreted them as guidelines for every man to follow if the wish was to bring out the best qualities lying dormant and awaiting the day of awakenment. The New Testament type-figure rebukes the disciples for "taking his symbolic statements literally," and as Dr. Pagels states further, the gnostic theologians claim that "those apparently simple gospel narratives are actually allegories — which, read 'spiritually,' disclose in symbolic language the process of inner redemption."
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)
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