Reading the Gnostics
By Andrew Phillip Smith
Reading the Gnostics was a piece I wrote to accompany A Dictionary of Gnosticism. In a modified form it will be one of the introductory essays in Gnostic Tendencies, intended to whet your appetite for reading the Nag Hammadi Library.
Reading the Gnostics
And he [Jesus] said, “The kingdom is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea; then he drew it up from the sea, full of little fish from below. Among them he found one good large fish. So he threw all of the little fish back down into the sea without regret. Whoever has ears to listen, let him listen.”
This parable, distinctively in the voice of Jesus, is found nowhere in the New Testament. It comes from the Gospel of Thomas, the best known of the ancient writings found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. The Gospel of Thomas is overwhelmingly the most famous and most read of the texts found in this cache for two reasons:- it has a good claim to contain sayings of Jesus that are as old and as authentic as those in the canonical gospels, and it is, at least superficially, easy to understand. It is one of nearly fifty different texts or tractates in the Nag Hammadi library, the bulk of which are Gnostic.
Gnosticism was a Christian-related religion that thrived in the second to fourth centuries CE, though its origins may have been a little earlier and it persisted in various forms much later. It emphasised the importance of gnosis—experiential knowledge of the divine—within a framework of myth and ritual. No two texts or Gnostic groups agreed on the details of the Gnostic myth, but it typically involves the following: the supreme, unique God emanates divine beings known as aeons. These form the Pleroma, the fullness of God. However, the youngest of these aeons, Sophia, falls from grace and in doing so creates the material world, which is ruled by her bastard offspring the demiurge, the craftsman of our world, often called Yaldabaoth. The demiurge and his minions create the soul and body of mankind but are tricked into incorporating an element of spirit in the human makeup. Thus humans contain a divine spark which may be nurtured and fanned into a flame. The subsequent history of mankind involves a struggle for the human soul, on the one side the demiurge and his archons, on the other a series of saviours or revealers who teach mankind how to attain gnosis and develop the spiritual seed within them. Abbreviated and simplified in this way, the Gnostic myth is understandable and appealing . However, the original Gnostic texts are more concerned with their individual elaborations of the myths than with clarity, and can be quite obscure.
Not all of the Nag Hammadi texts are difficult to penetrate. The Exegesis on the Soul (despite its awkward title) is a beautiful and straightforward account of the fall of the soul, personified as a young woman who drifts into prostitution and is abused by thieves and adulterers but who eventually repents and returns to her father and, in a daring use of sexual imagery, may couple with the bridegroom in the bridal chamber.
Thunder: Perfect Mind is a striking proclamation by a female voice, which includes fascinating, contrary statements —“I am the whore and the holy, I am the wife and the virgin.” Thunder has been adapted as a musical piece by David Tibet’s Current 93 band, and even into an advertisement for Prada perfume directed by Ridley and Jordan Scott.