How Gnostic Jesus Became the Christ of Scholars
Images of Jesus as a Gnostic or crypto-Buddhist sage are popular because they reflect the ideological needs of certain audiences
BY: Philip Jenkins
And this brings me to my key point. A hundred years ago, virtually all the ideas currently proposed as the latest hot-off-the-presses Jesus scholarship were already widely known, though less to Biblical scholars than to members of new religions, fringe occult and esoteric schools and the movements which were already then known as "cults". The cult lunacies of 1900 have become the scholarly orthodoxies of 2000.
If we look back a century or so, we find that not only were early heresies still known and studied, but they achieved a popular audience in large measure through their appeal to occult and esoteric movements, who saw the early Gnostics as their spiritual ancestors. Ironically, the Gnostics became such heroes precisely because their deadliest enemies, the Church Fathers, had been so scrupulous in recording their beliefs and doctrines: Origen had quoted an entire liturgy of the Gnostic Ophite sect, complete with its secret names of power. He would have been horrified to know that such excerpts would be taken up enthusiastically by later occultists like Aleister Crowley, who led a whole neo-Gnostic revival at the end of the nineteenth century. Crowley's Gnostic Catholic Church practiced a mass or liturgy in which the canon of commemorated saints included Basilides, Valentinus, Bardesanes, and the others "that transmitted the light of the Gnosis to us, their successors and their heirs." Crowley recommended the Pistis Sophia to his disciples as "an admirable introduction"
Another influential vehicle for Gnostic revivalism was the Theosophical movement, which was co-founded by Madame Blavatsky in the 1870s, and which would influence most of the occult sects of the twentieth century. While Theosophy grew from older esoteric roots, much of its appeal derived from its seeming congruence with the science of the day, particularly notions of evolution. Theosophists told of the rise and fall of successive races through millions of years, and also depicted the progress of the human soul through successive lives: at the summit of spiritual evolution were divine redeemers, avatars, or Christs. The Theosophical Christ thus had a huge amount in common with the Jesus of the Gnostics, the heaven-sent Redeemer dispatched to liberate the forces of light from their prison of matter. In presenting her picture, Blavatsky drew on the scholarship on Gnostic and early Christian heresy available in her own day, and her magnum opus, Isis Unveiled (1877) borrows extensively from King's The Gnostics and Their Remains. Her assumption throughout is that the Gnostics represent the earliest and most authentic doctrines of Christianity, which were later perverted by the so-called orthodox. Following the Gnostics of old with remarkably fidelity, Blavatsky and her contemporaries interpreted Christ's death and resurrection as a symbolic and psychological reality, that reflected transformations within the soul of the believer: in this view, "Christ" was not a historical personage, but a title given to any true initiate. As Theosophist Anna Kingsford declared in the 1880s, "Religion is not historical and in nowise depends upon past events... . The Scriptures are addressed to the soul, and make no appeal to the outer senses."
For Victorian occultists like Kingsford and Annie Besant, Theosophy represented a whole tradition of esoteric Christianity, which had been taught to ancient initiates. These inner teachings were passed on orally, and appeared in the teachings of movements condemned by the orthodox church. The esoteric Christianity supposedly preached by this New Age Jesus has had a long life since it was invented in the 1870s, and it is by no means extinct today. Some occult thinkers published serious scholarly editions of early texts, and Theosophical publishers presented Gnostic and occult works to a mass market. G. R. S. Mead himself was secretary of the Theosophical Society, and his editions of the Pistis Sophia and the Echoes from the Gnosis were first published by the Theosophical Publishing House.
The Gnostic Jesus particularly appealed to those who heard in his voice echoes of the Asian religions that were in such vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. Blavatsky integrated her Gnostic insights into a wider framework drawn from Asian religions: she declared Jesus to be an avatar of the divine, a messenger from above comparable to Buddha or Krishna. Like many esoteric writers, she argued that the titles of Christ and Krishna were essentially identical. Her Jesus taught the law of karma, and revealed to humanity the principles of spiritual progress and perfectibility, achieved over many lifetimes. The theory that early Christianity had drawn on Asian and specifically Buddhist thought was a commonplace for nineteenth century German thinkers, and these ideas were affecting the English-speaking world by the 1880s. It was argued that the unification of the known world under Alexander the Great had created an ideal environment for Buddhist missionaries to spread their ideas to the west. Possible east-west connections proved highly attractive for the esoteric community: in Theosophical literature, Jesus was believed to have traveled widely in India, Tibet, Persia, Egypt and elsewhere, where he acquired the mystery teachings of the respective traditions. The idea of cross-cultural pollination gained popularity as imperial contacts gave Victorian scholars an increasingly globalized perspective, and permitted them to draw on the lessons of comparative religion. Asian movements like Hinduism and Buddhism increasingly attracted mass Western audiences following the World's Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893.
Theories of a possible Asian influence on the Jesus movement usually focused on the Essenes. Even orthodox scholars like Dean Mansel argued that Buddhist monks and missionaries had provided the inspiration for the monks and ascetics whom we find recorded in the Middle East before the coming of Jesus, like the Essenes and the related Egyptian sect of the Therapeutae. Some writers explored the idea that Jesus himself might have drawn on these esoteric traditions, as suggested by the title of Arthur Lillie's 1887 book Buddhism in Christendom, or, Jesus, the Essene. In 1880, Ernest von Bunsen argued that Christian messianic concepts derived from a common fund of tradition that was shared by Buddhists and Essenes. The Essenes, it was thought, provided a crucial link between Eastern mysticism and Western heresy, with Jesus as the pivot between the two trends. If Jesus had access to Buddhist ideas, and the Gnostic sects themselves preached reincarnation and other Asian themes, then once again this was evidence that Jesus' earliest teachings were best preserved among the so-called heresies.
The idea of a connection between Jesus and the Essenes sounds remarkably modern, in that a possible link between Jesus and this sect has often been proposed since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. (The idea that the Gnostics might have drawn from the Essenes has been much discussed since the finding of the Scrolls, though it remains controversial). However, the Essenes have fascinated scholars and amateurs since the Enlightenment. Frederick the Great asserted that "Jesus was really an Essene; he was imbued with Essene ethics." Ernest Renan, author of the most famous nineteenth-century life of Jesus, proclaimed that Christianity was simply a version of Essenism that happened to have survived. Blavatsky agreed that "the Gnostics, or early Christians, were but the followers of the old Essenes under a new name." Legge in 1915 discusses the Essenes as "pre-Christian Gnostics," and quotes the by-then-familiar arguments "that St. John the Baptist was an Essene and that Jesus Himself belonged to the sect." Already in the early twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton could mock the old-fashioned idea that Jesus was "an ethical teacher in the manner of the Essenes, who had apparently nothing very much to say that Hillel or a hundred other Jews might not have said; as that it is a kindly thing to be kind and an assistance to purification to be pure." The Essenes were old hat long before the finds at Qumran.
Significantly, too, it was the early esoteric writers who first comprehended the implications of the new documents for women's role in early Christianity. Indeed, the materials were present for a feminist revision of early Christian history. Just how thoroughgoing such an endeavor could be was indicated by Frances Swiney's important book The Esoteric Teachings of the Gnostics (1909), which is virtually forgotten today. Though she writes from an occult or theosophical perspective, Swiney has much in common with modern scholars like Elaine Pagels or Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who attempt to restore the lost voices of the women of early Christianity. For Swiney, the Gnostics found their chief supporters among the emancipated women of the Roman empire, "early pioneers of the the liberation movement of their sex, dialectical daughters questioning the truth and authority of received opinions, earnest intellectual women." She saw the Gnostics as the direct predecessors of the suffragette women of her own day.
Without the benefit of the Nag Hammadi texts, Swiney uses the Pistis Sophia to provide a strikingly full portrait of the Gnostic world-view. (She also seems to have known contemporary German writings, particularly on the concept of Gnosticism as a pre-Christian movement). She saw the Gnostic faith as a far more spiritual and egalitarian doctrine than the crude beliefs of the orthodox church. Gnostics taught reincarnation; they believed "that the real human is male-female, devoid of differentiated sexuality; the duality of manifestation now existing being a transitory phase of existence"; while the notion of Christ's vicarious sacrifice for sins was a "monstrous doctrine" invented by the orthodox. "Though Gnosticism long predated Christianity, the Gnostics were the first Christians; they accepted Christ in the full realization of the word; his life, not his death, was the key-note of their doctrine and their practice." Their beliefs were expressed in gospels which, she believed, were accepted and regarded as canonical decades before a like veneration was extended to orthodox texts like the letters of Paul. The surviving Gnostic fragments, "the few mutilated relics that remain of these writings, [are] the most valuable evidence of what primitive Christianity really was, and what was the contemporary opinion of Christ and his teaching."
These noble Gnostic thinkers, "the guardians of the most sacred truths of existence," were subjected to orthodox persecutions which collectively represent "the bloodiest and the blackest records that history can show us": these acts were inflicted by "the uninformed, narrow-minded fathers of the primitive church." Worse than merely obscurantist, the Christian reaction specifically represented male persecution of women: "The Gnostics kept true to the original pristine faith in the Femininity of the Holy Spirit. A truth universally suppressed in the fourth century AD by the male priesthood of the Christian Church." Male priests had systematically doctored the surviving texts: "It is very suggestive of a sinister motive that in most of the erasures and where pages are missing in these Gnostic writings, the subject treated is in the context is some hidden mystery, the interpretation of which was unacceptable to the masculine mind and to bigoted orthodoxy." The iniquitous exclusion of women from the faith and its scriptures was the direct cause of "the persecution, degradation and maltreatment of womanhood" through the succeeding centuries.