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Reading Plan /file 1A
Texts 1 through 4

Reading the Nag Hammadi Codices


The Mysteries and the Master

1, Allogenes 490 Allogenes
2, Apocalypse of Peter 372 Apoc Peter
3, Dialogue of the Savior 244 Dial Sav
4, Gospel of Thomas 124 Gos Thom
5, Second Treatise of Great Seth 362 Treat Seth
6, Sentences of Sextus 503 Sent Sextus
7, Teachings of Silvanus 379 Teach Silv
8, Thunder, Perfect Mind 295 Thund

NOTE: In the NHLE, pages in the bound and numbered Codices are indicated in bold. In these commentaries, notations such as 55.30 indicate page and line of a text already identified.

1, Allogenes: XI, 3. NHLE p 490. Nine pages, badly damaged (fragmentary) in several passages. Revelation discourse. CORE: endowment of divine intelligence, instruction by the Organic Light.

What a place to start reading the NHC! Allogenes plunges the reader right into the heart of the deepest, richest material. This is largely a core text, "esoteric." The language it uses may seem obscure at first glance, but it is pointless to attempt to understand every phrase in a limited, literal sense. Oddly, a good way to read some passages in Allogenes is to scan the text but without demanding to make sense of every word and phrase. This text presents an intimate glimpse of a Mystery School session. Its tone and style can be absorbed— sipped, if you will—without the compulsion for complete rational understanding. Much of this document can be understood by reasoned interpretation, as we shall see, but some passages go down better if treated with suspension of disbelief, as if you were reading a fairy tale or an engaging movie. Allogenes illustrates a key lesson in reading the NHC: Do not cramp the mind on cryptic material.

Allogenes presents five revelations of a female Revealer, Yeoul, who might be compared to a Tibetan dakini, a tutelary spirit. The revelations are given to someone called Allogenes, “the Stranger,” or, literally, "born otherwise." This is a code name for the Gnostic seeker, the neophyte who is ready to receive the lineage transmission of Gnosis.

Immediately we encounter baffling Mystery names—the Triple-Powered One, Kalyptos ("Hidden One"), and Photophanes-Harmedon, which appears to be a supernatural source of light-generating harmonies. The language here indicates that the discourse arises from a direct encounter with the Mystery Light. The Aeon of Barbelo (46.34), a fivefold mandala of lights in the Pleroma, has an exact parallell in Buddhism. The luminal realm of the Gods is perfect, telieos, and blessed, makarios. The Originator, source and ground of the Aeons in the Pleroma is "a God over whom there is no divinity" (47.34).

After some fragmentary lines comes a rich flood of mystical language describing the reality “prior to perfection and to every divinity,” and explaining the Ultimate One by what it is not. Passages 47-49 recall Buddhist teachings on Shunyata, the Void. Both life and mind, Vitality and Mentality, flow from the Originator (damaged Ps 48-50). Also, the term "That-Which-Is" (49.27) recalls the Tathagata of Buddhism. In P 50 Allogenes speaks to Messos, his son (read: lineage student), confessing his reticence to reveal such matters: "I fear that my teaching may have become something beyond what is fitting. (50.15-17)" In 50, Youel states the core teaching on endowment, the implantation of nous, divine intelligence, in the human species:

A great power was endowed in you by the Eternal before you came to this world, in order that you might distinguish those things difficult to distinguish and unknown to the multitude, and that you might be freed to the One who is yours, in you, the first to save and who does not need to be saved.

Gnosis is the knowledge that saves. Given the inborn endowment of nous, which originates in a cosmic, superhuman source, humans do not need to be saved by superhuman intervention. The saving power is nous, our dose of divine intelligence. This dose is a capacity to be developed, not an entity to be worshipped. Nous is not even in intrapsychic divine entity, the Self or whatever. It Is the divine intelligence of the human species. To project that intelligence into the extrahuman figure of a messiah or savior is totally wong on Gnostic terms. To look for or expect salvation from without is to deny the inner endowment. Faith in the power of superearthly intervention to change the human condition impedes our capacity to develop human potential. This is radical Gnostic teaching, a close parallel to Ch'an, Zen, and Dzogchen.

The revelation continues, describing how the Hidden One infuses noetic language (Coptic SHAJEH: "logos, "word") into the human mind by a downloading of images. The images are alive and operate via inborn capacities as "craft, skill, or partial instinct" (51.17-24). The power for self-correction is also endowed, "continuing to rectify failures from nature." The Coptic word NOBE, "sin," is here interpreted as failure, unrealized potential, rather than failure to follow a moral code dictated by God. Karen King (Revelation of the Unknowable God, p. 115) translates the mysterious line, "He is a word from a counsel, he is a perfect Youth" as "This perfect Youth is a word deriving from a design" (51.37). This line again uses SHAJEH, read: "design, intentional language." Here is the Mystery School source of the "Divine Child," Iacchos in the Eleusinian rites. ¨"The Youth" is a perpetual capacity for renewal, seeing world and self in an ever-fresh outlook, as a child sees before conditioning takes over.

My translation: "This perpetual youthfulness is an expression of our design."

Passage 52 opens with an expression of deification (following King, with the "poetic" layout of the line in the Coptic-English edition):

And I turned inward toward myself
alone. I perceived the Light
that surrounds me and
the Good that is in me. I became
divine.

Good: agathon (Greek). Become divine: aeironoute. The Coptic word for "god, divinity" is a loan from Greek: noute. This word recalls the Egyptian sky goddess, Nut, and it plays on the Greek nous, "sacred mind." The initiate does not become divine in being but in knowing, and in perception. At the moment Youel anoints the telestes there is an ecstatic rush of illumination. The Illuminator says, "Since your instruction has become perfect, and you have come to know the good that is in you (52.16)," further instruction follows. "Becoming perfect" is the standard translation of teleios, derived from telos, "aim, goal, the ultimate." I prefer "become initiated" or "brought to ultimate insight."

There is more Mystery jargon in 53 - 58 (heavily damaged) where the "ascent" of Allogenes begins. Seeking truth leads to recognition of the innate goodness of humanity (56), as Maurice Bucke asserts in his classic study of spontaneous spiritual awakening, Cosmic Consciousness. The innate goodness of humanity is a key issue in Deep Ecology. Arne Naess asserts that if we abide in the genuine depth of being human, we will naturally do good without need of a rule book to dictate our actions. The illuminist path of Gnosis presents many assertions of dictate-free morality.

When you comprehend the Mystery Light, it also comprehends you. Revelation, the stream of higher knowing, comes in silence and serenity (57 - 58). Allogenes here dwells on seeking and withdrawal, "standing" or holding steady in the Light. Here the initiate speaks directly of the discipline required to stand in the torrential currents of Pleromic Light without quavering, becoming distracted, or lapsing into hallucinations. "And when you become still in that perfect place, you are ultimately still, and according to the patterns you behold, indwelling you, you see the way all things are patterned" (59.35 - 60.2). The teacher patiently explains that there is a "primary revelation" with direct reception to the Organic Light, and then a reflected revelation, (60.37), and the "downloading" proceeds.

Passage 61 contains the rare term Mesotes (here spelled Mesites—there are many such discrepancies in the Coptic material), "the Mediator." This mystical figure or phantom of the Triple Light is encountered "in silence and stillness." (For a more complete description of this term see text #5, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth and the Lexicon.)

There follows another passage of "negative theology," describing ultimate reality by what it is not. Gnostic schools still fourished in the Near East around 150 CE, contemporary with Nalanda University in India. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, whose dates are disputed, probably lived at this time. His system, the Madhyamika, is full of such negations. In Allogenes and elsewhere, NHC language exhibits many traits of the "middle way" dialectic. The high probability of Buddhist-Gnostic cross-fertilization is admitted by several Buddhist scholars (such as Snellgrove), but ignored by Gnostic specialists who only take interest in how Gnostic literature relates to Christianity.

In 61 the "Unknowable God" (61.16) is called "he", but to register the true power of passages, it is better to substitute IT for "he." The language here is clear and direct, and it helps to read aloud. "It is not perfect, for it is something else, superior to perfection. (62.36)" "It is not corporeal, it is not incorporeal" (63.5). And there are other, more startling statements. "It neither participates in Eternity, nor in time" (63.21). And consider this: "It is united with the ignorance that sees it "(64.13). Now there's a burst, a flash of transcendent insight. When we behold the One, right here and now, yet ignorant that we do so, IT inheres in our beholding. This is pure Zen, "direct pointing to the One Mind."

Allogenes is a deep, bracing plunge into the Mystery experience. The author seems to be aware of the challenge his or her discourse poses. The teacher is reticent about imparting his revelation, as already noted. Toward the close, the discourse reaches the summit of what is communicable:

And do not seek (to know) anything more (right now). We (initiates) do not even know whether the Unknowable One has angels or gods, or whether that One who is at rest, and is nothing but rest, contains anything except stillness, otherwise it would be diminished (by what it contains). It is not fitting (right now) to spend more time seeking (67.22-35).

This is sublime and humble communication. Allogenes offers a wonderful line of advice on our attempts to fathom the "Unknowable God," a truly stunning remark: "Cease to hinder, by seeking after incomprehensible matters, the inactivity that exists in you" (61.25). The practice in the Mysteries was to penetrate more and more deeply into ultimate reality—an arrogant aim, one could say. Yet the telestai were humble in their arrogance. They knew how and when to limit the act of mystical experimentation. Here the teacher advises that at a certain moment it is better to defer from seeking and cease to hinder the inactivity within.

Allogenes concludes with a command to conceal the text in a mountain where it will be guarded by benevolent demons (68.20), a direct parallel to the concealment of a terma (“hidden treasure)” in Nyingma Buddhism. Terma teachings cannot be lost because they are concealed in natural elements, or in the mind, until the appropriate moment for them to be discovered, by the appropriate person. Philip K. Dick’s Gnostic "plasmate" is a terma-like source of indelible secret instruction. Dick would have certainly found in Allogenes much to compare with his three-hour download of March 1974.



2, The Apocalypse of Peter: VII, 3. NHLE p 372. Five and a half pages, exceptionally well preserved. Revelation dialogue, CORE: anti-salvationist polemic, tirade against institutional religion, the docetic or phantom Revealer, the "laughing savior."

This text recounts a dramatic discussion between a man called Peter and a guru or "spiritual master" who is never explicitly called Jesus or Christ, although his words and actions may recall to some minds those attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. In Allogenes the teacher is a telestes or hierophant of the Mystery cell. The setting of Apoc Peter is the external world, where the telestai also lived and taught. The use of names known from the New Testament places Gnosticism within the frame of Christianity, but, equally so, it can be viewed as placing the figures of early Christianity in a diverse, non-Christian setting. The rule of reading here is, Do not infer from New Testament allusions that Gnostic writings are "out takes" from the Gospels.

Apoc Peter follows the convention of the entire Coptic corpus: using special code terms for Jesus and Christ. Neither of these names is spelled out in full anywhere in the NHC. Instead, we find IS (iota-sigma) and XRS (chi-rho-sigma) or just XS with a line over the top of the letters, indicating what scholars call nomina sacra, "holy names." ("Mystery code" would perhaps be a more fitting term. Other examples of secret, insider code also occur: for instance, Kalyptos in Allogenes is written KLS with the superlinear mark.) Add to this the fact that Chrestos is interchangeable with Christos, and it becomes clear that direct identification of Gnostic figures with New Testament "counterparts" is tricky and dubious exercise. To add to the confusion, scholars regularly fill in the blanks in the nomina sacra. They use parentheses for "scribal abbreviations which have been editorially explicated." XS becomes "Christ (christos)" and IS is made into I(ESOU)S and rendered "Jesus" to conform with the spelling of that name in the Greek New Testament. But the Gnostic Christos is not identical to Christ, and seers from the Mysteries would have taken special care to distinguish their use of the name Jesus from reference to any historical person. Their deliberate use of the term "the living Jesus" occurs in this text. Clarification of Christ-Christos-Chrestos comes with further reading.

Digression on the use of codes in the NHC: Fabulating Jesus

Apoc Peter is one of the few texts in the NHC to present characters in a physical setting, with some anecdotal material. Peter and "the savior" (Greek soter) are sitting in the temple. Real-life events occur, highly unusual in the NHC, but there is a bizarre, supernatural twist even here. At first sight, it is easy to assume that Apoc Peter is an out-take of the Gospel tradition. Here is a scene between Jesus and a disciple that did not make it into the New Testament. But no, on closer examination, it is a scene from an entirely different tradition. Peter and the savior are not two figures edited from the Evangelic fables, they are in another film, running on another plot. Neither master nor disciple can be reduced to stock NT characters. The text itself affirms that the enlightened teacher of Gnosis was “not mentioned among any generation of the prophets" (71.7). This savior stands outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. The teaching he presents springs from a different lineage, even though it uses NT narrative elements, and even some language attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

As the dialogue opens, the savior warns Peter to distinguish between different expressions of righteousness (dike), so that he can discern those which reflect "the fullness (pleroma) of truth" (71.28). Those who are truly enlightened realize the identity of the "Son of Man," (Coptic SHIRE PE NTE PIROME), that is to say, genuine humanity. In a deliberate parody of the tradition that has Jesus designate Peter, "the rock," the first apostle (founding member) of his church, the Gnostic master makes Peter the guardian of a secret (i.e., non-institutonalized) teaching, and adds a puzzling remark: "In that, be strong for the duration of the imitation of righteousness" (71.22-25). This is insider talk, alluding to the claim repeated throughout the NHC that some Jewish and Christian principles were counterfeits of Gnostic principles. Imitation (Greek antimimon) is a central theme in the Gnostic protest against salvationism. It is also the signature of the Archons who insinuate false religious ideology in the human mind. This scene is not a cameo of Jesus empowering Peter to institutionalize his message. On the contrary, it shows a Gnostic master instructing a student in how to recognize the counterfeiting of Gnostic teachingl. One effect of this counterfeiting is the apostolic succession said to have begun with Peter! In this passage, Apoc Peter delivers Gnostic irony at its most piquant pitch.

Now odd things begin to occur in the seemingly normal setting. As the savior describes a scene resembling the crucifixion, a crowd led by priests appears and attacks them, throwing stones. Peter wants to flee but, bizarrely, the master tells him, "Hide your face in your robe, and tell me what you see" (72.4f). Then Peter sees a glorious light and presumably enters a visionary state in which he is half present to the scene outside, and half present to another, supernatural setting. Now the master launches a scathing verbal attack on the people who are physically attacking them. He protests against Christian doctrines that would have been formally defined (made canonical) around the time this text was translated, and against those who propagate such doctrines:

They will become prisoners, due to their lack of perception. And the guileless, good and pure among them will be pushed into the hands of the executioner, even when it seems they go to the kingdom of those who praise a resurrected Christ. And they praise men for propagating falsehood. They will hold fast to the name of a dead man, thinking they will become pure. But they will be greatly defiled, and will fall into the name of error, and under the power of evil, cunning agents and diverse dogmas, they will be perversely overwhelmed (having their power of choice overruled) (74.1 - 22).

The Gnostic master blasts salvationist doctrine as a product of error (planeh). Its exponents will "blaspheme the truth and proclaim evil teachings" (74.23). Some lines on the Archons and a "naked woman" are puzzling, then comes a vivid burst: "Not every soul is of the truth, nor of immortality" (75.12), clearly repudiating the "catholic" view of soul. There follows a strange passage on "the immortal soul" (feminine) which may allude to Sophia, the fallen goddess of Gnostic mythology.

The anti-salvationist diatribe continues. The master warns Peter against people who profane and fake the Mysteries (76.26f). They are "messengers of error" (77.25), yet another allusion to the Archons. He denies that good and evil come from the same source, a view also refuted by Marcion (circa 170 CE). In another insider comment, the master excoriates "Hermas, the first-born of unrighteousness" (78.18). This is an allusion to a setback suffered by Syrian Gnostics who attempted to introduce Mystery teachings on the "inner guide" into the mainstream, only to have their project coopted by Christian moralists who counterfeited it in the figure of Hermas, a penitent sinner. The perversion of Gnostic teachings is deliberate, "so that the real light might not be believed" (78.20). The master praises men and women joined in "spiritual friendship" through Gnosis, but predicts that "the kindred race of the sisterhood will appear as an imitation," (79.8), a seeming reference to women becoming nuns. He also rejects those who declare themselves bishops and deacons, acting "as if they have received authority from God" (79.24). He warns that those who claim to hold the key to salvation will oppress "the little-minded ones" who lack the force or insight to resist them.

Suddenly, the master invites Peter to break away from their intense conversation and return to "real life." Peter then appears to have a vision of the crucifixion, but the savior insists that "he whom you see upon the cross is the living Jesus (Coptic PE PETONG IC, 81.15). I make this out to be a code term for an intrapsychic figure as distinguished from an historical person. In a typical Gnostic reversal of value, "the living Jesus" is not identified with one man who lived historically, but with a supernatural figure who always lives. It is not he who suffers, but "the substitute" (Coptic SHEBIO). Matthew 27:32 says when the Romans were ready to take Jesus to Golgotha, "as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear the cross." The Gnostic Basilides claimed that Simon, not Jesus, died on the cross. He is the substitute. Whoever it is that dies physically, there is another, supraphysical event in progress: the living Jesus is a luminous phantom "laughing above the cross" (82.5). The docetic redeemer (from dokein, "to seem, appear") manifests a phantom body comparable to the Nirmanakaya of Buddhism. Peter is given the special revelation that

he whom they crucified is their 'first-born' (sarcastically speaking), and the home of demons, and the clay vessel in which they dwell, belonging to the Elohim and to the cross, that is under the law (82.21 - 25).

This is a scathing frontal assault on "cross theology," the doctrine of divine atonement through the death by torture of the messiah, as well as on the Jewish background of Christian tradition, for the Elohim are condemned as part of the mass delusion, and Jewish law is refuted as well. The crowd who believe in divine atonement see one thing, but the Gnostic sees something else and "laughs at their lack of perception" (83.2). Needless to say, such ruthless attacks on salvationist beliefs were not taken kindly by early Christian converts. Same goes today, I can assure you.

Speaking in the role of the laughing savior, the master says, "I am the intellectual spirit (Coptic PI NOERON MPNA) filled with radiant light" (83.8). This line uses code, spelling spirit, pneuma in Greek, PNA with a line over the letters. There is no way into the esoteric and heretical message of the Gnostics without considering such arcane niceties ot text and context.

Finally, the master commissions the shaken but enlightened student to declare his teaching "to those of another race, who are not of this age" (83.17). Those who are able to understand will gain more insight, he says, but those who can't even begin to understand will lose what little insight they have. To accept and impart this kind of secret knowledge, one must be able to accept that the insight that comes, comes in abundance (83.24). At the last moment, Peter returns to his normal senses.

Although it is set in an ordinary situation with anecdotal details (stoning by the mob and a crucifixion, quite an everyday event in Palestine in those days), the Apocalypse of Peter is anything but ordinary. Far from being an out-take from the picturesque guru fables of the New Testament, it is a disturbing scene from a mystical thriller with special effects. The contrast with the Allogenes is both dramatic and instructive. What goes on in the Mystery cells was privy to spiritual elite of the telestia, but entrance into those sanctuaries was open to all, an egalitarian venture in higher learning. Living in both worlds, sacred and profane, Gnostics perceived familiar situations in an entirely different way than people around them. Reading NHC with an open and receptive mind will upset your expectations, time and time again.


3, The Dialogue of the Savior: III, 5. NHLE p 244. Nine and a half pages in a fragmentary condition. Dialogues. CORE: the Archontic threat to human potential.

By now, with only two texts in tow, the reader may be prepared not to expect the savior in this dialogue to be the familiar Jesus of the New Testament. That is already a huge step in learning how to read the NHC. The Introduction to the Dialogue of the Savior by Koester and Pagels confirms this caution: "The names Jesus or Jesus Christ never occur" in this text. "The designation 'Savior' is almost completely restricted to passages composed by the final author, whereas the dialogue sections use the designation 'Lord' " (CGL, III, 2, p.1).

Although largely fragmentary, this is a wonderfully evocative text loaded with glints of Gnostic wisdom. The broken language is highly suggestive, poignant:

As long as what is within you is set in order, that is…. Your bodies are luminous. As long as your hearts are dark, the luminosity you anticipate… I have … I will go… My word… I send.” (126)

Some lines jump out, delivering vivid bursts such as “Whoever seeks, reveals (126.10)” and “Whoever cannot stand (in) the darkness will not be able to see the light" (133.34). Mary Magdalene (Mariam), “the woman who understood completely (139.10)” also features in the dialogue sections. In 140 she asks, “Tell me, Lord, have I come to this place to lose or gain?” Answer: “You make clear the abundance of the Revealer.” The formal address, "Lord" is DZOEIS in Coptic, using the demotic letter djandja, DZ or DJ. It is extremely difficult to get comfortable with such words. OEI is sometimes pronounced OY, so this word would appear to rhyme with Joyce.

Throughout Dial Sav the Gnostic master clarifies the problem of the Archons, that is to say, the problem of evil. There is a striking exchange (138) with Judas: “The Archons dwell above us, but will they rule over us?" Judas asks. "No, you will rule over them" is the response. Passage 142 presents a crucial clarification:

Judas said, “Tell me, Lord, what is the beginning of the path?” He said, “Love and goodness. For if just one of these existed among the Archons, evil would never have come into existence."

The Archons are not said to be evil, but their lack of innate love and goodness makes it possible for evil to arise. This is a terrific Gnostic nuance. The Archons (translated "governors" by Stephen Emmel) are always associated with error, not evil. The trick is, how we go from error into evil. Gnostic teachings appear to support the assertion of Socrates that no one does evil intentionally. The Gnostic theory of error (or Archon theory, which is the same thing) assumes that humans are innately good and loving. We do not have an inborn potential for evil, but we do have a behavioral endency for it. As creatures of novelty, we are given a wide margin for error, for it is in making mistakes and correcting them that we learn, and, if you will, evolve. Our potential for learning derives from the dose of divine intelligence, nous, endowed in us by the Pleroma, and we pursue learning to a degree not seen in other species, due to our status of singularity (Monogenes, further explained in the cosmological texts). But when human beings allow their errors to go undetected, they tend toward mindless, deviant behavior that can degenerate into EVIL, working against the capacity to LIVE.

Where do the Archons come into this picture? They do not cause us to err, but they lend a non-human boost to the force of uncorrected errors, causing them to extrapolate beyond the scale of correction. As I have said elsewhere, the Gnostic theory of error is one of the supreme realizations of human experience. It affirms that human potential is innately good, yet we can end up doing evil, not because we intend it, but in part due to our failure to self-correct, and in part due to the insinuating force of another species.

"And to someone who will not know the root of things, the true nature of those things will remain hidden. Someone who does not know the root of evil is no stranger to it" (134.15f). Curiously, the root of evil in human nature is not entirely human. Whoever does not realize that, while error is completely human, evil-doing is a blind collusion with non-human beings, will be accomplice in doing evil. Accessory to the Archons, as it were.

If this theory is true, it presents rare occult insight that carries an extraordinary warning: we cannot explain how humans can go off course and act against life, even against their own survival, if the explanation restricts itself to humanity alone.

Human potential comes in a Trickster Pack.

It may be that the way beyond our apparent isolation in the cosmos depends on solving the Archon-Trickster riddle—rather like in computer games where an adversary demon must be defeated before we can get to another level of the game. the metaphor of "prison planet" originated with the Gnostics who described the world under the Archontic spell like a labyrinthine prison with the Archons acting as wardens and gatekeepers. Today this vision has re-emerged in human imagination in the cybernetic multi-player games using simulation.

Dial Sav is so fragmentary that it can be read by jumping from one passage to the next. There is no sequential sense here. In overview, this text appears to be concerned with three issues: spiritual practice, the Archons, and the question of "womanhood." This last topic comes up only briefly but in a striking exclamation, "Destroy the works of womanhood (144.15)," pronounced by Matthew, who is presumably quoting something the teacher said. Koester and Pagels comment: "It must be noted that such polemic against the 'works of womanhood' goes hand in hand with a very high estimate of Mary as 'a woman who had understood completely' " (CGL III, 2, p. 8).

For "womanhood" read biological femaleness rather than women as a gender type. It is known that most Gnostics opposed procreation in the human species. A huge subject here, and rarely considered. Suffice it to say that Gnostics regarded those who realize the ultimate truth of human potential to belong to a special lineage, the way of "the solitary and elect," noted in the opening lines of the text. "The passage which the solitary and elect will traverse" (Emmel, trans.variant, CGL III, 2, 45) is toward the future, but not a future people living now can realize through biological offspring who will outlive them. To realize the future in the Now is perhaps the way indicated here.

The reason why the Mystery adepts opposed procreation in the human species run very deep, going back to the remote prehistory of humanity. Basically, though, they had a Buddhist-like view of a chain of behavioral compulsions, heirmarmene (pronounced high-MAR-muh-KNEE), "the workings of fate." The Apocryphon of John (# 20 in this reading plan) is an important cosmological text that presents a unique glimpse of the Gnostic view of human fate. As I will explain in that commentary, Gnostics shared the Buddhist view of a chain of behavioral compulsions, one act leading blindly to another. Buddhists call this enmeshment the "interdependent origination" (pratitya samutpada) of karma. Gnostics opposed procreation because they saw in familial bonds and patterns a particularly tenacious form of karmic binding that holds human individuals at a level of unfulfilled potential. For them, the "works of womanhood" strongly enforced the occlusion of fate, keeping humans from the attainment of their divine potential. Today psychologists recognize that breaking out of the dysfunctional codependency of family ties is a paramount step in self-actualization, growing into one's true potential.

At several points Dial Sav refers to disastrous and catastophic events, which is fairly unusual in Gnostic or Mystery School teachings. Here the teacher warns that those who practice Gnosis, creating the future in the present, must be aware that they are as vulnerable as anyone else to these events (122.15f), but they also have a special advantage because they "have mastered every word on earth" (122.20). This puzzling line again uses SHAJA, "word, design, intentional language," a key concept encountered in the previous reading. Earth in Coptic is KAH, a transcription of the Greek GE, Gaia. The teacher says that telluric disasters will come, earth-changes of an apocaplyptic order will occur, but those who "master the living designs of the earth" will be able to assure a human future. To understand the powers that make and unmake heaven and earth, the master advises, "Inquire after what is within you... the power and the mystery... for where [the world order] is established, is where the true mind exists" (128.5f).

In a dramatic passage marked by a striking gestural action, the master responds to a cosmological question with Zen teaching on original mind (132.20ff) :

Judas responded, saying, ‘Tell me Lord, how it is that ... which shakes the earth moves?’

The Lord picked up a stone and held it is in his hand, saying, ‘What am I holding in my hand?’

He said, ‘It is a stone.’

He said to them, ‘That which supports the earth is that which supports heaven. When a Design comes forth from the Vastness, it will come on what supports both heaven and earth. For the earth does not move. Were it to move, it would fall away. But it neither moves nor falls, in order that the Original Design (First Word) might not fail. For it [the Designing Power] was that which established the cosmos and inhabited it and inhaled fragrance from it... You are all from that [original] place. In the hearts of those who speak from joy and truth, you truly exist. Even if original humanity comes forth, fully embodied, and it is not received, it will return intact to its own place. Whoever does not know the work of perfection, knows nothing. If one does not stand in the darkness, one will not be able to see the light.’


There is more, but less clear discourse in this vein (135-7), and then another Zen-like declaration: "When you see the Eternal Existent, that is the great vision" (137.10). What's more, you can see it in transient vision or in great vision. And "when you speak from within that vision... everything will be in harmony with you" (137.15). There follow difficult but highly suggestive lines, all in the same striking Zen-like style. The main speaker in the Dialogue of the Savior is much more like a Zen master than the teacher of the Gospel of Thomas (just ahead), a text often praised for its Zen-like features. When his students ask, "What should we do to insure that our work will be completed?", the master responds, "Be prepared to face everything that arises. Blessed is the one who has found truth in the contest with his own eyes" (141.15f).

Despite its fragmentary condition, Dial Sav offers many vivid bursts. This document is especially precious because of its ruined condition. Among the arresting one-liners worthy of attention, it contains the wonderful assertion of Mariam (143.5):

There is but one saying I give to the master concerning what is realized in the Mystery: In this truth we take our stand, and to the world we are transparent.


4, The Gospel of Thomas: II, 2. NHLE p 124. Thirteen pages, intact and well preserved. 114 sayings (logia) said to to have been collected by Thomas, the identical twin brother of Jesus, although Jesus is never named. The Coptic PEDJE IS with superlinear stroke over the IS, is routinely rendered as "Jesus said.".

This text delivers another jolt to our expectations based on the reading so far. Just when we were getting used to a Gnostic teacher who does not speak like the conventional Jesus, here is one who does. Ironically, the Gospel of Thomas is the most well-known Gnostic text, although it is just barely Gnostic in content and character. There are some totally non-Gnostic materials in the NHC, and this is close to the top of the list, yet many people come to Gnostic reading through Gos Thom. They form their impression of Gnostic literature from one of its least representative texts.

The very term "Gospel" is misleading when applied to Coptic Gnostic material. Not surprizingly, the Gospel of Thomas is the favorite text of Elaine Pagels, the most popular expert on Gnosticism. When she published The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, Pagels brought the NHC into the mainstream, but in doing so she stamped Gnostic literature with the imprimatur of the New Testament. Due to the immense success of her books, people erroneously believe that Gnostic writings were nothing more than Evangelic texts that got left out of the New Testament. The realization that Gnostics radically opposed Christian doctrines in defence of a completely independent tradition—an ancient tradition that had to be violently suppressed for Christianity to be established—comes as a huge surprise. If it comes at all.

Pagels and many others find in this text a Zen-like, mystical Gnosticism, more interior or psychological in its message, and having some feminist nuances. New Age religionists see here a "secret teaching" on the godhood of humanity. Thus Andrew Harvey praises the “savage, gorgeous radicalism” of the "Gnostic Jesus" who shows each seeker after God how to find “the Divine hidden within him or her,” and thus how to become “an empowered divine human being.” According to Harvey, the “Kingdom-consciousness” preached by Jesus is a revelation of the inner divinity of the human person, a kind of Zen pointing to the Divine Self, the Presence of God within us. This is not a Gnostic teaching but it is widely assumed to be one.

The content of Gos Thom is non-threatening to mainstream Christians and carries little or no radical Gnostic impact. Quite a contrast to the preceding works. There are nonetheless a few feeble bursts in Gos Thom. The first line says that the logia are "secret sayings which the living Jesus (IS ETONG) spoke." I maintain that the the Coptic code word ETONG, "living," indicates that the sayings come from the intrapsychic guide, not a specific historical person. But anyway, can specific Gnostic guidance be found in the logia?

Precious little. There are certainly some genuine Gnostic elements here, evident perhaps as much in the tone as in the content. Gos Thom presents finely balanced statements, weighing one insight against another: "The kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you. (L 3)," "Recognize what is in plain sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain (L 5)", and so on. It emphasizes inner seeking by contrast to doctrinal belief, and this is certainly a Gnostic accent. The parables, some of which repeat those found in the NT (the mustard seed, the vineyard, etc), do not hold significant Gnostic content. Logion 12, where Jesus makes James the Just the leader of his retinue, connects the NHC with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The act of reconciling male and female is an outstanding issue (L 22), with a jarring note in the concluding logion where Jesus says to Peter that Mary must be made male, "so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males." This is totally out of character with the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Pistis Sophia (non-NHC) where Mary is favored over Peter.

It is unfortunate that Gos Thom ends with the line, "For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." Sexual bias of this sort was totally alien to the view of the Mystery adepts.

By my last count there were six translations of Gos Thom with elaborate commentaries on the "secret teachings of the Gnostic Jesus." The esteemed professor of comparative religion, Joseph Needleman, has just come out with a new one. Unfortunately, those who are intent upon extracting Gnostic wisdom from this text have to do as many twists as a Siamese contortionist to make the last saying look good. There is certainly something off-key in the gender attitudes here. Gos Thom contains dialogue with "his disciples" (mathesis: read "student"), yet only two are named, and these are women, Mariamme and Salome. Nevertheless, one would have to go to great extremes to produce a feminist teaching from these feeble platitudes.

In short, the Gospel of Thomas is barely worth the bother. Compared to the three preceding texts, it is pitifully barren of genuine Gnostic insight. Such bursts as it has are rather dull, like dud firecrackers that bang with no display. The first-stage lesson here is, Learn to tell the difference between texts that reward close attention, and those that have little or no core material to offer.

This completes Reading Plan, level one: texts 1 - 4.
Continue with level one, texts 5 - 9.
ACCESS to all texts in the Reading Plan.

Original Fall 2006? Revised October 2010 Andalucia


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.