Reading Plan /file 1A
Reading the Nag Hammadi Codices
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,
by the Organic Light.
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).
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.
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
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 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.
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:
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Original Fall 2006? Revised October 2010 Andalucia
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.