Reading Plan 2A
Books 9 through 11
A Reading Plan for the Nag Hammadi Codices
Ritual and Revelation
As we move to Level Two of the reading plan, it is helpful to bear in mind that the texts are not arranged in order of increasing difficulty. All the material in the NHC is difficult. The sequence of texts on three levels presents an optimal learning curve. Although the material is consistently difficult, the process of reading it gets easier as we learn from one text how to approach another. This is the way the plan works.
Level Two takes us into some complex material demonstrating links between
the Nag Hammadi Codices and the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are also cosmological
treatises that present the Sophia Mythos. Other texts present instruction
on how to face and repel the Archons, and there are more scathing critiques
of salvationism and erroneous theology.
This text is revelation discourse delivered to James, as scholars translate the name Iakobos. How are we to understand the identity of the person so named? Experts assume that the James here named is James the Just, "whose martrydom is described in the concluding section, now almost entirely lost. [He] is the brother of the Lord. Although the figure of James enjoyed considerable prominence among the Gnostics, he is more especially connected with the Jewish-Community in Jerusalem" (W. R. Schoedel, CGL III, 3, p. 5). How remarkable: the Nag Hammadi writings are directly linked to the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, the Zealot (Zadokite) outpost near Jerusalem.
James the Just is the revered spiritual leader who plays a central role
in the controversial interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls proposed
by Robert Eisenman. In James, the Brother of Jesus, a massive
study of more than 1000 pages, Eisenman argues that James "the Just" (Tzaddik)
was the leader of the "opposition movement" of ultra-conservative
Jews known as the Zaddikim. James
held a position of high authority at the Jerusalem Temple where he was
opposed by the Saduccees and the council of the Sanhedrin, conservative
Jews who favored collaboration with the Romans, as well as by Pharisees
and other sects within the Temple priesthood. In short, James was the Zadokite "point
man" in Jerusalem who held a difficult and solitary position that
rejected all compromise with Roman occupation. His counterpart in the
wilderness camp of Qumran, on the Dead Sea, was his flesh-and-blood brother
Trouble in Palestine
As the leading candidate for the Messiah, Jesus of the Dead Sea encampment would have been engaged in guerilla warfare against the Roman occupation of Palestine, including terrorist attacks on soldiers and ordinary citizens seen to be collaborating with the enemy. Josephus, a contemporary Jewish historian, left a vivid account of the atrocities committed in Palestine during the troubled era that began with the revolt of the Macabees in 167 BCE (corresponding to the earliest dating of the Scrolls.) The horrors perpetrated by Romans on Jews were matched, if not exceeded, by those perpetrated by Jews on their own people. The ultra-radical movement of the Zadokites threatened the stability of the region and tore apart the Jewish community itself. Zadokite is name for the Jewish insurrectionist movement associated with the cult of the Zaddikim. They were also called Zealots.
From 167 BCE until the defeat of Simeon bar Kockba in 135 CE, the same insidious plot kept recurring in Palestine, involving the same cast of characters who are repeatedly cited in the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Man of Lies, the Teacher of Righteousness, the Wicked Priest, and the Sons of Zadok. One of the first scholars to write on the DSS, Theodore Gaster, warned against a too literal interpretation of these symbolic character-types. In a brilliant analysis of the Qumranic writings, Hugh Schonfield showed that these designations were code-names that could be applied to various historical people. In other words, they were roles assumed by actual historical individuals over several generations. The inner core of the Zaddikim cult seems saw themselves living a script in which their Teacher would reappear in several generations, and each time be opposed by the Wicked Priest, betrayed by the Man of Lies, and defended by the Sons of Zadok. If we follow their definition of their own situation, we can assume that these titles do indeed refer to specific historical figures, but not in an exclusive way, limited to one person for each title.
That Qumran was an outpost for militants fighting to free Palestine from the Romans, and not a haven for hippie-like pacifists called Essenes, was information withheld from the public by the team of DSS scholars controlled by the Vatican. In 1991 Herschel Shanks blew open the Vatican coverup with an article in his journal, Biblical Archeology Review. At the same time, Robert Eisenman took the decisive step of identifying the historical persons who filled the key Qumranic roles in the 1st century of the Common Era: James is the Teacher of Righteousness, the Wicked Priest was his main adversary among the Sanhedrin of the Jerusalem Temple, the Man of Lies is Saint Paul, the Messiah is Jesus as the principal Zadokite freedom-fighter, and the Sons of Zadok are the political rebels of Qumran, the Dead Sea outpost. The Zadokites appear to have been terrorists comparable to those in the former PLO. The key figure among the rebels in the wilderness camp was their leader and national hero, Jesus, the messianic candidate destined to become "King of the Jews" and rule over a theocratic Israelite state freed of Roman occupation. This view would make Jesus the Yasar Arafat of the Dead Sea sectarians.
Eisenman´s reading of the DSS plot has been condemned for politicizing the New Testament, but like it or not, his interpretation brings the NT to life in a vivid and undeniable manner. Reading Acts, and noting the furious crossfire between James and Paul, it is impossible to deny the relevance of Eisenman`s reading. The behavior of Paul becomes understandable if we assume, as Eisenman proposes, that he was recruited into the Zadokite movement (the incident at Damascus) and then turned against it, hijacking its secret doctrines for his own religion. In the political setting that can be inferred from the DSS code-names, the entire New Testament makes sense as it never did before. Many of the acts and sayings of Jesus look startlingly plausible situated in the political struggle of that era, whereas otherwise they have little more than a mystic gloss or fairy-tale charm.
The genre of the Gospels is, let´s recall, Hellenistic romance, a novelistic rendition of miracle stories embellished with quasi-historical anecdotes and snippets of folk wisdom. In short, the historical and existential aspects of the New Testament are more convincing in light of Eisenman´s radical reading of the DSS materials. Far more convincing.
Archons in Jerusalem
How does all this commotion over the trouble in Palestine two thousand years ago bear on Gnostics and Gnostic teachings? Well, the better we understand the actual historical situation of Jewish insurgence in Palestine, the more clearly we can see what Gnostics in that time and setting were up against. Consider the text in hand. The First Apocalypse of James uses the name of a key Qumranic figure, the Teacher of Righteousness, but it portrays James in a way that would have deeply offended the Zealots and their controllers, the Zaddikim elite. Zaddik (also spelled Tzaddik and Tseddeq) means "righteousness," but the figure in this text is utterly different from the righteous rabbi of the Qumranic sect.
In a startling reversal, this text portrays James as a Jewish elder taking instruction from a Gnostic master who exposes to him the delusion of Zadokite beliefs!
The text opens with James' assertion that he has written down what the Lord spoke to him: hence, this text is a record of a revelation discourse. "The Lord" is written PISHOEIS, with the PI (the Greek letter pi), indicating the definite article "the," attached to the word like a prefix. The strange Coptic word SHOEIS was a title of respect for religious authority, such as "Reverend." The Lord is also addressed as Rabbi, but nowhere in the text is he identified with Jesus or Christ. The giver of the discourse is a prototype of the Gnostic phoster, a revealer or illumined teacher.
The Lord calls James his brother, but denies a flesh-and-blood connection: "you are not my brother materially" (24.14). This striking remark breaks the tradition , common to Jews and Christians alike, that makes James and Jesus blood kin. It openly defies the Qumranic model. Apparently, the author of 1 Apoc Jas was fully aware of adopting characters from Jewish tradition but remaking them to his own ends.
In the opening passage, the Revealer uses metaphysical language to underscore his remark about not being "materially" related to James. He says that he himself is unnameable but has been given a number of names. For "femaleness" (24.25) read biology. The Revealer discloses that his true identity is non-biological, but then speaks of being "seized" and attaining his redemption, almost as if he were alluding to the capture of Jesus in the NT. It seems as if the Revealer is about to describe himself in the well-known setting of the Passion, but then comes a startling shift. James asks if "they" will sieze him, too. Coptic pronoun indicators are a terrible problem throughout the NHC. Often we do not know who "they" and "him" are, but in this text we immediately find out.
The Lord assures James that he too will be "seized." The theme introduced here is capture by alien powers, the Archons, not capture and crucifixion by the Romans. Instead of representing the well-known story of the Passion of Christ, 1 Apoc Jas elaborates on a supernatural or "psychic" experience. The Revealer warns James, “Jerusalem is a dwelling place of many Archons” (25.18). There´s a burst, a line to remember. Considering the role of James the Just as leader of the opposition at the Jerusalem Temple, what a shocking reversal of value this line carries! James is warned that the Archons infest Jerusalem, and the Archons are regarded by Gnostics as mind parasites who inspired Judaic religion! In the recurrent plot of the DSS, James is the towering model of hard-line Judaic religion, but here he is warned against it. And he is assured that his redemption (sote) will be guaranteed: he will be freed of Archontic intrusion.
The Revealer now proceeds to describe the organization of the Archons, but the text is badly damaged. The Hebdomad (25.27), the seventh, is Gnostic code for the planetary system. "There are twelve hebdomads" means that the solar system or its consituent planets can appear in twelve celestial zones, the constellations. The language is obscure, but cosmic numerology obviously plays a role here. In what appears to be a telepathic transmission, the Lord says "I shall give a sign concerning their measure," and James replies, "I have received their number" (26.12-15), which turns out to be 72. This is indeed a cosmic norm, the number of years it takes for one degree of precession in the Zodiac. There is a rare instance where the NHC alludes (however vaguely) to exact astronomical knowledge. Traditionally, the "Children of Seth," as Gnostics called themselves, were known as accomplished star-gazers, diviners, and astronomers. In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus suggests that the ancient Hebrews acquired their knowledge of star lore from the Sethians.
The Revealer now explains that the "authorities" (exousia) work through the celestial patterns, but it is impossible to understand what this means from the text as it stands. The Archons are often called "the authorities" or "the governers." The notion that an oppressive cosmic order is reflected in the social and political order imposed by human authorities seems to be unique to Gnostic teachings. This aspect of the Revealer's teaching is extremely demanding. James misses another telepathic sign because he is "unable to cast away blind thought (dianoia)." In plain English, he is "blinded by reason" when he ought to be guided by the higher faculty of intuition.
Now, with James posing questions, a dialogue unfolds concerning how to face the Archons. The Revealer says that the alien powers "are not armed against you specifically, but are armed against one another" (27.18). This remark recalls the testimony of modern ET/UFO witnesses who claim that several alien species known to visit the earth are fighting against each. The text is damaged right where the Revealer explains how the Archons are armed. The text is clear however on what it takes to meet and resist them: "There shall be within you a silence and a hidden mystery" (28.2). This is a powerful line indicating how human beings can stand up to the Archons, but courage is also required. The Revealer adds a sobering comment: "I am fainthearted before their anger."
To acknowledge the master´s words, James addresses him as Rabbi: "You have come with knowledge (gnosis) to resist their oblivion, and recollection (mneme) to repel their ignorance" (28.6-8). Hence, gnosis (including paranormal insight) and memory (of our true origins) are both tools for resisting the Archons. At this point James appears to be lifted to a higher level of understanding, and he speaks from his own revelation. He concludes: "There is in me forgetfulness, yet I remember things that are not theirs (to know)" (28.22). To paraphrase, "Although I may forget what is essential, I remember more than the Archons know (i.e., more than they are given to know)."
The Revealer responds by praising James for both his understanding and
his (healthy) fear. He speaks of redemption, SOTE, a Coptic derivation
of the Greek soter. The redemption meant is not a superhuman
feat of rescue but the result of gnosis, spiritual insight.
Alignment with Sophia
The Lord observes that "these people" (who attacked him?) are "a type of the Archons" (31.24), thus indicating that human beings can be controlled or even programmed by the Archons so that, even though they are human, they act otherwise. They become spiritual zombies. (In the Lexicon I call the Archontic modification of human activity behavioral cloning.)
Now comes a passage in which the author freely adapts the character of James the Just to Gnostic purposes. Recall that the traditional view of James in Jewish-Christian tradition makes him an ultra-conservative rabbi. An ancient source, cited by the historian Josephus, says that James is so devout in prayer that his knees are like the padding on a camel´s feet. This image was widely known in early Christian times. Such a man does not greet his teacher with a hug and a kiss, but James does so here. The Revealer explicitly calls him "James the Just," but attributes his spiritual stature to the sobriety of gnosis (32.4), rather than to following the Law or Way (Torah). Then he adds outrageously, "And you stopped this prayer (for which you are so well known)." In this direct, stinging allusion to the well-known legend of James´ devotional habits, we see the Gnostic author openly citing Jewish tradition in order to snub it.
James is distressed because the Revealer points so clearly to his plight. In the Dead Sea Scrolls plot, James stands up to anger and resistence from the collaborating Jews of the Temple. He suffers because he holds the Zadokite hard line. In the Nag Hammadi plot, James is subject to the same hostility but for an entirely different reason: with the sober insight of Gnosis he sees through the Archontically programmed behavior of both Jews and Romans in Jerusalem.
James is distressed because his plight has been so clearly delineated by his teacher. He weeps openly, terrified. They both sit down on a rock — a rare anecdotal detail in the NHC. In order to console and support his student, the Revealer now imparts detailed instruction on facing the Archons. (This passage is fully treated in A Gnostic Catechism.) The Archons are said to "take away souls by night" (33.10). This is a clear burst that recalls modern testimony of alien abductions. The Archons act as toll collectors, telones, demanding passwords. This detail brings to mind the control protocols involved in operations of artificial intelligence that dominate so many of today´s activities, including the military zone and the computer game world. Do the Archons have access to our minds through cyberspace?
The strange Coptic word for "alien things" (33.35) is SHAIMMO. The Revealer says that "they (the Archons) are not entirely alien, but they are from Achamoth who is the female (deity)." Here is a glimpse of the Gnostic cosmology of the Fallen Goddess, Sophia. Achamoth, a name applied to the Fallen Goddess, is a corruption of the Hebrew Hockma, "Wisdom," understood as a cosmic principle or divinity. The Revealer instructs James to recite before the Archons how the Archons came into existence in the first place, and to inform them that "they are indeed our kin, for She who is mistress of them is from the Pre-Existent One," the Pleroma (34.8-12).
In short, the way for James to resist the Archons is to let them know that he knows who they are, and who he is, in the big picture. Do the same instructions hold true for everyone who chooses alignment with Sophia, the divinity embodied in the Earth?
After a damaged passage, the Revealer invokes "the imperishable knowledge which is Sophia" (35.6). Apparently, he is still instructing James on what to say to the Archons. After some muddled language, line 36.8 delivers a burst, stating the main premise of Gnostic teaching on humanity´s higher calling: "The imperishable Sophia is the one through whom you will be redeemed." Here again is a clear Gnostic refutation of the salvationist ideology of Judeo-Christian faith. James is specifically instructed to share this discourse with another Gnostic, Addai, who will write it down. And he is advised to weep for those who dwell in Jerusalem!
From P 37 to the end the text is largely unreadable. There are however a few muted bursts. 37.18 suggests that in learning through intellect (nous), the younger have an advantage, and certain things can be imparted before the age of seventeen. James refers to seven women who follow the Revealer and have been empowered by higher perception (esthesis). Nothing more is intelligible until line 40.20 which delivers a zinger: "Cast away from yourselves all lawlessness (anomia)." The Greek word gives us the term anomaly, precisely what the Archons represent: an anomaly in the cosmic order. To paraphrase: "Ward off the effects of the anomaly." And the Revealer adds, "And beware, lest they envy you." Gnostic texts continually emphasize that the Archons envy humanity, and it is their envy that accounts for their hostile, aggressive attitude toward us.
The First Apocalypse of James thus concludes with a key Gnostic teaching on our relation to the Archons, although getting the message depends on having a lot of background in Gnostic mythology. I paraphrase: Humans are a singularity in the cosmos, a direct projection from the Pleroma, and Archons are an anomaly, an inorganic species arising outside the Pleroma due to Sophia´s impact on elementary matter (dema, quantum states). The consciousness of the Archons, such as it is, causes them to see the singularity we are as something they envy, something they want to become, but any effort they make to merge their minds with human intelligence only skews that intelligence away from the very condition that makes the Archons envious of it! For us to beware of their envy is crucial, because it keeps us vigilant to the anomalous affects in our minds.
The Apocryphon of James takes the form of a letter from Iakkobos (the name translated by scholars as James, as noted above), addressed to—we know not who, for the writing is effaced on the first line. In the opening paragraph James refers to a secret book (apocryphon) "revealed to me and Peter by the Lord," but the reader alerted by previous reading will view this claim with caution. By now we realize that Gnostic texts cannot be regarded as "out takes" from the Gospels. James, Peter, and the other disciples are stock characters that appear in the New Testament, but not uniquely there. The same characters can also feature in other stories where they can behave quite differently from the way they do in the Gospels.
James says he wrote down his secret book in the presence of the savior 550 days after the resurrection. "Lo, the savior appeared, after departing from us while we gazed after him" (2.15). This appears to be a vivid confirmation of the well-known ascension of Jesus into the clouds. Concrete descriptions of this kind are rare in the NHC. Ap Jas opens with an unusual amount of detail corresponding to the NewTestament. We have learned not to expect a Gnostic text to be merely an alternative version of the Gospels, yet this one is looking suspiciously Gospel-like after all.
The Savior's discourse begins with gibberish and repetition (2.30 - 4.30), including some paradoxical statements such as "woe to those who have found relief from their illness, for they will relapse into illness." Gnostic teaching can be detected by its finesse, by carefully nuanced statements, and irony, but this is not what we encounter here. The discourse is anything but lucid. The mention of "the devil, the evil one" (diabolos) and "temptation by Satan" (satanas) strike a false note, for no such concepts exist in radical Gnostic teachings. They are, however, prominent in traditional Judaism.
In 5.10 the Lord tells James, "you do not know that you have yet to be abused and to be accused unjustly." These are themes emphasized in the New Tstament, but drawn from the Jewish tradition of tribulation and testing by the paternal creator. They are distinctly not Gnostic concerns. The passage ends with an explicit call to redemptive belief: "Remember my cross and my death, and you will live" (5.35). The translator, Frances E. Williams, explains that the following two-page exhortation on matryrdom, marked by its "distinctive style, manner, and subject matter," is a late interpolation. Fine, but an interpolation into what? So far there is no discernible genuine Gnostic content in Ap Jas. It is a little odd, then, to speak of the interpolation of non-Gnostic content.
The Lord continues in a style of preaching familiar from the New Testament. P 7 contains a parable about the kingdom of heaven, NTMNTRRO NMPHYE in Coptic. It is hard to imagine how this metaphor could apply to an inner state or realization of the "divine within," as it has been interpreted in The Gospel of Thomas. This parable, and the following one about the grain of wheat, seem to be nothing more than quaint expressions of faith in personal growth or possibly social reform. However line 8.25, "unless you receive this through knowledge, you will not be able to find it (the kingdom of heaven)," uses the word gnosis for knowledge. This is a faint Gnostic accent, but very faint, indeed.
The NHC materials are so motley and inconsistent that they continually upset our expectations. Just as we are getting used to the absence of Gnostic elements in Ap Jas, we encounter line 8.35: "I have taught you what to say before the Archons." Is the author of the Apocryphon of James aware of the teaching about the Archons in the First Apocalypse of James? Perhaps a cross-reference is indicated, but the same line also appears in other NHC texts.
Passages 9 through 11 are a patchwork, obviously pieced together from different materials. The transitions are jumpy. The speaker continues to present redemptive theology: the Lord intercedes for humanity, he guarantees the forgiveness of the Father, etc. The term "sons of God" (11.1) is SHERE MPNOUTE in Coptic. NOUTE is "mind, divine intelligence, divinity." Hence it could as well be translated "children of divinity" or "offspring of divine intelligence," but the overall Christian tone of the passage rules out such alternative translations.
In passage 11 to the end, the disciples of the Lord are glad, then grieved. These roller coaster emotional shifts recall the confusion of the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament, and, even more so, the joys and torments of the ancient Hebrews as they struggle to please their cruel and fickle god, Jehovah. The speaker castigates his listeners for their ignorance and folly, then contradicts his previous statement by telling them that God cannot be won over by prayers, does not grant remission to one on another´s behalf, and will not forgive sin or relieve guilt. The disciples are understandably distressed by this abrupt change of tune. In Ap Jas the Good News of the Lord has been very badly edited.
In Passage 14 the Lord describes his ascension to the Father, and then departs, the disciples looking on. The "letter" ends with James returning to Jerusalem "that I might obtain a portion from the beloved, who will be made manifest." What a contrast to the warning in 1 Apoc Jas: "Jerusalem is the dwelling place of many Archons." Scholars classify this text as "Christian Gnostic," but the trained reader will conclude that it presents a heavy Christian overlay of Jewish materials.
In short, the Apocryphon of James is not a Gnostic document at all. It is not the only non-Gnostic text in the NHC, but it is the most complete, outstanding one. Unfortunately, Ap Jas is in Codex I, 2, the second text in packet one of the collection. It follows the brief Prayer of the Apostle Paul written on the flyleaf of Codex I. Without reading skills, it is natural to assume that the apostle Paul of the New Testament was the author of the prayer, that he was a Gnostic and so Pauline theology is a form of Gnosticism, etc, etc. Talk about starting a journey on the wrong foot!
Anyone who starts reading the NHLE from page one is going to have tremendous
difficulty getting a clear sense of Gnostic ideas, because the Apocryphon
of James, the first full-length text in Codex I, is about as far
from the genuine Gnostic message as it gets.
Text 11 reminds us of text 4, the Gospel of Thomas, also attributed to the twin brother of Jesus. Some traditions say that Thomas was an identical twin, so that he and Jesus were difficult to tell apart. The title "contender," athletes in Greek, oddly suggests that Thomas may have contended with Jesus in some way, as twins tend to do. Scholars interpret athletes to means "one who struggles," i.e., against the passions of the body — an interpretation that reflects the argument of the text, as we shall see. In the New Testament, the "doubting Thomas" struggles with his disbelief in the resurrection, but this theme plays no role in the text in hand.
Know It All
The first line of Thom Cont declares that this text records "secret words that the saviour spoke." Savior is written in code: SOR, with a line over the OR. This is Coptic shorthand for the Greek word soter, "savior." Nowhere in Thom Cont is the name Jesus written out. It is always indicated by IS with a line over the top. As we learned in previous reading, scholars expand the code IS to " 'Iesous," the Greek spelling of Jesus in the New Testament. In some NHC texts, especially those that present teachings from the Msyteries, the association of this code name with the historical Jesus of the NT is doubtful, if not completely unjustified. With the Gospel of Thomas and the Book of Thomas the Contender, where the biological twin of Jesus is named, the identification of the savior figure with Jesus is, it would seem, acceptable. Still, there are problems with this identification because the presumed Jesus does not teach what Jesus of the Gospels teaches.
The text opens with a subtle passage in which the savior addresses his twin in psychological language: "Since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be" (138.5). This language suggests a mirroring of the savior to Thomas, typical of a classical guru-chela relationship in which the guru reflects self-knowledge into the mind of the chela (student, disciple). This is an Asian technique, common to Buddhism and Hinduism, and not by chance does it highlight the opening of this text. The savior promises Thomas that by knowing himself, he will come to know the depth of the all (13.15). The language here strikingly recalls the Hindu teaching on primal identification: Tat Tvam Asi, "Thou art that." In Asian metaphysics, self-knowledge is equivalent to knowledge of the All, or God. "Atman is Brahman." In this opening paragraph, the savior could be delivering a brief discourse on Vedantic philosophy.
The teaching continues with a strong emphasis on "the deeds of the truth" that are visible in this world, contrasted to those "that pertain to the exalted heights of the pleroma, which are not visible" (138.30). Thomas is told that he "has not yet received the height of perfection." The Greek-Coptic idiom here is MEGATHOS TELEIOS, "the greater initiation." Scholars routinely translate the Greek word telos, "aim, purpose, goal," as perfection, and variants of telos, such as teleios, as "perfect." This is misleading and distorts the experience of Pagan initiation. The initiates in the Mysteries were called telestai, "those who are aimed, those who know the purpose or goal." They did not seek to become perfect, an impossible aim for human beings, but to actualize human potential in an ultimate or optimal way. In the terms of Abraham Maslow, they sought to achieve "peak experiences." The purpose of initiation was optimization of human potential, not superhuman perfection.
In Pagan religion, there were lesser and greater initiations. The lesser were popular rites of regeneration celebrated in the spring. The greater were deeper rites leading to the peak experience of illumination, celebrated in the fall. The savior seems to refer to the fact that Thomas has not undergone the greater initiation, megathos teleios, and so has not yet realized his full human potential. Reaching "the height of perfection" has nothing to do with this process.
This talk of initiation is promising, suggesting that we may now get some insider knowledge from the Mystery Schools—alas, we get nothing of the kind. The savior goes into an harangue on the perishability of beasts and human bodies, but there is a remarkable burst: "These formations perish" (139.5). This succint phrase immediately brings to mind the Buddhist teaching on conditioned existence and the chain of interdependent origination (Sanskrit pratitya-samutpada). All conditions arise and dissolve, all formations perish, is a primary message of all schools of Buddhism.
Is it merely a fluke that the savior uses Buddhist-like language in this passage? It might be so if only this one phrase were involved, but there is more. The savior immediately uses another Buddhist expression, a famous and widely known metaphor applied by Gautama: the world is on fire. Hinayana tradition records that several months after his awakening, the Buddha delivered the "Fire Sermon" to an audience of 1,000 ascetics. The Buddha used the metaphor of fire to enlighten his audience on the burning power of their passions and attachments. Tradition says that upon hearing this sermon, the entire audience attained full awakening.
The Gnostic Fire Sermon continues through p 142, ending with the dramatic assertion "It is the fire (of their passions) that will burn them." Throughout this passage, the savior pleads for ascesis, giving up attachment to the realm of the senses and overcoming carnal desires. This demand was emphatic in early Buddhist teaching, but world-denial is not a genuine mark of the Gnostic message. In the Hinayana tradition, the Fire Sermon is delivered to an audience of 1,000 ascetics who have renounced the world and its pleasures. There is more than a parallel here, there is extremely close conformity to the Buddhist call for ascesis. And other strong hints of Buddhist language occur. In 143.15 the savior declares, "Woe to you because of the wheel that turns in your minds." This is a clear allusion to the wheel of rebirth, a common Buddhist image. P 143 contains a description of punitive terrors in infernal worlds that resemble the demon worlds of the Buddhist wheel of life. Fire and brimstone language of this kind is totally alien to genuine Gnostic thought.
Granted there are a few slight traces of Gnostic idiom. 142.30 refers to "the ruler above who rules over all the powers as their king," using the key Gnostic term Archon, "ruler." Also, in 144.1 the savior declares, "Woe to those who dwell in error," using the Coptic sorem, a key term for the error implanted or insinuated in human minds by the Archons. But these syntactical clues to radical Pagan Gnosis are not developed. Instead, the entire text is dominated by a Buddhistic tirade against the spell of the flesh—and, most significantly, against women. 144.10 warns, "Woe to you who love intimacy with womankind and polluted intercourse with them!" This declaration is totally uncharacteristic of Gnostic teachings, but it can be found, writ large and clear, in early monastic writings of Indian Buddhism that condemn women in lurid and disgusting terms. Thom Cont is tainted with misogyny, consistent with its overall condemnation of the world of the flesh.
And that's about it for text 11 in the reading plan. There is nothing much of genuine Gnostic content to extract from this document. It could pass for a Buddhist sermon. Significantly, the tone and language it uses are characteristic of early Indian Buddhism, the southern branch of Hinayana. It may be no small coincidence, then, that a long-standing tradition has Thomas, the brother of Jesus, travel to India, and specifically to southern India. (When I travelled in southern India in 1965-6, I visited a number of Christian churches said to have been established by Thomas.) If Thomas was an historical person, he would have lived in the first century CE, a time when Hinayana was strong in that region. Perhaps he is called "the contender" because he brought from India a Buddhist teaching that contended with the message attributed to his brother, Jesus. I maintain that this supposition is as likely to be true as any explanation scholars offer about the odd sobriquet of Jesus' twin.
Having learned that the Apocryphon of James is not a Gnostic text, and the Gospel of Thomas the Contender is more Buddhist than Gnostic, the reader who is following this plan may begin to wonder when we are going to get back into the genuine Gnostic material! Remember text 1, Allogenes, giving us a glimpse of the sublime revelations of the illumined master in the Mystery Cell, and text 5, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, with its scathing indictment of redemptive religion? Having had a strong dose of radical Gnostic teachings early in the reading plan, it is difficult to plow through horrifically edited and mangled texts and come up with nothing more than drivel or dogma. Or, at best, we find a clear example of ascetic doctrine germane to Buddhism but totally alien to the Gnostic sense of life.
But all that is about to change. With text 12 of the reading plan, we encounter one of the most potent and mystically profound of Gnostic texts: The Gopsel of Philip.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.