Gnosticism is probably hotter now than it has been since-well, over 1,500 years ago. As The Da Vinci Code hits movie theaters and probably extends its three-year run on the New York Times bestselling fiction list, Gnostic books like The Gospel of Judas and The Lost Gospel are also prominent on nonfiction bestseller charts.
Peter Jones, professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California and director of Christian Witness to a Pagan Planet (cwipp.org) is the author of The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back and other books that critique anti-Christian doctrines, including Cracking Da Vinci's Code (Cook Communications) and the newly published Stolen Identity: The Conspiracy to Reinvent Jesus (Cook), a detailed comparison of the Gnostic and the biblical Jesus.
WORLD: How do you define Gnosticism?
JONES: Gnosticism is formed from the Greek term gnosis meaning knowledge, but it means here a particular form of knowledge, namely "spiritual experience." Like all pagan spirituality, so-called "Christian" Gnosticism engages in "sacred technologies" to access the higher, spiritual self, the self that is part of God.
In this essentially out-of-body experience, all physical and this-worldly restraints, like rational thinking and a sense of specific gender, fall away. In a word, the experience of "enlightenment" is both the rejection of the goodness of the physical creation and an acquisition of the knowledge of the divinity of the human soul.
WORLD: So Gnostics see the human soul as divine, but how do Gnostic texts typically depict God?
JONES: There are two kinds of God. There is the Father of the Totalities, the Great Spirit or the Force behind everything, the Source from which true Gnostics have emanated and from whom they have fallen into matter. To this God their divine spark or soul/spirit will eventually return at death.
Then there is the God of orthodox Christianity, the God of the Old Testament, the Creator of heaven and earth. For the Gnostics this God is a blind and evil fool for having created evil matter. This is the God who foolishly says, "I am God and there is no other beside me," not knowing that above and beyond him is the Great Spirit. The Gnostic knows that Yahweh is a fool for demonstrating such ignorance and for leading human beings into ignorance. Thus the Gnostic Goddess casts Yahweh into hell.
WORLD: It doesn't sound like Gnostics have much respect for the Bible. What is their view of biblical history?
JONES: The very early Gnostic, Marcion (ca. a.d. 150), rejected God the lawgiver and thus the entire Old Testament. Later Gnostics did the same with even more vigor. For example, the media have given great attention recently to The Gospel of Judas. Bart Ehrman [Bestselling Books, May 6] calls Judas one of "the greatest finds from Christian antiquity." Its official translators argue that Judas demonstrates "the rich diversity of perspectives within early Christianity . . . during [its] formative period." Actually, Judas contains some of the typical (and radical) notions of second-century "Sethian" Gnosticism. In this kind of Gnosticism, God the Creator is an evil demon; the reprobates of Old Testament history-Cain, Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites-are the true heroes; Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are "a laughingstock." Clearly Judas fits the prototype for heroes.
WORLD: Let me ask about something else that's weird: Why did some early Gnostic texts depict Jesus passing through Mary as through a funnel?
JONES: Some readers will have read of Gnosticism under the term "Docetism" from the Greek verb, dokeo-"to seem." Christ only seemed to be physically human, but, as a matter of fact, Christ, from the realm of the spirit, could not be so closely associated with the work of the evil creator. In particular, the Sethian Gnostics (like Judas) laughed at the ignorance of those who thought they were crucifying Christ (since it was Simon of Cyrene on the cross).
In the same way, Jesus could not have been physically associated with Mary. Indeed, there are a number of exhortations in the Gnostic texts to "flee maternity" and the "works of femininity" because to be a woman and give birth is to enmesh oneself in the evil works of created flesh, and thus become a prisoner of the evil God, Yahweh.
WORLD: Parts of Gnosticism remind me of Hindu teachings. Was Gnosticism an attempt to meld Eastern religions and Christianity?
JONES: There is some evidence that ancient Gnosticism took some of its inspiration from Hinduism, which is quite believable since Alexander went as far as India in the fourth century b.c. and created an international cosmopolitan, syncretistic culture. At least we can say that some of those steeped in the imperial mystery religions, and also majoring in trance and mysticism, were attracted to Christianity; they may well at some point have been tempted to blend pagan spirituality with Christian doctrine. In 1 Corinthians 14:23 Paul criticizes worship behavior that would make observers associate the church with the Dionysian cults' practice of trance-like "madness."
WORLD: Even though The Da Vinci Code invents a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, it seems that Gnostics have something against heterosexual activity . . .
JONES: The goal of Gnostic sexuality is androgyny, the blending of male and female in one human being. The distinction of male and female is the result of the Fall, and so to undo the effects of the Fall one must join the opposites and make the two one. The "Jesus" of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas declares, "when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female . . . then you will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Saying 22). How interesting that this is happening in our own day, and that this is a definite developed theme in The Da Vinci Code.
WORLD: Why does Gnosticism emphasize meditation, mantras, and extreme mysticism?
JONES: These are what modern pagans call "spiritual technologies" that allow one to escape the clutches of physical reality in order to pass into the world of pure spirit, outside of the body. In this world of pure spirit all is one, all distinctions are eliminated. The essential presupposition for the attainment of this state is stopping the mind from engaging in rational thought. This is necessary since thought is a great factory of distinctions, where each word has its own meaning, without which one cannot think or speak. Meditation "silences the mind" and ushers one into a world of "oneness."
WORLD: Concerning one other weird element-what's the relationship of serpent worship and Gnosticism?
JONES: I was lecturing in Bogata, Colombia, last year, and at the break a doctor came to me and told me that, before his conversion, he was a member of the Gnostic Church of Colombia. He told me that in front of the church was a massive stone statue of a serpent. The reason is the Gnostics believed that the Serpent of Genesis spoke truth and the God of Genesis was a blind and evil liar. Thus Eve was a heroine and Adam a wimp who quickly converted to the "truth." One group of Gnostics actually called themselves the Naassenes, from the Hebrew, nass, "serpent." They worshipped the serpent and, according to the anti-Gnostic Church Father Hippolytus, worshipped at the temple of the goddess Isis, goddess of magic and the underworld.