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7.4 Gnosis

The Christian Gnostics have claimed that the “Gospel of John” was part of their canon and they used it for teaching their creed. It was however included in the “New Testament” by the Orthodox Christians whereas the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Dialogue of the Saviour” were rejected. Why was John included in the “New Testament” and the others not? It is mainly due to the fact that John wrote that one can only find God through Jesus, and by extension, through the Church, while the others maintained that one could only find Him in oneself, implying that the institutional church was not necessary.

As the Catholic Church became organised some internal contradictional ideas and practices could be accepted as long as they supported its internal structure. For instance, in the third and fourth centuries, many Catholic Christians followed ascetic forms of self-discipline seeking religious revelations in themselves through solitude, visions, and ecstatic experience. The words “Monk” and “Monastic”, after all, mean “Solitary” or “Single One” in Greek and is used in the “Gospel of Thomas” to describe the Gnostics. The Catholic Church integrated them in the official structure. It is possible that the documents found at Nag Hammadi were kept in the library of a Catholic monastery. When they were declared heretical in 367 AD these same monks could have hidden them in the cliffs.

What did the many groups called “Gnostics” have in common? Or, in other words, do the diverse books found at Nag Hammadi, have something in common? Despite their divergences the various Gnostic groups shared a fundamental religious perspective that was in contradiction with the canon of the Orthodox Church. Christians believed that people cannot find God within themselves, that they need to be told the way to approach Him, and that the Catholic Church was doing it (“Outside the Church there is no Salvation”). The Gnostics preached the exact opposite, that is that each man must find the way within himself. Some even said that humanity created God and the divine world. This would explain why the Saviour called himself “Son of Man”. The Church, in these conditions, would be at the best an instrument of man’ self-discovery. The Orthodox Christians, as the Jews before them, believe that what separate humanity from God is human sin, and that only Jesus can offer forgiveness. The Gnostics insisted that it was ignorance, and not sin, that prevented salvation and was responsible for the suffering experienced by those who did not yet saw the light in themselves. They preached that every man has, within himself, the potential for liberation and salvation through difficult learning and experience. What is known as the Kingdom of God would then occur, not through a historical event, but through internal transformation. The Gnostics accepted the concept that teaching is necessary at the beginning, but with maturity teaching must be replaced by self-knowledge and self-discovery through introspection. Gnosis, for its followers, is a subjective, immediate experience that concerns above all themselves with the internal significance of events, whereas the Orthodox maintain that human destiny depends on the events of “Salvation history”, the history of Israel, its prophets, among them Jesus, and his life including his death and resurrection. The “New Testament” Gospels deal with Jesus as a historical person and the creed relies on the prophets’ predictions to prove the validity of the Christian message. Jesus, according to the Gnostics and the “Gospel of Thomas”, thought that the prophets’ predictions were irrelevant. Moreover Gnostics think that actual events are less important that their perceived meaning. Whoever achieves gnosis is no longer a Christ. Gnosticism is more that a movement against Christianity. It also includes a religious perspective opposed to what became the early Christian Church and, if only as they expect to become “Christ” themselves, Gnostics are not ready to submit to the authority of what constitutes the structure of the church (Bishops, priests, creed, canon and ritual). Most Gnostics search for interior self-knowledge as the key to understand universal truths: “who we are, where we came from, where we go”. The Book of Thomas the Contender says: “whoever has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time achieved knowledge about the depth of all Things including divine reality”. In each human being there is an infinite power in a latent condition, but only those who reach gnosis realise its potential. Several documents (“Zostrianos”, “The Discourse on the Eight and the Ninth”, “Allogenes”) found at Nag Hammadi describe technics of spiritual discipline leading to Gnosis, but not necessarily the knowledge of God. However, much of the Gnostic teaching on spiritual discipline remained unwritten and transmitted verbally, and in secret, to the few mature initiates. The Gnostic theme of the discovery of the divine within appealed to many people and constituted a major threat to the Catholic church. The religious perspectives and the methods of Gnosticism, on the other hand, did not lend themselves to mass religion. The highly efficient organisation of the Catholic Church and the teaching of the “New Testament” were simple enough to be understood by all the people, and this explains the success of this church.