The first part of my title refers to an ongoing theme of mine. (For details of everything I’ve written about Christianity, please click here, about half way down the page.)
One of the big questions that faces modern Christianity is, did the right books get into the New Testament? Christians nowadays, if unaware of the history, may assume that the core of what Christians now believe has always been the same. This is far from being the case; in the first three centuries many conflicting ideas were circulating, and some serious theological disputes arose. It was the Emperor Constantine who demanded a unified version of Christianity in the fourth century as a means of uniting his empire, and it was around this time that what we know as the New Testament Canon came into being.
Before I get to my main point, as an aside I’ll just mention that the Muslim writer Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood names earlier versions of the New Testament, demonstrating that the one we have is merely the consequence of a victory of one faction over another, and may have nothing to do with the truth. Christianity could have, and possibly would have, been completely different if a different group had won the arguments back in the fourth century. She says that “there was a time when the official New Testament included such material as the subsequently abandoned Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Preaching of Peter, the Didache, the Apostolic Constitutions, and even the Sybilline Oracles”¹. She also mentions an Ebionite version of the Acts of the Apostles, and a text called the Ascents of Jacob. In her opinion all these texts are closer to what Islam believes, rather than what became Christianity.
The Vatican hierarchy, having for hundreds of years been telling everyone what they had to believe, and that it was all true, must have been very concerned when texts which had been lost for hundreds of years were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. What on earth would they contain?
They are Gnostic texts, and Gnosticism was one of the ‘heresies’ that was ruthlessly suppressed by the Catholic Church, allied with the military dictatorship of the Roman Empire, in a book-burning orgy many hundreds of years earlier. (It is a reasonable speculation that the texts were hidden in order to avoid this persecution, and therefore destruction by the Catholic Church.) I once believed, perhaps naïvely, that the Church destroyed these texts because they believed them to be false. It only later occurred to me that they might have done this because they believed them to be true, and that they did this in order to enforce the theology that they had created, and suppress all alternatives.
Jonathan Black, in his highly important book The Secret History of the World², which claims to be hidden knowledge preserved for centuries by secret societies, says the following: “In the ancient world the teachings of the Mystery schools were guarded as closely as nuclear secrets are guarded today. Then in the third century the temples of the ancient world were closed down, as Christianity became the ruling religion of the Roman Empire. The danger of ‘proliferation’ was addressed by declaring these secrets heretical (his italics), and trafficking in them continued to be a capital offence. But as we shall see, members of the new ruling elite including Church leaders, now began to form secret societies. Behind closed doors they continued to teach the old secrets” (p18). He also refers to “the twenty miles of shelves of esoteric and occult literature said to be locked away in the Vatican” (p27).
If this is true, what does it mean? It is perhaps possible to paint a rosier picture, but it would seem that the Christianity that has been taught to the general public is, at the very least, far from the truth as the Church understands it, more bluntly a lie, and that the Church has intentionally concealed what it believed to be the true teachings. They may have done this from what they considered honourable motives; they may have thought that the generally illiterate public were not ready for the true teachings. If that is the case, however, it is reasonable to ask whether now is not time for a change. The modern, much better-educated public might be ready for the truth.
Perhaps the most shocking line in the Nag Hammadi texts, from the Church’s point of view, is in the Gospel of Thomas. In the Gospel of Matthew (16.18) we find Jesus saying: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (NRSV translation). This led the early Church to claim that Peter was the chosen successor of Jesus and, on the basis of no historical evidence whatsoever, that he was the first Bishop of Rome, in effect the first Pope (for a discussion of this point, see footnote 3).
In the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas, however, we find the following: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’ ” (Logion 12)⁴. The James being referred to is, of course, the brother of Jesus in the New Testament gospels, a fringe figure worthy of only an occasional mention there, and not even one of the 12 apostles.
What are we to make of this? I believe that it is a historical fact that James was the leader of the Jerusalem Church until his execution in 64 CE, and Robert Eisenman has written a scholarly and lengthy tome about his life. It would seem, therefore, that the Gospel of Thomas is more in line with history than that of Matthew.
So could the line about Peter being the foundation stone of the Church be something that Jesus actually said? If not, is it a fiction, inserted into an existing text by a Catholic editor at a later date? (It is important to note that the earliest surviving copies of the four canonical gospels are from the 4th century. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that this coincides with the establishment of Christianity as we know it. Or perhaps all earlier gospel manuscripts were destroyed at this time along with the Gnostic texts?) And if this line is a fabrication, how much more in the gospels as we know them is a fabrication? We just don’t know.
Following Nag Hammadi, there was another discovery of ancient texts soon afterwards in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Because my main interest here is in Gnosticism, I will save some observations about that for a future article, so that readers won’t get distracted from my main thrust.
What might Christianity have become if the Gnostic texts had not been suppressed?
There are two especially fascinating incidents in the life of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. He tells them both in his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections. This is the first one, which I have summarised; there is much more detail in the original.
He says that one day, having come out of school, he went to look at the local cathedral, and he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sight. Suddenly, however, he felt a choking sensation. An inner voice was telling him “Don’t go on thinking now!” He felt that something terrible was about to emerge into his consciousness, something appalling and blasphemous, that he did not want to allow.
He tormented himself for three days, then felt his resistance weakening, although he was still wondering why he was being forced to think something inconceivably wicked. After more internal arguments, he says that eventually “I gathered all my courage, as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come. I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky. God sits on His golden throne, high above the world, and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder.
“So that was it! I felt an enormous, an indescribable relief. Instead of the expected damnation, grace had come upon me, and with it an unutterable bliss such as I had never known. I wept for happiness and gratitude. The wisdom and goodness of God had been revealed to me now that I had yielded to His inexorable command. It was as though I had experienced an illumination. A great many things I had not previously understood became clear to me. That was what my father⁵ had not understood, I thought; he had failed to experience the will of God, had opposed it for the best reasons and out of the deepest faith. And that was why he had never experienced the miracle of grace which heals all and makes all comprehensible. He had taken the Bible’s commandments as his guide; he believed in God as the Bible prescribed and as his forefathers had taught him. But he did not know the immediate living God who stands, omnipotent and free, above His Bible and His Church, who calls upon man to partake of His freedom, and can force him to renounce his own views and convictions in order to fulfill without reserve the command of God. In His trial of human courage God refuses to abide by traditions, no matter how sacred. In His omnipotence He will see to it that nothing really evil comes of such tests of courage. If one fulfills the will of God one can be sure of going the right way”⁶.
One might say that at that moment Jung had been initiated into the Gnostic Church. Why was it specifically Jung having this vision? My assumption is that it was because it was his life’s mission to bring the true teachings back to life, to revive the Church. God apparently considered the cathedral, no matter how glorious and beautiful it seemed, to be something related to a waste product.
This is the second, somewhat spooky, incident. It is Jung’s account of how his short book Septem Sermones ad Mortuos (Seven Sermons to the Dead) came into being. It occurred during a period which Jung called a ‘Confrontation with the Unconscious’. He had been having conversations with what we might call an adult version of a child’s imaginary friend, therefore a psychic figure, but who was nevertheless very real for him, whom he called Philemon. Jung says that he received many important psychological insights from him. Philemon was therefore a teacher figure.
Jung then says that “in 1916 I felt an urge to give shape to something. I was compelled from within, as it were, to formulate and express what might have been said by Philemon. It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what ‘they’ wanted of me. There was an ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted. My eldest daughter saw a white figure passing through the room. My second daughter, independently of her elder sister, related that twice in the night her blanket had been snatched away; and that same night my nine-year-old son had an anxiety dream (which included the devil and an angel)…
“Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front doorbell began ringing frantically. It was a bright summer day; the two maids were in the kitchen, from which the open square outside the front door could be seen. Everyone immediately looked to see who was there, but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me. Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ Then they cried out in chorus, ‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought’ ”. (That is the opening line of the Seven Sermons.)
“Then it began to flow out of me, and in the course of three evenings the thing was written. As soon as I took up the pen, the whole ghostly assemblage evaporated. The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over”⁷.
I am far from being a rationalist, but even I find this story somewhat incredible. That being said, I am prepared to trust Jung’s account; he was an extraordinary human being, and who am I to say that he would not be singled out for such treatment by the spirit world?
The subtitle of the book he started at that moment is very important. The full title is The Seven Sermons to the Dead Written by Basilides in Alexandria the City Where the East Toucheth the West. Jung appears to be saying that he is not the true author, that in effect he is channeling the spirit of an ancient gnostic teacher, from a city famous as a centre of ancient wisdom. Or perhaps he is just being fanciful, and merely pouring out his own thoughts? Whichever is the case, he was presumably writing what the spirits were demanding, since the haunting stopped.
The book is extraordinary. Jung is often described as a ‘mystical’ psychologist, the implication being that his work is not scientific (so that we don’t have to take any notice of it). This is true up to a point. Jung was careful, however, in his Collected Works to publish only on subject matter that he considered observable and real, if not provable in a strict scientific sense. He therefore resisted metaphysical speculation in those texts. In this book, however, he lets himself off the leash, and allows himself to write a short but complex metaphysical outpouring. For this reason he never wanted it to be made available to anyone outside his close circle during his lifetime, and regretted it when this happened without his permission. However, according to his leading disciple Marie-Louise von Franz, he never regretted the content.
So what is it all about? I am not going to explore the contents here; for those interested, there is a brilliant edition of the book, translation plus commentaries, by the gnostic scholar Stephan Hoeller⁸. I’ll simply refer to the words of the chorus of spirits, demanding expression: “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought”. This expresses a profound disappointment with the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is perceived to be devoid of true knowledge, true spirituality, put into the mouth of an ancient gnostic teacher from Alexandria who would have been considered a heretic by the Church. In that context, I should point out that the ‘dead’ referred to in the title, means those people we normally think of as living, but who have become ‘dead’ through not having experienced spiritual awakening. (This reminds me of a saying attributed to Scottish psychologist, the late R. D. Laing: “Is there life before death?” Even if he didn’t actually say this, it’s still a great line.)
Jung is called a Gnostic by some, although I assume that he would not have subscribed to all the ideas. He nevertheless did see himself up to a point as some kind of modern-day Gnostic. He says that he “had to find evidence for the historical prefiguration of my inner experiences. That is to say, I had to ask myself, ‘Where have my particular premises already occurred in history?’ If I had not succeeded in finding such evidence, I would never have been able to substantiate my ideas…
“Between 1918 and 1926 I had seriously studied the Gnostic writers, for they too had been confronted with the primal world of the unconscious and had dealt with its contents, with images that were obviously contaminated with the world of instinct”.
He thought, however, that the Gnostics were too remote for him to establish any link with them in regard to the questions that were confronting him: “As far as I could see, the tradition that might have connected Gnosis with the present seemed to have been severed, and for a long time it proved impossible to find any bridge that led from Gnosticism or neo-Platonism to the contemporary world. But when I began to understand alchemy I realized that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and that a continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious”⁹.
These two incidents, even though they are of a psychological and paranormal nature, are strong indications that Jung was onto something special, perhaps one branch of what Christianity might have become if Gnosticism had been allowed to survive. Actually it has survived, no thanks to the Catholic Church of course; the ancient Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi have attracted much interest in modern times, and still have much to teach us.
Stephan Hoeller’s translation of The Seven Sermons to the Dead was one of Ten Books Which Changed My life, an earlier article on Medium. I have copied some of what I wrote there in the article above.
1. The Mysteries of Jesus, Sakina Books, 2000, p202
2. Quercus, 2008
3. There is much material about this on the internet. Here we find someone still saying it: “Simon Peter, the leader of the apostles (also named Prince of the Apostles), was the first Bishop of Rome and the First Pope and played a big part in spreading Christianity around the world”. https://christianityspreads.blogspot.com/p/saint-peter.html
Here we find the opposing point of view: “ Today I would like to present to the reader ten major points, taken entirely from the New Testament, which completely disprove the claim that Peter was in Rome during the period claimed by the Papacy. These Biblical points speak for themselves and any one of them is sufficient to prove the ridiculousness of the Catholic claim.” http://www.babylonforsaken.com/romepeter.html
Online Britannica says: “It is probable that the tradition of a 25-year episcopate of Peter in Rome is not earlier than the beginning or the middle of the 3rd century. The claims that the church of Rome was founded by Peter or that he served as its first bishop are in dispute and rest on evidence that is not earlier than the middle or late 2nd century”. (In which case it is reasonable to assume that the story was made up around that time.) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Peter-the-Apostle
4. Translation from The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson (General Editor), HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, p127
5. Jung’s father was a Protestant clergyman, who had serious religious doubts, but seemed unable to discuss them with his son.
6. This story can be found in chapter 2, School Years, in Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Collins Fount, 1977
7. ibid., pp 215–216
8. The Theosophical Publishing House, 1982
9. As footnote 6, chapter 7, The Work