Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Gnostic Gospels, Part 2

As we learned last time, Gnostics needed someone to provide the special gnosis, or knowledge, needed to escape fleshly existence. So here's where the fun starts.

Gnosticism was a syncretistic belief system. That means it appropriated the mythology of the culture in which it existed. This means that you'll find Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity scattered throughout Gnostic teachings. Remember, in the ancient world, polytheism was the rule, monotheism was the exception. Therefore, it was very common to appropriate someone else's gods and mythology because you wanted to spark their interest, and because the existence of one pantheon didn't exclude the existence of other pantheons. Originally the Gnostics appropriated the Jewish Torah. The creator God of Genesis 1 became the Gnostic demiurge. God's wrath and strict requirements were accentuated, while his love and provision was ignored, to illustrate that he was an imperfect tyrant and not the one. Seth, the son of Adam and Eve, became the disseminator of the gnosis required to escape creation.

However, you can probably see where this is headed. Sethian Gnosticism decided to appropriate Christian symbolism as it had that of Judaism. Suddenly, the disseminator of gnosis became Jesus, who was not really a human, because flesh and the physical world are evil. He only appeared to be a man in order to illustrate how one casts off their humanity. This is a heresy known as "docetism" in the early church.

In order to fully appropriate Jesus, the Gnostics had to deal with all of those pesky things he said and did that contradicted their theology. Identifying with the Old Testament God and quoting the Old Testament were obviously out. So were the indications of his humanity. To this end, the Gnostics wrote their own set of "Gospels". Going along with the theme of secret knowledge, these Gospels largely argue that Jesus' message was mischaracterized or misunderstood by Peter and the rest of the disciples. That's why they have heroes like Judas and Mary Magdalene. These were supposedly the only people who really "got" it.