OUT OF EGYPT V:
The Open Fracture
After his resurrection Jesus Christ remained on earth for 40 days and repeatedly appeared to his disciples to confirm his embodied humanity, his love and compassion, and his promise to be with them always (Matthew 28:20; John 15:15). Finally, in the presence of his followers, Jesus ascended “out of their sight” from the Mount of Olives (Gr. Har Migdo) (Acts 1:9). Meanwhile, he had assured them that they would “receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me . . . ” (Acts 1:8).
Just 10 days later the disciples were “filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Unfortunately, from this experience some concluded that they possessed God himself, that they had the liberty to exercise divine power, and even that they might attain divinity.
The consequences of this conclusion were historically tragic for the church. First, the sorcerer Simon Magus of Samaria offered to purchase the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24). When this was refused, Simon became one of the early founding Gnostics.1,2 He claimed that he was the true god imprisoned in human flesh by the fallen god and that true knowledge would liberate him from the earthly body and return him to his celestial abode.
Over the next millennium Simon’s claims were adopted by a succession of church fathers, such as Valentinus (ca. 100-160 CE), Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160 CE), Basilides (?-138 CE)3-5 and many others. They reputedly included the apostle Thomas (?-72 CE), whose alleged Gospel was found in the Nag Hammadi documents, discovered in Upper Egypt. Thomas apparently carried his Gnostic beliefs across Asia to India, where they were adopted by Christian converts as well as by Hindus and Buddhists.6
Another convert named Mani (216-276 CE) came from a prominent family in Persia.7 He developed a form of Gnosticism known as Manicheism, which spread across Eastern Europe and Asia as far as China. His beliefs allegedly influenced Confucianism.
Then, around the end of the first millennium, Gnosticism was openly adopted by a prominent group that migrated from Eastern to Western Europe and eventually settled in southern France and northern Italy. They were known as the Cathars or Albigenses (1143-1329 CE), after the French city of Albi.8,9 The Albigenses aroused deep hostility in the orthodox community of Catholics, governed by the papal hierarchy. This led in the thirteenth century to violent crusades against the Cathars and their consequent extinction. In this context, Gnosticism as an open and global mission disappeared.
Meanwhile, around the time the papacy launched the Crusade(s) against the Cathars, an extended Jewish document entitled Sefer ha-Bahir (Book of Illumination) emerged in Provence, France (1230 CE).10 The “Illumination” was called the “Kabbalah,” which means both “received” and “traditions.”11 Though the Kabbalah is believed to have originated in Egypt about the time of Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE – 50 CE), little if anything was known about it for over a thousand years.12
The Kabbalah represents a mystical form of Judaism. In this mystical thinking the infinite and unknowable God, termed “Ein Sof” (“Divine Essence”), exists above and apart from all created reality.13 However, this God revealed his will in a 10-step process that unfolded itself in creation.14 These steps (“Sephirot”) were/are regarded as the emanational attributes of God himself.15
In the Kabbalah these 10 fundamental attributes extend downward as the emanations of God (“Ein Sof”) at four descending levels — the divine world, the spiritual world, the psychological world and, finally, the physical world with all its creatures.
According to the Kabbalah, “As the four Worlds link the Infinite with our realm, they also enable the soul to ascend in devotion or mystical states, towards the Divine.”16 This upward movement through four worlds as the soul embraces the 10 divine attributes can be regarded as ascent through the “tree of knowledge” (Genesis 2:9). By accomplishing this, human beings will “be as gods” (Genesis 3:5).
The mysticism of the Kabbalah has persisted throughout medieval, Renaissance, modern and postmodern Judaism. Furthermore, such medieval and Renaissance scholars as Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Flavius Mithridates (1450-1483), Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), John Dee (1527-1608) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) maintained the Kabbalah within Christian awareness.17
While the Kabbalah does not express the existence of an imprisoned true god and thus is not Gnostic, this largely hidden Hebraic mysticism has allegedly been used as a model for the emergence of numerous Gnostic societies, cults and religions.
Meanwhile, just before or during the siege of Jerusalem (66-70 CE), a group of Christians who claimed to be followers of the apostle Peter and were known as Ebionites (“Poor Ones”) escaped from the city and fled across the Jordan River into Arabia.18 The Ebionites believed that Christ was the true God imprisoned in the flesh of Jesus and that Christ escaped from the bodily Jesus at Calvary and returned to heaven, while the earthly Jesus was permanently buried.
The Ebionites and their beliefs survived in Arabia for hundreds of years. In the latter part of the sixth century, the camel driver, Muhammad, married his first wife, Khadijah (555-619 CE), who was the wealthy owner of a camel caravan. Khadijah’s parental cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal (?-610 CE), was an Ebionite who helped tutor Muhammad.19,20 This was the origin of Islam and its inner esoteric tradition known as Sufism.21
Simultaneously with the emergence of the various forms of Gnosticism, orthodox Christianity spread and prospered across the Roman Empire. After the martyrdom of the apostle Paul (ca. 67 CE), the early church father, Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-108 CE), assumed the leadership of the Gentile Christians.22 He instituted the hierarchy of “bishop, priest and deacon.”23 This led to the papacy and, then, to the union of the church with imperial Rome under Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337 CE). Meanwhile, the early church father, Athanasius of Alexandria (293-373 CE), drafted what became known as the Athanasian Creed — including “God became man in order that man might become God.”24
About a millennium later the German scholar and Dominican monk, Johannes Eckhart, also called “Meister Eckhart” (1260?-1327?), declared:
The Father is the transcendent aspect of the divine; the Son is the immanent aspect. This divine core, the true “I”, exists in all of us equally. It is what unites us, for as paradoxical as it may sound, this “I” is the same in all of us. To be “transformed and changed into the body of Christ” is to become aware — cognitively and experientially — of this profound unity with all the other Sons of God and with the Father.25
The astounding fact is that the Gnostic belief in the divinity of knowledgeable human beings filtered into Islam and orthodox Christianity as well as into Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. For over a thousand years this belief system was openly manifest despite the protests of such scholars as Ireneaus (?-202 CE), bishop of Lyon, France,26 who wrote extensively against those he called “the heretics.”
However, after more than a millennium of open and global advance, the belief that knowledgeable people possessed divinity or would ultimately achieve divinity largely faded into oblivion. Gnosticism went underground and silently persisted for another millennium.
The profound tragedy is that the Gnostic misrepresentation of the Christ event gravely fractured human understanding of who Jesus Christ actually was and what he did. In this context, the secret existence of Gnosticism must now be examined.
- See “Simon Magus,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Magus. (go back)
- See David R. Cartlidge, “The Fall and Rise of Simon Magus,” Bible Review 21, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 24-36. (go back)
- See “Valentinus (Gnostic),” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentinus_(Gnostic). (go back)
- See “Marcion of Sinope,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope. (go back)
- See “Basilides,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilides. (go back)
- See “Apostle Thomas,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostle_Thomas. (go back)
- See “Mani,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mani_(prophet). (go back)
- See Richard Smoley, The Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp. 67-88. (go back)
- See Rene Weis, The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars (1290-1329) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001). (go back)
- See Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 72. (go back)
- See “Kabbalah and Jewish Mystical Tradition,” at www.occultopedia.com/k/kabbalah.htm. (go back)
- See Barker, Great Angel, p. 51. (go back)
- See “Ein Sof,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ein_Sof. (go back)
- See “Sephirot,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephirot. (go back)
- See “Shekhinah,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shekhinah. (go back)
- “Sephirot,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephirot. (go back)
- See Smoley, Forbidden Faith, pp. 89-105. (go back)
- See “Ebionites,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebionites. (go back)
- See “Khadijah,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khadijah. (go back)
- See “Waraqah ibn Nawful,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waraqah_ibn_Nawfal. (go back)
- See “Sufism,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufism. (go back)
- See “Ignatius of Antioch,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignatius_of_Antioch. (go back)
- Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 35. (go back)
- Athanasius of Alexandria, quoted in Joan O’Grady, Early Christian Heresies (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1985), p. 94. (go back)
- Johannes Eckhart, quoted in Smoley, Forbidden Faith, pp. 102, 103. (go back)
- See “Irenaeus,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ireneaus. (go back)