Oct 082013

The Secret Teachings of Jesus

Hello, I’m Keith Campbell, independent priest of the Home Temple, and welcome to GodSmarts.
I’d like to start this episode with a joke. The full joke is very long, but in the interests of time I’m going to abbreviate. A man was wandering by a monastery on a high hill when he heard a very strange, beautiful noise. He was so intrigued by the noise that he climed all the way up the mountain, found the abbot and asked him what was making such an unusual noise. The abbot told him sternly, “i’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. You’re not a monk”. The man went on his way, but his mind was so obsessed about the source of the sound that he finally climed back up the mountain and asked what he had to do to become a monk. The abbot told him he had to travel the world, count all the grains of sand on the beaches and all the blades of grass in the fields.
So he wandered the world for many years, counting all the grains of sand and all the blades of grass. Finally, many years later, he returned to the monestary and was made a monk.He could hardly contain his excitement as he was finally lead to the secret door where the strange sound came from. What he saw there was absolutely amazing, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you about it. You’re not a monk.

Secrets have often been a part of religion. Last time we looked at the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas, and I explained why many scholars think it’s a very important look at the authentic teachings of Jesus. But the Gospel of Thomas says that some of Jesus teachings were secret. The very first verse says:

“These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” – Thomas 1

Did Jesus have secret teachings?

There is very good evidence that he did. Jesus would take his disciples aside to explain the secret meanings of his parables, that the public didn’t get to hear. “You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” Jesus says, “but they have not. (Matt 13:10-11, NET)̀

The Greek word used for secret here is “musterion”, which means “to shut the mouth”. It referred to the sort of secrets that the initiates of the mystery schools were taught. Jesus said that some of his teachings weren’t for the unspiritual.

“Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs” – Matthew 7:6 NET Jesus says.

When his disciples figured out who he was,
“…he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
(Matt 16:20, NET)

When he was transfigured on the mountain with Peter, James and John,

“As they were coming down from the mountain, he gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:9 NET)

But haven’t all these secrets been revealed to us in the Bible?

Probably not.

We’re told at the end of the gospel of John that There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:25, NET)

We’re told that,
“To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3, NET)

But we don’t know a single word of what he said.

Paul told his readers that he couldn’t teach them the deepest spiritual truths.

“I could not speak to you as spiritual people, “ he says, “but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, (1Cor 3:1-2, NET)

So Paul’s epistles only gave spiritual milk, not the solid meat of the mysteries, but as a “steward of the mysteries of God.’ (1Cor 4:1, NET) Paul only explained “… spiritual things to spiritual people. (1Cor 3:13 NET)

Many of the early leaders of the church mentioned these secret teachings. Origin said that just like the Greek mysteries, Christianity had it’s secrets.

“But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric (outer) ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric (outer) and others esoteric. (inner)” (Origin Contra Cesum: Book I Chap VII)

Basil also mentioned the Christian mysteries – the oral teaching passed on from the apostles saying that:

“the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.” (Basil of Cesaria: On the Holy Spirit, Book XXVII)

And Clement of Alexandria talked about

“ the gnosis (secret knowledge) itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the apostles.” (Clement of Alexandria: Stromata Book VI Chapter VII)

One of the most famous gnostic teachers, Valentinus, a man who nearly became bishop of Rome, claimed to have been taught the secret teachings of Jesus by a disciple who learned them directly from the apostle Paul.

We assume that Jesus purpose was to publicly proclaim his message to the world, and then to die on the cross and rise from the dead, leaving his clear message in the Bible for everyone to read. We assume that because this written message – the outward message, is all that modern Christianity has to offer. But from these clues, it appears that Jesus also had a deeper, spiritual message that was only passed on to a few of his most spiritual disciples, and by them to their own select disciples. This is the way that spiritual discipleship has worked through much of history. Many of the Rabbis of Jesus time had inner circles of disciples with whom they shared their deepest teachings.

So what are these secret teachings of Jesus? And how can we know what they are if they aren’t spelled out in the Bible?

Well I’d like to tell you. But you’re not a monk.

Until next time, I’m Keith Campbell for Godsmarts. See you soon.

Just kidding. Next time, we WILL try to see what clues we can discover about Jesus’ secret teaching.





Mar 132013

It gets harder every day to explain my spirituality to others. I am a follower of the Master Jesus, and an independent priest. But am I a Christian? Many would say no, because I have unorthodox beliefs.

C. S. Lewis argued, in Mere Christianity, that “Christian” should mean someone who claims to hold to the “Christian doctrine”. He was arguing against those who prefer to use “Christian” as a word meaning someone who is loving and charitable. Lewis would prefer us to say of a baptized scoundrel, “he’s a bad Christian” rather than “he’s not a Christian”.

But what, exactly, constitutes “Christian doctrine?” At one time, we could identify the earliest Christian creeds and doctrines and insist that a Christian must claim to believe them. But with the emergence of early Christian writings such as the Nag Hammadi texts, our view of what early Christianity looked like is changing. Early Christians were a much more diverse bunch than originally thought. From the very beginning, there existed apostolic groups with radically different notions of what Jesus message was.

I would tend to call myself a “gnostic” Christian, but this is misleading also. No Christian group actually called itself “gnostic”. This was a catch-all phrase for several groups that differed considerably with each other. There are a few common features of “gnosticism”, such as the emphasis on individual enlightenment, that are appealing. Then on the other hand are the strange cosmologies and a very negative attitude toward the material world.

“Mystical Christian”, “Esoteric Christian”, and “Hermetic Christian” are also possibilities, but seem to conjure up strange images in the modern mind.

So, what do you think is the best self-label for an “inner” Christian in the modern world?

Jun 042010

1676300378_bd28c2f0ea I usually don’t share my meditation or religious experiences, but I had an experience this morning so powerful for me personally that I wanted to attempt to record it and share it. It was an encounter with God unlike any I’ve had. It began with my reading last night of some passages from Karen Armstrong’s book The Case for God, which is turning out to be a profoundly good read, by the way.

Karen was discussing the interplay of cataphatic and apophatic theology. For those unfamiliar with these terms – cataphatic theology is an approach to God which focuses on what God IS – what can be affirmed about God, whereas apophatic theology focuses on what God is NOT, what is denied about God. For example, in the concept of the Trinity, God is one (cataphatic) but at the same time, God is NOT one, but three (apophatic). And yet he is not three (apophatic) but one (cataphatic). In the process of moving back and forth between these two, affirming something about God, only to deny it – we reach a state of abandoning human concepts and resting in the ineffability of God beyond human reason.

Samurai_At_The_End_by_sedART No human concept applies perfectly to God. The human intellect  is like a sword – with human concepts being as much about what something is NOT as what it is. The book is here, but not there. It exists now, but it did not exist five years ago. It is red, which means it is not blue. By cutting away what something is NOT, the human intellect arrives at a definition of what it IS. But with God, none of that works. He is here, and there. He exists now, and then. There is nothing to cut away. And because our concept of “existence” relies on this cutting away, it is not even possible to say that God “exists”. It is equally impossible to say that he does NOT exist. Not because, like the agnostic, we aren’t sure – but because the word “exists” breaks down when we try to think about God.

As I continued to meditate on God as beyond existence and non-existence – beyond good and bad, beyond desire and change, I was suddenly struck with the idea that all our human ideas of meaning and purpose which so drive our religious and spiritual quests might be nothing more than misapplications of our biological drives for survival. It was a very arid and even atheistic thought, in which the whole of human existence seemed like something of a sad joke. The ultimate object of concern – God – seemed on reflection to lack real purpose or quality. He simply is – take it or leave it.

And then – suddenly, I felt the presence of something that felt very remote, and yet full of inexpressible love and goodness. I had the distinct impression that this presence was observing me from a great distance, with total acceptance, but with some disappointment at my situation of having to exist in the material world. It was as if “God” were a slightly cruel boy tormenting the ants in his ant farm with a magnifying glass (I being one of his ants), while his older and much kinder brother looked on with disapproval from behind him, reaching to intervene and snatch the magnifying glass away.

It felt very “Gnostic”.  My sense of the material world was very negative, but I felt very intensely the presence of a remote goodness what was totally unconnected with the material world – something to which I immediately felt and expressed love and loyalty.

I find this a bit confusing. Previously, I have believed that there is a progression in spirituality from nature mysticism to causal mysticism to non-dual mysticism. One first sees God in nature (Pantheism or Paganism) and then sees God as above nature (Monotheism) or even against nature (Gnosticism) and finally sees God as both in and above nature at the same time (non-duality). I have had spiritual experiences and episodes of all these mystical states. But now I’ve had what seems a more intense and advanced spiritual experience, and the flavor is definitely Gnostic.

It may be that my earlier experiences were simply intellectual counterfeits, or “light” versions of real mysticism, and now I’m working my way through the series at a more intense level. Or I may have to re-evaluate the whole progression thing.

It feels like some sort of breakthrough, but I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with it.

Sep 042007

The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. “You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.” – Frank Zappa

Zappa, of course, wasn’t the first to find God’s behavior in Genesis 2 absurd. Shortly after Jesus, the Christian Gnostics read the Genesis account and saw something entirely different than what the orthodox saw. To them, it was obvious that the God of Genesis 2 was a bully – ignorant if not downright malevolent. To them, it was basically this “God” of Genesis 2 who was the REAL devil, and the serpent was sent from the true God to deliver Adam and Eve from Ignorance. The Gnostic “Testimony of Truth” put it in words Zappa would probably have approved of:

“But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, “Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger!”

But other mystical interpretations of Genesis pick up on additional subtleties. It is not simply wisdom that the fatal tree gives Adam and Eve – it is dualistic knowledge – categorical knowledge. Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Ultimately – myself vs. everything NOT myself. In other words, the developed Ego. The story in Genesis is basically the story of humanity rising above animal awareness and developing self-consciousness; a story repeated in the psychological development of every subsequent human being. Thorough the ego, humanity not only becomes aware of good and evil, but also life and death. We come to understand, anticipate… and dread our own mortality.

This is our “fall”. But it is a fall UPWARDS. The Ego is our only vehicle upwards toward transcendence, but it also can become our prison.

And so, in one important sense, the intellectual, categorical, dualistic mind IS an obstacle. Not because it allows us to question dogma or doubt doctrine, but because it isolates us from the rest of the universe in a prison of concepts, tortured by the suffering of remembered or anticipated pain and death and annihilation. The ego is our hell, and our only salvation is that the ego is temporary. To live forever in our present state would indeed be a grim fate.

Every mystical tradition recognizes that the intellectual mind is an obstacle to be overcome in the spiritual path. Zen masters give their disciples torturous, insoluble mental puzzles (koans) to trick the mind into exhausting itself. Yogis practice for years to quiet the noise of the mind. In Christianity, “contemplative prayer” involves a long discipline of focusing the mind on divine emptiness.

John Wren-Lewis, an atheist mystic, describes his experience of awakening from the conceptual world into emptiness:
“Now all the judgments of goodness or badness which the human mind necessarily has to make in its activities along the line of time were contextualized in the perspective of that other dimension I can only call eternity, which loves all the productions of time regardless.”

Apr 202007

The Church of the Holy Archangels is an independent ministry in the process of affiliation with the Home Temple under the jurisdiction of Bishop Lewis Keizer. 

In form we are part of the Independent Catholic movement, with lines of authority from most if not all of the surviving branches of apostolic succession. We administer the sacraments to any who wish to receive them, without membership or doctrinal requirements and without charge.

We have no fixed body of dogma, but reverence the Master Jesus. We believe his gift to us consisted primarily in spiritual power and transformation, rather than a set of statements of belief.

Our understanding of the spiritual world is not bound by any one tradition, but is influenced by many traditions, including orthodox Christianity, Gnosticism, Vedantism and other Eastern philosophies, and the teaching of various Esoteric Schools.

Mar 162007

In the collection of sources that went into the Bible, there were several different perspectives regarding Satan and the role of evil in the world. In fact, the book of Job is an all-out argument right in the pages of scripture between several of these competing views. Israel was in a unique position to experience and ponder the problem of evil because they lived in a land that was a crossroads between Egypt on one side and Asia and Mesopotamia on the other. During much of their history they were constantly conquered or invaded by one ambitious empire after another.

Before this period, God’s attitude toward Abraham and his descendents is one of unqualified benevolence:

Now Yahweh said to Abram, Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your fathers house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you. (Genesis 12:1-3 WEB)

God continues to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in spite of their personal failings and problems.

The “Prophetic” View

As Israel began to experience repeated conquests by their neighbors, a religious question arose. If God promised to bless Israel and give them their land as a possession forever (see Gen 13:15), why were they often conquered and subjugated by their neighbors? The answer that developed has been called the “Prophetic” view of good and evil. God blesses Israel when they obey him, but he is prepared to punish them when they do NOT obey him.

Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you shall listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if you shall not listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28 WEB)

Remember that Deuteronomy was written long after the fact. The Deuteronomist (possibly Jeremiah) was looking back at Israel’s history from the perspective of repeated periods of suffering. Also notice that the blessings and curses are entirely physical, in there here-and-now. For example:

“I command you this day to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16 WEB)

The reward for obedience to God was not heavenly happiness. It was life, possessions, and posterity. Physical prosperity and happiness was the sign of God’s favor. Physical misfortune was the sign of God’s displeasure.

Also at this time, the concept of “Satan” began to occur in scripture. We are used to thinking of the serpent in the garden of Eden as the first appearance of Satan, but this is a later association. In the primitive original story, the serpent is only a serpent. “Satan” originally meant simply “adversary”. For example, in 1 Samuel 29:4, The Philistines are worried that if they take David into battle with them against Israel (David is serving the Philistines at that time) he will turn on them in battle and become a “satan” (an adversary).

God sends angels as “satans” to either oppose or test various individuals. In Numbers 22, for example, God sends an angel as a “satan” against Balaam, to prevent him from cursing Israel.

Gods anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of Yahweh placed himself in the way for an adversary [Hebrew = “satan”] against him. Now he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. (Numbers 22:22 WEB)

In one case, God himself acts as the “satan”. We read:

Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1 WEB)

But in a parallel version of the text, we read:

Again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Judah. (2 Samuel 24:1 WEB)

Was it Satan, or Yahweh, who moved David to number Israel? It was God, acting as an adversary (satan) against David. He was, in other words, testing David.

Satan as God’s Prosecutor.

By the time the book of Job is written, the view is beginning to shift again. There have been various religious reforms in Judah and Israel, and even during periods of religious righteousness, the people continue to suffer from invading armies on several sides. Physical misfortunes don’t seem to be confined only to the wicked. The good suffer also. The book of Job addresses this issue.

Job, whom we are told is an entirely righteous man, suffers horrible calamities. He looses his children, his livestock, his health. His friends, echoing the prophets and the book of Deuteronomy, insist that if Job is suffering, he must have done something to anger God.

Is it for your piety that he reproves you, that he enters with you into judgment?
Isnt your wickedness great? Neither is there any end to your iniquities. (Job 22:4-5 WEB)

What Job’s friends don’t know, of course, is that Job is suffering at the hand of “Satan”. Instead of being just an occasional role filled by whatever angel is convenient, however, the role of “Satan” now seems to be a full-time position. Satan is seen as the chief prosecutor of the court of heaven. He is still an honored member of the “sons of God”, the highest angels. But his role is now to seek out unrighteousness and bring it to God’s attention for punishment, and to test even the righteous with trials.

Now it happened on the day when God’s sons came to present themselves before Yahweh, that Satan also came among them. Yahweh said to Satan, Where have you come from? Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, From going back and forth in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. Yahweh said to Satan, Have you considered my servant, Job? For there is none like him in the earth, a blameless and an upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil. Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t you made a hedge around him, and around his house, and around all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will renounce you to your face. Yahweh said to Satan, Behold, all that he has is in your power. Only on himself don’t put forth your hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of Yahweh.
(Job 1:6-12 WEB)

We see here the beginnings of what will come to be called the “Apocalyptic” worldview. The good can expect to suffer in this life as a test of their faith. God will eventually make things right. In Job God shows up personally in the last chapter in a “personal” apocalypse, and makes everything right. But Job also begins to hint at the fact that not everything may end up justly resolved in this life. The unwarranted suffering of the righteous may require rewards AFTER this life.

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: (Job 19:25-26 KJV)

These rewards are still seen in terms of a physical resurrection. They are still physical rewards – but postponed until the resurrection.

The Apocalyptic View

After the Babylonian captivity, the returning exiles rebuilt Jerusalem in a spirit of religious purification and reform. The Torah was codified and followed rigorously. And yet in spite of unprecedented religious purity and righteousness, Judea soon experienced some of the worst persecution of its history at the hands of the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus, ruler of the Empire, prohibited Jewish religious practices, and punished any demonstrations of Jewish piety with unprecedented cruelty. Jewish scriptures were burned and even women and children tortured and killed for refusing to sacrifice to pagan idols.

During this period, the “Apocalyptic” worldview came to full flower. It seemed obvious that a righteous God would not willingly order such atrocities toward the pious simply as a test. Borrowing perhaps from the Zoroastrian dualism to which they had been exposed by the Persians, the Jews began to see Satan not as the prosecuting attorney of heaven – but a fallen angel in total rebellion against God. This idea of fallen angels begins to appear in Daniel, which was written at the time of the persecutions of Antiochus. An angel is sent to Daniel, but is delayed due to having to fight off the “prince” (a fallen angelic governor) of Persia.

But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but, behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me: and I remained there with the kings of Persia. (Daniel 10:13 WEB)

This is also one of the first mentions of Michael the Archangel. The introduction of angelic names and hierarchies – also a favorite topic of the Persians, would proliferate in later years.

Daniel is also filled with apocalyptic visions. God would eventually destroy the kingdoms of the world and set up his own. Until then, the righteous could expect persecution, because of the evil angelic powers – but God would reward them in the resurrection. For example, in 2nd Maccabees, an inter-testamental writing from this period, we read of seven brothers who were tortured to death for refusing to violate religious law. He says to his tormenters:

So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life. (2 Maccabees 7:14 KJVA)

We begin to see that God will not only reward the righteous in the resurrection, but punish the wicked. This theme is amplified in another intertestamental writing, 1 Enoch.
Then I looked and turned myself to another part of the earth, where I beheld a deep valley burning with fire. To this valley they brought monarchs and the mighty. And there my eyes beheld the instruments which they were making, fetters of iron without weight (or of immeasurable weight) Then I inquired of the angel of peace, who proceeded with me, saying, For whom are these fetters and instruments prepared? He replied, These are prepared for the host of Azazeel, that they may be delivered over and adjudged to the lowest condemnation; and that their angels may be overwhelmed with hurled stones, as the Lord of spirits has commanded. Michael and Gabriel, Raphael and Phanuel shall be strengthened in that day, and shall then cast them into a furnace of blazing fire, that the Lord of spirits may be avenged of them for their crimes; because they became ministers of Satan, and seduced those who dwell upon earth. ( 1 Enoch 53: 1-6)
Here we have the concept of a hell of burning fire. Satan also has been “promoted” to the head of the fallen angels.


The Gnostic View

Things continued to be difficult for the Jews under the Roman Empire, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. This event crushed the hopes of the most pious Jews. In a world that at times seemed utterly evil, some of the Jews began to question the wisdom of God in permitting such a situation. Combining influences of earlier philosophies, Jewish and Christian Gnostics took the next step past the apocalyptic viewpoint. The righteous suffered, said the Gnostics, not because evil was a test permitted by a good God, and not because a powerful fallen angel was on the loose opposing a good God. The righteous suffered because the God who had created the material world itself and all the powers that controlled it was an EVIL God (or at best, an incompetent one). This “Demiurge” had been created by a cosmic accident. He had incompetently created the world and ruled over it, demanding worship and obedience. To a number of these Gnostics – Satan basically WAS the God of the Old Testament. Satan had created the world and given the Old Testament law – demanding worship as the one and only God.

But above him was a TRUE God, of complete goodness and pure light. The true God, taking pity on the tortured creation of the Demiurge, had sent messengers into the world to show the way to escape from the clutches of the evil God of the material world.

The Apocryphon of John describes this incompetent creator:

"Now the archon who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, 'I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”

The Gnostic equating of Satan with the Demiurge or god of this world has it’s echos even in the New Testament writings

I will no more speak much with you, for the prince of the world comes, and he has nothing in me. (John 14:30 WEB)

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the worlds rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
(Ephesians 6:12 WEB)

in whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them. (2 Corinthians 4:4 WEB)

We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
(1 John 5:19 WEB)


The Gnostic view also regarded the next life as entirely spiritual. The physical world was evil, and so a physical resurrection made no sense.


To review, then, the conception of Satan has undergone considerable change in Biblical and extra-biblical writings, going hand in hand with a change in worldview and the perception of Evil. These changes can be summarized as follows:

The conception of Satan:

Primitive: An occasional role of God or his angels.
Prophetic: God’s official prosecutor.
Apocalyptic: A cosmic rebel against God.
Gnostic: The evil or incompetent creator of the world.

Conception of evil:

Primitive: An occasional fact of life.
Prophetic: God’s punishment.
Apocalyptic: Part of Satan’s civil war.
Gnostic: The primary nature of the material world.

Conception of rewards/punishments

Primitive: Earthly – unconditional
Prophetic: Earthly – conditional
Apocalyptic: Future earthly – conditional
Gnostic: Future spiritual – conditional



Jul 282006

The History of the Gospel of Thomas.

Fathers of the Church had mentioned or quoted from a gospel attributed to the apostle Thomas. It was mentioned by Hippolytus of Rome between 222 and 235 and possibly quoted earlier by Clement of Alexandria. Other various mentions of the Gospel of Thomas by title apparently appear, but may refer to any of several works with Thomas’ name in the title.

The real work of scholarship on the Gof T? (Gospel of Thomas) began after the discovery of the “Nag Hammadi Library” in 1945. This consisted of a series of leather-bound texts in the Coptic language, sealed in a clay jar and buried in a cave (found by accident by several camel drivers). These particular manuscripts dated to about 340 AD. Among them was the “Gospel of Thomas”. As soon as it was available for translation, however, scholars realized that fragments of the Gof T? had been found earlier in Greek at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, in 1898. At least one of these Greek fragments has been dated to about 200 AD. (Just for comparison, the earliest fragments of Matthew and Mark in Greek date to about 250 AD).

The Oxyrhynchus site was basically a disposal site for government documents. Papyrus being expensive, tax receipts, land records and such were often written on the back of damaged or incomplete older manuscripts, and these were periodically taken in baskets to a document dumpsite. Thomas is in good company, as fragments of other gospels such as Matthew have also been found here.

The Content of the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas (one online version of which may be read here: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/gthlamb.html) consists of 114 “sayings” of Jesus, with almost no surrounding context or narrative. The sayings tend to be stark, simple and pithy (and occasionally difficult to understand). Included in Thomas are a number of sayings which also appear to be found in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) although the Thomas version is usually simpler. Other sayings don’t appear in the synoptic gospels, but appear to be quoted by various Church Fathers or other early Christian documents. Some sayings are totally unique to the Gof T?

Why the Gospel of Thomas is Important

The Gof T? is important because many scholars are convinced that much of it is of a VERY early date, and may be quite authentic. If this is true, it gives us access to a very early form of Jesus’ teaching, as well as to teachings of Jesus which may be authentic, but which may not be found in the other gospels. Some scholars even put the original version of Thomas as early as 50 AD, and believe it may have predated the Gospel of Mark. Other scholars put the composition of Thomas as later – some MUCH later. Before addressing some of the reasons for the disagreement, I first want to spend some time arguing for a very early date for the Gospel of Thomas. Here, in brief, are the reasons why some scholars date this work very early.

Primitive Form

One of the first things scholars noticed was that, in form, the Gospel of Thomas is very primitive. It appears almost as if it were somewhat randomly assembled “notes” of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative context. Being in this form, it reminded scholars immediately of the hypothetical document “Q”, which has been presumed to be a very early source for Matthew and Luke, and which also appears to have consisted of a series of sayings of Jesus without context. (I have discussed this document previously, and have posted it on my website for reference, here: http://www.pathstoknowledge.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Perennis.TheSynopticProblem) Some scholars have even argued that Thomas was a source for “Q”, or may in fact, BE “Q”. In any case, the literary form is quite primitive, and appears to have been quickly replaced in popularity once the more biographical form of the gospels arrived on this scene.

Simple Versions of the Sayings

Where Thomas and the synoptic gospels both have a similar saying of Jesus, the version in Thomas is almost always simpler and pithier, without elaboration or application. The general wisdom in source criticism is that sayings and parables tend to accumulate elaboration and application in the course of time. The sayings “grow in the telling”. Very rarely will an author simplify a saying or remove accumulated ornamentation. Indeed, to do so would betray an almost modern understanding of source development. An ancient author would be hesitant to trim down a remark that may have originated with Jesus, but didn’t seem to mind as much adding commentary. A few examples:

Jesus said, “Come unto me, for my yoke is easy and my lordship is mild, and you will find repose for yourselves.” (Thomas 90)


Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mat 11:28–30)


Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had much money. He said, ‘I shall put my money to use so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouse with produce, with the result that I shall lack nothing.’ Such were his intentions, but that same night he died. Let him who has ears hear.” (Thomas 63)


And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luk 12:16–21)

Not only are the Thomas versions more compact, but they use quite different wording, making it unlikely they used the synoptic gospels as sources.

Different Order of Sayings

Where the Gospel of Thomas includes sayings that the synoptics include, it very rarely includes those sayings in the same order as the synoptics do. This suggests that the author of the Gof T? did not have any of the synoptics as his sources. If he did, he would probably have tended to reproduce at least some of the order of one of the syoptics in copying down the sayings, but this is not the case. The most recent statistical analysis of this was done by Stevan Davies, and can be found here: http://www.misericordia.edu/users/davies/thomas/correl.htm The author of Thomas, then is probably using an independent source, earlier than the synoptic gospels – possibly even an oral source.

Thomas a Possible Source for Mark and John

Several scholars have attempted to show that the Gospel of Thomas was used as a source for sayings of Jesus reported in Mark:

http://www.misericordia.edu/users/davies/thomas/tomark1.htm http://www.misericordia.edu/users/davies/thomas/tomark2.htm

and in John:


Needless to day, if Thomas is a source for Mark – which is believed to be our earliest gospel, it would put the date of Thomas very early. It may have occurred to the reader here that our earlier point of Thomas sayings being in a different order than the synoptics argues against Thomas being a source for Mark. Not necessarily. Mark’s gospel is biographical, and just as Matthew and Luke did for “Q”, he may have felt compelled to rearrange Thomas sayings of Jesus to fit into his narrative. Whereas Thomas, if he were simply extracting sayings from Mark, would have no such motive to rearrange them.

Primitive Christology

Unlike John, a later gospel, few of the sayings in Thomas draw attention to Jesus himself. The focus is on Jesus’ teachings. This is consistent with the earlier gospels such as Mark, and the generally understood theory that the Christian understanding of Jesus as uniquely divine developed over time.

Early Manuscript Evidence

The earliest manuscript fragments of the Gospel of Thomas (as noted above) date to even earlier than the earliest fragments of Matthew, Mark or Luke. This is not conclusive proof, of course, as it may simply represent the luck of the draw. We do, after all, have fragments of John dating earlier still, even though John is recognized as being later than all three synoptics. But it makes it quite possible that Thomas represents a very early source of Jesus’ teaching.

John as a Rebuttal to Thomas

Elaine Pagels has suggested (in “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas”) that the Gospel of John may have been written (or redacted) as a reaction against the Gospel of Thomas and the Thomas community of Christians. While John includes much teaching that appealed to Gnostics, it also (in present form) taught more firmly than anywhere else in the New Testament the utter uniqueness of Jesus as the one and only divine being and way to God. (John 14:6) While Thomas agrees with John on Jesus pre-existence and divinity, it also suggests that those who understand Jesus’ message can become very much like him. This is, oddly, a message that seems to be somewhat echoed in John in several places (John 14:12; 17:21) John also, tellingly, includes several tales about the apostle Thomas, stories not seen in any other gospel, and, always in the negative. Thomas despairs of Jesus’ life (11:16), fails to understand Jesus’ message at the last supper (14:5) and becomes “doubting Thomas”, who is not there when Christ appears to his disciples and has to be chastised for his unbelief later (John 20). In Luke 24, however, when Jesus first appears to the apostles, he appears to ALL the eleven, with absolutely no mention of Thomas being absent.

It would be easy to see these incidents as being a polemic directed to the Thomas Christians, to try to malign their tradition as having come from a doubting apostle who didn’t understand Jesus. It would fit well if John were perhaps a polemical redaction of a work that originally derived from some Thomistic sources.

Arguments for a Later Date

Some scholars have argued that some sayings of the Gof T? DO show signs of having been copied from the synoptic gospels. I have read some of this work and find it on the whole to be a bit contrived, basing itself on the minority of Thomas sayings rather than on the general trend of the majority. It is, however, entirely possible that in the Coptic version we have (which is our only complete copy) there has been some scribal “harmonizing” of some of the Gof T?’s sayings with the synoptic gospels. We know this occurred with the synoptic gospels themselves, with later copies having had their differences slightly “smoothed over” by helpful scribes. The scribes of the later Coptic version of Thomas would have had the synoptic gospels available to them.

Gnostic Thomas?

Most of the tendency to date Thomas late, however, comes from the assumption that Thomas is Gnostic, and hence must date to the late second century, when Gnosticism was gaining a foothold. The Gospel of Thomas WAS found in a collection of mostly Gnostic material. But the collection also included a paraphrase of Plato, which predated Jesus. Furthermore, we know the original manuscripts of the Gof T? were much earlier, and in Greek. The Gospel of Thomas lacks all the mythology and terminology usually associated with Gnostic writing. There is no mention of Archons, Pleroma, the Demiurge or the like. There are no cosmological myths or references.

There are, however, some concepts that might be called “proto-gnostic”. Concepts that would have been comfortable in a Gnostic worldview. Such things as the existence of a secret teaching. The emphasis on personal enlightenment as salvation, the importance of revealed knowledge, and a somewhat negative view of the material world. It is possible that some of the sayings in the Gof T? were edited to make them more appealing to later Gnostics. In particular, the prologue and the last saying are suspect (and would have been the easiest to add). But another possibility is simply that some of the original teaching of Jesus DID in fact sound “proto-gnostic”. Similar sentiments can often be found in the canonical gospels. For example:

Secret knowledge: Luk 8:10 And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.

Revealed knowledge: Joh 8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

An evil world: Mat 4:8–9 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (notice who the world seems to belong to)


It seems to me, then that the reasons for assigning a late date to the Gospel of Thomas aren’t as strong as those for an early date. And if the Gospel of Thomas is as early a work as some scholarship suggests, then it is a remarkable find for anyone who wants insight on the teaching of Jesus.

More resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Thomas http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/thomas.html http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl_thomas.htm

Jul 272006

While thinking about the issue of Gnosticism and the problem of evil, I suddenly had what was (to me at least) a very powerful “ah ha” moment. Of course, once written down and shared, it will probably seem mundane or even stupidly obvious. But at the time it was like a bolt of lightening from heaven.

The insight was this: Whatever the literal truth or falsehood – Gnosticism is actually a very perceptive metaphor on the problem of pain and evil. It hit me as I was reading something in a Gnostic text and realized it was very similar to something both Robert Pirsig and Ken Wilber had said. Both these writers point out a particular hierarchy of being – one I think we would all agree with. You can divide it up in more than one way – but it goes something like this:

The Hierarchy of Being

The foundational structures of the cosmos are physical – in the sense of being governed by chemistry and physics. Then there are biological structures built from the physical. Then there are social structures built from the biological. Then there are the mental structures of ideas that are built from social dialogue. You can add a layer of spiritual structures, but since that will be an item of dispute, let’s just lump it in with mental for the moment. Each of these structures is built on the preceding ones. Biological systems use physical systems. Social systems use biological systems (people) and physical systems (technologies). Mental systems use social systems (communal dialogue), biological systems (our brains) and physical systems (the neurochemistry of the brain).

Contrary Purposes

Now for a critical observation – each of these levels have entirely different – even contradictory – purposes, laws and goals. For example, entropy (The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to devolve into a state of inert uniformity and disorder) is a fundamental principle of the physical cosmos. But biology is in a state of war with entropy. Biology is a system for increasing the order and energy in the small local pocket of it’s own system. Biology has its own laws and goals – which center on the survival of the individual organism and its reproduction at the expense of all else. But at the social level, these biological goals – unchecked, become evils. Societies may choose to sacrifice their own individual members for the good of the society – if they threaten the social stability, for example. Then from these societies and their interactions, systems of ideas arise. And what a society may see as “good” for its survival and prosperity (slavery for example) the arising system of ideas may see as evil. In the West, we have a developed a system of ideas which demands that we tolerate (for the sake of the IDEA of liberty) the existence of certain things which may pose a danger to the social order – reformers or crackpots as the case may be.

The point is, at each point in the hierarchy of being, the “good” and “evil” of the lower rungs on the ladder may be (and often ARE) very contrary to the “good” and “evil” of the higher rungs. Let’s take a bad genetic illness like Harlequin Baby Syndrome. From our point of view in the social and particularly mental spheres of being, this seems quite obviously evil. It is hideous and causes great physical and emotional suffering. On the other hand, from the point of view of biology, it’s not bad at all. Genetic variability is what drives the whole process. If we didn’t have a thousand mutations or genetic combinations that resulted in death and pain, we wouldn’t have the one that turned proved to be useful in some particular way. Suffering and death are simply failed experiments that weed out unfit genetic combinations.

The higher levels cannot normally disregard the rules and laws of the lower levels. They simply find ways to work around them or compromise with them to achieve their purposes.

Spiritual Metaphors

Let’s return to the Gnostic metaphor, then. The Gnostics saw the god of creation, the demiurge or “half-maker” as a somewhat ignorant figure, full of arrogance, petty jealousy and capriciousness. From the ideas above, we could say that the demiurge represents the physical/biological systems, as seen from the point of view of the mental/spiritual systems. It’s interesting that as gnosticism developed from its earlier roots, the demiurge was increasingly seen as not just immature and ignorant, but positively EVIL, along with the material world he organized. Orthodox Christianity has been more reluctant to condemn the material world, but still tries to insist that God governs the whole cosmos in accordance with the higher (mental/spiritual) notions of “good”. The idea that “good” changes from one level to the next would probably rub the wrong way and be seen as making morality “situational”.

A Symbolic Example

This idea of good and evil changing from one level to the next has an interesting illustration in world symbology – specifically the symbol of the snake. Ken Wilber points out that serpents can be seen as symbols of good OR evil in many different religions – including Christianity. For example, the serpent represents Satan in the garden on the one hand, but when Moses raises up a serpent on a pole to heal the Israelites, it is taken to be a symbol of Jesus.

In Hindu/Buddhist symbolism, the snake represents Kundalini energy – the basic life/god force of the cosmos, which works it’s way up the energy centers or “chakras” of the human body as it spiritually progresses. It’s starts at the base of the spine, at a center representing the physical systems, and works it’s way up to above the crown of the head, representing the highest spiritual centers. Wilber points out that when the snake symbol is used as representing “evil” it is seen at the lower levels of the body (the typhonic gods, for example, or the goat-god baphomet), and at the higher levels of the body, it represents “good” (Buddah and other deities are seen with cobras shading the crown of their heads). It is not that the physical levels are “bad” – they are only seen as bad when we fixate on or descend to the lower physical/biological or social levels as the expense of the mental/spiritual levels.

More Refinements

The categories I have been using, by the way, need not be divided so broadly. Within each level of being, there may be many sub-levels. For example, there are many types and classifications of social and mental systems. A new and higher social or mental system may find its notions of “good” and “evil” quite different from an earlier one.


How do we view the problem of evil from this hierarchical perspective? What looks to us humans as “unnecessary suffering” from our perspective is usually the “good” of a lower order interposing itself in our own “good”. Theoretically, of course, it could always be the good of a higher order interposing itself in our own “good”. For example, our programs of selective breeding produce species that, while they serve our purposes nicely – are actually LESS fit for survival. If biology had an independent mind and could speak, it might accuse us of corrupting things. Which brings up another point. A lower level is utterly incapable of reacting according to the “good” of a higher level. If there are levels of being above our own – we might be quite unequipped to understand “good” and “evil” with respect to them – until we reach that level ourselves. In fact, if the system I have mapped out here has any predictive value, it would probably say that at the next level, the “goods” and “evils” of our MENTAL or philosophical/religious systems are quite incidental to a much greater spiritual good. The angels or higher beings may be as unconcerned about the truths of our philosophies and dogmas as we are unconcerned with “corrupting” natural selection by breeding prize milk cows.

If we look at God as being present at every level of this hierarchy, working within it – we are simply faced with the fact that there are different ideals of “good” at different levels of being.

“Evil” is simply the interplay of different levels of “good”.

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