Gnosticism is the most radical religion I know, because it is the only one that entertains the idea that God is evil — and wants us all to rebel against his bullying, rapacious, jealous rule.
There has been an enormous flurry of interest in this 2,000-year-old Judaism-based religion in the past few years. Witness the bestselling novel “The Da Vinci Code,” the groundbreaking work of Christianity scholar Elaine Pagels, the mega-popularity of the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (discovered in Egypt in 1945 and promoted in Pagels’ 2003 bestseller “Beyond Belief”), and a cover story in Time magazine trumpeting the fact that “more and more people are turning to [those] ancient texts to develop their own religious rites.” Of course, the extremely gnostic “Matrix” trilogy, with its notion that this world is an elaborate simulation created by evil forces to harm us, only made Gnostic mania burn even hotter.
Now biblical scholar Marvin Meyer and acclaimed poet and translator Willis Barnstone have published a huge collection of Gnostic sacred writings. These include not just the famous Jewish and Christian heresies from before the third century A.D. that are usually indicated by the G-word, but also medieval Manichaean, Cathar, Persian, and even Islamic and Chinese heresies that stem, in one way or another, from that original Middle Eastern manic Gnostic spark.
I was very excited to see all of these radical, anti-Yahweh religious texts assembled in one volume, some of them in English for the first time. I had never seen actual Manichaean or Cathar prayers and was particularly breathless to see work by the Bogomils, a Cathar group who allegedly permitted adherents to practice only homosexual sex in order to avoid procreating more beings enslaved to the evil God. (The word “bugger” supposedly comes from their name.)
I’m sad to tell you, based on this new edition, that it is heartbreakingly easy for radical, God-mocking heresies to turn into smarmy vanilla orthodoxy. Barnstone and Meyer’s take on the Gnostic works, and many of the included works themselves, are reverential, conventional and, er, dull. How in the screaming heavens did this happen? For one thing, “The Gnostic Bible” is supposed to be a compendium for the layperson, but Barnstone and Meyer end up giving us the worst of both worlds, academia and uninformed pop culture. Their edition combines the sorts of things that give academic writing a bad name — long, dry introductions to the texts, obtrusive footnotes that state the obvious — with no effort to elucidate the really juicy and controversial points on which lay readers might like some guidance.
For example, they refuse to touch the burning question of whether Gnosticism was feminist, or whether some Gnostics, at least, organized their ancient communities in feminist ways. There is abundant evidence that many of the Gnostics saw God and the sacred in radically different gender terms than their ancient Jewish and Christian contemporaries. In one text, “The Secret Book of John,” God (the good God, not the bullying one) says, “I am the father. I am the mother. I am the child.” In several, Sakla, which means “Idiot,” is said to have gone astray because he forgot that all of his power came from his mother, the celestial luminary Wisdom. Many of the writings portray both the good God and Sakla as hermaphroditic: The good God is the mother-father, and Sakla essentially fucks himself to create the material world and Adam and Eve.
Indeed, the Gnostics are refreshingly candid about sex in many of their writings, much more so than canonical Christian writers. Sakla is often said to be “an abortion” somehow delivered from his superior mother, and the evil Elohim — remember the weird plural bits in the Book of Genesis that have God and his buddies having sex with “the daughters of men” to produce a race of giants? — try to rape Eve’s mouth and masturbate over the image of the heroic Norea, a bold human woman who also embodies the Female Spiritual Principle, a female divine entity important in the Gnostic celestial scheme. Norea, like a lot of other women in these texts, stands up to male power and wins: When Noah refuses to allow her entrance to his ark, she blows on it and sets it afire. When Sakla and his fellow rulers try to rape her, telling her that they’ve already done this to her mother, Eve, she defies them coolly: “You did not know my mother. Instead it was your own female [that is, the shadowy reflection with which Eve tricked them] that you knew.”
Elaine Pagels, perhaps the most prominent scholar of Gnosticism, argues that the Gnostics believed in social and religious equality between men and women, 2,000 years before the feminism we know. Besides the evidence I’ve already mentioned, Christian Gnostic literature features a Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) and numerous other references to Mary Magdalene as an honored disciple of Jesus. Irenaeus and Tertullian, orthodox Christians who wrote scathing contemporary denunciations of the Gnostics, noted disapprovingly that Gnostics allowed women to prophesy, to teach and even to be priests. Meyer and Barnstone don’t even mention this fascinating factoid. While they note Pagels’ contentions in passing, they basically sit out the furious controversy over whether the Gnostics were actually feminist or just had some funny myths about God’s gender.
While they’re at it, they also ignore most of the juicy questions about where the Gnostics stood on sex. “The Da Vinci Code,” the inane mystery novel that has been the No. 1 bestseller for months now, is based on the idea that the mainstream Christian church suppressed Gnostic writings because they included the “fact” that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, both included in this volume, call Mary Magdalene Jesus’ “companion.” One of them says that Jesus frequently used to kiss her on the mouth, which made the other disciples jealous. Meyer and Barnstone translate these words, but refuse to elucidate further what scholars think about this possible sexual relationship, what role a sexual Jesus might have played in the overall Gnostic worldview, or how it would have jibed with the Gnostics’ typical condemnation of sex as a behavior that ties us tighter to the arrogant Sakla, the “God of the blind,” and his gross material world.
Which brings us to the most disappointing thing about “The Gnostic Bible”: Its failure to address what turns out to be the most interesting thing about the 15 centuries of Gnostic spirituality included here, the enormous contradictions among (and even within) these supposedly heretical, long-suppressed works. Gnosticism was stamped out — the texts literally burned, and their adherents tortured and murdered — by mainstream Christians and the orthodox of other religions, only partly because it was politically radical.
In some ways, Gnosticism wasn’t radical at all. The hatred of sex and the body promulgated in most Gnostic works was even more intense than that of the mainstream church. But sometimes the Gnostics appeared to celebrate deviant sexuality — as with the Cathars, 11th to 13th century French Gnostics who, Barnstone tells us, thought sex outside of marriage was fine, particularly if it didn’t lead to conception. Yet he and Meyer avoid the questions this raises. Did this specifically mean that homosexual sex was OK? Did the Cathars think sex outside marriage was merely acceptable, or morally superior to married sex? And the editors of “The Gnostic Bible” simply never bring up the delightful claim, made by some historians, that the Bogomils, Bulgarian antecedents of the Cathars, were the original in-your-face buggers.
Predictably, they also steer clear of an even messier contradiction: that based on their texts, the Gnostics seem to have been just as sexist as they were feminist. Though female figures were sometimes divine for them, women in the texts are also singled out as uniquely deficient. Sakla’s mother, Wisdom, is sometimes blamed for giving us the entire realm of evil to begin with, by foolishly thinking she could create a baby (Sakla) without a man. In the Gospel of Thomas, Simon Peter tells Jesus that Mary (Magdalene) should leave the disciples, because women are not worthy. Jesus replies with the curious statement that it’s OK for Mary to stay, because Jesus is going to make her male. “For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Yet the saddest unexplored contradiction in “The Gnostic Bible” is that of heterodoxy itself. Many of these writings are revoltingly pious, in the sense that within their own schemas, authority must not be questioned. Dogma and church power (or celestial power) rule. As in, you must do exactly as I say because I have the greater knowledge of the spiritual realm. Or, you must believe what I tell you because I am the superior luminary come to you from the ninth heaven (divine beings in the Gnostic texts often talk this way). Of course, Father, the lesser humans and acolytes in these texts reply. How can I escape my disgusting body? Frequently I had to put the book down because I could not take another brainless celebration of our truly good eternal Father (as I told you, they also believe in a good one) and how the stupid humans who don’t believe in him will be punished at the end of time.
Willis Barnstone, among numerous other virtues that I haven’t cited, has written an appealing epilogue addressing one of the most lovable things about the Gnostics, the chutzpah with which they deconstructed the religions they were born into, turning them on their heads. He suggests that this impulse stems from the horror in most Jews’ and Christians’ lives late in the 1st century A.D., with the Roman crushing of the Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the torture and murder of thousands of Jews and Christians (who were also, at that time, it must be mentioned, Jewish).
Barnstone does not, however, address the most fascinating thing about the relationship between the Gnostics and horror. Abuse, rape, torture and other prerogatives of evil authority play a central role in Gnostic thought, a role they do not have in any other religion I can think of. The central question for most Gnostic believers was, how shall I deal with all the evil things that may be done to me (or that have been done to me) in this society where violent power rules? Whatever else it may be, Gnosticism is the religion that is radically anti-ruler, anti-violence, anti-whoever’s in power. For all its contradictions, that makes it something pretty holy.