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Saturday, April 15, 2006
JUDAS PAROLED BELATEDLY
or, TO WHOM SHOULD ONE SELL ONE'S SOUL?


We were talking about Faustus.

The Good Doctor (although that would change) had become bored by the knowledge available through book learning, and had decided to seek secret knowledge ... of dark power, if need be.

And, to his surprise, he got his wish. In Marlowe, Mephistophilis carefully seduces Faustus, who proceeds without conscience, to gratify himself for twenty-four years. And then he is damned. But, at the end, he becomes enamored, obsessed, even, with Helen of Troy -- "the face that launched a thousand ships."

Wikipedia: "The Birth of Helen ... in some versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris."

And, perhaps, when Faust is dragged down to the uttermost depths of Hell, he may glimpse, from Dante's version, the final circle of Hell, occupied by Lucifer and by Judas.

[NOTE: On Thursday morning, at this point, my internet connection went on the fritz, and I was unable to research or post. Rather than continue, I set this aside. The remainder of the day passed. Yesterday was Good Friday, and it seemed in bad taste -- if not, to some, blasphemous -- to continue this narrative yesterday.

[But today is that indeterminate day between Good Friday and Easter, and I like to think that this is Jesus' day off. All year long, literally billions of Christians are his invisible friend, invoke actions by magically invoking his name, congregations invoke him, small man ask him to help find their keys, etc. and you would think that He could use a day off. Yesterday, Good Friday, Jesus' death was re-enacted for the (approximately) two thousandth time, and tomorrow, Easter Sunday, the final act of the ancient Passion Play, resurrection, will conclude Holy Week, amidst pancake breakfasts, the decapitation of chocolate bunnies, and Easter Egg hunts on the White House lawn.

[So, gentle reader, let me wish Jesus a happy and serene day off, and, we'll conclude this tortuous tale of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, Faust and even a little of gnostic life from "Acts of the Apostles" after the crucifixion. -- HW]

Marlowe's Faustus wasn't the first, though. According to Joseph Campbell's MASKS OF GOD, vol IV, CREATIVE MYTHOLOGY -- which I read at the same time I read the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY:
"[in] the Protestant world ... superstition and violence did not decrease, but even increased ... The Protestent legend of the magician Faust who sold his soul to Satan was conceived and born of this madness. Historically Doctor Johann Faust (1480?-1540?) -- of Magister Georgius Sibellius Faustus Junior, as he is dsaid to have called himself -- was a contemporary of Erasmus (1466-1536), Luther (1483-1546) ... Calvin (1509-1564), and Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547), besides the alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541)and the rollicking monk Rabelais (1495-1553). The earliest dated reference to him is in a letter, August 20, 1507, from the Benedictine Abbot Johann Tritheim (who was himself reputed to be a magician in league with Satan), the mathematician Johann Windung, wherein the fellow is named simply a fool, vain babbler, and mountebank fit to be whipped ... another contemporary ... ranks him with Paracelsus as a "wicked, cheating, unlearned doctor."
The madness Campbell is referring to is the Reformation: In 1520, Luther began the revolt
"shattering the Church Militant into a galaxy of contending Christianities (all equally opposed both to Occam's unknown God and to the works of science and reason, tortured with a Pauline sense of the sinfulness of life, and fighting with fire and brimstone both each other and the rising tide of facts by which their scriptural Rock of Ages was already well nigh engulfed), superstition and violence did not decline but even increased." [ibid.]
The Catholic world of the same time was equally in a frenzy, obsessed with Inquisitions, heresies and catching witches and devil-worshippers in a kind of religious McCarthyism, or, as Campbell puts it:
"And, indeed, in reading of the religion of those years, one has the sense of watching the putrefaction of a corpse -- the body, once so beautiful at Chartres, dissolving in a horrid stench. Witches, by the light of the moon, rode on brooms, those nights, to mountaintops, to consort there in obscene rites with Satan himself in the form of a goat, poodle, or ape ... indiscriminate intercourse would terminate such rites, much in the way of the old Gnostic love feasts, and with obliging demons now serving as either incubi or succubi as required." [ibid.]
But this was NOT paralleled to what was going on in the classical Roman world of the time of Christ, and the ensuing centuries until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The whole religious tradition of the world was cross-pollinating and mutating in a kaleidoscopic Light show during two centuries and more.

Remember that the outcome of the Council of Nicea was that Christianity, which Constantine had made the official and exclusive religion of the Empire, was set in stone, with the loyalty Oath of the Apostle's Creed, and the agreed-on canon of official Christian writings that the New Testament represented. The age of religious ferment was over at Nicea, but the age of Jesus, and the Gospels, the Gnostics, and the Gospel of Judas was sort of the Woodstock Nation of world history. And, until the 20th Century, would so many religions come into such intimate contact again.

The official book had been agreed upon, and now the might of Rome (and Holy Roman Emperors, Popes, et al) would spread the message through Europe and the New World, like McDonald's franchises: Same menu every time, cooked the same way. But, the Gospel of Judas came from a time of great spiritual ferment.

The vast interplay of civilizations that the Roman Empire engendered (along with its wise policy of religious tolerance) had cross-fertilized into the gnostic movement. Within all major religions and many minor ones, the gnostic problem of reuniting with the "True" God and shunning the false God -- who, admittedly had created this flawed (or sinful -- as the original word for "sin" is an archery term, which means to "miss the mark" and the Demiurge had clearly achieved THAT non-aim) world, was "solved" by a bewildering variety of manners, nearly all of them mystical.

After all, when you're deciding that the entire world of the senses, the "real world" is real, but so screwed up that it must be rejected and escaped, a certain amount of metaphysical weirdness must, of needs, attend.

The proto-Christian sects advanced and multiplied. And the current, commonly accepted "Apostles Creed" (which was adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325, with Roman Emperor and new Christian convert Constantine in attendance and lending his aegis to the proceedings) was nothing less than a loyalty Oath, as much in what it affirmed as in what it denied.

The doctrine of Demonic creation was explicitly rejected by the Church as the heresy of Manicheanism, and that's been a problem that has refused to go away over the centuries. But, really, it was a rejection of Gnosticism. God had created the world. There could be no higher God than the god that had created the World, and God was the SOLE creative principle. This was important in stomping out Manicheanism/Gnosticism and in the story of Dr. Faustus, as we shall see.

And it was an important part of the Gospel of Judas.

The gospels seem to derive from a time around 70 A.D. (or, in the current, less Christo-centric abbreviation, C.E. for Anno Domini "in the year of our Lord" and "Current Era," respectively) and the Gospel of Judas seems to derive from around 170 C.E. According to the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC:

http://www9.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/gospel/feature.html
Tests on five separate samples from the papyrus and the leather binding date the codex to sometime between A.D. 220 and 340. The ink appears to be an ancient recipe-a mix of iron gall and soot inks. And Coptic scholars say telltale turns of phrase in the gospel indicate that it was translated from Greek, the language in which most Christian texts were originally written in the first and second centuries. "We all feel comfortable putting this copy in the fourth century," one expert says, "and Kasser is sure enough to devote the end of his life to it."

A further confirmation comes from the distant past. Around A.D. 180, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in what was then Roman Gaul, wrote a massive treatise called Against Heresies. The book was a fierce denunciation of all those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream church. Among those he attacked was a group who revered Judas, "the traitor," and had produced a "fictitious history," which "they style the Gospel of Judas."
***

Is this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?
Christopher Marlowe - The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus


Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

Goethe, Faust
Simon Magus wasn't much liked by the early Church fathers. He was a competing messiah, and he is styled as a "proto-gnostic."

Wikipedia:
Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer and Simon of Gitta, is the name used by the ancient Christian Orthodoxy to refer to someone they identified as a Samaritan (Proto-) Gnostic, and, also according to ancient Christian Orthodoxy, founder of his own religious sect. The figure appeared prominently in several highly legendary apocryphal accounts by early Christian authors, who regarded him as the first heretic. There is also a brief mention in the Book of Acts.

[...]

The death of Simon Magus. According to reports by ancient Christian Orthodoxy, the Gnostic sect of Simonianism believed that Simon Magus was God in human form. Almost all of the surviving sources for the life and thought of Simon Magus are contained in works from the ancient Christian Orthodoxy: in the Acts of the Apostles, in patristic works (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus) and in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, and the early Clementine literature.
And, the sin of simony takes its name from him, from an episode in Acts that may or may not have taken place, but which has served the church well for two millenia in providing a new villain (following the demise of Judas some time around the crucifixion).

http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper91/05-12-91.htm

May 12, 1991
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
SIMON'S PERVERSION OF SIGNS AND WONDERS

(Acts 8:9-24) :

But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great.

They all gave heed to him, from the least tot he greatest, saying "This man is that power of God which is called Great." And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." But Peter said to him, "Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." And Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me."

Note that, like Judas, Simon is betraying Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) with silver. But this wasn't the historical Simon, whose later demise in Rome is recorded in the apocryphal Actsl of Peter.

Now, I take the position that it is perfectly understandable to paint one's enemies a little blacker than they might have been, and to hide any virtues that they might have had.

***

Simon was gnostic, in the sense that he subscribed to the "emanationism" idea of the creation of the Universe. The Ineffible God, had impregnated the Sophia (who is essentially the same form as the Holy Spirit, the feminine aspect of God) who "descended" to a lower realm, dimension, what-have-you, and given birth to the Archons or Aeons, who, collectively, perhaps represented the Demiurge, who created this, the real world, which was false because it was created by false gods.

There is actually quite a lot of understandable confusion in early Christianity, since the One God was suddenly the One God Who Was Three. The Mediterranian peoples understood pantheism, and they understood monotheism, but this hybridism came to be defined in very different ways.

According to Simon, the Children of the Sofia became jealous of her because she was a constant reminder that they were NOT the Most High God. (That "Most High," like the Mosaic "Thou Shalt have no other Gods before me" is a dead giveaway to the prevalence of polytheistic religions in the areas in which Judaism and Christianity 'evolved' --the quotes are for those who don't accept evolution).

They imprisoned the Sofia, the feminine Wisdom, the "sofia" that "philos" (love) is wedded to in 'philosophia' -- the love of wisdom. Philosophy. And it is the Sophia (as in the great Hagia Sofia mosque in Constantinople, er, I mean church in Istanbul ... well, it's all mixed up in that, as is the history), it is the Sophia who is imprisoned in the body of endless mortal women, through Helen of Troy, until, finally, a prostitute that Simon had found in a brothel in Tyre. And now that the divine spark has been found, it must be reunited with the 'True God.' The "Most High" god.

It is an alternate salvation story from the same cultural melange that early Christianity appeared from.

And it is a powerful metaphor. The "Sophia" -- the mother of this world -- had been imprisoned in the soul of a prostitute, in the very lowest reaches of the social order of the day.

As Mary Magdalene is thought by many to be the woman Jesus saved from stoning in the "Ye who are without sin cast the first stone," episode so widely and universally ignored in Christian practice through the last two millennia.

Simon and his "Helen" traveled the Roman Empire, even appearing in Rome. In that famous incident from Christian legend (the apocryphal Acts of Peter), Simon is trying to impress the Roman Emperor by flying fifty feet into the air. He is, of course, suspended by devils. Peter, using his superior Jesus Invocation Magic banishes the devils, and Simon falls fifty feet to his death.

This was the subject of a best-selling book of 1953, THE SILVER CHALICE, by Thomas Costain, which was made into Paul Newman's first movie in 1954, of the same name. It was a big sword-and-sandals Bible movie era, with "Ben Hur" (1959), "The Robe," (1953), "The Ten Commandments,"(1956) and "The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)" (with John Wayne as a Roman Centurion, in a cameo). Heck, it was a big Bible era, per se.

"Between 1947 and 1956 thousands of fragments of biblical and early Jewish documents were discovered in eleven caves near the site of Khirbet Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea..." USC website:
http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp/educational_site/dead_sea_scrolls/

Jack Palance played Simon Magus, if memory serves, with a really bad looking fake beard.

But, really, Simon Magus was the competition, and the intense calumny flung at him by well-meaning early apostles and early church fathers is reflexively repeated unto this very day.

Yea. Verily.

[NOTE: Memory served well. Fact-checking came up with this from the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047494/

Virginia Mayo .... Helena
Pier Angeli .... Deborra
Jack Palance .... Simon The Magician
Paul Newman .... Basil

A Greek artisan is commissioned to cast the cup of Christ in silver and sculpt around its rim the faces of the disciples and Jesus himself. He travels to Jerusalem and eventually to Rome to complete the task. Meanwhile, a nefarious interloper is trying to convince the crowds that he is the new Messiah by using nothing more than cheap parlor tricks.]
Simon Magus was the leader of either a large "proto-gnostic" or a gnostic cult, depending on which side you split your academic hairs.

And it is significant that the Helen of Troy myth is the single, incontrovertable constant in all Simon Magus histories, and all Faustus stories.

In Rome, Simon Magus was known as "Faustus," which means "favored one." And, whether it was in early Christianity, or the early Reformation, the result was always the same, much as the result of Judas' betrayal is ever the same:

They go to hell. They are "damned for all time."

Which is actually kind of non-Christian, when you think about it: Christianity has always been about redemption and forgiveness, which is how an ex-drunk, ex-cokehead, business cheat and failure managed to get himself elected, in large measure by American Christians who believed that he'd been "forgiven," and "redeemed."

But Judas and Faustus have a special dungeon in the Christian heart, historically. The do not get a pass. There is a secret codicil to Jesus' "Father forgive them" prayer that specifically exempts Judas. (And, by implication, Faustus).

But consider: in the end of Goethe's Faust, it is his love, which he has relearned from Helen of Troy (whom he even marries, and with whom he has a child) that pulls the final Gnostic flip:

Faust is redeemed at the gates of hell, at the doorstep of death, and is taken to Heaven and not to hell.

Leaving a bunch of disappointed devils -- who (though not stated) undoubtedly go off in search of Marlowe to demand reparations.

The gnostic flip in the Gospel of Judas has Jesus asking Judas to accept the burden of guilt for beginning the sacrificial domino-tripping of the Passion and Resurrection.

From this matrix, the Gospel of Judas has arrived, in time for Easter, and it is half-Simon Magus (gnostic), half-Faustus (The National Geographic), and half-Christian (The Twelve Apostles).

Certainly, if it is true, then Judas would have had no reason to hang himself, and may well have taken his Gospel (which means, literally, "good news") into the same intellectual marketplace that Paul did. At any event, the Church won the contest, and most of the evidence of the existence of alternate World Redeemers and alternate interpretations of Christianity was destroyed wherever it was found.

But there were several closets that weren't cleaned out, and boxes in the attic that were never taken to the dump, and from them, we've gotten the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and now the Gospel of Judas.

This much can be stated: our fundamental understanding of Christianity and how it began, and the early books of the New Testament has expanded more in the past century than in the previous two millennia.

Before that, people were arguing about a book of campfire stories -- tales that they had no way of knowing whether they were completely true, utterly false, or a mix of both, which is why selling "pieces of the True Cross" was such a popular confidence game in European society for centuries.

But, perhaps for today, Jesus' day off, we can give Judas, Faustus and the Devil a day on parole. How soon they would have to go back into that Ninth Circle of Dante's Inferno ought to depend, of course, entirely on how well-behaved they are in "decent" society.

That's fair, I think.

Courage.
.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
A SHORT ADDENDUM

Today's news requires a response.

It would seem that the White House is in a tizzy over the Washington Post (and others) reporting that the so-called "mobile biological weapons labs" that King George announced proved that we'd found the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" during the Iraq War (or Gulf War II) were not only mobile toilets -- no shit -- but that intelligence had determined them to be such two days before Bush's grand (and false) pronouncement.

White House Spokesnake Scott McClellan fairly screeched that these reports were wildly "reckless," "irresponsible" and outrageous. The President didn't know, quoth he.

And so it's come down to this, at long last:

What didn't the President know, and when didn't he know it?

Courage.
.
.
MEPHISTOPHELES AND ALL THAT
or, THE STRAIGHT POOP ON JUDAS


Everyone knows the story of Doctor Faustus, right?

In case you don't, here's the Spark Notes version, which is, like Cliff Notes, and, from an earlier era, Classics Illustrated Comics, all aids to passing a test on a "classic" work of literature that you don't really want to read. I've read Marlowe, and, trust me, the notes are somewhat less tedious.

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/doctorfaustus/summary.html

Dr Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
Plot Overview

Doctor Faustus, a well-respected German scholar, grows dissatisfied with the limits of traditional forms of knowledge-logic, medicine, law, and religion-and decides that he wants to learn to practice magic. His friends Valdes and Cornelius instruct him in the black arts, and he begins his new career as a magician by summoning up Mephastophilis, a devil. Despite Mephastophilis's warnings about the horrors of hell, Faustus tells the devil to return to his master, Lucifer, with an offer of Faustus's soul in exchange for twenty-four years of service from Mephastophilis. Meanwhile, Wagner, Faustus's servant, has picked up some magical ability and uses it to press a clown named Robin into his service.

Mephastophilis returns to Faustus with word that Lucifer has accepted Faustus's offer. Faustus experiences some misgivings and wonders if he should repent and save his soul; in the end, though, he agrees to the deal, signing it with his blood. As soon as he does so, the words "Homo fuge," Latin for "O man, fly," appear branded on his arm. Faustus again has second thoughts, but Mephastophilis bestows rich gifts on him and gives him a book of spells to learn. Later, Mephastophilis answers all of his questions about the nature of the world, refusing to answer only when Faustus asks him who made the universe. This refusal prompts yet another bout of misgivings in Faustus, but Mephastophilis and Lucifer bring in personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins to prance about in front of Faustus, and he is impressed enough to quiet his doubts.

Armed with his new powers and attended by Mephastophilis, Faustus begins to travel. He goes to the pope's court in Rome, makes himself invisible, and plays a series of tricks. He disrupts the pope's banquet by stealing food and boxing the pope's ears. Following this incident, he travels through the courts of Europe, with his fame spreading as he goes. Eventually, he is invited to the court of the German emperor, Charles V (the enemy of the pope), who asks Faustus to allow him to see Alexander the Great, the famed fourth-century b.c. Macedonian king and conqueror. Faustus conjures up an image of Alexander, and Charles is suitably impressed. A knight scoffs at Faustus's powers, and Faustus chastises him by making antlers sprout from his head. Furious, the knight vows revenge.

Meanwhile, Robin, Wagner's clown, has picked up some magic on his own, and with his fellow stablehand, Rafe, he undergoes a number of comic misadventures. At one point, he manages to summon Mephastophilis, who threatens to turn Robin and Rafe into animals (or perhaps even does transform them; the text isn't clear) to punish them for their foolishness.

Faustus then goes on with his travels, playing a trick on a horse-courser along the way. Faustus sells him a horse that turns into a heap of straw when ridden into a river. Eventually, Faustus is invited to the court of the Duke of Vanholt, where he performs various feats. The horse-courser shows up there, along with Robin, a man named Dick (Rafe in the A text), and various others who have fallen victim to Faustus's trickery. But Faustus casts spells on them and sends them on their way, to the amusement of the duke and duchess.

As the twenty-four years of his deal with Lucifer come to a close, Faustus begins to dread his impending death. He has Mephastophilis call up Helen of Troy, the famous beauty from the ancient world, and uses her presence to impress a group of scholars. An old man urges Faustus to repent, but Faustus drives him away. Faustus summons Helen again and exclaims rapturously about her beauty. But time is growing short. Faustus tells the scholars about his pact, and they are horror-stricken and resolve to pray for him. On the final night before the expiration of the twenty-four years, Faustus is overcome by fear and remorse. He begs for mercy, but it is too late. At midnight, a host of devils appears and carries his soul off to hell. In the morning, the scholars find Faustus's limbs and decide to hold a funeral for him.
There. Got it now?

Well, it's a good story, and a much older story than Marlowe's, or the later, superior Faust (Parts I and II) by Goethe. And it's an apt sort of metaphor for what the Christians are undoubtedly feeling during Holy Week.

That "scholarly" magazine, the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, has released and is showing a documentary on, the Lost Gospel of Judas. You know. Iscariot? The fellow who's been the villain for nearly two thousand years now, betrayer of Jesus Christ and purchaser of some real estate upon which he subsequently committed suicide by hanging himself with the "thirty pieces of silver" which he had been paid for betraying Jesus.
"Then one of the 12, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto them, 'What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?' And they covenanted with him for 30 pieces of silver." -- Matthew 26:14-15. Shekels of Tyre were the only currency accepted at the Jerusalem Temple and are the most likely coinage with which Judas was paid for the betrayal of Christ. The silver shekels and half-shekels of Tyre were minted from c. 126 B.C. until c. 57 A.D. Any coin minted prior to 32 A.D. may have circulated in Jerusalem during Jesus' lifetime.
from:

http://www.forumancientcoins.com/Roman-Coins.asp?e=Judas_30_pieces_of_silver&par=808&pos=1&target=105

which has a nice discussion of the various coins in circulation at the time.

And there are shock waves thundering around the pulpits of the world. Because the Gospel of Judas pulls a gnostic flip, and, rather than being the villain of the piece, Judas turns out to be the hero. And the gospel ends with Jesus having been, by his expressed wish to Judas (according to the author of the Judas Gospel), carted off by the Romans.

The rest of that tale is well known.

But what is less known is the context in which the Gospel of Judas belongs, and about which I'm going to tell you some interesting things and we'll meet up with Dr. Faustus (that doggoned "scholar") and Mephistopheles again.

***

In the years after college, I became something of a biblical scholar, delving into the "mystical" and hidden origins of modern Christianity, and a voracious reader of mythology and its archaeological roots.

There was at the time of Christ, a movement which was spreading around the Mediterranean rim, through all the cultures (although this is rarely pointed out in the scholarship). I am going, therefore, to adopt an intellectually heretical definition of the heretical Gnostics of the era: that when I refer to gnosticism (little 'g'), I am referring to ALL of the Gnostic cults, from variants of Mithraism (an offshoot of Zoroastrianism as Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism) through the Egyptian Ophitic cults, and the various Greek Mysteries, the Cabalistic philosophies, etc.

Gnosticism is usually referred to as an exclusively "Christian" phenomenon, and the Gospel of Judas certainly falls into that canon. But the whole question that gnosticism sought to answer was approached by a wide variety of Mediterranean (or, roughly, the Roman Empire) cults and sects.

The phenomenon of gnosticism was based on a fundamental question that a lot of people still struggle with. The question, put simply, is this: If God is so good, then how come so much bad stuff happens in the world (which isn't all that great itself, by the by)?

We still hear variants of that simple question. And you can hear it in any religion, philosophy or school that concerns itself with a theistic view of the Universe -- in the West. We'll leave the East for another day.

And the basis of gnosticism was the same all over, and had two branches. First, that the "real" God didn't create the screwed up world. This gave the "real" God plausible deniability.

Secondly, that the "real" God had created intermediary "gods" who had, in some chain-reaction, ultimately created the god(s) who created the world.

Which explained why the world was so screwed up. And, by implication, why one's religious practice had to be to "ignore" the false gods or 'godlets' who created this world, and connect with the "REAL" God, who was perfect, and not to blame for all the horrible stuff that happens in this imperfect world.

Again: how did a perfect God create an imperfect world? It is a simple question. But it has no easy answer, unless one is an atheist, in which case the point is moot.

That was the gnostic tradition. It is seen in several schools, and the gnostic cults have always formed a secret background to Western Civilization. The term "gnosis" means "knowledge" but it is a direct knowledge, in the way that you know not to stick your finger in light sockets because once, if you are normal, you stupidly or accidentally tried it, and found out WHY you don't stick your finger in light sockets.

That is gnosis.

And so gnostic practice was twofold: to experience the "True" God directly, and to ignore and/or transcend this imperfect world, and its God wannabe maker(s).

I say "God wannabe" because there is a tradition in many gnostic schools (often called "emanationism" because the world "emanated" from God but was not directly created by Him/Her/It). That tradition is in explaining that the false gods are jealous of the True God, and don't want us finding out about Her/Him/It, or talking about It/Her/Him, etc. Most of all, they don't want us CONTACTING It/Him/Her.

Him/Her/It can be experienced directly, but has had to send representatives (Jesus is considered one, in many gnostic schools, as was Simon Magus, as we shall see).

In the Judeo/Christian Gnostic tradition, the first representative of Her/Him/It was the Serpent, in the Garden of Eden. The world had been created by the mad, false god, or as they called him, the Demiurge, who denied the True God, and wished to keep man from knowing of the True God.

Which was why the Demiurge didn't want Adam and Eve to eat of the "Tree of Knowledge."

In this story, the Serpent is an agent of the True God, and the false "Jehovah" is enraged when the first humans learn the truth, and punishes them by driving them from the Garden of Eden -- which, in that gnostic tradition, is actually a sort of false stage, meant to impress man with the greatness of the Demiurge, but not the 'real' world that we experience.

You will note the reversal. God becomes the villain. The Serpent becomes the hero.

This kind of reversal is common to gnosticism. Here, from the Catholic Encyclopedia, since they (with the Eastern Orthodox Church) have been battling gnosticism from the beginning of their tradition:
Gnosticism

Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm
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The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis "knowledge", gnostikos, "good at knowing"), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought. Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were "people who knew", and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. A more complete and historical definition of Gnosticism would be:

A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic-idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.

However unsatisfactory this definition may be, the obscurity, multiplicity, and wild confusion of Gnostic systems will hardly allow of another. Many scholars, moreover, would hold that every attempt to give a generic description of Gnostic sects is labour lost.
Much of this is gobbledygook, of course, but it is Holy Week, after all, and I didn't say WHICH part was gobbledygook. After all.

***

Now, you need to know how and why I became interested, because it's a part of the story, too.

Around the time I was born, the Christian world was abuzz with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were papyri found in the desert near the Dead Sea in Israel. But about the same time, near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, some other biblical manuscripts were found in 1945, and began to make their way through the antiquities markets, sold from trader to trader, and to collector after collector, usually at a steep profit.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, of course, attracted the attention of the world, and were rapidly translated and brought to light -- authentic versions of the books of the New Testament and several related texts.

But the Nag Hammadi codices -- as they came to be known -- were not immediately recognized as bearing upon the origins of Christianity.

[An aside for a bit of relevant trivia I found in my dictionary while making sure that the plural of 'codex' was 'codice' and not 'codexes':

WORD HISTORY: Codex is a variant of caudex, a wooden stump to which petty criminals were tied in ancient Rome, rather like our stocks. This was also the word for a book made of thin wooden strips coated with wax upon which one wrote. The usual modern sense of codex, "book formed of bound leaves of paper or parchment," is due to Christianity. By the first century b.c. there existed at Rome notebooks made of leaves of parchment, used for rough copy, first drafts, and notes. By the first century a.d. such manuals were used for commercial copies of classical literature. The Christians adopted this parchment manual format for the Scriptures used in their liturgy because a codex is easier to handle than a scroll and because one can write on both sides of a parchment but on only one side of a papyrus scroll. By the early second century all Scripture was reproduced in codex form. In traditional Christian iconography, therefore, the Hebrew prophets are represented holding scrolls and the Evangelists holding codices.

American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition

The Nag Hammadi codices were, for a time, known as the Jung Codices, because Carl Jung's Foundation had ended up the owner, at the long end of a trail of smugglers and antiquarian dealers who buy and sell old stuff found in the Egyptian desert -- which is exactly what happened in the case of the Gospel of Judas.

From Wikipedia:
The Jung Codex was found at Nag Hammadi. It slipped through the hands of the Egyptian authorities and was sold to private collectors in the United States. Gilles Quispel, a Dutch historian, heard about these mysterious manuscripts and decided to buy them via the Jung Foundation in Zurich.
The Jung Codex was finally translated and published as the Nag Hammadi Library in 1977 (translated by James M. Robinson). And this exactly coincided with my time in looking into all of this sort of stuff, so I became quite familiar with the astonishing new find. The entire Gnostic tradition had been stamped out by the Church Fathers long ago, and the Nag Hammadi Library was filled with amazing pieces. I also read Elaine Pagels, and other venerable Gnostic scholars, and became interested in the whole gnostic tradition of that time, and not that religion (the early church).

Which brings us back to the Gospel of Judas, whose genesis lies in the Christian Gnostic tradition and which was, like the Nag Hammadi Library, found in the preserving desert of Egypt. The gospel that reverses Judas to the good disciple, and the other writers of gospels to the less good disciples: Judas as Hero, the Apostles as Not-Quite-Villains.

But daylight approaches, and, like Scheherazade, I now fall silent, to finish my tale on the morrow ...

Courage.
.
hart williams
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