Gnostic writings of Jesus portray him as a heavenly redeemer made less of flesh than of spirit. The emphasis of Jesus’ importance is not on his physical humanness but rather, on his ability to show people the way to the kingdom. Jesus put on flesh in order to give people gnosis and reveal to them where they come from and where they will eventually return. When it is time for Jesus to return to his heavenly home, he is crucified and resurrected before he finally ascends. His body’s lack of importance in some Gnostic texts gives this series of events a different connotation than other versions of the story more common today. The Gnostic understanding of Jesus gives us better knowledge of what will happen to us when we leave the body and world in which we are currently trapped. This understanding also gives us insights into the realm in which we belong. The lack of concern for the body is also connected with the Gnostic view that anything that happens on this earth or in this realm is irrelevant. I will argue that the issue of flesh is very significant in some Gnostic views of Jesus, citing examples from selected Gnostic texts including, the Gospel of Thomas, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Hypostasis of the Archons, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Truth, the Treatise on the Resurrection and the Hymn of the Pearl.
Most Gnostic books show Christ to be of heavenly origin. The books either explicitly say that he is from the father and heaven above or imply it by saying that he descended into earth. He is part of the “…heavenly triad with the Father and the Mother…”(Franzmann, 39). In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the author who is supposedly Christ says, “I am from above the heavens” (Ehrman, 231). He is also sometimes described as a heavenly light, “I am the light which is above all of them: I am All. The All came forth from me and the All reached me” (G of Th., v.77).
Many people, however, look at Christ’s incarnation in different ways. According to some Gnostic thought Christ comes to our earth and puts on Jesus’ human body so that he may walk among us. “I visited a bodily dwelling” (Ehrman, 231). Some of the Gnostic writings show Jesus as an earthly being with a heavenly nature, while others show Jesus as a purely heavenly being with a lack of earthly context. In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Christ’s incarnation was into Jesus’ body in which he cast out the original occupier (Franzmann, 75). Christ’s arrival on earth in the Gospel of Thomas is described in a docetistic way, “I stood in the midst of the world, and I appeared to them in flesh” (G. of Th, v.28). He is said to appear to them in flesh only in outward appearance (Franzmann, 78).
The Gospel of Truth describes Jesus as “a fruit of knowledge” that when eaten gives people gnosis (Ehrman, 161). This Gnostic text shows Christ as a revealer. He is referred to as the book or logos, which reveals to us all that is unknown (Ehrman, 162). He put on the book, was nailed to a tree and published the edict of the father on the cross (Ehrman, 162). These actions say that by dying on the cross, which in this text is not in flesh, he is helping people receive gnosis.
Many Gnostic views have implied a hatred of the body. The body is what is keeping people from realizing their origin (G. of Thomas, v.29). For Christ to have a human body seems strange because he has gnosis. “Woe to the flesh which depends on the soul; woe to the soul which depends on the flesh” (G of Th, v.112). According to the Hypostasis of the Archons, the body is just a shell for the spirit. “Locked within the material shell of the human race is the spark of this highest spiritual reality which (as one Gnostic theory held) the inept creator accidentally infused into humanity at the creation — on the order of a drunken jeweler who accidentally mixes gold dust into junk metal” (Groothuis). Our spirit is trapped in our bodies and the only way to free ourselves is through gnosis. “After the spirit came forth from the Adamantine Land; it descended and came to swell within him, and that man became a living soul” (Hyp of Arc, 164). Anything that happens in this realm of matter is insignificant only when we find the kingdom or when we finally have gnosis, will we actually begin to live (Hyp of Arc, 167-8). All matter is a veil over the truth (Hyp of Arc, 167). Jesus strips himself of his “perishable rags” or “dirty clothes” as he ascends back to heaven (Ehrman, 162, 186).
Jesus’ purpose while on earth is to reveal to his people the true nature of their being. Jesus enlightens and imparts knowledge. His job is to give us gnosis so that we may return to our heavenly home. “If woman or man truly came to gnosis of this spark, she understood that she was truly free: Not contingent, not a conception of sin, not a flawed crust of flesh, but the stuff of God, and the conduit of God’s immanent realization” (Gnostic Society).
Spirit is good and desirable; matter is evil and detestable. According to the Hypostasis of the Archons, there are two heavens, an outer realm and an inner realm. The creation of the earth and humans was flawed. The god of the outer realm created the archons who did not have spirit, while the people created in the inner realm do have spirit, however they are unaware of the spirit within them. When we achieve gnosis we have the understanding that we are from the outer realm and that we have spirit, unlike Yaldabaoth, the god of the inner realm.
The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of Jesus’ sayings that are supposed to reveal to us the way to heaven or the outer realm. It shows Jesus to be a revealer of gnosis by clearing the “fog” or ignorance that surrounds us. The Archons want us to remain ignorant so that we do not enter the perfect outer realm (Hyp of Arc). He explains that the kingdom is a place with no poverty, where all is revealed and that it is already inside and around them but they must learn how to find it. According to the Hypostasis of the Archons, Jesus Christ is not essential for salvation but he is our bridge to it. He shows us that “All who have become aquainted with this way exist deathless in the midst of a dying mankind (Hyp of Arc). To have gnosis is to understand where we come from. “Gnosis, remember, is not a rational, propositional, logical understanding, but a knowing acquired by experience” (Gnostic Society). The achievement of Gnosis is something that has to be done on a personal level and cannot be read or learned (Gnostic Society).
Jesus shows us the way to the kingdom by awakening us from our “drunkenness” or “blindness” where we lost sight of God and heaven (G. of Thomas, v.28). Dependence on the body and earth will keep us in poverty (G. of Thomas, v.29), or without knowledge. Escape from this world comes with knowledge of our origins or the unknowing of beliefs we have that keep us from attaining gnosis. The beliefs that would keep us from attaining gnosis include the idea that Yaoldabaoth is our true god or that we are actually from this world. Until we realize that our bodies are not important and they everything in this realm is false we will not achieve gnosis. Christ reveals information about the kingdom to Mary Magdalene, telling her that “where the mind is there is the treasure” (G. of Mary).
Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension have great importance on Gnostic teachings. The events that take place at the end of Jesus’ life are perhaps the most important part of the Christian faith. When the flesh is not important, like in Gnosticism, the views on these events are changed. If the body is irrelevant then Jesus’ death is not as important to his followers. Is he able to suffer if he is not really in a body? What is resurrection if the body does not matter?
When Christ is crucified in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, he laughs at those who believe that they are hurting him because they are ignorant. “I did not die in reality, but in appearance.” Those “in error and blindness….saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me
with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all….And I was laughing at their ignorance.” This version of the story is very different from the one in the Bible. In the biblical account, Christ does not mock his crucifiers but he asks God for forgiveness of the world’s sins (Groothuis).
Pagels says that rather than viewing Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering to atone for guilt and sin, the Gospel of Truth “sees the crucifixion as the occasion for discovering the divine self within” (Pagels, 95). In the Gospel of Mary, physical suffering has no reality because physicality has no reality (G. of Mary). Christ’s crucifixion has a different meaning when he is not suffering on the cross for our sins. This is because in Gnosticism a person’s pure soul was made good and the earth and matter were corrupted, so there is no need for forgiveness. In canonical stories, a perfect God made the earth and the people corrupted it with sin, so Christ must come down and be crucified for the salvation of the people.
Gnostics and Orthodox Christians view Resurrection very differently. In Christianity, Christ’s resurrection only occurs once. He dies on the cross and rises from the dead back into flesh. The first person to witness his resurrection is one of his disciples, Paul. For the forty days following his resurrection, he is seen by his disciples in the flesh and talks about the kingdom of God. He shows some of the disbelievers that he is real by having them touch him, or he even eats with them (Luke). After these forty days, Christ never appears on earth in flesh again.
Tertuillian, a brilliant Christian author from about 190AD, stated that not believing in the literal interpretation of Christ’s resurrection was heresy (Ehrman, 218). His main argument is that Christ was born, therefore flesh. There is no evidence that he was not flesh and no reason to believe that he would not want to be flesh (Ehrman, 221).
“Some gnostics called the literal view of resurrection the ‘faith of fools'” (Pagels, 11). In Gnostic thought, literally seeing Christ was not what was important but it was spiritual visions that were held in high esteem (Pagels, 11). “For the Gnostic who abhors matter and seeks release from its grim grip, the physical resurrection of Jesus would be anticlimactic, if not absurd. A material resurrection would be counterproductive and only recapitulate the original problem” (Groothuis).
In the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Christ after he was risen but he was not in a physical body. She saw him in visions and dreams. The visions are not cast aside as hallucinations but are respected as spiritual contact with God. This thought of resurrection is not finite. Christ does not appear for only forty days to just the chosen few. This allows Christ to be seen throughout history. “Do not weep, and do not grieve, and do not doubt; for his grace will be with you completely, and will protect you” (G. of Mary, v.5:2). “Mary, representing the gnostic, claims to experience his continuing presence (Pagels, 13).
Resurrection is viewed by many Gnostics as waking up from death, which is life on earth, and becoming alive in heaven, which is also death on earth. “There was a trembling that overcame the chaos of the earth, for the souls which were in the sleep below were released, and they were resurrected” (Ehrman, 232). Gaining gnosis is the way to resurrection for those who belong in the outer realm. Death, according to the Gospel of Thomas, is life and life is death (G. of Th, v.11). Treatise on the Resurrection refers to resurrection as almost a revelation. “What, then, is resurrection? It is always the disclosure of those who have risen…It is no illusion, but the truth!” (Ehrman, 184). The world is described as an illusion and resurrection is the revelation of what is true.
Not all New Testament stories of Christ’s resurrection were interpreted literally. Some stories had Jesus appear to the disciples in a more spiritual way. Both the gospels of Luke and Mark say that Jesus appeared in “another form” (Pagels, 5). In some accounts, he is said to vanish just as quickly as he appears.
In Orthodox Christian thought, forty days after Christ’s resurrection, he is ascended back into heaven. There he remains at the right hand of God. In Gnostic thought, he ascends into heaven but may return at anytime. Christ, according to Christian theology, comes only once. The Bible, is the final word on everything pertaining to life on earth and the world after. Gnostics differ because there is room for more ideas, and Christ may return to the earth again whenever he wants. Why should Christ come to earth so long ago and then just stop? Why is everything in the Christian religion based only on things that happened so far in the past? Gnosticism allows for reinterpretations of all the old laws, new books may be added to the library. Whereas, in Christianity there is only the Bible which cannot be changed.
All these interpretations of Jesus will reveal to us our own soul’s journey. They give us an idea or insight into what will happen to us when we receive gnosis. What is our ascension into heaven like? What is resurrection for us? Jesus comes to earth and takes on a human body. We, too, are from the perfect kingdom and we come here and take on flesh. So like Christ, we are not from this world, however, unlike Christ, we do not know this. Christ tries to help us remember that we belong with the father. When he is crucified, he reveals to us more about the kingdom. His resurrection is like what we might experience as well. This Gnostic resurrection is one in which we will gain gnosis and then die from the earth in order to live in heaven. We are brought back to our original life on heaven, after being dead the entire time on earth.
After gaining gnosis, we must ascend to heaven. “Since the perfection of the totality is in the Father, it is necessary for the totality to ascend to him” (G. of Truth). When we have gnosis, we will have the world revealed to us. All that is unknown will now be known.
The Hymn of the Pearl tells a story of a young prince who is sent to Egypt by his parents to find a pearl and bring it back to the kingdom. During his journey the young prince forgets his mission and falls into a state of “drunkenness”. Some courtiers, who know why the prince was there, wrote him a letter to remind him. He immediately remembers his task and that he is not from this land but from the kingdom. He takes off his “dirty clothes” and is able to return back to his father’s kingdom (Ehrman, 185-7). This story has many parallels to the Gnostic theory of Jesus’ journey and our own. Christ is sent on a mission to earth by his father. He puts on his “dirty clothes” or flesh and descends to earth. After he completes his mission he takes off the flesh and returns home to the kingdom of his father. This is also similar to the gnostic view of our own journey. We are from the kingdom of the father and are sent down to complete a task, while on earth we forget where we are from and what we are supposed to be doing here. Jesus tries to remind us through his parables and sayings that we are not of this world. And if and when we finally remember this, we take off our “dirty clothes” and return to the kingdom of our father.
Gnostic texts place an emphasis on the flesh of Christ. It is not the same emphasis that Orthodox Christians do but still flesh or the lack of flesh remains an important theme in many Gnostic writings. Some Gnostics have hatred for flesh based on the importance of the outer realm rather than the inner realm. The gods of the inner realm know that we have spirit and they want to keep us from understanding this. They are jealous of us and want to steal the spirit from us because it is the only thing in the inner realm that is worth anything. Having spirit is the only way to have access to the outer realm, which is perfect in every way. Our bodies keep us from realizing that we have something inside us that is more important. The world around us keeps us from looking inside ourselves. A docetic Christ, shows the importance of the word rather than earthly actions. By examining Christ’s journey, we can have a better idea of our own soul’s journey. When we achieve gnosis, we will gain entrance to the kingdom with God as well as Christ.
Ehrman, Bart D. After The New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Franzmann, Majella. Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.
Groothuis, Douglas. “Gnosticism And The Gnostic Jesus”. Christian Research Journal. 1994. Online. URL: http://iclnet93.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/crj0040a.txt (20 April 2000)
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
The Gnostic Society Library. “Introduction to the Nag Hammadi Library.” 18 August 1997. Online. URL: http://home.sol.no/~noetic/nagham/nhlintro.html (10 April 2000).