In Gnostic writings, Jesus is portrayed as a heavenly redeemer with a greater emphasis on his spiritual nature rather than his physical form. The main focus is not on Jesus’ humanity, but rather on his ability to guide individuals towards the kingdom. To impart gnosis and reveal their origins and ultimate destination, Jesus assumes a physical form. Upon completing this mission and returning to his heavenly realm, Jesus undergoes crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The de-emphasis placed on Jesus’ body in certain Gnostic texts imbues these events with a different significance compared to more conventional versions of the story. By comprehending the Gnostic interpretation of Jesus, one gains insight into what awaits after departing from our earthly bodies and the current world we are confined to. This understanding also unveils the realm that truly belongs to us. The disregard for the physical body in Gnostic beliefs is closely intertwined with their conviction that terrestrial occurrences hold no importance. I will argue that certain perspectives within Gnosticism attribute great significance to the physical body of Jesus by providing examples from various texts such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Hypostasis of Archons, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Truth, Treatise on Resurrection, and Hymn of Pearl.
According to most Gnostic books, Christ’s heavenly origin is evident. These books either explicitly state that he is from the father and heaven above or imply it by mentioning his descent to earth. Christ is seen as part of the heavenly triad along with the Father and the Mother (Franzmann, 39). In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the author, supposedly Christ himself, asserts “I am from above the heavens” (Ehrman, 231). Furthermore, Christ is sometimes depicted as a heavenly light, proclaiming “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 have varying interpretations of Christ’s incarnation. In certain Gnostic beliefs, Christ comes to earthly realms and inhabits Jesus’ human body to interact with people. As stated in Ehrman (231), he declares, “I visited a bodily dwelling.” Gnostic writings depict Jesus as both an earthly being with divine qualities and as purely heavenly without any connection to earthly matters. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth explains that Christ incarnated into Jesus’ body and expelled the original occupant (Franzmann, 75). The Gospel of Thomas describes Christ’s arrival on earth in a docetistic manner, stating, “I stood in the midst of the world, and I appeared to them in flesh” (G. of Th, v.28). Nevertheless, it is emphasized that his bodily appearance was merely outward (Franzmann, 78).
In the Gospel of Truth, Jesus is described as “a fruit of knowledge” that, when consumed, grants people gnosis (Ehrman, 161). This Gnostic text portrays Christ as a revealer, often referred to as the book or logos, revealing the unknown (Ehrman, 162). Symbolically depicted as putting on the book, being crucified on a tree, and proclaiming the edict of the father on the cross (Ehrman, 162), Jesus’s actions signify his role in aiding individuals to attain gnosis, even through his non-fleshly crucifixion.
Various Gnostic viewpoints express a disregard for the physical body, as it obstructs individuals from recognizing their origin (Gospel of Thomas, verse 29). It may appear unusual for Christ to possess a human body, considering his possession of gnosis. The Gospel of Thomas, verse 112 declares, “Woe to the flesh which depends on the soul; woe to the soul which depends on the flesh.” According to the Hypostasis of the Archons, the body serves solely as a shell for the spirit. This text presents the notion that within humanity resides a divine spark confined within a material casing. This concept is comparable to a jeweler inadvertently mixing gold dust into inferior metal (Groothuis). Our spirits are trapped within our physical bodies, and liberation can only be achieved through gnosis. The Hypostasis of the Archons further observes that after emerging from the Adamantine Land, the spirit descended and infused itself into humanity, thereby granting humans with life (Hypostasis of the Archons, 164). Only by discovering the kingdom or attaining gnosis can we truly begin to live since anything occurring in material reality holds little significance. The truth remains hidden behind all material existence’s veil (Hypostasis of the Archons, 167). As Jesus ascends to heaven, he discards his “perishable rags” or “dirty clothes” (Ehrman, 162, 186).
Jesus’ purpose on earth is to uncover the true essence of human existence for his followers. He provides enlightenment and imparts wisdom, aiming to provide us with gnosis for a journey back to our heavenly abode. According to the Gnostic Society, “If a woman or man truly comprehended this divine spark, they would realize that they are genuinely liberated: not bound by external factors, not burdened by sin, not merely a flawed physical shell, but rather made of godly substance and a channel for God’s imminent manifestation.”
The Hypostasis of the Archons describes a division between spirit and matter, with spirit being considered good and desirable while matter is seen as evil and detestable. This belief system also presents two heavens: an outer realm where the god of the outer realm created archons without spirit, and an inner realm where humans were created with spirit, although they are unaware of this. Gnosis allows us to understand our origins from the outer realm and realize that we possess spirit, setting us apart from Yaldabaoth, the god of the inner realm.
The Gospel of Thomas consists of Jesus’ teachings intended to guide us towards heaven or the outer realm, revealing him as an enlightener of knowledge by dispelling our ignorance. The Archons desire our ignorance to prevent us from entering the perfect outer realm (Hyp of Arc). He explains that the kingdom is a place devoid of poverty, where everything is disclosed, and that it already exists within and around us, but we must learn how to discover it. Jesus Christ is not deemed essential for salvation according to the Hypostasis of the Archons, but serves as our conduit to it. He demonstrates that “All who have become acquainted with this way exist deathless in the midst of a dying mankind” (Hyp of Arc). Gnosis entails comprehending our origins. “Gnosis, remember, is not a rational, propositional, logical understanding, but a knowing acquired by experience” (Gnostic Society). Attaining Gnosis is an individual endeavor that cannot be attained through reading or learning (Gnostic Society).
Jesus leads us to the kingdom by awakening us from our “drunkenness” or “blindness”, when we lose sight of God and heaven (G. of Thomas, v.28). Relying on the body and earthly matters will keep us in poverty (G. of Thomas, v.29), without knowledge. Gnosis, or true understanding, is attained by escaping from this world through knowledge of our origins and the abandonment of beliefs that hinder our progress. These beliefs include the notion that Yaoldabaoth is our true god or that we are truly from this world. Only when we recognize that our bodies hold no significance and that everything in this realm is illusory, we can attain gnosis. Christ imparts knowledge about the kingdom to Mary Magdalene, informing her that “where the mind is, there is the treasure” (G. of Mary).
The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ hold significant significance in Gnostic teachings. These events mark a crucial aspect of the Christian faith. However, in Gnosticism where the physical body holds no importance, the interpretation of these events differs. If the body is deemed irrelevant, the significance of Jesus’ death diminishes for his followers. Without a physical form, can he truly endure suffering? The concept of resurrection also loses meaning in the absence of bodily significance.
According to the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, when Christ is crucified, he mocks those who think they are causing him harm due to their ignorance. He states, “I did not truly die, but only seemed to.” He notes that the ones who were mistaken and unaware were the ones who witnessed and punished him. It was actually someone else, their father, who consumed the gall and vinegar. I was not the one who was struck.”
According to Groothuis, the biblical account of the crucifixion is different from the one described above. In the Bible, Christ does not mock his crucifiers but instead asks God for forgiveness of the world’s sins. However, in the above version, it was Simon who carried the cross on his shoulder and Christ laughed at the ignorance of others while rejoicing in his height over all.
Pagels argues that the Gospel of Truth interprets Christ’s death as a way to discover the divine self within, rather than as a sacrificial offering for guilt and sin (Pagels, 95). In the Gospel of Mary, physical suffering is deemed unreal because physicality itself is deemed unreal (G. of Mary). Christ’s crucifixion takes on a different meaning in Gnosticism, as there is no need for forgiveness since a person’s pure soul is considered good and only the earth and matter are corrupted. Contrastingly, in canonical stories, a perfect God created the earth and people corrupted it with sin, requiring Christ to come down and be crucified for the salvation of humanity.
The understanding of Resurrection varies between Gnostics and Orthodox Christians. In Orthodox Christianity, Christ undergoes resurrection once, where his death on the cross is succeeded by his revival in a physical body. The initial witness to this resurrection is Paul, one of his followers. Following his resurrection, Christ appears to his disciples in bodily form for a span of forty days. During this time, he discusses the kingdom of God and offers evidence of his existence through tactile experiences and communal meals with skeptics (Luke). Nevertheless, after these forty days, Christ does not materialize physically on earth once more.
According to Tertuillian, a Christian author from 190AD, it is considered heresy to deny the literal interpretation of Christ’s resurrection (Ehrman, 218). Tertuillian’s central argument is that since Christ was born and therefore flesh, there is no evidence to suggest he was not flesh or that he would not have desired to be flesh (Ehrman, 221).
“In Gnostic thought, the literal view of resurrection was often referred to as the ‘faith of fools'” (Pagels, 11). Instead of focusing on physically seeing Christ, Gnostics placed greater importance on spiritual visions (Pagels, 11). According to Groothuis, for Gnostics who rejected matter and sought liberation from its grip, a physical resurrection of Jesus would be underwhelming or even nonsensical. A resurrection involving physical matter would only recreate the initial problem at hand” (Groothuis).
In the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene had the first encounter with Christ after his resurrection, although he did not manifest in a physical form. Instead, she experienced visions and dreams in which she saw him. These visions are not dismissed as hallucinations, but rather regarded as a meaningful spiritual connection with God. The concept of resurrection is not limited to a specific timeframe. Christ’s presence is not confined to a forty-day period exclusively for a chosen few. This allows the possibility of encountering Christ throughout history. The quote “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) highlights this idea. Furthermore, Mary, symbolizing the gnostic approach, asserts that she continues to experience the presence of Christ (Pagels, 13).
According to many Gnostics, resurrection is seen as the awakening from death, which is life on earth, and the coming alive in heaven, which is also death on earth. Ehrman (232) states that there was a trembling that occurred amidst the chaos of the earth, as the souls who were asleep below were set free and brought back to life. Attaining gnosis is the path towards resurrection for those who belong in the outer realm. In the Gospel of Thomas, death is regarded as life and life is considered as death (G. of Th, v.11). The Treatise on the Resurrection describes resurrection as a form of revelation, emphasizing that it reveals those who have risen and is a genuine truth (Ehrman, 184). The world is portrayed as an illusion, while resurrection unveils what is truly real.
The New Testament presents different interpretations of Christ’s resurrection. Some narratives depict Jesus appearing to the disciples in a non-literal manner, with stories mentioning him appearing in a “different form” (Pagels, 5). Certain accounts also mention his ability to vanish as quickly as he appears.
In Orthodox Christian belief, it is believed that forty days after the resurrection of Christ, he ascended into heaven and remains at the right hand of God. However, in Gnostic belief, Christ also ascends into heaven but has the potential to return at any given time. Christian theology asserts that Christ’s coming is a one-time event, with the Bible serving as the ultimate authority on all matters concerning life on earth and beyond. Conversely, Gnostics hold contrasting perspectives that allow for fresh concepts and acknowledge the possibility of Christ returning to earth whenever he wishes. This raises inquiries regarding why Christ came to earth in the past and subsequently ceased doing so, as well as why Christianity solely relies on historical occurrences. Unlike Christianity which adheres strictly to the unchanging Bible, Gnosticism permits reinterpretation of older laws and welcomes new books into their library.
All interpretations of Jesus illustrate the journey of our own soul, providing insight into what will occur when we attain gnosis. Our ascension to heaven and resurrection are akin to that of Jesus. Just as Jesus arrives on earth and manifests in a human body, we too descend from the perfect kingdom and assume physical form. Similar to Christ, we do not originate from this world; however, unlike him, we remain unaware of this truth. Christ’s purpose is to remind us that our true place lies with the father. Through his crucifixion, he imparts further understanding about the kingdom. His resurrection reflects what we may encounter upon attaining gnosis. According to Gnostic beliefs, this resurrection entails achieving gnosis and subsequently departing earthly existence in order to dwell in heaven. After effectively being deceased throughout our time on earth, we return to our original heavenly life.
After attaining gnosis, we are required to ascend to heaven as stated in the “Gospel of Truth”: “Since the perfection of everything is in the Father, it is essential for everything to ascend to him”. Through gnosis, we will gain knowledge and understanding of the world. Our prior ignorance will transform into knowledge.
The story of the Hymn of the Pearl shares a common theme with both the Gnostic theory of Jesus’ journey and our own. In this story, a young prince is sent to Egypt by his parents to retrieve a pearl for the kingdom. However, he forgets his mission and becomes intoxicated. His courtiers, aware of the purpose of his journey, write him a letter to remind him. Upon reading it, the prince regains his memory and realizes that he does not belong in Egypt but in his father’s kingdom. He removes his soiled attire and returns to his rightful place (Ehrman, 185-7).
This narrative draws parallels to the Gnostic belief in Jesus’ mission to Earth. Like the prince, Jesus descends to Earth wearing “dirty clothes” or human flesh, fulfilling his divine task before shedding his mortal form and returning to his father’s kingdom. Similarly, the Gnostic perspective on our own journey reflects this pattern. We originate from our father’s kingdom and are sent to Earth with a purpose, yet we often forget our origins and objectives while here. Through his parables and teachings, Jesus attempts to remind us that we are not of this world and, when we remember our true nature, we can discard our earthly “dirty clothes” and reunite with our father’s kingdom.
Gnostic texts emphasize the importance of Christ’s physical body, although it differs from the emphasis placed by Orthodox Christians. The presence or absence of flesh remains a significant theme in many Gnostic writings. Certain Gnostics hold animosity towards the flesh due to their belief in the significance of the outer realm over the inner realm. The gods residing in the inner realm are aware of our spiritual existence and strive to prevent us from comprehending this truth. These gods harbor jealousy towards us and desire to rob us of our spirit, as it is the only valuable entity in the inner realm. Possessing spirit is the sole means of accessing the flawless outer realm. Our physical bodies hinder us from recognizing the inner quality that holds greater importance within us. The external world obstructs our ability to introspect. By considering the journey of Christ as a docetic figure, we can gain insight into our own soul’s odyssey. Upon achieving gnosis, we will be granted entry into the kingdom alongside God and Christ.
Ehrman, Bart D. After The New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
The author of the book “Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings” is Franzmann, Majella. The book was published in Edinburgh by T & T Clark in 1996.
According to the article “Gnosticism And The Gnostic Jesus” by Douglas Groothuis, the source is the Christian Research Journal from 1994. The article can be found online at the URL: http://iclnet93.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/crj0040a.txt (accessed on 20 April 2000).
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
The Gnostic Society Library provides an introduction to the Nag Hammadi Library. The webpage was published on 18 August 1997 and is available online at the URL: http://home.sol.no/~noetic/nagham/nhlintro.html. This information was accessed on 10 April 2000.