THE NAG HAMMADI SCROLLS
In 1945 two peasant brothers in the Nag Hammadi wilds of Upper Egypt, while digging for fertiliser near some limestone caves, came across large earthenware pots. They put aside the fear that the pots might contain evil Djinn and smashed them open, finding papyrus scrolls inside.
These scrolls then embarked on a precarious and erratic journey. Returning home the brothers dumped them in the straw next to the oven. The mother, assuming they were valueless and dangerously unlucky, burnt some as kindling, one brother took some of the scrolls to sell to a local Coptic priest, illiterate neighbours bartered or purchased others for next to nothing, and they slowly spread around the area until one Bahij Ali, a one-eyed outlaw and black-marketeer, got hold of some of them. Escorted by a well-known antiquities dealer of the region he went to Cairo to try and get a good price for them, which he did. They then fell into the hands of a Cypriot antiques dealer who realised their value and age, and who immediately went back to Nag Hammadi to get all the others.
The Nag Hammadi Scrolls (sometimes confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls) contain the library of a Gnostic sect that operated around the second century AD. The Gnostics were a group of mystics who saw reality as a series of ‘emanations’ from an divine loving God, which they called the ‘monad’ and which they saw as being present in conscious life, not separated from it. In their creation myth the monad allowed the creation of an authoritarian ‘Demiurge’, or false God, to come between man and the unified truth, to pull a mental-emotional lie, the illusion of separation, over man’s eyes. In the myth the monad attempts to rescue man by appearing to him, in the form of a snake (one of the earliest and most common symbols for divine reality) in order to give him the means to return to the loving undivided source of life. This gnosis (or knowledge) was given in the form of an apple. Man doubted the snake, but woman, more courageous, more fundamentally intelligent, knew that it was the truth and persuaded man that they should eat it, which they did.
Many of the documents of the Nag Hammadi find were very specific Gnostic texts, some very obscure and some decidedly loopy, but many others were heretical gospels, stories of Jesus which were not used by the early church community or the writers of what we now call the New Testament who were keen to establish a church that was based on authority, that established the kingdom as an abstract (i.e. mentally understandable) event in the future, that portrayed ‘the Lord’ as a fantastic character distant from his creation, that was palatable to the Romans and that could be incorporated into their emotionally-charged mystery-cult practices of worshipping and drinking the blood of dead and resurrected gods. Those gospels that expressed an antithetical heretical view were excluded, above all the Gospel of Thomas.
THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS
The Gospel of Thomas was written at the same time as or, some scholars believe, earlier than the gospels we are familiar with, but was not recognised by the early church. It is very different to the other gospels, with no account of the story of Jesus; no miracles, no crucifixion and no resurrection. There is no attempt in it to justify the early church, by having Jesus predict later church-significant events, or by having Jesus nominate a pope, and there is no attempt to legitimise Jesus’ message through identifying him with the predictions of earlier Jewish prophets. There is just a list of sayings.
These sayings are quite different to some of the things that Jesus says in the familiar canonical gospels, but not all; for a close reading of the Jesus of the New Testament reveals two Jesuses. One Jesus, which we could call Jesus Christ, speaks of the things that St. Paul was fond of; the coming of the church, the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the coming of the end of days, rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (i.e. the moral duty to pay your debts) and being a sacrificial lamb for an authoritarian God that demands payback for humanities’ sins. This Jesus seems like a completely different person to the Jesus of Thomas. The other Jesus, who we could call Jesus of Nazareth, talks of a reality that it is not emotionally charged or mentally understandable and is therefore radically weird: the Kingdom is like the yeast in bread, it is here and now and to see it you must take no thought, love your enemies and become as little children. The God of Jesus of Nazareth is also quite peculiar; He gives the same reward to people who work for an hour as he does for those who work an entire day, and seems quite happy with nudity, sin and even surreal absurdity (which, in Jesus’ teachings, is used as a radical refusal of worldly constraints). This Jesus is the one we find in Thomas…
‘I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.’
‘Split a piece of wood and you will find me there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there also.’
‘Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.” They said to him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?” Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness, then will you enter the Kingdom.”
Jesus of Nazareth — the Jesus of Thomas — continually identified the truth, (aka ‘the Kingdom’) with that which cannot be intellectually categorised, rationally understood or emotionally seized. He emphasised and extolled anything which represented or expressed this mysterious truth; innocence, femininity, paradox and, in numerous parables and aphorisms, that category of people best equipped (which is to say ill-equipped) to perceive reality non-rationally and non-egoically; children.
‘His disciples said, ‘when will you become revealed to us, and when shall we see you?’ Jesus said, “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the son of the living one, and will not be afraid.”’
Jesus of Nazareth identified the truth with nudity — of being psychologically honest and exposed, which he also used as a symbol of rebellion. In Matthew 5:40 he says that if a creditor forces you to pay your coat (your outer garment), you should give him your cloak also (your inner garment) — i.e. you should stand naked in court, thus humiliating your accuser (it was more shameful to see nudity than to be naked in Judaism).*
‘His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. it will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is’. Rather the kingdom is spread out upon the earth and men do not see it.”’
This idea appears in a slightly more ‘subjective’ form in the Gospel of Luke (‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: ‘Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’). It is clearly Jesus’ idea (also a Taoist ideal; could 6th century Taoism have filtered through to 1st century Judea?) but it is emphatically not a Christian idea. The idea that God is imminent and accessible to all is, strictly speaking, heretical to all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as it is to their heir — atheism.
‘They saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb on his way to Judea.
He said to his disciples, “That man is round about the lamb.”
They said to him, “so that he may kill it and eat it.”
He said to them, “While it is alive, he will not eat it, but only when he has killed it and it has become a corpse.”
They said to him, “He cannot do otherwise.”
He said to them, “You too, look for a place for yourself within repose, lest you become a corpse and be eaten.”’
The point here is that the ideas, ideologies, theories and facts of the self-informed-self — necessarily backed by the violent-anxious emotion of having-to-be-right — are schizoid death. Adopt a position, a fixed opinion or want, and you are, if you hold on to it, the living dead — as all who are gripped by obsessive ideas and desires appear to be. ‘Tight’ we call them, or ‘stiff’.
‘Blessed is the man who has suffered and found life.’
Profound joy and the experience of beauty change men and women, as do many years of dignified striving and living; but even then real change tends to come at the end of great pressure, pain and loss.
People never change their fundamental priorities, assumptions and modes of awareness through argument, discussion, knowledge or education (i.e. ‘teaching’ as it is normally practised). If someone is evasive, rigidly polite, aggressive, submissive, cruel or bland it is because they exist as their inherently anxious, violent and controlling constructed self. For something else to enter awareness this self must crumble; and only life can make such rubble of man.
Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”
To see the truth, or reality as it is, is to see what, in your own experience is obscuring it. Money and security obscures reality for some people, ideology (Marxist, feminist, sexist, capitalist, rationalist, spiritualist — whatever) for others, stimulation and drug use for many more, routine and pointless work for many, fear, anxiety and irritability for most… What all these things have in common is that they are unbearable for he or she addicted to see them, and to see the truth is to see them. Troubling!
But in seeing I become not that which is seen, but that which sees. I experientially explore my experience of seeing, or being, and I find that this ‘I’ is not what I thought or felt it was. Astonishing!
‘Matthew said, “Lord, you have spoken about the end of everything without concern”
The Lord said, “You have understood all the things I have said to you, and you have accepted them on faith. If you have known them, they are yours. If not, then they are not yours.”’
‘The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end shall be.”
And Jesus said, “Have you discovered then the beginning that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.”’
The mysterious imminence of the truth is systematically ignored, corrupted or downplayed by the writers of the gospels. Although they frequently expressed the immediacy of the truth in Jesus’ teachings, its intellectually subversive nature, its innocence and benevolence (and indeed where they do they tend to be consistent), they also portray a reality which is the absolute opposite of this, but which is perfectly consistent with the view of the insane Indo-European-Semite culture which founded the modern world; a reality of hardship and suffering ameliorated by focusing on intellectually (and emotionally) satisfying ideas, rituals, powers and authorities which are elsewhere, in external institutions, in a physically distant heaven, at the end of life, at the end of days or at the end of a telescope. Reality, for the Christian writers of New Testament was neither mysterious nor accessible to the individual, but a market transaction between the morally indebted sinner and the priestly management, which together formed an elect group, constitutionally antagonistic to heretics and pagans.
The groupmind of the gospel-writers (and their clique) becomes increasingly evident as one reads through the New Testament. In Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we find, amidst the more consistent and creative sayings and parables, a series of highly symbolic miracles that present Jesus as fulfilment of earlier Jewish prophecies, a series of predictions which legitimise the early church (and which, of course, for the writers of the gospels would have been common historical fact, such as the Roman destruction of the high temple in Jerusalem), and a story which plays down the violence and guilt of the Romans from whom the early church desperately sought approval.
But nobody quite mystified the truth or sucked up to the Romans as much as St. Paul (a good pal of the Demiurge) whose mission was to form a cult and sell it to the Iron Empire. He had no interest in what Jesus did or said and only wrote of the meaning, ritual and symbol of his idea of Jesus, emphasising Jesus’ death and putative resurrection and his status as a blood sacrifice in order to appease a vengeful and abstract god.
Above all though, Paul emphasised authority:
Romans 13:1-2: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.
Ephesians 5:24: As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
Colossians 3:20: Children, obey your parents in everything.
Titus 2:9: Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.
1Peter 2:13: Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors.
The upper hierarchy of the church, the mosque, the campus, the bank and the corporation would all be equally at home with these entirely comprehensible ideas and the entirely comprehensible Jesus Christ whose authority Paul calls on to advance them. What we call ‘Christianity’ could just as well be called ‘Paulism’. Pay your debts, says Paul, obey the Romans, be good little slaves and you’ll be allowed through the hole in the sky when the rapture comes.
Jesus of Nazareth would have pissed on such ideas.
Here is the genius from Naz in John:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
Do not love the system or the things pertaining to it. If anyone loves that system, the love of the living truth is not in that person. For everything in that system — the frantic craving engendered by an alienated body, the restless prowling of the sex-mad ego and the arrogant pretensions of those who are full of self — is not of the living truth but is begotten by the system itself. That system is passing away with all its perverse desires, but the person who does what the living truth, through conscience, prompts him (or her) to do, is inevitably lead the experience of his or her own timeless incorruptible consciousness.**
* Not my observation this, but can’t for the life of me remember where I came across it.
** This one is my adaptation of Walter Wink’s reading.