The Few and the Many
The earliest gnostics themselves often made it clear they did not expect
their doctrines to appeal to a wide public:
"The multitude, however, cannot understand these matters, but only one out of a thousand, or two out of ten thousand...it is not at all fitting to speak openly of their mysteries, but right to keep them secret by preserving silence." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 24.6.)
"Jesus said, 'I shall choose you, one from a thousand and two from
ten thousand, and they will stand as a single one.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 23).
Yet in spite of their own accounting, the modern-day gnostic boosters continually
promote their claims and magnify their number. When 'scholars' find it
necessary to confute their own sources, their readers should hold onto
It is depressingly normal in this type of literature for the claims of
the gnostics to be elevated beyond what they actually are claiming in their
own names. For example, Bart Ehrman tells us,
"There was an enormous range of opinion in the early church: lots
of different groups represented lots of different perspectives, they all
had sacred books supporting their views, they all saw their views as stemming
from Jesus and his closest followers, and they all insisted that since
they were right, the other groups were wrong." (Bart D. Ehrman, 'The
Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot,' p. 178)
Notice that Dr. Ehrman is claiming, in a book about the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, that "ALL" "saw their views as stemming from Jesus and his closest followers" [plural]. Did "ALL" really see it that way? No, the book about which he is writing, the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, very frankly and freely confesses that the twelve apostles taught those they encountered to serve the God of Israel:
"Jesus said to them, 'Those you have seen receiving the offerings
at the altar -- that is who you are. That is the god you serve, and you
are those twelve men you have seen. The cattle you have seen brought for
sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar.'"
(The Gospel of Judas, National Geographic Society, p. 27).
In other words, precisely what the church claims: that its doctrine was
handed on to it by the twelve apostles (minus Judas the thirteenth),--
is precisely what is admitted here. The modern gnostic boosters, like a
defense attorney who can't get his teen-aged hoodlum client to stop making
damaging admissions to the TV cameras, can't get the gnostics they've taken
under their wing to stop admitting things they shouldn't.
Ms. Pagels breathlessly relates the news that, when people converted to
gnosticism, they ceased to listen to the Christian bishop!:
"Gnosis offers nothing less than a theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and priests! The initiate now sees them as the 'rulers and powers' who rule on earth in the demiurge's name." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. 38)
It is certainly true that when people change their religion, the theological
authorities to whom they give heed are very likely to change in the bargain.
This is news? A change in gods does indeed imply a change in religion.
Whom will you serve: the God of Israel, or 'Unity-Oneness-Unit-One,' severally
and all together? When the newly converted gnostics stopped serving the
God of Israel, believing instead the power-hungry, money-grubbing cult
leaders who demoted the Creator to the 'demiurge,' they entered into new
And even more wondrous to relate, if they had become Buddhists, they would have passed beyond the authority of the bishops, or if they had taken up the worship and service of Isis, they would have become subject to the priests of Isis, or if they had taken to frequenting the temple of Vesta, the Vestal Virgins could have ordered them around! Not only that, if the people of the present day become Roman Catholics, they have to listen to the Vatican! And if they convert to Mormonism, they start listening to the news from Salt Lake City. The reader is at a loss whether to laugh or to cry.
Ms. Pagels knows and cares what political power is. Ms. Pagels is a bit
at a loss what people are talking about when they talk about 'God.' She
perks up, though, and blushes a bit when her New Age friends suggest such
talk is actually all about her. She does not understand why anyone would
want to limit the quantity of such an excellent thing as God is reputed
to be. All this quibbling about the God-census is quite lost on her. Therefore
those early Christians who, talking about God, explained that there was
only One and that He created all there is, surely did not actually care
about what they were saying, right? They only cared about political power,
because they were people much like Ms. Pagels, right? Thank goodness, no!
As noted, Ms. Pagels subordinates theology to politics, and assumes everyone
else does too. She evaluates the various religions of the world according
to their conformance, or lack thereof, with women's lib, her political
touchstone. She assumes that, because she does this, the early Christian
bishops must have done the same thing: that they preferred monotheism over
polytheism in the belief that it enhanced their political power.
Ms. Pagels assumes that a pantheon stocked with goddesses as well as gods,
as all pagan pantheons are, would lead to a lower world with greater opportunities
for women. There is no empirical evidence that this is so. The Hindu pantheon
is crammed with goddesses. Yet which earthly women enjoy greater opportunities:
women in India or in the United States, most of whose inhabitants identify
themselves as Christians? Nevertheless Ms. Pagels is greatly impressed
with a hymn to the pagan goddess Isis which made it into the Nag Hammadi
library, 'Thunder, Perfect Mind.'
Ms. Pagels is so attached to the fixed idea that the gnostics were progressive
on women's rights that she is willing to wish away considerable evidence
that they were not, including misogynistic statements like,
"Simon Peter said to them, 'Make Mary leave us, for females don't
"Jesus said, 'Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she
too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who
makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven.'" (Gospel of Thomas,
This demeaning thought, that women must become men to be saved, does not distress Ms. Pagels. There is a vast amount of material that she must ignore: "...their fathers who are the ones who gave them life, each one being a copy of each one of the faces, which are forms of maleness, since they are not from the illness which is femaleness, but are from this one who already has left behind the sickness." (The Tripartite Tractate, Part 1, 9, p. 83, The Nag Hammadi Library). The "illness which is femaleness"?
"Flee from the madness and the bondage of femaleness and choose for
yourselves the salvation of maleness." (Zostrianos, p. 430, The Nag
Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).
"The Lord said, 'Pray in the place where there is no woman.'
"Matthew said, '"Pray in the place where there is [no woman],"
he tells us, meaning, "Destroy the works of womanhood..."'"
(The Dialogue of the Savior, p. 254, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M.
"And do not become female, lest you give birth to evil and (its) brothers:
jealousy and division, anger and wrath, fear and a divided heart, and empty,
non-existent desire." (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, p. 369,
The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, editor).
But she is fully up to task. Nor does it distress her that the entire gnostic
system derives from a 'blame the woman' scenario. Like a female driver
who runs off the road and must be rescued by an assortment of male cops
along with her husband, the goddess Sophia started this whole multi-vehicle
pile-up which became the world by leaving her proper realm and seeking
to rise above her station.
"But there rushed forth in advance of the rest that Aeon who was much
the latest of them... namely Sophia, and suffered passion apart from the
embrace of her consort...This passion, they say, consisted in a desire
to search into the nature of the Father; for she wished, according to them,
to comprehend his greatness.....They say that she, having engaged in an
impossible and impracticable attempt, brought forth an amorphous substance,
such as her female nature enabled her to produce. When she looked upon
it, her first feeling was one of grief, on account of the imperfection
of its generation..." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 2-3).
Simon the Samaritan was a copy-cat who made many of the same claims as
Jesus of Nazareth, but with a twist. He travelled about with a prostitute
he had redeemed. This rescue mission was necessitated by her fall from
her exalted position, a disaster which had resulted inadvertently in the
creation of the world:
"He [Simon] had the hardihood to call himself the Supreme Virtue,
that is, the Supreme God; and moreover, (to assert) that the universe had
been originated by his angels; that he had descended in quest of an erring
daemon, which was Wisdom..." (Anonymous Latin Treatise Against All
Heresies, Chapter 1).
To the gnostic mind, the creation of the world was not a good thing, in
spite of all its beauty. The sooner it is extinguished the better, along
with the many human beings who are at home here. One of the most repugnant
features of this hideous religion is this ingratitude and lack of appreciation.
These lofty self-appointed critics of God's handiwork turn thumbs down;
they are not impressed. And what started it all? The departure of a goddess
named Wisdom, or Sophia, who left her proper station, and ended up an earthly
prostitute who required rescue. The Gospel of Thomas reflects this concept:
"Jesus said, 'Whoever knows the father and the mother will be called
the child of a whore.'" (Gospel of Thomas 105).
In this weird religion, since Sophia ended up as a prostitute, and it was her fall which started the ball rolling on the creation of the lower world (the demiurge is variously described as her son or an abortion resulting from an attempted parthenogenic birth), a human being is in fact "the child of a whore." If anyone can figure out how this theology, which revolves around an errant and incompetent goddess who required a human rescue mission to get out of a brothel, elevates women, please speak up! If a lady theologian had made up a story about a male god who fell from heaven, and ended up having to be rescued from a bar-room by a female redeemer figure, who would think she made up this story to give honor to men?
Long-suffering Bishop Irenaeus is indignant about the way the gnostics
talk about their "mother," Sophia: "...first of all, they
will act impiously against their Mother..." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies,
Book 2, Chapter 7.4). The fact is, Christians don't talk this way about
their mother or about anybody else: "And in this way the defect of femaleness appeared." (Eugnostos
the Blessed, p. 236, The Nag Hammadi Library). 'Eugnostos the Blessed' is admittedly a pagan treastise, but it is copied
word-for-word into a Christian gnostic treatise, 'The Sophia of Jesus Christ,'
which in and of itself explains a lot. Where does gnosticism come from?
It's baptized paganism. It only got wet, no doubt adding to the copious
flow of Sophia's tears, perspiration, and other bodily fluids. It didn't
Is there any actual historical evidence that Christianity was
imposed, by men, upon the women of the ancient world? Was this all a
colossal act of gender violence, disguised with sweet words? The actual
evidence, while sparse, suggests any imposition worked the other
way. Emperor Julian the Apostate sent a [male] governor to Antioch with
instructions to re-impose paganism, but he reported back that his
efforts were frustrated by the very same women Christianity was designed,
so they say, to oppress:
"When the men are out of doors they obey your best advice,
and come to the altars; but when they get home their minds undergo a
change; they are wrought upon by the tears and entreaties of their
wives, and they come no more to the altars of the gods."
the Apostate's governor of Antioch, quoted in 'History of the
Christian Church from its Origin to the Present Time,' by William
Maxwell Blackburn, p. 119; also 'Saint John Chrysostom, His Life and
Times, a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century,'
by William Richard Wood Stephens, pp. 41-42).
The Emperor Julian the Apostate himself complained that the women, whom,
they say, he sought to liberate, were not working with him:
". . .it befits the city, I think, to offer both private and public sacrifice. But as it is, every one of you allows his wife to carry everything out of his house to the Galilaeans, and when your wives feed the poor at your expense they inspire a great admiration for godlessness in those who are in need of such bounty -- and of such sort are, I think, the great majority of mankind, -- while as for yourselves you think that you are doing nothing out of the way when in the first place you are careless of the honors due to the gods, and not one of those in need goes near the temples -- for there is nothing there, I think, to feed them with -- and yet when any one of you gives a birthday feast he provides a dinner and a breakfast without stint and welcomes his friends to a costly table.
. ." (Julian the Apostate, The Misopogon, i.e. The Beard-Hater, Chapter
Notice that Julian's diagnosis of the problem is that the men,
who have no principled objection to temple worship, are failing to
control their wives. Patricius was failing to control Monica, Secundus was
failing to control Anthusa, Gregory was failing to control Nonna. Women happily filled the pews of the early church, blissfully
unaware it was all a plot to subjugate them. Those atheists who go by the evidence,— and certainly there is nothing in atheism which
flatly forbids following such a procedure,— might be more likely to suggest that Christianity was a plot by women to impose upon their men
behavior-patterns more to their liking than existing pagan mores, than to indulge in the contrary fantasy.
Yet modern academic scholarship is so unyoked to evidence that even persons
not obviously female, like Bart Ehrman, get to claim the high moral
ground of victimhood based on these unfounded accusations:
The ancient Roman empire did not afford women equal civil rights with men.
This legal structure was in no way founded upon Christianity. The
gospel did not come into a world which was legally a blank slate awaiting definition.
The Christian church was not in all cases an enthusiastic cheer-leader for these legal practices;
see, for instance, the gospel leavening in Gregory of Nazianzus'
condemnation of man-made laws which enshrined a 'double standard':
"Chastity, in respect of which I see
that the majority of men are ill-disposed, and that their laws are unequal
and irregular. For what was the reason why they restrained the woman,
but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her
husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are
very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he
has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve
this custom. They who made the Law were men, and therefore their
legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under
the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for.
God doth not so; but saith Honor thy father and thy mother, which is the
first commandment with promise; that it may be well with thee; and, He
that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. . .See the equality of the legislation. There is one Maker of
man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both their parents." (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 37, On the Words of the Gospel, Matthew 19:1, Chapter 6).
Jerome perceived a similar flaw in the laws of Caesar:
"The laws of Caesar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ: Papinianus
commands one thing; our own Paul another. Earthly laws give a free rein to
the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is
allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt
were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the
purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for
women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both
are bound by the same obligations." (Jerome, Letter 77, to Oceanus, 3).
These modern authors' assumption that paganism was friendly to women
is founded upon thin air. The Christian author Lactantius contrasted pagan philosophy, which sought to teach
only a few select men, with the church, which opened its doors and its storehouse of divine wisdom to
all, including women and slaves:
"That greatest imitator of
Plato among our writers thought that philosophy was not for the
multitude, because none but learned men could attain to it. “Philosophy,”
says Cicero, “is contented with a few judges, of its own accord designedly
avoiding the multitude.” It is not therefore wisdom, if it avoids the
concourse of men; since, if wisdom is given to man, it is given to all
without any distinction, so that there is no one at all who cannot acquire
it. But they so embrace virtue, which is given to the human race, that they
alone of all appear to wish to enjoy that which is a public good; being as
envious as if they should wish to bind or tear out the eyes of others that
they may not see the sun. For what else is it to deny wisdom to men, than
to take away from their minds the true and divine light? But if the nature
of man is capable of wisdom, it was befitting that both workmen, and
country people, and women, and all, in short, who bear the human form,
should be taught to be wise; and that the people should be brought
together from every language, and condition, and sex, and age. Therefore it
is a very strong argument that philosophy neither tends to wisdom, nor is
of itself wisdom, that its mystery is only made known by the beard and
cloak of the philosophers. . .Lastly, they never taught any women to study
philosophy, except Themiste only, within the whole memory of
man; nor slaves, except Phaedo only, who is said, when living in
oppressive slavery, to have been ransomed and taught by Cebes." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book Three,
Chapter 25, ECF 0.07, pp. 195-196).
The modern academic assumption that Christianity was a social
revolution intended to subjugate women has no historical foundation. It
would, however, be accurate to say that paganism is far more congenial to
homosexuality that Christianity, but, while it was an oddity of 1970's Women's Lib
to confuse the two issues, that's another story.
The crux of the early Christian apologists' case against the gnostics is
that they were polytheists. Is this accusation unfair, or do the gnostics,
in their literature, never cease to mock the very texts which teach monotheism?
The gnostics hear the God of Israel proclaim Himself the only God...and