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Beyond the Law

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 4

   We return to the words of Thomas in Andrapolis, when he persuaded the royal newlyweds to refrain from consummating their marriage. "Keep your souls chaste" he said to them, and then they could look forward to the "incorruptible and true marriage" and enter "that bride-chamber which is full of immortality and light."

The Bridal Chamber

Valentinians had a specific sacrament of the Bridal Chamber. Until recently, little was known of the ritual involved except what was reported by the second-century heresiologist Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. The rite, he said, was not really spiritual; some of the female initiates had become pregnant.

Irenaeus accused Marcus, leader of a Valentinian sect, of cozening rich and elegant women, to whom he would say, flatteringly:

I want you to take part in my grace, for the Father of us all sees continually your Angel before His face. Now the place of Greatness is within us; we must make ourselves into one. First receive the grace from me and through me. Prepare yourself, as a bride awaiting her spouse, that you may become what I am and I what you are. Establish in your bridal chamber the seed of light. Receive from me the bridegroom, and grasp him and be grasped by him. Behold the grace descends on you.

Nothing that is otherwise known of the Valentinians suggests that the bridal chamber involved a licentious rite. Either deliberately or naively, Irenaeus misrepresented the nature of the sacrament. Charges of sexual misconduct were standard weapons in the armory of sectarian strife. Roman authorities sometimes charged Christians with indulging in orgiastic "love feasts." In the room where they met, it was said, dogs tied to candleholders threw over the tapers when food was tossed among them; promiscuous intercourse, often incestuous, was supposed to follow in the dark. Other charges were cannibalism (because Christians were known to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ) and blasphemy (because they refused to honor the Roman gods). Anti-Christian writers may have had in mind certain libertine Christian Gnostic sects.

An ascetic attitude toward sexuality was widespread in the early Christian centuries, not only within the fledgling Christian communities but far more broadly. Even the Jewish population, to whom one of the Almighty's first commandments was "Be fruitful and multiply," accommodated some ascetic sects that took vows of chastity. But these were mostly celibate, monastic groups, exceptional in any culture.

It is much more remarkable that whole religious communities of men and women should place such high value on chastity and continence -- at least in avowed principle, and, we must suppose, to a considerable extent in practice. Among some groups that allowed baptism only to persons who forswore sexual activity, such as Christians in eastern Syria, it was the practice to postpone the rite until one was advanced in years. Moreover, the Elect were held to a far higher standard than ordinary believers.

Among Christian Gnostics, Valentinians were not as severely ascetic as some sects. They permitted marriage, although, being of this world, it was necessarily a "marriage of uncleanness" in contrast to the true wedding of spirits. A commonsensical Saying in the Valentinian Gospel of Philip reads : "Be not fearful of the flesh, nor love it. If you fear it, it will become master over you. If you love it, it will swallow and paralyze you." (Philip is a mixed collection of Jesus Sayings, descriptions of rituals, Valentinian teachings and other matters, and is now called after Philip because his is the only apostolic name to occur in it. It is one of the texts found in the fourth-century Nag Hammadi library.)

The case of the great fifth-century Christian theologian, Augustine, is perhaps instructive in the matter of daily living within a system that is markedly ascetic in its teaching. As a young student and teacher of rhetoric he was a Manichean, adherent of the dominant gnostic movement of his time. For those in the ranks of the Elect it was a severely ascetic religion. He was in the lower rank of Hearers. Augustine reported in his Confessions that his parents left him to do pretty much what he liked, "and go after pleasure not only beyond the limit of reasonable discipline but to sheer dissoluteness in many kinds of evil."

Later, when Augustine found himself strongly drawn to Christianity, what held him back from embracing the faith was the reluctance to give up the easygoing life and pleasures, including a mistress, to which he had become used as an ordinary Manichean: "I in my great worthlessness . . . had begged You for chastity, saying: 'Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.'" As a lowly Hearer in the Manichean church he could lead a far more relaxed life than was open to the small number of Elect.

Chastity Relaxed

Sexual continence was closer to the teaching of the earliest Christians than later orthodoxy liked to acknowledge. For Jews, procreation of children was at the heart of the Law. To carry out the Lord's commandment to be fruitful and multiply, a man could easily divorce a barren wife and he could have more than one wife to make sure of progeny. In radical contrast, the first gospel to be written, that of Mark, has Jesus denounce divorce: what God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Jesus even recommended celibacy. And so did Paul, who went still further: "Let those who have wives live as though they had none."

For later generations of most Christians, however, the strictures against marriage and child-bearing were softened. Matthew adds a gloss to the words reported by Mark; divorce is allowed "for immorality" -- that is, for the wife's infidelity. As for Paul, later writers of letters that were falsely ascribed to him sometimes directly contradict him. In I Timothy, the pseudo-Paul attacks "liars . . . who forbid marriage." The first letter to Timothy also directly contradicts Paul's advice that virgins and widows should remain unwed: "I would have the younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us."

After Paul's death later editors or pseudonymous writers softened Mark and Paul, making the teachings of Jesus more palatable to Jews and to the world at large, preparing the way for Christians to be regarded as solid citizens and home-loving family folk in the conventional mode, with the paterfamilias unquestionably dominant.

Pearls in the Mud

   For most Gnostics, sexual indulgence was not so much a sin (a word not often found in Gnostic writings) as a distraction. We do not find in their texts the lists of prohibited acts and relationships characteristic of orthodox Judaism and Christianity and Islam. The sexual urge, so powerful an aspect of bodily this-worldliness, is the very archetype of "ignorance" and diverts the seeker from the search for gnosis. And it is one of the most potent devices invented by a wily creator-god to keep sparks of spirit in thrall. Procreation perpetuates the false god's rule, the continuation and extension of spiritual seeds' imprisonment in corporeal form.

At one level of thought, all Gnostics were antinomian (beyond the law, above the law, free of the law) in that they considered the norms prescribed by the demiurge or agents of cosmic powers to be a mark of the transitory worldly existence from which spirit sought escape. The demiurge's law was a restriction on the freedom which everyone must have to find the way back to ultimate reality.

Gnostic responses to the problem of sexuality tended to be extreme: complete abstinence, or complete license. Extreme austerity -- encratism -- was the more usual solution, at least in principle. For some sects, however, free indulgence of the sexual urge was not only permitted but commended.

One first-century Gnostic leader, if we are to believe the early Christian heresy-hunters, was the founder of a libertine sect. He was Simon Magus, mentioned in the canonical Acts of the Apostles as a fraudulent pretender to godship who bewitched the people of Samaria with sorceries. In elaboration of that mention, early Christian writers built fanciful accounts of his misdoings. The most elaborate story of his activity is a combined romance and religious tract falsely ascribed to Pope Clement I, purporting to recount Peter's missionary activity. This text, called Recognitions, was a work of the imagination, probably written in the third century, that was used by a Jewish-Christian sect hostile to the apostle Paul.

Simon, it was said, taught that the supreme being was androgynous, a male/female pair (Power and Thought) that was really one. He believed that a man's salvation is to be found in becoming like the godhead, by meeting one's twin soul and uniting with her. He claimed that he was the ultimate Power, but for completion he needed Thought as a consort. To that station, it was said by his enemies, he elevated a whore with whom he had fallen in love. He named her Helen, after Helen of Troy, and presented her as the embodiment of Thought.

According to early heresiologists, Simon Magus and his followers preached and practiced promiscuous intercourse, saying: "All the earth is earth, and it matters not where one sows, so long as one sows." What the world considered evil was of no concern to them. Having sanctified each other, they were redeemed and above the law.

Another sect accused of libertinism was the Ophites, or Naasenes, taking their name from the Greek or Hebrew words for snake. They adopted that slippery creature as the symbol for the Ultimate. (Lawrence Durrell, among other modern writers, found the Ophites fascinating. Some of his novels suggest that the cult of the snake can still be found in Egypt if one knows where to look.) For Ophites, water was the vivifying element, abetted by the fire of the sun. Both the Ultimate deity and its first earthly creation were masculo-feminine. A Naasene hymn invoked this divinity: "From thee a father, and through thee a mother, the two deathless names, parents of Aeons. O thou citizen of heaven, Man of great name!"

Identifying the Jewish Yahweh with the creator of this evil world, Ophites regarded the serpent with deepest reverence because he had imparted spiritual knowledge -- gnosis -- which the demiurge wanted to keep from his subject people. The serpent became the hero of the drama in Eden. The third-century heresiologist Hippolytus accused Naasenes of every kind of sexual misconduct.

Carpocrates was the founder of another libertine Gnostic sect that flourished in the middle of the second century. Irenaeus wrote that Carpocratians "reached such a pitch of madness" that they felt free to commit every sin. In their view the soul ought to experience everything in this world, including "actions such as it is not right for us to mention, or to hear, or even to have in mind."

Belief in transmigration of souls reinforced the duty to flout the commandments of the false god. Jesus had said, according to Luke, that "you shall not depart thence till you have paid the very last mite." Taking this as their text, Carpocratians taught that individual sparks of spirit would remain enslaved, in incarnation after incarnation, until their enveloping bodies had performed all forbidden acts. The faster souls got through the list of deeds proscribed by worldly powers, the sooner they would escape their rule. When they had "paid the last mite" their spirits would be free to return home.

How did the libertine sects arrive at an attitude toward sexuality so contrary to most religious precepts, and to the main stream of Gnosticism? One answer, according to Irenaeus, is found in the Gnostic belief (as he reported it) that, "as it is impossible for the earthly element to partake in salvation, . . . so it is impossible for the spiritual element . . . to suffer corruption, whatever actions [its possessor] may have indulged in." Gnostics of this persuasion, says the bishop of Lyons, were fond of saying that gold, or a pearl, dropped in the mud, is not thereby tainted; no acts the Elect perform can change their spiritual essence.

The writers of the Acts of Judas Thomas early in the third century clearly belonged to the ascetic wing of the Gnostic movement. An austere attitude toward sexuality and procreation survived longer among Christians in eastern Syria than those in the Mediterranean world. The followers of Thomas, like Valentinians, should seek the "true wedding" in a spiritual bridal chamber.

Click here for general information on this book, The Gnostic Apostle Thomas.

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Click here to go to Chapter 5.

Click here to go to notes on this chapter, Chapter 4.

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