THEOSOPHY, Vol. 24, No. 11, September, 1936
(Pages 481-490; Size: 26K)
(Number 6 of a 29-part series)

GREAT THEOSOPHISTS

THE GNOSTICS

IN the first century before the Christian era, a fresh impulse was given to the work of the Theosophical Movement by the Adept now known to the world as Jesus the Christ. In the following century Christianity had already separated into two broad divisions, represented on the one side by the followers of Peter, the orthodox Jew, and on the other side by the followers of Paul, the Gnostic "heretic." In the second century the division was still more marked. But now it was between the orthodox Church and the Movement within the Church known as Christian Gnosticism. On one side were ranged the Church Fathers who upheld the worship of a personal God and a personal Christ; on the other, the Gnostic Fathers, who stood for an Absolute Principle instead of a personal God, for the Christos-Principle in place of a personal Christ, for knowledge as opposed to faith.

In the second century began the fierce struggle between principles and personalities which lasted for over three hundred years. This battle assumed three distinct phases. In the second and third centuries the orthodox Church fought the "Heresies" (as the impersonal doctrines were called) by means of Refutations. In the fourth century the Church borrowed the ideas she had been so bitterly opposing, materialized them and metamorphosed them into her own rituals and dogmas. In the fifth century she destroyed all the records of her plagiarism that she could lay her hands on, and inaugurated a thousand years of mental and spiritual darkness from which the world has not yet recovered.

In trying to get a clear picture of second century Christianity, the same method will be pursued as was used in the preceding articles. No single historian will be taken as final authority, but a comparative study will be made of the writings of different historians, ancient and modern, leaving each student free to draw his own deductions.

According to the modern Catholic historian, the Reverend Father George Stebbing, the Church had already triumphed in the second century, although the records of this triumph are very vague. He points to the fact that there are cities in almost every country in Europe claiming an Apostolic origin, "but these claims rest upon a very insecure foundation." Seven Churches are supposed to have been founded in Asia, "but the names of those presiding in them have not come down to us." Although it seems positive that there were many Christians in Spain, Gaul, Germany and Italy, "there is little information that will bear criticism."

Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, is not quite as cautious as this modern Catholic historian. He claims that "there is not a people, whether Greek or barbarian, or any other race of men, among whom prayers are not offered up in the name of a crucified Christ to the Father and Creator of all things." The historian Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, calls Justin's statement a "splendid exaggeration," the rash sally of a devout but careless writer, the measure of whose belief was regulated by that of his desires. Gibbon calls attention to the now well-known historical fact that the inhabitants of Germany and Scythia were completely "pagan" at that time, and that the conversion of such countries as Spain, Armenia and Ethiopia was not attempted with any degree of success until the fourth century.

According to the irreproachable testimony of Origen, the number of Christians in the first two centuries was very inconsiderable. We know, at least, that their achievements made little impression upon the historians of the day. In the compilation of the Augustan Library, part of which was accomplished during the reign of Constantine in the fourth century, there are not six lines relating to the Christians. Plutarch, who spoke with unerring accuracy of every other spiritual and ethical movement, is absolutely silent upon the subject of Christianity. And Dion Cassius, who wrote the history of Rome in eighty volumes during the latter part of the second century, mentions neither Christians nor Christian Churches.

Why this strange silence on the part of historians? Was it because the Christians themselves belonged to the uneducated masses? Was it because of the attitude they assumed toward education and knowledge? According to the testimony of Minucius Felix, Celsus, and Julian, the Christian community was composed of "the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of beggars and slaves, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to which they belonged." Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, published an edict giving freedom to all slaves who would embrace Christianity, and promising a white robe and twenty pieces of gold to all Roman citizens who would profess the Christian faith. As a result of this edict, twenty thousand men, with a proportionate number of women and children, were baptized in the city of Rome alone. This method of procuring converts naturally added nothing to the dignity of the Christian religion, and may have had something to do with the silence of contemporary historians.

Another reason for their silence may be found in the Christian attitude toward knowledge. The adoption of the Christian religion depended then, as it depends now, upon the profession of faith. The pursuit of knowledge was condemned by the Church from the first, and those who professed knowledge were first denounced, then persecuted and finally burned at the stake. As early as the second century we find Tertullian, the Church Father, declaring that,

"Schoolmasters and professors of literature are in affinity with manifest idolatry and sin."
In the fourth century Eusebius complained against some of the more enlightened who continued their intellectual studies after their conversion to Christianity. He accused them of abandoning the rule of faith in favor of the "subtile precepts of logic," and declared that they were corrupting the simplicity of the Gospels by the refinements of reason.

Passing over the Middle Ages, where any man who professed knowledge was in danger of his life, and coming to the enlightened year of 1870, we find Pope Pius IX making this assertion:

"We therefore pronounce false every assertion which is contrary to the enlightened rule of faith. Moreover, the Church holds likewise from God the right and the duty to condemn knowledge falsely so-called, lest any man be cheated by philosophy and vain deceit."
This hostile attitude toward knowledge seems to have been confined entirely to the Christians. Before the days of the first Christian Emperor, we can search in vain for any enactment against the acquisition of knowledge, or for any persecution of those who possessed it. Every one was allowed intellectual freedom, and men like Galen, Lucian and Plotinus, who in the Middle Ages would have been burned at the stake, lived in perfect peace and security under the Roman standard, fully protected by the Roman law.

Perhaps it was this denunciation of knowledge and this criticism of those who possessed it which kept men like Seneca, the older and the younger Pliny, Tacitus, Plutarch, Dion Cassius, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius from evincing any interest in Christianity. For, as Gibbon says in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

"All these men overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system. Those among them who condescend to mention the Christians consider them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts, who exacted an implicit submission to their mysterious doctrines, without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning."
It must be remembered that this period of history was particularly brilliant. The Roman Empire of that day was filled with minds well-schooled in the philosophy of Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Zeno. The religious and philosophical systems of Egypt, Chaldea, Persia and India were known to many scholars. The work of Apollonius had greatly augmented the already existing interest in the philosophies of the Far Fast. Thousands of students were pouring out of the great Schools of Alexandria and Ephesus each year, and all of them were armed with knowledge.

How could men like these accept the idea that the Jews were the only nation to whom God had revealed Himself? Knowing the Scriptures of other nations, how could they acknowledge the Jewish Bible as the only revelation of God? Being fully acquainted with the lives of other great Teachers, how could they accept Jesus as the only one? But some of them could, and did, accept Jesus as the last of a long line of teachers. They recognized that his teachings were only repetitions of ancient ethical precepts, and that the legends surrounding his life were identical with those of his predecessors. Knowing that Truth is universal, and that expressions of Truth had appeared in different lands at different times, they took those universal truths, wove them into the Christian tradition, and presented them to the world as the true spirit of Christianity.

These men tried to show the philosophical basis of Jesus' teachings. They tried to prove that there is a science of the soul as well as a science of the body. They tried to present Christianity in a form which would appeal not only to the untutored mind, but at the same time give the greatest minds their fullest scope. These men were known by many names. The world today calls them the "Christian" Gnostics, but the Church of that day called them Heretics, and the whole history of the second and third centuries of Christianity revolves around the attempts of the Church to refute and destroy their teachings.

The original source from which the Gnostics drew their teachings is known as the Gnosis. The word means knowledge, and refers to the ancient Wisdom-Religion, the secret science of sciences from which all true systems of religion and philosophy have sprung. The Gnosis has always existed, and there have always been the knowers of it: the true Gnostics. These are the great Adepts of history, the Mahatmas, the spiritual Teachers of the race(1).

The true Gnosis was never written down, but was always passed orally from Teacher to pupil. The disciple obtained his knowledge through initiation into the Spiritual Mysteries, of which the ceremonial "Mysteries" were but a type. The teachings were presented to him in the form of symbols, and his knowledge of religion and philosophy depended upon his understanding of symbolism. With this understanding of the symbolical meaning of every religious tenet, no one calling himself a Gnostic was in any danger of accepting the dead-letter text of any religion -- Christian or otherwise.

The Christian Gnostics came into existence during the second century. They were the offshoots and products of the three great Gnostic Schools of that day, Schools which had been in existence for centuries, and which had an important part to play in the Christian religion. The first of these Schools, located in Alexandria, was one of those in which Jesus Himself had studied during his residence in Egypt. The second, the great School of Ephesus, may have been the one in which Paul obtained his initiation into the Gnosis. The third, also situated in Alexandria, was the one which most powerfully influenced the thought of two of the great Gnostic Fathers of the second century -- Basilides and Valentinus.

Just south of the city of Alexandria, perched high upon a lofty plateau overlooking the blue waters of Lake Mareotis, there had lived for centuries before the Christian era, a group of men and women who passed their lives in study and meditation. They were a branch of the Pythagorean Essenes, and were known as the Therapeutae. Philo Judaeus has written a lengthy description of them in his essay, On the Contemplative Life. He says:

"These Essenes are called Therapeutae, either because they profess the art of healing superior to that in use in cities (for that only heals bodies, whereas the latter heals our souls as well), or else because they have been schooled by the sacred laws to serve that which is better than the Good, purer than the One and more ancient than the Monad(2)."
A distinction must be made, however, between the Essenes and the Therapeutae. For the former were particularly concerned with the practical side of life, while the latter gave themselves over to a life of contemplation and concerned themselves only with the higher problems of religion and philosophy. Another difference between them is found in the fact that the Essenes often adopted their novices as young boys, while the Therapeutae were composed entirely of men and women who had passed the prime of life, and were ready to withdraw from the world. The Therapeutae, however, must not be considered as a "sect" of the Essenes. They were a School of Esotericists, an inner group within Alexandrian Judaism, as their doctrines plainly show.

The dwellings they occupied were very simple, merely providing shelter against heat and cold. But within every dwelling there was an inner sanctuary where they spent their days in meditation and study. The manuscripts they studied were those which had been left to them by the Initiates who at different times had been the heads of their School. As Philo Judaeus says:

"They have the works of ancient authors who were once heads of their School. Taking these as patterns, they imitate the practice of their predecessors."
These works were not read literally, but allegorically; for the Therapeutae knew that all spiritual teachings are written in symbols and that, as Carlyle expresses it,
"A symbol is ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the God-like."
For six days in the week they studied and meditated, each in his own dwelling. But on the seventh day they all came together in a general assembly, each taking his place according to his length of membership in the community. There they listened silently to an address from "the oldest and most experienced in their doctrines." The observance of the seventh day is an ancient and sacred custom, as H.P.B. points out:
"On this day of the seventh and most powerful of the prismatic days, the adepts of the 'Secret Science' meet as they met thousands of years ago, to become the agents of the occult powers of nature and commune with the invisible world." Isis Unveiled II:419.
Being Pythagoreans, the Therapeutae were well aware of the occult significance of the number seven and observed it, not only on the seventh day, but also in the seventh week. As Philo says:
"They not only come together every seventh day, but also at the end of the seventh week, for they reverence not only the period of seven days, but also the square of seven, since they know that the seven is pure and ever-virgin."
The similarity, or rather identity, between the Essenes and the Christian Gnostics is an undisputed fact, and is admitted by many early Christian writers. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, writing in the second century, says:
"They who believe on Christ were called Iessaei (or Essenes) before they were called Christians. These derived their constitution from the significance of the name Iesus (Jesus), which in Hebrew signifies the same as Therapeutae, that is, saviour or physician."
In this same century, Eusebius of Caesarea, the "father of ecclesiastical history," came across the treatise of Philo Judaeus, On the Contemplative Life, which gave an obviously trustworthy account of a group of men and women who had divested themselves of all worldly possessions and lived a life of austerity and contemplation. Eusebius promptly seized upon Philo's story and declared it to be a description of the first Christian Church in Alexandria. He says:
"The ancient Therapeutae were Christians, and their ancient writings were Gospels and Epistles."
Had these early Church Fathers been better students of history, they would have known that the ancient writings of the Therapeutae were not the Christian Gospels and Epistles but, on the contrary, that the Christian Gospels and Epistles were copied from these more ancient works. A study of the Essene doctrines shows the source of many statements found in the New Testament.

The Essenes urged their disciples to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." They exhorted their followers not to lay up treasures upon earth, but to go and sell all that they possessed, and give the money to the poor. They commended those who thirst after righteousness, and laid great stress upon humility of spirit. "Blessed are the pure in heart, the peacemaker and the merciful," they said. When they started out on a journey, they provided themselves with neither gold nor silver, but relied upon hospitality, as do the Buddhist monks today. They swore not at all, but made their communications consist of "Yea, yea; Nay, nay." Their aim was to lead such a life of purity that their bodies would become fitting Temples for the God within.

All of these statements, which today are considered as the original teachings of Jesus, were borrowed from the ancient writings of the Essenes. There was one thing, however, which the Church failed to borrow. That was the observance of the seventh day, which was such a strict ritual with the Therapeutae, but which was not considered as a matter of great importance by the early Christians. When Justin Martyr was reproached by the Jew Trypho for the laxity of the Christians in this matter, Justin replied:

"There was no need for the observance of the Sabbath before Moses, neither is there now any need of it after Jesus Christ."
The Jewish converts to Christianity continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) for many centuries. The Gentile Christians preferred to observe Sunday because, as Justin Martyr told them,
"It is the day on which God created the world; and Jesus Christ on the same day arose from the dead."
But in the fourth century, after the first Christian Emperor had ascended the throne, the pagan tradition entered the Church, and Sunday was formally adopted by the Christians as their Holy Day. Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, had belonged to some solar cult. On his coins the words appear: "To the Invincible Sun, my companion and guardian." After his conversion to Christianity he brought his "companion and guardian" into the Church, and decreed that "the venerable day of the Sun should be set aside for the worship of Jesus Christ as Sun-day."

The Christians evidently made no objection to this pagan decree, for Eusebius, writing in the same century, says:

"On this day, which is the first of the Light and the True Sun, we assemble after an interval of six days, and celebrate Holy and Spiritual Sabbath. All things which it was our duty to do on the Sabbath, these have we transferred to the Lord's Day."
The enforced observance of the Sabbath, however, dates only from the year 1678, when Charles II. prohibited "any tradesman, artificer, workman, laborer, or other person to do any exercise on the Lord's Day."

The second great Gnostic School of the second century was located in the city of Ephesus in Syria. It concerned itself mainly with what is now known as the second object of the Theosophical Society: the comparative study of religion and philosophy. In this School the philosophies of ancient India, Chaldea and Persia were taught side by side with those of Plato and Pythagoras, and the teachings of the Buddha were compared with those of the Jewish Kabalists. In the preceding century Apollonius of Tyana had established his own esoteric School in this city, adding its strength to the exoteric work of the College.

The great College of Ephesus was a focus of the universal secret doctrines, and it was from this School that spread much of the Gnosis which clashed so fiercely with the orthodox Church. The men who came out of this School were equipped with knowledge, and therefore were considered as deadly enemies by those who were attempting to rear their religious structure on the foundation of faith.

The third Gnostic group which exerted a powerful influence upon budding Christianity was the sect known as the Ophites, or the Brotherhood of the Serpent. The symbol of the Serpent is an ancient and a sacred one. All through the literature of the past are found records of the veneration in which this symbol was held. Every Scripture of antiquity tells the same story, the visible proof of its universality being found in the serpentine monuments scattered over the face of the globe. The meaning of the Serpent-symbol was threefold: it represented, first, Supreme Wisdom; second, those Perfected Men who are the embodiments of Wisdom; third, the Christos-principle within each man himself: the divine Ego made one with Buddhi(3).

Many statements in the New Testament show the influence of the Ophite system. For instance: "As Moses lifted up the Serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up." Translating these words according to their symbolical meaning, the sentence would read: "As Moses lifted up Supreme Wisdom in the wilderness of false beliefs, so must the Christos-principle be lifted up to the place of Supreme Ruler if man is to fulfil his real destiny." And again: "Be ye therefore wise as Serpents (the Mahatmas) and as harmless as doves." (The dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit among all nations of antiquity.)

The Ophite system was introduced into Christianity by the Gnostic Fathers, Basilides and Valentinus. But it was soon stamped out, and the Serpent, which in the early days represented the highest Wisdom and the flower of civilization, finally became the symbol of the Devil, or personified evil. When the Gnostics were excommunicated, persecuted and driven out of their native land, they took the esoteric philosophy of the Ophites with them, and it finally became the property of the Druzes of Mount Lebanon.

During the early centuries of the Christian era, the persecuted Gnostics built a monastery in the Syrian hills, which was used by them as a place of refuge. The ruins of this old monastery still stand. But the traveller who visits the remains of this once grand edifice seldom realizes that underneath the crumbling walls there are subterranean chapels, halls and cells which cover an area of ground far greater than that occupied by the building above. According to the testimony of one who has seen them, the beauty of the ancient sculptures, the richness of ornamentation and the magnificence of the gold and silver vessels in this sacred resort are like a "dream of glory." On certain stated occasions, a group of Druzes, consisting of the elders and the initiates of the two highest degrees, make a pilgrimage to this spot. And there, within these subterranean halls, a ceremony takes place. Not a sound, not a glimmer of light betrays to the outside world what is going on within the bosom of the earth. But there, nevertheless, is being enacted one of the ancient Mysteries, and there, among the Druzes of Mount Lebanon, is found one of the last surviving relics of the archaic Wisdom-Religion.


Next article:
Great Theosophists
Gnostic Theosophy


THREE (3) FOOTNOTES LISTED BELOW:

COMPILER'S NOTE: I added these footnotes; they were not in the article. If any of them don't paint an accurate enough picture, or are incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot them and point the inaccuracies out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.

(1) "Race" means the whole Human Race here.
Back to text.

(2) "Monad" is the Unity, the One; when referred to Man, or ourselves, it is the changeless Perceiver. All of this emanates out of the Absolute: the unknown and attributeless ALL.
Back to text.

(3) "Buddhi" means Intuition (or Spiritual Soul).
Back to text.



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