by ☩ Stephan A. Hoeller
Regionary Bishop, Ecclesia Gnostica
It is a time honored practice of sacramental Christendom to make available to its communicants selected passages of sacred scripture, marshalled in accordance with the holidays and seasons of the Church Year. The Roman Missal as well as the Roman Breviary (especially in their pre-Vatican II form) are eminent and admirable examples of such selections. While the Protestant emphasis on a non-selective reading of scripture has robbed some of Christendom of the use of Lectionaries (as such selections are often called) such books retain their value to this day. The Gnostic Church possesses a unique lectionary in the English language which is enjoying an increasing popularity. It is known officially mainly by its descriptive title: The Collects, Lessons and Gospels to be used throughout the Church Year and was issued under the authority of the bishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica in America in 1974.
The Gnostic Church [Ecclesia Gnostica] is a Christian church and considers itself as a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Ecclesia founded by the Logos and His apostles. In view of this, it is evident that the canonical Christian scriptures would be well represented in its Lectionary. The availability of a fairly large number of Gnostic scriptures in our days makes it possible as well as desirable, however, that scriptures of the specifically Gnostic corpus should be included in fair numbers. In addition to the canonical Christian and the Gnostic scriptures, it seemed also desirable to include a certain number of gnostically related writings, such as the Hermetic, the Mandaean and the Cathar scriptures as well as the Chaldean Oracles. The Lectionary is not of a universalistic character and thus it does not include writings from traditions other than the Christian Gnostic, although the closest relatives of this tradition, i.e. the Manichaean, Mandaean and Hermetic documents are represented also. Contemporary scholarship recognizes that Hermeticism with its texts, such as the Corpus Hermeticum, the Poimandres, and others, is but a non-Christian variant of Gnosticism, as is the Mandaean religion. Manichaeanism is in fact more Christian than the former two schools of thought. The Prophet Mani considered himself a spiritual apostle of Jesus Christ, and the Manichaeans used several known Christian scriptures, such as the Gospel According to Thomas. There exists sufficient justification therefore, for the inclusion of all of these variants of the Gnostic tradition.
The various Sundays and Holidays of the Church Year have ascribed to them special intentions. The collects, lessons (sometimes known as epistles in other lectionaries and liturgies) and gospels have been carefully selected so as to express, as far as possible, the intentions of the Sundays and Holidays. Of the collects, 24 are taken from Manichaean sources. (A collect is a prayer manifesting a central keynote or point.) The break-down of the sources of the lessons is as follows: Manichaean: 14; Pistis Sophia: 3; other Pre-Nag Hammadi scriptures: 14; Hermetic Writings: 4; Mandaean Scriptures: 3; Cathar Scriptures: 1; Chaldean Oracles: 3; other miscellaneous Gnostic sources: 4; Canonical Scriptures (both Old and New Testament): 39. The gospels in the Lectionary are taken from the following scriptures: Manichaean: 1; Pistis Sophia: 3; other Pre-Nag Hammadi scriptures: 4; Gospel According to Thomas: 18; Gospel of Truth: 7; Gospel of Phillip: 19; Hermetic Writings: 2; Cathar Scriptures: 2; Canonical Scriptures (both Old and New Testament): 31. The Lectionary comprises 185 pages, including seven pages of occasional collects to be used at the discretion of clergy either within or outside of the context of the Eucharist.
Scriptures for Private Study
Gnostic clergy and communicants ought to be particularly aware of what may be called the primary sources of Gnostic teachings. A primary source is a scripture that comes to us directly from the ancient Gnostics themselves. Among these primary sources we find, first the Nag Hammadi Library, and second, the codices and treatises whose discovery precedes the Nag Hammadi find. The latter are: the Askew, Bruce and Berlin Codices, the Acts of Thomas, Acts of John, and a few others. Less reliable because of their anti-Gnostic bias, and no longer qualifying as primary sources, are the references and quotations of Gnostic content in the writings of certain Church Fathers, Epiphanius, Irenaeus and others, who, for the most part, acted as polemicists against the Gnostic teachers of the early Christian centuries. Although certainly biased and often distorted, the information in these sources is still often quite informative.
To address ourselves first to the most important primary source, we must turn now to the Nag Hammadi Library of Gnostic writings. There are six separate major categories of writings, when they are analyzed according to subject matter. They are as follows:
- Writings of creative and redemptive mythology, including Gnostic alternative versions of creation and salvation. These are: The Apocryphon of John (two versions); The Hypostasis of the Archons; On the Origin of the World; The Apocalypse of Adam; The Paraphrase of Shem.
- Observations and commentaries on diverse Gnostic themes, such as the nature of reality, the nature of the soul, the relationship of the soul to the world: The Gospel of Truth; The Treatise on the Resurrection; The Tripartite Tractate; The Tractate of Eugnostos the Blessed (two versions); The Second Treatise of the Great Seth; The Teachings of Sylvanus; The Testimony of Truth.
- Liturgical and initiatory texts. (These may be of special interest to persons of sacramental and initiatic interests): The Treatise on the Eighth and Ninth; The Prayer of Thanksgiving; The Valentinian Exposition; The Three Steles of Seth; The Prayer of the Apostle Paul. (The Gospel of Phillip, listed under category 6, does in part have great relevance to this category also, for it is in effect a treatise on Gnostic sacramental theology).
- Writings dealing primarily with the feminine deific and spiritual principle, particularly with the Divine Sophia: The Thunder: Perfect Mind; The Thought of Norea; The Sophia of Jesus Christ; The Exegesis of the Soul.
- Writings pertaining to the lives and experiences of some of the apostles: The Apocalypse of Peter; The Letter of Peter to Phillip; The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles; The First and Second Apocalypses of James; The Apocalypse of Paul.
- Last but certainly not least, the scriptures which contain sayings of Jesus as well as descriptions of incidents in His life: The Dialogue of the Saviour; The Book of Thomas the Contender; The Apocalypse of James; The Gospel of Phillip; The Gospel According to Thomas.
This leaves a small number of scriptures of the Nag Hammadi Library which may be called “unclassifiable.” It also must be kept in mind that the passage of time and translation into languages very different from the original have rendered many of these scriptures abstruse in style. Some of them are difficult reading, especially to those not familiar with Gnostic imagery, nomenclature and the like. Lacunae are also present in some of these scriptures. The most readily comprehensible of the Nag Hammadi scriptures is undoubtedly The Gospel According to Thomas, with The Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Truth as close seconds in order of easy comprehension. There are various translations of most of these scriptures available; the most complete being the one volume collection The Nag Hammadi Library in English, (edited by J. Robinson) which is readily available.
The Gnostic writings, whose discovery precedes that of the Nag Hammadi Library have been in large part accurately and sympathetically translated by the late scholarly Theosophist, G.R.S. Mead, in such works as Pistis Sophia, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, and his series of smaller books, entitled Echoes from the Gnosis. Mead’s works have been reprinted in recent, albeit probably small, editions. There is also an excellent selection of Gnostic writings of the pre Nag Hammadi variety, entitled The Gospel of the Gnostics, edited by another outstanding scholar and Theosophist, Duncan Greenlees. The same scholar has also edited and published a very fine selection of Manichaean writings under the title, The Gospel of the Prophet Mani. Both of these fine books are out of print, but may be obtained in Libraries of the Theosophical Society for study.
Nearly twenty years have elapsed since the complete translations of the Nag Hammadi Library was completed and published. The exegetical literature based on these writings is slowly growing. Curiously enough, one of the most useful books of this sort is still one which was published very soon after the Nag Hammadi Library: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Some other useful authors in this field are: Bentley Layton, Giovanni Filoramo, Simone Petrement, Dan Merkur, Marvin Meyer and Ioan Couliano. An increasing number of books employing the name “Gnostic” in their titles are being sold. The usefulness and authenticity of such literature need to be evaluated and judged by individual students on a case by case basis.
It is important to remember that later varieties and recensions of Gnostic teachings are present in virtually all transmissions of the Occult tradition in the West. Some of these later variations resemble the original model more closely than others. Clergy, members and other persons interested in the Gnostic Church often possess Martinist, Masonic, Rosicrucian, Theosophical and similar affiliations and dedications. All of these schools of thought, whether they acknowledge it or not, are related not only to each other, but by way of historical and mystical descent also to the matrix of ancient Gnosticism. (Certainly some of the leading figures of these movements have acknowledged their relationship to Gnosticism, as H.P. Blavatsky’s numerous writings on the Gnostics exemplify.)
Whatever the other interests and dedications of all of us may be, we are Gnostics. We are Gnostics moreover, not only in the sense of pursuing, or possessing a quality of consciousness that might be called Gnosis, but we are members of a specific tradition. This tradition, the Gnostic tradition, is the one represented by the Gnostic Church. It may be true that the non Gnostic branches of Christendom have or claim a certain kind of Gnosis, which they may call at times “Apostolic” or by any other name. Aspects of the Gnosis have passed into many hands over the centuries. Yet, we must not be satisfied with that which is in part, for we are heirs of the fullness, the Pleroma itself. And this is the principal reason for our interest in and dedication to the Gnostic Scriptures. These scriptures are one of our chief links with our origins. (The other links are the seven mysteries, or Sacraments and the arcane, oral tradition). It is by way of these scriptures that we may in large measure join ourselves consciously with the Fathers of the Gnosis, great sages like Valentinus, Basilides and their company. It is also thus, that through them, we are joined to the Holy Apostles and through them to their and our Master, Jesus Christ, the most precious flower of the Pleroma, the Logos, the Pansother, the fountainhead of all true Gnosis.