Detail from “Sermon on the Mount” by Fra Angelico (1442)

As Christians, the Gnostics placed the myth of Jesus’s journey to earth to bring salvation to mankind at the center of their teachings and religious life. But the Gnostics understood the myth of Jesus somewhat differently than other early Christians did. And they held that the full meaning of Christ’s life and teachings were only discernible when seen in the light of their other main myth: a radical interpretation of the creation myth in the first chapters of Genesis. Both of the two main pillars of Gnostic myth – the story of creation and the story of Jesus’s earthly sojourn – allude to and reinforce one another. They form two parts of a single, sweeping narrative arc.

If you just want to read the story that separated the Gnostics from other early Christians and skip the discussion and analysis below, here’s that story:

The Gnostic Creation Myth

And here are the articles on the “cast of characters” who play prominent roles in that story:

Jesus Christ in Gnosticism
God the Father in Gnosticism
The Demiurge
Archons
Sophia
Barbelo
The Pleroma and the Aeons

To make sure that we’re on the same page regarding what we’re talking about here, let’s go ahead and establish a working definition of the word “myth” itself before going on to examine the Gnostics’ particular myths. I have in mind three definitions of myth that are all rather slight variations on a common theme.

The first is the definition proposed by Ismo Dunderberg: “sacred history. In other words, myths are defined as tales that belong to the foundational story of a given group of people.”[1] The second definition comes from Gerd Theissen: myths recount “in narrative form what fundamentally determines the world and life.”[2] And the third is that of Lawrence J. Hatab: “A myth is a narrative which discloses a sacred world.”[3]

So when we talk about “myth” in this context, we’re talking about grand, foundational, sacred stories, not something necessarily made-up, spurious, or false. (And calling the gospel story and the Genesis creation story “myths” is in no way an insult, but rather a compliment.)

The Valentinian Gnostic teacher Theodotus wrote, “It is not, however, the bath [baptism] alone that makes free, but knowledge [gnosis] too: who we were, what we have become, where we were, where we have come to be placed, where we are tending, what birth is, and what rebirth.”[4] The Gnostic myths were intended to impart such knowledge to their listeners and readers, at least to the degree possible through words. The full realization of gnosis was only possible through firsthand mystical experience, but the myths were there to at least point people in the right direction.

Like Christian mythology more generally, the Gnostic myths presuppose, and occur against the backdrop of, a linear view of time. Everything began at a particular moment in the past, and everything will end at a particular moment in the future. The Gnostics, like other Christians, saw themselves as living in the middle. History for them was punctuated by dramatic episodes of divine intervention, especially creation and Christ’s life on earth, which determined the basic condition of everything that happened after them.[5]

There was never a single, completely uniform Gnostic mythology. Just like the books that would later be included in the New Testament – something that didn’t exist in anything like an official capacity until after the heyday of Gnosticism – the Gnostic texts differ from one another in many of their particulars, including some of the elements of their shared myths. So, for example, the Secret Book of John has Christ offer Adam and Eve the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which turns out to be gnosis – salvation itself.[6] The Gospel of Philip, by contrast, casts the tree as the Law of the Old Testament, which “can give knowledge of good and evil, but it neither freed Adam from evil nor made him good, and it brought death to those who ate of it.”[7] Both of these takes on the tree in Eden shared the Gnostic – and, more broadly, early Christian – “desire to limit the value of the Old Testament within a religion that nevertheless preserves it,”[8] as Simone Pétrement put it, but they went about that in different ways.

In What Sense Did the Gnostics Believe in Their Myths?

It should go without saying that the Gnostics believed in their myths. But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that they took them to be literal accounts of events that happened in the past? Or does it mean that they saw them as being figuratively true as allegories for deep philosophical and spiritual insights? Or something else?

We can speak with a comfortable degree of certainty about the view of Valentinus, the founder of the “Valentinians,” one of the two early Christian sects that can be considered “Gnostic.” For Valentinus, myths, including Christian myths, were allegories or metaphors for spiritual truths that can only be put into words in such a roundabout way. Furthermore, Valentinus saw that recognition as essential to understanding myths. Otherwise, if one took them literally, it could lead to grievous spiritual and moral mistakes.[9] Presumably, some or all of his followers would have shared his outlook, but we can’t know for sure.

The perspective of the classic Gnostics – the original group of Gnostics – on this question is much more ambiguous.

On the one hand, the classic Gnostics’ immediate intellectual environment was steeped in a Greco-Roman tradition that saw myths in much the same way Valentinus did. Plato, who was a tremendous inspiration not only for the classic Gnostics but for early Christians in general, had believed that myths were valuable as a means of articulating philosophy through allegory. Myth was inherently inferior to philosophy as a way of describing truth, and myths that didn’t place the narrative in the service of a valid philosophical message were just silly and ultimately worthless stories. But the narrative form could serve a valid purpose when used by a philosopher as a conscious artistic tool. Such “philosophical myths” could illustrate the truth for those who weren’t inclined toward, or weren’t capable of pursuing, serious philosophical methods.[10] They could affect the reader at a level other than the purely rational one and involve the reader’s nonrational faculties in the ideas. That often made for more effective persuasion, especially when the author or speaker intended to create changes in the reader’s or listener’s behavior.[11] And myth was frequently the most fitting medium for expressing ideas that are inherently difficult or impossible to express directly, such as notions about the divine and the nature of ultimately reality in general.[12] Plato illustrated this view of myth in action in his Timaeus, a work whose creation myth powerfully influenced the classic Gnostics’ own creation myth.

The classic Gnostics were probably also influenced by Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jewish thinker whose treatise On the Creation of the World sought to harmonize the Timaeus with Genesis – a task the classic Gnostics themselves would soon undertake in their own way – and to interpret the Genesis creation myth as a philosophical myth.[13][14][15]

Furthermore, in Bentley Layton’s words, “Gnostic myth is the literary creation of theological poets… and not the spontaneous product of a tribe or culture.”[16]

Thus, it’s certainly plausible that the classic Gnostics intended their myths to be at least partly “philosophical myths” in the Platonist sense.

On the other hand, however, the classic Gnostics also drew heavily from Jewish tradition and the nascent Christian tradition. And both the Jewish and Christian traditions had a view of myth that was utterly at odds with the Platonist view. Jewish and Christian sacred literature consisted of myths that were believed to be literally true or at least something closer to literal truth than merely allegorical truth. The stories were authoritative in and of themselves, not just the ideas they expressed. As Dylan Burns has aptly put it,

This narrative structure is not, as for the Neoplatonists, a scrambled reflection or image, expressed in temporal terms per the needs of temporally bounded language, which can be decoded to represent eternal truths. Instead, it is a bald assertion of the literal authority of the text and its contents, which have been expressed perfectly clearly at a particular moment in time, that is, the reception of revelation from a heavenly being.[17]

Celsus, Porphyry, and other pagan philosophers and polemicists lambasted Jewish and Christian myths and scriptures as “literal fictions” – fabrications meant to be read literally rather than allegorically, and which were, by pagan standards, barbarous and impious to boot.[18] Of course, since the Christian Valentinus thought of Christian myths allegorically, it’s clear that there were Christians who saw their myths in a more Platonist light. The same could apply to the classic Gnostics.

But the Platonist philosopher Plotinus, who had considerable familiarity with the classic Gnostics since some were counted among his students, lobbed the same charge at the classic Gnostics that Celsus and others had made against Christians more generally.[19] Was Plotinus correct that the classic Gnostics intended their myths to be read as literal accounts of past events? It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to say for sure. As we’ve seen, one can readily argue both sides.

What we can say for sure, however, is that the classic Gnostics’ myths certainly were intended to convey serious philosophical, theological, existential, and spiritual insights, irrespective of how literal or allegorical the stories themselves were supposed to be taken. The creation myth of the Secret Book of John is told by Jesus in response to John’s urgent questions:

Why was he [Jesus] sent into the world by his Father?
Who is his Father who sent him?
To what kind of eternal realm shall we go?[20]

Similarly, the Reality of the Archons is presented in the form of a letter intended to answer questions about the nature of the shadowy supernatural rulers (“archons”) who are mentioned in Colossians 1:13 and Ephesians 6:12. The stated aim of the Apocalypse of Adam is to grant its reader “knowledge of eternal God.” And in the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, Jesus regales his disciples with esoteric lore in response to Philip’s desire to understand “the underlying reality of the universe and the plan.”[21]

So the Gnostic myths certainly did illustrate the Gnostic worldview “in action” through paradigmatic stories, regardless of whether or not those stories were believed to be literally true in their own right.

References:

[1] Dunderberg, Ismo. 2008. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. Columbia University Press. p. 26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hatab, Lawrence J. 1990. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths. Open Court.

[4] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Brill. p. 136.

[5] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press.

[6] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 127.

[7] Scopello, Madeleine, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Gospel of Philip.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 178.

[8] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 31.

[9] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 37.

[10] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 63.

[11] Ibid. p. 66.

[12] Markschies, Christoph. 2003. Gnosis: An Introduction. Translated by John Bowden. T & T Clark. p. 85-86.

[13] Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures. Yale University Press. p. 16.

[14] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 91-92.

[15] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 65.

[16] Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures. Yale University Press. p. 12.

[17] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 70.

[18] Ibid. p. 74.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 107.

[21] Dunderberg, Ismo. 2008. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. Columbia University Press. p. 28-29.