I recently had the honor of being interviewed by my favorite podcaster, Miguel Conner on his Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio podcast (interview should be out sometime in February!). Author and owner of The Aeon Eye website, Alex Rivera, (who I frequently read) also joined, and we all geeked out on early Christian heresy. Miguel’s show engineer, Vance also contributed.
Despite my own nerves during the interview, we managed to have a productive conversation about a variety of topics which I’ve written about in the past, and touched on Mithraism, the Cathars, and a few other associated topics.
We covered a broad range of topics which centered around my theory on the development of early Christianity. One of the topics I did not articulate as well as I would have liked centered around Gnosticism, and in particular how Gnosticism emerged out of Paul’s letters and Mark’s Gospel. I’ve written about Mark’s Gnosticism in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Is The Gospel of Mark Gnostic?”, but there are details in this topic which I thought deserve articulation, and which I struggled to articulate in the interview.
In this post, I will offer a supplement to the Aeon Byte interview, give my take on Gnosticism, and attempt to describe the bridge between Gnosticism and earlier Christian iterations in the context of Paul’s letters and Mark’s Gospel.
Gnosticism generally refers to a secret knowledge which is necessary in order to attain salvation, or some other outcome which was to the benefit of the non-material soul or spirit. This implies a connection between God and the soul, and usually includes an intermediate power preventing this connection. It also means that a clear dichotomy existed between the material world and non-material soul.
Gnosticism is a wide term, and can (and did) come in many versions. The general picture we have of early Christian Gnosticism is that it had a reverence for the divine feminine, Sophia, as a way to return to the most high God and his high heaven. Sophia’s story had many attributes. In most versions, Sophia’s attempt at wisdom constituted the first rebellion, and caused an eruption in the most high heaven, giving rise to the creator of the Earth, Yaldabaoth (Yahweh). Sophia also served as the way out of Adam and Eve’s false paradise (described in Genesis) and the real divine place. An interesting, and almost certainly non-accidental coincidence is that Mariamne (the long form of Mary) means rebel.
Sophia served as humanity’s link between this world and the realm above. In a sense, Sophia’s imperfection was a metaphor for our own.
An implication in this story is that the material world is ruled by creators who were hostile to humanity or sought to exploit or undermine material beings. To many Gnostics and heretics who espoused similar views (including Marcion), the malevolence of the world’s rulers is detectable in the Old Testament with a God who flooded the earth and drowned everyone. Of course, one need not look far in the Old Testament to detect other hostility towards humans.
The injection of the Demiurge (creator) into the creation story provides a better response to the world’s evils than the day’s Orthodox Judaism did.
The earliest version of Christianity, for the moment excluding Pauline Christianity, produced a Gospel something like Mark. This Christianity was adoptionistic, which presumed that Jesus was ordinary, but received a special collection of powers and a communication mechanism with God after his baptism. This Christianity alluded to deeper mysteries which were probably quite Gnostic looking – the special communication the Christ encapsulator had with God rendered outcomes and worldviews that were inconsistent with surrounding Jewish Orthodoxy; indeed, that was the most recurring theme of the Gospel. I believe that this earlier version probably included mysteries which were similar to the story found in Revelation, where a divine woman, whose spirit underlies the earliest Jewish temple, gives birth to the Davidic messiah. The woman was replaced on earth by a female impostor who represented the replacement temple. One gripe among these early Christians was that this replacement temple’s construction was ushered in by Babylonians, and was subsequently controlled by those who would eventually surrender its control to Pagans, Rome, and economic hedonism (as represented by the money changers, etc). Based on the contents of Revelation, I presume this version of Christianity sought the return of an archaic version of Judaism which described tiers of power in heaven, and which included the divine mother and anointed son, Asherah and Ba’al, who were more interactive on Earth than the most high, El, was. This older version of Judaism also had a royal priesthood which modeled itself after Melchizadek, rather than Aaron.
An Early Splinter
This earliest Christianity would have then splintered off into a break between the Ebionites, Cerinthians, and Paulinists. From the Ebionites emerged various Nazarene iterations. The Cerinthians were roughly synonymous with the Petrines, and similar to the Basilideans. The Paulinists produced the Marcionites, Johannines, Carpocratians, and Valentinians. There were also groups which did not fit into these broad categories, and subsequently evolved into the Mandaeans, Manicheans, and other groups which survived for some time in the East, from the Arabian Peninsula and into Asia.
Ba’al Correlates To Jesus
One piece of support for this presumption of a link between the Gospel of Mark and a concern for the son, Ba’al is found in Mark 3:22-23
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul [another name for Ba’al]! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come
Notice Jesus’s strange reply in the above passage. “How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus spoke in parables, which alerts the reader that an encryption will follow. Jesus’s response is hardly an explicit rejection of the teachers’ accusation. There is also no explicit allowance of Ba’al’s equivalence to Satan. Jesus is performing spin, and the hidden meaning would have been revealed for deeper initiates in the Christian mystery. Jesus is speaking in a completely different paradigm than his accusers; indeed, Jesus was possessed by a Spirit, and that’s spirit’s root included Ba’al, the Spirit which served as the other half of the feminine spirit. Jesus also alludes to something quite interesting here: “If Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand.” In other words, Jesus foreshadows a trick he will pull that will force Satan to oppose himself, and thus divide himself.
How would Jesus pull this trick to cause Satan to oppose and divide himself? Because the Christ Spirit leaves Jesus prior to his crucifixion, the body is rendered an innocent byproduct of the Spirit which compelled Jesus’s earlier behavior. This caused the rulers to kill an innocent man, which, in conjunction with the Spirit’s escape, catalyzes those rulers’ downfall, or otherwise open up the Christ spirit to propagate and undo the archons’ death grip on humanity. The Roman rulers on Earth are simply a metaphor for the rulers who live in celestial realms.
This explains why Jesus refuses the gall-infused wine on the cross: he was not near enough to death to take on the sin of imbibing. It also explains why Jesus doesn’t seem to refuse the wine vinegar in Mark 15:36 – the crucifixion was done, and the crime against the innocent man was complete. It also seems to be the case that the Spirit had already left Jesus. Jesus then died, and the Babylonian curtain in the temple which prohibited access to the Holy of Holies from anyone except the high priest was torn.
An Alternative Trick
There are various traditions, including the Gospel of Barnabas, which have Judas Iscariot receiving this spirit, as opposed to Simon of Cyrene. In this case, the division of Satan which Jesus alludes to in Mark 3:23 would occur because Judas encapsulates the Spirits of both Satan and the Christ.
Early Christianity probably had a spectrum, in terms of hostility to Moses and the Aaronic priesthood. The more hostile these renegade Jewish Christians were to the Orthodoxy, the more likely they were to refer to themselves as the Nasar, which Revelation 12:17 says were the brothers and sisters of the messiah. The Nasar were the children of the Queen of Heaven, who in later versions became Sophia.
On the other side of the spectrum, at least according to Acts of the Apostles 21:20, were Jewish Christians who resembled Zealots in consequential ways. In my theory, the existence of these Jamesian Christians, coupled with the chronology (in terms of authorship) of the Gospels and other Christian texts suggest that this Christianity did not originate in Judea! This is roughly consistent with Paul’s description in Galatians 2, which said that Cephas’s eating habits were on the up-and-up until men from James injected themselves and corrupted Cephas’ worldview. It also coincides with Paul’s claim in 1 Corin 15:5-8, which said Cephas’s revelation from Christ preceded James’.
Mark 1:24 alludes to a mystery underlying its adoptionistic theme. In this passage, Jesus heals a leper, and then tell him to go out and give regular lip service about Moses to the priest. The contrast Jesus drew was to say that reverence to Moses was now superfluous – there was a new sheriff in town, and he rendered Mosaic law, along with associated formalities, such as the Aaronic priesthood, moot. Like Jesus’s treatment of Ba’al in Mark 3, the entire framework of Jesus’s ministry revolved around secrecy and contrast to Jewish Orthodoxy, and his intended meaning was obfuscated by clever phrasings.
Moses And The Deuteronomic Reform
My speculation is that the closer to Jerusalem the sect was, the less hostile to Moses the group was – these groups became the Ebionites and later Nazarenes. Other groups specifically rejected a rewrite of the Torah which occurred after the King Josiah’s Deuteronomic Reform (C 630BCE), during the 2nd temple era. In my estimation, the Nasar advocated the return of the Melchizadekian priesthood which was present in the first Jewish temple, and was deprecated after King Josiah’s purge of the Queen and Ba’al. According to Epiphanius of Salamis, the Nasar also rejected the Pentateuch, the core of Moses’s writings. In his “Medicine Chest”, Epiphanius wrote that the Nasar believed they had the true writings of Moses; my speculation is that such writings remembered a Judaism much more concerned with the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, etc), and were either ambivalent or hostile to Moses and Aaron.
In this theory, Early Christians would have specifically rejected Exodus 6:3, and Moses’s interaction with God:
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them”.
In the above passage, Moses is injected into Orthodox Judaism, and his monotheistic God becomes equivalent to the God of the Patriarchs. Scholars have long recognized this passage as a critical and obvious insertion into a pre-existing religion.
In reality, the Patriarchs’ heavenly hierarchy would have resembled that of Cerinthus (AH i.26.1)
Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all.
In many ways, Nasarene Christianity correlates and precedes Christian Gnosticism. Both iterations had a divine woman who rendered heavenly wisdom onto earth. The fact that Irenaeus wrote that some Valentinians believed Sophia gave birth to the Logos (AH i.7.1) means that those Valentinians used Revelation, as the similarity between those Valentinians’ presumption and the narrative described within Revelation (Rev 12) is too close a match to presume otherwise. Therefore, we see an obvious thread between the Nasarenes and the Valentinians, in terms of their memory of the divine lady who gives birth to the messiah who will eventually fight the 7-headed red dragon – just like in the Canaanite tradition, where Ba’al fights the Lotar on behalf of his imprisoned mother.
The mystery references in Mark, coupled with the fact that a sect known for its deeper layers of initiation (the Valentinians) used Revelation probably means Revelation was reserved for the deeper mystery. I have made the case that Cerinthus, who seems to have used Revelation and a scaled down Gospel of Matthew, fits nicely into this Nasarene/Revelation puzzle. One wonders if Paul himself was referring to Revelation when he referenced a similar notion in 2 Corin 12:2
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven.
Throughout Mark, the author continues to allude to deeper mysteries, such as in Mark 4:11 when Jesus says “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables”. The intermediate phase between early Christianity’s rejection of Judaism’s emerging Orthodoxy and full-on Gnosticism in Alexandrian and Syrian sects is adoptionism. Adoptionism, at least in an early (Ebionite and Cerinthian) iteration, refers to some mysterious Spirit which descended onto Jesus after his baptism.
Similar spirit transience is detectable in Mark with the demons sent by (presumably) the ruler of this world. Those spirits could also spot Jesus in a crowd, such as in Mark 1:24, where a demon infested man says to Jesus
“What do you want with us,Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Compare this to a remarkable parallel in the Gospel of Judas, where the other apostles’ spirits refuse to stand in front of Jesus, but Judas does:
“But [the apostles’] spirits did not dare to stand before [him], except for Judas Iscariot . He was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and he turned his face away…Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.”
In Mark, Jesus told the demon possessed man to be quiet. In Judas, Jesus had a long private conversation with Judas, outside of earshot of the other Apostles.
Consider an implication: Almost everything and everyone (including physical objects, such as the temple) in Mark is susceptible to manipulation by, and encapsulation of, a Spirit. The question becomes what Spirit is guiding you?
In my mind, this formulation in Mark, along with the new advent of Spirit delivery after baptism, must imply a high God separate and above the ruler of this world. Of course, this is no stretch, as many Christian sects today presume that the Earth is ruled by Satan; however, this advent originally referred to a ruler who must have had a tremendous amount of control over the Earth; why shouldn’t we presume this ruler also created the Earth?
Another Mark Consumer: Basilides
Like other early Christians who used an early Synoptic Gospel, such as Cerinthus and the Ebionites, Basilides believed the Spirit was transient. The transient Spirit left Jesus to go to Simon of Cyrene; in the process, Jesus’s switcheroo revealed premeditated trickery on the part of the Christ. This trickery, likewise present in Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Judas, was required to overcome the stranglehold the Demiurge and his princes had over limiting material beings from rejoining the highest heaven and gaining closer access to the most high, along with his Pleroma (fullness).
To early Basilideans who espoused this belief, that must have meant that the real star of the show was Simon and the Spirit, rather than Jesus, the first Christ encapsulator, who might have just as well been understood to have gained these powers in a higher realm. In this version, Simon’s heavenly version received the Spirit from the heavenly Christ, and was then reincarnated on Earth.
Consider Irenaeus of Lyon’s description of Basilides in AH i.24.3
Then other powers, being formed by emanation from [the aeons], created another heaven similar to the first; and in like manner, when others had been formed by emanation from them, *corresponding exactly to those above* them, these, too, framed another third heaven; and then from this third, in downward order, there was a fourth succession of descendants; and so on, after the same fashion, they declare that more and more principalities and angels were formed, and three hundred and sixty-five heavens. Wherefore the year contains the same number of days in conformity with the number of the heavens.
The challenge Irenaeus’ description presents us is that, if true, such sentiments should be detectable within Basilides’ favorite Gospel, Mark. One obvious parallel is the notion of 365 heavens. The fact that Mark has Jesus’s ministry last one year (by reference to a single Passover) is correlated to this Basilidean notion.
The link between Mark and the 365 manifests in striking correlations to the zodiac. Bill Darlison in Gospel and the Zodiac purports the following link between the Gospel of Mark and signs of the zodiac
Mark 1:1-3:35 ARIES
Mark 4:1-4:4 TAURUS
Mark 4:35-6:29 GEMINI
Mark 6:30-8:26 CANCER
Mark 8:27-9:29 LEO
Mark 9:30-9:50 VIRGO
Mark 10:1-10:31 LIBRA
MARK 10:32-10:52 SCORPIO
MARK 11:1-11:26 SAGITTARIUS
Mark 11:27-12:44 CAPRICORN
Mark 13:1-14:16 AQUARIUS
Mark 14:17- PISCES
The 365 heavens are also found in The Gospel of Judas
“The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each 50 of the firmaments, for a total of three hundred sixty firmaments
The Basilidean notion of multiple realms which are copies of one another is analogous to the Platonic concept of forms; however, in order to build a bridge with Mark, I must again invoke the Gospel of Judas, which in my mind seems like the flip side of the Mark coin. After his conversation with Judas, the Gospel of Judas gives the following account
“Master, where did you go and what did you do when you left us?”
Jesus said to them, “I went to another great and holy generation.”
His disciples said to him, “Lord, what is the great generation that is superior to us and holier than us, that is not now in these realms?”
This notion of Jesus in other realms shows up again in the Doctrine of Carpocrates (AH i.25)
inasmuch as [Jesus Christ’s] soul was steadfast and pure, he perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God
Carpocrates is relevant here as I think there is much evidence that the Carpocratians are another name for Marcionites, those zealous Paul followers who assembled a Gospel of Paul’s writings. There are various lines of evidence for this assumption, not least of which was the claim by Saint Jerome that Marcellina the Carpocratian (AH i.25.6, Ep. 130, Ctes. vol. i. p. 102) was the first Marcionite to arrive in Rome. Irenaeus also intimates the Carpocratians used at least one of Paul’s letters, Romans.
One interesting thread in the memory of a realm above is that Paul’s letters seem to advocate the same thing. For instance, in Galatians 4:19, Paul makes reference to the pains he felt relating to his childbirth; this pain, says Paul, would continue until the Christ Spirit forms within his readers.
Paul makes perhaps his strangest assertion regarding his birth in 1 Cor 15:8, where, when he describes earlier Spirit recipients, he claims his reception followed James, and that his (Paul’s) former self was as one who was born of a miscarriage.
In my theory, Paul’s reference to circumstances surrounding his birth was multi-tiered. I believe this reference was in part related to the Gospel of Thomas, which said that someone was on the way who would not be born of a woman – that one is the father. But it also relates to other Gnostic notions, particularly one found in On The Origins of the Earth:
And when they had finished Adam, he abandoned him as an inanimate vessel, since he had taken form like an abortion, in that no spirit was in him… Now on the fortieth day, Sophia Zoe sent her breath into Adam, who had no soul…When Eve saw her male counterpart prostrate, she had pity upon him, and she said, “Adam! Become alive! Arise upon the earth!”
In this Gnostic story, Adam was an empty vessel prior to his receipt of the Spirit.
Epiphanius gives insight into one manifestation of a Gnostic reading of this text:
For some of them [Ebionites] even say that Adam is Christ – the man who was formed first and infused with God’s Breath
In other words, Paul claimed in 1 Corin 15 that he was simply a miscarried body until he received the Spirit. He was claiming to be a reincarnation of the first Adam!
When one analyzes other Paul oddities, a very unorthodox view emerges. Consider Galatians 4:4
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law
Paul is not talking about the Judean minister here. He is talking about himself. Paul was born of a woman under the law…that is why he claimed to be a Pharisee in Philippians 3:5. The Greek he used is telling in this case. He uses the term genomenon, which means something like “to manifest”. He indeed manifest in that he was infused with the Spirit after revelation.
The Paul/Nasar Link
Paul gives a fascinating and largely ignored detail. In Galatians 1:16-17 he gives a curious description of what he did after he received the spirit: He went to Arabia!
I did not immediately consult with anyone;nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
This is a very strange place for Paul to go. Why wouldn’t he have gone to Jerusalem, ground zero?!? Or Galilee? What was so special about Arabia?
What was special is that the Melchizadek priesthood was expelled to Arabia after Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform! The descendants of those priests who remembered a more archaic Judaism still lived there. Paul went to get instruction from them. That’s why he says things like in 1 Corin 3:16:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?
Indeed his readers were the temple; the Spirit which underlies it would exist until the whore of Babylon was purged from the 2nd temple.
From Paul To Mark
My contention is that Simon of Cyrene was a cipher for Paul. I further suspect that Paul’s alternate name was Simon. This is why the Ebionites and other sects were fond of making Paul’s theology synonymous with Simon Magus. The earliest formulation was to combine attributes of other magic-centric Christian sects with Atomus (Simon), who Josephus wrote helped procurator Felix lure Herodian princess Drusilla away from her husband.
The reference to Simon bearing Jesus Christ’s cross is found in Galatians 6:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world…from now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
Further, I think Simon of Cyrene was foreshadowed in Mark 9:35-40, as being simultaneously the last apostle as well as being the unnamed demon caster who was working on Jesus’s behalf to counteract the clumsiness of the official apostles. That would explain why the Matthean (Ebionite) community was so hostile to Simon/Paul’s magic in Matthew 7:21-23.
The Gnostic Link
The Nasarene movement bore much resemblance to Gnosticism. Both espoused a hierarchy in heaven that offered limited access to the most high, but had Earthly manifestations with the mother and son. The son’s interaction on earth later evolved into the Johannine Logos (which bore similarity to the Valentinian Logos). The mystery which was so present in the Gospel of Mark was simply a continuation of the adoptionism espoused by Paul – Paul inherited the Spirit via revelation. To Paul, Christ Jesus was in a realm above, and he received the Spirit by bearing Jesus Christ’s cross. In this sense, Mark’s Gospel and Christology was very much influenced by Paul.