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Chthonios Books focuses on scholarly research in western esoteric traditions. You might want to go directly to our Homepage, where you can find out about the best books in this and other fields, as well as read some online research and translations. Or browse awhile below.…
This page gives some background material and explains Chthonios’ approach to Early Christianity and Gnosticism. Other pages look at Ancient Philosophy and Neoplatonism I Ancient Religion and Paganism I Theurgy I Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism I Hermetica and Alchemy I Magic I Mediaeval & Renaissance Esotericism I Esoteric Traditions.
Esotericism is often thought of as a ‘third force’
in western thought, in contrast to biblical faith and Greek
philosophy (particularly that of Aristotle). Traditions in
thought and religion can be defined as ‘esoteric’ in
three ways :
I) In a general way they can be defined as special teachings or experiences reserved for an inner circle of initiates.
II) Another important perspective sees esoteric traditions as undercurrents in western thought and religion. Historically, the most important early streams here are the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato and their followers. Once dominant in Greco-Roman thought, they were pushed to the margins by the rise of Christian orthodoxy.
III) A third way of seeing western esotericism looks at the heterodox, unorthodox and heretical streams which flourished beneath the domination of Christian orthodoxy and normative Judaism.
A large part of the problems which bedevil the investigation of early Christianity and Gnosticism are due to the fact that most of the investigation is conducted by Christians : that is, by scholars who hold posts at various Christian educational institutions, and who came to their subject with some sort of faith in widely-held Christian beliefs. I would not wish to be understood as sneering at Christianity, but rather pointing out the immense difficulties that the dominant ‘christianocentric’ view creates.
And the serious and basic problems that this causes for historical research are immense. First of all, the religious situation of the Roman Empire is usually divided into Christianity and ‘paganism’, as the early Christians themselves saw it, with Judaism as a sort of sideline. Some features of this division are discussed elsewhere (see the Ancient religion page). But one monumental effect of this view is that Christianity comes to be viewed as an essentially external and separate entity which irrupted into the Greco-Roman world, to transform it and be transformed by it. Consequently, there is much talk of the ‘hellenization’ of Christianity, with one famous definition of Gnosticism (Harnack’s) calling it the ‘extreme hellenization’ of Christianity. What nobody ever seems to bother to explain is how any culture could ever produce a phenomenon which was essentially different from itself. How could Christianity not be a product of the culture which produced it?
The Reformist Trend in Late
An important consequence of this view is that utterly basic questions regarding the origin and growth of Christianity are rarely asked. These are questions like: What other movements were contemporary in Greco-Roman culture, and how were they similar, and how did they differ from Christianity?
Accordingly, I believe it would be much more fruitful to see Christianity as one of a number of what we could broadly characterise as ‘reformist’ movements in the early centuries of the Christian era. Below, I have sketched out some prominent movements and their religious agendas. Of course, this sketch is both vastly over-simplified and incomplete, but it does serve to point up some intriguing parallels and contrasts which come into view when we take a less ‘christianocentric’ view of religion in late antiquity.
Some religious agendas in Late Antiquity
Judaism: We are the chosen people of God, and our religious traditions are the most authoritative. Other religions worship inferior powers or illusions.
Philonic Judaism: The religion and philosophy of Plato and other prominent teachers of the (Greco-Roman)world’s culture were, in fact, derived from an incomplete understanding of the teaching of Moses, as allegorical interpretation of our sacred Scriptures shows.
The Hermetica: The religion and philosophy of Plato and other prominent teachers of the (Greco-Roman)world’s culture were, in fact, derived from an incomplete understanding of the teaching of Hermes Trismegistus and other Egyptian luminaries, as these ancient texts of ours show.
Christianity: As followers of Jesus Christ, the only true Messiah, we have supplanted the Jews as the bearers of God’s Word. Other religions worship evil demons, which explains the unhappy state of the world today, and why it must turn to Christianity, which provides the only real salvation.
Gnosticism: The God of the Jewish scriptures is not the real God, but an inferior deity (the demiurge) who created the inferior material realm in which our souls are imprisoned. This explains the unhappy state of the world today, and why it must turn to Gnosis for salvation.
The Chaldean Oracles: All mankind worships the Second Deity (the demiurge) in mistake for the First (Ch. Or. 7), but both are part of the divine order. Salvation comes through the practice of Theurgy, which links us to the Gods and is the ancient core of religion.
Neoplatonism: All the teachings of the Sacred Nations are summarised by us. Salvation comes through the practice of Theurgy, which links us to the Gods and is the ancient core of religion.
The ‘reformist agendas’ sketched above only relate to how the various movements presented themselves to the world at large. But, nevertheless, a large number of observations could be made from this bird’s-eye view of competing religious claims in late antiquity. I shall limit myself to just a few.
The Platonic Background
Perhaps the most striking thing to anyone familiar with ancient philosophy, is how most of these movements represent some sort of interpretation of Platonism. In fact in the ‘core agendas’ sketched above, only the dominant ‘orthodox’ trend in Christianity, and ‘normative’ Judaism do not have an agenda which is fundamentally Platonic. And of these two, even ‘orthodox’ Christianity had plenty of Platonism — witness Origen and Augustine. Which leaves us with ‘normative’ Judaism. I don’t think many people would consider that there is much Platonic influence in the Talmud and Mishnah, so perhaps it was only Judaism which managed to maintain itself relatively free of Platonic influence.
The other observation which we are forced to make is that only ‘orthodox’ Christianity — I’m not sure where Gnosticism stood on this issue — does not make some sort of appeal to the (imagined) authority of some distant past. On the other hand, even ‘orthodox’ Christianity, of course, appealed to the ancient authority of Israelite history as depicted in the Jewish scriptures. If the Gnostics thought, as they quite possibly did, that they were revealing a God previously unknown to mankind, then they would have to qualify as the only genuinely new religion.
I hope to be expanding this essay in the near future.
Stephen Ronan 1999
For more on the ancient Pagan worldview, which is so important for the understanding of both Christianity and Gnosticism, see now our online translations and commentaries on ancient texts.
Below is a list of some important terms and people (with variant forms) from early Christianity and Gnosticism which Chthonios specialises in. See also Ancient Philosophy and Neoplatonism , and Ancient Religion and Paganism.
Early Christianity — Life of Jesus, historical Jesus, Christ, orthodoxy, unorthodoxy, heterodoxy, heresy, heretics, heretical, christianization, persecution, Bogomils, Cathars, docetism, dualism, Templars, christology, baptism, John the Baptist, Jewish Christians, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Synesius of Cyrene, Dionysius the Areopagite, Simon Magus, glossolalia, exorcism, eschatology, Satan, Lucifer, Devil, Antichrist, Hell, demons, demonology, apocrypha, pseudepigrapha; Gnosticism — Nag Hammadi, gnostic gospels, Valentinianism, Sethianism, Manicheanism, Valentinian, Sethian, Manichean, Mandeans, Valentinus, Seth, Mani, Basilides, Bardesanes, Bardaisan, Irenaeus, Jung, Iao, Ieou, Sabaoth, Ialdabaoth, demiurge, emanation, Plotinus, Sophia, Abraxas, Abrasax, Achamoth, aeon, aeons, Aion, androgyn, androgyny, Archon, Archons, Barbelo, ogdoad, pleroma, Gnosis, Gnostics, Gospel of Thomas, Zostrianos, Hymn of the Pearl, Bruce Codex, Books of Jeu, Pistis Sophia.
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