Gnosis: The Not-So Secret History of Jesus
[The Electric Jesus] • By popular request, I'm attempting to convert my Electric Jesus presentation into a book. Here's my first shot at the first chapter.
I always begin "The Electric Jesus" workshops with a simple, yet extremely revealing visualization about our life-long journey of acquiring knowledge in the West.
Let's start by taking a look back at your first day of school. Perhaps your parents packed you a sack lunch, tied your shoelaces, buttoned up that yellow rain jacket and then walked you to the bus or drove you to that strange large building with lots of windows. Remember your preschool or kindergarten teachers and how they trained you on the basics of the alphabet? You learned the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The stakes escalated as you went through each grade. There was telling time, cursive, the national anthem, fractals, history, even a little earth science. The hormones eventually kicked in at middle school or junior high and you embarked on new adventures involving facts, dates, and important events. Algebra turned into quadratic equations, which morphed into trigonometry and possibly calculus. Perhaps you went to college and sat through lectures, labs, novels, tests, papers, even a thesis or two. You might have gone on to do post-grad work acquiring various degrees and doctorates. And after years and years of study, from adolescence to adulthood, did a heroic teacher or professor ever set down the chalk or turn off the overhead projector, look your class square in the eye and say something like this?
"Look guys, we teach you all these things but none of us really have a clue what’s going on. Here we are, six billion humans, living on a bluish green sphere we call Earth. We’re a little speck spinning through an unimaginably vast cosmos, and none of us can even answer the most basic questions of our lives: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where we are going? And what is the purpose of this fourteen-billion-year experiment we call the universe?”
In my workshops, I’ll occasional hear tales of a Socratically wise teacher who had the gumption to admit that all we know is that we really know nothing. But by and large, there seemed to be a gaping blind spot, active denial, and severe intellectual arrogance with our educational systems and institutions towards understanding the actual world we live in every day. With all the cost, time, resources, and energy it takes to put our youth through this extended learning process, our students invariably come out of it full of information but knowing very little at all.
Fortunately, in our Western culture there is a Christian tradition (actually many diverse traditions, as we’ll soon learn) that believes it is our birthright to learn the answers to these crucial questions about our own existence. According to this tradition, we only need the perseverance, guidance, openness, love, and spirit (pneuma) to find the Truth we’ve always (although sometimes unknowingly) been looking for. From the evidence, it appears that they understood the most fundamental wisdom we could ever obtain in our lifetime -- knowing who we truly are! These wise spiritual seekers and teachers of have been called “The Gnostics.”
The word gnosis means "knowledge through direct experience or personal revelation." It’s not something you can be told from a teacher, minister, or politician, nor can it be learned from a newspaper or book, or even the global mind of the Internet. It’s something you must experience first hand. There’s nobody who can do it for you, and there’s absolutely no exception. For instance, I can tell you that Paris is the capital of France. It has a population of about ten million people. The city boasts wide attractive avenues with some classy old buildings. Its residents like croissants and cafes and they still generally smoke too much for their own good. I can tell you all these things but the only way to truly know Paris is to have actually been there and experienced it yourself. The same goes for higher states of consciousness, or "the kingdom of heaven," as Jesus would put it. And it’s the same for knowing ourselves and our own true nature.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus makes a rather remarkable promise: "There is nothing hidden that won’t be brought to light nor anything secret that won’t be revealed" (4:21). According to him, all the secrets and mysteries of God, the universe, and our own origins don’t have to be guessed at or alluded to, but will actually be known to us in time. And just as importantly, these mysteries would, quite literally I believe, be brought to "light," which is a concept we’ll be expanding on throughout this book.
According to the ancient Gnostics, nearly all of the citizens of "Spaceship Earth" have fallen into a chronic case of cosmic ignorance, which they described as "forgetfulness," "drunkenness," or "sleep." We are lost in the world of illusion and have forgotten our true origins beyond the material world. The Buddhists and Hindus called this the veil of Maya, Plato called this the shadows of the cave, and Neo mainstreamed the concept by calling it "The Matrix" on wide screen theaters around the world.
So who were these Gnostics, and how were they able to break through this veil to "wake up?" A mistake I often witness is that people tend to separate Christians from Gnostics, as if they were two distinct groups, but the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the earliest Christians were, indeed, Gnostics. They were one and the same. (In fact the label “Gnostic” was created by academics in the later part of the 20th Century.)
You don’t often hear this in Sunday school, but Christianity comes from a very deep spiritual lineage known as the mystery schools. These were ancient mystical initiatory religions where seekers would pass through various rites of passage as they matured on their spiritual path. At first, those on the outer circle would be taught that the religious stories they were told really happened, but as they progressed into the esoteric inner knowledge (gnosis), they would learn that these tales served as an allegory for their own spiritual journey and process, and mimicked the rites and rituals they’d encounter along the way. The most common rites of the mystery schools play out in the drama of Jesus’ own story. There’s a baptism (spiritual cleansing), a eucharist (communion), an anointing ("Christ" means "the anointed one"), and the death and resurrection ritual, something every mature initiate would eventually go through.
Jesus tells us himself about these secret teachings when talking to the disciples:
"You have been given the secret to heaven, but to those outside everything is presented in parables so that they may look with eyes wide open but never quite see, and may listen with ears attuned but never quite understand. Otherwise, they might turn around and find forgiveness" -- Mark 4:12.
As Jesus constantly reminds us, we are not witnessing the present moment correctly, because if we did, we would see through the fog of illusion, find forgiveness, and remember who we truly are. Those of us on the “outside” have not been adequately trained by the inner mysteries to see the greater reality around us, so we must learn through enigmatic allegories until we complete the various stages of gnosis. "Jesus said, 'It is to those who are worthy of my Mysteries that I tell my Mysteries'" (The Gospel of Thomas).
The mystery schools were strewn across the lands of the Mediterranean and are thought to have originated in Egypt centuries before Jesus made his messianic debut in Nazareth. Each of these schools prominently featured “a dying and resurrecting godman.” In Egypt they revered Osirus and Horus, in Greece it was Dionysus, in Syria Adonis, in Asia Minor Attis, in Persia (and later Rome) Mithras. The similarities amongst these mythic figures are uncanny. Most of them were born on December 25 (around the winter solstice) to a virgin in humble surroundings (a manger or a cave) with a star in the Eastern sky. They grew up to be spiritual masters with twelve disciples, performing miracles, turning water into wine, giving baptisms and communions, and then dying for three days before making a glorious comeback. Often, they were referred to as "the son of the lamb," "son of God," "king of kings," "the light of the world," and "the alpha and the omega." 
"Son of God" is actually derived from "sun of God," as the mystery schools carefully marked astrological events, especially the precession of the equinoxes. The twelve tribes represent the twelve constellations in the zodiac and Jesus, Mithras, Dionysus and the other "godmen" symbolize the sun, which eventually passes through each of the signs. On December 25, the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, aligns with the three brightest stars in Orion's Belt, which are called "The Three Kings," pointing directly at the sunrise. The Virgin (Mary in our case) is the constellation Virgo, who was also referred to as "The House of Bread" (she holds a sheaf of wheat). She represents the autumn months, which diminish and later give birth to the sun's reawakening. The little legendary town of Bethlehem literally means "House of Bread."
As winter comes in, the sun falls further south in the horizon until reaching its lowest point at the winter solstice on December 22nd. There, it appears to die for three days (stops moving) directly under the Southern Cross constellation until it rises again on December 25, bringing in more light to our world each day. The sun’s resurrection wasn’t fully celebrated until it reached fruition during the spring equinox, or what we call Easter today. Those "crown of thorns" are thought to represent the sun's vibrant rays. Given the subtle, yet powerful spiritual/energy forces the mystery schools were working with (which we'll discuss in greater detail), it's no surprise that their spiritual heroes were symbolized by the continual nuclear fusion process of our glowing sun.
Different mystery school figures represent different ages of the Zodiac, each of which lasts about 2,150 years. Mithras kills the bull as we move away from Taurus into the age of Aries (the ram), then Jesus comes along with baskets full of fish to usher in the age of Pisces. When the disciples ask where the next Passover will be, Jesus says, “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you bearing a pitcher of water… Follow him into the house where he entereth in.” Any novice astrologer will recognize the water bearer as Aquarius. When we hear of “the end of the world” in the New Testament, it actually translates as “the end of the age,” which isn’t that terrifying when you realize that the authors are poetically marking the change in the star calendar, and perhaps new energies coming in and affecting our planet. 
Given the astrological significance of the southern cross, it’s not surprising that depictions of crucifixion were popular in the mystery schools. A famous second to third century talisman (see image above) depicts a figure that looks suspiciously like Jesus crucified on a cross, but is surprisingly labeled “Orpheus becomes a Bacchoi.” Orpheus was a prophet in the Dionysian mysteries and a Bocchoi was an enlightened disciple who had completed the stages of initiation. (The first depiction of Jesus on the cross wouldn’t show up until at least 200 years later.) Around the same time as the talisman, a Roman graffiti artist drew a bizarre picture on the back of a Roman pillar when the authorities weren’t looking. This ancient “tag” featured a donkey being crucified on the cross, symbolizing the rite of dying to one’s lower nature in order to ascend to the higher self. Bible students will immediately recognize this as being reminiscent of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, revealing in allegory how we can master our own animalistic nature.
Even if you’ve never been to church, I’m sure you’ll recognize the following inscription: “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.” This familiar reference to the communion appears on a Mithraic temple. The mysteries of Mithra were around centuries before our favorite resurrecting “godman” hit the religious circuit in Galilee. Here’s a common prayer in Mithraic services: “Be good of cheer, sacred band of Initiates, your God has risen from the dead. His pains and sufferings shall be your salvation.” The Mithra mysteries were spread across the Roman Empire and you’ll find temples in London and up north at Hadrian’s Wall where Roman soldiers were stationed. The Vatican itself sits on top of a destroyed Mithraic temple, where initiates once shared a meal of wine and bread celebrating their redeemer, born on December 25th, who died for three days before coming back to life. 
While we're shedding light on forgotten history, I'd like to take a moment and make up for what I call "2,000 years of really bad translations." Let's start off with that all-important Christian word "savior." It's a Greek term, soter, meaning “bestower of health,” or even better, “one who makes whole.” Jesus heals throughout the New Testament but what are his miraculous techniques? Some evidence might be found when he comes across a woman "with a flow of 12 years" who reaches out and touches his garments. "The power drains out of him," for which Jesus turns around, gives the thumbs up, and says, "Your faith has healed you."
But how could the power drain out of Jesus? And what is this power? Could it be that he was using the same power that moves the whole cosmos? Was he vibrating at a higher level and like a supreme Reiki master, did he heal her by passing on these higher frequencies? Jesus constantly gives "hands-on healings" throughout the gospels, often telling us "be opened" when cleaning out the energy channels and clearing out sickness. As a true soter, Jesus actively utilizes the powerful healing properties of unconditional love and forgiveness to help make us whole with ourselves, one another, and the divine.
To continue our discussion of really bad translations, I'd like to tackle that extremely loaded word we call "sin." The term harmatia comes from Greek archery, and quite literally means “missing the mark.” But wait, you say, this word isn’t riddled with the shame and guilt that the televangelists lay on us before asking for our credit card information? You’re right, it's just a word describing our journey home. Sometimes we fall off target, then we have to realign and get on the road again. That's how we stumble through the darkness of illusion and eventually find our way back to the light.
So it seems highly unlikely that you would go to hell for "missing the mark," or at least not that place of eternal damnation that sidewalk preachers rage about. The translation for hell actually comes from the word Gehena, which was a place in Israel where trash was burned. A spiritual master like Jesus understood the laws of karma and knew that if you do bad things, you might, metaphorically speaking, end up in a trash dump for a while until you figure things out. How many of us have been in Gehena at some point in our lives? And I’m sure for some of us, it felt like an eternity. Of course, we could "repent" to improve our situation, especially since the Greek word metanoia simply means to "change one’s mind" or better yet, "to have a change of consciousness," which can happen quite easily when you meet a higher vibrational being like Jesus. I’ve had the fortune of meeting several fairly enlightened people in my lifetime, and can honestly say I left their presence with a changed sense of consciousness.
And what about that fabled goateed guy with the red pointy tail? The term "Satan" comes from the Hebrew word for "adversary." In our minds and mythologies, we’ve built Old Scratch up to be a wily demon tempting us into horrible corruption, but those on the path will recognize the real adversary to us reaching our destination of true knowing. It's the ego/personality attachment to this world of illusion, or as the Gnostics called it -- the eidolon, that we must overcome in order to experience our higher self. Once we've accomplished that through years of spiritual alchemy, we can then "resurrect" (anastasis), literally "rise from sleep," to become fully awake and aware beings in the cosmic dream.
The Buddha's ears might be heating up right as you read this, as his name also means "The Awakened One." Could Jesus and Buddha be pointing towards the same direct experience? Might Jesus’ "Kindgom of Heaven" be the same as Buddha's "Ultimate Reality?" I had my suspicions.
During “The Electric Jesus” workshops, I always give a little pop quiz. And I admit it's a bit of a trick, but here it goes… What is the earliest Christian gospel that we know of?... Matthew perhaps? Even though it's placed first in the Bible, it wasn't written until 80 - 90 AD. Then how about Mark, you may ask? Good guess. It's the oldest of the canonical gospels (60 – 70 AD) but there’s another gospel even older than that and it happens to be one of the most poetic and compelling spiritual texts in the world, right on par with The Tao Te Ching and The Bhagavad Gita. We call it The Gospel of Thomas (40 AD). The text is known as a “secret sayings gospel” and you'll find many of these sayings conveniently inserted into the narrative of the canonical scriptures.
This gospel starts off with a startling, jaw-dropping promise: "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death." You only have to read a few lines further down to find another impossible line: “Heaven is inside and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father."
Once again, forgiveness, heaven, and knowledge of our true self does not exist in cloud nine far above; it's right here inside us and around us, just waiting to be explored. Jesus goes on to tell Thomas, "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended." Could it be that Thomas obtained a similar spiritual mastery as Jesus, and might that "bubbling spring" refer to waves of energy that were passed from teacher to initiate in energetic transmissions that maintained the spiritual lineage of these esoteric traditions? Moving water has often been a symbol of energetic waves or transmission. Just look at the rite of baptism, which Jesus executes with "fire and spirit."
Perhaps the most mystically complex saying in the whole gospel is the following lines: "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one… then you will enter the kingdom of heaven." In this passage, Jesus becomes a yogic guru, advising us in a spiritual alchemy that unites the polarities and duality of the universe in order to discover our divine origins and go back home. It's a mastery that seems logically impossible, and only the magic of divine gnosis can bring us to this kind of realization.
Along with Thomas, an enormously diverse number of Gnostic gospels and sacred texts flowed through the numerous Christian mystery schools, some of which can still be ready today. There’s The Gospel of Mary, Philip, Judas, Secret James, Secret John, The Gospel of Truth, Act of Peter, Pistis Sophia, Dialogue of the Savior, Tripartite Tractate, and the lists goes on and on. If you’re curious about the best way to sink your teeth into these vast tomes, I’d start with Thomas for the wealth of sayings, then Philip for the sacred rites and rituals of the Christian initiates, then Mary to prove that a girl can do everything Jesus can. If you'd like to bone up on the basic history and beliefs of the Gnostics, I highly recommend starting off with Elaine Pagels' concise academic study in The Gnostic Gospels, then delve into the rich and expansive The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.
If early Christianity was extremely diverse with dozens of gospels and various Gnostic traditions spread across the Middle East, you might be asking yourself, “What happened to change all this?” Like most of the problems in history, we may be able to pin this one to the horrors of war. With the Roman Empire smashing Jerusalem and its Second Temple in 70 AD, the whole region was in violent tumult. The Romans considered secret or hidden societies dangerous hotbeds of rebellion and Christians, with their radical hero figure, found themselves at the top of this list. Members of the Christian mysteries joined the mass exodus out of the country to avoid persecution while many of the initiation schools fractured into pieces. (A similar tragic situation is happening to the Mandeans, the last remaining Gnostic lineage, who are being persecuted due to the war in Iraq.)
Initiates were spread far and wide and those who no longer could experience the deeper mysteries and inner gnosis started up “Literalist Churches,” which taught the Jesus story as absolute historical fact rather than allegorical representation. The remaining Gnostic circles called these rigid churches “Imitation Churches,” as they did not teach the real meaning of the mystery traditions -- “the Christ within.” Literalist Christianity began to rise in places like Rome and France, where they encountered a good deal of persecution from the Roman power structure. But in a sad touch of historical irony, leaders of these new literalist churches became heretic hunters attacking those who still carried the inner teachings of their own religion.
In the second century AD, Irenaeus, the infamous bishop of Lyon, wrote the rather uptight Against Heresies to discredit those he saw as his Gnostic opponents. This work almost single-handedly shaped the Orthodox faith and set forth nearly 2,000 years of very lame behavior by what would become the Catholic hierarchy. Suddenly the word heresy (from the Greek haeresis, meaning “choosing”) was mainlined and used at will to attack and deny any teachings that did not fit in with the growing institutions of power. The drafting of Against Heresies was a serious turning point in the history of Christianity, the moment when the once more popular inner traditions lost traction to the growing Literalist Church. Irenaeus immediately began a crusade to narrow the diverse wealth of Christian texts to a paltry four stories. 
As the number of Christians multiplied in Roman lands, a power-hungry Emperor Constantine switched the state religion to this mass movement, uniting Rome under “one God, one religion,” and yes, one emperor. In 325 he oversaw the Council of Nicaea, where Literalist Church leaders completed Irenaeus' dull vision of wiping out all Christian written knowledge to a slim few texts. This is what we now call The New Testament.
Now imagine, this would be the equivalent of free-minded Americans handing over their Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, the Federalist Papers -- the whole basis of our civil liberties -- back to King George in England and saying, “Hey, could you edit these and get back to us?” Of course, many of the most inspiring, liberating, and empowering spiritual texts never saw the light of day in the “old boys club” back in Nicaea. And after completing his long business trip, the now Christian ruler Constantine celebrated his return home by immediately killing both his wife and son. He then remained unbaptized until his deathbed so that he could continue his murderous ways and still secure box seats in heaven.
In 391 Emperor Theodosius passed an edict to close all “pagan” temples and burn their books. Christians hordes set out on murderous rampages smashing all traces of the spiritual traditions from which their religion had blossomed. The last of the Gnostic circles were annihilated, as were libraries, temples, texts, and the spiritual gnosis that had been passed down throughout the ages. By 410 AD the Roman Empire had nearly torn itself apart and the Visigoths strolled in to finish the job. Only eighty-five years after the Council of Nicaea, the Dark Ages had begun.
But, as the old adage states, “Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.” In December 1945, as the world was ending its darkest and most destructive period to date, an Egyptian peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman was digging for fertilizer around some limestone caves near the village of Nag Hammadi when he came across a sealed earthenware jar. He feared an evil djin (genie) might be inside, but eventually opened the jar in hopes to discover lost riches. Disappointment set in as twelve raggedy leather bound codices fell out of the jar. He had no idea of the priceless treasure laying at his feet. In its 1,200 pages, The Nag Hammadi Library, held dozens of sacred texts that had been hidden away for the last 1,600 years. In it were numerous Gnostic gospels and treatises that had been lost to the brutal dustbin of time. Mohammed brought them home where his mother stayed warm by feeding pages of those ancient texts to her fireplace.
Fortunately, they didn't all get burned into ash and these lost texts can now be enjoyed by anyone with access to Wikipedia, Amazon.com, or a local bookstore: There’s fifty-two in all including: The Gospel of Thomas, Secret James, The Gospel of Philip, The Origin of the World, The Gospel of Truth, The Exegesis on the Soul, Secret John, The Three Steles of Seth, The Gospel of the Egyptians, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Tripartite Tractate, and The Sophia of Jesus. As you can see from these numerous titles, early Christianity was an extremely rich, open, and inclusive tradition when it came to gnosis. The Nag Hammadi Library even includes texts from the Corpus Hermeticum and Plato’s Republic.
To conclude, I have to say that I’ve been absolutely amazed by how many people are awakening to a greater vision themselves and the cosmos, whether through spontaneous openings or engaging in serious spiritual endeavors. Mass transformation of human consciousness seems to be increasing exponentially all around us as record numbers of seekers practice the techniques of yoga, Reiki, Thai Chi, meditation, and much more. While we embark on this noble journey, it's important to integrate the traditions we grew up with and not just push them away, especially if we want to become whole. As Jesus says in The Gospel of Thomas, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
Regardless of your religious upbringing or current practices, Christianity is within all of us. It's in our language, our laws, our mores, our sexuality, even our calendar, deeply influencing our entire perspective on the world. The gnosis of these newly discovered texts provide a mystical bridge between our own unfolding personal transformation and the cultural forces that ground us and identify us in our shared reality. They offer a place to heal, forgive, and embrace our religious traditions while clearing up the mistranslations and misunderstandings of the past. We no longer are limited to looking toward the exotic East for knowledge of the deeper mysteries in life. Like Dorothy, we can click our heels three times, and discover we've actually been there all along.
1. Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 1-26
2. Peter Joseph, Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007), http://zeitgeistmovie.com, Part 2
1. Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 1-3
4. Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition (Monterey, MA: Bma Studios), Discs 1-2 on audio-book
5. J. Michael Matkin, The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Gnostic Gospels (Indianapolis: Watermill Books, 2005) 23-24)Tweet