Gnostic Texts Reveal Jesus in a New Light

April 2, 2015    BY Linda Johnsen

Was Jesus a yogi? Did he teach his disciples meditation, how to awaken their kundalini, or that the human soul and divine spirit are one? Having been raised a Christian, I’ve often wondered about the connection, if any, between early Christianity and yoga. Several years ago, I finally quit my job and enrolled in a leading seminary, hoping to find some answers. There were answers all right, though they weren’t always the ones I was expecting.

Much of what has recently been learned about early Christianity is astonishingly different from the version many of us were taught in Sunday School.

It turns out that in the past 60 years, thanks to a number of stunning archaeological finds, scholars have discovered more about the historical Jesus than they had learned in the previous 1,000 years. You would think they would be rushing to share these exciting new findings with the public, yet in every magazine article and television special on early Christian history I’ve seen, theologians have avoided mentioning some of the most important discoveries—in spite of the fact that they’re common topics of conversation in many seminaries. The reason for the public silence is that much of what has recently been learned about early Christianity is astonishingly different from the version many of us were taught in Sunday School. Theologians are understandably reluctant to share new information that may confuse or upset their congregations.

The Nag Hammadi Library

In December 1945 two brothers, digging at the base of a cliff near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, made one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. They found, hidden in a jar, a manuscript written in Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt. Painstaking analysis of this, and numerous papyrus rolls uncovered nearby, revealed that a spiritual library had been sealed away in the desert sometime around A.D. 350 by a community of early Christians. Fifty-two tractates, or treatises, were recovered, offering us a priceless glimpse into the beliefs of at least one group of Jesus’ followers. Some of the texts they preserved for future generations are probably about as old as sections of the New Testament itself, and describe events in Jesus’ life that overlap with the biblical version, but they also contain other information about Jesus that had been lost for 1,600 years.

The accounts of Jesus’ life preserved in this ancient library sent scholars reeling. For example, we all assume that Jesus’ closest students were his famous 12 male disciples, yet texts such as The Gospel of MaryThe Gospel of Philip, and The Gospel of Thomas from Nag Hammadi affirm that Jesus was actually closer to his women devotees. Today orthodox Christians pride themselves on having rejected the “primitive” belief in a universal Goddess, yet text after text reveals that at least some of the early Christians highly venerated the Goddess, and Jesus himself is quoted referring to her. For example, in The First Apocalypse of James, Jesus discusses the goddesses Sophia and Achamoth. Many other Nag Hammadi texts speak of the Goddess with reverence, including On the Origin of the WorldThe Hypostasis of the Archons, and The Thunder, Perfect Mind.

In A.D. 391 Christians burned the enormous library at Alexandria, repository of the wisdom of the ancient world, because they believed that books written by non-Christians were a threat to their religion. But the Christians who carefully stored the Nag Hammadi library had a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of other cultures. Along with numerous manuscripts about Jesus, they also carefully hid works by Plato and by the great Hermetic philosophers of Egypt, a Zoroastrian text, and an exquisitely beautiful hymn about the goddess Isis. These early Christians appear to have been far more open-minded than some of their brethren in later centuries.

But is there any yogic material in these texts? To the surprise of scholars, the manuscripts contained masses of mystical teaching, some of it quite compatible with yoga. The First Apocalypse of James, for example, claims to be a dialogue between Jesus and his brother James regarding the soul’s experience after death. Jesus explains, “Behold, I will reveal to you the manner of your redemption. When you undergo the pangs of death, demonic forces will come to seize you. When one of them asks you, ‘Who are you and where are you from?’ answer, ‘I am a son and I come from the Father.’

“When another of them says to you, ‘What kind of son are you and who is your Father?’ answer, ‘I am from the Father who existed before the beginning of time, and I was his son before time began.’

“When the next one says to you, ‘Why were you sent here?’ answer, ‘I came from eternity to learn to distinguish between the things that exist in spirit and those that exist in matter. But I have learned that matter actually exists in spirit, because it comes from the Mother, and the Mother abides in the Father. I call on the imperishable knowledge that is the Mother [here Jesus refers to the Jewish goddess Sophia] who abides eternally in the Father.’

“Then the demonic forces will release you and you will be free to ascend to the kingdom of light which is your own light.”

Jesus appears to be describing the preexistence of the soul, a doctrine accepted by yogis, but later rejected by Christians. He is also saying that as long as we remember who we really are, divine spirits who exist beyond time, then we are free to merge in the Father’s light which is identical to the light of our own spirit. When we consciously connect with our higher Self, we achieve perfect freedom, and not even death can stop us from experiencing our unity with God.

Today Christians believe that only Christ was “one” with God, but Jesus seems to be saying that the rest of us are too.

In this same text Jesus explicitly tells James, “Free yourself from this blind idea, that you are merely the case of flesh which encircles you. Then you will reach Him Who is. Then you will no longer be James; rather you are the One Who is.” It’s amazing to find this Vedantic teaching, claiming that the individual soul (Atman) is identical with God himself (Brahman), spelled out so clearly in an early Christian text. Today Christians believe that only Christ was “one” with God, but Jesus seems to be saying that the rest of us are too.

In another Nag Hammadi text, The Dialogue of the Savior, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the one who seeks and who is the one who reveals?” Jesus answers, “The one who seeks is the one who reveals. That for which you are seeking is within you.” He says again, “The living God dwells in you and you dwell in him.” This teaching makes perfect sense in a yogic context but would come as a surprise to many conservative Christians, who believe the Holy Spirit may visit our hearts, but essentially exists separate from us. Here Jesus seems to be calling our own inner Self the Holy Spirit.

When Matthew begs Jesus, “Please let me see that place of life where there is no evil, only pure light,” Jesus responds, “You can’t see that light as long as you remain in a body.” Matthew insists that he still wants to know the divine reality. Jesus answers, “Each one of you who has known himself has seen it.” He goes on to explain that whoever remains established in the state of truly knowing oneself will always spontaneously do the right thing at the right time. In the yoga tradition, this state of perfect synchronization of one’s own actions with the will of the divine is called sahaja samadhi.

The Gnostics

While numerous statements attributed to Jesus in the Nag Hammadi texts sound as if they could have been spoken by the saints of India, most of the material is couched in the distinctive terms of the Gnostics, mystically inclined Jews and Christians who flourished in the centuries immediately before and after Jesus; in fact the word “gnosis” is related to the Sanskrit jñana, which means the living experience of divine knowledge. However, Gnostic beliefs would shock most Christians and Jews today.

The Gnostics were profoundly disturbed by some of the stories in the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Christian Bible). For example, according to the Torah God plants the two trees of knowledge and immortality in the Garden of Eden, yet forbids Adam and Eve to eat from them. He warns the other gods, the Elohim, that if humans should taste omniscience and everlasting life, they will become divine like God himself, and this must be prevented at all costs. The Gnostics, however, felt that if God was truly good, he wouldn’t want to keep these divine gifts from humankind, and therefore concluded that the God of the Old Testament is evil, a malignant being who traps human souls in the world of matter he created. In order to keep them subject to his power, they believed, he must prevent them from realizing their true nature—that they are divine beings from a kingdom of light which transcends the world of suffering in which he keeps them enslaved. This alternative reading of the book of Genesis can be found in the Nag Hammadi texts On the Origin of the World and The Hypostasis of the Archons.

The Gnostics also believed that beyond the Creator God lies the true Supreme Being (the existence of whom God doesn’t recognize because he is blinded by his violent temper and jealousy). It was this Supreme Being, they maintain, who sent Christ to earth in the form of a snake to rescue Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden! In other words, it was Christ who appeared to Eve (according to the Gnostics, Eve was more spiritually advanced than Adam) and invited her to eat from the tree of knowledge. But God realized what was happening and threw Eve and Adam out of the Garden before they had a chance to also eat from the tree of eternal life. Because God stopped them from reaching the second tree, humanity remains subject to death to this day.

How could these early Christians equate the snake in the Garden with Jesus Christ? Isn’t the snake supposed to be Satan? The Gnostics pointed out that Jesus was “wise as a serpent” and was hung on a tree just like the snake in the Garden.They also noted that once, when the Israelites were perishing of disease in the desert, Moses hung a brass serpent on a pole to save their lives—an indication that the snake in the Garden was also meant to represent a savior. In short, the Gnostics believed they must reject the malevolent Creator God who wants us to remain trapped in the world of matter, and turn instead to the Supreme Being in the kingdom of light, who is Jesus’ true father, and ours as well.

The Gnostics pointed out that Jesus was “wise as a serpent” and was hung on a tree just like the snake in the Garden.

There is a surprising parallel between this bizarre version of the Bible and the ancient legends of India. Although there are many thousands of temples to deities like Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Annihilator in India, only four temples to Brahma the Creator remain in all of India. The Creator is no longer worshipped because, according to legend, he was cursed by Shiva for his evil thoughts and deeds. What is more, when yogis are striving to reach liberation, many myths describe Indra, the Vedic god of thunder and lightning, descending from heaven to obstruct the yogis’ efforts. The reason is that Indra is “jealous,” afraid that the yogis may take his place in heaven, just as the Book of Genesis says that God is afraid of Adam and Eve attaining knowledge and immortality.

The Gnostics, like the yogis, believed that you couldn’t just say you were a follower of Jesus and expect to go to heaven after death. Instead you had to purify yourself until you achieved gnosis: experiential knowledge of the divine reality. Then only could you escape unhappy after-death states and eventual reincarnation back on earth. Where the Christian Gnostics differ from the yogic tradition is that they apparently believed Jesus was the only divine being to descend to earth from the realm of light to save humanity. He was the only route to salvation they knew. In the yogic scriptures, however, both God and the Goddess promise to incarnate on earth anytime and anywhere they are sincerely invoked. There is no one group of “chosen people” in the yoga tradition because no one is excluded from divine grace.

The Nazarenes

The writers of the Nag Hammadi scriptures claim that Jesus was himself a Gnostic, and for them this explains the puzzling fact that Jesus didn’t talk about the judgmental Old Testament God Yahweh (or Jehovah). Instead he referred to the Supreme Being as Abba, the loving Divine Father whose kingdom “is not of this world” (unlike the Creator God, whose kingdom is this world). Yet today Christians do not accept that Jesus was a member of the Gnostic community, and the Gnostics have long since been anathematized as heretics. Throughout the Dark Ages, whenever a group of Christians, such as the Cathars, would show tendencies even remotely Gnostic, the pope would send in troops to massacre them.

Yet there is one reliable ancient authority which claims unequivocally that Jesus was indeed a Gnostic: the Bible. The New Testament repeatedly refers to Jesus as “the Nazarene,” a phrase long mistranslated as “Jesus of Nazareth” because scholars had no idea what a Nazarene was. Recently they discovered that not only did a group called the Nazarenes live in Jesus’ area in Jesus’ time, but their descendants still exist in the Middle East today.

There is one reliable ancient authority which claims unequivocally that Jesus was indeed a Gnostic: the Bible.

After centuries of persecution, every last sect of Gnostic spirituality was extinguished—this in spite of the fact that some Gnostics, such as the Valentinians, insisted they had received their doctrine from the Apostle Paul himself. (The leading Christian scholar Elaine Pagels has recently stated that Gnostic elements may indeed exist in Paul’s writings.) Every sect was destroyed, that is, except the Nasuraiya, a Semitic group who flourish to this day in southern Iraq. Their name means “guardians of sacred knowledge.” They trace their heritage back thousands of years, and they still practice the ancient rites of their forebears, immersing the entire body in water to cleanse themselves of sin, for example. Today these people are called Mandeans (manda means gnosis). However, the Muslims call them Sabians, which means “baptizers.” One of the most renowned teachers in the Nasuraiya’s long tradition of spiritual preceptors was John the Baptist, the man who initiated Jesus at the bank of the Jordan River. The Nasuraiya are also known as masters of occult secrets who practice a 42-day rite called the masiqta (“ascension”) after each member’s death to help him or her pass safely through after-death states. In several of the Nag Hammadi texts Jesus is seen offering similar guidance through the difficult events that occur after death. From the texts in the Nag Hammadi library, it now appears that Jesus was a Nasuraiyi or initiate in the one Gnostic tradition that continues to exist to this day.

Like many of their fellow Gnostics, the Nasuraiya believe there are two worlds, one of darkness and one of light. They say that an evil Creator formed our world from the darkness, but inside each physical body fashioned by the Creator, the unknown king of light has hidden a spark of light from a universe of splendor beyond the Creator’s conception. Messengers are sent by this great king to rescue the shining beings trapped in material bodies by teaching them gnosis, or the knowledge of their true identity. Until they listen to the messenger and free themselves from matter, merging back into the world of light, they continue reincarnating, experiencing horrible conditions after death during which they are punished for their sins.

One does not have forever to obtain liberation, the Nasuraiya warn. There will come a day when the universe as we know it will pass out of existence, and souls who are not yet liberated will have lost their chance and will perish for eternity. Yogic scriptures teach a similar doctrine, though in the yogic version, after many eons the universe will manifest again, and the souls who didn’t make it in the last cosmic cycle will have another opportunity to find the light.

It is interesting to see that the Gnostic teachings, believed by many early Christians to have been taught by Jesus, are so close to the spirit of Sankhya Yoga and early Buddhism.

Unfortunately, the current hostilities between the U.S. and Iraq make it difficult for Western scholars to learn more about this fascinating sect, and very little of their voluminous mystical literature has yet been translated. But their very existence raises perplexing questions. Is it possible that when orthodox leaders rejected Gnosticism and chose instead the now orthodox teaching of theologians like Augustine of Hippo, they backed the wrong horse? When they crushed the Gnostics, did they inadvertently exterminate Jesus’ authentic mystical teachings? That’s impossible to answer for now. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that the Gnostic teachings, believed by many early Christians to have been taught by Jesus, are so close to the spirit of Sankhya Yoga and early Buddhism, sharply contrasting this material world of darkness with a formless world of light existing in consciousness, and urging us to flee this world of sorrow as urgently as if it were a burning house.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Many of those who have undergone near-death experiences report that shortly after perceiving themselves leaving their body, they actually interact with a blazing light that shines with peace, joy, and divine knowledge, and which lovingly offers them guidance. Was this the king of light the Jesus of the Nag Hammadi texts taught his disciples to seek?

In the yoga tradition, practitioners focus on divine light daily with the words, “We meditate on the Inner Sun, the most splendid light in all the worlds. May it illuminate our minds!” This is the famous Gayatri mantra, with which we invoke the inner light many people seem to experience after death into our lives even now while we’re still in a body.

How did the Gnostics who compiled the Nag Hammadi library describe the experience of enlightenment? First, in The Gospel of Truth, they explained the nature of the unenlightened state. (Remember that for the Gnostics, “Father” meant the Supreme Being from the kingdom of light, not the angry and jealous Creator God.) “Where there is conflict and desire there is deficiency, but where there is unity, there is perfection,” the text reads. “Deficiency arises when the Father is not known, but the instant the Father is known, deficiency ceases to exist. Just as darkness vanishes the very moment light shines, just as ignorance vanishes the very moment one acquires knowledge, in the same manner our sense of incompleteness vanishes instantly when we know the Father. This occurs when the separate forms we see before us vanish into unity. One attains this unity by purifying oneself till the sense of multiplicity dissolves. When unity is experienced, matter, darkness, and death disappear.”

One hears unexpected echoes of yogic truths as the text continues: “For those who do not know the Father, life is terrifying and unstable, full of doubt and discord. Yet all these things are illusions, sheer fictions, as if one is dreaming. But when those having these disturbing experiences awaken, they recognize that these events have no actual reality. Therefore those who are truly awake, having cast ignorance away like sleep, do not perceive the world as solid and substantial, but as a dream in the night. Knowledge of the Father they value like the rising sun.

“This is the condition of those beings who have attained immeasurable greatness by reaching out toward the perfect, unitary Father. They do not experience purgatory-like states after death, nor during life do they feel sorrow or envy. There is no death in them, for they rest in the one unchanging being who is truly good, and who is the root of their own being. Never again will they experience loss. This is the condition of the blessed souls, yes, this is their place.”

Unlike orthodox Christians today, the Gnostics did not believe in the resurrection of the physical body on Judgment Day. To them the body was contemptible compared to the realms of consciousness—they had no wish to return to it. “Those who are living shall die,” writes the author of The Treatise on Resurrection, another Nag Hammadi text. “The world is an illusion! You yourself are not flesh but were given flesh when you entered this world.” The writer explains that it is not the physical body which is resurrected after death, but the spiritual being inhabiting the body. It is one’s inner being that rises from the tomb of the material body. “When you flee from the sense of multiplicity and from the fetters which bind you,” the text continues, “when the divine light flows down into your darkness, and the divine fullness pours into your deficiency, then you will realize that you are already resurrected.”

Unlike orthodox Christians today, the Gnostics did not believe in the resurrection of the physical body on Judgment Day.

We find here an echo of the yogic teaching of a subtle body (linga sharira) permeating and giving life to the physical body. The yogis teach that we travel in the subtle body after death. Advanced yogis can dissolve their subtle bodies in order to merge into the divine light, or they can create new subtle bodies in order to be born into, or “borrow,” another physical body. This is exactly the sort of ability the Nag Hammadi texts claim Jesus also demonstrated.

Finally, orthodox Christians today believe that we souls exist entirely distinct from God and that to claim we are somehow “one with God” as the yogis do is blasphemous. Yet there are strong indications that this divine unity may have been exactly what Jesus taught. Still, when he says in the Nag Hammadi text The Dialogue of the Savior, “If a man establishes his soul in the heights, he will be exalted,” was Jesus speaking of raising one’s consciousness to the sahasrara chakra at the top of the brain, as yogis do? We can only speculate—but given the number of startling similarities between his teachings and yoga, we can’t rule out the possibility.

At any rate, if the ancient library discovered at Nag Hammadi is any indicator, like the great Vedantic sages of India, Jesus did teach that our innermost souls have come from a formless realm of dazzling splendor, and that with intense spiritual practice and the grace of a realized guru (like Jesus Christ), we can find our way back to the light.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.