Friday 10 July 2015

The Esoteric Christ?

                                          Did Jesus Teach a Secret Gnostic Doctrine?

And when he was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned him about the parables. He answered them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables
Mark 4:10-11

Since ancient times there have been those who say that Jesus taught one doctrine openly and another, higher, one secretly to those initiated into His circle.From time to time groups have emerged, and still emerge, which claim to be custodians of this doctrine or to have 'rediscovered' it. A claim which, of course, it is impossible to either verify or to disprove. A somewhat related theory suggests that during His youth our Lord went to India and upon His return taught some form of Buddhism or Vedanta Hinduism to those followers whom He had first drawn to Him by preaching a radical form of Judaism.

To some extent these are all conspiracy theories; a way of viewing the world which is notoriously difficult to unsettle. Anyone who wishes to believe such a theory, whatever form it may take, is meeting a psychological need and is likely to be impervious to those facts which fail to meet that need. Nonetheless I think that it is a worthwhile exercise to demonstrate why I think these are untenable approaches for explaining the mission of Jesus.

It is certainly true that there are a number of texts which show our Lord unfolding His teaching in a veiled way (the parables) before huge crowds and in a more explicit way (the discourses) before His disciples. What they don't show is that there is any difference in content between the parables and the discourses, the latter explain the former they don't alter their meaning. Moreover the category of 'disciples' is not clearly defined. The Apostles were a group of 12 who accompanied Jesus but the disciples were simply those who were attracted to Him by His teachings and works. We cannot then assume that wherever Jesus went the disciples who listened to Him were a fixed group of people. In all probability those who joined the Apostles to hear the explanations of the parables were people who had been in the crowd and who desiring to learn more had come forward to ask questions. To believe in an esoteric doctrine we need to suppose that Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds then more clearly in His discourses to the disciples and then more clearly still to an inner circle of initiates including the Apostles and Mary Magdalene. And there simply is no warrant in the texts to assume that this third stage happened.

Another point to note is that there are texts in which our Lord quite clearly suggests that He is not preaching a secret doctrine. In Mark 4, for example, we have- 'He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.' (Mark 4:22) And before the Jewish High Priest He said- “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said." (John 18:20-21) So either Jesus was lying, in which case He has not a spiritual leader worth following, or He was telling the truth in which case there is no esoteric doctrine of the Christ only the public one.

History suggests that all but one of the Apostles met a violent death, martyred for the sake of the public doctrines of the Christian Church. There are some who dispute this but the Gospel certainly points to Peter's martyrdom (John 21:19) and Paul's willingness to be martyred (Acts 20:22-24.) There is no doubt either that many Bishops and others one can assume to be in the inner core of the Church willingly suffered torture and death for the openly professed doctrines of the Church. Now, why would they do that if they held those particular doctrines to be of little importance besides the esoteric ones which they secretly believed? One answer would be that the secret teachings were equally liable to persecution by the Roman authorities. The problem with that is that the various Gnostic groups and sects who claim to hold and teach the esoteric doctrines of Jesus Christ do not, in fact, advance anything that the Romans would have found half so objectionable as they thought Apostolic Christianity to be.

If Jesus is the unique Incarnation of the Son of God whose crucifixion and death redeems those who acknowledge Him to be Lord and Saviour then Christians are obliged to refuse worship to anyone else. This is the thing which most annoyed the authorities of the day and led to the persecution of the new movement. However, the Gnostics tend to claim that Jesus is simply, like the Buddha, the one who has most fully attained the life of the Spirit. What He offers is not Himself as such but His teachings. That being so there is no compelling reason to allow yourself to be killed for asserting His unique divinity when you believe that anyone can become equally divine by accepting His teachings and living them to the full. If you think that an esoteric doctrine exists then it requires you to suppose that it was held and taught not by the Apostles but by some other group who constituted an inner circle separate from the only inner circle for which we have any textual evidence.

There is an equal but opposite argument advanced by some Protestant Evangelicals that the Catholic Church dwells too much on what it calls 'mysteries,' especially regarding the Sacrifice of the Mass.It is said that the Church is pretending that the clear and simple message of Jesus has some hidden meaning that only priests can penetrate on behalf of the faithful. This is to misunderstand the meaning of the word 'mystery.' It signifies that there are things beyond the power of the human mind to understand fully. It does not signify that there are things which are fully known but deliberately hidden. It is, for example, impossible to fully unpack a sentence like ' I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world' (John 6:51) without coming up to the boundaries of the knowable. In that sense Christianity is and always will be a mysterious religion. What it isn't and never has been is a two-speed religion with the fullness of revelation reserved for initiates and some second-rate hand-me-down reserved for a gullible public. The Christ of the Church is the Christ for all.

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  1. Am sure you are right - the context was one in which mystery religions were increasingly part of the private sphere and Christianity seems to have been less secretive than many. The most common charge against the Christians was (I think - my knowledge is not as deep as yours) of atheism rather than esotericism.

    Enjoyed this again, thanks Steve.

    1. Thank you. Yes the early Christians were accused mostly of atheism for refusing to acknowledge the gods recognised by Rome. They did practice reticence with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist for several generations in that the unbaptised were excluded from it. Beyond that we find no trace of a secret doctrine. The gnostic and esoteric cults had no especial reason to fear persecution from the pagans since their doctrine was that each enlightened person was exactly equivalent to Jesus. Therefore everyone was divine not through the person of Jesus but through the awakening of their inner Christ. An outlook that did not invite one to martyrdom in defence of the exclusive claims of the Incarnate Son of God. Incidentally I think the evidence is that the gnostic texts for the most part post-dated the canonical ones which is an argument against their transmission by those close to Jesus.