Published: May 2006
Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.


The Passion

The event at the center of orthodox Christianity—Jesus's crucifixion—was radically reinterpreted by the Gnostics. Rather than a sacrificial death, or atonement, that frees believers from sin, the destruction of Jesus's body in the Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic texts frees his divine soul to rejoin God. But the Gnostics departed even further from orthodox views of Jesus's suffering and death. Some of their writings say that although Jesus looked as though he inhabited a physical body, this was only an illusion. He was a divine being who could appear in many different forms, like that of a child in the Gospel of Judas. Other Gnostic writings say that while a human being named Jesus did actually die, the divine part of him, or the Christ, did not. Instead this divine part descended into Jesus at his baptism and departed his body just before Jesus's death on the cross, when he uttered the words, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Still other Gnostic writings say that someone else entirely‚Äîperhaps Simon of Cyrene, described as having briefly carried the cross‚Äîwas put to death in place of Jesus, while he remained alive, laughing at the blindness of those who tried to kill him.

Cain and Abel

In the Old Testament, Cain kills his brother Abel and is cursed by God. But in Gnostic texts Cain appears as a hero. Why celebrate a murderer? Because Gnostics saw the Old Testament God as a lower deity, a power crazed demiurge, who created a flawed physical world that imprisons human souls. Salvation for them meant escaping the physical realm to be reunited with the true supreme being. To Gnostics, any defiance against the false creator god was an heroic act. So one school of Gnostics celebrated Cain's murder of Abel, whose offering of lambs the Old Testament God favored over Cain's offering of crops. In the same way, The same school celebrated the people of Sodom, the city that the Old Testament God destroys after its people try to rape visiting angels. These Gnostics were not embracing murder or rape, they were identifying with those who rebelled against the Old Testament God.

—Karen E. Lange

The early Christians known as Gnostics, whose beliefs are reflected in the Judas gospel, were not a homogeneous group; scholars even debate whether the many strains of Gnosticism should be lumped together under one banner. The Gnostic idea that individuals carry a spark of the divine within them may well have existed before Christianity. But after the time of Christ a number of Gnostics adopted Jesus as their savior—as the man who told humankind the truth about God—and thus considered themselves Christian. However, they understood his role and teachings in a very different way than orthodox Christians.

So, where did Jesus fit into Christian Gnostic cosmology?

Many Gnostics believed that Jesus was sent to Earth to teach humankind about a kind, loving, accepting God, who was very different from the tough, vengeful creator God of the Old Testament. Because Gnostics could not reconcile the two opposing aspects of the divine in one God, they believed there must be another god in addition to the creator God.

They came to view that second, greater God as a divine mind, who at the beginning of time had thoughts that spun off and became divine entities known as Aeons. The Aeons lived in the Pleroma, or fullness of God, which was a type of celestial ether or realm of light. One of these ideas made into substance was Wisdom, called "Sophia." She started to think and to have a mind of her own, and so she brought forth a new being without consulting the divine mind, and without its approval. This offspring was known as Yaldobaoth, and was called the demiurge, or creator.

The Gnostics believed it was Yaldobaoth who scooped up Adam and Eve from dirt and blew the breath of life into them. The creator spirit, an aberration in the pure world of the divine mind, brought evil into the world. But he also carried the essence of Sophia, and he exhaled some of the divine into Adam and Eve when he brought them to life. All of humankind has inherited that divine spark.

Jesus' role on Earth, according to the Gnostic Christians, was to tell humankind that they are descended from the divine. By knowing this, and looking inward to discover the divine spark, a Gnostic can be reunited with the divine and live in the fullness of God.

—Elizabeth Snodgrass