“Anthony, and others like him, sought the shape of his own soul, hoping to accept the terrors and ecstasies of direct and unremitting encounters with himself, and, having mastered himself, to discover his relationship with the Infinite God.”
– Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent
by Kyla Merwin
The novel, The Lost Codex of the Christian Heretics, puts fictional characters in the historical unfolding of the true-life discovery, in 1945, of ancient manuscripts. This rag-tag collection became known as some of the most controversial Christian literature in existence: The Gnostic Gospels.
What follows includes real-life, historical events upon which The Lost Codex (which features the Gospel of Thomas) is based.
Peasant farmers, digging near tombs in Egypt, unearthed hundreds of sheets of papyrus, bound together in 13 leather-bound codices. Each codex contained a variety of writings that were considered heresy by the ruling church.
In addition to the provocative Gospel of Thomas, these writings included, the Secret Book of James, The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ, and–believe it or not–the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene, just to name a few.
Under the threat of destruction, Gnostic monks hastily gathered as many of their religious writings they could lay their hands on, and put them in a tall, earthenware jar. They sealed that jar with a shallow bowl, and buried it in the desert for safekeeping.
Nearly 2,000 years passed before those manuscripts saw the light of day.
Along comes Muhammad Ali al-Samman, in 1945, with his brothers, digging for fertile soil near a burial site along the Nile River.
Here’s an excerpt from The Lost Codex of the Christian Heretics that describes the discovery (based upon the historical account by Elaine Pagels):
Muhammad dropped his [digging tool] to the ground as he and his company involuntarily stepped away from the broken jar. A few dropped to their knees in fear. Great dismay covered their upturned faces as they watched a plume of gold rise from the remnants of clay. The mysterious form twisted and sparkled as it stretched into the sky. For a few dazzling seconds it lingered, glittering in the bright sunlight. Then, in a breath, it was gone.
While the farmers fear they had released a Jinn (an evil spirit) from the earthenware jar, what they actually saw were fragments of papyrus, which were caught in the wind and the sun before they dispersed into nothingness.
What remained were 13 leather-bound collections of religious writings.
The farmers separated these codices, ripping some apart, to be dispersed in a variety of ways, including burned as kindling, sold on the Black Market, and lost in a suitcase in someone’s attic. One manuscript, The Gospel of Truth, was smuggled by an absent-minded professor to the Jung Institute in Zurich.
Eventually, all the manuscripts that were known to survive, were reunited and translated by the Institute for Christianity & Antiquity in Claremont, California, and permanently housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
So, who were these Gnostic Christians?
The Gnostics were a small, renegade band of Christians who claimed direct experience of the Divine.
In the first 200 years after the crucifixion, these radicals taught that the Church hierarchy was a ruse, a manufactured chain-of-command that served church leaders with absolute power. This incontrovertible lineage kept the masses, the sheep of God’s flock, in line. Orthodox, “right thinking,” doctrine claimed that you must go through this hierarchy–and only this hierarchy–to reach God.
The Gnostics (from the Greek gnōstos meaning “known”) claimed that no one needed a pope or a priest, a cardinal or a deacon–or anyone else at all–to find God.
God was available right here, right now, direct and in person, to everyone. Equal access was granted to the prince and the pauper, the young and the old, the poor and the rich…of any race, color or creed. Everyone.
They further declared that faith was for sissies. They claimed direct, personal experiences of the Divine. They claimed knowing.
Naturally, this upset Church rulers, who demanded that all Gnostic writings be destroyed.
In 325 AD, at the Council at Nicaea, 318 bishops gathered to create a single canon that would unite Christians under one official, divinely inspired, neat and tidy canon––the word of God. Anything that smacked of Gnosticism, or purported direct access to God, was tossed in the wastebasket.
Another except from The Lost Codex of the Christian Heretics explains the end of Gnosticism:
In 367 AD, Athanasius, the great Arch Bishop of Alexandria, issued a decree called The Lenten Letter––one of the most powerful and bloody documents of all time.
This letter listed all the documents that were to be recognized in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It was this letter that determined what was, and what was not, the Word of God. It determined what was heresy and what was truth, and how religion would be practiced.
In these early years of Christianity, there was no separation between church and state. The people’s religion was not just what they practiced or how they worshipped, it was how they lived their lives. Soon after The Lenten Letter came out, all known Gnostic Gospels were destroyed. Gnostic practitioners–hundreds of them, young and old–were put to the sword.
In the gathering pools of fear and blood, Gnosticism disappeared.
What endures? What can we learn, nearly 2,000 years later, from this ostracized, renegade band of Christians who claimed direct, personal, and intimate experience of the Divine?
What would you do, today, if you knew you had direct access to God, as the Gnostics claimed––through meditation, contemplation, and “unremitting encounters” with your own soul?
I’ll leave you to ponder that for yourself, and offer you an excerpt from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
“Jesus said, ‘If your leaders say to you, look the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, it is in the sea, then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. When you know yourself then you will be known and you will know that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourself, then you will dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”
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If you’re interested in the novel: a thrilling historical adventure that takes place in Egypt in 1947, as three estranged friends (read: love triangle) unveil the mystical secrets of early Christianity, even as they travel the rugged interiors of their own tempestuous hearts…