Early Christianity and Mormonism:

Gnostic Esoteric Rites

©1997 Barry Bickmore. All rights reserved.

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Introduction - A Note on Gnosticism

Before we go into the esoteric rites of the gnostic Christians, it will be beneficial to briefly review who these people were, so their rituals can be evaluated in context. It is well known that for a few centuries there existed alongside the catholic Christian tradition various heretical groups categorized as "gnostic". This name comes from gnosis, the Greek word for "knowledge." Hans Jonas explains that gnostics believed they were saved by knowledge, specifically the knowledge of God, or that knowledge was the form of salvation itself. They believed in a radically transcendent God, however, so this knowledge was not something innate, but something that had to be divinely bestowed on the gnostic.1

And while it may be tempting to equate this sentiment to Jesus' statement, "... ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,"2 or Joseph Smith's that "a man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge,"3 upon further reflection it becomes obvious that the gnostic belief was very different than the original Christian teaching. Specifically, while Christ taught that the faithful are given knowledge, but saved by His atonement, the gnostic belief was that the knowledge itself was what saved. Also, Christ's gnosis was meant for the whole world, if they would seek it, while gnostic secrets were not. Davies explains the difference:

    Whereas Christianity, from one aspect, was the democratization of 'mystery', Gnosticism represented an attempt to reverse this situation by making the Christian mystery aristocratic. Its message of salvation therefore did not comprise the offer of a gift to all men but the realization of a right by some men; hence according to the Gospel of Truth, 'if one has knowledge, he gets what belongs to him and draws it to himself'.4

Christ's incarnation and atonement were thought to have been illusory, since gnosticism radicalized the Platonic notion that matter is a lower reality into the doctrine that matter is evil. (If matter is evil, how could a divine being associate himself with it?) And while true Christians viewed the physical body as necessary, the gnostics thought of it as a prison into which the pre-existent spirit had fallen and out of which it must escape.5 A Manichean gnostic prayer poignantly made this point: "As I have been born in this terrible, phantasmic house, this castle of death, this poisonous form, the body made of bone...."6

The birth of the gnostic Christian movement was in the apostolic period, but they probably never became terribly prevalent at that time because the apostles actively combatted this heresy, calling it the "science [gnosis] falsely so called."7 But according to Eusebius, gnostic teachers came out of the woodwork in great profusion after the apostles were all gone:

    But when the sacred college of apostles had suffered death in various forms, and the generation of those that had been deemed worthy to hear the inspired wisdom with their own ears had passed away, then the league of godless error took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers, who, because none of the apostles was still living, attempted henceforth, with a bold face, to proclaim, in opposition to the preaching of the truth, the 'knowledge [gnosis]which is falsely so-called.'8

Why did the gnostic teachers become so popular? From our discussion of early Christian esoteric rites and doctrines it is clear that the original Church had a true "gnosis", in contrast to the "knowledge falsely so called". Perhaps a good portion of the true gnosis was lost when the apostles left the scene, however, and many in the Church were so hungry for what had been lost that they were willing to accept the hodge-podge of "... oriental mythologies, astrological doctrines, Iranian theology, elements of Jewish tradition,... Christian salvation-eschatology, [and] Platonic terms and concepts,"9 that the gnostics had to offer in its place.

It bears repeating that there was, indeed, a true gnosis! J.N.D. Kelly points out that such a strain had existed in the other branches of Christianity since the earliest times:

    There was a powerful strain in early Christianity which was in sympathy with Gnostic tendencies. We can see it at work in the Fourth Gospel, with its axiom that eternal life consists in knowledge of God and of Christ, and even more clearly in such second-century works as 2 Clement and Theophilus's Ad Autolycum. As we noticed above, Clement of Alexandria freely applied the title 'gnostics' to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith. It is the existence of a genuinely Christian, orthodox 'gnosis' side by side with half-Christian versions which in part accounts for the difficulty in defining Gnosticism precisely.10

According to Morton Smith, the fact that there existed an esoteric tradition in the earliest forms of Christianity goes a long way to explain why there was such a great profusion of gnostic Christian sects, although gnosticism had existed in other forms previous to the advent of Christ:

    But it seems likely that the primitive secret tradition of Christianity will prove the most important single factor in solving one of the major problems of the history of gnosticism: Why did so very many gnostic sects spring up so early in so many parts of the Christian Church? Groups that seem gnostic occasionally appear in paganism or Judaism, but nowhere else is there anything like the quantity and vigor of the Christian development. This has to be explained, and the explanation must be something in Christianity. What else but the secret tradition?11

Although a gnostic strain was present in post-Apostolic catholic Christianity, that doesn't necessarily mean that their gnosis was the true one either! Clement and Origen's gnosis apparently included various quasi-Platonic speculations of their own which were not present in the original Church,12 and earlier "orthodox" writings with a gnostic flair, such as the Epistle of the Apostles, soon fell out of favor because they were "too heavily loaded with strange views and no longer had any contemporary significance."13

However, we are not so much interested in the content of the secret doctrine as the content of the secret rituals that went along with them. H.J. Rose explains that it has always been standard procedure to keep rituals, but change the doctrines associated with them to suit the times. Thus rituals are among the most conservative elements of religion.14 Therefore, even though the gnostics held to doctrines that are repugnant to Latter-day Saints and mainstream Christians alike, it is still instructive to investigate their rituals to determine whether they might have been remnants of an earlier esoteric tradition within apostolic Christianity.

Gnostic Christian Rites

In gnostic Christianity we find rituals very similar to the mysteries of other branches of the early Church. Indeed, as was discussed above, Clement claimed that the Carpocratian gnostics had obtained a copy of the Secret Gospel of Mark and had corrupted it to suit their own libertine tendencies. Therefore, since this document was associated with the "Great Mysteries", it should not be surprising that the gnostics had similar rites.15 In order to provide a survey of these rites, they will be briefly discussed in connection with three documentary sources: 1) the Gospel of Phillip, 2) the Books of Jeu , the Pistis Sophia, and related documents, and 3) the Acts of John.

The Gospel of Philip

The Coptic gnostic Gospel of Philip was discovered in 1945 in Egypt as part of the Nag Hammadi texts. J.J. Buckley claims that this document is in essence a preparatory manual for an esoteric initiation rite.16 Although the descriptions of the rites practiced by those who accepted this document are somewhat vague, they are of great interest to Latter-day Saints. The text describes five successive rites: "The Lord [did] everything in a mystery, a baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber."17 Considering anointing (chrism) and the eucharist to be related to baptism, the text goes on to compare baptism, the rite called the "redemption", and marriage to the three levels of the sanctuary in the Temple at Jerusalem: "Baptism is 'the Holy' building. Redemption is 'the Holy of the Holy.' 'The Holy of the Holies' is the bridal chamber."18

Some more details of the marriage ceremony are given, as well, which will be discussed later in this chapter. At least one of these rites undoubtedly included the teaching of various "mysteries". Hennecke and Schneemelcher discuss the content of the esoteric teaching, and reveal that certain passwords designed to allow the soul to ascend through the heavens were included:

    The gospel [of Philip] must therefore have contained revelations imparted by Jesus to another person (probably Philip) and reported by him. The instruction here bears upon a subject familiar to Gnosis: the manner of the ascent of the soul. By means of ritual formulae, which are at the same time passwords, the soul ascending after death to its heavenly fatherland obtains from the planetary Archons, the hostile 'powers' of destiny who oppose its return, free passage through the seven successive spheres of the visible firmament.19

Clues about the nature of the ritual formulae required were given by Irenaeus, who noted that some gnostic sects referred to the redemption as "The name which is hidden from every deity".20 He also observed that "others still repeat certain Hebrew words, in order the more thoroughly to bewilder those who are being initiated."21 It is also interesting to note that certain gnostic ascension narratives also contained ritual handclasps. For example, in one Manichean narrative, the Primeval Man is drawn up to heaven by celestial messengers:

    The Living Spirit, who was accompanied by the Mother of Life, extended his right hand to Primeval Man. The latter seized it and thus was drawn up out of the depths of the world of darkness. Together with the Mother of Life and the Living Spirit he rose up and up, soared like victorious light out of darkness, till he was returned to the paradise of light, his celestial home, where his kin awaited him.22

The Pistis Sophia, the Two Books of Jeu, and Related Documents

Other Coptic gnostic works contain information about the "mysteries" the gnostics practiced. Two good examples are the Pistis Sophia and the Two Books of Jeu. In these documents the apostles and some female disciples gather together somewhere to receive instruction in the mysteries from the risen Lord. The Pistis Sophia relates that after clothing themselves in linen garments, the participants situated themselves in a circle about Jesus, who stood at the altar. Then Jesus offered a rather strange prayer in behalf of his disciples:

    ... Thomas, Andrew, James and Simon the Canaanite were in the west, with their faces turned towards the east, but Philip and Bartholomew were in the south (with their faces) turned towards the north, but the other disciples and the women disciples stood behind Jesus. But Jesus stood beside the altar. And Jesus cried out, turning towards the four corners of the world with his disciples, who were all clothed in linen garments, and said: iao, iao, iao.... But when Jesus had said this, he said: Thou Father of all Fatherhood of the Infinite hearken unto me for my disciples' sake....23

In all of these documents Jesus answered various questions his disciples asked. Although the answers given usually reflected some rather strange gnostic doctrines, the general subjects covered can be inferred from a related document called the Sophia Jesu Christi:

    After he had risen from the dead, when they came, the twelve disciples and seven women who had followed him as disciples, into Galilee... where they were now at a loss in regard to the true nature of the universe, the plan of salvation, the holy providence, the excellency of the powers, about all that the Redeemer did with them, the secrets of the holy plan of salvation, then there appeared to them the Redeemer....24

In one other gnostic document, the Apocalypse of Adam, it is related that originally such mystical instruction was given by three heavenly messengers to Adam. Jesuit scholar George MacRae summarizes:

    Father Adam explains how in the Fall he and Eve lost their glory and knowledge.... Through the revelation imparted to Adam by three heavenly visitors, however, this knowledge is passed on to Seth and his seed.25

In the Two Books of Jeu the Saviour also gave various "seals" and passwords necessary to ascend to the highest heaven, just as were given in the Gospel of Philip:

    Here also are imparted the secret names of the aeons, their several numbers, the "seals" and "pass-words", the formulae which allow free passage through each of their spheres, on after the other, and ensure escape from their grasp and power.26

It is interesting to note that one of the formulae given in the Pistis Sophia is the statement: "He is I, and I am he." Jean Doresse explains that this is "the mystery whose words are of an extraordinary power, and thanks to which each of the Perfect ones will be absorbed, in the end, into the person of Jesus himself...."27 Remember that Ignatius had a similar formula he considered necessary, "Thou art I and I am thou,"28 which may have been part of the "orthodox" Christian esoteric tradition.

Then, of course, the discourse was concluded with a charge to keep the mysteries secret:

    These mysteries which I shall give you, preserve, and give them to no man except he be worthy of them. Give them not to father nor to mother, to brother or to sister or to kinsman, neither for food nor for drink, nor for woman-kind, neither for gold nor for silver, nor for anything at all of this world. Preserve them, and give them to no one whatsoever for the sake of the good of this whole world.29

The Acts of John

The Acts of John was a common gnostic document which relates a similar initiation ceremony including the familiar ring-dance/prayer circle. According to Max Pulver, this document was always believed to refer to an initiation rite, and certain clues are given about some of the paraphernalia used in the ceremony:

    Thus, as late as the fourth century the hymn from the Acts of St. John was still regarded as a ritual of initiation; here Christ is a mystagogue.... That is, Christ was held to have delivered a secret initiation and to have left a secret tradition to his disciples, and above all to John....30

In the last four verses of the hymn [in the Acts of St. John] Christ refers to himself as a torch, a mirror, a door, and a way. These are not only familiar symbols but also probably instruments of initiation.31

A passage from the Acts of John itself describes the ring-dance/prayer circle practiced as part of the initiation:

    But before he was arrested by the lawless Jews, whose lawgiver is the lawless serpent, he assembled us all and said, 'Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so go to meet what lies before (us).' So he told us to form a circle, holding one another's hands, and himself stood in the middle and said, 'Answer Amen to me'. So he began to sing the hymn and to say.... [A long hymn follows, which includes the following injunction:] 'Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in Me who am speaking, and when you have seen what I do, keep silence about my mysteries.'32

The overarching purpose of this initiation, according to Pulver, was once again to give certain symbols, marks of recognition, and passwords to the disciples so they could ascend to the highest heaven and become deified:

    The initiates [in the Acts of John] have entered into the godhead, fused with it. And the mystery god has no longer any outward form but only a voice.... This voice imparts to them the symbols, the marks of recognition and passwords....33

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1 Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, pp. 32, 34.

2 John 8:32.

3 Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 217.

4 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 71.

5 Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, pp. 49-51.

6 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, p. 149

7 1 Timothy 6:20. See 2 John 7 for John's warning to reject those who did not confess that Jesus had come in the flesh.

8 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:32, in NPNF Series 2, 1:164.

9 Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p. 25.

10 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 27.

11 Smith, The Secret Gospel, p. 137

12 Mosheim, Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity, vol.1, p. 376.

13 NTA 1:190.

14 Rose, Ancient Greek Religion, p. 9.

15 Hamblin, W.J., "Aspects of an Early Christian Initiation Ritual", in Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 1, pp. 211-212.

16 Buckley, "A Cult Mystery in the Gospel of Philip," Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 99, no. 4, (1980), pp.569-581. Cf. Hamblin, W.J., "Aspects of an Early Christian Initiation Ritual," in Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 1, p. 212.

17 The Gospel of Philip, in Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p. 140.

18 The Gospel of Philip, in Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p. 142.

19 NTA 1:273.

20 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:21:3, in ANF 1:346.

21 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:21:3, in ANF 1:346.

22 Widengren, Mani and Manichaeism, p. 52. Cf. Compton, T.M., "The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition," in Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 1, pp. 621-622.

23 NTA 1:258-259.

24 The Sophia Jesu Christi, in NTA 1:246.

25 MacRae, G.W., Introduction to the Apocalypse of Adam, in Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p. 256.

26 NTA 1:263.

27 Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, p. 71.

28 Pulver, M., "Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John," in Campbell, ed., The Mysteries, pp. 176-177.

29 The Two Books of Jeu, NTA 1:263.

30 Pulver, "Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John," in Campbell, ed., The Mysteries, p. 173.

31 Pulver, "Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John," in Campbell, ed., The Mysteries, p. 189.

32 The Acts of John, in NTA 2:227, 230.

33 Pulver, "Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John," in Campbell, ed., The Mysteries, pp. 192-193.