Even as the mythic groundwork for a new religion was being laid by the life and death of Jesus Christ, another, more abstract and philosophical underpinning to Christianity was being unknowingly put down by an Alexandrian Jew named Philo, whom we’ve met in passing on a couple of occasions already. Now it’s time for us to become properly acquainted.
To understand the motivations behind Philo’s work, we first need to understand the position of the Roman Empire’s Jewish diaspora around the time of Jesus. In many ways, these Jews who had left their ancestral homeland had it better than those who had stayed behind. Their diligence and cleverness won them positions of influence and considerable wealth in many places. They became writers, bankers, and civil servants among other high-status occupations. Yet their wealth and status could be a double-edged sword. When the mood of the Gentile populace turned sour for whatever reason and they felt the need of a scapegoat, the Jews — this cabal of Others who worshiped a strange god in such strange ways, who held themselves aloof from everyone else — became a natural target. Thus Jews lived continually on a knife’s edge between prosperity and ruin, between the halls of power and a bloodthirsty mob. This experience of life would hold true for their sect for the next two millennia. The Holocaust of our last century was perhaps the worst of all the atrocities to which they have fallen victim, but it was by no means the first.
The position of the Jews in Alexandria was no more secure than anywhere else, even as they numbered a good fifth of the city’s population and a much bigger share of its bureaucracy. For example, when the Roman Emperor Gaius — better known to his posterity as the notorious Caligula — was crowned in AD 37, rabble-rousers took umbrage with the Alexandrian Jews’ refusal to honor him in what struck them as a properly solemn manner. The Jews obstinately rejected the mob’s demand that they place a statue of the emperor in their biggest synagogue, whereupon the situation quickly spiraled out of control. “After driving these many myriads of men, women, and children like herds of cattle into a very small portion as into a pen,” writes Philo, who saw the whole episode firsthand, “[the mob] expected in a few days to find heaps of dead massed together.” The Jews were saved in the nick of time by the Roman governor of Egypt, who considered them too valuable to his government to allow them to be massacred, and who thus brought the military in to disperse the angry citizenry.
In this atmosphere of perpetual tension, some scholarly Jews decided that the best way to relieve it might be to explain their culture, their religion, and their history to the Gentiles, in the hope that this would allay their Otherness and lead to a greater degree of acceptance. They tried to frame these explanations in ways that the Gentiles would find most congenial, emphasizing similarities rather than differences. This was by no means the only agenda of Philo of Alexandria, but it was certainly among them.
Philo was born in approximately 20 BC, a scion of the richest and most prominent Jewish family of all in Alexandria; his father was the man in charge of collecting customs duties in this, the busiest port in the ancient world. His sister would marry into the family of Herod the Great, the last Jewish royal line of antiquity, while his brother would move to Rome, renounce the religion that limited his rise, and enjoy a sparkling career as a governor of various Roman provinces. But Philo stayed in Alexandria throughout his life, to spend his 70 years thinking and writing down his thoughts at enormous length. In contrast to so many other Alexandrian philosophers and theologians of the pre-Christian era, much or most of his work has reached us over the gulf of years.
One of Philo’s projects was an attempt to reconcile the teachings of the Hebrew Bible with the Greek philosophical tradition. He venerated Plato in particular to almost the same degree that he did the Jewish patriarchs. He was very taken with Plato’s philosophical dualism, his insistence on an absolute split between the tangible physical world and the intangible metaphysical realm of the spirit and the intellect.
In Timaeus, one of the thorniest of all his works, Plato posits a cosmology that seems weirdly out of step with his own milieu of the polytheistic Greece of the fourth century BC, expressing what would seem a decided monotheism. Like so many of Plato’s works, this one is written as a dialog between his old master Socrates and another philosopher, in this case the titular Timaeus. The topic at hand is the origin of the world, about which Timaeus has this to say:
Is the world created or uncreated? That is the first question. Created, I reply, being visible and tangible. And if created, made by a cause, and the cause is the ineffable father of all things. Why did the Creator make the world? He was good and therefore not jealous, and being free from jealousy he desired that all things should be like himself. Wherefore he set in order the visible world.
Timeaus goes on to describe how God created each piece of the world: the heavens, the land and sea, plants and animals and human beings. Meanwhile Socrates engages in none of the churlish argumentation we see in his other dialogs, but merely nods along with Timaeus approvingly, presumably expressing the approbation of Plato as well.
Timaeus is wordier and less elegant than the beautiful opening to the Book of Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…”), but the similarities are otherwise striking. It would seem that the usual pantheon of Greek gods, if they exist at all, must be firmly subordinate to the Creator God in the cosmology presented here, demigods at best rather than true gods. Another point is subtler but in its way equally important: the insistence that the Creator God is good. That adjective was often difficult to apply to the squabbling Greek pantheon, as any reader of classical mythology knows all too well.
But there is still a problem. The Creator God is the very essence of ineffability, existing outside of time or space, a perfect eternal being beyond any hope of mortal understanding. How, then, can he interact and communicate with his creations? Plato proposes that does he so through his Logos — literally translated, his “Word.” For the Creator God, his Word is his will to power: by merely “speaking” something, he makes it real. Again, the similarities with the Hebrew Bible are striking: “And God said, Let there be light. And there was light.”
Philo was encouraged by these uncanny similarities to see Plato almost as a proto-Jew, a visionary who grasped much of the truth of the religion, who was prevented from seeing the whole picture only by his lack of exposure to Jewish doctrine. Philo was, needless to say, eager to bring Plato into the fold posthumously in order to effect a union between the two previously disparate traditions of thought. In attempting to do so, he put his own spin on Plato’s idea of the Logos, turning it into what mythologists call a “hypostasis”: a living personification of some abstract quality, in this case the divine wisdom of God.
Philo noted the many places where the Hebrew Bible speaks of “the word of the Lord” as if it is some sort of companion to God himself: for example, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, neither was the word of the Lord revealed to him,” says the Book of Samuel. He noted the frequent references to an “angel of the Lord.” And he zeroed in on still other places which seem to speak of two gods rather than a singular entity. The Book of Genesis, for instance, says that “in the image of God made he man.” We have man, who is being made, but the diction seems otherwise badly mangled. Should this not read, “in the image of himself made God man?”
No, answers Philo: “Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme father of the universe, but only after the second deity, who is the Logos of the supreme being.” The “God” in the original sentence, then, was the supreme God’s Logos, while “he” was the supreme God himself. When the word “God” or “Lord” appears in the Bible without a definite article, claimed Philo, what is being referred to is his Logos, his intermediary with the world of humanity; only “the God” or “the Lord” refers to the supreme God himself. Thus we might rewrite the sentence in question as, “In the image of his Logos made the Lord man.”
Elsewhere Philo refers to God’s Logos as “his firstborn son”:
For God, like a shepherd and a king, governs (as if they were a flock of sheep) the earth, and the water, and the air, and the fire, and all the plants, and living creatures that are in them, whether mortal or divine; and he regulates the nature of the heaven, and the periodical revolutions of the sun and moon, and the variations and harmonious movements of the other stars, ruling them according to law and justice; appointing, as their immediate superintendent, his own right reason [i.e., his Logos], his first-born son, who is to receive the charge of this sacred company, as the lieutenant of the great king.
This passage seems so prescient that it has prompted some to ask whether Philo was aware of the burgeoning religion of Christianity, may perhaps even have been a secret Christian himself; he did, after all, outlive Jesus by some twenty years. The reality is, however, that he betrays nowhere in his writings any concrete knowledge of those retroactively momentous events that were occurring well to the east of Alexandria.
Still, the idea which Philo provided — that of a necessary intermediary between God and humans — became fundamental to the new religion. A man who quite likely never heard of Jesus Christ, Philo can nonetheless be seen as the first great theologian of Christianity. Biblical scholars strongly suspect that the apostle Paul must have read him before writing his epistles, as did the authors of the four New Testament gospels; the Gospel of John, the last and most theologically refined of the four, particularly seems to echo him.
But, although Philo unknowingly provided Christianity with a framework for understanding its savior, he still left room for plenty of questions about this character that Christians by the time of Paul were already referring to as the “son of God.” In what sense was Jesus the son of God? What was his exact relationship to the Jewish God, a figure who had never before been described as having progeny?
Early Christian communities embraced a wide variety of answers to these questions, so many that students of Christian history have given their array of beliefs a name of its own: they speak of differing Christologies. Some groups believed that Jesus was an ordinary mortal from his birth to his death, who was resurrected by God and accorded divine status only after his crucifixion, in recognition of his supreme sacrifice. (I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this version of the Jesus story is in many ways the most moving and satisfying: Jesus’s willingness to die for his cause is most noble if he doesn’t know that he will be reawakened to life after his execution.) Other groups believed that Jesus was a mortal man whom the spirit of God entered at some point during his life –probably at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist — then departed just before his death. (Thus Jesus’s almost unbearably plaintive cry on the cross, as recorded by the Gospel of Mark: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) Even those who believed that the Jesus who “died” was a divine being from first to last still found space for disagreement. Was he a separate entity from God and therefore by definition subordinate to him, like one of the angels who crop up from time to time in the Hebrew Bible? Or was he an embodied aspect of God himself? And was he a physical, material being during his time on earth, or a spirit throughout who could merely create the illusion of physicality for himself? All possible permutations of all of these points of view had Christians who adhered to them.
This wide spectrum of beliefs arose not least from the fact that the early Christian tradition was largely an oral one. As anyone who has played the old classroom game of Chinese Whispers (also sometimes called Telephone) knows all too well, stories can and do change from telling to telling, even under the most controlled conditions — which these most certainly were not. There was no established, authoritative canon of Christian texts to sort the divinely inspired from the erroneous or blasphemous. Even the four written gospels which would finally make their way into the New Testament reflect their religion’s chaotic oral origins. They contradict one another on point after point, as Bart D. Ehrman has illustrated through the lens of their diverging descriptions of the discovery that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
Read through the accounts and ask yourself some basic questions: Who was the first person to go to the tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene by herself (John)? or Mary along with another Mary (Matthew)? or Mary along with another Mary and Salome (Mark)? or Mary, Mary, Joanna, and a number of other women (Luke)? Was the stone already rolled away when they arrived at the tomb (Mark, Luke, and John), or explicitly not (Matthew)? Whom did they see there? An angel (Matthew), a man (Mark), or two men (Luke)? Did they immediately go and tell some of the disciples what they had seen (John), or not (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)? What did the person or people at the tomb tell the women to do? To tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee (Matthew and Mark)? Or to remember what Jesus had told them earlier when he had been in Galilee (Luke)? Did the women then go tell the disciples what they were told to tell them (Matthew and Luke), or not (Mark)? Did the disciples see Jesus (Matthew, Luke, and John), or not (Mark)? Where did they see him? — only in Galilee (Matthew), or only in Jerusalem (Luke)?
Among the New Testament gospels, only that of John incontrovertibly subscribes to what would become the orthodox view of Jesus Christ: that he was a being simultaneously distinct and indivisible from God the Father who came to earth in physical form, was paradoxically both fully human and fully divine during his sojourn there, and was physically resurrected after his death on the cross to live on among his followers for 40 more days before making his return to heaven. The other gospels can be just as profitably placed in the service of other points of view. The Gospel of Mark, for example, makes no mention of a virgin birth, and seems at the very least to strongly hint at the notion that the spirit of God entered Jesus only at his baptism:
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
And yet these four gospels were eventually chosen for the New Testament specifically because of their relative amenability to what had by then become the orthodox view of Jesus. We know that plenty of other written gospels were floating around in the early years of Christianity that stood in much more direct opposition to later orthodoxy.
In this early period, such details were far less important to Christians than they would later become. Gentile converts to the new religion soon greatly outnumbered its converted Jews. The former were accustomed to the easygoing attitudes of polytheism, in which consistent dogma wasn’t overly prized. For the moment, simply believing in Jesus Christ as some sort of divine messenger was a similarity that could conquer a multitude of differences among Christians. Thus we can imagine Alexandria during this period as a melting pot of all of the beliefs about his provenance and status, rubbing shoulders with one another, worshiping in the same churches. In fact, the most famous today of all the non-orthodox variants of early Christianity had an Alexandrian as its most prominent teacher.
We know little about the man named Valentinus, due largely to the fact that later Christians did everything in their power to erase him from the historical record. He was probably born in Alexandria around AD 100, and collected his first flock of followers from that city’s vibrant, diverse Christian community. At some point, he took his message to Rome, where he may have died in about AD 160.
The Christology which Valentinus preached in both places was that of Gnosticism, a long-mysterious set of beliefs that have been given a new lease on life in recent decades — albeit in a garbled, ahistorical interpretation — by Dan Brown’s conspiracy thriller The Da Vinci Code and its many imitators. Obscurity, one might say, has always been a core component of Gnosticism’s appeal, given how our human natures are always drawn to that which is denied to us. Gnosticism was long obscure in a contextual, historical sense: until a chance discovery of a treasure trove of Gnostic literature in Egypt in 1945, we knew of it only through a few scattered original texts and some other vague reports, which came mostly in the form of the biased observations of later Christians who condemned it as the blackest of heresies.
But obscurity is also an intrinsic trait of Gnosticism itself. The name comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning enlightenment or spiritual knowledge. According to Gnosticism, the road to salvation is through this form of knowledge. But it isn’t easily accessible; one has to work for it. Gnostic texts are elaborately obscure, notoriously difficult to interpret even by the standards of most ancient religious writings. And they’re often contradictory to boot; by no means did all Gnostics agree on all things. Nevertheless, we’ll do our best, hewing to a consensus interpretation of some of Gnosticism’s basic tenets which scholars have struggled long and hard to reach.
At its heart, this willfully obscure creed attempts to answer two very simple questions. One of them has been bedeviling Jews and Christians alike for millennia now: if God is good, why does he do so many seemingly bad things? The Hebrew Bible describes a God who doesn’t hesitate to vent his wrath upon even his chosen people when they fail to keep his Law. He is vengeful, the Bible tells us, but also just. Fair enough. But what about the many Jews and Christians throughout history who have kept his Law and yet were made to suffer anyway? Some have argued that evil exists in the world because God has chosen to allow us free will as the greatest of all his gifts. Free will includes the possibility of doing terrible things, as human history has illustrated over and over, even as this element of choice remains essential to our human dignity. Again, fair enough. But then, what to make of the natural disasters which kill indiscriminately but have no human will behind them? What of the debilitating diseases that afflict innocent children while they are still in the womb?
The other question Gnosticism attempts to answer is a related but more specifically Christian concern: why is the God of the Hebrew Bible so different from the one embodied in Jesus Christ? The former ordered his worshipers to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan, in Jericho, in Heshbon, in Bashan; the latter told his worshipers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. The former slaughtered every firstborn child in Egypt; the latter said to “suffer the little children to come unto me.” The former appealed to his worshipers’ fear: “If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of his law that are written in this book… every sickness, and every plague… will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.” The latter appealed to their love: “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you.” Of course, ordinary mortals can and do change over the course of their lives. But how can the same be true of an eternally perfect and perfectly eternal God?
The Gnostic solution to these dilemmas entailed nothing less than a whole new cosmology, drawing equally from Plato and from his Jewish interpreter Philo. The God of the Hebrew Bible was, the Gnostics believed, an entirely different, lower entity than the God of Jesus Christ.
Gnostic cosmology begins with the one true God, an ineffable, unknowable, eternal being of pure spirit. Below this being are a range of other spirit entities, the hypostases of abstract qualities like Thought, Time, and Wisdom. According to one of the Gnostics’ earthly creation myths, trouble began when Wisdom decided, rather in opposition to the quality she embodied, to have a spirit child of her own. The result proved intellectually and morally ill-formed; he was known as Yaldabaoth, a name perhaps intended as a deliberate corruption of Yahweh, the Hebrew name for the Jewish God.
Being ignorant as well as debased, Yaldabaoth believed he was in fact the only spirit being in the universe — a belief that was abetted by the fact that none of his higher ancestors wanted anything to do with him. Secure in himself, he created the material world, as described in the Book of Genesis. But when he created Adam, the first human, to serve as his plaything, the one true God took pity upon the poor creature: unknown to Yaldabaoth, he breathed a tiny spark of his own essence into Adam.
From here, history proceeded as described in the Hebrew Bible. In his arrogance and ignorance, Yaldabaoth demanded that the Jews worship him as if he was the one true God; this they did, having no way of knowing better. Finally, though, the real God ran out of patience with the interloper. He sent a tiny sliver of his immense consciousness down to enter the body of the man Jesus, to tell humans of the divine spark they still carried within them, which would allow them to rise above Yaldabaoth and the mean world he had made, if they could only connect with it.
One of the Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 is a gospel which purports to have been written by Jesus’s disciple Peter. Its narrator describes seeing a dead Jesus hanging on the cross, while “another” Jesus, a being of pure spirit, hovers above him, “joyfully looking at those who persecuted him,” “laughing at their lack of perception.” It says nothing of an empty tomb. And why should it? According to Gnostic belief, this was the moment of the “resurrection” of Jesus — the moment when the sliver of God which had entered the man returned to its divine home, its mission accomplished. Now, it was up to humans to find a way to make the same journey.
The goal of the Gnostic believer, in other words, must be to join Jesus and the one true God in the higher realm of pure spirit after death. The Gnostics knew that very, very few mortals would ever succeed in doing so, for reawakening the small spark of the divine in one’s soul required a lifetime of dedicated mystical contemplation. Only in this way could one arrive at the sacred knowledge that gave the Gnostics their name. In contrast to some of the accusations which were leveled against the Gnostics by later generations of Christians, Gnosticism was not a libertine belief system; on the contrary, it was notable for its asceticism, for its contempt for the material world and all of its base pleasures.
But whatever else it was, Gnosticism was also elitist in ways that other forms of Christianity were not; only the most privileged of the privileged in the ancient world had the leisure to dedicate their lives to mystical contemplation. This fact alone limited its influence in comparison to its more populist cousins. Yet a strand of Gnostic belief ran throughout the Christianity of the second and third centuries AD. Some Gnostics spoke of a hierarchy of souls, consisting of the unbelievers who would simply be annihilated after their death, the conventional believers who would be rewarded with a pleasant afterlife, and those Gnostic elites who had glimpsed the full truth and would receive a fantastic afterlife as their reward.
Taken in its historical context, Gnosticism illustrates how Christianity as a whole was changing by the second century AD. This erstwhile religion of the poor, the enslaved, the outcast, and the illiterate was now attracting men of intellect like Valentinus to its ranks, men who were interested in sorting through its many vagaries and turning them into a coherent philosophy of salvation. By the time that Celsus wrote his contemptuous attack on Christianity as the religion of the ignoramuses of Alexandria’s streets in AD 175, his caricature of it was long out of date — as well he should have known, for the city he lived in was the capital of Christian thought. “The Christian hope had its roots in Palestine,” noted the twentieth-century scholar of religion Arthur Nock. “Christian theology and, above all, Christology have theirs in Alexandria.”
Around the very same time that Celsus was writing his screed, a Stoic philosopher turned Christian by the name of Pantaenus was founding a new Christian school in the city. Called the Catechetical School, its ultimate goal was to win converts to Christianity and then to teach them how to live good, fulfilling Christian lives. Yet the way it went about its mission was shockingly broad-minded. Far from being anti-intellectual, the Catechetical School celebrated all forms of knowledge as merely differing ways of understanding God. Anyone who wished to, Christian or not, could sign up for classes there, which covered a wide variety of subjects in addition to religious instruction, from literature to mathematics to music. Those who were curious about Christianity could join an introductory course which came with no requirement that they convert in the end.
The Catechetical School really came into its own during the tenure of Pantaenus’s successor, who was named Clement. He was probably born in Athens, and was steeped in classical Greek philosophy before converting to Christianity. He came to Alexandria seeking the sort of intellectual rigor he saw in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, albeit in a Christian context. He found that which he sought in Pantaenus, and in AD 189 his mentor, who wished to continue his missionary work in other cities, selected Clement as the next headmaster of the Catechetical School.
Over the following 25 years or so, Clement became the most prolific Christian writer the world had yet known. Many, although by no means all, of his texts have come down to us. In them, he attempts among other things to do for Christianity what Philo did for Judaism: to reconcile Christian beliefs with traditional Greek philosophy. Clement’s writings can be grouped into three broad categories: “exhortations” aimed at those who are not yet Christians, arguing why they should join the faith; “tutorials” teaching those already in the fold how to conduct themselves in ways that Jesus would approve; and his voluminous “miscellany,” filled with all manner of esoteric theological musings.
For all his prolificacy, the exact nature of Clement’s Christology remains maddeningly vague. Some of his statements seem hard to square with what would become the orthodox Christian view.
[Jesus] ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by holy energy, but in order that it might not enter in the minds of those who were with him to entertain a different opinion of him. He was entirely impassable, inaccessible to any movement of feeling — either pleasure or pain.
Passages like these smack of the Gnostic view of Jesus as a being of pure spirit — although Clement is also careful to state that the proper road to salvation is faith, as Christians today believe, rather than knowledge, as the Gnostics insisted.
One of Clement’s young pupils at the Catechetical School was so dedicated and brilliant that in AD 202 he became a teacher there at the age of just eighteen. In time, the boy named Origen would outshine even his headmaster in many ways. The story goes that, when Origen was 28 years old, a wealthy Alexandrian named Ambrose attended one of his classes, and was so taken with Origen’s wisdom that he chose to dedicate his life to helping him share it with the world. Ambrose hired a team of secretaries to take down Origen’s thoughts in book form, then to duplicate these volumes, building in effect a publishing house around the man. The library of books which resulted became another important building block of Christian theology.
Yet Origen’s Christology too would leave him open to later charges of heresy. His idea, apparently unique to himself, was that God at the time of the creation of the world had also created a stockpile of souls, enough to last until the end of the world. Then, he studied these souls. The best of them he turned into angels, the worst into demons, while the great mass in the middle he earmarked for ordinary human beings. But one alone of this multitude of souls was better than all the others. It contemplated God so earnestly that it became effectively indistinguishable from him. This soul was Origen’s Jesus Christ. The theory’s novelty is an ironic reflection of the reality that, even 200 years after Jesus’s crucifixion, there was still no thoroughgoing consensus in Christianity about the nitty-gritty details of who or what he had really been.
The Roman Empire at large was vacillating during this period between tolerance and persecution of Christians, and this was reflected in the ever-volatile internal politics of Alexandria; we’ll return to this subject in the next chapter. Betwixt and between the persecutions, however, a convivial, respectful cross-pollination took place between the Christians of the Catechetical School and the non-Christians of Alexandria’s venerable museum; by no means did all of the latter take part in the dialog, as the vehement scorn which the likes of Celsus heaped upon Christianity illustrates, but certainly some of them. The intra-Christian discussions about the nature of their savior and the cosmology of the universe had a marked influence on the non-Christian scholarly life of Alexandria, and vice versa — so much so that Neoplatonism, the last significant original school of non-Christian Western philosophy to appear during ancient times, reads rather uncannily like Gnostic Christianity minus the figure of Jesus Christ.
Tellingly, the progenitor of Neoplatonism, an Alexandrian named Ammonius Saccas, was himself a Christian who abandoned his faith in Jesus. We know little else about him, only that he taught one Plotinus, arguably the most important of all the Neoplatonists, and one whose writings have survived. Plotinus was a classic product of the multicultural melting pot that was Alexandria: a native Egyptian who spoke and wrote in Greek and had a Latin name. Born in about AD 205, he brought Neoplatonism to Rome when he moved there in AD 245. But the Museum of Alexandria remained always the heart of the movement. One ancient text claims that Plotinus and Origen admired one another greatly, such that, when Origen attended one of his classes, Plotinus had trouble continuing in such exalted company. “The zest dies down when the speaker feels that his hearers have nothing to learn from him,” he said.
Neoplatonism can be almost as difficult to penetrate as Gnostic Christianity, blurring the line as it does between philosophy and religion. Certainly it makes no bones about the existence of God, whom it describes in the Gnostic way, as an almost unreachably remote being of pure spirit. It postulates a series of layers of existence descending from that central figure, becoming less spiritually refined all the while, until one reaches our base material plane of existence. Enlightenment consists of elevating one’s consciousness higher and higher into the realms above our own. This quest for spiritual perfection has nothing to do with knowing any distinct body of facts; it is a mystical journey, unique for every individual.
Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful, yet act as does the creator of a statue. He cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, the other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So you do also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked. And never cease chiseling your statue until you see the perfect goodness established in the stainless shrine.
Another branch of Alexandrian scholars, probably overlapping to a large extent with the Neoplatonists, obsessed over the mystical “wisdom literature” of Pharaonic Egypt, much of which they believed to be the work of a mythical sage or demigod named Hermes Trismegistus: “Hermes the Thrice-Great.” Their corpus of Greek translations, commentaries, and elaborations on these aged texts — the boundaries between the categories are often unclear — became vast in volume and in scope, covering everything from astrology and alchemy to what we would regard today as more defensible sciences, along with page after page of inscrutable musings on the ineffable spirit world. Following its rediscovery in the West at the beginning of the Renaissance, this so-called “Hermetica” had a huge influence on European thought for several centuries; it became, for example, the wellspring of Isaac Newton’s alchemical theories. Even today, it remains a staple resource for occult and new-age belief systems, as befits one of the original sources of our still-prevalent cultural preoccupation with ancient Egypt as a sort of key to the metaphysical mysteries of life.
Ironically in light of its longstanding connection to pseudo-science, the Hermetica does strongly hint that the Earth may orbit the Sun; it was even cited by Nicolaus Copernicus as a defense against any charge of apostasy when he published his own theory of heliocentrism in 1543. Yet none of Hermes’s Alexandrian translators/interpreters seems to have attempted to investigate this claim in any grounded way. By the middle of the third century AD, almost of the scholars of Alexandria had abandoned the empirical approaches of Archimedes, Aristarchus, or even Claudius Ptolemy. Alexandrians, whether Christian or not, were now more interested in plumbing the depths of their spiritual consciences than mapping the system of the physical world. Instead of looking forward, seeking to reason out the nature of things for themselves by empirical means, the scholars of Alexandria were now attempting to dredge up received wisdom from an allegedly more enlightened past.
The very nature of the knowledge that Alexandria’s scholars sought was changing in tandem with their methods of acquiring it. I’ve already spoken of the Greek word gnosis. But another word was applied to the kind of knowledge that used to be pursued by the likes of Archimedes, Aristarchus, and Ptolemy: episteme. This word meant knowledge gained through reason, experimentation, and analysis. It is the source of our English word “epistemology,” which means, very crudely stated, the study of where our knowledge comes from. It follows, then, that the type of knowledge described as episteme must have a tangible source which can be studied.
Gnostic knowledge, on the other hand, does not. It’s rather “an intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths,” as the dictionary says. It isn’t knowledge that can be logically proven, that can be measured and dissected and quantified. It comes from a realm beyond language or mathematics, beyond ordinary human experience.
In shifting its focus from epistemological knowledge to gnostic knowledge, as both its Christian and its non-Christian scholars were doing, Alexandria was acting in its usual role of intellectual bellwether for the world around it. Received wisdom was now in the ascendant over empiricism. It would be more than 1000 years before the balance would begin to swing back the other way.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)