It is you who are the tree of knowledge, which is in Paradise, from which the first man ate and which opened his mind; and he loved his female counterpart and condemned the other, alien likenesses and loathed them. – On the Origin of the World.
At the very beginning of the Bible and the Torah, we are presented with the idea of the origins of mankind in the Primordial Garden of Eden that we first see in Genesis. The traditional Orthodox reading of this story, of course, presents the age-old legend as literal evidence for the claim of mankind’s original sin and subsequent fall from primordial perfection and divine grace, as if God was still holding an eternal grudge against mankind for eating a fruit that he created in the first place, and still cursing mankind and the world for a multitude of generations after the fact. From this disobedience to God, alienation was given rise from the creator and humanity was once again condemned under the Law that God later gave to Moses at Mt. Sinai. In this reading, humanity is specifically condemned because of their inherently wickedness due to their rebellion and disobedience. And so the story goes, God had to send his innocent Son to die a cruel death to shed his blood to atone for the transgressions of a sinful and destitute humanity. Yet, beneath this callous, misanthropic reading lies a deeper layer of spiritual truth.
Another feature of the Garden of Eden episode which is often taken for granted, but does not exist in the text, is the idea that the serpent being synonymous with the Devil, the same serpent tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thereby precipitating the expulsion of the primal heavenly couple from Paradise. This interpretation actually only comes much later with the Book is Wisdom (2:23-24) reveling in this version:
For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.
Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, writes in Against Heresies 5.23, which started the ball rolling for the Orthodox exegetic interpretation:
But that God was true, and the serpent a liar, was proved by the result, death having passed upon them who had eaten. For along with the fruit they did also fall under the power of death, because they did eat in disobedience; and disobedience to God entails death. Wherefore, as they became forfeit to death, from that [moment] they were handed over to it.
In the Revelation of John 12:9, the serpent is equated with the Devil or Satan:
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
In the same text (which can be dated to be written after 96 A.D. according to Eusebius’ quotation of Irenaeus’ testimony), it interestingly equates Jesus Christ with Lucifer, the Latin word for “light-bearer” which stems from the “Latin Vulgate” Bible, produced by Jerome, commissioned by Pope Damascus in 382 A.D. In Revelation 22:16, “Jesus” proclaims that: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
Of course, the Latin “Lucifer” (“Lux Ferre”) was associated with the planet Venus, which is called “Phosphoros”, the “morning star” or “dawn-bringer”, who was both a minor god in Greece and Rome, who according to the Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus, was a:
…son of Atlas, who was fond of astronomy, and once, after having ascended Mount Atlas to observe the stars, he disappeared. He was worshipped with divine honours, and regarded as the fairest star in the heavens. (Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.)
Lucifer was also known by the Greeks as the Titan Prometheus, the son of Iapetus. (As a side-note compare this description of Phosphoros with Isaiah 14: 13-14: “For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most high”).
It is also interesting to note that the word “Heylel” a Hebrew word with both positive and negative connotations, but in context of the Isaiah quote as the adjective “boaster” for Satan which became strangely mistranslated by Jerome as “Lucifer”. Jehovah also boasts in Isaiah 45:7 as crediting himself as being the creator of both light and darkness.
According to Eusebius’ Church History (Chapter XXV), the historian points out that many early Catholics and Christians had rejected the Revelation of John:
Some before us have set aside and rejected the book altogether, criticizing it chapter by chapter, and pronouncing it without sense or argument, and maintaining that the title is fraudulent. For they say that it is not the work of John, nor is it a revelation, because it is covered thickly and densely by a veil of obscurity.
It was the Catholic Fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian who made the text acceptable by quoting it. But outside of the Catholic Church this text was not popular among other sects and mystics. In fact, it is almost with certainty that groups such as the Gnostics had also rejected this text and the traditional reading of such concepts as the Serpent being synonymous with the Devil, and Jesus Christ being associated with a luminous and bright planet in the sky. Christ being associated with the light bearer, of course, isn’t too far from the Gnostic understanding of the Logos (“My mission was to illuminate the world so that everyone who believes in me may not remain in darkness.” – John 12:44-50)
But, the term “Lucifer” being Latin, wasn’t ever a typical word that was employed in the many streams of Gnostic Christian thought. It goes without saying that traditionally, Christians have often used “Lucifer” or “Satanically” inspired as a puppet to scapegoat anything that doesn’t line up with the traditional narrative. Even doctrines such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence are typically used by the Orthodox narrative to scare one into believing that there’s no alternative to their god.
One very provocative Gnostic text which survived through the Nag Hammadi Codices and reflects the kind of innovative thinking those such as the Gnostics were willing to interpret the Genesis account, is The Testimony of Truth. In fact, with a careful reading, there really isn’t any need for “re-interpretation” or “inversion” as the adherents of Gnosis (Greek for “knowledge” and “science”) are often accused of doing. First, let’s read what the original Genesis account tells us about the episode of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:3:
But God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” But the serpent said to the woman, “you will not die, For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like god, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sowed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
Over at Enemies, the author succinctly observes:
If “God” is all-powerful, then why did He need to test Adam and Eve at all? Wouldn’t a real supreme being already know what was going to happen? Why did the serpent seem like the only one who really understood what was going on? And who was God talking to when he fretted that Adam had become “like one of us“? (Genesis 3:22)
The author of the Testimony of Truth brings up very similar points as an exegesis of Genesis myth:
But God came at the time of evening, walking in the midst of Paradise. When Adam saw him, he hid himself. And he said, “Adam, where are you?” He answered (and) said, “I have come under the fig tree.” And at that very moment, God knew that he had eaten from the tree of which he had commanded him, “Do not eat of it.” And he said to him, “Who is it who has instructed you?” And Adam answered, “The woman whom you have given me.” And the woman said, “It is the serpent who instructed me.” And he (God) cursed the serpent, and called him “devil.” And he said, “Behold, Adam has become like one of us, knowing evil and good.” Then he said, “Let us cast him out of paradise, lest he take from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”
But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, “Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger! And what kind of God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him. And he said, “I am the jealous God; I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children until three (and) four generations.” And he said, “I will make their heart thick, and I will cause their mind to become blind, that they might not know nor comprehend the things that are said.” But these things he has said to those who believe in him and serve him!
The author of the Testimony of Truth clearly designates the serpent as a positive figure, telling the story from the view of the serpent. The text also distinguishes Christ as the “Son” or messenger of the “unknown Father” which is distinct from the “Lord God” of Genesis or the Lawgiver which was equated by many Gnostic groups such as the Sethians, Naasenes and the Valentinians with the Demiurge or the “Craftsman” who fashioned the cosmos from a chaotic pre-existent “prima materia”. The Marcionites held a similar position, but lacked the speculative and imaginative cosmologies that were a staple in later Gnostic mythology, but held both the creator god as a lesser god and the Good, Supreme God as distinct, but co-eternal beings in a constant state of antagonism (we see this idea carried into the later doctrines of the Manichaeans and the Cathars). The Demiurge did not derive from the Supreme God by emanation or by a fall of another aeon.
Marcion, much like his Gnostic predecessors denied that the God of goodness could have created the cosmos of corruption and entropy. Therefore, in his place, the creator god was assigned as author of the physical universe, while treated as an inferior being, not good, but only just. He is also the author of evil (as Isaiah 45:7 boldly asserts), as he is as much a lover of war (Exodus 15:3), erratic blood-lust in his constant demand for animal and human sacrifice, rejoicing in death (Deuteronomy 28:63), condoning slavery including sexual (Exodus 21:1-11), commanding the Israelites to rape, pillage and destroy at a moment’s whim (1 Chronicles 21, Deuteronomy 3, Joshua 6) all the while contradicting his own commandment of “Thou shalt not kill”. At his express command, the world is turned into a place of pain and “thorns” (Genesis 3:18)
He only executes the law without mercy or compassion when it is convenient for him at the slightest infraction, as he is always punishing the nation of Israel for being wayward and folly against his word. His king-like jealousy and pride, and his great appetite for praise and sacrifices is what motivated many early Christians to interpret “the Lord God” as either an ignorant but just creator or at worst, a malicious and belligerent demon called “Ialdaboath”.
Jesus mentions this adversary as a “father of lies”, confirming the Testimony of Truth in John 8:44:
You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murder from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Jesus’ reference to the “father of lies” as Yahweh/Jehovah can be made, even though orthodox exegetes interpret it as the snake, because it was Yahweh who said that they would die if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, whereas the snake said that they wouldn’t—and of course, as we know, they didn’t. All that they Serpent said is that they would become as gods, which Yahweh confirms when he says, “Look, they have become as gods. Now we must remove them from the garden, lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever.” The night preceding his crucifixion, the Johannine Jesus says in John 12:31-33:
Now is the judgment of this world. Now the prince (archon) of this world will be cast out.
The prince or “archon” is a direct reference to the Demiurge, the “god of this aion” as Paul calls him 2 Corinthians 4:4. Before, the creator God said to both Adam and Eve “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” On the other hand, the Serpent said pointedly: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The author of Genesis does not say that “they both died”. The text simply states as a matter of fact that: “the eyes of both of them were opened”, like the Serpent had said. Later, the creator complained to his mysterious companions: “And now man has become as one of us, to know good and evil.” The creator god was the one who had lied. He said that Adam and Eve would die if he ate the fruit, but neither died. Instead, the Serpent was telling the truth. As a matter of fact, the creator himself ended up agreeing that the Serpent was right! The creator Lord God had proved himself to be a chronic liar as well as plagiarizer. To the Gnostics, the entire stratum of material creation was a failed and botched attempt to imitate an unknowable world of light. Likewise, the “Good Book” or “Word of God”, which being the Bible itself is based principally on pre-Biblical Babylonian and Egyptian texts. (More on this later in the series.)
The Naaseenes (their group name was transliterated and derived from the Hebrew word for “serpent” nachash: הנחש) or “Ophites” in particular where known for revering the serpent as a chief symbol of the Savior. The Catholic Father Hippolytus reported at length on the Naassenes in his treatise The Refutation of All Heresies, 5:1-5. In it, Hippolytus had focused more attention on another sect called the Peratea, which also revered the serpent. Their doctrine of the serpent was based on John 3:14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Thanks to this quote, groups like the Peratea equated Christ with the Serpent as Hippolytus reports:
No one, then, he says, can be saved or return (into heaven) without the Son, and the Son is the Serpent. For as he brought down from above the paternal marks, so again he carries up from thence those marks roused from a dormant condition and rendered paternal characteristics, substantial ones from the unsubstantial Being, transferring them hither from thence.
Hippolytus also confirms the Gnostic take on Jesus’ remarks in John 8:44 of:
“Your father is a murderer from the beginning,” he alludes to the Ruler and Demiurge of matter, who, appropriating the marks delivered from the Son, generated him here who from the beginning was a murder, for his work causes corruption and death.
St. Augustine of Hippo in Adversus Haeresis, 46, 147-153, claimed that the Manichaeans had also taught that “Jesus the Splendor” or the “Third Messenger” was the Serpent that illuminated the minds of both Adam and Eve of their predicament and their divine origins. Before the arrival of the Serpent in the Garden, man was in a state of ignorance and was blinded to his true position—as automatons in blind servitude to their creators. This is confirmed by an unnamed Manichean text in which the 8th century historian, Theodor Bar Konai quotes:
Jesus the Splendour approached sinless Adam and awoke him from the sleep of death, that he might be delivered of innumerable demons… Then Adam examined himself and realized, who he was.
This knowledge would make man aware that Eden wasn’t paradise at all, but just the opposite—a place of captivity. The true Eden was somewhere else entirely. (“They said, Eat, meaning, do so in a leisurely manner. But in fact their pleasure is bitter and their beauty is perverse. Their pleasure is a trap, their trees are a sacrilege, their fruit is deadly poison, their promise is death,” – Secret Book of John). Adam was distinctly rendered as a hapless and lifeless creature of dirt, incapable of rising. The Demiurge breathes in an animated, worldly soul which does little to stir him up, up until the Serpent opens Adam’s eyes and feed him through Eve’s instruction (take that Tertullian’s misogyny!), the fruit of gnosis (knowledge), in which the scales were dropped from their eyes and suddenly remembered their divine origins.
The images of the Serpent, Fruit and Tree of Life (the Qabalah in all its many variations are based on this symbol) and Knowledge became symbols of initiation, higher knowledge and immortality. To secure salvation, mankind was encouraged to break through the realm of the flesh and rise by a sort of ecstatic and immediate Divine Vision. In Gnosis, God was the ultimate, nameless and unknowable being and realm, perfect in fullness or Pleroma. This God is similar to the God posited in Aristotle’s Metaphysics which held him as an “Unmoved Mover” in pure potentiality without form—infinitely removed from the finite and beyond reproach in its ineffable perfection. He was only able to flow out in emanations or aeons having the highest approximately to the divine nature—the Logos being one of them. In the poetic Psalm, Summer Harvest, which is authored by possibly a student of Valentinus, these “aeons” are mentioned: “Fruits manifest themselves out of the Depth.”
The Secret Book of John goes into great detail on how mankind was created by the “rulers”, since its author(s) seem to link material creation and the fall as the same event:
The human being Adam was revealed through the bright shadow within. And Adam’s ability to think was greater than that of all the creators. When they looked up, they saw that Adam’s ability to think was greater, and they devised a plan with the whole throng of rulers and angels. They took fire, earth, and water, and combined them with the four fiery winds. They wrought them together and made a great commotion. The rulers brought Adam into the shadow of death so that they might produce a figure again, from earth, water, fire, and the spirit that comes from matter, that is, from the ignorance of darkness, and desire, and their own false spirit. This is the cave for remodeling the body that these criminals put on the human, the fetter of forgetfulness. Adam became a mortal being, the first to descend and the first to become estranged.
In the Valentinian Fragment 1: Adam’s Faculty of Speech, the theme of the creation becoming superior to its creators also becomes apparent:
Something like fear overcame the angels in the presence of that modeled form (i.e. Adam) because he uttered things that were superior to what his origins justified, owing to the agent who had invisibly deposited a seed of higher essence and who spoke freely. So too in the races of worldly people, human artifacts become objects of fear for their creators – for example statues and images and everything that is made by human hands as representing a god. For Adam, modeled as representing humanity, made them stand in fear of the preexistant Humanity; for precisely the latter stood in him. And they were stricken with terror and quickly concealed the work.
The theme of the creation surpassing its creator becomes apparent in many Gnostic texts. Even in the Manichaean text, the Kephalaion 64, it characterizes the human body, as a microcosmic mirror of the universe at large, as a key to the secrets of the cosmos. Despite the fact that the angelic rulers modeled Adam after the divine beings, being the Messenger and the Virgin of the “Father of Greatness” in the primal watery abyss—in essence, the creators of the physical body, they still act in ignorance without knowing what they are making. In fact, the physical body does not operate in the way it was meant to function—as a servant and prison for light. Instead, the body becomes a battleground of both the light and darkness, making the body even more apt to liberation as it is subject to continued imprisonment.
It should be noted that not all Gnostic texts had a consensus of the serpent being divine or good. In fact, the Secret Book of John holds the Serpent and the “First Ruler” being the Demiurge as part of the same order, unlike other texts (such as On the Origin of the World, Hypostasis of the Archons, etc). After all, Ialdaboath is often depicted as a malformed lion-headed serpent with glowing eyes flashing with fire.
The savior laughed and said, “The snake instructed them to eat of the wickedness of sexual desire and destruction so that Adam might be of use to the snake. This is the one who knew Adam was disobedient because of the enlightened afterthought within Adam, which made Adam stronger of mind than the first ruler. The first ruler wanted to recover the power that he himself had passed on to Adam. So he brought deep sleep upon Adam.”
Despite the condemnation of the Serpent in the Secret Book of John, the author makes a curious link to sexual desire and knowledge. In Genesis, it states, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Interestingly, in the Gospel of Philip, being naked wasn’t a reference of being in pure spirit form, but rather (ironically) being clothed in material flesh:
Some are afraid lest they rise naked. Because of this they wish to rise in the flesh, and they do not know that it is those who wear the flesh who are naked.
It seems as though the knowledge the author of the Secret Book of John is referring to is one of carnal, sexual knowledge. This would make sense since the Hebrew word “yada” meaning “to know” is also used as a term “to have sex with” and it is something the author of the Secret Book of John specifically condemns for a very important (but not so obvious) reason. This reoccurring theme of sexuality, knowledge and the Serpent will be covered more in-depth in Part 2.
(“Christ On the Tree of Life.” by Giovanni da Modena)
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. – John 15, 1-2.
The early Christians, including the Gnostics were trying to get across the idea that Christ was the “true” serpent that came down from the Pleroma in a Promethean-like fashion to give mankind true, eternal life (from the fruit taken from the “Tree of Life” a symbol also associated with Christ as pictured above) so that they not taste death and to undo the deception of the adversary, the Demiurge/Jehovah/Zeus. The Demiurge wishes that man remain ignorant of his origins or his great destiny, forbidding all contact with the higher world. Ultimately, the aim of the creator god is to align mankind as the reflection of the creator rather than something far grander.
To liberate the spirit (nous) from the human condition, prisoner of matter, the Unknowable God had sent down the Logos, Jesus Christ as an injected tiny particle that first took on the form of a snake in the Garden and then later on during the Passion, the nature of a slave or a man in a docetic fashion (“being made in human likeness” – Philippians 2:7), infiltrating the hellish kingdom of created matter (or darkness) while teaching the Fullness of the Gospel, the Good News of the Stranger God in that all of mankind awaken to their divine origins as sparks of His Divine Light. As it follows, the liberation of every soul is really a liberation of God. Every experience on earth is His experience, for He is All. The Logos is the message of Salvation embodied, and taught it through his parables throughout the Gospels. It is the fruit of knowledge that allows the Gnostic to divest them from the condition of slavery to the light of freedom. The Gospel of Truth makes a similar statement:
In schools he appeared, (and) he spoke the word as a teacher. There came the men wise in their own estimation, putting him to the test. But he confounded them, because they were foolish. They hated him, because they were not really wise.
Later on in the Old Testament we find the reference of the serpent in a positive role, confirming the idea that the Serpent was a beneficiary rather than being demonized as a bringer of sin and death as the Orthodox traditionally interpret.
“The Crucified Serpent” by Nicholas Flamel.
“Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” – Numbers 21:8
A biblical story of the Old Testament found in Numbers, accounts for the symbolism in this drawing. The story regards a journey of the Israelites from Mount Hur to the land of Edom, led by Moses. After a significant time goes by the Israelites become discouraged and begin to openly doubt and blaspheme Moses and their God. Doing what he does best, Jehovah inflicts great suffering on his “chosen people”, sending a plague of serpents to the Israelites, which in turn poisons and kills a great many of them.
When the Israelites realize that they have brought divine wrath upon themselves and blasphemed against God, they ask Moses to pray for mercy and to pray for the disappearance of the serpents. Moses does this, and God in turn tells Moses to “Make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole”. If they do this, God assures Moses that “every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live”.
“Moses and the Brazen Serpent.” by William Blake
Naturally, the symbol of the crucified serpent became popular with the Gnostics and later with alchemists and occultists alike to relay secret and esoteric concepts. The Serpent, being the wisest of all creatures was not only a symbol of Christ but also a symbol of Sophia (Wisdom), the lowest rung aeon of the Pleroma. The parallel between the healing power of Christ and the Cross and the healing power of the Israelite’s brazen serpent became inexorably linked. By taking a creature potentially known for its venomous bite, and turning it into a symbol of healing and knowledge as seen ranging from the staff of Asclepius or Hermes’ caduceus to the logo of the medical profession (a reference for the Logos being a “healer”), the Gnostics also saw in it the depiction of mankind’s ability to transform itself, shedding off its old skin and former base, destitute nature to become vessels of divinity and purity, worthy to be called “Children of Light”.
Evolutionary forces alone are insufficient to bring about spiritual freedom. Physical existence combined with ignorance of their true origins, their essential nature and ultimate destiny become the stumbling block. The Messengers of Light break through the barrier of truth and imperishable and into the perishable and corruptible to assist humanity in their quest for the multifaceted and primordial current of Gnosis. Although no-one likes dualism, it, however, ripples throughout many Gnostic systems of thought, splitting the person of man, the effect of a double creation of being divinity and dust, divided between good and evil, light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance. The crucified serpent is a Gnostic symbol for change being the liberation from the flesh and the attainment of knowledge.
Catholic Fathers such as Irenaeus compared Gnostic systems, and gnosis, with the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge in Eden in a critical manner, going so far as to suggest that ignorance be preferable over knowledge (under the pretense of “charity”), which is, of course, the underlying message of the Demiurge and his fellow authorities:
It is better and healthier then, to be simple and ignorant and to come close to God through charity, rather than to think to know many things and after many adventures of thought to be blasphemous against God. (Against Heresies. 2, 26, 1.)
Jesus Christ, however, held a different opinion on the matter if you read Matthew 10:16. Here, Christ invites Christians to be like serpents, which would in essence be “Christ-like”:
Behold, I am sending you as lambs among wolves; be therefore crafty as snakes and innocent as doves.
Part 2 forthcoming…