Gnostic Idealism and the Gospel of Truth


Stevan Davies

Professor of Religious Studies

Misericordia University

Dallas, Pennsylvania 18612

The Gospel of Truth, discovered in two versions at Nag Hammadi, probably was written in the first half of the second century.(1) Although originally written in Greek, it now exists only in those two Coptic translations. One of those is very well preserved, the other is in fragments. It is The document summarizes itself at 22:2 - 22:16:(2)

A. "If one has knowledge, he is from above.

B. "If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he turns to him who is calling him and ascends to him. And he knows in what manner he is called.

C. "Having knowledge, he does the will of the one who called him; he wishes to be pleasing to him; he receives rest.

D. "Each one's name comes to him.

E. "He who is to have knowledge in this manner knows where he comes from and where he is going."

We can divide the Gospel of Truth into its own "chapters" if we follow this outline, for these lines summarize in order the following long sections of the text:

A: (16:31-21:3)(3) The opening segment discusses the origin of the problem of ignorance and outlines its solution: the disappearance of ignorance through revealed knowledge.

B: (21:3-30:13) The primary example used here to describe the emergence of revelation and its reception is that of the Father calling individuals who respond to him.

C: (30:14-38:5) Those who do have knowledge are advised it is the will of the Father that they assist others in attaining knowledge.

D: (38:6-41:14) This section employs a sustained metaphor based on the name of the Father. His name is identified with the Son; in turn each person's name comes from the Father through the Son and is the Father's name.

E: (41:15-43:24) Principally this concluding section concerns the final destination of those who have knowledge.

As does the text as a whole, the summary in 22:2-16 claims that one who knows where he comes from knows that he came from above, and that one who knows where he is going knows that he ascends to the Father. The mediation of this knowledge is the call of the Father, a call which is his name. The process concludes when one does the will of the Father and receives rest. The will of the Father is that those who know him endeavor to assist others also to know him.

This apparently simple system is discussed throughout the Gospel of Truth in a great variety of ways. For example, on a

single page (24:1-37) we find that the Father reveals what is hidden, reveals his bosom, that his bosom is the Holy Spirit, that what is hidden is his Son, that the aeons will cease laboring in search of him, that the deficiency will be filled, that the deficiency is the world, that the world is envy and strife, that unity should replace multiplicity, and light replace darkness, and knowledge replace ignorance. Other metaphorical schemes occur throughout the text and are often mingled one with the other. For example, the revelation of true knowledge of the Father is likened to a book (19:34-23:32) and the medium of revelation is identified with Jesus; the crucifixion of Jesus is accordingly likened to the publication of a book (20:10-30).

Although it is rich in metaphorical approximations, we can nevertheless be confident that the text's constantly reiterated dichotomy between knowledge and ignorance is primary. Thus, what appears in the text's summary of itself to be a discussion of ascent and descent is in fact a discussion of epistemology. "Above" and "below" depend upon the state of one's knowledge, not on one's spatial location.

The multiple and shifting metaphors characteristic of the Gospel of Truth's rhetoric describe the abolition of ignorance through the reception of revealed knowledge. At times the text appears to be speaking of events on the theosophical level of "aeons" or "totalities" in the "mind and thought of the Father"; these at first seek and then are granted truth (e.g. 17:5-37, 26:4-33). At other times it appears to speak of human beings and their discovery of revealed truth (e.g. 29:32-30:14, 43:3-23). But to determine which level -- theosophical or human -- of the Gospel of Truth is primary is an often difficult task.(4) For example, we read that each person's "own resting-place is his pleroma. Therefore, all of the emanations of the Father are pleromas..." (41:13-16). Here as elsewhere the distinction, if any, between the pleroma above and the realm of human beings below is blurred.

At its outset the Gospel of Truth describes the creation of a false world of oblivion (17:4-22):

"When the totality went about searching for the one from whom they had come forth - and the totality was inside of him, the incomprehensible, inconceivable one who is superior to every thought - ignorance of the Father brought about anguish and terror; and the anguish grew solid like a fog, so that no one was able to see. For this reason error became powerful; it worked on its own matter foolishly, not having known the truth. It set about with a creation, preparing with power and beauty the substitute for the truth."

However, when knowledge is obtained the world of oblivion constructed by error instantly ceases to seem to exist; this is the consummation the Gospel of Truth advocates and the principle behind the statements it puts into syllogistic form: "But what comes into existence in him [a person who knows the truth] is knowledge, which appeared in order that oblivion might vanish and the Father might be known. Since oblivion came into existence because the Father was not known, then if the Father comes to be known, oblivion will not exist from that moment on" (18:3-11). A synonymous syllogism occurs at 24:27-25:2, "Since the deficiency came into being because the Father was not known, therefore, when the Father is known, from that moment on the deficiency will no longer exist. As in the case of the ignorance of a person, when he comes to have knowledge, his ignorance vanishes of itself, as the darkness vanishes when light appears, so also the deficiency vanishes in the perfection." Understood on its own terms, the text claims first that oblivion, or deficiency, is the ontological foundation of the world constructed by error. Second, it asserts that revealed knowledge ends both error and the world of oblivion or deficiency.

We have here a logic based on the principle of contradiction: one state or the other may exist, but both cannot simultaneously exist. The rhetorical tendencies of the text grow out of this logic.

The Gospel of Truth's many metaphorical approximations establish realms of discourse (e.g. aeons, books, names, etc.) but they are not the text's principal concern. They are metaphorical ways of discussing the origin of improper knowledge, the mediation of proper knowledge, and the state of those who have proper knowledge. Its rhetoric, accordingly, blurs the distinctions between its manifest subject matters in order to lead the reader into its basic subject and basic premise: proper knowledge is the contradiction of improper knowledge. Efforts to elucidate individual metaphorical patterns in isolation (e.g. the text's position on Jesus, or on the name of the Father) are therefore likely to mislead.

At present one principal philosophical model is used to interpret the text: Monism. As William R. Shoedel states in an essay on the Gospel of Truth, "a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic. For in the last analysis everything arises directly or indirectly from one source."(5)

The Gospel of Truth describes a variety of realms: aeons, the pleroma, enlightened gnostics, ordinary human beings, matter, and so forth, but nothing is ever said to exist outside the Father. It speaks of "the depth of the one who encircles all places while there is none that encircles him" (22:25-26) and this, Shoedel remarks, is similar to important statements in other monistic theologies of antiquity and of the early church.(6) "No doubt," he states, "Gnostics found it possible to speak of the Father as containing all because in their view nothing outside the Pleroma truly existed."(7) He correctly argues against the presumption that there are elements outside as well as inside the Father by pointing out, "there is no sharp line of demarcation between the anguish of the Pleroma and the oblivion of the lower world. Moreover, the 'searching' of the All for the Father is presently seen as finding its fulfillment in the revelation to the perfect."(8)

Shoedel admirably demonstrates the utility of monism in interpreting the Gospel of Truth. Yet monism as an interpretive paradigm does only limited justice to the concepts of the Gospel of Truth. It properly characterizes the structure of the Father and of the pleroma, the physics of their relationship, and the geography of their enclosure, but monism does not successfully explain why knowledge of the Father was seen as a radical salvific discovery by gnostics, or why the discovery of truth should cause matter to be consumed (and thereby annihilated) within the individual gnostic. Shoedel observes, "it is interesting that the individual Aeon is said by knowledge to 'purify himself from multiplicity into unity, consuming matter within himself like fire and darkness by light, death by life' (25:12-19). Even matter, it appears, somehow vanishes as the divine life penetrates and overcomes the deficiency within itself."(9) However, if monism were a sufficient interpretive paradigm the vanishing of matter within the gnostic "Aeon" himself would logically be entailed; but it is not. Matter, like all else, can exist in "the one who encircles all places while there is none that encircles him" (22:25-26). But the logic of the Gospel of Truth is that through knowledge matter, and the whole "world of oblivion" cease to exist.

An adequate interpretive paradigm for the Gospel of Truth must take into account its basic syllogisms and, as well, its emphasis on the joyful and transforming experience of discovery: "the gospel of truth is joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him, through the power of the Word that came forth from the pleroma -- the one who is in the thought and the mind of the Father..." (16:31-37). Monism does not provide an explanation for the experience of epistemological transformation of the individual, and thereby the world, which the Gospel of Truth advocates and describes. While it well describes the stage on which the experience takes place, monism neither accounts for nor greatly aids in the understanding of the experience itself.

The Gospel of Truth advocates an experience described by means of analogies to drunkenness becoming sobriety, dreaming becoming wakefulness, ignorance becoming knowledge, etc. These analogies are governed by the logic of contradiction: "since oblivion came into existence because the Father was not known, then if the Father comes to be known, oblivion will not exist from that moment on" (18:8-11). "Knowledge of the Father" is not something different than "knowledge of oneself"; the text's blurring of distinctions between the human and the theosophical does not allow this. As Finnestad puts it, "The fallen part of the godhead is identical with man, i.e. essential man."(10) There is an equivalence between the Father knowing Himself and the individual human knowing himself. Indeed, when knowledge of the Father occurs, it can even be considered monistic self-knowledge, for as everything is contained within the Father, the discovery of who one is entails discovery of the Father.

When the text describes coming to knowledge (e.g. 25:14-17), it does not mean knowledge about God per se; when it speaks of the end of the world of oblivion (e.g. 18:10-11), it does not mean simply the non-existence of what is not God. Rather, it appears principally to be speaking about self awareness and the realization that the external world (oblivion) cannot be known to exist and so ought be regarded as non-existent. This perspective is known in philosophical terminology as Idealism. All idealism is monistic, but not all monism is idealistic. The Gospel of Truth should be understood as both idealistic and monistic. Idealism is at once an epistemology, a psychology, and an ontology; insofar as it is ontological it is monistic. Understanding the Gospel of Truth through the more comprehensive philosophical setting of idealism allows the text to be more comprehensively understood.

For the Gospel of Truth, idealism is not the kind of "philosophical perspective" that college sophomores try on and then discard as the semester moves along. It is truth which is joy, it is discovery, it is a sudden coming to awareness. It is like a Hindu's discovery that Atman is Brahman, i.e. that the ultimate monistic principle of the universe is one's idealistic self. It is like satori, a Buddhist's discovery that there is mind only and so the ten thousand things of the world exist in one's own mind as in the mind of the Buddha.

According to idealism, all knowledge of reality occurs within the mind, and no reality apart from the mind can be known. Therefore, either one is entitled to deny the existence of reality outside of the mind, or one is entitled to claim that if such reality exists it is unknowable. Idealism carried to its logical extreme is solipsism, the notion that oneself is the only self there is. The position that other people exist is no more tenable than the position that an outside world exists. We are all solipsists regarding our dreams and the other selves therein. But no consistent solipsist would seek to communicate anything. So, if there are solipsists, we know nothing about them.

Because the existence of other selves cannot be demonstrated by argument, idealism which is not solipsism must assume that there are other selves. Having made this assumption, an idealist will have no option but to model those other selves on all that is known, i.e., the self of the idealist. Indeed, reflective or unreflective people model the nature of other selves on their knowledge of their own selves. For the idealist, the postulated existence of other selves brings a second problem: assuming there are other selves who perceive a world substantially similar to the world one sees, what is the source of this perceived world? It cannot be oneself, for oneself does not create what other selves perceive (to believe so is solipsistic). Refusing to model the perceived world on something wholly unknown, such as non-mental stuff or matter, an idealist must model the source of the perceived world common to himself and other selves on, again, the only thing known: the self.

The self cannot be known objectively; it is inconceivable. To model a source of all reality on oneself is, therefore, to postulate an inconceivable Self above all individual selves. Selves then become subcategories of the Self, and the contents of the selves (the perceived world) are necessarily the contents of the Self. This allows idealism to regard all forms of knowledge as forms of self-knowledge.

Unlike monism, which is an ontological perspective, idealism is essentially an epistemological perspective. It postulates two general forms of knowledge: subjective knowledge, which is self-knowledge, and objective knowledge, which is knowledge of something apart from the self. Objective knowledge is, however, self-contradictory, for to claim to know an object apart from the self, or the mind, is to claim to know something outside of one's own knowledge. When an individual's supposed external and objectively knowable world is considered to be internal to the individual's self, or mind, deriving from a postulated Self, the denial of any external objectively knowable world is reasonable.

It is here that idealists can become theists. They can postulate a God who is by nature inconceivable, like the subjective self, a God with a mind, a God who is the source and environment of all things. All there is exists within God just as all one is exists within oneself. Idealism thus blends into monism. God (and all things) can be known only insofar as one knows one's own self; an idealist admits no other form of knowledge. Looked at one way, one's self is an aspect of God; looked at another way, one's self is the source for the model one has of God. The Gospel of Truth advocates self-knowledge and knowledge of God, but these two categories are never clearly distinguished; indeed, if the Gospel of Truth is fundamentally idealistic, self-knowledge and knowledge of God should be aspects of the same thing.

The knowledge advocated by the Gospel of Truth ends the idea of an external material world, a world of matter, error, deficiency, and oblivion, as the syllogisms quoted above indicate. But two important questions will remain: if there is no external world, how did I come to think there was? and, if I now know there is no external world, how did I come to know this? The answer to the first question is that one projects out the world within one's mind, and so the outsideness of the world is a self-generated illusion. Because of the theistic perspective the Gospel of Truth adopts, the answer to the second question is that knowledge is acquired because God reveals himself. We hear not that individual people discover themselves by themselves, but that this discovery is planned, brought about, and mediated by God.

The Gospel of Truth begins by outlining a myth of a totality of things existing in the mind and thought of the Father. Seeking the Father but failing to find him, the totality falls into error (17:4-10). Error leads to the creation of a false world of oblivion (17:11-33). If this is a mythological way of expressing the impossibility of attaining self-knowledge by seeking the self outside oneself, then the myth logically entails a doctrine of revelation. As the quest for knowledge leads to error, the reception of revealed knowledge alone can lead to truth.

The truth the Gospel of Truth claims to provide is not propositional knowledge that one is God, or that one is oneself. It is, rather, the discovery of a new way of apprehending the whole of reality such that the former way is instantly rendered meaningless and so, annihilated. The text elucidates the manner of this discovery in its longest sustained analogy to common human experience: the awakening from dreams. In dreams people create a world and other minds; they create stones to kick, Oldsmobiles, dinner parties, the heat of sandy beaches accompanied by the sound of crashing waves and the sight of scuttling crabs, and so on ad infinitum. People awaken. The world of the dream instantly vanishes in the knowledge that one is awake and that the dream occurred always and only in the mind.

Neither idealism nor the Gospel of Truth contends that the external world is a dream. Rather, awaking from a dream is offered as a close analogy to the sudden realization of the world's true nature. According to the text: (28:34 - 30:15):

"Thus they were ignorant of the Father, he being the one whom they did not see. Since it was terror and disturbance and instability and doubt and division, there were many illusions at work by means of these, and (there were) empty fictions, as if they were sunk in sleep and found themselves in disturbing dreams. Either (there is) a place to which they are fleeing, or without strength they come (from) having chased after others, or they are involved in striking blows, or they are receiving blows themselves, or they have fallen from high places, or they take off into the air though they do not even have wings. Again, sometimes (it is as) people were murdering them, though there is no one even pursuing them, or they themselves are killing their neighbors, for they have been stained with their blood.

When those who are going through all these things wake up, they see nothing, they who were in the midst of all these disturbances, for they are nothing. Such is the way of those who have cast ignorance aside from them like sleep, not esteeming it as anything, nor do they esteem its works as solid things either, but they leave them behind like a dream in the night. The knowledge of the Father they value as the dawn. This is the way each one has acted, as though asleep at the time when he was ignorant. And this is the way he has come to knowledge, as if he had awakened."

The "ignorant totality" introduced in the beginning of the Gospel of Truth brought forth its false creation in the manner of a dream, and it is from this dream that the gnostic awakes. Consequently, for this Gnosticism the much cited "evil world of matter" is not a bad place outside the Pleroma, nor a creation produced by a lower inferior deity, nor an entrapping world of material stuff, nor a realm separated from the high God by spheres of inimical archons. It is analogous to a dream; it is never really there in the first place. Recognition that "the Father" is not out there in the external objective world instantly contradicts and annihilates that supposed world.

So it is with idealists who realize the truth of such tautologies as: there is no knowledge apart from knowledge; the world known to one is within one's knowledge; one is one's world whether one is awake or sleeping. To follow such ideas to their logical conclusion is to reject the common notion that there is an external world of material substance. The external world seems then to be merely an explanatory hypothesis for mental phenomena, one beyond any possible verification. The notion that there is non-mental matter external to the mind goes beyond anything the mind can validly know.

In the instance of discovering a superior explanatory hypothesis, an inferior explanatory hypothesis ceases to exist meaningfully. In the words of the Gospel of Truth: "As in the case of the ignorance of a person, when he comes to have knowledge, his ignorance vanishes of itself, as the darkness vanishes when light appears, so also the deficiency vanishes in the perfection" (24:33-25:3). Deficiency, ignorance, or oblivion, is said to be the ontological foundation of the world (17:10-18:11). Thus ontology and epistemology coalesce, and knowledge eliminates a world.

The Gospel of Truth does not insist that there is no world; it insists there is no world 'out there.' The world within the individual mind, derived from the world within the mind and thought of the Father, exists as it has always existed. Nothing real or perceived changes; only one's understanding of the situation, one's world view, changes.

The language the Gospel of Truth uses to discuss these alternative world views is often obscure. The text discusses totalities or aeons within the Father, and human beings also within the Father. Nothing is outside the Father, and what is true of the aeons is also true of human beings. The text seems to postulate two very similar or even identical categories. What is true for the one set is also true for the other; it is often impossible to tell which category the text is addressing.

Occam's Razor can help clarify this situation; there is no need to multiply entities. It is possible to presume both that those who exist within the Father are aeons and also human beings and that what happens to the one happens to the other. However, it is altogether simpler to presume that the Gospel of Truth is not postulating different categories of beings, but is speaking in different ways of the same human beings. In other words, what is theosophically or mythically said of the aeons is synonymous with what is anthropologically said of human beings.

The text simultaneously expresses its points from two points of view. For those points of view it uses two kinds of language. One point of view is that of the Father, and uses terminology such as "the totality" and "the aeons;" it is essentially a monistic perspective. The other point of view is that of the individual human being; it is essentially idealist. They do not conflict, but the fact that the text shifts between those points of view renders it difficult to understand.

Conceived from the monistic perspective of the Father, all there is remains within him; therefore such terms as totality and pleroma are appropriately in the singular (e.g. 16:5, 21:19, 34:37). From the perspective of human beings, individuals of the totality, pleroma, etc. are the focus of concern, and so the terms are used in the plural (e.g. 26:29, 38:36, 34:37). The Gospel of Truth is written from both perspectives; the movement "from multiplicity to unity" (25:13-15) that the text advocates would enable human beings to view themselves from both perspectives.

The Gospel of Truth understood from the perspective of an individual may be essentially autobiographical; it is the story of the individual as a pleroma devolving into an isolated person in the material world under the influence of "external" matter. The individual can then receive from God revelation of the truth and thereby "each one will attain himself; within knowledge he will purify himself from multiplicity into unity, consuming matter within himself like fire, and replace darkness by light, death by life, (25:12-17)."

Setting the theme of the Gospel of Truth that most often uses theosophical language, the story of the etiology of error, into terms of the individual mind, we find the mind seeks to know its source objectively. Failing this (objective self-knowledge is impossible by definition), and so obtaining the resulting negative emotional consequences -- surely the failure to find itself is a nasty surprise -- the mind generates objective knowledge of an illusory self. All that the self knows is itself, according to idealism; illusion stems from the self believing there to be other than itself. But that illusory something other must necessarily be modeled on, or an image of, the self. In other words, the origin of error is that the mind, defined as a thinker bringing forth thoughts and perceptions, is projected out, externalized, as an external being bringing forth a world. In the Gospel of Truth this is the "error" that brings forth a non-existent world of oblivion. In other Nag Hammadi texts this is Yaldabaoth the false God of this false world.


A mystagogic text such as this permits only limited speculation about the social entity to which it is addressed and from which it derives. In section C (30:14-38:5) the enlightened audience is encouraged if not required to assist others to attain knowledge. There may be some who stubbornly refuse to attain awareness, and indeed who may be unable to do so (28:17-23), but the text otherwise assumes awareness is available to all who wish it. Clearly the text derives from a "missionary" group and not an elite in possession of secret knowledge.

An idealist group can be understood to be withdrawing from the world outside into a world within their own selves. Accordingly, they can aptly be labeled alienated, for they evidently rejected the whole world including thereby the social world.(11) This rejection was apparently passive rather than ascetic or rebellious. The Gospel of Truth advocates only individual epistemological transformation, not mortifications or social actions. It would be interesting to know what lead them to withdraw from the world into their own minds, but there is no evidence in the text to inform us why they felt alienated to this degree.

To understand the Gospel of Truth as monistic is not wrong, but monism is only one element of its comprehensive world view. Idealism is a more complete and adequate model for interpretation, for it allows us to understand the text's etiology of error as well as the origin and nature of the false world of oblivion. Further, to understand the text as idealistic allows us to see the appropriateness of the logic of contradiction underlying its reiterated claims and syllogistic formulations that knowledge instantly eliminates the world of matter and oblivion.

1. This essay was written during the course of a 1988 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at Brown University, directed by Jacob Neusner. The author wishes to express his thanks to the NEH, to Amy-Jill Levine of Swarthmore College who made helpful suggestions regarding both style and argumentation, and to Barry Crawford of Washburn University and David Bossman of Seton Hall University.

2. Translation by George W. MacRae and Harold W. Attridge from Nag Hammadi Codex I, edited by Harold W. Attridge, Volume XXII of Nag Hammadi Studies (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1985).

3. Because standard numeration of Nag Hammadi documents is based on entire codices, the Gospel of Truth begins at page 16 line 31 of Codex I.

4. William R. Schoedel ("Monism and the Gospel of Truth," in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume 1, p. 385) writes "there is no sharp line of demarcation between the anguish of the Pleroma and the oblivion of the lower world." In "Conversion and Gnosis in the Gospel of Truth," Novum Testamentum 28/4 (1986) p. 350, Anne McGuire states, "The Gospel of Truth blurs or dissolves distinctions. The first of these is the apparent distinction between the readers and the Entirety." Similarly Ragnhild Finnestad writes in "The Cosmogonic Fall in Evangelium Veritatis," Temenos 7/1 (1971) p. 41, that "The fallen part of the godhead is identical with man, i.e. essential man."

5. Shoedel, op.cit. See also his "'Topological' Theology and Some Monistic Tendencies in Gnosticism," in Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts in Honour of Alexander Bolig (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 88-108.

6. Ibid. pp. 380-382. Shoedel finds pre-Socratic writers, Philo, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, the Corpus Hermeticum, Epiphanius, etc. to use or record formulae similar to 22:25-26.

7. Ibid. p. 381.

8. Ibid. p. 387 (his italics).

9. Ibid. pg. 387 (his italics)

10. Finnestad, op. cit.

11. David Bossman first brought this to my attention.

This essay was first published in

Religious Writings and Religious Systems - Volume 1

Edited by Jacob Neusner, Ernest Frerichs and A. J. Levine,

Brown Studies in Religion 01, Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1989

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