Gnostic Christianity: Did Jesus Teach Sacred Union of the Sexes?

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"There Is No Male and Female"

No Male FemaleYears ago in the Harvard Divinity School library, I read a thesis called, There Is No Male and Female by Dennis R. MacDonald. Professor MacDonald revised and published it, [1] and just recently, I read it again.

The book is excruciatingly erudite, but its conclusion is fascinating. Professor MacDonald painstakingly demonstrates that by the time St. Paul wrote Galatians (54-55 C.E.) there was already circulating a widespread oral tradition to the effect that Jesus had taught a mystery about the union of the sexes. In fact, MacDonald shows that in Galatians Paul was rebutting the authenticity of the tradition by recasting it in terms he was comfortable with.

So what do these ancient sources say Jesus is supposed to have taught? That you enter the Kingdom when you tread upon the garment of shame, and when the two become one and the male with the female neither male nor female.[2].

Fragments of this oral tradition (with varying interpretations) turned up by way of Syria (the Gospel of Thomas), Greece (2 Clement) and Egypt (the Gospel of the Egyptians). The fragments themselves are strikingly similar, yet not so similar as to be derived from one another - hence MacDonald's conclusion that they all stem from an oral tradition.

Until recently we had few clues about the original substance behind this "two become one, neither male nor female" language. A few decades back, however, some ancient Christian texts turned up in a cave in Upper Egypt gospel fragment(the Nag Hammadi Codices). Those not used in cooking fires by the discoverer's mother were eventually translated. Scholars lump them together with the few similar fragments already known, and refer to them as the Gnostic Gospels. They portray a cosmology far different from our more familiar gospels - yet distinctly Christian.

Here are some concepts from the Gnostic Gospels that will intrigue anyone interested in the hidden potential of sacred sexuality. They say man was created in God's image, that is, immortal, androgynous (whole), and not in a physical body (which they call, "the garment of shame"). They say that Adam and Eve gave in to temptation and engaged in physical reproduction. That led to a "separation" between them that was the start of our collective tumble into mortality. (How interesting that conventional sex does indeed lead to separation between the sexes because of the temptation, or reward, mechanism deep in the primitive part of the brain.)

The Gnostic Gospels say that Jesus came to reverse the Fall, and show us how to return to our primordial androgyny ("make the male and female one, neither male nor female"). They say that he was, in fact, the returning Adam, who came back to end the separation between the sexes, which he had begun. Sacrament Bridal ChamberHe accomplished this in the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber. One of these gospels, the Exegesis on the Soul, describes that sacrament:

Those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with the intercourse. And as if it were a burden, they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire and they do not separate from each other. They become a single life….For they were originally joined to one another when they were with God. This marriage brings them back together again.

Another, the Gospel of Philip, explains that there were 3 sacraments, the holy baptism, the holier atonement, and the "holy of the holies," the sacrament of the bridal chamber, in which participants "put on the light" or "chrism" and return to oneness. They "become like little children," a reference to their re-attaining their pre-Fall genderlessness (according to MacDonald).

Why don't we know more about these ancient teachings ascribed to Jesus? Well, we inherited the branch of Christianity espoused by Paul, and further shaped by Christians who were at first persecuted by the Romans and later generously subsidized by them when Roman emperor Constantine was converted in 312 CE by the Christians who would later call themselves "Catholics." PaulPaul never met Jesus in the flesh. And according to MacDonald, Paul may have had little patience for rumors that Jesus had taught an actual path to enlightenment because Paul believed that the Apocalypse and Judgment Day were just around the corner.

During the time that the Romans persecuted Christians, the belief that martyrs got a special place in heaven was vital to keeping the branch of Christianity that later became the Catholic Church alive. After all, recruiting wasn't easy when it tended to decrease one's life expectancy drastically. According to Professor Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels, only the evolving Catholics grew preoccupied with Jesus' martyrdom, suffering, and atonement for our sins. MartyrdomNearly half of the Christians in the world at that time had quite different views about the role of Jesus' martyrdom. Eventually the concepts of martyrdom, suffering, and atonement for our sins came to dominate the Catholic religion...and then all of Christendom.

Indeed, as soon as the Catholics had the might of the Roman Empire behind them they, in turn, persecuted any who still believed that Jesus had taught a mystery about returning to the Kingdom during life. According to the Catholic Church, one could only be saved by doing what priests said one should, dying, and going to Heaven. Nearly all Gnostic texts were burned, and what little we knew about the rest of Christendom came from the one-sided writings of those who condemned it. That is why the recently-discovered trove of ancient texts in Upper Egypt is so significant.

In contrast to conventional Christianity, the Gnostic Gospels do not focus on martyrdom. They say that we will not be saved after death unless we have learned the sacrament of the bridal chamber and overcome the separation between male and female (which began when Adam and Eve united incorrectly). They deny that mankind sinned. They claim that we made an error that can be corrected by knowledge of this mystery.

The Last Supper,DaVinciThey also insist that Jesus had a consort, Mary Magdalene. (There is no evidence that she was the "prostitute Mary," by the way. Just about every woman in the New Testament is named "Mary.") In truth, she was a disciple, whom the Church chose not to recognize - possibly because it did not understand her true significance. (It is also possible that Da Vinci did, according to "The Da Vinci Code." Mary MagdaleneLook at the disciple sitting to the left of Jesus in the picture above.) More like a woman than a man, right?

Various other spiritual sources point to a mystical union of male and female attainable through lust-free intercourse. Placed in context with ancient Taoist, Tibetan Buddhist, and other texts about the mystery of reunion of the sexes, it is not so far-fetched to ponder whether Jesus also taught (and lived?) this mystery.

If you found this article interesting, please see our Open Letter to Gnostic Scholars

  1. There Is No Male and Female, Harvard Dissertations in Religion, Fortress Press, Philadelphia (1987).
  2. Gospel of the Egyptians, as quoted by Clement of Alexandria in Stromateis.