Did the early Christian Gnostics have tiers of secret knowledge reserved for the elite who climbed the ranks? Were their tracts similar to modern cults in which only by progressing can one gain access to greater revelations from a guru? In reality, the question is loaded from the start– it’s impossible to talk about Gnostics as a singular group, and literature that has been called “gnostic” is as profoundly varied as the groups and schools of thought which have been ascribed that title. Reality and Knowledge in the Treatise on Resurrection

To understand how some early Christian thinkers approached what could be considered “secret” knowledge, let’s approach what is often considered a Valentinian tract– The Treatise on Resurrection. I’ve written previously on how this document emphasized the present nature of resurrection, the illusory nature of the world, and the criticality of internalizing that knowledge.

In this post, we’re going to be looking not at the content of the Treatise’s beliefs, but about the approach it takes to communicating and sharing that content. For the author, Christ is critical– in fact, Christ is the very reason why such previously unknowable knowledge is no longer secret, but is available to all who have ears to hear. Let’s talk about secret and shared knowledge in The Treatise on Revelation.

Ready to dive in? Click below to read more!

The Treatise as an Explanation

Why did the author write The Treatise on Resurrection? The text makes a remarkably simple argument: “Resurrection is essential. Many do not believe in it and few find it, so let us discuss it in our treatise.” In other words– we must experience revelation, but few know that and even fewer achieve it, so this document will help fix that problem. This is not talking about obfuscating an esoteric or secret teaching; rather, it’s attempting to make more people believe in it and more people find it.A book dimly lit by a candle suggesting secret knowledge

What if the author is holding back, reserving greater insights for pupils of higher attainment like some modern pseudo-religious cults? The author explicitly rejects this notion. They claim: “I have left out nothing that may strengthen you.” Of course, the pupil may not be able to fully grasp these insights; the author is not judgmental, however, for they offer: “If anything in the explanation of the treatise is too deep, ask and I shall clarify it.”

This is not the text of a magician searching to impress and mystify an initiate with glimpses into an unreachable reality of unknowable secret happenings; rather, it’s the text of a teacher attempting to explain a difficult but critical lesson to their pupil, and to others who would listen.

Why Is The Text Written So Densely?

It’s a fair question to ask why the author waxes philosophical, writes poetry, and writes at the intersection of mythology and metaphor. If they’re really looking to explain this, couldn’t they have given us a bullet pointed outline? The author addresses this by noting, “I know I am presenting this explanation in difficult terms, but there is nothing in the word of truth that is difficult.”

That seems like a pretty tough claim, right? To say that there is nothing difficult about the message seems overreaching. And, yet, the author notes that it’s lack of difficulty comes not from the complexity of the idea, but from the work of Christ. He claims: “Christ came to provide the explanation, to leave nothing hidden, but to reveal everything clearly about coming into being, the destruction of evil, and the revelation of the chosen.”

Adult Reading Difficult Complex BookFor the author, the claims about resurrection are not fundamentally about the philosophical peculiarities of the argument. He even addresses the recipient by name as he forcefully asserts, “Rheginus, do not get lost in details”.  He doesn’t want the reader to get stuck in trying to figure it out like a puzzle. He again addresses the recipient:

Rheginus my son, some people want to become intellectuals. That is their goal when they try to explain unsolved problems, and if they are successful, they have an exalted opinion of themselves. I do not think they are established on the word of truth. Rather, they seek their own rest, which we have received from Christ our Savior and Lord. We received rest when we came to know the truth and rested on it.

The Treatise on Resurrection argues that the point here isn’t to establish intellectual superiority; rather, it’s inwardly oriented. It’s not the case that we’re called to seek something external (objective knowledge) through internal means (our own intellect), but the opposite– we’re called to seek something internal (our own rest), through external means (Christ our Savior and Lord). When did we obtain this rest? When we received gnosis and stayed in it.

This isn’t talking about secret knowledge in terms of that which must be kept hidden from the average reader; rather, it’s talking about a critical subject that needs to be made less secret through explanation, carrying on the work of Christ.

What, then, of those who approach the resurrection from the perspective of systematic objectivity rather than subjective inwardness– from speculation and reason rather than belief? The author claims: “If some do not believe, they cannot be persuaded. My son, the affirmation that the dead will arise belongs to the realm of faith, not of argument.”

If you’re interested in more conversation on this topic, I invite you to read my thoughts on the topic as it relates to the Secret Book of James.

Who, Then, is the Target Audience?

At a superficial level, the target audience of the Treatise on Resurrection is a person named Rheginus. In reality, though, the plot is a bit thicker. The writer claims that they are writing to Rheginus since he asks “about the main issues on resurrection in such a pleasant way”. It’s not because of his intellectual superiority, his command of argument, or his philosophical training– rather, it is because of the tone in which he approached the teacher.

The writer of the Treatise on Resurrection, however, finds himself frustrated at Rheginus’ lack of understanding. He poses– “Why am I so patient? Only because of your lack of training.” This is an interesting claim. What does he mean by “training”? As he explains, he’s not talking about formal schooling, but rather, “Everyone needs to practice ways to be released from this element so as not to wander in error, but rather to recover what one was at the beginning.”

Rheginus is not poorly trained because of his lack of education or philosophical capacities, but because he has yet to experience the resurrection and the belief therein which will enable him to be released from death and capable of achieving rest. He has yet to obtain the knowledge that Christ enabled.

You may ask yourself why this matters to us– the treatise was written to Rheginus, not to us. However, that’s not the case at all. Rheginus is instructed to share the writing with others who are capable of hearing it:

Do not be worried about sharing this treatise with anyone among you, for it can be helpful. Many are awaiting what I have written to you. I say, peace and grace be with them.

For this text, then, such knowledge is to be shared among those who are capable of understanding it. It isn’t intended to be kept as a secret teaching to those deemed worthy by a guru, but rather this was intended to be shared with anyone who may find it helpful.

What do you think? Was my reading of The Treatise on Resurrection correct? Do you agree with the author’s perspective that truth is not to be found in the external through internal means (our own intellect), but rather to be found internally through external means? How does this relate to the idea of resurrection itself, as I explained it in my previous post? I hope to hear your thoughts!

Leave a Reply