The esoterism-exoterism separation in the primitive Church

In the epistles, St. Paul shows good knowledge of the Greek Mysteric doctrines. In particular, like the Pythagoreans and the Platonists, in the human aggregate he distinguished three levels: the gross body (ὕλη, read hỳle, the substance), the soul (ψυχή, read psykhé) and the spirit1 (πνεῦμα, read pnéuma)2. In this way, depending on the preponderance of one level on the others, he divided human beings into three categories: carnal, psychic and pneumatic (I Corinthians, 15.44). This corresponds exactly to the Hindū tripartition of the human types in tāmasarājasa and sāttvika. By explicit statement, St. Paul taught the doctrine by adapting it to these three levels, according to the disciples to whom he addressed: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the intellect (noùs) of Christ. And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?”3 (I Cor. 2.12-3.3).
Thus, St. Paul was not only the creator of Christian exoterism in his religious form, but also a master of initiation (dīkṣāguru) for “psychic” and “pneumatic” disciples. Yet, one last problem remains to be solved: if St. Paul never met Jesus Christ, who gave him the transmission of the Christian teaching? The answer is already included in the previous quotation: he received it directly from the spirit (anugrāha) coming from God. We know that after being dazzled by a sudden intuition, he turned to a group of initiates living in Damascus. They, and especially such Ananias, instructed him. There is no doubt that this was an Essene group that took shelter in that city. Therefore, the source of St. Paul was the same that had sent Jesus among the Jews as Messiah4. Thus, in St. Paul we find the confluence of two initiatic paths: a Hellenistic Gnostic5 one and an Essene one.
A similar function also played the kohen John, the Evangelist. At first, he was a disciple of St. John the Baptist, i.e. an Essene; later he became one of the secret disciples of Christ6. His Gospel, although it was the most Gnostic among the canonical ones, was also addressed to the masses of followers of the newborn Christianity. His initiatic work is the Apocalypse, a text that poses unsurpassable difficulties to an exterior theological interpretation. In the Apocalypse we find the concept of the three levels of man and, on that basis, the conception of the transmigration of the souls and the alternation of the cosmic cycles: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.” (Apocalypse, 21.1) Also in St. John is evident the knowledge of the esoteric doctrines of both the Hellenistic Gnosis and the Essenism.
Those who followed an initiatic path of the Christian esoterism of the first centuries had two choices of life: the first one consisted of monastic isolation, especially in desert areas, far from villages and cities. We only know the name of some personalities famous for their teachings, because the life they led preferred anonymity and isolation. Therefore, these monks mainly followed the anachoretic tradition of the Essenes. The other choice of life was that of the schools (similar to the Śaṃkara Pīṭhas) with a fixed location where disciples gathered around a teacher. Among these the most prestigious center for the production of texts of high initiatic content was certainly the school of Alexandria in Egypt. In this case it is easy to rebuild its paramparā. The first important name is that of Dionysius the Areopagite7. He was an Athenian citizen, member of the Supreme Court (the Aeropagus) of the city. He was one of the few Greeks to become a disciple of St. Paul. His fundamental teaching is the so-called negative theology8 (apophatic, sskr. nirguṇa prakriyā), which Dionysius taught as the highest method to attain the knowledge of God. The method (prakriyā) consisted in a progressive removal of all attributes, considered as limitations to the infinity of God. Completed the removal of any superimposition on God, the evidence of Divinity emerges spontaneously. According to Dionysius the Areopagite the ascent of the soul occurs in three stages: purification, illumination, union. These three stages correspond to three initiatic levels: the purified, the contemplating and “the integrated in the One”; the last degree constitutes the culmination of theosis, the divinization. More precisely, it is through certain “particular rites” that the purification of the “profane” is carried out; a purification that constitutes “the holy rebirth in God”. In the second level “the already purified”, who is “now in the immutable possession of a very pure condition of the mind”, participates in “certain rites” that allow “the illumination and contemplation of certain sacred mysteries”. Finally, he who enters the third degree is considered worthy “to receive a particular consecrating formula of invocation”. This degree implies the “full enlightenment on those mysteries that one had been contemplating” during the second stage9.
We ignore the name of his direct successor. However, in his line of masters we find St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD). Titus Flavius Clemens, an Athenian of Roman origins, was undoubtedly initiated at first to the Eleusinian Mysteries, obtaining the spiritual experiences mentioned in his writings. As such, he is the richest source of information on this ancient Greek initiatic paths. Once converted to Christianity, Clement began to wander in all the most important initiatic sanctuaries of the Roman Empire. He visited Magna Graecia in Italy, where he came into contact with the Pythagorean schools. He went to Syria where he met the Chaldean priests. In Egypt he became a disciple of an Egyptian priest and there he met some Buddhist monks. He settled in Alexandria where he became a disciple of St. Pantænus10, who was previously a Pythagorean, then a Christian monk disciple of Ammonius Saccas, the founder of the Alexandrian neo-Platonic school. Pantænus was also associated with the continuers of the Kabbalistic school of Philo (20 BC-45 AD)11. Clement soon became the most important author of the Christian school of Alexandria. He wrote the Paidagogos, the Hypotyposeis and the Protreptikos in which he exposes the teachings of Christ for the community of his believers, and the important book Stromateis which, as he himself said, was addressed to a “small élite of perfect Christians, the true Gnostics”. He is the first Father of the Church who distinguishes the exoteric Christians who follow Christ by faith from the initiates who pursue his knowledge. In the same way he affirms that Christian believers can avoid hell (naraka) after death and aspire to salvation in heaven (svarga) through prayer and participation in Christian rites. On the contrary, through Christian esoterism, the Gnostics (jñāni) can be initiated into the divine Mysteries and eventually obtain the “divinization” (θέωσις, read théosis). However, in order to do so,  the Gnostic would first have to  follow a path of purification or purgatory12 (κάθαρσις, read kàtharsis) by means of interiorized rituals. After the purification is completed, the Gnostic can obtain the direct contemplation of God (θεωρία, read theorìa13) and eventually become one with Him with the “divinization”. Clement was also the first to adopt the terminology of the Eleusinian Mysteries for the Christian esoterism. Following the Mysteric myth of the descent of Dionysus in human form, he affirmed: “God’s Word (Logos) has become man so that you can learn from that man how man may become God”14.
His successor as ācārya of the school of Alexandria was Origen. Initially, Origen was a fellow disciple (gurubhāī) with Plotinus in the Alexandrian school of Ammonius Saccas. Once he became a disciple of Clement15, he exposed the Christian version of the doctrine of the transmigration. He explained that the resurrection of the flesh was not unique but repeated. These rebirths take place in a succession of worlds (lokas) and cosmic cycles: “We believe that, as after the end of this world there will be another one, so before this there were others. Both statements are confirmed by the authority of writing. In fact, Isaiah teaches that after this there will be another world, saying: There will be a new heaven and a new earth, which I will make remain in my sight, the Lord saith (Isaiah 66, 22). […] Together, these attestations confirm both points: that worlds existed before and other worlds will exist hereafter16. Thus, the beings transmigrate without ceasing, improving or worsening their condition at every rebirth. Some who seek the truth continually progress through the efforts of their research until they reach a birth where they can get the access to Gnosis. Then, in that life, only few chosen ones can be reintegrated into the Principle17.
The influence of Origen on all his successors was very remarkable. He also claimed that the world had not begun in time, since time was part of the world. He also affirmed that Christ was not entirely identical with God, since in the Gospel Jesus repeatedly affirms that he does not know things that only “my Father knows”. Moreover, Origen denied the eternity of the individual soul, of the heavens and of the hells, because everything that had been created must necessarily come to an end. Indeed, he focused only on the initiatic doctrines without paying much attention to the exoteric religious aspect of Christianity. Therefore, he was continually hindered by the exterior theologians who represented the official doctrine of the Church. Only in 400 AD the doctrines of Origen were condemned by the Council of Alexandria. However, Origen remained an unavoidable reference point for all the Christian initiates throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in the Churches of the Greek cultural area. Also his disciples were of a high intellectual level, and through them the initiation continued to be transmitted18. As it is clear, the Christian esoterism of the origins is the result of the encounter between an Essene and a Gnostic-Mysteric transmission. Later on, other components would be added, such as the priestly and chivalrous Roman initiation, the Hermetism and Druidism. But we will discuss this in a future article.
At the same time as these initiatic developments, the Christian exoterism coming from the Pauline reform found its main field of cultivation among the Latin fathers. Although the Church continued to take root in the most important cities of the Roman Empire becoming the seats of the Patriarchates and the Episcopates, the center of the exoteric organization was established in Rome, the Imperial capital. The most authoritative thinkers, even if they did not completely ignore the initiatory aspect, devoted themselves mostly to establishing the creed for converts and the ecclesial organization with which to administer them. Erma (first half of the 2nd century AD), St. Ambrose (340-397 AD) and St. Jerome (347-420 AD), were versed in Christian Gnosis, but they were better known for their works to organize the exoteric structure of the Church. Tertullian (~ 160-220 AD), St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD), Lactantius (250-317 AD) and St. Augustine (354-440 AD) disputed with the philosophers and the followers of the Greco-Roman religion in order to impose the Christian Church as the only true religion. In particular, St. Augustine must be considered the founder of the official exoteric theology of the Church. In this way these personalities collaborated to strengthen the outward façade of Christianity, progressively distancing it from esoterism.
In this intellectual and fideistic ferment, the Nazorean Christian Sanhedrin, still linked to Judaism, was completely abandoned to itself. Thus, the Nazorean Church of St. James slowly returned to the bosom of Judaism until it completely disappeared. Only an organization of Ebionites remained, fiercely opposed to the reform of St. Paul, empty of any content and that in the second century AD was unanimously declared heretic by all the Churches of the new religion. The first three centuries of Christianity were troubled by innumerable Christian currents disagreeing with one another. Each of these currents claimed to represent the original teaching of Jesus Christ. Among them many manifested a gnostic tendency, often mixed with magical cults. We remember the Sethian Church, which considered the God of the Jews as a demon and Jesus as the one who had replaced the reign of terror of Yehovah with the kingdom of love of Christ-Seth. This Gnostic Church considered the donkey-headed god to be a bearer of light (Lucifer) who rebelled against the rule of the jealous and vindictive God of the Jews. Another Church was the Docetist one, which considered that if Jesus was God, then he could not have been born with a mortal body. Therefore, the historical Jesus was nothing but an illusory projection, a phantom. The Marcionian and the Manichean Church were dualist: in fact they claimed that the God of love had sent his son to earth to save him from the tyranny of the God of justice. The Arian (the Arius’ one) Church claimed that Jesus could not be both God and man; thus, professing the belief that Jesus was only a perfectly mortal prophet. This heresy was very successful for several centuries. Many other currents multiplied throughout the history of Christianity. Each of these Churches, including the Roman one and those of the other cities of the Empire, based their theories on the authority of texts that appeared in the I-II century AD.
With the purpose of tidying this chaos up, in 325 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine summoned the Council of Nicæa. The bishops gathered there and decided which beliefs and behaviors were to be approved and which be rejected:

  1. The beliefs approved by the Church had to be followed by all Christians, that is to say, they became dogmas. The main dogmas were: God is one but He is divided into three persons of the same nature, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son took a human birth in form of Jesus, who died on the cross and then resurrected to show Christians how to reach heaven. Jesus will return to earth at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. Then he will reign forever on earth as Messiah. Jesus has established only one Church as the institution to guarantee the transmission of the rituals leading to salvation. All the other Churches were declared heretical. The efficacy of the rites is guaranteed by the real presence of the Holy Spirit who comes down to them through the mandate of the Father and the Son. By participating in the rituals, the Christian is inserted into the community of the living and dead saints. In this way he frees himself from the original sin and from the sins that he is accomplishing during his bodily life. The created soul of the Christian who has followed all the precepts will enjoy after death an eternal life in the heaven. The Christian who does not follow these rules will go eternally to Hell as the heretics and the infidels. With the passing of the centuries the dogmas multiplied.
  2. The obligatory Christian rituals are the following “sacraments”: 1) Baptism, a rite of ablution with which one becomes a Christian; 2) Confirmation, corresponding to the descent of the Holy Spirit in the baptized: 3) Marriage, which unites man and woman in an indissoluble bond; 4) Priestly Ordination, which gives to the Christian who becomes a priest the power to perform the rituals for the community; 5) Confession, in which the Christian unloads himself from sins by confessing them in public or in private to a priest; 6) Eucharist, the assumption of bread and wine as flesh and blood of Jesus ritually sacrificed during the mass; 7) Anointing of the dying, to prepare them for a better posthumous life. The first four sacraments are accomplished once in a lifetime, the other three are repeated at will by the believer.
  3. It was decided that the only canonical texts of the Church were the Gospels of the Sts. John, Mark, Matthew and Luke; the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of St. Paul and some other apostles and the Apocalypse of St. John. All the other texts were declared apocryphal (secret) and excluded from the doctrinal and ritual use.
  4. Sin is the transgression of divine rules. It is distinguished in:
    a) original sin performed by Adam, the first man, which every human being inherits by birth and which does not depend on personal responsibility. Baptism makes it possible to erase the original sin19;
    b) mortal sin, produced by voluntary transgressions of divine laws, which entails hell as posthumous destiny. Mortal sin can however be forgiven with confession.
    Finally, c) venial sin, involuntarily committed, which leads to Purgatory after death. Even venial sin can be forgiven with confession. The characteristic of sin according to Christianity is that of entailing repentance and shame; it is an emotionally participated pāpa caused by an oppressive sentimentality.

In Christianity, dogmas, rituals and moral rules have the same validity for everyone: from the Pope to the Bishops, to the Kings, to the humblest of servants, all are obliged to obey the same rules in equal measure, regardless of their different responsibilities, capacities and situations. In the early days, this sort of religious ‘communism’ also regulated the properties of individuals who converted to Christianity. Everyone had to surrender all his goods to the Church. This rule disappeared as soon as the Christian Church became Romanized20.
The Council of Nicæa tried to bring order into that chaos: it established what was officially Christian and what was not. It defined as heresy all the behaviors and beliefs different from those recognized by the Church. All the heretics who did not follow the rules established by the Church were struck by excommunication, according to the ancient Jewish ritual of the herem. The interdict was declared against all villages, cities and states that had colluded collectively in heresy. The excommunicated individuals and interdict communities were suspended from any ritual life and were isolated and discriminated from the rest of the Christian community. Obviously, all this did not concern in any way the sphere of the Christian initiation. However, from that moment on, esoterism underwent the continuous control and persecution by the Church, which, ever more distant from the initiatory knowledge and increasingly ignorant about of authentically spiritual matters, eventually usurped the function of judging the initiates. Everything the Church did not understand, because above its capacity for understanding, began to fall under the suspicion of heresy. For this reason, Christian esoterism increasingly closed itself in a defensive reserve.
We hope this article could help shed some light on the obscure origins of Christianity.

Gian Giuseppe Filippi

  1. Much of the Greek philosophers who did not belong to the Pythagorean paramparā confounded pnéuma with the intellect (νοῦς, read noùs buddhi): they attributed to the intellect a semi-divine situation, intermediate between individuality and God. This error of perspective was inherited by exoteric Christian theologians. Instead pnéuma is properly the spirit of God, the Ātman of the Hindūs, which St. Paul also called the “inner man” (antarapūruṣa). It is curious that the Greeks have never used in this sense the word atmòs (ἀτμός), etymologically identical to Ātman. They used it only to indicate the vapors that rise in the atmosphere. Instead they used the formula seautòn (σεαυτόν), meaning “one’s own Self”, exactly identical to the Sanskrit svātman. Even in this case, however, it is not clear whether they meant their true nature (svarūpa) or simply their individual “self”, the aham. St. Paul, therefore, belonged also to the line of Pythagorean-Platonic Mysteries. The fact that he, a Jew of the Diaspora, was also a Roman citizen, suggests that he had received an Hellenic Gnostic initiation.
  2. In the Jewish Bible, only the body (basar) and the vital breath (nefesh or ruah, the prāṇa) are mentioned: both are dissolved with death. There is no trace of psykhé and pnéuma. This explains the total lack of interest of Jewish exoterism in the posthumous destinies.
  3. This perfectly agrees with the teaching of Jesus: “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. And the disciples came, and said unto him: Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them: Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” […] All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them”. (Gospel of St. Matthew, 13.9-12; 13.34)
  4. “On the road to Damascus, the apostle Paul had a vision that marks his conversion and his mission of evangelization of the Gentiles; it is in Damascus that Paul is educated by the Essenes: their doctrines were adapted to Christianity.” (Jean Daniélou, Les manuscrits de la Mer Morte et les origines du Christianisme, Paris, Editions de l’Orante, 1957, pp. 36; cfr. 87-88, 94-95, 98, 113) We quote the Cardinal Daniélou, a highly suspect author, only because the references presented by him are of indisputable evidence. An Essene community had taken refuge in Damascus at the beginning of the second century. B.C. to escape the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. (H. Schonfield, El Enigma de los Esenios, Madrid, EDAF, 2005, p.110)
  5. We remind the reader not to confuse the true Gnosis with Gnosticism. The latter represents a degeneration of Gnosis in a syncretistic, magical and occultist sense.
  6. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, St. John moved to the Greek island of Ephesus where he found a community of Essenes fled from the war. (Daniélou, cit., pp. 89, 99, 102-105)
  7. The oldest written texts of Dionysius the Areopagite date back to the beginning of the 6th century; on this basis, the philologists assumed that these must have been a late production, attributing them to such a “Pseudo-Dionysius”. Philologists clearly ignore the existence of the oral tradition and remain helplessly entangled in their obtuse “scientific” rules. For us, who look at the contents and not at arbitrarily invented rules, those writings are indubitably of St. Dionysius, a disciple of St. Paul.
  8. At that time, Theology meant “knowledge of God” and did not yet refer to the exoteric religious philosophy as it was used during the Catholic Middle Ages. However, the meaning of “knowledge of God” has survived in the Orthodox Church.
  9. Since the union with God is produced by a particular formula of invocation (mantra), it is evident that the Christian priestly initiatic path belonged to the sādhanās of the non-Supreme (aparabrahma vidhyās).
  10. According to the Christian tradition, St. Pantænus left for India to preach the doctrine of Jesus. He never arrived in India, but stopped in Arabia and Ethiopia returning and after a few years to Alexandria in Egypt where he died very old in 216 AD.
  11. Philo is the first Jew who speaks of the existence of the soul. It is significant that it used the Greek term: psykhé. He was also aware of the doctrine of the cosmic cycles. He was the first who offered an allegorical reading of the Old Testament. He is considered the father of rabbinic Qabbalah. Despite being a good knower of the Hellenic Mysteries and Pythagoreanism, Philo maintained the intellectual primacy of the Jewish people by claiming that the Greeks had copied everything from the Bible!
  12. Therefore, originally the Purgatory had to be carried out in life. It constituted that intermediate step, which the Bhagavad Gītā defines karma yoga, which leads from outer rites (karma khaṇḍa) to pure knowledge. Instead, later, external Christian theologians made Purgatory a world (loka) intermediate between the hells and the heavens, in which the souls of the dead could purify themselves from the less serious sins before reaching any heaven. For a long time, both conceptions of the Purgatory, the esoteric and the exoteric, coexisted in Latin Christianity. The Purgatory of Dante can indeed be interpreted either ways as a posthumous destiny or as an initiatory purification of the mind to be accomplished in life.
  13. This Greek term with such a high sense was later devalued by Western theologians and philosophers to define a simple mental speculation, if not a mere hypothesis.
  14. Protreptikos, I.8.4. Opposite is the exoteric thesis, well represented by theologians such as St. Augustine, who, reading the biblical passage of Psalms, 82.6: “I said:” You are Gods, you are all sons of the Most High”, comments in this way: “There is one and only one son of God, who is God, and one God with the Father”; that is, only in Jesus there is a double nature, a human one and divine one. Augustine’s interpretation inhibited or at least delayed a subsequent investigation into the doctrine of “deification” in the Latin Church. (Steven Botterill, Dante and the Mystical Tradition, Bernard of Clairvaux in the Commedia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 204-206)
  15. Becoming a Christian, Origen changed some of his previous positions. The philologists, who do not understand the change of points of view, hypothesize the existence of two Origenes: one Neoplatonic, the other Christian.
  16. Origen, De Principiis, III.5.3. The passage of Isaiah quoted by Origen was also mentioned in the Apocalypse of St. John (21.1): “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, because the former heaven and earth had disappeared”. On the world-cycle identity: “this world which is also called the cycle (lat.: seculum)”, ibid.
  17. Origen, ibid., I.6.3.
  18. St. Basil and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, together with St. Gregory of Nazianzus, collected and organized around various teachings of Origen other texts of initiatic wisdom. The resulting book is the Philocalia, the fundamental text of medieval monastic initiatic pathways and of the orthodox Hesychasm. In the Philocalia are included the instructions to perform the invocations (jāpa), to which subtle centers (cakras) these should be addressed, how to carry out the control of the breath (prāṇayama), the explanation of the visions and the powers obtained following such method (sādhana), etc.
  19. However, the dissolution of the effects of the original sin remains altogether virtual. Before their sin, Adam and Eve were not subject to disease, aging and death. They did not have to work to maintain themselves, since nature spontaneously provided for their livelihood. And they could not even sin. These first ancestors lost all their privileges after the original sin, decaying to ordinary human condition. The qualities of Adam and Eve described above are not restored through baptism: baptism does not confer immortality, immunity from disease, death or sin. In fact, should any sin be committed, even the baptized would receive his punishment in hell.
  20. Nevertheless, to this day an unconfessed tendency of sympathy for ‘communism’ has persisted to this day in the Catholic Church above all, let alone in its numerous Protestant heretical divisions. Not for nothing do Christianity and communism share the same Jewish matrix, and wherever there are converts to Christianity, communism thrives.