The canonical scriptures never provide a description of what the heaven/earth
system looks like to an observer standing outside the system. Readers who
insist that providing such a description is a central concern of religion
are obliged to tease one from catch-phrases and figures of speech found
here and there in scripture, like the 'ends of the earth;' never mind that
people still use these same catch-phrases. Bible language is phenomenological,
expressing what an observer on earth sees, never seeking to explain why
it looks that way.
With gnosticism it is different. Readers become aware that the gnostic
earth is nestled within eight concentric spheres. The first seven carry
the wandering heavenly bodies known to antiquity: the moon, the sun, the
planet Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These are the 'seven heavens'
of rabbinic lore, above the lowest sphere, the earth. Another sphere carries the fixed stars, which in this
system rotate around a central, stationary earth. This is the whole world-system: "For thus in the Republic, Plato
divides the whole world, into eight whirls, comprehending the whole of
a material nature in the ogdoad. . .Again, however, it may be more perfectly
said, that through this monad and heptad of circles, he comprehends all
the parts of the world." (Proclus, Commentary on the Timaeus of
Plato, All Five Books, translated by Thomas Taylor, Book III, p. 606). In keeping with the gnostic theme
of acculturation, the gnostics were greatly impressed with Ptolemaic astronomy,
in that day the best available scientific explanation of the apparent movements
of the heavens:
Most orthodox Christian writers of this era also accept the Ptolemaic system
as an accurate description of astronomical reality, though there are some
nay-sayers, like Lactantius, who found the concept of the antipodes absurd.
Up until medieval times, though, most express little interest
in the system. Though the atheists are convinced that cosmology is a central
concern of religion, you couldn't prove it from the orthodox
Christian authors in the early church era. Aurelius Augustine's lack of interest amounts to astronomical
agnosticism. By contrast, the gnostics are enthusiasts, who make the seven
spheres gated barricades impeding the spirit's return home, and the eighth
or ogdoad the longed-for destination.
“The soul in me yearned for life.
I floated and wandered up
till I reached the second planet,
and the third and the fourth.
When you go among them,
they will shout the name of death,
and chain and torment you.
I floated and wandered up
the fifth, sixth, and seventh planets
till I reach the house of life.”
(Soul Songs, The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, pp. 552-553).
Some of these authorities count eight heavenly spheres. Others count
nine, if you start your count with the
sublunary earthly sphere, our own happy home, or distinguish the outermost
sphere, which Cicero considered a god, from the sphere of the fixed stars: "The universe is
formed of nine circles or spheres, as we should more properly call them.
One of these is the heaven [of the fixed stars]; it is on the exterior of
the universe, embracing all the other orbs, and is the supreme god himself
who constrains and includes the remaining spheres. In it are placed the
eternal courses of the rolling stars. Beneath this outer circle are the
seven orbs which revolve in a direction opposite to that of the heavens.
The outermost of these spheres belongs to the planet which men on earth
call Saturn. The next is the luminary called Jupiter, benign and
propitious to the human race, and next the ruddy star, feared by earth,
which you call Mars. Below Mars comes the sun, which holds almost the
mid-region [between the earth and the heavens] and is the leader, chief,
and director of the other stars, and the mind which keeps the universe in
balance." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Commonwealth, Book VI, Scipio's
Dream, Chapter XVII). That outer enclosure is more than the goldfish bowl
which holds the whole, it is a mighty god, the principal one it may be, as
the pagans reckon these things. Because the system is geocentric,—
there were a few heliocentrists in antiquity, but it was always a minority
viewpoint, because ancient physics could not resolve the difficulty of how
we could be hurtling through space without our hats flying off,— the
outermost sphere moves with unimaginable rapidity; it is the unmoved mover. The system was
ready-made, the gnostics did not have to invent it, though they picked it
up and ran with it, developing a literature of heavenly tourism.
Because, however, these structures do not in fact exist, this literature
must be classed in the fiction aisle.
This system of astronomy, though named for Claudio Ptolemy, predates him
by some centuries. It came along, however, long after the Greek myths
were formulated, so that the whole vast structure was 'for rent,' unpopulated
as yet by attendant gods. Babylonian astrology had already been imported and
hammered onto the Greek astronomy, but there was still room for gnostic
improvisation. Though the stars and planets had long been deified,
this gleaming and whirring spherical edifice provided plenty of employment
opportunity for traffic cops and gate-keepers, familiar to readers
of gnostic literature. The traveler who wishes to pass from one
sphere to the next must know the secret password. The gnostics eagerly volunteered to serve as
real estate agents, filling up all the vacant places, much to Tertullian's
"As for our heretics, however, it is marvelous what stories upon stories
and what heights upon heights, they have hung up, raised and spread out
as a dwelling for each several god of theirs. Even our Creator has had
arranged for Him the saloons of Ennius in the fashion of private rooms,
with chamber piled upon chamber, and assigned to each god by just as many
staircases as there were heresies. The universe, in fact, has been turned
into 'rooms to let.' Such stories of the heavens you would imagine to be
detached tenements in some happy isle of the blessed, I know not where.
There the god even of the Valentinians has his dwelling in the attics."
(Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, Chapter 7).
Acculturation is a two-edged sword. While this content may have been attractive when the Ptolemaic system was taught in
school, now that only cranks believe it, the gnostics still must drag these obsolescent celestial spheres, no longer respectable, clunking
along behind them. The gnostics grabbed at what was popular, at the time, and
were left with a handful of quintessential dust.
The Ptolemaic system was wonderfully complex, with epicycles hanging
upon epicycles. It was genuinely beloved by its worshipful students such
as the medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas. If he went on to glory after
his earthly sojourn was over, one must wonder how they broke it to
him, that there are no spheres. Perhaps they hadn't the heart, and
handed him a rusty old lever, assigning him the task of working the
spheres. Who has not heard of the fabled sefirot of the Kabbalists, a Greek loan-word,
from sphaira. The music of the spheres wafts through much of the
literature of the middle ages and of classical antiquity, only not
in one place: it isn't in the Bible.
An example of the astronomical ascent genre is the Jewish Christian
work, The Ascension of Isaiah, heavenly tourism of the Ptolemaic bent. . .or
curve. A candid evaluation of its date would
place it in the first century, because the only identifiable politician
is Nero: "After it is consummated, Beliar the great ruler, the king of
this world, will descend, who hath ruled it since it came into being;
yea, he will descend from his firmament in the likeness of a man, a
lawless king, the slayer of his mother: who himself (even) this king
will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have
planted." (Ascension of Isaiah, Chapter 4, Section 2-3). This work is
certainly of incipient gnosticism at a minimum, because "the Father" is
quoted as saying, "For they have denied Me and said: 'We alone are and
there is none beside us.'" (Ascension of Isaiah, Chapter 10, Section
13). The claim that monotheism is the confession of the false gods is central
to gnosticism, which likes a well-stocked pantheon.
The nature of the spherical structures which populated the Ptolemaic
universe was always open to question; in the hands of some adepts of
this system, which is a serious scientific astronomy possessing high
predictive value, they were orbits, mathematical abstractions. Others
imagined them to be of crystalline material. Here they're solid,
equipped with gates, staffed by gate-keepers of course: "And those who
kept the gate of the (third) heaven demanded the password, and the Lord
gave (it) to them in order that He should not be recognized." (Ascension
of Isaiah, Chapter 10, Section 24). As a rule in this system the nature
of the physical universe in the lowest, or sublunary sphere, was thought fundamentally different from the
astronomy up above, so that some postulated a 'quintessence' or fifth
element as the building block of the higher spheres. Change
characterizes our world beneath the moon, stability and permanence, even eternity, the
spheres up above. It gave the synthesizers like Thomas Aquinas some
considerable amount of work to reconcile Aristotle's belief that the
world was eternal with the Biblical account of universal creation. He
achieved the synthesis by inventing the distinction between 'faith' and
'reason,' thus allowing two mutually incompatible world-views to
One could evaluate this form of religion from various angles, but the simplest by
far is to point out, since there ain't no spheres, there ain't no gates. The
modern authors who keep trying to get this turkey, gnosticism, to get up
and fly, must give us some convincing reason to revive an obsolete
system of astronomy. It is so engrained and embedded in this material
that often there isn't much left when you remove it. It
is interesting that the early Christian authors, most of whom believed
in the Ptolemaic system more or less, never clothed their religious views with
this time-stamped, deteriorating garb. Perhaps inspiration gives
you a measure of independence from the surrounding culture.