How Gnostic Jesus Became the Christ of Scholars

Images of Jesus as a Gnostic or crypto-Buddhist sage are popular because they reflect the ideological needs of certain audiences

Since the mid-nineteenth century, new and fringe religious movements have often generated distinctive images of Jesus, who is presented as a sage, philosopher and occult teacher, whose views have much in common with those of Asian teachings. These pictures have a very great deal in common with the images which increasingly dominate the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. In modern scholarly writing, Jesus has become more of a Gnostic, Cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist than the traditional notion of the reformist Jewish rabbi. In both cases, the popularity of these related views of Jesus reflects the ideological needs and predilections of the audiences to whom they are presented.

In this paper, I will trace how the heterodox image of Jesus which has played so lively a role in countless fringe and esoteric sects has within recent years become almost a dominant paradigm within the scholarly world. Though Biblical scholars have not experienced any kind of mass conversion to Gnostic Christianity, nevertheless ideas which were once stigmatized have now become accepted, even orthodox: to coin a phrase, the stone which was once rejected has become the cornerstone. I believe that my story offers a classic case study of the very permeable boundaries that separate the ideas of cults from those of religions.

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The Impact of Nag Hammadi

My story starts with the discovery in 1945 of the Gnostic library unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, an event which has had a quite overwhelming effect on modern Christian scholarship. These documents had been concealed in the late fourth century, presumably by someone who felt (reasonably enough) that if they were not concealed, the texts would be destroyed by heresy-hunting vigilantes. The best-known text from the Nag Hammadi treasure trove was the Gospel of Thomas, which in the last two decades has widely, if controversially, been attributed a degree of authority little less than that of the four gospels - and perhaps a great deal more. Other items in this collection supplied countless alternative views of Christianity: though only four explicitly bore the title of "gospels," dozens claimed to record the words or deeds of Jesus. New Testament scholar Marvin Meyer has described the Nag Hammadi collection as "just as precious, and perhaps even more precious" than the texts in the New Testament.

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