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
BY: Philip Jenkins
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.
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.
Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in Palestine two years later, the Nag Hammadi collection quickly became available to the general public. Thomas was translated into English in 1959, and over the coming years the work excited a flurry of media attention. A new wave of interest followed in the late 1970s, when all the Nag Hammadi texts were made available in translation as The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977), and Elaine Pagels published her influential account of The Gnostic Gospels (1979). Since the 1970s, scholars working on Jesus and Christian origins have made much use of the Nag Hammadi collection, as well as other related texts like the Gospel of Mary which had been known previously, but which only now became generally available. Based on these long-lost texts, countless popular books and media reports suggest a picture of Christian origins quite at variance with standard accounts, and present the hidden gospels as the precious remains of a whole lost world of ancient Christianity. The suppressed gospels indicate the existence of lost alternative currents within the startlingly diverse Jesus movement.
For Elaine Pagels, perhaps the most important of these submerged early traditions was Gnosticism, the followers of gnosis or spiritual knowledge, who were most active in the second and third centuries, and whose ideas permeate the Nag Hammadi writings. Viewed through her wistful account, Gnosticism was a glorious historical might-have-been, which is both relevant and attractive to a modern audience. This was a forgotten movement of mystics unfettered by dogma, who followed Jesus in their rejection of institutions and hierarchies. Gnostic believers practised "equal access, equal participation and equal claims to knowledge," to the extent of allocating clerical, functions by lot at their ceremonies. Like other so-called heresies, Gnosticism gave women a far higher status than did orthodoxy. Gnostic spirituality is easily reconciled with the insights of modern psychotherapy, as the heretics believed that the conflicts and dramas described in the Christian world-view occurred within the mind of the individual. Gnostic writers were intuitive and subjective, and "considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive." It is implied that the historical Jesus would have been far more at home in these circles than in the stodgy and authoritarian church which claimed to speak in his name. The very early date of the lost scriptures gives the Gnostics and their like a plausible claim to rank as a genuine form of early Christianity, and who knows, perhaps even the one true voice.