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

 

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Apart from the obvious appeal for women, the new portrait of Gnosticism is profoundly attractive for modern seekers, that large constituency interested in spirituality without the trappings of organized religion or dogma. For such an audience, texts like Thomas are so enticing because of their individualistic quality, their portrait of a Jesus who is a wisdom teacher rather than a Redeemer or heavenly Savior. Modern readers are drawn by the work's presentation of the mystical quest as a return to primal innocence, an idea that recalls the psychological quest for the inner child. Regardless of the work's historical value, reading Thomas undoubtedly can provide the basis for meditation and spiritual insight, as well as justifying diverse forms of contemporary spirituality.

Equally appealing for modern believers, the Jesus of the hidden gospels has many points of contact with the great spiritual traditions of Asia. This concept makes it vastly easier to promote dialogue with other great world religions, and diminishes any uniquely Christian claims to divine revelation. Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition... these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She asks, "Does not such teaching - the identity of the divine human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord but as spiritual guide - sound more Eastern than Western?" She suggests that we might see an explicitly Indian influence in Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians. The statements of this Jesus even have something of the quality of Zen koan. Coincidentally or not, the Jesus movement was initially known as the Way, which is the same self-descriptive term used by other great religions and philosophical systems, including Buddhism and Taoism. Jesus thus becomes far more congenial to modern sensibilities about both gender and multiculturalism.

Supported by laudatory reviews like those of Pagels and Meyer, densely written mystical texts written 1800 years ago by obscure Syrian and Egyptian heretics have demonstrated real appeal for a modern mass audience. The alternate gospels play a central role in the "Jesus books" published by major commercial publishing houses like Harper, which give the impression that Thomas, Peter, and the rest do in fact represent gospel truth, that they even predate the famous four evangelists. The picture of early Christianities described here has been popularized not just through academic books and articles but through many popular presentations, in television documentaries like the PBS series From Jesus to Christ, broadcast in 1998. Through such means, texts like Thomas have become a familiar presence in religious debate and consciousness.

Déja Vu All Over Again

Though evaluating the Nag Hammadi texts is far beyond my present scope, the image presented by Pagels and the rest is deeply flawed (I discuss these problems at greater length in my forthcoming book Hidden Gospels, due out from Oxford University press next Spring). In summary, texts like Thomas are nothing like as primitive as is sometimes claimed, and their value as sources for earliest Christianity is highly limited. Moreover, very little discovered at Nag Hammadi was actually all that new to scholarship. With few exceptions, modern scholars show little awareness of the very active debate about alternative Christianities which flourished in bygone decades, so that we have a misleading impression that all the worthwhile scholarship has been produced within the last thirty years or so. To the contrary, much of the evidence needed to construct a radical revision of Christian origins had been available for many years prior to the 1970s, if not the 1870s. Through the nineteenth century, the idea that Gnostics might have kept alive the early truths of Jesus was familiar to critical religious thinkers, some on the far fringes of academe, others more respectable. Even the theory that Jesus was an Essene mystic, a member of the group that probably wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, was familiar over a century before those documents were uncovered, and ignited so much popular speculation. Speculations about the Essenes overlapped with ideas about the Gnostics, and both were seen as close to the earliest Christianity: even a century ago, people dreamed of finding actual documents to verify these theories. And when they couldn't find them, they invented them.

Particularly between about 1880 and 1920, a cascade of new discoveries transformed attitudes to early Christianity, both the mainstream and the heretical fringes. The most exciting find involved portions of the Gospel of Thomas located in Egypt, and then known simply as the Sayings of Jesus. Though the work did not have quite the revolutionary impact that it has on modern scholars, quotations from Thomas were appearing in works of popular piety long before the Nag Hammadi finds. And just as modern writers claim Thomas as a fifth gospel, so many experts a hundred years ago awarded a similar laurel to the recently found Gospel of Peter. Many of the insights and observations which have been based on the recently found Gnostic texts were also well-known before 1900. Even the special role of women disciples, which has attracted so much comment in recent years, was already being discussed in that epoch. The notion was quoted in feminist and New Age writings of the early twentieth century - and though this tends to be forgotten in modern writings, both feminists and New Age adherents wrote extensively on early Christianity in this period. Radical perspectives on religion were not an innovation of the 1960s. The new speculations reached a mass audience through magazines, newspapers and novels: they were thoroughly familiar to any reasonably well-informed layperson.

The most intriguing of the new discoveries of the later nineteenth century was the Pistis Sophia ("Faith Wisdom" or "Faith of Wisdom"), an allegorical account of the Gnostic world-system, which some wrongly attributed to Valentinus himself. Purchased in the 1760s, this Coptic text remained barely noticed in the British Museum until in 1851 it was made available in Latin and Greek. By 1896, English readers had access to a translation by G. R. S. Mead, a prolific author who became the great contemporary popularizer of the lost heresies, rather like Elaine Pagels a century later. Mead's publications included the eleven volume Echoes from the Gnosis (1906-1908), a comprehensive edition of every Gnostic writing then known, while The Gnostic John the Baptizer (1924) translated the psalms of the Mandaean sect. Mead was consciously publicizing these texts as hidden gospels: he described Pistis Sophia as a Gnostic gospel, and the text was commonly recognized as "a sort of Gospel coming from some early Gnostic sect."

Pistis Sophia initiated the modern rediscovery of the Gnostic gospels. Because it is so elaborately detailed (it runs to some three hundred pages in translation), the work offers a thorough introduction to Gnosticism, including many of the aspects which have attracted the most attention in the Nag Hammadi gospels. Pistis Sophia claims to report the interactions of Jesus and the disciples after the Resurrection, but it differs radically from the canonical texts in its account of the spiritual powers ruling the universe, its belief in reincarnation, and its extensive use of magical formulae and invocations. The Jesus depicted here was a mystic teacher, whose main interactions are with powerful female disciples like Mary Magdalene. Much of the book concerns the stages by which Jesus liberates the supernatural (and female) figure of Sophia, heavenly Wisdom, from her bondage in error and the material world, and she is progressively restored to her previous divine status in the heavens. Characteristic of these gospels, the events described occur symbolically and psychologically, in sharp contrast to the orthodox Christian concern with historical realities. Much like the Nag Hammadi texts a century later, Pistis Sophia aroused widespread excitement among feminists and esoteric believers, and aspiring radical reformers of Christianity.

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