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

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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.

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