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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Strange New Gospels

For well over a century, Christians and non-Christians alike have been fascinated by the dream that somewhere, buried in a cave or lost in an ancient library, there might exist a document which would prove once and for all the truth about Jesus, his teachings and his mission. Just what this truth would be depends on the attitudes of the individual responsible for the speculation: Jesus might be proved the son of God or an impostor, a political rebel or a victim of misguided hopes, but somewhere, this final truth must be found. And so great are these hopes that very frequently over the last century, people have tried either to concoct new gospels to supply this information, or else to imagine (plausibly or not) that these secrets are contained in genuine documents.

As if the surviving ancient texts had not raised enough seditious questions, many writers from the early nineteenth century onwards claimed to have discovered altogether new sources, new "hidden gospels," in order to justify their own beliefs: the Book of Mormon is a case in point. Exactly how this work was composed remains a matter of debate, but most non-Mormons would dismiss it as outright forgery. The process of invention continued apace through the late nineteenth century, inspired by news of the genuine finds from Egypt and elsewhere: Tischendorf's discoveries at St. Catharine's inspired a whole generation of counterfeiters. In the 1890s, The Archko Volume purported to offer the official records of the trial and death of Jesus, with letters attributed to Pilate, Caiaphas, and others. This imagined treasure trove was subtitled "The archeological writings of the Sanhedrim and Talmuds of the Jews... from manuscripts in Constantinople and the records of the senatorial docket taken from the Vatican at Rome." Typical of such works, this volume offered a plausible-sounding scholarly pedigree: a later Gospel of Peace of Jesus Christ by the Disciple John claimed to be based on secret manuscripts in the Vatican and the imperial library of the Habsburgs. Pseudo-Essene documents were published regularly, usually validated by claims that they had been discovered in some ancient library. The Vatican was a common candidate, on the assumption that the Roman Catholic church was most likely both to know, and to have concealed, the ultimate truth.

Occult and esoteric writers were particularly fertile in the process of invention, and many felt compelled to fill in the missing years in Jesus' life, that period of adolescence and early adulthood which preceded the start of his public ministry. Some of these attempts would be immensely influential. At the turn of the century, Nicholas Notovich published The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, From Buddhistic Records, which reported the author's alleged visit to the Tibetan city of Lhasa. Notovich claimed to have found there abundant documents concerning the life of Jesus, who had preached his first sermons in India during his teens. The book includes a complete gospel, here published as "The Life of Saint Issa [Jesus], best of the sons of men." News of Notovich's alleged find resurfaced sporadically over the following decades, causing a minor furor in the American press as late as the 1920s.

In an age fascinated by spiritualism and mediumship, it seemed natural that such revelations would be obtained through what would today be called channeling. New details of Jesus' life and thought were made familiar through books like Levi Dowling's long-popular Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, Rudolf Steiner's The Fifth Gospel, and Edgar Cayce's channeled tales of Jesus, all of which drew to some extent on Notovich. All were very popular: between 1908 and 1995, the Aquarian Gospel alone went through 52 printings in clothbound editions, and thirteen in paperback. The full influence of these books is hard to trace too specifically because they were so widely plagiarized and imitated: with minor modifications, the Aquarian Gospel became the holy scripture of the Moorish Science Temple, America's first domestic Muslim movement. In recent years, the best-known examples of this esoteric tradition have been the works of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who draws on Notovich to describe Jesus' occult career in Tibet and elsewhere.

The proliferation of pseudo-gospels raised difficulties for the non-specialist public, who had no reliable way of telling whether the new offerings represented genuine archaeological discoveries scrupulously edited by conscientious scholars, or spurious fictions. Once published, moreover, these books went through many subsequent editions, so that apocryphal gospels were probably more numerous and widely read in 1920 than they had been since the time of the Emperor Constantine. By 1931, Edgar Goodspeed wrote his exasperated survey of the thriving genre of Strange New Gospels, in which he highlighted The Archko Volume, Notovich's Unknown Life, the Aquarian Gospel, as well as a "Confession of Pontius Pilate," the "Letter of Benan" and a 29th chapter of Acts, which described St Paul's visit to Britain. Goodspeed tried to provide potential readers with practical criteria by which they could distinguish between genuine new finds and flagrant inventions.

Though these various pseudo-gospels have no claim to historical validity, they popularized many of the ideas which have become commonplace in the last quarter-century, namely that Jesus preached mystical teachings related to those of various clandestine orders and traditions, and that early Christian doctrine involved Buddhist teachings like reincarnation and meditation. Moreover, these works present Jesus in traditional Gnostic mode as the revealer of mysteries whose deeds have a symbolic rather than historical importance. To a non-specialist, there are close resemblances between the mystical teachings of authentic early texts like the Gospel of Truth found at Nag Hammadi and Dowling's spurious Aquarian Gospel. The seeming degree of plausibility of such forgeries need cause no surprise, since the forgers were usually drawing on the authentic early Gnostic texts which had become such a commonplace part of popular culture. While they had little impact on the mainstream churches, these radical interpretations reached a wide audience through the diverse esoteric movements that attracted so many millions of Americans and Europeans in the first half of the century. Long before the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, a remarkably large public was conditioned to accept the dramatically different portraits of Jesus contained in the new gospels: indeed, lay people with New Age interests may have been more disposed than scholars to accept the radical image of Jesus presented therein.

There is an obvious line of succession from these earlier pseudo-gospels to contemporary New Age and esoteric writings. Now as then, the Jesus of this movement was seen in syncretistic terms, someone who could equally well speak for Buddhism or Hinduism as for any form of Christianity. Largely ignored by most writers on Christian trends, the New Age Jesus continues to flourish, and to stimulate countless books from presses both major and marginal. One of the best-known of such efforts was Jacob Needleman's study, which bore the evocative title of Lost Christianity. Esoteric adherents have access to their own distinctive verse-by-verse New Age commentary on Thomas, complete with appropriate mystical "affirmations" and mediations throughout, while the implications of the Gnostic discoveries were discussed at length in magazines of the 1990s like Gnosis and other New Age periodicals. Also immensely popular has been the book A Course in Miracles, and the vast literature it has spawned since its first appearance in 1975: the Course claims to be a series of revelations dictated by Jesus himself through a channeling process. The book shares the fundamental Gnostic principle that the material world is the product of false perception, of error and delusion, from which one can be saved through a relationship with Jesus as "elder brother," rather than unique redeemer. Also Gnostic is the rejection of the value of the crucifixion, and the absolute emphasis upon the resurrection. Many of the familiar narrative elements we have noted earlier also occur in the new age tract known as the Celestine Prophecy, although this does not adopt the "hidden gospel" format. Nevertheless, this is supposedly an ancient Peruvian tract written in Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and again, the document is exposed despite the plots and machinations of the Roman Catholic church.

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