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
But as we have seen, the "Gnostic Jesus" is now taught in the college classrooms at least as much as in the mystery schools. How did this happen? One reason for the renewed importance of Gnostic ideas is that the sheer volume of available texts grew impressively after the Nag Hammadi finds, encouraging vastly more writing on the topic, while the expansion of the universities and the religious studies profession since the 1960s has swelled the ranks of academics and graduate students in search of topics. This has been a genuinely exciting academic field which has established many careers. Even so, the most important change seems not to have been the new volume of information, but a fundamental change of attitude among scholars, and in the institutions in which they worked.
The academic profession engaged in studying the Bible was transformed, above all by the influx of large numbers of women scholars, but also by the impact of postmodern and feminist theories. These changes had a revolutionary impact on attitudes to issues of canon and the nature of history, and to movements once regarded as peripheral and heretical. Scholarship on Gnosticism and alternative Christianities now revived, after a period of some decades in which these ideas had fallen into disfavor, probably because the subject had been so overworked in earlier years. From the 1960s, the fringe movements suddenly returned to view as essential for understanding Christian origins. Once that transformation had occurred, new and existing materials were reinterpreted accordingly, and scholars re-examined texts and ideas with which they had long had a nodding acquaintance. The discovery of the non-canonical scriptures marks a change of perception and ideology, rather than a balanced or objective response to a new corpus of evidence. As the cynical saying declares, "If I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it with my own eyes." If we can borrow the language of detective stories, the new gospel finds provided the means for new directions in research, while the expansion of the academic world supplied the opportunity: even so, a motive was still required, and this came from the new intellectual currents and theories which focused attention on topics once relegated to the academic fringe.
Radical ideas can be proposed and discussed without causing much disturbance outside the closed ranks of academe, but what has been remarkable about the recent study of Gnosticism and its gospels is how broadly and rapidly these matters have affected a general audience. At the end of the twentieth century, as at its beginning, a broad general public demonstrated an avid interest in the new gospels and the lessons which can supposedly be drawn from them. The reasons for this development are not hard to seek, since the scholars and writers presenting the "real Jesus" and his followers were making them sound so precisely compatible with strictly contemporary concerns, so relevant to modern-day debates. What few consumers of the new academic theories realized was that what they were imbibing was in fact the cult commonplaces of a century before. As one orthodoxy is established, so older ideas are relabeled as deviant or marginal: in terms of understanding early Christianity, the heretical has virtually become orthodox, and vice versa.