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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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.

The Jesus of the Cults

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And this brings me to my key point. A hundred years ago, virtually all the ideas currently proposed as the latest hot-off-the-presses Jesus scholarship were already widely known, though less to Biblical scholars than to members of new religions, fringe occult and esoteric schools and the movements which were already then known as "cults". The cult lunacies of 1900 have become the scholarly orthodoxies of 2000.

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