Since the mid-nineteenth century, new and fringe religious movements have often generated distinctive images of Jesus, who is presented as a sage, philosopher and occult teacher, whose views have much in common with those of Asian teachings. These pictures have a very great deal in common with the images which increasingly dominate the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. In modern scholarly writing, Jesus has become more of a Gnostic, Cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist than the traditional notion of the reformist Jewish rabbi. In both cases, the popularity of these related views of Jesus reflects the ideological needs and predilections of the audiences to whom they are presented.
In this paper, I will trace how the heterodox image of Jesus which has played so lively a role in countless fringe and esoteric sects has within recent years become almost a dominant paradigm within the scholarly world. Though Biblical scholars have not experienced any kind of mass conversion to Gnostic Christianity, nevertheless ideas which were once stigmatized have now become accepted, even orthodox: to coin a phrase, the stone which was once rejected has become the cornerstone. I believe that my story offers a classic case study of the very permeable boundaries that separate the ideas of cults from those of religions.
The Impact of Nag Hammadi
My story starts with the discovery in 1945 of the Gnostic library unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, an event which has had a quite overwhelming effect on modern Christian scholarship. These documents had been concealed in the late fourth century, presumably by someone who felt (reasonably enough) that if they were not concealed, the texts would be destroyed by heresy-hunting vigilantes. The best-known text from the Nag Hammadi treasure trove was the Gospel of Thomas, which in the last two decades has widely, if controversially, been attributed a degree of authority little less than that of the four gospels - and perhaps a great deal more. Other items in this collection supplied countless alternative views of Christianity: though only four explicitly bore the title of "gospels," dozens claimed to record the words or deeds of Jesus. New Testament scholar Marvin Meyer has described the Nag Hammadi collection as "just as precious, and perhaps even more precious" than the texts in the New Testament.
Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in Palestine two years later, the Nag Hammadi collection quickly became available to the general public. Thomas was translated into English in 1959, and over the coming years the work excited a flurry of media attention. A new wave of interest followed in the late 1970s, when all the Nag Hammadi texts were made available in translation as The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977), and Elaine Pagels published her influential account of The Gnostic Gospels (1979). Since the 1970s, scholars working on Jesus and Christian origins have made much use of the Nag Hammadi collection, as well as other related texts like the Gospel of Mary which had been known previously, but which only now became generally available. Based on these long-lost texts, countless popular books and media reports suggest a picture of Christian origins quite at variance with standard accounts, and present the hidden gospels as the precious remains of a whole lost world of ancient Christianity. The suppressed gospels indicate the existence of lost alternative currents within the startlingly diverse Jesus movement.
For Elaine Pagels, perhaps the most important of these submerged early traditions was Gnosticism, the followers of gnosis or spiritual knowledge, who were most active in the second and third centuries, and whose ideas permeate the Nag Hammadi writings. Viewed through her wistful account, Gnosticism was a glorious historical might-have-been, which is both relevant and attractive to a modern audience. This was a forgotten movement of mystics unfettered by dogma, who followed Jesus in their rejection of institutions and hierarchies. Gnostic believers practised "equal access, equal participation and equal claims to knowledge," to the extent of allocating clerical, functions by lot at their ceremonies. Like other so-called heresies, Gnosticism gave women a far higher status than did orthodoxy. Gnostic spirituality is easily reconciled with the insights of modern psychotherapy, as the heretics believed that the conflicts and dramas described in the Christian world-view occurred within the mind of the individual. Gnostic writers were intuitive and subjective, and "considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive." It is implied that the historical Jesus would have been far more at home in these circles than in the stodgy and authoritarian church which claimed to speak in his name. The very early date of the lost scriptures gives the Gnostics and their like a plausible claim to rank as a genuine form of early Christianity, and who knows, perhaps even the one true voice.
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.
The Jesus of the Cults
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.
If we look back a century or so, we find that not only were early heresies still known and studied, but they achieved a popular audience in large measure through their appeal to occult and esoteric movements, who saw the early Gnostics as their spiritual ancestors. Ironically, the Gnostics became such heroes precisely because their deadliest enemies, the Church Fathers, had been so scrupulous in recording their beliefs and doctrines: Origen had quoted an entire liturgy of the Gnostic Ophite sect, complete with its secret names of power. He would have been horrified to know that such excerpts would be taken up enthusiastically by later occultists like Aleister Crowley, who led a whole neo-Gnostic revival at the end of the nineteenth century. Crowley's Gnostic Catholic Church practiced a mass or liturgy in which the canon of commemorated saints included Basilides, Valentinus, Bardesanes, and the others "that transmitted the light of the Gnosis to us, their successors and their heirs." Crowley recommended the Pistis Sophia to his disciples as "an admirable introduction"
Another influential vehicle for Gnostic revivalism was the Theosophical movement, which was co-founded by Madame Blavatsky in the 1870s, and which would influence most of the occult sects of the twentieth century. While Theosophy grew from older esoteric roots, much of its appeal derived from its seeming congruence with the science of the day, particularly notions of evolution. Theosophists told of the rise and fall of successive races through millions of years, and also depicted the progress of the human soul through successive lives: at the summit of spiritual evolution were divine redeemers, avatars, or Christs. The Theosophical Christ thus had a huge amount in common with the Jesus of the Gnostics, the heaven-sent Redeemer dispatched to liberate the forces of light from their prison of matter. In presenting her picture, Blavatsky drew on the scholarship on Gnostic and early Christian heresy available in her own day, and her magnum opus, Isis Unveiled (1877) borrows extensively from King's The Gnostics and Their Remains. Her assumption throughout is that the Gnostics represent the earliest and most authentic doctrines of Christianity, which were later perverted by the so-called orthodox. Following the Gnostics of old with remarkably fidelity, Blavatsky and her contemporaries interpreted Christ's death and resurrection as a symbolic and psychological reality, that reflected transformations within the soul of the believer: in this view, "Christ" was not a historical personage, but a title given to any true initiate. As Theosophist Anna Kingsford declared in the 1880s, "Religion is not historical and in nowise depends upon past events... . The Scriptures are addressed to the soul, and make no appeal to the outer senses."
For Victorian occultists like Kingsford and Annie Besant, Theosophy represented a whole tradition of esoteric Christianity, which had been taught to ancient initiates. These inner teachings were passed on orally, and appeared in the teachings of movements condemned by the orthodox church. The esoteric Christianity supposedly preached by this New Age Jesus has had a long life since it was invented in the 1870s, and it is by no means extinct today. Some occult thinkers published serious scholarly editions of early texts, and Theosophical publishers presented Gnostic and occult works to a mass market. G. R. S. Mead himself was secretary of the Theosophical Society, and his editions of the Pistis Sophia and the Echoes from the Gnosis were first published by the Theosophical Publishing House.
The Gnostic Jesus particularly appealed to those who heard in his voice echoes of the Asian religions that were in such vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. Blavatsky integrated her Gnostic insights into a wider framework drawn from Asian religions: she declared Jesus to be an avatar of the divine, a messenger from above comparable to Buddha or Krishna. Like many esoteric writers, she argued that the titles of Christ and Krishna were essentially identical. Her Jesus taught the law of karma, and revealed to humanity the principles of spiritual progress and perfectibility, achieved over many lifetimes. The theory that early Christianity had drawn on Asian and specifically Buddhist thought was a commonplace for nineteenth century German thinkers, and these ideas were affecting the English-speaking world by the 1880s. It was argued that the unification of the known world under Alexander the Great had created an ideal environment for Buddhist missionaries to spread their ideas to the west. Possible east-west connections proved highly attractive for the esoteric community: in Theosophical literature, Jesus was believed to have traveled widely in India, Tibet, Persia, Egypt and elsewhere, where he acquired the mystery teachings of the respective traditions. The idea of cross-cultural pollination gained popularity as imperial contacts gave Victorian scholars an increasingly globalized perspective, and permitted them to draw on the lessons of comparative religion. Asian movements like Hinduism and Buddhism increasingly attracted mass Western audiences following the World's Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893.
Theories of a possible Asian influence on the Jesus movement usually focused on the Essenes. Even orthodox scholars like Dean Mansel argued that Buddhist monks and missionaries had provided the inspiration for the monks and ascetics whom we find recorded in the Middle East before the coming of Jesus, like the Essenes and the related Egyptian sect of the Therapeutae. Some writers explored the idea that Jesus himself might have drawn on these esoteric traditions, as suggested by the title of Arthur Lillie's 1887 book Buddhism in Christendom, or, Jesus, the Essene. In 1880, Ernest von Bunsen argued that Christian messianic concepts derived from a common fund of tradition that was shared by Buddhists and Essenes. The Essenes, it was thought, provided a crucial link between Eastern mysticism and Western heresy, with Jesus as the pivot between the two trends. If Jesus had access to Buddhist ideas, and the Gnostic sects themselves preached reincarnation and other Asian themes, then once again this was evidence that Jesus' earliest teachings were best preserved among the so-called heresies.
The idea of a connection between Jesus and the Essenes sounds remarkably modern, in that a possible link between Jesus and this sect has often been proposed since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. (The idea that the Gnostics might have drawn from the Essenes has been much discussed since the finding of the Scrolls, though it remains controversial). However, the Essenes have fascinated scholars and amateurs since the Enlightenment. Frederick the Great asserted that "Jesus was really an Essene; he was imbued with Essene ethics." Ernest Renan, author of the most famous nineteenth-century life of Jesus, proclaimed that Christianity was simply a version of Essenism that happened to have survived. Blavatsky agreed that "the Gnostics, or early Christians, were but the followers of the old Essenes under a new name." Legge in 1915 discusses the Essenes as "pre-Christian Gnostics," and quotes the by-then-familiar arguments "that St. John the Baptist was an Essene and that Jesus Himself belonged to the sect." Already in the early twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton could mock the old-fashioned idea that Jesus was "an ethical teacher in the manner of the Essenes, who had apparently nothing very much to say that Hillel or a hundred other Jews might not have said; as that it is a kindly thing to be kind and an assistance to purification to be pure." The Essenes were old hat long before the finds at Qumran.
Significantly, too, it was the early esoteric writers who first comprehended the implications of the new documents for women's role in early Christianity. Indeed, the materials were present for a feminist revision of early Christian history. Just how thoroughgoing such an endeavor could be was indicated by Frances Swiney's important book The Esoteric Teachings of the Gnostics (1909), which is virtually forgotten today. Though she writes from an occult or theosophical perspective, Swiney has much in common with modern scholars like Elaine Pagels or Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who attempt to restore the lost voices of the women of early Christianity. For Swiney, the Gnostics found their chief supporters among the emancipated women of the Roman empire, "early pioneers of the the liberation movement of their sex, dialectical daughters questioning the truth and authority of received opinions, earnest intellectual women." She saw the Gnostics as the direct predecessors of the suffragette women of her own day.
Without the benefit of the Nag Hammadi texts, Swiney uses the Pistis Sophia to provide a strikingly full portrait of the Gnostic world-view. (She also seems to have known contemporary German writings, particularly on the concept of Gnosticism as a pre-Christian movement). She saw the Gnostic faith as a far more spiritual and egalitarian doctrine than the crude beliefs of the orthodox church. Gnostics taught reincarnation; they believed "that the real human is male-female, devoid of differentiated sexuality; the duality of manifestation now existing being a transitory phase of existence"; while the notion of Christ's vicarious sacrifice for sins was a "monstrous doctrine" invented by the orthodox. "Though Gnosticism long predated Christianity, the Gnostics were the first Christians; they accepted Christ in the full realization of the word; his life, not his death, was the key-note of their doctrine and their practice." Their beliefs were expressed in gospels which, she believed, were accepted and regarded as canonical decades before a like veneration was extended to orthodox texts like the letters of Paul. The surviving Gnostic fragments, "the few mutilated relics that remain of these writings, [are] the most valuable evidence of what primitive Christianity really was, and what was the contemporary opinion of Christ and his teaching."
These noble Gnostic thinkers, "the guardians of the most sacred truths of existence," were subjected to orthodox persecutions which collectively represent "the bloodiest and the blackest records that history can show us": these acts were inflicted by "the uninformed, narrow-minded fathers of the primitive church." Worse than merely obscurantist, the Christian reaction specifically represented male persecution of women: "The Gnostics kept true to the original pristine faith in the Femininity of the Holy Spirit. A truth universally suppressed in the fourth century AD by the male priesthood of the Christian Church." Male priests had systematically doctored the surviving texts: "It is very suggestive of a sinister motive that in most of the erasures and where pages are missing in these Gnostic writings, the subject treated is in the context is some hidden mystery, the interpretation of which was unacceptable to the masculine mind and to bigoted orthodoxy." The iniquitous exclusion of women from the faith and its scriptures was the direct cause of "the persecution, degradation and maltreatment of womanhood" through the succeeding centuries.
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.
Into the Mainstream
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.