Elaine PagelsBen Witherington III The final installment of Beliefnet's scholarly smackdown on Paul and early Christianity became a wide-ranging debate on Gnostic scriptures and whether they contradict the four traditional gospels. Weighing in are two preeminent Bible scholars: Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton and author of the bestselling Beyond Belief; and Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and author of numerous books.

Ben | Elaine

Dear Elaine:

In this e-mail, I want to address the formation of the canon, the Gospel of Thomas, and the role of Gnosticism in early Christianity. This is a tall order for a single e-mail, but I will do my best.

Let's start with the subject of Gnosticism first. I, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, do not think we can really talk about there being an extant belief system called "Gnosticism" in the first century A.D. Most scholars prefer the term "proto-Gnostic" for ideas found in some documents that may date to the first century A.D.

The earliest of the so-called Gnostic Gospels is generally agreed to be Thomas. As you know, there is considerable debate as to whether one should really even call this document Gnostic. But let's suppose for the sake of argument that it is. Is there any good reason to think this document, or any Gnostic document, comes from the first century A.D. or represents early Christian beliefs from the apostolic age? In my view, the answer is probably "no," for a whole host of reasons:

1) There seem to be echoes, allusions, and partial quotations from all sorts of NT documents in Thomas-not only echoes of all four canonical Gospels but also echoes from some of the Pauline corpus, from Hebrews, and from Johannine literature. In addition, as Craig Evans has pointed out, there is rather clear evidence that Thomas' author knows the final redaction of the four canonical Gospels, not just its source material.

"The entire system of salvation offered in Gnostic documents is at odds with that [of] New Testament texts." --Ben Witherington III

Evans writes*: "Quoting or alluding to more than half of the writings of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Col., 1 Thess., 1 Timothy, Hebrews 1, Rev.), Thomas could be little more than a collage of New Testament and apocryphal material that have been interpreted, often allegorically, in such a way as to advance second- and third-century Gnostic ideas."

Evans' careful demonstration shows that Thomas is even dependent on documents widely believed to be written in the last decade of the first century--i.e., the Johannine literature, including Revelation. I can't think of any scholar who has written a commentary on John and thinks that Thomas is earlier, or that Thomas influenced John.

Where could the author of Thomas have come into contact with all this material before at least the early second century A.D.? My answer is, nowhere. Thomas could not have been written before the second century A.D., particularly because the Gospel of John--which you rightly say bears the closest affinity with Thomas of any canonical Gospel--dates to the last decade of the first century.

There is no strong case to be made that any Gnostic document, even Thomas, reflects first-century Christian beliefs. To the contrary, even Thomas is a meditation on the earlier documents of the New Testament era. Earliest Christianity was certainly less diverse than you and Karen King seem to think, and there were already standards of right believing in the first century A.D.

2) The character of Gnostic documents reflects a reaction, indeed an over-reaction, to the strongly Jewish flavor of all the New Testament documents, which in my judgment were all written by Jews, or perhaps in the case of Luke-Acts by a Jewish sympathizer (a God-fearer). These Gnostic characteristics include:

  • strong matter-spirit dualism
  • often, very strong asceticism
  • no positive use of the Old Testament
  • an anti-Semitic and anti-creation theology bias

    The Gnostic documents seem to have been written almost exclusively by Gentiles. Perhaps this is why the Jewishness of the historical Jesus gets almost completely lost in the Gnostic documents. More could be said along these lines, and my forthcoming book The Gospel Code deals in some depth with Gnosticism and the Gospel of Thomas. But let's move on to the post-apostolic age, which saw the creation of the New Testament canon.

    In the first place, it seems clear to me that there was already a collection of Paul's letters, as well as a codex collection of the four canonical Gospels, circulating in the early second century A.D. They were apostolic and sacred texts used for teaching and preaching in the church (see 2 Peter 3.15-16). One of the reasons none of the Gnostic documents were ever recognized as canonical or apostolic texts even in the second century (indeed, they were deemed heretical by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and various others) is precisely because they were so out of character with the profoundly Jewish nature and belief system found in the apostolic documents.

    We really shouldn't talk about the "exclusion" of Gnostic documents from the canon, because frankly, they were never seriously considered for inclusion (as Bruce Metzger taught me long ago when I took early church history from him at Princeton). Not a single early canon list, or council, or church Father--not even someone like Origen--lists any of these documents as possible sacred texts for early Christians. By their very non-Jewish and non-early Christian character, they excluded themselves.

    It is thus an exercise in revisionist history to blame Constantine or the council of Nicea for imposing some standard or orthodoxy and canon that was not already widely accepted in the church, both West and East. All the council of Nicea did was formalize and recognize what was already widely accepted in the church-that only apostolic and eyewitness documents from the first century A.D. should be in the canon. As James Dunn has recently said, the canonical Gospels and the letters of Paul already show us the parameters of right thinking about Jesus.

    There's another good reason for questioning the notion of Gnostic Christians in the first century A.D.: The entire system of salvation offered in Gnostic documents is at odds with that found in numerous New Testament texts. Gnosticism emphasizes esoteric knowledge and matter-spirit dualism. The focus of the New Testament is on the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not on some esoteric knowledge that Jesus revealed to the elite after Easter. And it is precisely the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that is said to be the means of our salvation.

    While salvation does of course involve knowing certain things, it would be incorrect to say that it involves obtaining some sort of esoteric secret knowledge. The focus of the New Testament is belief in the atoning death of Jesus, which overcame the world's sin problem. Information without transformation of human nature availeth not, and it was believed that if one confessed Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, and believed that God raised him from the dead, one was saved.
    Salvation was more a matter of who one trusts as Lord and Savior than whether one could cope with esoteric ideas about aeons and demi-urges and matter being evil and spirit being good. As you yourself have said, in Gnosticism theology is reduced to anthropology. This is quite foreign to the Christocentric focus of the New Testament.

    There is much more I wish we could discuss, but this will have to do. Thanks so much for being willing to talk about these matters, in ways which I hope our readers will find helpful.

    Blessings on you and your family,

    Ben Witherington