2016-06-30
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




  • Dear Ben,

    Thank you for your letter, which helpfully clarified various viewpoints on these early gospels-and on the early Christian movement. As I read it, you make two basic points:

    First, that sources like the Gospel of Thomas, being "Gnostic," must be late sources-coming from the second century, or later-and therefore have nothing to do with the beginnings of the Christian movement.

    Second, that what we find in the Gospel of Thomas is "at odds with what we find in New Testament texts"-that is, confession of Jesus as the "crucified and risen Lord." What those of us working on these texts have come to conclude, in the course of extensive research on the Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament gospels, is that the first point is wrong, and the second is questionable. Instead, we're convinced of the following: First: The Gospel of Thomas is not "Gnostic," but a "gospel" compiled from various sayings traditions, probably around the end of the first century (my dating). Second: Instead of being "at odds" with what we find in the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas presupposes what Mark tells of Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection-and claims to go beyond it. Thomas depicts the Risen Jesus speaking not of "forgiveness of sins" and "faith," but encouraging each one to "seek, and you shall find" a relationship to God.
    Both of your points are assumptions all of us, I would guess, were taught in graduate school. The earliest editors of "Gnostic" texts thought that they were dualistic, escapist, nihilistic, involving "esoteric ideas about aeons and demiurges," as you yourself write. As my former teacher at Harvard, Krister Stendhal, said to me recently about these texts, "we just thought these were weird." But can you point to any evidence of such "esoteric ideas" in Thomas? Anything about "aeons and demiurges"? Those first editors, not finding such evidence, assumed that this just goes to show how sneaky heretics are-they do not say what they mean. So when they found no evidence for such nihilism or dualism-on the contrary, the Gospel of Thomas speaks continually of God as the One good "Father of all"-they just read these into the text. Some scholars, usually those not very familiar with these sources, still do. So first let's talk about "Gnosticism"-and what I used to (but no longer) call "Gnostic Gospels." I have to take responsibility for part of the misunderstanding. Having been taught that these texts were "Gnostic," I just accepted it, and even coined the term "Gnostic gospels," which became the title of my book. I agree with you that we have no evidence for what we call "Gnosticism" from the first century, and have learned from our colleagues that what we thought about "Gnosticism" has virtually nothing to do with a text like the Gospel of Thomas-or, for that matter, with the New Testament Gospel of John which our teachers said also showed "Gnostic influences."
    What we came to see, Ben, when we worked carefully comparing the various gospel texts, is that we do find in Thomas, just as you say, many resonances with the New Testament gospels. Many sayings in Thomas are either the same or similar to their parallels in Matthew and Luke ("blessed are the poor"; the parables of the sower, of the "pearl of great price," the fisherman, and many others). Second, Thomas holds other sayings that resonate with the language of the Gospel of John (e.g. "I am the light of the world...") You conclude that these are all taken from written New Testament sources-which brings you to an early second century date. However, I tend to agree with Harvard scholar Helmut Koester (Ancient Christian Gospels) and others: whoever put together the Gospel of Thomas apparently had access to the kind of sources Matthew and Luke used to write their gospels. Koester suggests that the Gospel of Thomas comes from about the year 50, and so is the earliest of the New Testament gospels. I hold to a more conservative dating, since I think Thomas also includes what looks like later sayings tradition, parallel with the Gospel of John. I think a date of 90-100 fits both the sources and the papyrus evidence, although these dates are only educated guesses, as you know.
    "The Gospel of Thomas claims to go beyond what one already has learned. Nothing here suggests that faith does not matter-in fact, it is assumed." --Elaine Pagels
    A further indication that Thomas is not "Gnostic," by your own definition, is that it does use the Old Testament in a very positive way-just as the Gospel of John does. Both frame their views of the gospel with midrashic interpretations of Genesis 1. Recognizing this has led scholars far beyond what you learned as a graduate student from Bruce Metzger, and what I learned in graduate school. That's why those of us working in this field have come to recognize these texts not as "Gnostic"-whatever that fuzzy term meant-but as early Christian, and immersed, like all the early Christian sources we know, in the Hebrew Bible.
    Early Christian sources-bishop Irenaeus, for example-tell us that the Gospel of Thomas is one of those that some Christians revered; that's why we think that the movement was much more diverse than any of us were taught, or than anyone imagined before the 1945 discovery of these texts. Indeed, the Nag Hammadi texts were originally copied and read by Christian monks in one of the first monasteries to be established in Egypt. Second: As you say, the New Testament books focus on "belief in the atoning death of Jesus." The Gospel of Thomas, indeed, is different; it begins with the words, "these are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke." It's true that the teachings of Thomas are not about "belief in the atoning death of Jesus." Here, instead, the "Living Jesus" encourages his disciples to "seek, and you shall find," adding that "the one who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be troubled; and when he is troubled, he will be astonished..." This collection of teachings urges not "speculation," as we were taught, but seeking God-and suffering through the process of discovering one's relationship to "the living Jesus" and to God.
    Like you, I was taught a generation ago that this kind of teaching was antithetical to what we find in "the real gospels." Since that time, however, many scholars have realized that the Gospel of Thomas would make no sense to anyone who was not already familiar with the account of Jesus' activities, his death, and resurrection as, for example, the Gospel of Mark tells it. Like John's gospel, Thomas' apparently assumes that the reader already knows about Jesus, and knows about his public teaching. Otherwise, offering his "secret teaching" would make no sense at all. But for those who already have accepted the public teaching, certain disciples are ready to learn the "secret teaching" which goes beyond this. John's gospel, of course, relates such intimate teaching in chapters 13-18, in what we call the "farewell discourses" that Jesus directs to his disciples alone. Instead of offering a wholly different teaching, then, the Gospel of Thomas, like John's "farewell discourses," claims to go beyond what one already has learned. Nothing here suggests that faith does not matter-in fact, it is assumed; but what is also assumed is that some will now want to go beyond belief-beyond the elementary teaching-in a process of spiritual inquiry. Teachers like this cited Paul as their model-as in I Corinthians 2 he declares that, so long as he was speaking to immature Christians-"babies in Christ"-he "decided to acknowledge nothing, among you, except Jesus Christ crucified," although, he says, "we do speak wisdom among those who are mature-the hidden wisdom of God, which God ordained before the ages (aeons) for our glory." Paul goes on to allude to matters that can be discerned only by those who have attained to a level of spiritual insight-"the deep things of God." The gospel of Mark (Mk 4:11f) has Jesus explain to his disciples that "to you is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those outside, everything is in parables." So we find in the New Testament gospels and in Paul's letters hints of teaching that are not among the elementary and essential ones on which these writings focus.
    Even if we recognize that Jesus-and Paul-may have entrusted certain non-public teachings to certain disciples, does this mean that the Gospel of Thomas contains Jesus' actual secret teaching? We just don't know. I tend to think that Thomas is a collection of various teachings, probably different strata of sayings. Many are shared in common with Matthew and Luke, but are presented with no narrative and little interpretation, as sayings that impel the believer to "seek" further. Others-those that speak of the Kingdom as already present-I take (unlike some of our colleagues) to be later interpretations of Jesus' teachings, like those we find in certain passages of the Gospel of John. Like you, I love this tradition, and work on these sources because they work on me as well. The fact that we do not agree on every point has much to do with the difficulty of making certain historical judgments about first century sources-and also with the various ways we understand the beginnings of Christianity, and what it means for us today. Many will take up these questions in the future, and teach us to see new elements in the history of the faith that we share. Thank you for the spirit of collegial discussion in your e-mails, and for stating your views so clearly.
    I look forward to continuing our discussion offline, perhaps when we meet at conferences. Yours sincerely, Elaine