Why are we still talking about the Gnostic gospels? After all, the church has successfully weathered The Da Vinci Code storm, despite the tumultuous frenzy it caused. As New Testament professor Ben Witherington quipped, "When people calmed down, they realized it was closer to hysterical than historical fiction." (1) Furthermore, when the Gospel of Judas was unveiled a few years ago, the overblown attention it received from the media seemed to dwindle relatively quickly. Even scholars known for their affinity for Gnosticism helped diminish the fanfare. April DeConick strongly chastised National Geographic for its disingenuous translation, (2) and James M. Robinson acknowledged he wrote his book about Judas prior to inspecting the actual document. (3) Accordingly, the dust from these trials has settled and biblical Christianity has emerged untarnished.
Be that as it may, the same cannot be said for Christianity's image, particularly its perceived truthfulness. As I currently spend my days talking with skeptics of all stripes on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles, I am surprised how utterly convinced most are that the New Testament was composed and compiled by intolerant individuals with a biased agenda. Its one-sided portrayal of Jesus, they assert, was established as orthodoxy only after opposing voices were forcefully silenced. Not a week goes by without someone reaching for this arrow in his quiver of excuses for dismissing Christianity. The Da Vinci Code Jesus who fathered a child through Mary Magdalene may sound implausible to many, but Jesus as the product of politics remains all the rage.
As well-known antagonist Bart Ehrman explains in Lost Christianities (a college textbook), there was no consensus regarding the identity and significance of Jesus for centuries. Four Gospels said he was God in the flesh, dying as payment for our sins and rising again on the third day. Yet other gospels, those of the Gnostic variety, presented Jesus as more of a paranormal mystic whose secret teachings often differ radically from traditional Christianity. Ehrman's bottom line is that no one depiction of Jesus is more authoritative than another. Those who claim otherwise, from early church fathers to Christians of today, have let their theological preferences determine their conclusions. The creation of the New Testament canon, we are told, is a quintessential case of the winners writing the history books--or, as it were, the holy books.
From college professors to conspiracy theorists, this provocative premise has become fodder for nearly anyone who takes issue with the origins of Christianity. And it is easy to see why. For if the wrong gospels were chosen for the wrong reasons, then Christians have been mistaken about Jesus for nearly two millennia. The stakes simply could not be higher. But when the evidence is weighed, do revisionists really have a leg to stand on? Is it reasonable to think the Gnostics possessed independent material about Jesus and rightly understood his role in salvation? Can these alternate texts be harmonized with the New Testament, allowing for their inclusion? Which gospels are the most reliable sources about Jesus? As we attempt to answer these questions, we shall consider the substance of Gnosticism, what kind of Jesus the Gnostic gospels present, and which gospels the earliest witnesses considered most credible.
The ancient religious movement known today as Gnosticism was both indistinct and eclectic, making it difficult to nail down a one-size-fits-all definition. In fact, one of the few points of agreement among scholars is that Gnosticism was anything but monolithic. Some forms may have appeared indistinguishable from Christianity in the eyes of pagans. Other versions had more in common with kabbalistic Judaism. Still others were more in line with the Greco-Roman mystery religions. Much of Gnosticism was highly secretive--there was no Gnostic church--which likely accounts for the paucity of early material about its adherents (save, perhaps, a few brief remarks from the New Testament). (4) What is more, the extant Gnostic writings reflect incompatible beliefs among themselves. With so many gray areas, is it possible to discern much of anything about Gnosticism?
In short, yes. Although no single trait serves as the umbrella under which each variation of Gnosticism neatly fits, the general worldview of the Gnostics is not elusive. In The Missing Gospels, Darrell Bock notes their shared understanding of dualism, cosmogony, and soteriology. (5)
Two conflicting gods occupied center stage in much of Gnostic thought, despite the involvement of numerous other supernatural entities (including angels, aeons, and archons). (6) The supreme god, who is akin to Plato's "The Good," is utterly transcendent and therefore unknowable. The lesser god, sometimes known as the Demiurge, is the creator of the cosmos. When the Old Testament was overlaid with this dualism, the Demiurge was often identified with the God of Genesis. Only an inferior deity, the Gnostics reasoned, would create matter, become jealous, ask questions as though ignorant, and be described in anthropomorphic terms. (7)
The creation may be inherently wicked, but a contrast between good and evil nonetheless exists within it. Light, spirit, and knowledge are associated with the true unknowable god, whereas darkness, matter, and ignorance represent the work of the Demiurge. In humans, these positive characteristics correspond to one's soul, or inner divine spirit. Not unlike Socrates, Gnostics valued the soul while the body was merely a casing that decomposed. Once free from its mortal shell, the soul could ascend to a higher realm of being where the supreme god resides.
This transmigration is only possible, however, if a savior figure is sent into the cosmos to reveal the dualistic nature of reality. As there is no "fall" into "sin" in Gnosticism, and since evil is not the result of man's doing, salvation primarily consists of obtaining and exercising this crucial knowledge (gnösis in Greek). By achieving a sense of connection with good/spiritual things and by avoiding those things that are evil/material, redemption can result. Gnostics did not recognize forgiveness or atonement in the biblical sense, though they did name biblical figures as their enlightening "savior," such as Jesus, Adam, and Seth.
Another widespread characteristic of Gnosticism was its parasitic nature. The fabric of Gnostic thought, like countless other beliefs of that time, was deeply rooted in Greek philosophy, with Platonism serving as the primary lens for viewing reality. And while it remains a matter of debate which Gnostic sect borrowed from which preexisting faith(s), it is a rare claim indeed to say the Gnostics were religious innovators. From Docetists to Mandaeans to Sethians to Valentinians, stealing and synthesizing appear to have been fairly common practices. It is therefore imprudent to jump on the current bandwagon of reclassifying Gnosticism as a legitimate early expression of Christianity when no solid evidence suggests this was the case. Far more likely, the Gnostics plagiarized and distorted the beliefs of Christians.
Early church fathers, some of whom examined the Gnostic texts firsthand, swiftly rejected Gnostic beliefs as blatant heresy. In modern times, when it was presumed these writings were forever lost, people began to question whether the Fathers had misrepresented or demonized their opponents. Thanks to a few remarkable discoveries over the past century--the most significant being the cache of documents unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Egypt--people can now walk into their local bookstore and see for themselves. Space precludes us from exploring the assortment of acts, epistles, revelations, and other writings recovered from the sands of time, so we will confine our comments to three of the Gnostic gospels. (These three provide a sampling of Gnostic views on Jesus, yet have also been assigned controversial dates--see below.)
The most notorious is undoubtedly the Gospel of Thomas, often considered the earliest Gnostic gospel. It purports to be a collection of Jesus' secret teachings, some of which correspond with those found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is partly why members of the Jesus Seminar--best known for voting on the authentic words of Jesus with colored beads--elevated it to canonical status in their 1993 publication, The Five Gospels. (8) But is the Jesus of Thomas actually compatible with the biblical Jesus?
First and foremost, the Gospel of Thomas contains no historical narrative. Since knowing this context is crucial for interpretation, much of it is inscrutable. Regardless, it is difficult to imagine what would clarify utterances such as Saying 7: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man." (9) Thomas's Jesus was not always this cryptic, but he was certainly abrasive in terms of doctrine. After affirming polytheism, Jesus presumably upped the ante with a goddess reference: "Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him" (Saying 30); "He who knows the father and the mother will be called the son of a harlot" (Saying 105). Ironically, this Jesus taught against fasting, praying, and giving alms (Saying 14) and directed people inward for acquiring salvation: "That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves" (Saying 70). Without any historical details, especially a crucifixion or resurrection account, the Gospel of Thomas remains esoteric; yet it also clashes sharply at times with the canonical gospels.
The Gospel of Mary mainly consists of Jesus' instructions as well, but its context is clearer. After the Gentiles "did not spare him" (9, 10-12), (10) Jesus came to answer the disciples' questions. This is not, however, a standard reference to Christ's cross and the empty tomb. For when Peter asked, "What is the sin of the world?" Jesus replied, "There is no sin" in actuality but only behavior arbitrarily called "sin" (7, 13-16). Shortly thereafter he described how the soul freed at death must use its gnösis to ascend to its place of rest. Thus, since Gnostics spurned the idea of salvation coming through anything physical, when the disciples were enjoined to "preach the gospel" (9, 8-10) their so-called good news would have excluded Jesus shedding his blood to redeem sinners. Like Thomas, the Jesus of Mary is clearly at odds with the Jesus of the New Testament.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Gospel of Peter exclusively narrates Christ's passion, death, and resurrection. (11) But here, too, things are not as they seem. The Gnostics who penned this work were Docetists, claiming Jesus merely seemed (from the Greek dokeö) to have a physical body. Docetic elements are possibly seen when Jesus feels no pain during the crucifixion (4, 10), declares his own power (not God) has left him (5, 10), and is taken up into heaven from the cross (5, 10). Despite this premature ascension, two angelic beings descend on Easter Sunday and bring Jesus out of the tomb. After their heads extend all the way to heaven, Jesus' head reaches beyond the heavens (9, 40). The cross itself even exits the tomb and utters an audible "Yes" when asked if Jesus preached to those who sleep (9, 41-42). While the content of Peter is familiar in certain respects, it is also fantastical and smacks of embellishment. (12) More significantly, Docetism flat out forbids Christ's incarnation, without which the atonement is impossible. Only by sacrificing his flesh and blood on our behalf could Jesus redeem fallen humanity (Matt. 20:28; John 6:51).
These gospels have little material about who Jesus is aside from his role as a (supernatural) teacher and Gnostic redeemer. The Gospel of Thomas may come close to depicting him as a divine figure (Sayings 13, 61, 77), but he could also pass for a Zen master. This is a far cry from being the God of Abraham, Yahweh himself, as he is in the New Testament. Such disparate beliefs about Jesus' identity and saving work made for an easy decision when excluding Gnostic texts from the canon.
When historians are confronted with discrepant accounts, they attempt to discover which came first. Early reports are generally thought to be more accurate, while later reports can be more dubious and often rely on the former for their material. (13) So whose version of Jesus dates closest to the person and events in question? How early were certain gospels recognized as reliable, causing later ones to be discarded as spurious? Few topics pertaining to the historical Jesus or earliest Christianity are manipulated by revisionists more than these. Some claim a cacophony of views about Jesus persisted until the precise boundaries of the New Testament were finally determined in the fourth century. Others claim certain Gnostic gospels not only pre-date Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but were also used as their source material. These assertions may sound troubling, but they are merely misleading and tenuous speculations.
It is true that a handful of key events in the fourth century resulted in a fixed canon, such as Athanasius creating the first list that named all twenty-seven books, and Augustine presiding over church councils that affirmed their status. But as the great church historian Eusebius made clear toward the beginning of that century, only the fringes of the canon remained uncertain, not its core. There might have been some doubts about books like James and Jude, but nobody seriously questioned which gospels rightly belonged. (14) This is evidenced by the earliest witnesses both quoting the New Testament Gospels directly and reflecting beliefs that are incongruent with Gnosticism. We shall consider a few examples here.
At the end of the first century (c. 96), Clement of Rome wrote a fraternal letter to the church at Corinth. Since this was likely the first Christian writing outside the New Testament, it provides great insight about the earliest Christians' beliefs. Clement repeatedly emphasized the redemption that came by Christ's shed blood and him giving his flesh for our flesh. (15) Clement also referred to God as the Father and Creator of the universe, (16) with the physical creation itself bearing witness to the coming resurrection of the flesh. (17) Views such as these are hardly Gnostic. Moreover, two quotes from Jesus found in the synoptic Gospels were offered, and his words were placed on equal footing with the Old Testament Scriptures. (18)
About a decade later (c. 107), Ignatius of Antioch composed seven letters while being escorted to Rome for his execution. He addressed Docetism directly in some, saying Jesus was no more an illusion than were Ignatius' own chains. (19) On the contrary, Jesus was God in human form, (20) who truly ate and drank, truly had nails pierce his body, and truly rose again with the same flesh-and-blood reality. (21) In support of this last point, Ignatius referenced the resurrection scene in Luke where Jesus ate fish, invited people to touch him, and verbally affirmed, "I am no bodiless phantom." (22)
Polycarp of Smyrna was born around A.D. 70, making him a valuable link between second-century fathers and eyewitnesses of Christ, including some of the apostles. (23) He, too, identified Docetism as heresy, calling its adherents antichrists who are of the devil and the spawn of Satan. After admonishing his readers to return to the Word originally delivered, he then quoted from the synoptics. (24)
The Jesus these early witnesses believed in clearly flies in the face of Gnosticism. Since the authority of the Gospels the fathers used was assumed and not argued for, it is probable their readers had already accepted them as reliable sources about Jesus. It is also telling that no Gnostic gospels were mentioned, presumably because they were not yet written. This is similar to when Marcion, a wealthy promoter of Gnosticism, created his own canon in 139. Rather than collecting only Gnostic texts together, or interspersing some with biblical books, he used heavily edited versions of Luke and ten of Paul's Epistles. He would have had little recourse without any Gnostic gospels at his disposal. At the end of the second century, when Gnostic texts did exist, Polycarp's pupil Irenaeus criticized them on the grounds that they had been produced recently. (25) In contrast, the vast majority of scholars now agree that the New Testament Gospels were composed in the first century.
In spite of all this, there are some who claim that Thomas, Mary, and Peter contain the earliest Jesus material and were even used by authors of the traditional gospels. (26) No tangible evidence, however, supports this theory. Zero Gnostic manuscripts have ever been found that pre-date the oldest known copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. (27) But why let annoying little facts like this get in the way? Simply imagine earlier versions of the Gnostic texts and conveniently remove all material betraying their late composition. Then date these hypothetical documents and--voilà!--you have just found the first gospels. As much as this method resembles cheating, it is nevertheless how certain academics play the game.
Were these scholars right, we might expect to find an early copy of Matthew alongside Peter or John next to Thomas, since Christians quickly moved from single scrolls to bound books. In fact, no such discovery has ever occurred. Furthermore, when people first tried harmonizing the accounts of Jesus in the second century, the different sources woven together were always Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Had the Gnostic gospels been of equal status, and certainly if they had been sources for the New Testament Gospels, it is highly unlikely they would have been left on the cutting room floor.
We have seen how the Gnostics habitually borrowed their beliefs from others, integrating them with Platonic thought. Thus, Gnosticism's diverse expressions share common tenets that conflict with monotheism and with God creating matter and calling it "good." We have also seen how the Gnostic Jesus is incompatible with the Jesus of the New Testament. The former is merely a teacher who imparts knowledge, allowing you to pull yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps and ascend to god; the latter is the Creator made flesh, who descended to sacrifice himself and secure your salvation forever.
That the extent of the New Testament canon remained unclear until the fourth century is irrelevant when determining which sources provide the most reliable data about Jesus. The first witnesses unanimously relied on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and knew nothing of the Gnostic gospels. Not only do the surviving manuscripts confirm their late date, there is also no indication they were ever mingled with the canonical gospels. Theories that claim certain Gnostic texts existed in the first century are based on hypothetical evidence, not actual evidence.
Yet, the canonical Gospels do not derive their authority simply from being early. The authors were all connected to the apostolic circle--those who had seen and heard Jesus themselves. It was this firsthand experience of Christ that put them in the unique position to record accurately his teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection. Despite the names attached to the Gnostic gospels, they cannot be traced back to persons who actually knew Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can. The early church fathers had good reason for adopting the apostles' beliefs as their own. For these Gospels originated with those whom Jesus himself taught and sent into the world to proclaim the good news. The real authority then is the Christ to whom their readers are directed, and who comes to us through their words.
Mark A. Pierson (M.A., Concordia University, Irvine, California) is a contributor to Learning at the Foot of the Cross: A Lutheran Vision for Education, eds. Joel D. Heck and Angus J. L. Menuge (Austin: Concordia University Press, forthcoming 2010). He is obtaining his M.Div. through Concordia Theological Seminary and serves as vicar at University Lutheran Chapel in Los Angeles, a parish dedicated to campus ministry.
Issue: "Canon Formation" May/June 2010 Vol. 19 No. 3 Page number(s): 28-32
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