The Gnostic Gospels
I've been wanting to write something about this topic because gnostic Christian texts of the ancient world were the first to deny, in a sense, the historicity of Jesus. I don't mean that they thought of Jesus as someone who didn't exist. I'm referring instead to the gnostic belief that Jesus, though he appeared to human eyes, was not fully human and fully divine as orthodox Christianity came to declare, but really only divine, with the mere appearance of a human body. I refer also to the way that ancient gnostic preachers thought of Christ as a key teacher of gnostic philosophy, but passed over his Jewish heritage and did not accept the Old Testament; spoke not at all of Christ as saving the material world, since gnosticism thought of matter as something to escape from; spoke little of Christ's bodily actions; and rationalized his bodily execution. In fact the gnostic texts often said that Jesus merely appeared to die on the cross -- as traditional Islam has always taught.
In the present day, many who wish to deny that Christ existed at all, but do not understand Christian theology of a gnostic or orthodox variety, actually seem to think that gnostic texts prove the absence of a man named Jesus. When the gnostic texts say that Christ was a luminous being not fully in the flesh, though he appeared to be in the flesh, or when the New Testament seems to refer to this idea in order to refute it, you actually hear the argument that these passages show people in the ancient world doubting Christ's appearance within history. All of this is quite dumb, and it is not what I want to focus on. I wanted only to say in a more general way how I view the gnostic works of antiquity, having only begun to read them -- in a process that will, as with the Bible, probably take many years to complete, if I ever do complete it. I want finally to say something as well about how this subject touches on my experience with yoga. Perhaps principally because of that experience, I don't want to reject gnostic works out of hand; but I have to start by honestly expressing my doubts about gnostic literature.
First it would be good to define what we're talking about. The title of this post is perhaps misleading. The phrase "Gnostic Gospels" does not refer to all the gnostic works of the ancient world going back to before the time of Christ and to places quite removed from Judaism and Palestine, but rather to those gnostic works that dealt with Christ. The phrase doesn't mean just those gnostic documents known as gospels, but also letters and books of prophecy (apocalypses) -- in the same way that when we refer to the New Testament, we're talking not just about gospels but also letters from Paul and other writers, as well as one apocalypse (the Book of Revelation).
Sometimes the phrase is used to refer to all the works which failed to be included within the Bible, but I am not using this meaning, because it is too vague. Many works came to be considered heretical because they belonged to philosophies quite different from Gnosticism: Arianiasm, for instance, taught that Christ was only human and not divine. Also, we can't be referring to all the post-biblical works of those who lived long after Jesus and became known as the Church Fathers: for instance the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians. We need to focus here on all works shaped by gnostic philosophy, whether they are they are late commentaries like the letter of Clement, or texts purporting like the four orthodox gospels to be witnesses to the life of Jesus.
Sometimes "Gnostic Gospels" conjures up the image of all the texts suppressed by the orthodox Church, but this also is imprecise, and not just because many of the rejected texts were not gnostic: it's because some gnostic works were preserved by the Church.
Many, many texts also existed which were not gnostic or Arian, and did not attain the standing of famous theological works by men and women now referred to as saints and heretics, simply because they were ordinary works, or because their authors lacked the means to disseminate and preserve them. Some of this observation must apply to gnostic literature as well. But we're focusing here not on the numerous, ordinary works of non-gnostic Christianity; we mean only the whole of gnostic literature, regardless of its quality or date.
Going into all this highlights some principles which I think should be kept in mind when discussing the question of the canon. For example, not all gnostic literature deserved canonical consideration, anymore than all traditional literature did. The reason could be as simple as low quality or originality. But other considerations were at play in the forming of the canon. The Church set as its first priority the inclusion of works which could reliably be regarded as composed by eyewitnesses to Christ. Many of the minor letters in the New Testament were accepted very late in that process because the Church had real doubts that they went back to Christ; but as time passed, the means to do this kind of historical inquiry vanished with a speed that we would never expect in our modern and highly documented environment; so the New Testament as we now know it was accepted and closed. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it should be noted, never stimulated doubt in this regard, as far as we can tell from the historical record; they were always believed to go back to Christ.
One way I have looked at this question is this: if I were a publisher trying to put together a definitive series of volumes on the life of President Nixon, I know that I have a lot of material to choose from. Countless things have been said about Nixon by people who did not know him, simply because he was an important and famous figure with impact on their lives, not to mention his provocative acts and words. As a publisher I can't include it all; in fact I don't want to include it all. But a few witnesses were close enough to the life of Nixon, and can communicate themselves well enough, to include. Most witnesses will not be good writers; most will be subjective, which is to say, they will be speaking principally about themselves since they were far removed from the subject; some remaining ones will be close, but still subjective because they don't want to or are unable to communicate the objective subject; only a few will be left who are both able and willing to communicate essentials about the subject at hand.
By itself, the fact that there are four gospels in the New Testament is not troubling. In a scholarly series of volumes I will not care too much if something of poor quality is included, but in my scripture, in that which I look to for spiritual nourishment, I do want the works that are best in every sense. That the New Testament gospels seem very concerned with Jesus as a Jew, a child of Israel; that they quote from the Old Testament and regard it as scripture; that they are concerned with the who, what, when, where and how of Jesus' ministry; that they care deeply that he died on a cross; and finally that they proclaimed his Resurrection in a manner that Jews, not Gentiles, spoke of life after death: all these things mean a lot to me as a Christian, and they mean even more to me as a Christian particularly concerned with finding the historical Jesus. That Christians who followed these gospels suffered persecution from Roman authorities because they would not bow to the Roman emperor as a deity, just as surely as Jews died for the same reason, while gnostics of every stripe escaped persecution because they saw the Emperor as just one more lower deity who could be acknowledged as he desired, wins my loyalty on behalf of traditional Christianity.
Indeed, if our modern Christianity were gnostic, and we discovered Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John along with Paul and the other letter-writers in a cave, we would have to regard the new texts as closer to the genesis of the faith, closer to the actual history of a ministry in Palestine. What actually happened is well-known: we discovered gnostic manuscripts at the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1946, texts written more steeply in a Greco-Roman, Platonic mindset. This is good fortune: it shows what people of every origin thought of Christ and what he meant to them; it demonstrates that early Christianity was more varied than we had thought; but it does not suggest that the wrong texts are in the Bible. Even those who champion the gnostic gospels do not ask for them to replace the traditional gospels, and sometimes do not even ask that the gnostics be included in the Bible -- they ask only that these newly rediscovered texts of gnosticism be given a fair hearing and full respect.
I am sympathetic to that call. The Catholic Bible is somewhat larger than Protestant Bibles because it includes as part of its Old Testament several books which did not eventually make it into the Jewish canon. Why they didn't make it is a complex subject, but I can mention a few reasons relevant to this dicussion: the books in question were late creations in the Greek language, rather than Hebrew (which is cherished as a sacred language in the same way that Arabic, Tibetan, Sanskrit and even Latin are cherished); they have more of a Greek mindset than the earlier books of the Jewish scriptures, which were mostly written in Palestine by Jews who still spoke Hebrew; etc. So these books which Catholics and Protestants do not share are among the ones I cherish the most in the Bible; but I may be somewhat unusual among Catholics in this. I love the Book of Wisdom, almost as much as I love the universally canonical Book of Job, for many reasons; and Dess and I chose a reading from it at our wedding. It speaks of Wisdom as an eternal female personage who was with God from the beginning; and it speaks of discipline as a path to wisdom, which sounds an awful lot like the prescriptions of yoga. One could easily say that Wisdom and some of the other disputed books are the most gnostic texts in the Bible, though they are not quite gnostic. The Protestant Reformation, wishing to follow the Jewish canon, rejected these books, but there is no doubt that they were written by faithful Jews loyal to the rest of the Jewish scriptures. Today Jews do not consider the disputed books to be divinely inspired scripture, and neither do Protestants, but the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches find them authentically biblical; these books presume and affirm all the events told in the earlier books of the Bible.
All traditional churches, however, find gnostic texts about Christ to be un-biblical. The popular view is that the Church crafted a view of Jesus which it could use to buttress its own power, and rejected a vision of Christ that was less mediated and more like Eastern ways of knowing the divine. But the Church found gnostic texts to be in disharmony not just with the four New Testament gospels and Paul's letters; it saw that they made a nearly wholesale break with the Old Testament also. Jews today would not find the gnostic texts to be Biblical, quite apart from the references to Jesus. Gnostic texts reject the picture in Genesis of the world's creation, and the affirmation in Genesis that the material, created world is good. Our traditional gospels accept the Old Testament and constantly quote it and refer to it; but gnostic texts do not look back on the Bible in this way. Ancient gnostic groups taught, as does the present-day Church of Gnosticism, that the God of the Jewish scriptures was a secondary deity who created the material world we live in but mistakenly regarded himself as the lord of all the gods, when in fact he was only lord of a material world not worth preserving (because it was material). For that reason, some gnostic sects looked to deities rejected in the Old Testament, including Satan.
In short, for Christianity to have accepted these texts into the Bible would mean having a New Testament that exhibited little or no harmony with the Old. Accepting these texts really meant breaking with the dozens of books in the Old Testament, and even with those books that became the New Testament. The gnostic vision was less inclusive, not more -- except when it came to other gnostic texts. That is because gnosticism taught of a knowledge that was secret and available only to initiates who would be taught the mysteries. Within their own groups, gnostics were egalitarian, and that is one reason for their appeal in the modern world; but they thought of those outside their fold as doomed for failing to request or understand proper knowledge. In a sense, then, they were elitists, and this is not to deny that the Church we know has been elitist; but it does explain to me why gnosticism has been popular among the white educated middle-class but has not appealed to lower classes. Traditional Christianity says that salvation is offered to anyone who can read or hear the plain sense of the Bible, and that the only thing required is identification with a Lord who really suffered as we did. This Christian view of God is not Jewish, of course, but it does harmonize well with the Old Testament view of God as a champion of the poor and sick, a father to a marginalized people little regarded by the powers that be; it does not harmonize well with the gnostic conclusion that we must escape rather than lift up or improve the material world.
Indeed the gnostics thought of women as primary culprits in the tragedy of the material world, since they brought new children into the world. It's strange for me when I read Jesus saying, in the Gospel of Thomas, that women must become like men in order to attain salvation, and then to see the Gospel of Thomas becoming popular today. Saying 114 reads as follows:
Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."
I am sometimes at a loss to explain why gnostic texts should be thought of as feminist. I do see that the Gospel of Mary Magdalene thinks of her as a special disciple (which indeed she was); but the overall gnostic view of women, and this statement in Thomas in particular, contradicts the current appeal of gnostic works to feminist circles. I've speculated that perhaps because traditional Christianity is regarded as offering women only the mother role, and because many forms of feminism either really are uncomfortable with motherhood or do assume that women will attain equality by becoming more like men, then gnosticism can be forgiven for rejecting motherhood and even womanhood.
I can imagine in fact what the West would look like if gnosticism had become the dominant form of Christianity. A religion that emphasizes mysteries and secret initiations will have a terribly direct method of oppressing people. Had it happened, today some of us might think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a neglected form of Christianity in which Jesus appears more palpably human, where the central figure never says anything disparaging about women but is actually close to them, even appearing first to them in his resurrected body and giving women what was at the time the foolish compliment of counting on them to give witness of this crucial news. The Christianity we did get has many dark chapters, but I strongly suspect that gnostic Christianity would have been worse.
Now, I do see some similarities between gnosticism and Eastern faiths or techniques, particularly yoga. But I consider these traditions to be superior to gnosticism. It is true that they often speak of being initiated into mysteries. They also often speak of the material world in ways that recall gnosticism -- and indeed there is some speculation that Buddhism or Hinduism influenced Greco-Roman gnosticism. But they have affirmed and served the material world well enough to survive and flourish within it. The Eastern traditions are immense, complex, and strongly ethical. All this counts as reasons for why they should have survived this long; they have served large numbers of people well and answered their everyday questions, as well as their deepest questions.
That gnosticism did not survive seems to me largely due to the fact that people in the surrounding environment grew increasingly attracted to a religion, orthodox Christianity, that was distinctive enough to offer people hope in a time of decline, attack, and disintegration. Christianity could do that because it had always stood apart from the corrupt and decaying system; gnosticism had not kept this distance, and had consequently avoided persecution early on. But when people searched for answers, gnostics did not have the most creative and energizing answers to give. With the world crumbling, they taught only that the world deserved to crumble, that the divine did not care what happened to our world, and that flesh was of little value or consequence. They went right with the flow of history and consequently could add nothing to it. Christianity affirmed that history would end well, and that suffering in the meantime had meaning -- as did flesh, and simple, un-mysterious, everyday toils or joys.
Those religions which Rome had called superstitions and had violently repressed -- Judaism and traditional Christianity -- inherited the world, so to speak, when Rome fell. Those faiths that Rome had praised did not survive -- but that does not mean that Christianity was right to persecute them.
And here we get ourselves into an immense subject. But let me give a little perspective. When we speak of persecution of gnostics, we mean the banning and the much rarer burning of their texts, but only minimal bloodletting (if that) on the basis of doctrinal disagreement; this was nothing like the bloodletting between Protestants and Catholics a millenium later. More relevantly, it was not the mass bloodletting that Rome was responsible for when persecuting traditional Christians or suppressing Jewish rebellions. And what the Church did after attaining power was not in any sense worse than what all religious authorities have done throughout the world -- in fact it compares rather well, as noted, with what the pre-Christian Roman authorities were capable of. And it's always worth noting that our horrified view about banning books is very modern and Western. We may even add that Christianity admired Greco-Roman learning, did much to preserve ancient manuscripts that would otherwise have perished, and even preserved some Gnostic texts, while banning other gnostic texts from Christian circles or simply declining to copy them by hand into new manuscripts when the old ones decayed (see this page at Bede's Library for some of these arguments in a longer form).
Still, when I think of the historical sins of my Church, I include the suppression of gnostics and their voices. I have reflected on it and asked why it might have happened. I have searched for simple justifications, but those have not convinced me. The suppression was wrong -- but I want to know why it came about, particularly how it might have been avoided.
I always come back to the wounding break between the synagogue and the Church. I have been discussing throughout this post which forms of Christianity were closest to Jesus the Jew and his tradition, and I think I've chosen the best available answer. But we cannot forget that traditional Christianity, though closer to Judaism, did not remain friendly with Jews and their religion; Christians and Jews grew distant; and as everyone knows, over the long run Christians began persecuting and killing Jews. I can't think of a better way to alienate yourself from someone, or some tradition, than by becoming its oppressor; you lose touch in some fundamental ways. Now, Christian gnostics were not friendly to Jews either (it should be noted in passing that a minority of gnostics, however, were Jews by birth, who did not speak of Christ); so I don't mean that orthodox Christianity fell farther away than the gnostics did from the tradition that produced Christ. I do mean that traditional Christianity, when speaking of its own roots, came to have a blind spot; came not to know itself, in a way, when it began attacking and oppressing Jews. So when the time came to debate gnostics on the question of what was the best representation of Christ and his teachings, their speech was not characterized as much as it should have been with claims of closeness to Judaism (because Christians and Jews were no longer actually close), and was more characterized than it needed to be by this sort of argument: "Our view is better than yours objectively; it is more philosophically sound; more ethical; more human than your perverted doctrine."
A book Dess has been reading summarizes this process nicely. This is how James W. Jones put it in his book, The Mirror of God: Christian Faith as Spiritual Practice -- Lessons from Buddhism and Psychotherapy: "The nascent Christian movement ... expanded from an underground sect of Palestinian Judaism into a religion in its own right. Diffusing itself throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world, fewer and fewer Christians came from Jewish backgrounds, more and more spoke Greek. Jesus was understood less and less in the Hebraic category of the Messianic Deliverer who would usher in the rule of God at the end of history, and more and more in the cosmic categories common in the larger Hellenistic world" (p. 66).
Today we can speak in a rational way about a widely acceptable criteria, namely the closeness of a doctrine to the source of its own subject; and there were many Christians who did speak even in antiquity about this (centuries later the first Protestants, as noted, tried to hew as closely as possible to the Jewish canon -- even as Luther condemned the Jews of his time). But because of the distance between Christians and Jews in antiquity, the former were missing much when they emphasized this criteria. Had friendly terms been kept, Jews would have reminded Christians that Jesus had lived and died a Jew; they would have shared with Christians many Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament; but much of this knowledge was lost. Having left the Jewish world by choice or by expulsion, Christians adopted a purely Gentile form of Greco-Roman philosophy and began speaking of Christ in almost Platonic terms, shared by gnostics; thus Christians of every stripe began arguing about Christ in Greco-Roman terms that were purely Gentile, that is, not mixed with the Biblical worldview. The only thing to do then was to match your terms in a test of objective strength against the terms of your opponent; and the fight was bitter indeed. The form of Christianity that had remained truest to earliest Christianity prevailed, but the struggle was nastier than it needed to be, because of the tragic estrangement of Jews and Christians.
Returning to the question of gnosticism: It is really only with the great diminishment of anti-Semitism some years after the Second World War that we have seen Christians, at least those searching for the historical Jesus, start to speak of Christ as a Jew. Something very harmful in the Christian soul existed for 2,000 years and is still there sometimes to be dealt with; but we are living now in a very different world than the one that saw gnostic Christianity nearly pushed by internal flaws and external pressures into oblivion.
Edit 10/07/05: For a similar account of orthodox Christianity's growth, in naturalistic terms, see Rise of Christianity by sociologist Rodney Stark.