THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS
Paper, 182 pages, $13
In The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels paints an incredibly lucid and detailed picture of the split in the early Christian church between the gnostics and what became the Catholic church. She begins with the Catholic view of the resurrection as an actual event, which allowed followers to believe that they, too, would be resurrected, as opposed to the gnostic view, which advocated a spiritual resurrection, such that the belief in an actual resurrection was the faith of fools. For the gnostics, if ordinary human existence is a form of spiritual death, then the resurrection, akin to Buddhist beliefs, is a moment of enlightenment.
Although disputed by orthodox scholars, the concept of the spiritual resurrection of Jesus can also be traced to the teachings of Paul, who stood at the center of orthodox, not gnostic, beliefs. Specifically, Paul did not see Jesus in human form, but experienced his presence as a bright light and a voice a voice others could not hear even though they, too, could see the light.
Valentinus, a student of a disciple of Paul, became an early advocate for the gnostic tradition on the basis that Jesus could be experienced, 100 years after his death, as a spiritual being, and that secret knowledge could be obtained from such an experience by a mature Christian knowledge ( gnosis ) not available to less mature Christians. Paul believed the same thing.
But from there the Christian church split. The orthodox, Catholic church found its authority by tracing its lineage to the original disciples of Jesus, for which the words of the New Testament became foremost in authority. The gnostics, however, sought more than this. Similar to Buddhists, they did not hold texts as the last word, but instead believed each person had the capacity to discovery greater knowledge. In reaction to this, the orthodox church condemned them as heretics who considered themselves wiser than the apostles, and wiser than the priests. What was obviously at stake was the hierarchical authority of the orthodox church. If each adherent of the Christian faith were free to pick and choose how to seek what is spiritual, then there could be no power structure to control the church, and the absence of a power structure might cause Christianity to wither and die out. This is, of course, what happened to the gnostics aided by the orthodox campaign to stamp it out.
of the first members of the orthodox church to outline the need for authority
within the church, and adherence to one interpretation of Christian principles,
was Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd Century. Irenaeus and others argued that the existence
of one God was consistent with one bishop, from whom all religious authority
flowed down to the general population resulting in today s Catholic power
structure flowing from God to Pope to bishops to priests to members of each
parish. While this kind of power structure
may be necessary for an organization to survive and grow, it can also be
quickly abused. Not 70 years after
Jesus death, the orthodox church had abandoned his admonition to his disciples
that no one among them should lord it over any of the others, and that
whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be
first among you must be slave of all. In place of these principles, Clement as
the bishop of
But Jesus teaching didn t fit the political reality of how to structure power within a church that sought to assert its authority. In antiquity, contrary to our current belief in the separation of church and state, the power of church and state went hand-in-hand. This was understood by leaders of the early church as surely as it was understood by Romans who first saw Christians, whether orthodox or gnostic, as treasonous citizens who undermined the power of the state by worshipping a god whom Christians considered impervious to imperial power. As Pagels explains, for both orthodox Christians and Roman pagans, politics and religion formed an inseparable unity.
Consistent with this, orthodox Christians established the principle of one God, one bishop, and all those on the power ladder below were required to respect and obey each person on the ladder above as if he were God. In short, in very little time, Jesus admonition that the first among you must be slave of all was turned upside down something deemed absolutely necessary to maintain a structure of authority.
In sharp contrast, the gnostics deemed such stations of authority as waterless canals and went so far as to show Peter, the founder of the orthodox church, rebuked by the resurrected Jesus, for allowing such a power structure to be established. Rather than follow the one and only truth handed down from a select few disciples through the orthodox church , the gnostics sought the spiritual presence of Jesus through personal experience, and such experience took precedence over any prior tradition, teaching, or text.
On this theory, the structure of authority can never be fixed into an institutional framework: it must remain spontaneous, charismatic, and open.
While orthodox Christians could fix the image of God as a real, all-powerful being, Gnostics asserted this was simply a mistaken image for a different reality. The reality, they contended, was a deep and ultimate source an invisible, incomprehensible primal principle. The orthodox advantage over this was that it presented an image that most humans could understand. When combined with the stick of political and hierarchal power, and the carrot of eternal afterlife for obedience, it became a powerful instrument for political control of others. As Pagels says:
The conviction that a man who died came back to life is, of course, a paradox. But that paradox may contain the secret of its powerful appeal, for while it contradicts our own historical experience, it speaks the language of human emotions. It addresses itself to that which may be our deepest fear, and expresses our longing to overcome death.
Early orthodox leaders such as Irenaeus clearly understood gnostic beliefs as a reason to disobey the authority of bishops. Gnostics were criticized for advocating their own personal experience as inventors of imaginary fiction and new forms of mythological poetry. In contrast:
Like circles of artists today, gnostics considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive. Each one, like students of a painter or writer, expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught. Whoever merely repeated his teacher s words was considered immature.
The lack of political structure and authority among gnostics was answered by an attempt at complete equality each person was considered to have received the gift of inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit, and all members participated in religious services by drawing lots. Thus, at any given time, men and women alike could serve in the role of priest, a bishop to offer sacrament, or a prophet to offer spiritual instruction. As a result, no one was superior or inferior to another, and no one could permanently attain a higher or lower ranking of authority. This practice was also intended to remove the element of human choice and leave matters directly to God.
A twentieth-century observer might assume that Gnostics left these matters to random chance, but the gnostics saw it differently. They believed that since God directs everything in the universe, the way the lots fell expressed is choice.
As Pagels recognizes, this practice of equality also minimized the opportunity for envy against other members of the group. But as Tertullian contended, writing at the end of the 2nd Century, the gnostics lacked necessary discipline. Yet the orthodox emphasis on authority also led to male domination and the suppression of women. As Pagels notes, the absence of feminine symbolism for God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking contrast to the world s other religious traditions . . . which abound in feminine symbolism. The gnostics, however, were not necessarily so limited and considered the divine to be a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang.
This is recognized by the gnostic gospels of Thomas and Philip. Thomas quotes Jesus as referring to a spiritual father and mother, and Philip refers to the spiritual other as the mother of many. Philip also asserts that those who believe in an actual virgin birth of Jesus are mistaken; instead, the virgin birth symbolizes the mysterious union of the spiritual father and mother.
But by the year 200, virtually all the feminine imagery for God had disappeared from orthodox Christian tradition. Tertullian criticized gnostic women for lack of modesty and being so bold and audacious as to teach, engage in argument, undertake cures, and baptize. During this time period, Marcion created a scandal by appointing women on an equal basis with men as priests and bishops. Despite the fact Jesus violated Jewish tradition by speaking openly with women and including them as his companions, and that 10 to 20 years after his death they were leaders in local groups, there is no evidence after the year 200 that any women took prophetic, priestly, or episcopal roles in orthodox churches.
The cultural bias against women which bled into orthodox Christianity can be summed up by Paul who contended that man was made in the image of God, and that man was not made from women, but women from men. And because God has authority over man, then man has authority over woman. We now know that each fetus is the same as if a female for the first several months in the womb, and only after that time period does the fetus either remain female or become male, so that it can now be argued that women are not from men, but men are from women. (See Bryan Sykes, Saxons, Vikings and Celts, p.100).
Such genetic science was obviously not available for argument during the 2nd Century struggle between orthodox and gnostic Christianity, and the orthodox church adopted the Jewish synagogue custom of segregating women from men, and women s participation in worship was condemned, while groups with female leaders were branded heretical. As Timothy wrote at that time:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.
Pagels argues that the target was not so much women in general but specifically the power of sexuality, and that only those who renounced sexuality could achieve spiritual greatness. Hence the celibacy of priests and nuns, and the declaration of Pope Paul VI as late as 1977 that a woman cannot be a priest because Jesus was a man. The gnostic gospel of Philip, one of the original disciples, is the antithesis of such doctrine, as it asserts the primacy of love in sexual union as akin to divinity. (See Jean-Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Philip, pp.11, 22).
Another significant difference between orthodox and gnostic Christians can be found in how they viewed the crucifixion. When the Romans began persecuting Christians, those of orthodox faith saw their own suffering and death as a means of redemption to become like Jesus and experience divine inspiration and immortality. Like Muslim martyrs today, they were heard to exclaim when receiving death sentences that Today we are martyrs in heaven. Thanks be to God.
Just as we fail to comprehend Muslim martyrdom, so too did the Romans find no logic or reason in how Christians gladly went to their deaths. The emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius despised such actions as morbid and a misguided exhibition. And some Christians considered voluntary death at the hands of the Romans as foolish and a waste of life contrary to God s will. They argued: Christ, having died for us, was killed so that we might not be killed. But Justin said the courage of martyrs convinced him of their divine inspiration, and that the Gnostics were guilty of the crime of not being persecuted. Tertullian went further and blamed gnostic arguments on martyrdom as a theological means to justify their cowardice. Instead, Tertullian preached that:
must take up your cross and bear it after your Master . . .The sole key to
than follow Jesus teaching that the
But the orthodox church, being politically savvy, used martyrdom to unify scattered, far flung congregations into a strong, political structure. As Pagels argues:
. . . persecution gave impetus to the formation of the organized church structure that developed by the end of the second century. To place the question in contemporary context, consider what recourse remains to dissidents facing a massive and powerful political system: they attempt to publicize cases of violence and injustice to arouse world-wide public support. The torture and execution of a small group of persons known only to their relatives and friends soon fall into oblivion, but the cases of dissidents who are scientists, writers, Jews, or Christian missionaries may arouse the concern of an international community of those who identify with the victims by professional or religious affiliation.
If orthodox Christians viewed suffering in the form of martyrdom as a form of good because it is connected to the divine, then it necessarily undercuts the orthodox view that suffering is caused by sin, though some might argue the use of martyrdom for political power is a form of sin. Unlike orthodox Christians, gnostics did not view suffering as caused so much by sin as by ignorance, a view shared by Buddhists. And like the Buddha, the gnostic Silvanus taught that a foolish man gave way to desire: He swims in the desires of life and has foundered. Silvanus regarded the mind as the lamp for the body, and that the light of reason within the mind could act as a guide in life. He therefore urged others to light the lamp within you. He also said:
Knock on yourself as upon a door and walk upon yourself as on a straight road. For if you walk on the road, it is impossible for you to go astray . . . Open the door for yourself that you may know what is . . . Whatever you will open for yourself, you will open.
keeps with the gnostic gospel of Thomas who quoted Jesus as describing the
According to the gnostics, the need for teaching, even the teaching of Jesus, is limited to the need for guidance, but only for temporary measures, because, as Pagels explains, the purpose of accepting authority is to learn to outgrow it.
The disciple who comes to know himself can discover, then, what even Jesus cannot teach.
as Pagels recognizes, a gnostic program of disciplined meditation, ascetic
training, and search for spiritual knowledge, like the highest levels of
Buddhist teaching, would only appeal to a few. In contrast, as a political structure, the
orthodox church used the inspiration of martyrdom to attract even more fervent
followers, and thus survived persecution, and grafted itself onto the power
structure of the Roman empire, in turn persecuting those who threatened its own
power. Even after the fall of the Roman
empire, the Catholic Church continued to be centered in
. . . equally important are social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation.
Thus, while a gnostic saw himself as one out of a thousand or more, an orthodox Christian experienced himself as a member of a common human family with rituals designed to sanctify major events in life baptism at birth, sharing of food in the eucharist, marriage with the blessing of the church, anointment in sickness, and funerals at death. The common appeal of the orthodox church was well stated by Origen in the third century when he argued that salvation was not for the spiritual elite but for all, and that church doctrine therefore must be simple and accessible. In the same way, the sun was created for all, providing light and warmth for all.
True as this may be, it does not answer the needs of those who need more. As Pagels concludes, when orthodox Christianity ruled out all other options, Christianity as a whole became impoverished without the adjunct of gnosticism. Today, we are fortunate it came back to light in the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in 1945 in a time when the potential diversity of Christianity can be examined, debated, and followed not branded a heresy with heretics put to death and manuscripts burned. Maybe now, 2,000 years after Jesus died, the rest of his teaching can now be heard.