News of the “Gospel of Judas” coincides nicely with the never- ending juggernaut of The Da Vinci Code, the novel and soon-to-be- released motion picture. Both bring into the public forum a long- dead group of pseudo-Christian cults called the Gnostics. Who were these “alternate” Christians, and what do they have to say to the modern world? Is the Christianity practiced today what Christ really intended? And is there something we’re not being told?
The umbrella term Gnosticism typically refers to a disorganized collection of sects that were often hybrids of Christian influences and much older “mystery religions” common in pagan antiquity. Their heyday, such as it was, occurred in the decades and centuries after St. Paul wrote his epistles, and after common acceptance of what would eventually be called the New Testament’s gospels.
Knowing that, let’s put the questions above in another context: What would you say if historians today — or those hundreds or thousands of years in the future — claimed that the “forgotten” writings of English loyalist William Franklin, son of the renowned Benjamin, were “testimonies” of alternate and equally valid versions of the United States? What if scholars argued that America was constructed from lies and deceit, merely because the winning consensus didn’t adopt the minority beliefs of those devoted to English rule?
Such polemic would of course be absurd. Yet in the arena of Christian history, this revisionist trend is once again attracting people who bemoan the exclusion from the New Testament of a number of wildly varying and often fictional accounts of Jesus Christ — written accounts that come much later than those found in Christian canon.
For some, the writings of these Gnostic cults become invaluable “proof” that the church has knowingly misled generations with a self- serving selection of gospels and epistles. Not surprisingly, such advocates of alternative Christianities also reject the structures of the Catholic Church and other Christian traditions, with their hierarchy of priests and bishops who pass on teachings to the faithful.
So what did these Gnostics believe? Unlike Christians of their (and our) day, Gnosticism rejected core Semitic concepts such as sin and redemption, as well as the belief that Creation was inherently good; indeed, they called for the dismissal of the Hebrew scripture and the rejection of the “evil” physical universe. Moreover, they often taught that Christ’s resurrection was not a specific, historical moment, but some sort of ongoing spiritual awakening.
Worst of all, they believed that salvation was not for everyone. Their very identification as Gnostics (the term derives from the Greek word for knowledge) betrays a frightening assumption that only those who could literally “know” specific spiritual information about Jesus Christ could be saved from what they saw as an inherently evil and — in their mind, irrelevant — incarnate world.
Clearly, Gnosticism has about as much to do with Christian theology as Tory writings have to do with American nationhood. While both have historical value in telling of early dissenters, their existence does not undo the foundational beliefs of the resulting accepted canons.
So a question worth asking is: Why this latest interest in Gnostic ideology?
A number of reasons have been suggested. The most common is that a collection of Fourth Century Gnostic writings discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 have fed a growing hunger for the dramatic uncovering of previously hidden ancient knowledge — forgotten teachings that could wholly change life as we know it. It’s like wanting to believe that the United States is hiding dead extraterrestrials somewhere in the sands of New Mexico. The very possibility that we have been lied to by authority on something so significant — the possibility that the truth is hidden from us, awaiting discovery — brings a mythic vitality to what many see as a sad, dreary world.
In actuality, the discovered texts, while a considerable historical find, seem to be adding little to what was already known about Gnostic theology, from the evidence that had been available for many centuries.
Nevertheless, the discovery struck a nerve with some who find mainstream Christian theology and morality to be distasteful, or who claim that the early church suppressed Gnostic theology in a bid for political domination. Most media outlets are keen on the metaphor of faiths’ “fighting it out,” and so they inaccurately describe Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity as vying for the same (and apparently very gullible) audience.
But what is often lacking in recent accounts of Gnosticism is the critical admission that these dead religions — besides typically denying Christ’s birth, execution, and resurrection — selfishly play up a devotion to personal “inner awakenings,” while demoting social responsibility and morality, as well as self-sacrifice.
Hence the heresy: In denying Christ’s incarnation, human reality becomes separate and subordinate to esoteric spirituality. Structurally, then, Gnosticism could not — and cannot — focus well on the troubles of humanity.
So the church did what it had to do. It vigorously rejected Gnostic influences and sustained its canon by remaining faithful to the fundamental teachings of Christ, as passed on by the apostolic communities that actually knew him.
The result was — and is — the not-as-pleasant challenge for Christians to “pick up one’s cross” and follow the very real Jesus, integrating the sorrow and hardships of one’s humdrum life with an acceptance of God’s will. If the early church had desired popularity and political power, it would have adopted the easier sell of Gnostic mysticism, which offers salvation without suffering.
But orthodox Christianity’s unified beliefs — linking divine salvation, human suffering, and social justice — spread quickly, much to the displeasure of its Gnostic neighbors. The disordered Gnostic cults responded by further “Christianizing” their teachings, claiming apostolic connections where none existed. Ultimately, their exclusivity and mysticism, and their minimization of Christ’s humanity, lost the backing of the faithful.
In the end, it wasn’t orthodox repression that silenced Gnosticism; it was its own flawed ideology.
Bill Patenaude is a columnist for The Providence Visitor, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, and a graduate student in theology at Providence College.