It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible.
Several decades ago, the gnostic gospels seemed to be making a comeback after a couple of thousand years of loss and neglect. Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979, and for the first time in a long time people outside the schools of theology began to talk about them. Often favorably, as if the gnostic gospels contained a purer, less institutionalized form of Christianity.
I bought into this in a vague way (most of what I thought about religion then was pretty vague), but recently I read The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a collection of forty-six texts that are generally referred to as gnostic, though not all are. One is a selection from Plato’s Republic. Most seem to date from the second and third centuries CE, but the Gospel of Thomas, the most well known gnostic gospel, may have been written around the same time as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). To make things complicated, the Gospel of Thomas contains both orthodox and gnostic elements.
After some more reading, I decided that on the whole I’m glad the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament, or a new canon.
Gnostic refers to gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Not all knowledge, but knowledge by intuition or insight into spiritual truths. It’s hard to summarize the gnostic scriptures. They vary enormously. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not central. They go unmentioned in The Gospel of Thomas. In the Treatise on Resurrection, Jesus is said to come not to save us from our sins, but from our mortality. If there were a single gnostic take on Jesus, it would be that He came to help us find salvation in ourselves, where gnosis lives. Or as the Testimony of Truth puts it, the gnostic becomes a “disciple of his [own] mind,” discovering that his own mind “is the father of the truth.” (Pagels, Gnostic, pp. 131-132)
Gnostics are dualistic: matter, including the flesh, is bad. Spirit is good. The goal is to become pure spirit. In The Secret Book of John, a bad god, the creator-god, called Yaldabaoth, took power from his mother, part of the One. Implanting sexual desire in humans, Yaldabaoth spoiled things for Adam and Eve, who were punished by the jealous creator-god when they claimed to know after eating from the tree of knowledge. (In this story, the snake is the good guy.) The creator-god is the one we know as the Judeo-Christian God. Eventually Jesus Christ tells John that He came to earth to bring light from the higher realm. Those who cast off earthly things will be spared from death and reunited with the luminous One.
Not all the gnostic gospels are quite so weird. In many the basic principle is that stated in The Gospel of Mary. The son of man exists within you. Follow it, for you already possess the means to save your soul. In The Gospel of Thomas, the divine light that Jesus embodied is shared by all humanity, since we are all made in the image of god. By encountering the living Jesus within yourself, you may come to recognize yourself as the twin of Jesus. Or as Jesus puts it in Thomas,
“Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.” (chap. 108)
This, I believe, is the symbolic meaning of attributing this gospel to Thomas, whose name means “twin.” By encountering the “living Jesus,” as Thomas suggests, one may come to recognize oneself and Jesus as, so to speak, identical twins. (Beyond, p. 100)
Many Christians would have no difficulty with the statement that we all contain a spark of divinity within us. The difference is that most gnostics, like Valentinus, take this insight further than Thomas, so that after a second (gnostic) baptism, humans may be reunited with the One. If all this is a little vague, don’t blame it on me; blame it on the gnostics.
Why I’m glad the gnostics lost
(1) Gnostic theology rejects the Judeo-Christian belief in the goodness of all creation. Sure, many Christian denominations are hostile to sexuality, but the basic idea remains: it is good that men and women marry, have children, and populate the earth. For many Jews and Christians this includes being a responsible caretaker of the earth. There is no place for this way of thinking in gnosticism.
(2) It’s important that humans remember that they are not gods. Václav Havel reminds us why.
The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences—the very things Western democracy is most criticized for–do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect . . . . Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.
If Jesus Christ is the only begotten son of God, then He is fundamentally different from you and me. And if Jesus Christ is different, then we cannot aspire to be gods, always a dangerous idea.
(3) The Gospels of the New Testament make caring for the poor and needy the same as caring for Christ. That we would care for the wounded as we would care for a wounded Christ is a fine idea, and a good basis on which to build a community. (Matthew 25.34-46; John 13.15-17) The attitude of the gnostic gospels is similar to that of Plato and the Stoics: save your own soul.
(4) Stressing the humanness of Christ, as the synoptic gospels do, expresses the fine idea of a God who would come to understand humanity’s pain by becoming human and sharing our suffering. For the gnostics, Christ was never human.
(5) The gnostic mistake that leads to all the rest is taking God out of history, especially the history of the Jewish people. The gnostic gospels only rarely refer to the Old Testament, and seldom to history. Locating God in history situates God in a human time and place, even as God remains outside of history. This tension is often fruitful. Consider, for example, the role of the African-American church in the American civil rights movement, which was both theological and organizational. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5.24) said Reverend Martin Luther King in his I Have a Dream speech.
(6) Finally, the canonical gospels are more interesting because they tell a story, the greatest story ever told as the cliché has it. God becomes a vulnerable human who suffers, people make decisions, and events happen. Only the canonical gospels have plot and character. The gnostic gospels are either sayings gospels (Thomas), or about the acts of abstract nouns, such as the One and the light. One reason the canonical gospels won out, I imagine, is because people always like a good story.
Conclusion, the good guys won, but . . .
The suppression of the gnostic gospels was not simply due to the spiritual or intellectual superiority of orthodox Christianity. The Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to orthodox Christianity helped enormously. It was under Constantine’s auspices that the Nicene Creed (325 CE) was written. Even so, it was certainly easier to organize a church around a canon that already existed than a variety of scriptures, which is what the gnostics possessed.
The side that won, the Judeo-Christian tradition as we now call it, had superior teachings for human beings living mortal lives in this world, which is what I really care about. Nevertheless, certain gnostic teachings make much sense, then as well as now.
Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus, wrote that most Christians tend to take literally the images they find in Scripture, such as the God who gave Moses the Ten Commandments on two tablets, or the divine father who begot Jesus. It is not necessary, he continues, to reject such stories, for that is how we express what we know but are otherwise unable to say. However, the story may come to stand as a barrier to further understanding if we do not recognize its human purpose (Pagels, Beyond, pp. 291-292). I think that many Jews and Christians today would agree.
Beyond this, there is something about certain gnostic images that is widely appealing. In Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Eben Alexander tells of being in a coma for a week, the result of a serious illness. While dead (don’t ask me why being in a coma is the same thing as being dead), Alexander went to heaven, where he communicated with god directly, becoming one with the orb of light that is the source of all life, and which unites humanity (pp. 160-161).
It’s a stupid book, but it suggests that the basic human experience that gives rise to gnosticism, the desire to be one with the luminous All, remains attractive even in our modern scientific world. Perhaps it even seems more plausible today than organized religion, for today’s gnosticism is unmediated by ancient ritual and canon. But it’s not an experience we should fall in love with and forget to think.
Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Marvin W. Meyer, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House, 2003.
Václav Havel, Forgetting we are not God. In First Things (1995), no. 51, 47-50.