Sunday, September 30, 2007

Two "Gnostic" Gospels

As a teenager, I read a Borges story called "The Theologians", the first sentences of which describe an early Christian who crushed his son under an immense weight so that his double could fly in Heaven. This piece of fiction was my first awareness that there were different strains of Christianity in the first centuries A.D., some of which were radically different from what we conceive as mainstream Christian thought. G. R. S. Mead's eminently enjoyable Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, published long before the discoveries at Nag Hammadi and obsolete from a scholarly standpoint, gave me further insights into the versions of Christianity heavily influenced by Neoplatonism and lumped together under the term "Gnostic".

Since reading those works so long ago, a treasure trove of texts and interpretations of Gnostic literature has been published, the cornerstone of which is Elaine Pagels' seminal The Gnostic Gospels. Over the last several years, scholars have shied away from the use of the designation "Gnostic", as it implies a uniformity of belief that did not exist in those early heterodox centuries. What is clear is that the mainstream Church, in consolidating its power, perceived any Christian belief which advocated direct apprehension of God, without the Church as intermediary, as a threat to its authority. Of the many Gospels and other writings floating around which did not support the Church narrative they had great distrust, and actively sought their elimination. They did a remarkably thorough job supressing these texts, most of which were known up until the 20th century only by their inclusion in writings by Church fathers such as Irenaeus, who quoted them only to refute them. Discoveries at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere have served to correct these deficiencies by revealing, at long last, many of the original texts.

I don't have a dog in this fight. Studying the history of the early Church and particularly the Neoplatonic versions of Christianity is, for me, a fun Borgesian pastime and a good illustration of how all history must be viewed with a skeptical eye, as it is a truism that history is written by the victors. If not for the discoveries of Nag Hammadi, our view of the development of the cultural phenomenon of Christianity would be much different. The upheavals and violence of the Albigensian Crusade, the Inquisition, and the Protestant Reformation have clear antecedents in the Church's response to the Gnostic heresies.

My notes on the Thomas Gospel are a few years old, but I thought it made sense to present them together with a review of Pagels' more recent book.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels

The Gospel of Thomas was one of the "heretical" texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the late 1940's. Of the many works found at that time, it has excited the most interest due to both its parallels and divergences from the four canonical Gospels. The synoptic Gospels tell a similar story, however, the Gospel of John is quite different in its style, themes, and interpretations of the meaning of Jesus. John is the only gospel to directly imply that Jesus was in fact God.

Pagel's contention is that John may have been written to specifically "correct" the ideas about Jesus presented in the suppressed Gospel of Thomas. Thomas presents Jesus as divine, but encouraging others to look to the divine within themselves, to "drink from my mouth and become what I am." The Gospel of John was written to reinforce the idea, becoming orthodox in the first century, that one does not share in divinity, but comes to it through the sacrifice of Jesus, the one son of God. Pagels devotes much of Beyond Belief to describing how the church father Irenaeus sought to suppress all but the "authorized" Gospels as a means of fostering orthodoxy and eliminating innovation and error. Beyond Belief ends with the familiar story of Constantine and the Council of Nicea, which solidified the creed of the early church and established the authorized New Testament.

Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King

The Gospel of Judas, known previously only through the refutation of Irenaeus, is a quite recent discovery, only becoming public last year. In a theme worthy of Borges, it presents the arch-traitor Judas as the most beloved of Christ's disciples - the only one who understands Jesus' true mission and the transcendent reality of the kingdom of God.

Judas has always presented a problem for the Church. It is through his agency that Christ is betrayed and crucified, necessary steps towards the redeeming event of the resurrection. Yet Judas is reviled as being possessed by Satan himself, an agent of pure evil. More recently, Judas has been posited as a proto-Zionist, knife at the ready, who betrays Jesus as soon as he realizes that he has not come as a messianic king to defeat the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel.

Pagels and King see the Judas in this text as a mouthpiece for criticism of the cult of martyrdom, the thirst for the opportunity to "die in glory for the Lord" so prevalent in the early church. There is also a certain amount of mystical theology thrown in as well (the "Gnostic" idea that Jesus is an emissary of the true God, who reigns above the demiurge responsible for the creation of the physical universe). The text contained in this volume and the interpretations provided by Pagels and King are a worthy addition to the expanding literature of the early Christian era.