Why Ignore the Gnostic Gospels? [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week’s entry in the Questions That Haunt Christianity series comes from Patience, who asks,

Since leaving the faith I have not looked back, and I have done a lot of exploration of atheist/agnostic communities as well as alternative religious communities. In studying Buddhism and some other religions I came back to some references to the Gnostic Gospels, and I want to know why mainstream christianity has not yet dealt with these at all but keeps preaching the Johannine gospel as ultimate truth when it was one interpretation among many at the time (as regards the meaning and significance of the life of Jesus).

So I guess what I’m asking is why those gospels are not in any bibles, why no christians read or quote them, and why so conveniently christianity can dispose of alternate explanations within christianity itself; is christianity ultimately just a test of saying the right words, or is christianity ready to admit among its ranks those who do not believe in miracles, virgin births, or resurrections?

My answer will come on Friday, but I hope that you will attempt to answer her question below. You can submit your own question here.

  • http://robopa.blogspot.com Rob

    There are Christians who read them, study them, and incorporate them extensively in to their faith. For example, check out the writings of Elaine Pagels and Cynthia Bourgeault, just to name two. I view these writings as important in presenting a different perspective from the one that became the dominate view during the councils. How the dominant view because such, and how these writings were suppressed is in interesting study in and of itself (mystical Christianity doesn’t sit well with empire…enough said there). As Bourgeault says, and I agree, to ignore them is to ignore 270 degrees of the Christian arc (and only focus on the 90 degrees that spread through Paul and Rome) that started in the Middle East and spread throughout the world.

    • http://robopa.blogspot.com Rob

      “How the dominant view because such…” I meant to say “How the dominant view became such…”

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    i’ve read a few. gnosticism is a heresy that persists in christianity to this day. we rarely tag is as such, but it persists in the ways christians elevate the spiritual, dishonor and disconnect from our bodies, and remain suspicious of sexuality.

    the gnostic gospels aren’t cannon because of authorship, dating, and a theology that is incongruent with the biblical narrative. ours is an incarnational faith. Jesus’ bodily life, death, and resurrection, not secret knowledge or enlightenment, are absolutely central to christianity and the way we practice our faith.

    • Erick

      Amen!

  • Travis I.

    Patience,

    First I want to say thank you for your question as it is one that I to have struggled with through my studies in theology. I would also like to not that I am in no way a scholar and am only now starting my masters in theology. With that being said I would like to address the question with the little I know about this subject as it pertains to some of the classes I am taking right now.

    The Gnostic texts seem to me to be very interesting. What little we knew about the gnostics came mostly from their opponents. This is a common theme throughout the early church. However in 1945 we discovered a bunch of translations of the gnostic material into Coptic in the city of Nag Hammadi. These have been of course deemed the Nag Hammadi texts. Of these it seems there are many “gospels” namely the Gospel of Tomas. In addition we have codices such as the “The Reality of the Rulers”, “ The Gospel of Truth” etc. These all are considered texts within the range of Gnostic Christianity. So with that being said I want to pick up specifically on the “The Reality of the Rulers.” You can read the text here (http://gnosis.org/naghamm/hypostas.html).Though I am uncertain about the textual/translations used. Please forgive me of that.

    In the Reality of the Rulers we see the basis of the creation myth that is pivotal for Gnostic thought. We see that the world is created by Ialdaboth who is not the One True God. Ialdaboth creates the world to trap the light that he see reflected in himself. In this way we see that the creation myth is radically different than that of the Genesis narrative. If you read the Genesis account and then read the Reality of the Rulers you can see that in many ways the author inverts much of the Genesis narrative. Namely we see the serpent is seen as the good character and that the creator God is seen as holding back information. I do not want to go into a huge detail about this but I think that it is precisely because of this inversion that many of the church fathers are adamant about refuting the gnostic texts.

    Gnosticism at least according to early church fathers is not the orthodox position not because they want to suppress other thought but because it does not do justice to the Christian witness. In gnostic thought you are saved by a secret gnosis or knowledge. Once you gain this knowledge you are saved. For the early church this means that the suffering of Christ and in addition the suffering of the martyrs is pointless. What is the need for suffering in you can just gain a secret knowledge? This is why the early church fathers especially authors such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Origen vehemently discount and spend an extraordinary amount of time refuting the gnostic discussion. For these early fathers the Christian martyr is absolutely essential to the witness of divine revelation. The Gnostic texts make the cross and the suffering of Christ pointless. In this way we see why the early church so disregards the Gnostic texts.

    I hope that helps. I want to close by saying that there are legitimate concerns as to how the canon of Scripture was formed. There are books in circulation during the early church that do not make it into the canon. One of the chief being the Didache. Tony has written as some length about this subject and I believe he is better suited for that discussion. But for the Gnostic texts I ultimately believe that because of the radical move away from the Jewish cosmology in Genesis and the degradation of the suffering of God that the Gnostic texts are not true to the original witness of Jesus handed down by the apostles and eventually recorded in the Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I welcome your input and hope for others that I have done an adequate job of describing the early church’s position on Gnosticism.

  • http://robopa.blogspot.com Rob

    Also, there is a difference between gnosis as a way of knowing, and the dualism and trappings that go along with Gnosticism. There is richness in the former.

  • Tom Estes

    How is this a question that haunts Christianity?

    The reason other “Gospels” are rejected is because they are not about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, which is what the Gospel is. I Corinthians 15:4.

    If you don’t believe that to be the Gospel, then you don’t believe the Bible, meaning you’re not a Christian and have much bigger problems than if the other “Gospels” are accepted by Christians at large.

    Which leads to my last point: you shouldn’t care if your viewpoints or those that agree with you are accepted by Christians, you need to care if you are acceptable to God, which only happens when one repents of their sin and trusts Christ.

    • Frank

      Right on Tom!

      • Luke Allison

        Frank,

        What would be an example for you of an actual question that “haunts Christianity?”

        • Frank

          Why would a good, loving God permit evil and suffering?

          Why is that so many Christians do not live a Christian life?

          Why do people make up there own brand of Christianity outside of the bible?

          • Luke Allison

            Ha ha. Outside of the first one, these are “questions that haunt Frank.”

          • Frank

            Believe that and remain in ignorance. You do seem to be comfortable there.

            These are questions that most Christians and non Christians have.

          • Luke Allison

            Are non-Christians really wondering why “people make up their own brand of Christianity outside of the bible?”
            Seems like more of a Reformed question. After all, “the bible” = Reformed theology.
            Also, “why do so many Christians not live a Christian life” depends on who it’s coming from. Being asked by a fella such as yourself, I take that to mean “Why are so many Christians okay with homosexuality or dangerous beliefs like synergistic regeneration?”

            From a non-believer, I take that question to mean, “Why are so many Christians mean, crabby, and boring?”

          • Frank

            Yes they are! They are wondering if we believe the bible is the word of God then why do we pick and choose what we want to believe. Why are there so many different denominations with different beliefs?

          • Luke Allison

            I’d think the answer to that would be obvious: because the invention of the printing press enabled everybody to eventually procure their own copy of the Scripture, thus allowing for as many interpretations as there are bodies.

            But, luckily, the truth of a 1st century love movement was somehow discovered in the 16th century by a lawyer and a monk. And lots of witches got burned. And lots of Christians killed each other.
            Now, if only we could just get back to that truth, Christians would stop acting so worldly. If only they’d just accept that a very particular interpretation of the Bible located in a very particular historic milieu is actually the objectively Holy Spirit-verified true interpretation, then we wouldn’t have all these problems.

            Hmmmmmmm……

          • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

            Luke, I believe I may print out this latest response of yours, frame it, and hang it on my wall! Right-on, and absolutely superb!

          • Frank

            Well Luke that certainly caused people to interpret things themselves. Some correctly, others not so correctly and others still completely wrong. And so we have to look at what makes theological sense, what the “Church” collectively has believed, what is supported throughout scripture and what stands the test of time.

            I am not sure exactly what you are saying in the last sentence. Can you dumb it down a bit? :)

          • Luke Allison

            Frank,

            Which “Church”? Eastern or Western?
            Is everything that has stood the test of time necessarily true?
            What exactly is “theological sense?”
            What does it mean for something to be supported by Scripture? Is polygamy supported by Scripture? Some of the biggest Bible Green Berets I know also have constructed a complicated structure for explaining why the Holy Spirit no longer apportions miraculous gifts. This seems highly convenient to me.

            I’m not trying to be an ass. Just attempting to point out how much more complicated this whole thing (history, God’s interaction with the world, interpretive science, the extremely complicated human person) is than simply saying “You’re wrong. Believe the Bible.”

            Frank, brother, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I will gladly die for that statement, although I’m not expecting to have to do that anytime soon. But I don’t think we get anywhere constantly telling people that life in Jesus is simple when it’s anything but. It’s a hell of roller coaster ride.
            Now, potentially, you have the particular temperament/strengths/personality type that makes this stuff slightly easier to accept at face value. I know lots of people like that. I myself do not have that type of temperament. One of the biggest problems in the modern Church is that we’ve set up structures that cater to very particular types of temperament and personality. Then we’ve wrapped those structures up with “orthodox” trappings. Then we’ve looked at anyone who doesn’t fit in the structure and said “unorthodox.” Or “unclean.” Or “heretical.”

            My rant is over. But don’t be afraid, Frank. You won’t go to hell for believing that Jesus works through eunuchs and prostitutes and lepers and even filthy Gentile dogs.

          • Frank

            Luke you have a very limited understanding of me. Yes I have been gifted with great faith but I was a skeptic. I questioned everything. I never took anything at face value. Yes there was a point that I knew enough to be true that some of the things I had yet to understand I could more easily accept.

            I am not afraid because all the powers of hell will not conquer the church that Jesus created. I am not afraid to consider new ideas and I am also not afraid to reject them if they do not line up or reject them even if popular culture accepts them. And I’m most aware that God can use everyone but that does not mean that God condones everyone behavior and does not call us to lead a life that is pleasing to Him even if we think differently.

          • Luke Allison

            Frank,

            Well of course I have a limited understanding of you! I’m interacting with you on a freakin’ blog. :)

            See, now I’m seeing a little more of “Frank the human being” and not “Frank the Jolly Bible Ranger.” That’s all I want. I’m sure you have all kinds of good thoughts to contribute to these conversations. But on this blog, you seem to have earned the reputation of the resident drive-by fundy. Is that true of you?

            I’ll be the first to admit that progressive Christians can be some of the nastiest people I know, every bit as much as conservative Christians can. It seems to be inherent in any tribal associations (even if your tribal association is that you have no tribal association). But if you’re truly trying to show people that a life marinated in the teaching, example, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus is a life worth living, you’re not necessarily accomplishing that here.

            In the Scriptures, the only book we have that gives us a deep understanding of what it was like for a nation to interact with God on a personal and regular basis is the Psalms. And the Psalms are full of deep, heretical doubts. These doubts are sometimes overwhelming, and sometimes the Psalmist never finds his way out of them into God’s chesed. But sometimes the Psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to his covenant in the past in order to find his way in the present and into the future. But the point is the interaction.

            I don’t believe that submission is the point of Christianity. The very people of God are named for the struggle. If I wanted to resolutely and faithfully submit to a God-dictated book, I’d convert to Islam. The most crazy (and oft-misunderstood) thing about God to me is the reality of his interaction, incarnation, and desire for struggle with his people. Unfortunately, it would seem that your perspective on Scripture is in conflict with my viewpoint here.
            Maybe that’s not true.

          • Tom Estes

            Hey Frank,

            I understand voicing your opinion, because I do it as well, but I don’t understand going “tit for tat” with someone who rejects the authority of the Bible. There is no way of ever coming to an agreement with someone who claims to be their own moral authority.

            I think it’s better to state Biblical truth, and let God use it to speak to hearts and minds. I know you get frustrated when people who claim Christ pervert or even reject God’s Word like Tony and many of his readers do, but life is too short to argue all the time.

          • Luke Allison

            Ha ha.

            Wow, that’s really easy. Don’t have to actually deal with real human issues then. Which is good, because everyone’s depraved anyway (which, ironically, doesn’t seem to have effected your interpretation of Scripture one bit).

            I was attempting to try and find common ground with Frank so we could no longer have such icy confrontations. But that’s unacceptable to you, huh?

            See, I could never ever ever accept your view of “Biblical truth” for one reason alone: you’re a cessationist. Tell me….if a young Bible student were locked in a room with only the Bible, no commentary, no Dallas Theological Seminary professors explaining it to him, just the “plain meaning”……do you think he would come out believing that the Holy Spirit is still speaking, moving, and doing miraculous apportioning of gifts today? Or do you think he’d come out with the complicated dispensationalist framework that you seem to hold?

          • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

            That’s right, Tom. Don’t engage in conversation. Don’t have any dialog. Isn’t that the age-old cry of absolutists who cannot tolerate notions and perceptions contrary to their own? Your way is to state your opinion and then to hell (literally) with those who disagree.

            Your kind of thinking and approach, Tom, is exactly why progressive Christians arose in the first place!

    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

      Actually, the Gospel isn’t about the death and resurrection of Jesus, where the Biblical Gospel narrative(s) is/are concerned. Whenever Jesus spoke about the Gospel — the “good news” — it was always about the “kingdom” of God, or of heaven, as Matthew referred to it.

      The “kingdom” was about liberation from brokenness and the creation of Oneness (and wholeness; nod to Evelyn). And not as a consequence of Jesus death and supposed resurrection, but as a consequence of following the Jesus Way.

      Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” — Luke 17:20-21

      Gospel references to “gospel” here. (Note the relation to “kingdom”)

      Gospel references to “good news” here. (Note the relation to “kingdom”)

      Gospel references to “kingdom” here. (Note the relation to “gospel” and “good news”)

      • Alan K

        You cannot separate the two. If you are going to cite the Luke’s gospel (and the rather questionable rendering of ‘the kingdom of God is within you’–try ‘the kingdom of God is near’) then you need to account for why the apostles in the book of Acts go out to testify to the world of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Same author. Did he change his mind? You want Luke 17 to speak loud and clear, but then want to silence Luke 24 and the witness to the “supposed” resurrection. I think it is pretty clear that Luke, along with the rest of the Gospel writers, did not believe that Jesus came to deliver the world by ethics and spiritual discipline and criticism. Those things are no match for pure evil.

        • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

          Alan, clearly the “gospel/good news” is directly related to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as far as the New Testament writers were concerned. They saw him as Messiah, the anointed king of the kingdom of God.

          Yes, they certainly believed in Jesus’ resurrection. I am not at all discounting that the New Testament writers believed in this.

          But until Paul entered the scene, the understanding of the “gospel/good news” was almost exclusively tied to the Hebrew understanding of the foretold “new covenant” with Israel and the establishment of a new Davidic kingdom. We see this from the Gospel writings, and in the first two-thirds of Acts.

          And I should note that certain people, who later became Jesus’ followers, believed the new kingdom was already at hand when Jesus’ began his teaching, healings, etc. The gospel was already the gospel before Jesus was even crucified. And it was all about the kingdom.

          That was my point.

          But then something changed. You will notice that the content of the “gospel/good news” and its core message changed radically when Paul arrived. His idea of the “gospel/good news” was almost entirely tied to the resurrection of Jesus. And we see this radical change beginning at Acts 16/17 and onward, and then of course through Paul’s letters.

          The “gospel/good news” changed from a vision of earthly realization to a vision of spiritual experience.

          It’s important to remember that Paul was a Pharisee (see Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5). And Pharisees in the first century believed in resurrection, the soul’s immortality, reward/punishment after death, and the existence of spirit creatures (this is important because Paul claims he was “visited” by the risen Jesus, an unverified experience which evidently triggered Paul’s conversion). It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Paul’s ideas about Jesus and Christian belief/practice were strongly influenced by his many prior years as a devoted Pharisee.

          • Alan K

            Did something change? Most certainly. Jesus will not testify about the Messiah in the Gospel of Luke until chapter 24 when he speaks with the travelers on the Road to Emmaus. Only post cross and resurrection does Jesus mention messiahship–as if any other interpretation of kingdom is incomplete. There has been a revelation. The grave is empty. The same goes for Paul. His salvation history which included everything from the Hebrew prophets that spoke of the kingdom of God is transformed when he is confronted on the Road to Damascus by the one who is the king of that kingdom. Again, a revelation. Paul has to re-narrate and re-interpret everything he has learned. The kingdom is not spiritualized by Paul at all. He merely utilizes different vocabulary. “The kingdom of God has drawn near” is rendered “Jesus Christ is Lord.” But even Paul will occasionally use the language of kingdom in his letters. Most certainly Paul expects the gospel to change the world–both visibly and invisibly. In fact, he is ready to confront the Caesar with it.

            Are you aware that in your method of reading that you dis-canonicalize and then proceed to re-chronologize at will as if this provides access to some truer anterior reality from which witnesses like Paul can be criticized. You are even using the gospel writers against themselves, arguing that when they witness to the reality of the kingdom of God as understood during Second Temple Judaism (by no means a unified understanding) in the early chapters of their writings they are truly witnessing to the kingdom but that by the later chapters that have the passion and resurrection narratives the evangelists are somehow altering the witness to the kingdom. Is Luke somehow in writing in Acts 16/17 not aware of what he narrates Peter testifying to in Acts 2? Does not Peter say “This Jesus God raised up”?

            Why the suspicions? Why say “Then when Paul came”? He is the earliest witness. Is there a problem with the New Testament saying that what passages like Isaiah 40-55 envisaged has actually come to pass in the the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? That the herald of Isaiah 52–”Our God reigns”–has been realized by the resurrection? Why is this dismissed as “spiritualizing”? Why the “then” (pre-passion) vs. “now” (post-passion) versions of Jesus Christ? Is the resurrection unreasonable and therefore to be downgraded? Why not instead take the New Testament witness about Jesus Christ in its entirety? Have we been misled and misinformed?

      • Evelyn

        The dangers of “oneness” are exemplified in the recent attempt by a man to become “one” with the tigers at the zoo. Apparently he doesn’t regret it but I’d prefer to keep my leg (and life for that matter) and remain in a dual relationship with the tigers.

        http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_BRONX_ZOO_TIGER_MAULING?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2012-09-22-18-11-36

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Tom, is it your profession to go around telling everyone if they are or are not a Christian? If so, you’re winning at it!

      • Tom Estes

        Rob,

        Not everyone, just those who dismiss the Bible, which is where the entire concept of Christianity comes from. I know it is common in our society to call a person mean-spirited if they tell them that according to the Bible they are going to Hell, but I disagree with that charge. According to the Word of God, the kindest thing a person can do is point people to Christ, all of Christ, in order that they might escape the eternal wrath of God.

        If you think what I said is wrong, then all I can tell you is read the Bible and pray to the Lord for guidance, and I’ll hope that you see the truth.

        • Luke Allison

          The entire concept of Christianity comes from an actual act in history that upset the entire order of the world: the Resurrection.

          How in the world do you get the idea that Christianity arose out of this thing you call the Bible? They didn’t even have anything remotely resembling a “Bible” until much later. How in the world did any of them know about double imputation or penal substitutionary atonement?

        • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

          Tom, you’re obviously interested in two things only: 1) telling others how wrong they are, and 2) letting everyone know how right you are.

          And all because you’re a slave to top-down religious presumptions.

          And yes, I know what’s next Tom: “No, R. Jay. I’m not right. God is right. How do I know? The Bible says so. And I believe the Bible is the Word of God.”

          You’re not “righteous” because of Christ, Tom. Your self-righteous because of your religious arrogance. Sadly, you mistake such arrogance for faith. Which makes you both arrogant and ignorant.

          And therein is one of the several reasons your breed of divisive religion is swiftly dying. It neither sounds like nor looks like Jesus. At all.

          • Tom Estes

            R. Jay, I’m impressed with how much you know about me.

            I never said I was righteous, I said Christ is righteous.

            My religion will never die, no matter how many enemies it has. Matthew 16:18

            Good day to you.

          • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

            You’re right Tom. You never “said” you were righteous. It was, though, the absolutist flavor of your words and their delivery that demonstrated your self-righteousness.

            “By their fruits you will know them.”

            And what has the “fruit” of your words and delivery been? Arrogant intolerance.

            And your religion is dying, not because of us, but because of yourselves. You are your religion’s terminal cancer.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      I’m assuming this is you:

      http://hardtruth.tv/info/

      You’re welcome.

      • Tom Estes

        Thanks, I guess, but I don’t think anyone who has read my comments could claim that I’m here to promote my blog.

    • http://intothehills.org Kullervo

      Not the Incarnation?

    • Boz

      Tom Estes said: “The reason other “Gospels” are rejected is because they are not about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, which is what the Gospel is.”

      This is false, see for example the gospels of Peter and Judas.

      • Tom Estes

        Also see that those “Gospels” were rejected by the early church and left out of the canon of Scripture.

  • http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com Paul Rack

    The so-called gnostic gospels are not in any Bibles because: a) EVERYONE agrees (even Pagels and Ehrman, when they’re being honest) that the 4 canonical gospels are the earliest witnesses to Jesus. That’s what the church was, and is, looking for. It may be argued that parts of Thomas and MAYBE snippets of one or two other gospels may be as early. But the Christian scriptures are supposed to witness to Jesus, and these are the best we have. The notion that the church had all these gospels at its disposal and arbitrarily picked 4 is false. They chose the 4 that were around the longest, had the widest readership, and were most consistent with each other. b) Have you ever READ the gnostic gospels? If miracles are offensive, why would we add works that are often far more bizarre, irrational, and credulity-straining than anything in the canonical gospels? Also, many of the gnostic gospels express a dualism that dismisses the earth, matter, and the body as evil. Is that what you want? c) There is today no authority like an ecumenical council that has the power to add or subtract anything from the canon, thank God. If a church or Christian wants to read gospels other than the 4, no one is stopping them (except denominational authorities, in some cases). I have found some worthwhile stuff in some of these gospels. (The gospels of Mary, Philip, and Thomas contain interesting perspectives.) I know people who have preached on parts of them. But an awful lot of what we find in these extra-canonical gospels is simply not relevant or worth our time. If they fed people spiritually, people would read them. They’re all available now. If you want to read them, read them. Why does anyone need the institutional church or Bible publishers to authorize them? d) The gospel of John is the most mystical perspective on Jesus. It was foundational for the Celtic church, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard, and so forth. What’s the problem? e) The New Testament itself contains many different, sometimes contradictory, theologies as it is. Added to the Hebrew Scriptures, we find an even wider variety of perspectives. There are plenty of “alternate expressions” in the Bible already. f) If you insist on taking “miracles, virgin births, or resurrections” as merely statements of historical fact, you are missing the point. This is the fallacy of both Modernism and fundamentalism. Scripture is not “history” as Modernity defines it; it certainly isn’t about gynecology either. In the Bible, “believe” does not mean “hold the cognitive opinion that something is historically factual.” It means trusting whole-heartedly in something as true and living that way with your body. Reducing these things to dead facts of history, or not, is to dismiss them as irrelevant. As Phyllis Tickle once quoted someone reflecting on the virgin birth story, “It’s too beautiful not to be true, whether it happened or not.” g) Are the gnostic gospels beautiful? Do they help you follow the way of Jesus? Then read them. But the church has not yet found most of them to be either of these things. Maybe we will in the future. h) Finally, there is the argument from my Orthodox friends: we use these 4 because these are the ones we have always used. In other words, they have been authenticated by 2 millennia of use by the people. None of the other gospels have that going for them.

    • Phil Miller

      As Phyllis Tickle once quoted someone reflecting on the virgin birth story, “It’s too beautiful not to be true, whether it happened or not.”

      I read these sorts of statements from Christians all the time, and to be honest, I’ve never bought it. You either believe something to be true or you don’t. Something either happened or it didn’t. The Virgin Birth can’t simultaneously be fact and fiction. This isn’t simply modernistic thinking. It’s the way humans naturally approach the world. I don’t see it as simply being a matter of being fundamentalist, either. Fundamentalism’s mistake is that the things it considers fundamental most of the time tend not to be. But to say that affirming certain things as facts aren’t at the core of the Christian, well, I just can’t see how it can be done.

      I’m not saying the virgin birth necessarily fits into one of those core facts (although, historically, it’s been pretty darn important). But I can’t see how saying something like, “whether or not this actually happened, I’ll believe it” isn’t simply intellectual dishonesty.

      • Ric Shewell

        I agree with the “intellectual dishonesty” thing you were going for.

        What Christians mean by these types of sayings is something like, “What is the truism produced by the narrative of the Virgin Birth? Whether or not Mary was actually a virgin, these truism remain intact.” For instance, if the truism produced by the narrative is “God uses the least likely to expose corrupt systems,” then whether or not Mary’s business was unadulterated has no effect on the truism produced. Other likely truisms Christians claim from the narrative are “Jesus is the Son of God,” “All things are possible with God,” “Jesus is the Messiah.”

        I, however, do believe in the Virgin Birth, pretty much because I believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. And since an actually resurrection calls into question my modern sensibilities (which are the only thing keeping me from believing in a virgin birth), I choose to go the next step and trust the church and scripture in its account of a Virgin Birth.

        If there came about some irrefutable evidence of Joseph’s semen involved in Jesus’ conception, I’ll be happy to move away from my belief in Jesus’ conception, much like I’ve moved away from thinking the mentally ill in the healing stories are actually possessed by demons.

        Some (like my family) say I’m “picking and choosing” what to take literal from the Bible, but it’s really just careful and critical reading, leaning upon the community to which scripture belongs and the context which it was written in.

      • http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com Paul Rack

        Reducing truth to “what happened” is to make it irrelevant, a dead fact we can dispose of and move on. It doesn’t have to have any effect on us whatsoever. Affirming something as true without asking the “did it happen?” question allows us to explore deeper and higher theological and spiritual meanings. In the case of the virgin birth, it’s not about gynecology. It is to say in narrative form that “human beings alone are not capable of bringing God into the world” (Barth). Among other things….

  • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

    Ecclesiastical and theological politics is why the Gnostic writings were never included in the “established” canon of scripture that we today know as the Bible.

    In a superb book titled The Canon of the New Testament: It’s Origin, Development and Significance (1987), the late Bruce Metzger, a world renowned theologian, wrote the following about the Gnostics, their place in Christianity, and how/why their writings were not included in the present canon of scripture:

    We must take account of several movements, persons, and other influences that exerted pressure on the early Church to ascertain still more exactly which books were authoritative in matters of faith and life. Some of these external pressures were of a religious nature; others were socio-political or, one may say, broadly cultural.

    One of the chief opponents of orthodox Christianity was Gnosticism, a syncretistic religion and philosophy that flourished for about four centuries alongside early Christianity. . . .

    It was not until the mid-second century that the real showdown between [Gnostics and other early Christians] took place. By that time several systems of Gnostic thought had developed that called themselves Christian because they gave Christ a more or less central position. Such syncretistic Gnosticism, if successful, would have obliterated the distinctive historical features of Christianity, and it was not surprising that [early "Church Fathers"] vehemently opposed these tendencies.

    Early Christianity for the first few centuries was rife with internal competition and power play. The establishment of the canon of scripture was part of this competition, and those “church leaders” who felt certain ideas were not “orthodox” — Gnostic ideas in particular — made sure to use their influence to keep such ideas out. One reason for this is that Gnostic ideology was a direct threat to the chain of “apostolic authority.” Why? Because Gnosticism resisted the notion of earthly authority over faith, but instead advanced the notion of “mystical” access to insight by direct experience with the holy spirit (Gnostic thought articulated it a bit differently, but this is essentially how they presented their form of Christianity. I further recommend another superb book, The Rise of Christianity, W.H.C. Frend, 1984; chapters 6 and 7 cover Gnosticism, and its conflict with the “orthodox” Christianity, in excellent detail.)

    This is why “christianity can dispose of alternate explanations within christianity itself.” It’s about power and authority. And it’s refreshing to see that “old school” finally dead. Diversity is returning to Christianity, and rightfully so.

    Thankfully, Christians today now have access to the Gnostic writings that were found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. I highly recommend reading them, especially the Gospel of Thomas, which is a “sayings gospel” that has numerous parallels to the four gospels in the Bible.

    • seth c

      Early church fathers opposed Gnosticism because it wasn’t Christianity at its core. Call Gnosticism what you want but it’s distinctives are different than what can be found in the Christian canon. Yes some of the Gnostic Gospels may have some parallels with the 4 Gospels we have, but we have attestation by early church fathers to the authenticity of the 4 Gospels as early eyewitness testimony to the work of Jesus Christ during his time on earth. Matthew Mark and Luke can both be traced back to the mid 1st century while John is traced back to the late 1st century. None of the Gnostics can be traced back that early. Even the Gospel of Thomas is traced back to the mid 2nd century.

      If you want reliable texts then the 4 Gospels is the way to go. Even Ehrman would go with that.

      • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

        seth c . . .

        Gnostic Christianity existed alongside Petrine-Paulist Christianity from the very beginning. Paul himself referred to it in more than one of his writings, such as at 1 Timothy 6:20; Colossians chapter 2; 2 Timothy 2:16-18. All those were written in the mid first century, and the manner in which Paul refers to them makes it clear that Gnosticism was widespread, which ultimately means Gnosticism was already around for quite a long time (and perhaps even before Petrine-Paulism?).

        As to what defined Christianity at its core . . . since Gnostic Christians and Petrine-Paulist Christians grew and existed simultaneously, who really is to say what the “core” of Christianity really is/was? Geography and politics of the 1st – 4th centuries determined largely which form of Christianity won out.

        Gnosticism saw its greatest concentration in Egypt and Syria; Petrine-Paulism in Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople, the epicenter of Roman culture and politics. The rest is history: once Petrine-Paulism was adopted by Constantine and later politicized by him and successive emperors, it was ultimately the power of the sword (or at the very least the threat of it) that vanquished all other forms of Christianity, including Gnosticism.

        It’s as the old saying goes: the victors write the history.

      • Ted Seeber

        Gnosticism existed before Christianity, perhaps even before Judaism. The Zoroastriani have a form of it.

  • johnstok

    Why don’t evangelical Christians read the Koran more often? Why don’t they read the Book of Mormon more often? Why did we listen to John Stott when we should have been listening to Bishop Spong? Perhaps it is for the same reason that we do not read or study the Gnostic Gospels — all of these are alternative explanations of the Deity and how to approach the Deity, much like flavors of ice cream, in that Rocky Road is not the same as Vanila.

  • Pax

    I’m not sure what is meant by “dealt with”. The early Church did a whole lot of discerning about which Christian writings were inspired and which weren’t, eventually coming to an agreement which, I believe, was promulgated by 4th century councils.

    For people who look at all of the historical data and conclude that the resurrection of Jesus was an actual historical event, it’s very reasonable to trust that the Church with the historical connections to Jesus (through the Apostles and their successors) is the best guide for determining what is reliable and what isn’t. And, I would point out that many modern Christians do read and quote early extra-biblical writings because of their historical value. They even help shape many people’s views because they’re evidence of what various early Christians believed, how they interpreted scripture, etc. Just because something isn’t inspired by the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.

  • http://onpoptheology.com Benjamin Howard

    Patience, I really appreciate your question and it is an interesting one to say the least. The simple reason why the Gnostic gospels are not taken seriously by the wider church is that they were written later than the texts which traditionally make up the canon.

    Additionally, the Gnostic gospels do not fit the description of Jesus and his message given by the earliest accounts, which are traditionally tied to an apostolic lineage. So, we have a tradition where Apostle was an eyewitness of events in Jesus life then either writes or passes on his eyewitness account to a disciple who then records the event. A book like the Gospel of Thomas, which is likely the earliest of the Gnostic Gospels, is not even written until 70 years or so after the latest of the canonical Gospels.

    It would be like someone writing an eyewitness account of the Civil War today. If it didn’t fit in with a traditional understanding of the way we view the Civil War, then it would be rejected as an alternative and inferior understanding of that event. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s untrue, but it does make it unlikely.

    As far as the process of creating a canon, the Church typically viewed books as canonical if they were tied directly to an Apostle, Paul, or someone with direct contact to Jesus. That’s why James and Jude are included even though parts of James contrast with Paul and Jude has a very different flavor of Judaism than many of the Gospels.

    In antiquity, it was relatively normal to add an important person’s name to a work to try and give it relevance even if that person had little to do with the work in question. That’s why you have the Gospel of Thomas even though most scholars doubt Thomas had anything to do with its composition or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene though its unlikely to be associated with the historical Mary in anyway.

    None of this is a conspiracy, its just messy, the way most of history is messy. Am I convinced that the right books were chosen for the canon? Not necessarily, but I don’t believe in the Bible, I believe in God.

    • http://intothehills.org Kullervo

      This is a good answer.

  • Phil Miller

    As some others have already pointed out, I don’t agree with the assertion that the gnostic writing weren’t dealt with. They were refuted quite forcefully be the church fathers in different ways. I think it really all comes down to the fact that orthodox Christianity has always been adamant that if the resurrection was not an event that happened in a specific time and place in history, that everything would be for naught. This church fathers hammer this point home repeatedly.

    As far as mainstream Christianity’s ignorance of this, I’d say that it’s true to a degree. Most mainstream Christianity, or at least modern evangelicalism, is very detached from its historical moorings. Many times it’s the case that questions that are being asked now have been asked repeatedly throughout the last two thousand years.

  • Ted Seeber

    REAL mainstream Christianity doesn’t ignore the Gnostic Gospels. REAL mainstream Christianity shows why the Gnostics are heretical.

    Too bad most of Protestant Christianity is not mainstream- and ignores the authority that does this. In doing so, they repeat the errors of the Gnostics, because they are afraid of history.

  • The Haggard

    Please, please read this with the grandfatherly love and tenderness my voice wants to portray to a troubled child… an empathy that cannot be transmitted by text:

    I am troubled by the question. I have heard it often and always encounter the same issues from the questioner. I know this will sound like I am being a jerk, but the logic really offends me.

    If you have studied so much Buddhism and other view points after leaving the faith, then what exactly are you reading and to what depth? To leave the faith, then present other traditions that you have studied as more open and helpful is fine. But then to turn and ask why Christians can’t this or that… why can’t you research THIS? I am sorry to be confrontational about this, but 5 minutes on google answers the question pretty solidly. In my experience the question is more for provocation than information. When people ask me this question in sincerity I am happy to answer. I would be happy to answer now (with pretty much the same as people have so far) but I just have to point out that if you are really searching and reading, a question like this would be easily dealt with long ago. Now, if you are exploring other traditions and viewpoints on a very surface level, without depth and just through popular notions… that is perhaps why you left Christianity as well. Buddhism loves the mirky waters of opinion and vague truths and surface-pop thinking blends in well there (I live in China, I know full well). I am sorry that the Christian faith, as you have experienced it, did not feed your need to find the God that loves you. I applaud your search… don’t stop… but don’t let simple popular contentions get in the way either. Some questions in the popular arguments were answered long, long ago and the information is freely and readily available to someone like yourself who is search and studying.

    • http://strivingafterthewind.com Stephanie Danielson

      Haggard, I think you did an excellent job in humbly portraying love throughout. A well stated point. Thank you for sharing!

    • MarkE

      Good comment. The question is a common, reasonable one, but one that can be answered with a little due diligence. Reasonal people – believers and unbelievers alike – would likely arrive at a reasonably satisfactory answer. If this question is indeed a stumbling block to belief, Patience, you should be able to dispose of it easily.

      I suspect for many, this question – and perhaps many of the other “haunting” questions – do not get at the real issues of unbelief. That is, I doubt that many that raise this question will find it easier to believe when a satisfactory answer is given. Aren’t they really just a smoke screen? Let’s get to the real issues – they are more interesting.

  • http://www.vanguardchurch.com Bob Robinson

    Because if we understand Gnosticism correctly, we would easily dismiss the Gnostic gospels. See NT Wright discussing Gnosticism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOzQnDRIp7s

  • Luke Allison

    I feel like the main question is steeped in an understanding of the early church formed by Walter Bauer’s hypothesis of Christian origins. Namely, that diversity preceded singularity, or that heresy preceded orthodoxy. This is a very popular viewpoint amongst some scholarly groups, Bart Ehrman being a prime and brilliant example.

    The interesting thing is that Bauer basically ignored the New Testament as a reliable witness to any kind of early church history. But he didn’t ignore the other gospels. Strange and unscholarly.

    I think NT Wright’s refutation is the strongest: “No one got thrown to the lions for saying they had a private spiritual relationship with the divine.” An early Christianity that was private, personal, and safe seems to have had nothing to do with the actual example of Jesus. And if it had nothing to do with him, how can it be “Christian” in any sense of the word?

  • http://www.ryanpeterwrites.com Ryan Peter

    “and why so conveniently christianity can dispose of alternate explanations within christianity itself; is christianity ultimately just a test of saying the right words, or is christianity ready to admit among its ranks those who do not believe in miracles, virgin births, or resurrections?”

    It’s a common Western thing to make Christianity more about saying the right words rather than taking part in the ‘right’ practices and, more importantly, believing the right person (Jesus). In other words, Christianity is a great deal about practice, a fact which Gnosticism actually shuns and Western Civilisation shuns too.

    This may be because, believe it or not, Western civilisation is very Gnostic in its outlook.

    Gnosticism is much less mystical than Christian mysticism. People go on about how mystical it is, but in practice it isn’t that mystical at all. In fact, if you want to see Gnosticism at work in the Christian church today, simply look at the Fundamentalists. See, with them it’s all about the ‘right knowledge’ bringing salvation — if you happen to be in on this ‘secret knowledge’ (what they call correct doctrine) then you’re saved; if you get anything wrong, you are probably damned to hell.

    But to navigate that path of what is the ‘right knowledge’ is downright impossible. That’s exactly what Gnosticism becomes – an impossible path to follow because you never quite know if you have all the secret knowledge or have understood if.

    Fundamentalism is ultimately the fruit of Gnosticism, and one of the reasons why the Early Church didn’t want it as part of their practice and I for one am grateful for that. Now if only Gnosticism would leave part of the church today, too :)

    • Luke Allison

      This is a good answer.

      I think overweight pastors are gnostics.

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  • Tom

    We are always looking for “alternate explanations.” We have an innate desire to seek, and specifically to seek truth. We also want to reject what appears to be an easy explanation, or an explanation from someone who might have a hidden agenda. When we find alternate explanations, we think that somehow the truth lies somewhere in between. Maybe we reject the widely held explanation and accept the alternate explanation simply because it is alternate, and regarded as truth by a smaller group. It gives us the thrill of knowing hidden knowledge (or knowledge that other have allegedly attempted to hide). It’s the basis of all conspiracy theories.

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  • Kristina D

    See, to me, being a Christian is a more philosophical approach. To live in the image of Christ. The love and compassion– guidelines to life, not solid truths.

    There’s truth in all religion that applies to modern life as we know it. All religion is, really, is an amazing account of human history. (I say amazing in reference to the capacity of human storytelling. It’s a lost art, these days)

    But people take it too literally. It’s no more an absolute truth than the mythology from the rest of the world’s philosophical views.

    It reminds me of this video I recently came across– it’s a cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

    Anyways, here it is: http://youtu.be/a6akkb_afqs

    Which, it has a point.

  • Eric

    the scriptures God wanting in the Bible are all in the KJV, they are all you need along with understanding to know God and everything you need to know, on a personal intimate level, while these are ok to read and study,may find something God want’s to reveal to you, but you have to be careful and be prayed up before and while reading them but understand that there is only 1 New Testament of Jesus Christ, anything else was left out by God’s will, or falsies such as the book of Mormons.
    I know this being a Holy-Ghost filed Christian and God has given me enough understand to know this, without doubt.

  • http://na Seb

    Rather than being a parrot repeating what you are told, and to simply “believe” in things blindly.. Gnosis is obtaining direct first hand knowledge and experience of divinity, where you KNOW and dont believe. Through astral projection, and mystical experiences, you can talk face to face with spiritual beings, angels that are guiding humanity in regards to the esoteric spiritual path and regarding the psychological work in the death of your ego. It requires rigorous willpower, in denying yourself, dying to yourself, daily meditation on your psychological aggregates such as lust, pride, anger etc, and the corner stone being working with chastity and never ever reaching the animal spasm in your entire life. Its not enough just to stop physical acts, as in your very dreams where your psyche is free to roam you can act out in various ways and its in your dreams themselves where the spiritual beings test you psychologically to see the level of your development.. This work requires intensive psychological meditation, self observation, and is the path of psychological equilibrium. Whether insulted or praised, you are always the same and your psychological states are not like a leaf blown in the wind completely dependant on external circumstances. You remain in serene, calm , self obervation and never identified with your anger, pride, lust, etc, rather you observe and obtain information how it wants to make you act, react, say, etc.. This information you are acquiring, is essentially shedding the light of conciousness on the darkness of your subconcious and in short is the path of “enlightenment”.. To understand your mind, your psyche, the nature of your animality, and to stop being a slave pulled by invisible strings of the subconcious.. Its to truly be free, have true love and peace, and experience first hand the spiritual dimensions that most people dont even have a clue is possible. It takes willpower, endurance, perserverance, and only with the help and strength of God can it be done. Its the reason we are alive, and its very REAL. Unfortunately, in these modern times, religions have turned most everything upside down, diluted the truth, and really are out of touch with the requirements of purifying your animal nature, and being able to enter the kingdom of God as little children, being perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. Down the narrow, straight and difficult path that is so shrewed a
    nd hidden, even If its put in your face just like I did, its denied, rejected, and deemed blasphemous..

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