There’s No Conspiracy to Silence the Gnostics [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

It’s Friday, which means it’s time for me to respond to Patience’s question in the Questions That Haunt Christianity series. Patience is a former Christian who has explored other religions and has come across the Gnostic writings of early Christianity in her pursuit for truth. She asks,

Why [are] 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?

Patience, the answer lies right in your question.

Some scholars lately have made a lot of hay about the Gnostic writings of early Christianity. It’s been even more pointed this week, with the publicity around the Coptic papyrus that quotes Jesus saying, “My wife…” Gnostic cheerleader Elaine Pagels went on NPR to talk about the fragment. In that interview she said,

The early Christian movement thrived for over 300 – practically 400 years before there was any canon of the New Testament, and many people were using different sources. You know, they were – we know that many used the Gospel of Matthew. We know that lots used the Gospel of John. We know that the Gospel of Thomas was just as widely read as the Gospel of Matthew. And one of those – of course, Matthew is in the New Testament, and the other one isn’t.

So, yes, it seems like there was a great diversity, and it was to curb that diversity that that Constantine and the bishops who worked with him created a canon of what they said was the authorized books and called the rest heretical books.

I call Pagels a “cheerleader” for Gnostic writing because she’s not only written about them, she’s also fed into this subtle narrative that orthodox Christianity has been on a quest to silence these writings for centuries. Pagels and even Dan Brown have suggested that the Gnostic Gospels are embarrassing to the church, so they have been squelched.

I’ll start my response by putting that idea to rest, with an anecdote. I went to an evangelical seminary in the early 1990s, during the ascendancy of cultural evangelicalism. There, at a place most likely to be embarrassed by Gospels that are non-canonical, I was assigned to read some of those Gnostic Gospels, and I bought The Other Bible from the seminary bookstore.

So, there is no conspiracy to silence or ignore the Gnostic writings. They are seen — and even embraced — as an important aspect of the early church.

Now here’s where your question contains the answer to your question. You ask why Christianity can so conveniently dispose of alternate narratives of the Christian story. As a student of church history, I can attest that there has been nothing convenient about the church’s journey of orthodoxy and canonicity.

In a book about the Didache — another book that didn’t make the final cut of the Bible — I wrote about Marcion, one of the earliest theologians to challenge the church’s version of the Bible:

Early in the development of Christianity, the legacy of Gnosticism challenged the young faith. Marcion (85-160) was a prominent theologian in the years just after the writing of the Didache. As he read the stories of Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures and the stories of Jesus from the nascent Gospel accounts, they didn’t jibe. By the middle of the second century AD, he was teaching that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was, in fact, the Demiurge, an evil, legalistic deity who hated humankind and thus saddled humans with an inordinate amount of laws. Jesus, however, was descended from a loving, graceful Father God who loved humanity and exuded compassion.

As a result of his theological beliefs, Marcion established a Bible that excluded the entire Old Testament and some of the New and included his own Gospel and some of Paul’s letters. Although he was the first famous heretic to be excommunicated from the church in 144, he returned to his homeland in Asia Minor and established a network of churches that would rival the proto-Catholic church headquartered in Rome for at least a century. And Marcion’s influence was seen in the church long after that.

Patience, you may read this description and say, “Well, Marcion was right! The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament don’t jibe!”

But here’s the thing, Gnosticism proclaims two things that are antithetical to Christian theology, at least the regnant form of Christian theology that has determined orthodoxy.

First, Gnosticism trucks in dualities. The God of the Old Testament is BAD. The God of the New Testament is GOOD. That’s an example. Another comes from Manichaeism, a gnostic religion from which the church father Augustine converted when he became a Christian. That religion taught that green items are GOOD and red items are BAD. Thus, Manichaeans were vegetarians, and avoiding eating and touching meat.

Christianity descends from — or grows out of — Jewish religion and Hebrew culture, and Hebrew Judaism has a much more holistic and integrated view of creation than does Platonism, from which Gnosticism springs. This view that something is either good or evil — though it may be held by Christians today — isn’t particularly Christian. And insofar as the Gnostic gospels proclaims these dualities, they are rightly rejected by Christians who see a more nuanced and holistic reality in the cosmos.

Secondly, Gnosticism thrives on secrecy. Gnostic Christianity has always proclaimed, for instance, that you can only understand what Jesus really means in the canonical Gospels if you receive “secret wisdom” or “private revelation.” That’s how you get the gnosis.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree with you. There’s lots of Gnosticism today. Scientologists are gnostic. The Bible Code is a gnostic book. And some Pentecostals who read scripture as only in light of personal revelation are gnostic. Even Christians who say that you must pray “in the name of Jesus” to get God’s attention are gnostic. Anything that implies that there’s a secret formula to get to the truth of God is Gnosticism, and therefore not fully Christian.

In the end, Patience, the Gnostic Gospels were not rejected from the Bible because they’re scandalous. They were rejected because they don’t jibe with the Judeo-Christian story about who God is and what God does. Here’s what my friend, Tripp, tweeted about your question:

Any Christian is free to disagree with that. I, for example, think that the Didache should be in the Bible, but that’s another post for another day.

Let’s here what you all think about the Gnostics! And feel free to submit your own question.

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

    Key phrase in your remarks Tony: “Gnosticism proclaims two things that are antithetical to Christian theology, at least the regnant form of Christian theology that has determined orthodoxy.” (emphasis mine)

    It begs the most necessary question: who and/or what standard determines “orthodoxy”? How do we know? How can we know?

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

      It seems the implication is that “Christian theology” and “orthodoxy” are synonymous in this post…

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

        Yes generally, but only per the qualifier Tony asserted, and which I repeated in my post above (in bold).

    • Pax

      How about the Apostles, and after them, their successors?

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

        What about the apostles and their successors?

        • Pax

          They’re an answer to your question “who determines orthodoxy”. I know that the institutional Church isn’t highly regarded around here, but if you’re looking for a referee, they have pretty good standing.

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

            Well tell me, why are the apostles the authority? How do you know? Says who?

            If you say “Jesus made them the authority,” again I will ask: how do you know?

            If you then answer, “Because it’s in the Bible,” I will ask, why do you believe the Bible? How do you know it is a valid account of facts/truth?

            If you answer, “Church Tradition tells me so,” then I will ask you how you know Tradition is a valid account of facts/truth, especially when it is claimed the apostles are the ones who were the first “authors” of Church Tradition?

            These are not unimportant questions. In fact they’re critical.

          • Pax

            Ahhh help! I’m being turned into straw! :)

            Look, you can use the New Testament writings and all other early Christian writings like any other historical evidence. If there is a historical case to be made that the Apostles were not Jesus’ primary deputies, then I’d be happy to entertain it.

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

            Pax, your response is empty, and upside-down. For starters, you’re the one who’s making the claim that the apostles were supposedly the authority when it comes to Christian faith and whose teachings are supposedly the source of determining canonicity of scripture. I simply asked you to validate your claim.

            To respond with, “Well prove that such-and-such isn’t true,” is a complete cop-out, and an obvious retreat from engaging in honest assessment.

            You’re the one making the claim. You’re the one who needs to then back that claim up.

          • Pax

            I’m suggesting that if you’re looking for a referee on what Jesus taught in the face of disagreement, then His closest companions are reasonable candidates.

            I then suggest that to find out who those companions were, you can look at all of the historical data available to you (you don’t have to make a judgement about whether or not a particular writing is the Word of God or not to do this). I thought it was understood that we have lots of historical data that says that the Apostles were Jesus’ closest companions. Surely I don’t have to spell that out?

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

            My issue is not with the existence of data that says certain so-called apostles were Jesus’ closest companions. My issue is with 1) the veracity of such data, and 2) the related validity of claims that the apostles are the source of defining what is “orthodox” in Christian faith and “canonical” in Christian scripture.

            There’s also an important epistemological question here: how can it be known what was truly orthodox in Christian faith (or.if there can even be such a thing), especially in light of the rich diversity of belief and theological perception within Christianity from the very beginning?

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

    Tony, you said: “Anything that implies that there’s a secret formula to get to the truth of God is Gnosticism, and therefore not fully Christian.”

    Would you consider any belief that getting “to the truth about God” REQUIRES access to an interpretation in ones own language (i.e. “a secret formula”) “Gnostic,” and “therefore not fully Christian”?

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

      By “an interpretation in ones own language” I’m referring to the common belief that you cannot know God or have access to God apart from the Bible.

  • http://extremelylol.com Pooja

    for me god is everywhere.

  • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    You focused mainly on the specific question of the Gnostic gospels and did not address “why so conveniently christianity can dispose of alternate explanations within christianity itself”. In fact you did that disposing, quite conveniently, in the process of your answer. You slipped in terms like “not fully Christian”, knowing that is not defined and phrases like “Christians who see a more nuanced and holistic reality in the cosmos”, a nice sounding bit of poetry that just creates another group to join, another wall.

    For your answer to be valid, to be consistent with the actual experience of Chrisitianity in the real world, you would have to demonstrate that Christianity has always embraced this holistic view, the one where things are not either good or evil. I think you have a tough case there.

  • Tom Estes

    These kinds of topics are so much simpler when you know who God is. Genesis starts off with “In the beginning God.” The fact that their is a God emphatically states that this God has to be sovereign over His creation, because to not be so would necessitate that “God” is not God.

    So if you know that God exists and is sovereign, you know that the Gnostic “Gospels” are not included in the canon of Scripture and are rejected by Christendom because of the divine decree of Almighty God, making discussions as these mute. This doesn’t mean that learning about how our Bible was put together isn’t instructive, because it is, but it would, however, serve as a constant reminder that the Bible is what it is because of God, not man.

    Therefore any discussion about why certain books were left out why books were in the canon would always go back to the One who ultimately decided to have them in or out; God, and would dismiss any notion of conspiracy.

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

      Tom, I’m sure you wish that one day there was not a Bible and then the next day there was. But, that’s simply not how it happened. There was a process, which involved actual human decisions. That doesn’t negate the possibility that “God” was somehow involved in the process. But, your attempt at oversimplification is really a dehumanization.

      • Tom Estes

        Where did I say that? My point was that we have a God who is sovereign, therefore we know that what is in the Bible was ultimately His decision. I never said that man was used by God because he was. I was just saying that these discussions are very simple when you remember the real reason why the Gnostic “Gospels” never made into the canon; God.

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

          That is a huge, unjustified claim to make. How do you know?

          • Tom Estes

            How do I know what? That God is in control? That is the only logical conclusion to which one can come. If God exists, He has to be sovereign, considering those words are basically interchangeable. Therefore it necessarily follows that God is in control of all things, which would include the canonizing of Scripture.

            Like every other claim I make about God’s Word, I make this claim by faith.

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

            So, this is where you’re going with this? I don’t think we need to get into why this argument is pretty weak. If “God did it” is the only explanation, then God does EVERYTHING – including everything we understand to be evil. Fail.

        • Tom Estes

          Should say “I never said that man was *not* used by God.

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

          Where is your objective (a-historical, a-linguistic, exempt from interpretation) evidence which explains how “God” directed every single event regarding the formation of the “canon” that we now have as the “orthodox” Bible? It doesn’t exist. What we have are biased historians interpreting the evidence in many different ways. That is our glorious “condition.”

          • Ric Shewell

            but really, objective evidence of anything doesn’t exist.

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

            Rob, you’re conversing with a brick wall. God bless Tom, but he is trapped in a box of top-down, presumptive thinking, where his own internal and subjective conclusions are the only universally correct ones. And if you disagree with his perspective — if you don’t come to the “only logical conclusion to which one can come,” as he just put it above — then you are filled with error and potentially destined to eternal hellfire. Unless, of course, you jump into his little box of limited thinking.

          • Tom Estes

            For what it’s worth, I know that people who think the way that you all do (R. Jay, Rick, Rob) think that I’m crazy. I know that you don’t understand why a person would just accept the Bible as God’s Holy Word passed down to man in complete perfection. But all I can say is that that is how I think, and it’s how I believe God wants all men to think. And if we had the proper time and space I could show you that is how truth is lined out for us in God’s Word, but alas, we do not.

            I want all of you to know that I’m not angry at any of you, I just, sadly mind you, believe you to be lost, because you refuse to accept the authority of God and His Word, and most importantly you refuse the gift of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ.

            My reason for commenting on this post is that I saw Tony racking his brain on an issue that I believe to be very simple.

            I know that you all think I’m brick wall, and you know what? You’re right, I am. I love God and His Word and believe them to be absolute in their veracity and authority. Just don’t hate me for it. :)

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

            Tom . . .

            No one hates you. I certainly don’t.

            I also don’t think you’re crazy, Tom. I grew up in an extraordinarily strict and conservative Christian tradition: uncompromisingly Bible-believing; hyper-evangelical; what we believed was the absolute and unquestionable Truth from God (in fact, that’s what we called it: “Being in the Truth”); we took it for granted that everyone who did not believe as we did were lost (we called them “worldly people”); our purpose and mission as Christians was to preach to the “lost” and seek to save them through unceasing and diligent public evangelism/preaching of the “good news.”

            I left such a tradition because it is about law, not love. I left because it is about “right belief” rather than proper love. I left because it is about defining who “we” are in contrast to those “others” who weren’t like us. I left because it accentuated penalty and punishment over grace and compassion. I left because it taught me how superior I was because of my belief, and how inferior everyone else was because of their disbelief.

            I left the tradition because it habitually “swallowed the camel and strained the gnat.” And boy were we happy that we weren’t the kinds of unbelieving sinners everyone else was. We had God, and so God loved us. But wow did he hate everyone else.

            I ultimately left the tradition because, in its pompous, vainglorious, and utterly blind self-righteousness (as reflected in its adherents), it taught the hate and division typical of “Satan,” rather than the love and unity of Jesus.

            So Tom, my resistance to you is because your expressed thinking and words are identical — exactly identical — to the same fraudulent and destructive religion of my youth. I see in you the same intoxication of spirit, absence of reason, and dark captivity to rigid absolutism that I was once seduced and poisoned by.

            Yours is a religion whose narrow road is not of true faith and grace, but of false righteousness and fear.

            Your religion is about brokenness. And the most disturbing part is you cannot see it. Like an addict trapped in the vast chasm of their addiction.

          • Evelyn

            In response to Tom Estes Sept. 21 at 4:07 – Yes, ultimately I too believe that the reason that the Gnostic gospels (and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha for that matter) were not included in the canon were God’s doing. However, I also believe that God wants us to know him and the only way to do that is to study his works, to have compassion and empathy for people who aren’t like us, and to break through illusions to see things as they are. This requires a mental effort and a study of why and how people do what they do and an extrapolation as to where God may have put his hand in and where he simply let things be. It also requires an interpretation of the bible in light of personal experience. Simply accepting “the authority of God and His Word” and “the gift of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ” oversimplifies the matter and really doesn’t bring you any closer to God. It is you who are lost.

          • Tom Estes

            R. Jay,

            I appreciate the word of testimony, and while I know each person’s experience is unique, I must say that I have heard similar words before. I think the issue with your upbringing is that it may have been about the letter of the law, as opposed to following God’s law because of love for Christ.

            Every issue that you had with the way your family did things seems to be about they way they viewed them. For instance, if one believes they are better because they are “in the truth” this is a problem of perspective. I believe that God gave us the Bible by His grace to instruct man kind in all matters of faith and practice. I believe that if one repents of sin and trusts Christ, they are saved, but then their responsibility is to live a life that pleases God according to His Word. (Even though they are still saved even if they fall into sin) And here’s where my perspective differs from that of your upbringing: I do not believe I am better than anyone who is an atheist, or believes in God but doesn’t follow His Word, or believes that drinking and smoking are okay, or anything thing else that you can think of, but I do think I am better off, because I’m saved, going to Heaven, and because God has allowed me to see some of the Light of His Word. (No man can see all of the Light of His Word until Heaven)

            I know that for you, that probably all sounds like semantics, but I would disagree. I know people who believe a woman’s heart is not right with God if she doesn’t wear a head covering, or doesn’t wear skirts that scrape the floor while they walk, but they, and those who you grew up around are missing the forest for the trees.

            God wants to us seek to do His will according to His Word, and to be “fully persuaded in our own minds” and seeking to be persuaded of truth that has not yet been revealed to us.

            But even if truth has been revealed, it certainly doesn’t make us better, just better off. Therefore when I speak about my feelings about doctrine, or about what are or are not Biblical standards, I do so knowing that the only reason I have come to those conclusions is because of God, and it makes me praise Him that much more. And if my heart is right, it will not provoke me to think myself better than anyone.

            I hope this explains a little bit more about where I come from, although I feel like my thoughts are a little too jumbled right now to make any sense.

            Also, even though we disagree on many things, I can’t help but think that I would like you. If you’re ever in Winter Haven, Florida (it’s between Tampa and Orlando) you should look me up for some lunch or coffee.

            Evelyn,

            I mean no disrespect, but you contradicted yourself. If God is the reason why we have the 66 books that we have, why would we not accept those 66 books as the authoritative Word of God, or that salvation is only through repentance and faith like the Bible says?

            Also, you say I’m lost. Okay, but how do you know? What are you basing that on? You already know the basis for my ideas, the Bible.

            And the greatest thing about the salvation message is how simple it is. Repent of your sin and trust Christ, how could it get any better than that? Do you think we have to work our way into Heaven?

          • Evelyn

            To Tom Estes’ post on Sept 22 at 11:43 am:
            God is the reason why the canon is what it is. God also brought Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Paganism, Voodoo, Mormonism, and any other observance of God (i.e. religion) into being. God can only present himself to people in ways that they can understand and this depends on intellect, personal experience, culture, and environment (among other factors).

            When you say that “salvation is only through repentance and faith”, I’d agree with you if I didn’t know your definition of the terms. If repentance means change of mind and faith is belief in yourself, you can be saved by believing you can understand things that bother you (in light of the workings of God) and changing your mind such that your beliefs evolve to fit your circumstances and make your life more peaceful. If salvation is by accepting that there is something wrong with you and you must blindly believe in Christ then, no, I don’t agree with you.

            If the basis for your ideas is the Bible, then you are sure to be lost. The Bible was written in a completely different culture than the one you live in, was translated according to someone’s recent theological position, and constantly contradicts itself in numerous places. Your ideas are not based on the Bible. They are based on someone’s theology.

            “repent of your sin” – Ok. I haven’t a clue what you mean by this. Change my mind about my sin. Does this mean that I once thought that my sin was ok and then I decided my sin was wrong? How should I identify my sin or does Christ do that for me? Should I just keep sinning never knowing that I’m doing it and trust Christ to take care of it for me? Perhaps if I need something to eat but can’t pay for it and I go steal it off of the shelf in the grocery store I should trust that Christ will keep me out of jail. We know it doesn’t work that way.

            You most certainly do have to work your way into Heaven. We all know that the fruits of the spirit don’t come easy and once they are had, we are thrown back down into a position where we have to work for them once again.

          • Tom Estes

            Evelyn,

            Okay, so you reject the Bible as the foundation of truth, which you know is where I believe the truth comes from. Considering that my beliefs and the reason for them are out in the open, let me ask you what are yours? You’ve stated your beliefs, but what is the foundation from which they come? Did you make them up? Did someone tell else tell them to you? Where does your believe that you work your way into Heaven come from?

          • Evelyn

            The bible is not the foundation of your truth. REFORMATION THEOLOGY is the foundation of your truth. You are spouting the doctrine of ‘sola fide’ which was promoted by Martin Luther between 1510 and 1520. Before the reformation, there was prevalent belief that God is known through his works in creation and history. Under your beliefs there is no need for true repentance because you are automatically saved by your “faith” in Jesus. The only repentance for you is one in which you accept that you have sinned and you are bad without actually doing anything about that sin. If God doesn’t want us to actually do anything with the gifts he has given us, what is the meaning of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25? Do you simply conveniently disregard it?

            Any belief must resonate with the person who holds that belief. Perhaps, because of your constitution, your illusion of belief in the Bible is best for you. For me, my beliefs are based on personal experience guided by external ethos that I have found to work for me.

            As Paul says to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 3:1-3: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

            Our beliefs need not come from anywhere but our human interactions with the Spirit as it guides our growth in wisdom. This usually involves reflection on scripture but not rote and mindless adherence to scripture.

          • Tom Estes

            Evelyn,

            If you believe adherence to Scripture is mindless then call me a man with no brain.

    • Pax

      How do you explain the differences in the canons accepted by various groups of Christians?

      • Tom Estes

        Without knowing all of the history that went into shaping the others, I honestly can’t explain the differences in these canons. I simply believe the inspired Word of God to be the 66 books that come from the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Textus Receptus Greek text. And while I do hold this opinion because of the superiority of this text to all others, the main reason I hold to this text of the canon is by faith.

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

          Tom . . .

          There are those who support the Greek Septuagint (compiled 3rd century BC) over the Hebrew Masoretic (compiled 7th-10th centuries AD) as an Old Testament primary source. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Septuagint exclusively (particularly in liturgy), and believes it to be inspired.

          For starters, the New Testament writers, when quoting Scripture, relied on the Septuagint over any Hebrew-Aramaic texts that may have been extant in the first century (there are only five or so verses in the entire NT — and almost entirely found in two of the Gospels — where quotations of OT passages don’t match the Septuagint). For just one example check out Hebrews 10:5-7:

          Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
          “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
          but a body you prepared for me;
          with burnt offerings and sin offerings
          you were not pleased.
          Then I said, ‘Here I am–it is written about me in the scroll–
          I have come to do your will, my God.’”

          That passage is a direct (and exact) quote of the Septuagint Greek rendering of Psalm 40:6-8. However, the Masoretic — which is nowadays the preferred primary source for translating the OT into English — renders a key phrase in the passage very differently. Instead of “but a body you prepared for me,” the Masoretic renders it as “but my ears you have piereced.” And this is actually how almost all English language Bibles render the verse today.

          So where the argument of authority and canonicity is concerned, for those who believe the Apostles (chosen by Christ himself) were the foundational authorities of Christian faith and arbiters of what constitutes inspired scripture, would not the older Septuagint then be considered singularly inspired over the younger Masoretic, considering the Septuagint was exclusively used by NT writers? (Especially in light of Paul’s words at 2 Timothy 3:16)

          (Consider also Acts 15:16-18, where the Apostles, assembled in Jerusalem to consider the circumcision question, quote Amos 9:11,12. Their rendering matches the Septuagint; the Masoretic has a different rendering, which is reflected in modern English language Bibles).

          A question that then begs asking, Tom, is this: When you say, “the main reason I hold to this text of the canon is by faith,” (which includes your acceptance of Masoretic and Textus Receptus as “inspired”), what ultimately informs your faith?

          • Tom Estes

            R. Jay,

            These are good and fair questions, but it would take writing a few thousands words to have any hope of adequately responding, so I’ll just address a few of your points.

            When it comes to manuscripts, the older the document in question is at best irrelevant, and at worse, it (the older age) hurts its validity because these documents should, if being used, never have been able to last that long. We know that the scribes meticulously copied the Word of God, but we forget they were just as meticulous about destroying the aged copies for fear that the words would become less legible, and make them susceptible to corruption. Therefore, if a document is really old (let’s say from the first few centuries A.D.) it would mean they were not in use. This of course begs the question, why were they not in use? The common thinking is that these older documents were not in use because they were corrupt and should have been destroyed.

            It’s also worth noting that of all of the old manuscripts 99% are the Masoretic and the Textus Receptus, which is the King James Bible’s underlying text (as well as a few Bibles in foreign languages, the Old Diodati being one, which is Italian), while all other Bibles come from the other 1%. The fact that the texts that underly all other Bibles were not preserved, and the ones that were preserved had to be piece-mealed together (most of them don’t have any of the general epistles [Hebrews, James, I & II Peter, etc.] in them) tells us a lot about their validity.

            As to the question, “What about the other denominations that use these other texts?” I say that this is no question at all. There will always be those who are right and those who are wrong. Simply finding people who will take a position doesn’t mean that position has any credence or should be taken seriously.

            I hope this gives you some insight into where I’m coming from.

  • Evelyn

    “Anything that implies that there’s a secret formula to get to the truth of God is Gnosticism, and therefore not fully Christian.”

    Gnosis means “knowledge”. Gnosticism is about obtaining “spiritual knowledge”. This is done by using your intuition and testing your reality. There is nothing “secret” about it. Then again, that is only my theory of epistemology and perhaps someone who has a direct connection to the ethereal heavens has a different version and knows for sure that there is one God ruling over 12 archangels and 36 angels. For sure, you Christians “know” that God is a trinity because you’ve seen it and tested it – um, yeah, whatever.

    Scientologists are not gnostic. There is nothing gnostic about making up some idea about us coming from space aliens because the theory is highly unlikely and mostly untestable.

    “And insofar as the Gnostic gospels proclaims these dualities, they are rightly rejected by Christians who see a more nuanced and holistic reality in the cosmos.”
    I’d like to meet these “holistic” Christians because most of the ones that I know like to point their fingers at imagined sinners.

    “So, there is no conspiracy to silence or ignore the Gnostic writings. They are seen — and even embraced — as an important aspect of the early church.”

    In order for the Church to form a strong CULT of believers it was necessary for them to have claims on the truth. Four gospel narratives written from different viewpoints but mostly agreeing on the events that occurred look like a real historical synopsis. Letting in viewpoints from Gnostic sects would cause some serious doubts as to whether the things that are claimed to have happened actually did happen.

    “They were rejected because they don’t jibe with the Judeo-Christian story about who God is and what God does.”

    I agree with this. The Gnostic cosmology is generally completely different from the Judeo-Christian cosmology and Jesus’ role in gnosticism is different from his role in Christianity. In Gnosticism Jesus is a bringer of gnosis. In Christianity, he is the messiah and savior.

    Before I had read some of the Gnostic gospels and investigated Christianity, I used to think that Gnosticism was just another word for mystical Christianity (just like Sufi-ism is a mystical form of Islam and Sikh-ism is a mystical form of Hinduism). It isn’t. There are plenty of Christian mystics who would not conform to a first thru fourth century “Gnostic” description and there are very mystical ways that the canonical gospels can be interpreted. There are useful wisdom-related truths in the Gnostic gospels but I’m not sure there are any useful concepts in them that are not included in the canonical gospels and some of the concepts, like the beliefs that we are imprisoned by a malevolent demiurge and that our bodies are a hindrance to our finding the “spirit”, can actually be dangerous. Then again, the idea that we should imitate Christ and martyr ourselves and fight for our beliefs to the point of death is also very dangerous. I suppose that people always find ways to reinterpret their religions or find compensation mechanisms so that their religions are liveable otherwise the religions themselves would die out after killing off or psychologically damaging their followers.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    I essentially agree with everything Tony wrote, but I’m surprised he didn’t at least give a shout-out to the various councils that culminated in the Nicean Creed. The orthodox “Judeo-Christian story” didn’t just happen, but was a vigorous and sometimes violent process of several centuries. What is most surprising to me isn’t that there was a multiplicity of Christian faiths, but that there was more or less only one Christianity, between the Nicean Council in 354 and the Great Schism in 1054. A universal Christian canon is the outlier, not the norm.

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  • http://Livingthequestion.org Riley

    Tony, to your point about how you think there is no suppression of the gnostic gospels because you were required to read them in an Evangelical seminary, I think you’re missing the point of folks like Patience and Pagels. It’s not their existence that’s being “supressed “it’s their AUTHORITY that is readily dismissed. What did your seminary teach you about those writings? Probably that they had no real authority to speak into your life, or church matters, or theological debates. Their content is wholly dismissed as errant and therefore irrelevant, a mere historical marker. I think that’s a shame in some cases, like with the writings of Thomas in his Q n A session with Jesus (which, along with 1 Enoch were considered part of the bible for hundreds of years and I think still should be). Some good babies were thrown out with the bath water because they didn’t jibe with the theology of some ECFs (and i dont mean the dualism you mentioned as present in gnostic writings, but for example 1 Enoch was cut out for teaching that the great Restoration would be in 70 ad in conjunction with the temples destruction and, as a preterist, I believe Enoch was right about “all creation” (the church, the new creation) being restored then. but since ECFs were looking for a material restoration they failed to appreciate Enoch. Based on non-canonical writings like these I agree with Patience that there should be some widening of the tent as to what and who is let into the church ‘orthodoxy’).

    • Paul W

      After reading your reply I imagined a sliding scale having “mainstream christianity not dealing with Pseudepigraphical and/or Early Christian Gnostic writings at all” at one end and understanding that they should be included in a canon of scripture as “authoritative documents usable to establish specific points of doctrinal orthodoxy” at the other. Surely there’s huge amount of middle ground between those poles with some who tend to appreciate such literature while others depreciate it.

      It just doesn’t seem a fair claim (as I read Patience) that Christians/Christianity have not dealt “at all” with this sort of early Christian literature.

      While some here seemed interested in issues of the canon of Scriptures in the early Church my mind turned more to the contemporary resurgency of interest taking place. I’ve assumed that much of this is among Christians readers and perhaps even more so than among other groups? Isn’t a fair amount of the literature and research being done by experts in early Christianity who hold teaching posts in Religion departments and Divinity Schools that are populated by students coming from primarily Christian backgrounds?

      It just strikes me that most of Christianity would fall between the poles of “not dealing with it at all” and accepting them as “authoritative sources for settling specific points of doctrinal orthodox.”

  • http://Livingthequestion.org Riley

    And omg Tom. We’re you planted here to stir up the rest of us?
    1. Many, if not most of us here once were where you are now. We got saved, we memorized the bible as Gods holy (and inerrant) word, we believed TULIP explained Gods sovereignty and everything else, etc. I’ve even won a prize at Princeton Seminary for memorizing the entite Westminster shorter Catechism and a number of other church creeds – word for word. And I believed it all. You know what changed me? What opened my mind? A deeper study OF Gods Word!! Your particular interpretation is built upon so many presuppositions to which you are blind. If only you could see that! But you’re not seeming to listen to others. For example your use of Genesis 1 shows you to be a concordist, or one who believes that Ge is about the material creation in the beginning. Its probably the only thing you were taught to comsider. But ‘in the beginning’ of what? Material creation, time, history? The bible doesnt say that. How would the original audience to whom it was written have heard that? Probably as the beginning if THEIR history, the beginning of Gods “first creation” – old covenant Israel. I believe a non-concordat interpretation readily shows there are other (better, more consistent to the whole of scripture and an ANE way of hearing them!) interpretations. AND i believe that if you studied it with an open mind, you’d probably agree. all that to say, we’re ALL seeking God. And even though some don’t interpret the Bible like you anymore, we still believe its true and immeasurably valuable. I, for one, have a much higher respect for it now – it finally makes sense and speaks truly good and optimistic news into my life!

    2. Something is not a “mute” discussion or point (that was cute) its a ‘MOOT point’. :)

    • Tom Estes

      No, I was not sent here, although I know that was sarcasm. I found Tony’s blog on a list of “top 50 Christian blogs” or something like that.

      My belief about the beginning is simply this: The Godhead, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost have always existed and always will exist. The beginning is our creation. There was nothing but God, and then He spoke everything into existence. I know that’s simple, but I believe the greatest truths we find in God’s Word are unbelievably simple. This is the only explanation that I consider because it is the only one given in the Bible.

      You say that you have more respect for God’s Word now, but I don’t see how that is the case if there was a time was you accepted it is a fact that stood on it’s own, but now you do not. I believe in a plain, literal interpretation of Scripture. I do not believe in adding to, or taking away from the Scripture. Tell me, how exactly can one have a higher view of God’s Word than that?

      Imagine if I were talking about you, and I said, “There was a time when I trust everything that Riley told me, but now I know that I have to consider other factors before trusting what she says.”? Would you think that my opinion have gotten higher or lower? If I told you that by not trusting what you said the way that I used to, but that this proved that I had even more respect for you than I used to, wouldn’t you find that to be illogical? Wouldn’t you resent me for not trusting you as much as I once did? And if you would, do you think God is different, considering His Words don’t change? Psalm 119:89

      I’ll just say this, if the worst thing a person can say about me is that I take the Bible literally (It’s not, by the way) then I would take that any day of the week.

  • SeanDF

    I see that there’s no discussion here of the importance of the material world and the denial of that by Gnosticism. The church believed the teaching of Genesis 1; that God created and it was good. Further, they taught that the Word took on our flesh and dwelt among us. If God dared to take on our flesh, how could our flesh and matter itself, be evil as the gnostic presupposed? Matter matters. Physical and tangible experiences of faith matter. But the Gnostics were caught up in a journey to escape the physical realm and exit their bodies. They were first to worship spiritualism. If matter didn’t matter, why was Jesus baptized by John in the Jordan? If matter didn’t matter, why did he break bread and share the wine in the upper room? If matter didn’t matter, the cross becomes an escape and the resurrection, a ghost story. Sadly, I hear too many unaware of this aspect of gnostic Christianity. It matters, because without it, Creation, the Incarnation, and sacramental thinking are each rendered meaningless.

    • Tom Estes

      Great points.

  • Scott Gay

    SeanDF (9/22/12 5:13PM) gets it.
    I would like to respond on the topic from a slightly different angle. The Church set up a triple bulwark against the gnostic heresy in terms of creed, canon, and episcopate. To think that this does not create tension in each area is unhistorical. In creed, does one really think right belief is truth? In canon, does one really deny the continuing inspiration of the Holy Spirit? In episcopate does one really put off the royal dignity of universal priesthood on officials? These issues are replete with stories of Christians down through time. Schleiermacher’s life was an attempt to reconcile the creeds with the enlightenment. Mormonism is belief in the old as well as new canon( Scot McKnight’s pushback against a soterian gospel is probably more to this reader’s taste). George Fox stood up for his intuition, rather than clerics or even the strict reading of scripture for that matter. The triple bulwark serves a needed purpose, but must also be seen as having strength as well as weakness.

  • http://www.spiritofthescripture.com/blog Joshua Tilghman

    The Gnostic gospels aren’t necessarily repressed, but they certainly aren’t talked about much at churches. And let’s face it. Most people, including Christians, don’t take the time to REALLY research what they believe!

  • Michael

    Gnosticism is anti-Jewish. Full stop. And that’s a good enough reason to write it off.

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

      Certain interpretations of the New Testament are anti-Jewish. Anti-semitism hasn’t been just an “invention”; it’s supported by focusing on certain things within the NT itself.

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

      I actually proposed a few years ago that every time the word is translated “unbeliever” (apistos) it’s a bad translation – I actually think it should be “unfaithful” or “faithless,” i.e. Jews who refused to accept Jesus as “the Messiah.”

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  • Lee

    Really good post Tony. In these past couple of days I was thinking about my sympathy towards Gnosticism, or at least the core idea of the OT God as the demiurge. This is a great primer on the topic and I’ll refer this post to any friends with similar gnostic sympathies.


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