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.
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.