RADIO FREE MAINE
Elaine Pagels on "Jesus and his Message in the Gnostic Gospels"
Any Christian who has paid attention to the readings of the gospels in church will realize that there are significant differences in their perspective on the nature of Jesus. A close reading of the four canonical gospels will reveal strikingly divergent portraits. For example, throughout John's gospel Jesus is declared to be a transcendent and divine being, perhaps most recognizably in 3:16, a verse favored by fervent fundamentalists everywhere: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." In contrast, one of the most noticeable themes in the gospel of Mark is that of Jesus being a "hidden Messiah," a more human figure who speaks in riddles and only teaches to his disciples.
It is not surprising, then, that the discovery of a set of documents dating back to the first and second centuries that contained a radically different view of Jesus would arouse intense interest and add further fuel to the theological debate about who Jesus truly was. Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine professor of religion at Princeton University, delves into this controversy in her presentation entitled "Jesus and His Message in the Gnostic Gospels" that is based on her national award-winning book. The 45 minute lecture and 25 minute discussion period, recorded on audio and videotape at Bowdoin College in May of 1996 by Roger Leisner of Radio Free Maine, offers an excellent introduction to the topic that will challenge anyone's certain conclusions about Jesus.
The scriptures that have revolutionized our understanding of the origin of Christianity were unearthed accidentally in 1945 by a peasant digging for fertilizer at a place in the Egyptian desert called Nag Hammadi. The find consisted of 52 separate text written in Coptic, an ancient language translated from the Greek, some of which may have been composed a generation before the first gospel was authored in AD 70. The tract which had come to be known as the gospel of Thomas contains many sayings which parallel similar words attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, suggesting it may have been a source held in common by both of the later authors. However, there are also many unique and startling verses, like Thomas 108: "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I will become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him." Could Jesus have stated something as enigmatic and provocative as this?
In order to consider this, Pagels takes us back to the period just after Jesus' death, a time when Christianity was "diverse in views and practices and full of competing value systems." Among the myriad of Jesus' followers were the Gnostics, a group so-called because they believed one could seek after God and find secret knowledge or wisdom by studying oneself (the Greek word gnosis literally means "those who know"). The Gnostics' appraisal of Jesus' teachings was a stance we have come to associate today with the religions of the East, which are permeated by similar drive after personal enlightenment. Indeed, Pagels' favorite Gnostic saying of Jesus, gospel of Thomas 70, fits comfortably within these mystical traditions: "You must bring forth what is within you to be saved; if you do not, you will be destroyed."
The Gnostics believed that by investigating the source of sorrow, joy, love and hate, one could cultivate insight and discover God as the fountainhead of all of these states of being. The significance of Jesus is interpreted to be that of a model, one whose instruction to come and know oneself as he did will transform human beings into sons (and daughters) of God like him. Consistent with the scholarly consensus that Jesus' purpose was not to found a new religion centering its devotion upon him, the Gospel of Philip, a companion text to the gospel of Thomas, urges followers not to become Christians, but rather new Christs.
Pagels juxtaposes texts from the Gnostic and the canonical gospels to highlight the contrasts between them. Was Jesus the unique Son of God (as in John 10:9: "I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved"), or was he not the source of all truth, but merely a guide to help us on our own way (as in the Gnostic Teaching of Sylvanus: "Knock upon yourself as a door...and you cannot get lost")? The two bodies of Scripture also hold rival accounts of the characteristics of the kingdom of God. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims in Mark 13 is due to arrive in the near future with a world-shattering cataclysm that will be recognized ahead of time by forbidding natural signs and social upheaval. In the gospel of Thomas, however, the good news of the kingdom of God is portrayed to be existing both outside and inside of people at a deep level that breaks free when our consciousness is transformed by the knowledge that we are all children of the living God.
What is interesting about the Gnostic gospels is that they do not deny what is said about Jesus in other gospels, but rather testify that they contain secret teachings of Jesus that their authors believed needed to be preserved. Iraneus, the Bishop of Lyon in France, was one of many Church officials who denounced this literature circulating Europe and defended the four gospels that the Church had selected to be in the canon as the only authentic gospels--because "there are four principle winds, four pillars that hold up the sky, and four corners of the universe; therefore, it is only right that there be four gospels."
Pagels gives a more rational explanation for why the Church deemed the Gnostic gospels to be dangerous and banned them. The coexistence of this Gnostic Theology alongside other views of Jesus' divinity was a direct challenge to the consolidating power structure of the Church. She elucidates that "As the creed, the hierarchy, and other components of the institution began to be set into place, there was a demand by the power-holders for organization and unity in thinking." The orthodox position that developed was aimed at preserving the cohesiveness of the early Christian movement in order that it might survive the state persecution of the Roman Empire. The Gnostic understanding of Jesus rendered the Church's existence unnecessary; one did not have to go through Jesus and the Church, but could approach God on one's own. The popes of later eras formulated Church dogma as extra ecclesia nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation"). Iraneus said elsewhere about the Gnostics, "Whatever good they are trying to do cannot repair the harm they are doing in cutting up the glorious body of Christ."
Indeed, the suppression of the Gnostic gospels fits the pattern of rational patriarchy that has marked the Church throughout the centuries. Unlike the dominant imagery of God (The Father) in the institutional Church, the Gnostic gospels recognize a feminine influence in God as Jesus' origin, and also affirm Jesus' upending of Jewish tradition by including women in his ministry. In addition, it seems clear that the Gnostics had some contact with Buddhism in the formation of their ideas. The Church's rigid demand for participation in sacraments and other externally focused actions has severely truncated the inner religious experience, precipitating many Christians to go outside the Church and add meditation practices to fill the void in their spiritual lives. The forced exclusion of these Gnostic elements have kept hidden from Christians many aspects of their faith--until now.
Pagels' clear and succinct talk leads non-scholars and students alike through illustrations from history and the texts to impart a deeper knowledge of the currents swirling around the figure of Jesus and the formation of the Church's orthodox doctrine of Christ that still persists today.
Vincent J. Romano holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Religious Studies and Psychology from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and broadcast Radio Free Maine tapes there each week while host of his Holy Cross Free Radio talk show on WCHC 88.1FM