The Gospel Truth

What does The Da Vinci Code have to do with a letter written by the archbishop of Alexandria in the year 367? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Call it part of the Gnostic connection, a long, fine thread of influence connecting contemporary cultural debates with an important struggle in the early Christian movement to define the meaning of Jesus's life and teaching. In that struggle-arguably the most important waged by self-styled correct believers against so-called heretics-orthodox Christians battled Gnostic Christians over their respective interpretations of divinity, human nature, sin, salvation, and other crucial theological and philosophical points. The soldiers of orthodoxy, as we now know, ultimately prevailed, confirming their claim to be the true Christians. But Gnostic principles lived on in isolated communities and, occasionally, sparked Gnostic-like revivals.

Indeed, in recent decades, thanks to the recovery and scholarly interpretations of a trove of Gnostic documents, the ideas of that ancient movement have come to play a surprisingly prominent role in our current culture wars. Today, there are many scholars, theologians, and popular writers who promote the Gnostic perspective as a liberating antidote to close-minded dogmatism, but there are also many others who denounce it as a pernicious and destructive influence. Name many of the issues that fuel our cultural politics today-authority vs. individual freedom, fixed moral precepts vs. moral relativism, religion vs. spirituality-and you can find usable precedents in that long-distant conflict between Gnostic Christians and their orthodox foes. Emory University biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson may be right in saying that a new Gnosticism once again "threatens the shape of Christian faith." But the return of Gnostic ideas has also contributed to a larger debate between progressives and traditionalists that goes beyond the strict concerns of one religious tradition.

Esoteric knowledge. If all of that seems a bit of a stretch, consider the far-reaching historical consequences of Archbishop Athanasius's letter from 367: In addition to providing the first-known list of the 27 books that would eventually constitute the official canon of the Christian New Testament, the letter ordered all Christians to repudiate an assortment of "illegitimate and secret" Gnostic texts that Athanasius deemed heretical. In that one Easter epistle, Athanasius enunciated two bedrock principles of orthodoxy and traditionalism: the importance of scriptural canon, and apostolic authority to determine what is, and is not, acceptable Christian thought.

To be sure, Athanasius was not the first church father to consider Gnostic writings beyond the Christian pale. Written mostly in the second century A.D., these works had circulated widely in Christian communities around the Mediterranean basin, often translated from the original Greek into other languages. Bearing names like the Gospel of Truth, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Thomas, they offered a strikingly different slant on the teachings of Jesus, one that emphasized esoteric knowledge (gnosis in Greek), and particularly self-knowledge, as the path to salvation. More troubling to those who claimed to be orthodox Christians, Gnostic writers tended to view the virgin birth, the Resurrection, and other elements of the Jesus story not as literal, historical events but as symbolic keys to a "higher" understanding. Steeped in Plato and other Greek learning, the Gnostics held that the body and the physical world were irredeemably evil. Some even believed that the material world was the creation of a lesser god, designed to blind humans to their inner spiritual "spark" and its connection with the true God. Not surprisingly, the prominent second-century heresy hunter, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, charged that these works of "so-called gnosis" were "full of blashemy." Yet the fact that he and other Christian bishops devoted so much effort to exposing them is perhaps the strongest proof of the Gnostics' wide appeal.

Athanasius's effort to rid Egypt of the Gnostic texts bespoke the confidence of a cleric whose church had, not long before, become the official religion of the Roman Empire. But his work wasn't entirely successful. At least a few rebellious monks decided to bury their condemned texts rather than destroy them. A few of those documents were recovered in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet until quite recently, the Gnostic writings were known to modern readers mainly through what the great heresy hunters had written about them.

That began to change in 1945, when some farmers who lived near the northern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi discovered a jar containing 13 leatherbound papyrus books at the base of a cave-riddled mountain. These books, later scholarly examination would reveal, contained 52 different texts reflecting the Gnostic perspective, most of which had never been seen by modern eyes. The first complete English edition of these works, The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James Robinson of Claremont Graduate School, came out in 1978 and had an enormous influence on the study of early Christianity.

The discovery of these works is itself a compelling story, particularly when supplemented by the more recent find of the Gospel of Judas, introduced to the modern world earlier this year in a gala-style debut put on by the National Geographic Society, the publisher of the first English translation. Coming out this spring is an impressive new collection of Gnostic writings, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer of Chapman University and containing both the Nag Hammadi finds and other documents, such as the Gospel of Judas. A capstone of sorts, it reflects the efforts of a prominent international community of scholars that has been instrumental in translating and interpreting the Gnostic materials for a modern audience.

Modern relevance. But the recovery of those documents does not in itself explain why Gnostic ideas would come to have such peculiar salience in our cultural debates today. For that, most credit-or blame-must go to the scholars, writers, and popularizers who, either as promoters or critics, have made Gnostic ideas relevant to so many modern concerns.

Among the promoters, none has been more influential than Elaine Pagels, now a professor of religion at Princeton University but only a junior faculty member at Barnard College when she published her hugely popular 1979 book, The Gnostic Gospels. In fact, it is fair to say that Pagels's bestseller set the stage for the runaway success of The Da Vinci Code, a novel that would make millions on the premise that official Christianity repressed the whole truth about Jesus and his earliest followers. Simply put, The Gnostic Gospels was the right book at the right time. In an America still reeling from Watergate, still distrustful of authority and institutions, and still shaken by the liberating intensities of the 1960s, here was a book that argued that early Christianity contained a multitude of diverse interpretations and movements-or at least did so until the leaders of the orthodox church succeeded in suppressing them as heresies.

Why were the teachings of the Gnostics such a great threat to the emerging orthodoxy? The reason, Pagels argued, was that Gnostic ideas challenged theological interpretations that underlay the structures of authority of the orthodox church. According to orthodox belief, Jesus bestowed ecclesiastical authority only on those male apostles who saw him after his Resurrection, thereby establishing the line of succession running from his inner circle of disciples, and particularly Peter, to the generations of bishops who would follow.

But the Gnostics, interpreting the Resurrecion as a symbolic event, cited the canonical gospels (Mark and John) as well as their own gospels (the Gospel of Mary) to argue that Jesus appeared to others, including Mary Magdalene, and would continue to appear to those who are prepared through gnosis to receive him and learn his truth. To challenge the special privilege of what the Gnostics called "the apostolic men" was to challenge the basis of clerical authority. Moreover, Pagels argued, to insist that women were among Jesus's closest confidants was to put into question the exclusively male character of the priesthood and many of the implicitly and explicitly sexist assumptions of what became orthodox Christianity.

And that wasn't all. The Gnostic idea of the divinity-a sort of oversoul that contained both female and male aspects-challenged the very notion of the patriarchal deity of the Old Testament, the Yahweh that orthodox Christians wholeheartedly embraced. The fact that many Gnostics relegated this deity to a lesser, even somewhat mischievous role as the creator of the corrupt, and corrupting, world was, from the orthodox perspective, the height of blasphemy.

Most threatening to the orthodox position, though, was the Gnostics' interpretation of Jesus and the Christian message: To the Gnostics, or at least to many of them (there were various schools, with names like Sethians, Marcionites, Valentinians, and Thomas Christians), Jesus was not the son of Yahweh sent to redeem fallen humanity through his death and Resurrection; he was an avatar or voice of the oversoul sent to teach humans to find the sacred spark within. This was a view of Jesus that made priests and even churches peripheral, if not irrelevant, to salvation. Salvation was not the redemption of embodied creatures or the world they inhabited (bringing the kingdom of God to this world) but freedom from the body and the physical world. And to attain this salvation, one needed only to turn within. "For Gnostics," writes Pagels, "exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly-a religious quest."

Throwing down the gauntlet. As Pagels presented them, the Gnostics came across as forerunners of modern spiritual seekers wary of institutional religion, literalism, and hidebound traditions. Free of sexism and paternalism and unburdened by an emphasis on guilt and sin, the Gnostics' highly esoteric and intellectual approach to the sacred was one that even enlightened skeptics could embrace. At the very least, Pagels suggested, the Gnostic tradition would have made Christianity a more appealingly rational, tolerant, and expansive creed had the orthodox not suppressed it and largely driven it out of existence.

Pagels today says she would revise many parts of her bestselling book, including its title. Along with several other scholars of early Christianity, including Michael Williams and Karen King, she now rejects the label Gnostic as an imprecise name for the many different movements to which orthodox heresy hunters applied it. "I've come to think of them simply as the 'other' Christian gospels," Pagels says. While she insists her book is often misread as arguing that the "good guys lost," she does not deny that she intended to challenge Christian traditionalists, Protestant and Roman Catholic, on many points of theological and historical interpretation. In an accessible and popular way, Pagels's book (along with her later Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas) threw down the gauntlet.

She was not alone. James Robinson may make a more modest case for the Gnostics, even to the point of saying that these "second-century Christian eggheads" missed "the center of Jesus's teaching." But he still argues that the Gnostics were an important example of the many strains of early Christianity and insists that they had a decisive influence on the shape of emerging orthodoxy, not least by forcing it to formulate its crees and sharpen its positions.

One of the strongest critics of the Gnostic enthusiasts, N. T. Wright, pays Robinson a high backhanded compliment: "The work of Jim Robinson was absolutely seminal, and the people he taught in Claremont picked up this enthusiasm that here were all these alternative texts about Jesus, the subtext being that this was the really interesting stuff that the church banned."

A prolific author as well as a busy Anglican bishop, Wright has penned a stinging critique of the overselling of Gnosticism, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth About Christianity? His is certainly not a minority position within early Christianity studies. But along with scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson (The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters), Philip Jenkins (Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way), and Ben Witherington (What Have They Done With Jesus?), Wright makes a strong counterargument to the claims of the Gnostic boosters.

Take, for instance, the proposition that Gnostic perspectives have only recently been rediscovered in all their rich and complex glory. Not so, says Wright. Joining historian Jenkins, he notes that those perspectives are set forth not only in pre-Nag Hammadi findings (the Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary, for example) but also in the detailed and accurate descriptions of the orthodox heresy hunters such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, descriptions that have long been available. Gnostic arguments are not simply bursting new upon the scene after centuries of assiduously enforced suppression.

Arguing that the Gnostic perspective was never fully extinguished, Wright says that it has been particularly strong in the West for close to three centuries. "There's a sense," he says, "in which post-Enlightenment culture on both sides of the Atlantic has been implicitly Gnostic, implicitly telling this story about us now having this new knowledge, including science and technology, which will enable us to blow the lid off the boring stuff we grew up with." America has a particularly strong case of the Gnostic bug, Wright asserts, because "the default position of American religion is discovering who you really are, as opposed to being saved by grace, which reaches you from somewhere else."

If the Gnostic perspective is not really that new, and if its seminal ideas are already planted in the heart of modern western, and particularly American, culture, why are the defenders of orthodoxy so troubled by the arguments of modern Gnostic enthusiasts? Perhaps it is a matter of self-defense on the part of those who see delicate historical and theological truths on the verge of demolition. From the second to the 20th century, Johnson writes in the Roman Catholic journal Common>weal, the "tripod of creed, canon, and apostolic succession not only shaped Christian orthodoxy but provided the strategy for Christian self-definition. ... Today, I would argue, a 'new Gnosticism' not only threatens the shape of Christian faith, but does so by questioning the reliability and authenticity of this traditional frame of self-understanding."

Problematic passages. Traditionalists see a creeping intellectual imperialism in many of the boldest claims made for the Gnostics and their works, as well as some intellectual sleight of hand. Wright wonders, for one, why progressives embrace the Gnostics when they were clearly more concerned with an elite few than with the mass of humanity. For that matter, the Gnostics' contempt for the world and their emphasis on their own individual salvation led them to ignore Jesus's highly political emphasis on bringing the kingdom of God into this world. (In their rejection of the social gospel, Wright points out, the Gnostics were more like contemporary American fundamentalists than most liberal-minded Gnostic supporters would like to acknowledge.) An if Gnostics were really such proto-feminists, why, he asks, does the Gospel of Thomas have Jesus saying of Mary Magdalene, "Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males"?

Despite such problematic passages, boosters of Gnosticism and many seekers after the "historical Jesus" often credit the Gospel of Thomas with as much authority as the canonical gospels, using it as one of the test texts for separating authentic teachings from spurious ones. Johnson, however, is not alone among critics in pointing out that Thomas has none of the narrative elements of the canonical gospels. And he insists that it isn't accidental that the Gnostic writings are merely "gnomic and revelatory." Writing narratives, he argues in The Real Jesus, "inevitably involves materiality. ... To have the good news revealed in a human story represents an affirmation of the body and of time, which are intrinsically attached to materiality. ... But precisely that conviction is incompatible with the Gnostic perception of materiality as a ghastly error or malicious trick."

Gnostic defenders argue that not all Gnostics were extreme dualists who reviled the physical, and this may well be true. Certainly, many modern-day Gnostics embrace the physical, within limits. Talking about such matters with Jordan Stratford, a Gnostic priest who heads a small congregation in Victoria, British Columbia, is a little like talking to a Buddhist: The body can be a distraction, he suggests, but it isn't evil. Speaking more broadly about Gnostic principles and teachings, Stratford says there are many to which he would not subscribe, at least not in any literal sense. The difficulty-for some, the attraction-of Gnostic teachings is that they were formulated in highly symbolic terms, allowing multiple interpretations. "It drives me nuts when people talk about the Gospel of Judas [which depicts Judas as Jesus's most valued disciple] as though it were a chronicle," he says. "This is not a chronicle. It uses characters as metaphors for a spiritual teaching."

Yet it is that looseness and flexibility when it comes to interpreting sacred texts that drives the orthodox so crazy. "A vision that embraces the truth of all traditions is the mark of the Gnostic," writes Johnson. "It follows that traditional Christianity is false insofar as it is exclusive and is improved to the degree that it is elevated to a more universal view."

Theological comfort zone. But can there really be any reconciliation of those who believe that salvation comes from the outside, through the redemptive act of a divine savior, with those who believe that it comes through self-knowledge? Such a difference, Johnson, Wright, and other traditionalists argue, cannot be explained away by scholars like Pagels as merely politically motivated differences. The distinctions reflect profound theological and anthropological convictions about human nature and its relation to the divine.

The core Christian teaching is wrong, Wright insists, if the Gnostics are right. "In other words," he says, "you are not the spark of light; you are part of the problem. And if you look deep within your heart, and you are true to what's deep within your heart, then you will actually mislead yourself and others that you drag down with you."

The Gnostic perspective is unlikely to wither even under such forceful attacks. Its defenders, past and present, inevitably intellectuals like those second-century, Greek-speaking eggheads, are always ready with a quick "Yes, but." "This is an exciting time to be a scholar," says Marvin Meyer. "There are now so many new approaches and possibilities and ways of putting things together that they allow people to find out where their theological comfort zone is." The Gnostic claim that the truth lies within fuels an argument so deep and old-and indeed so fundamental to who we think we are-that t is hardly surprising that it finds expression in our contemporary culture wars. And unlikely that it will cease doing so in the culture wars to come.

By Jay Tolson