The Gnostic Gospels. Something that you have probably heard of a bit, but you couldn’t give much detail on. Like an Arsene Wenger signing.
In 1945, near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, an earthenware jar was found containing a series of manuscripts that can be dated to the end of the 4th Century. Lots of them have gospely-sounding names like The Gospel of Thomas, or The Gospel of Mary, but of the 52 pieces of writing discovered, not one of them was orthodox – that is, they were all at odds with the person of Jesus mapped out in the New Testament.
These writings, however, have formed the basis of the revisionist pictures of Jesus like the one we find in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code. So, are they a threat to Christian belief? Well, let’s see… (Spoiler alert: the answer is no).
First of all, who were the Gnostics? They appear in force in the 2nd Century, seemingly a spin-off of Judeo-Christian beliefs with aspects of Platonism thrown it. It’s as though they threw Frasier Crane, Ross from Friends and Alan Partridge all together – and created a monster.
Although there was room for manoeuvre amongst Gnostics, there seem to have been 6 main areas of common ground.
1) There is a supreme God who dwells in inapproachable splendour in the spiritual world and has no dealings with the world of matter.
2) The world is ‘evil’, and human beings are imprisoned within it, incapable of reaching the spiritual God. They need a redeemer! Not for salvation from sin, though, but from bondage to matter. The human body is a tomb. Sounds cheery.
3) Some human beings, but not all, have a built-in ‘divine spark’ which offers hope of freedom from bodily bondage*. But not automatically, because you still need ‘gnosis’ (knowledge) – it is this secret knowledge, and not Faith, that sets you free.
4) The job of enlightenment is carried out by a divine redeemer from the spiritual world in human disguise, who was often, not always, identified with the Jesus of the NT.
5) The freed soul will have immortality, but only those with this secret divine spark and the necessary knowledge can aspire to this. (Here we see the debt to Plato, who virtually associated goodness with knowledge).
6) There is a strong mythological element, whereby rays of divinity emanate from ‘God’ becoming harsher and crasser until they create a being called Demiurge (world-maker), who in turn creates the material world as we know it. It all sounds like something that ran for half a season on the Sci-fi channel before it was binned and the exec producers got fired and covered in hot tar.
Two other factors are noteworthy. Firstly, the Old Testament is thoroughly rejected by Gnostics – because the Divine Being could never get his hands dirty by creating anything so sullied as the world. Second, women were seen as ‘not worthy of life’. To enter the kingdom of heaven, a woman must ‘make herself male’ (Like ‘Bob’ in Blackadder II and Goes Forth).
So we can already see major differences between orthodox Christianity and these Gnostic gospels. We are not saved from sin by a historical figure both human and divine, but from ignorance by a mythological one who only seems to be human. Salvation is not for those who sincerely believe and repent, but for a small gang of ‘know-it-alls’.
The big question is this: does this mean that there were several strands of Christianity around in the 2nd Century, and you could simply pick and choose what flavours you liked best? Was Christianity like buying an ice-cream? Absolutely not!
The Christian message that has been accurately handed down from the same era is the same today as it was then. Not for one moment did the church tolerate the idea of secret revelations to an elite bunch. The Gospel was open for all. And the central features of the Gospel – Jesus, God’s son, died on a cross to save humanity and rose from the dead in bodily form – were not open for discussion; if you didn’t hold to these, you simply weren’t a Christian.
Next week, we’ll look at some of the Gnostic gospels in more detail.