[...Continued from...] In 1945, group of ancient documents dating from approximately A.D. 350, predominantly Gnostic in character, were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt (Note 1)
Among these documents were the so-called 'Gnostic Gospels': the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Truth.
Some of the texts
were first published singly or in small collections, but the complete collection was not made available in a popular format in English until 1977. It was released as The Nag Hammadi Library and was reissued in revised form in 1988.
Although many of these documents had been referred to and denounced in the writings of early church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, most of the texts themselves had been thought to be extinct. Now many of them have come to light. As Elaine Pagels put it in her best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels
, "Now for the first time, we have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves."8
Pagels's book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, arguably did more than any other effort to ingratiate the Gnostics to modern Americans. She made them accessible and even likeable. Her scholarly expertise coupled with her ability to relate an ancient religion to contemporary concerns made for a compelling combination in the minds of many. Her central thesis was simple: Gnosticism should be considered at least as legitimate as orthodox
Christianity because the "heresy
" was simply a competing strain of early Christianity. Yet, we find that the Nag Hammadi texts present a Jesus at extreme odds with the one found in the Gospels.
Elsewhere Groothuis explains:
Although much excitement has been generated by the Nag Hammadi discoveries, not a little misunderstanding has been mixed with the enthusiasm. The overriding assumption of many is that the treatises unearthed in upper Egypt contained "lost books of the Bible" -- of historical stature equal to or greater than the New Testament books. Much of this has been fueled by the titles of some of the documents themselves, particularly the so-called "Gnostic gospels": the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Truth. The connotation of a "gospel" is that it presents the life of Jesus as a teacher, preacher, and healer -- similar in style, if not content, to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Yet, a reading of these "gospels" reveals an entirely different genre of material.
Without undue appeal to the subjective, it can be safely said that the Gnostic material on Jesus has a decidedly different "feel" than the biblical Gospels. There, Jesus' teaching emerges naturally from the overall contour of His life. In the Gnostic materials Jesus seems, in many cases, more of a lecturer on metaphysics than a Jewish prophet.
Whatever is made of the historical "feel" of these documents, their actual status as historical records should be brought into closer scrutiny to assess their factual reliability.
Although Pagels and others have provoked sympathy, if not enthusiasm, for the Gnostics as the underdogs who just happened to lose out to orthodoxy, the Gnostics' historical credentials concerning Jesus are less than compelling. It may be romantic to "root for the underdog," but the Gnostic underdogs show every sign of being heretical hangers-on who tried to harness Christian language for conceptions antithetical to early Christian teaching.
Many sympathetic with Gnosticism make much of the notion that the Gnostic writings were suppressed by the early Christian church. But this assertion does not, in itself, provide support one way or the other for the truth or falsity of Gnostic doctrine. If truth is not a matter of majority vote, neither is it a matter of minority dissent. It may be true, as Pagels says, that "the winners write history," but that doesn't necessarily make them bad or dishonest historians. If so, we should hunt down Nazi historians to give us the real picture of Hitler's Germany and relegate all opposing views to that of dogmatic apologists who just happened to be on the winning side.
In spite of the problems surrounding the so-called 'Gnostic Gospels,' Dan Brown is a believer:
Was Magdalene, as portrayed in centuries of art and literature, the penitent prostitute, the devoted follower, the woman with the alabaster jar? Or, as "The Da Vinci Code" suggests, was she Jesus' wife, partner, confidante, beloved disciple, the "apostle to the apostles"? All this and more, says "Code" author Dan Brown.
"I was skeptical, but after a year and a half of research, I became a believer," says Brown. "As soon as people understand that the few Gospels included in the Bible are not the only version of the Christ story, they begin to sense contradictions. Magdalene is most obvious." Her role, he says, was deliberately distorted, a smear campaign by the early church fathers -- as one of his characters declares, "the greatest cover-up in human history."
Does Brown believe Jesus was actually married to Magdalene? "I do," he says.
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