One of the ironies of contemporary spirituality is surely the popularity of the Gnostic gospels amongst those seeking a more human, down to earth Jesus, for the Jesus of the Gnostics is far more alien and inhuman than the Jesus of the New Testament.
Do I exaggerate?
Consider this flashback episode from The Acts of John:
…. Sometimes when I meant to touch him [Jesus], I met with a material and solid body; but at other times when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, as if it did not exist at all … And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see his footprint, whether it appeared on the ground (for I saw him as it were raised up from the earth), and I never saw it. (§ 93)
The closest the New Testament gospels come to this are the transfiguration and walking on water accounts, neither of which affirm an immaterial Jesus. And even the appearance accounts (which are post- not pre- resurrection) don’t go as far.
So, contemporary interest in the Gnostic gospels has long been a puzzle for me. To be honest I wondered how much of the interest was due to ignorance about what the Gnostic gospels actual said.
But Epstein’s article on Post-Atheism has helped me clarify some of my thoughts. In essence I sense that what is happening is that the “obvious” mythological character of the Gnostic gospels creates a plausibility structure for treating the New Testament as “obviously” mythological as well. This facilitates not only the “demythologization” of Jesus for those who find the miraculous objectionable; it also facilitates alternative myth validation for those seeking a more “inclusive” and consumer friendly Jesus.
In such fashion, Jesus becomes a messenger without a message. He is stripped of his revelatory power and becomes, himself, the deepest of mysteries. Intellectual honesty requires us to profess agnosticism about the historical Jesus; assurance becomes heretical; God remains unknown; all that remains is Jesus the mythological mirror of the human soul.
2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Jesus: Gnostic Myth and the End of Revelation”
I think Elaine Pagels, in her book on the Gnostic gospels, summarises it pretty well:
“Orthodox Christians were concerned – far more than gnostics – with their relationships with other people. If gnostics
insisted that humanity’s original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling
the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially “good.” The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the
Mosaic code, which prohibits physical violation of others – murder, stealing, adultery – in terms of Jesus’ prohibitions
against even mental and emotional violence – anger, lust, hatred.
Agreeing that human suffering derives from human guilt, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth’s plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars and trees form an appropriate home for humanity. As part of that “good” creation, the orthodox recognised the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as “fullness of God” come down into human experience – into bodily experience – to sacralize it.”
Yes, that is actually not a bad summary. I would only add that the orthodox affirmation of the natural and the interpersonal is closely tied with the orthodox affirmation of history and tradition over and above mythology and inspiration. When post-atheists use the mythological character of the Gnostic gospels as evidence for New Testament mythologization they are fundamentally misconstruing the relationship between orthodoxy and gnosticism.