Saturday, May 12, 2007

Wright-ing History

In his Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, N. T. Wright makes an important point that is often overlooked in the discussion of Gnostic Christianity.

The gnostic gospels are today being trumpeted as the radical alternatives to the oppressive and conservative canonical gospels, but the historical reality was just the opposite.

Elaine Pagels is one of those heralds of Gnostic superiority. In The Gnostic Gospels, she writes:

At a time when the orthodox Christians increasingly discriminated between clergy and laity, this group of Gnostic Christians demonstrated that, among themselves, they refused to acknowledge such distinction. Instead of ranking their members into superior and inferior "orders" within a hierarchy, they followed the principle of strict equality…

Such practices prompted Tertullian to attack "the behavior of the heretics."

(Quoted at The Gnostic Jesus.)

The popular view is that Gnostic Christianity is "a lost treasure of immeasurable value, long buried in the suffocating darkness of conventional orthodoxy on one side, and blind fundamentalist extremism on the other."

But Wright argues that the truth is very different:

The people who were burned at the stake, fried on hot irons, thrown to the wild beasts, pulled apart on the rack…, these people did not imagine themselves to be on the way to a great political victory of "orthodoxy" over "heresy." They were not, as is often suggested, settling down and making comfortable compromises with the status quo…. They were following their crucified Lord.

The proponents of Gnostic Christianity, like to bring in factors from the reign of Constantine and from the time we call the Middle Ages. But the second century was a very different world.

In a.d. 177 many Christians were martyred in Vienne and Lyons. Among them was Pothinus, the Bishop of Lyons. He was immediately replaced by Irenaeus who was living in Rome, but who had been a highly-respected presbyter in Lyons. "And it was exactly then that he wrote his Against the Heresies, the work which mentions the 'Gospel of Judas.'"

This runs counter to the popular narrative about the emergence of Christian orthodoxy:

Reading Ehrman, Meyer and others, it is easy to forget what was really going on at the time, and to imagine that Ignatius, Irenaeus and other like him were simply unpleasant and arrogant heresy-hunters, eager to simply prop up their own power and ecclesiastical systems.

The truth is that in the second century the Gnostics were the cultural conservatives. They were the ones who took the path of least resistance. There was nothing dangerous, radical or progressive in Gnostic "Christianity."

The Gnostics were quite content to capitulate to their surrounding culture, in which mystery-religions, self-discovery, Platonic spirituality of various sorts, and coded revelations of hidden truths were the stock in trade. In other words, the Gnostics were the cultural conservatives, sticking with the kind of religion that everyone already knew.

In fact, an honest reading of the Gnostic texts will give us the impression that these people were "fairly thoroughly sexist, anti-Semitic, and lacking the courage to stand out against the ideologies and authorities of their day."

In stark contrast:

It was the orthodox Christians who were breaking new ground, and risking their necks as they did so.

(All unattributed and unlinked quotations are from Judas and the Gospel of Jesus by N. T. Wright.)

As an aside: As it was in those days, so should it be today. The orthodox Christians should not be known for "heresy hunting," conservatism and caution. Rather we should be known as the ones breaking new ground and risking our necks as we do so.

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"


daniel the smith said...

I especially like this bit out of the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females do not deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."

I don't think that line is going to catch on around here anytime soon...

Pastor Rod said...


I've never really understood how a feminist like Pagels could embrace a tradition that was so misogynist.


M. Pease said...

I've read the gospel of Judas and what I presume to be excerpts from Thomas (unless it actually is a list without any context to speak of) and fail to see how people can equate those writings with the canonical Gospels. Even though there is the occasional bit that reflects Scripture, mostly they portray Jesus as bigoted and inconsistent.

I also wonder that the Gnostics fail to recognize the widespread Gnostic influence in the western church. (i.e. material world is bad, the real person is a spirit trapped in a material body, the cult of "X steps to achieving "Whatever")

It's all a mystery to me.

Maria said...

I agree that the position of Christian vis a vis the surrounding culture should be as risk takers, not conservators of the status quo. So often the gospel we hear preached merely blesses middle-class American values, instead of prophetically calling them into question.

daniel the smith said...

m. pease: No, you probably saw the real thing. It really is just a list of sayings! Very disjointed...

Pastor Rod said...


The technical term is aphoristic. The Gnostic writings are clearly the product of a different culture and different belief system.

There is no threat to orthodox Christianity presented by these documents. The real threat, as you point out, is the subtle Gnostic influences that have worked their way into North American Christianity.


Pastor Rod said...


The problem is that most North American Christians don't see any problem with the "old" status quo. I've also noticed that many "prophetic" voices have just adopted a different political view for the old one.