The Gospel Truth
Why some old books are stirring up a new debate about the meaning of Jesus
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 blasphemy." 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.