The Gospel Truth
Why some old books are stirring up a new debate about the meaning of Jesus
Athanasius's effort to rid Egypt of the Gnostic texts bespoke the confidence of a cleric whose church had, not long before, become the official religion of the Roman Empire. But his work wasn't entirely successful. At least a few rebellious monks decided to bury their condemned texts rather than destroy them. A few of those documents were recovered in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet until quite recently, the Gnostic writings were known to modern readers mainly through what the great heresy hunters had written about them.
That began to change in 1945, when some farmers who lived near the northern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi discovered a jar containing 13 leatherbound papyrus books at the base of a cave-riddled mountain. These books, later scholarly examination would reveal, contained 52 different texts reflecting the Gnostic perspective, most of which had never been seen by modern eyes. The first complete English edition of these works, The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James Robinson of Claremont Graduate School, came out in 1978 and had an enormous influence on the study of early Christianity.
The discovery of these works is itself a compelling story, particularly when supplemented by the more recent find of the Gospel of Judas, introduced to the modern world earlier this year in a gala-style debut put on by the National Geographic Society, the publisher of the first English translation. Coming out this spring is an impressive new collection of Gnostic writings, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer of Chapman University and containing both the Nag Hammadi finds and other documents, such as the Gospel of Judas. A capstone of sorts, it reflects the efforts of a prominent international community of scholars that has been instrumental in translating and interpreting the Gnostic materials for a modern audience.
Modern relevance. But the recovery of those documents does not in itself explain why Gnostic ideas would come to have such peculiar salience in our cultural debates today. For that, most credit-or blame-must go to the scholars, writers, and popularizers who, either as promoters or critics, have made Gnostic ideas relevant to so many modern concerns.
Among the promoters, none has been more influential than Elaine Pagels, now a professor of religion at Princeton University but only a junior faculty member at Barnard College when she published her hugely popular 1979 book, The Gnostic Gospels. In fact, it is fair to say that Pagels's bestseller set the stage for the runaway success of The Da Vinci Code, a novel that would make millions on the premise that official Christianity repressed the whole truth about Jesus and his earliest followers. Simply put, The Gnostic Gospels was the right book at the right time. In an America still reeling from Watergate, still distrustful of authority and institutions, and still shaken by the liberating intensities of the 1960s, here was a book that argued that early Christianity contained a multitude of diverse interpretations and movements-or at least did so until the leaders of the orthodox church succeeded in suppressing them as heresies.