The Gospel Truth
Why some old books are stirring up a new debate about the meaning of Jesus
Why were the teachings of the Gnostics such a great threat to the emerging orthodoxy? The reason, Pagels argued, was that Gnostic ideas challenged theological interpretations that underlay the structures of authority of the orthodox church. According to orthodox belief, Jesus bestowed ecclesiastical authority only on those male apostles who saw him after his Resurrection, thereby establishing the line of succession running from his inner circle of disciples, and particularly Peter, to the generations of bishops who would follow.
But the Gnostics, interpreting the Resurrection as a symbolic event, cited the canonical gospels (Mark and John) as well as their own gospels (the Gospel of Mary) to argue that Jesus appeared to others, including Mary Magdalene, and would continue to appear to those who are prepared through gnosis to receive him and learn his truth. To challenge the special privilege of what the Gnostics called "the apostolic men" was to challenge the basis of clerical authority. Moreover, Pagels argued, to insist that women were among Jesus's closest confidants was to put into question the exclusively male character of the priesthood and many of the implicitly and explicitly sexist assumptions of what became orthodox Christianity.
And that wasn't all. The Gnostic idea of the divinity-a sort of oversoul that contained both female and male aspects-challenged the very notion of the patriarchal deity of the Old Testament, the Yahweh that orthodox Christians wholeheartedly embraced. The fact that many Gnostics relegated this deity to a lesser, even somewhat mischievous role as the creator of the corrupt, and corrupting, world was, from the orthodox perspective, the height of blasphemy.
Most threatening to the orthodox position, though, was the Gnostics' interpretation of Jesus and the Christian message: To the Gnostics, or at least to many of them (there were various schools, with names like Sethians, Marcionites, Valentinians, and Thomas Christians), Jesus was not the son of Yahweh sent to redeem fallen humanity through his death and Resurrection; he was an avatar or voice of the oversoul sent to teach humans to find the sacred spark within. This was a view of Jesus that made priests and even churches peripheral, if not irrelevant, to salvation. Salvation was not the redemption of embodied creatures or the world they inhabited (bringing the kingdom of God to this world) but freedom from the body and the physical world. And to attain this salvation, one needed only to turn within. "For Gnostics," writes Pagels, "exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly-a religious quest."
Throwing down the gauntlet. As Pagels presented them, the Gnostics came across as forerunners of modern spiritual seekers wary of institutional religion, literalism, and hidebound traditions. Free of sexism and paternalism and unburdened by an emphasis on guilt and sin, the Gnostics' highly esoteric and intellectual approach to the sacred was one that even enlightened skeptics could embrace. At the very least, Pagels suggested, the Gnostic tradition would have made Christianity a more appealingly rational, tolerant, and expansive creed had the orthodox not suppressed it and largely driven it out of existence.