The Gospel Truth
Why some old books are stirring up a new debate about the meaning of Jesus
Pagels today says she would revise many parts of her bestselling book, including its title. Along with several other scholars of early Christianity, including Michael Williams and Karen King, she now rejects the label Gnostic as an imprecise name for the many different movements to which orthodox heresy hunters applied it. "I've come to think of them simply as the 'other' Christian gospels," Pagels says. While she insists her book is often misread as arguing that the "good guys lost," she does not deny that she intended to challenge Christian traditionalists, Protestant and Roman Catholic, on many points of theological and historical interpretation. In an accessible and popular way, Pagels's book (along with her later Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas) threw down the gauntlet.
She was not alone. James Robinson may make a more modest case for the Gnostics, even to the point of saying that these "second-century Christian eggheads" missed "the center of Jesus's teaching." But he still argues that the Gnostics were an important example of the many strains of early Christianity and insists that they had a decisive influence on the shape of emerging orthodoxy, not least by forcing it to formulate its creeds and sharpen its positions.
One of the strongest critics of the Gnostic enthusiasts, N. T. Wright, pays Robinson a high backhanded compliment: "The work of Jim Robinson was absolutely seminal, and the people he taught in Claremont picked up this enthusiasm that here were all these alternative texts about Jesus, the subtext being that this was the really interesting stuff that the church banned."
A prolific author as well as a busy Anglican bishop, Wright has penned a stinging critique of the overselling of Gnosticism, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth About Christianity? His is certainly not a minority position within early Christianity studies. But along with scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson (The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters), Philip Jenkins (Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way), and Ben Witherington (What Have They Done With Jesus?), Wright makes a strong counterargument to the claims of the Gnostic boosters.
Take, for instance, the proposition that Gnostic perspectives have only recently been rediscovered in all their rich and complex glory. Not so, says Wright. Joining historian Jenkins, he notes that those perspectives are set forth not only in pre-Nag Hammadi findings (the Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary, for example) but also in the detailed and accurate descriptions of the orthodox heresy hunters such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, descriptions that have long been available. Gnostic arguments are not simply bursting new upon the scene after centuries of assiduously enforced suppression.
Arguing that the Gnostic perspective was never fully extinguished, Wright says that it has been particularly strong in the West for close to three centuries. "There's a sense," he says, "in which post-Enlightenment culture on both sides of the Atlantic has been implicitly Gnostic, implicitly telling this story about us now having this new knowledge, including science and technology, which will enable us to blow the lid off the boring stuff we grew up with." America has a particularly strong case of the Gnostic bug, Wright asserts, because "the default position of American religion is discovering who you really are, as opposed to being saved by grace, which reaches you from somewhere else."