The Gospel Truth
Why some old books are stirring up a new debate about the meaning of Jesus
If the Gnostic perspective is not really that new, and if its seminal ideas are already planted in the heart of modern western, and particularly American, culture, why are the defenders of orthodoxy so troubled by the arguments of modern Gnostic enthusiasts? Perhaps it is a matter of self-defense on the part of those who see delicate historical and theological truths on the verge of demolition. From the second to the 20th century, Johnson writes in the Roman Catholic journal Commonweal, the "tripod of creed, canon, and apostolic succession not only shaped Christian orthodoxy but provided the strategy for Christian self-definition. ... Today, I would argue, a 'new Gnosticism' not only threatens the shape of Christian faith, but does so by questioning the reliability and authenticity of this traditional frame of self-understanding."
Problematic passages. Traditionalists see a creeping intellectual imperialism in many of the boldest claims made for the Gnostics and their works, as well as some intellectual sleight of hand. Wright wonders, for one, why progressives embrace the Gnostics when they were clearly more concerned with an elite few than with the mass of humanity. For that matter, the Gnostics' contempt for the world and their emphasis on their own individual salvation led them to ignore Jesus's highly political emphasis on bringing the kingdom of God into this world. (In their rejection of the social gospel, Wright points out, the Gnostics were more like contemporary American fundamentalists than most liberal-minded Gnostic supporters would like to acknowledge.) And if Gnostics were really such proto-feminists, why, he asks, does the Gospel of Thomas have Jesus saying of Mary Magdalene, "Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males"?
Despite such problematic passages, boosters of Gnosticism and many seekers after the "historical Jesus" often credit the Gospel of Thomas with as much authority as the canonical gospels, using it as one of the test texts for separating authentic teachings from spurious ones. Johnson, however, is not alone among critics in pointing out that Thomas has none of the narrative elements of the canonical gospels. And he insists that it isn't accidental that the Gnostic writings are merely "gnomic and revelatory." Writing narratives, he argues in The Real Jesus, "inevitably involves materiality. ... To have the good news revealed in a human story represents an affirmation of the body and of time, which are intrinsically attached to materiality. ... But precisely that conviction is incompatible with the Gnostic perception of materiality as a ghastly error or malicious trick."
Gnostic defenders argue that not all Gnostics were extreme dualists who reviled the physical, and this may well be true. Certainly, many modern-day Gnostics embrace the physical, within limits. Talking about such matters with Jordan Stratford, a Gnostic priest who heads a small congregation in Victoria, British Columbia, is a little like talking to a Buddhist: The body can be a distraction, he suggests, but it isn't evil. Speaking more broadly about Gnostic principles and teachings, Stratford says there are many to which he would not subscribe, at least not in any literal sense. The difficulty-for some, the attraction-of Gnostic teachings is that they were formulated in highly symbolic terms, allowing multiple interpretations. "It drives me nuts when people talk about the Gospel of Judas [which depicts Judas as Jesus's most valued disciple] as though it were a chronicle," he says. "This is not a chronicle. It uses characters as metaphors for a spiritual teaching."