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"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

The Gnostic Gospels 

November 11, 2008

The story goes that in 1978 an Egyptian farmer, scouring ancient caverns near the village of Karara on the Nile river, stumbled upon a stone box.  Contained within was what has today been determined to be an astonishing addition to the ethos of Christian belief.  It is a codex, an ancient leather bound book written in the archaic Coptic language that has come to be known as the Gospel of Judas.  It is described by experts as being a discovery of such monumental proportion as to potentially cause a crisis of Christian faith.

Just two years ago in 2006, The National Geographic Society released their riveting film (available in libraries on DVD) on the discovery and restoration of the Gospel of Judas - the authenticated third century Coptic document found in a cave near the Egyptian Nile.  The document adds significantly to the ancient Coptic gospels found at Nag Hamadi in 1945.  While the effect of these “Gnostic” (from the Greek “to know”) writings remains the subject of heated debate in Christian circles, this latest discovery confirms what the previous discoveries emphasized - early Christianity reflected a widely diverse pantheon of teaching.  Unfortunately for scholars, historians and Christians themselves - that diversity was found to be threatening and heretical to early church authorities who worked hard to destroy evidence of its existence. 

The Gospel of Judas tells a very different story of the disciple’s relationship to Jesus.  While the New Testament gospels of  Mathew, Luke and John each place increasing guilt on Judas Iscariot as Jesus’ betrayer - this newfound gospel paints a wholly different picture.  Rather than a betrayer, Judas is revealed to be the most devoted, the most obedient of Jesus’ disciples.  He is singled out by Jesus as the one who will do what no other disciple will do - and he is rewarded with special revelation.  In a telling section of text Jesus is seen to be laughing at the reverence of his disciples.  They are ignorant that the god they ask a blessing from is only the maker of this world and not the Father of Divine Light.   Only Judas seems to understand the full meaning of Jesus’ humor.  Far beyond the traditional role that Judas played in Jesus’ death, the Gospel of Judas teaches us something extraordinarily Christian. 

It is the diversity of the early church that is so instructive of the original teachings of Jesus.  What we discover in the Gnostic gospels of Philip, Thomas, Mary Magdalen and Judas is not entirely antithetical to the orthodoxy of the New Testament gospels.  The Gnostics tell us that Jesus acknowledged divinity in all forms of human spirit.  Regardless of who, what or where we are, Jesus taught that we each have the light of God within us, and that He loves each of us without reservation.  This acceptance of all people who choose to know God ministers to the orthodoxy of the canonical gospels and the heterodoxy of the Gnostics.  It is the most fundamental of Christian teaching.

Where the two schools of Christian thought appear to diverge is in their approach to the fundamental human problem.  The orthodox teaching molded by early church authority Irenaeus’ selection of the four New Testament gospels - is that of mortal sin.  The Gnostics teach that the greatest human problem is ignorance.  To the Gnostic mind the Old Testament drama of Eve and the garden and the forbidden fruit of knowledge is the founding of human ignorance.  In the denial of knowledge to Adam and Eve, the authors of Genesis invented a reason for the enslavement of human spirit.  It was the commission of sin in the eyes of the authors that brought about punishment and human suffering.  But some scholars argue that it was the intention of Genesis’ authors for Eve to partake of the apple.  For without belief in the sin of knowledge, there is no authority in the authors’ rule.

In lesser known Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Mary Magdalen, we are informed that Mary was an accepted disciple of Jesus, a teacher and evangelist.  In Thomas we are reminded that within each human soul lies the divine kingdom of God.  And in Judas the text indicates “lower forces” that enslave our world and prevent the pure light of the Divine from reaching our hearts.  Each of these ideas is heretical to the orthodox church.  Early church leader Bishop Irenaeus, in an attempt to unify the differences in teachings, arbitrarily discarded the Gnostic gospels, along with nearly all evidence of their existence.  These framers of the New Testament could not tolerate a woman disciple.  They doubted the wisdom of human divinity.  And they demanded Christian followers accept a cadre of priests and bishops as the sole gatekeepers of knowledge. 

The existence of the Gnostic gospels, the diverse interpretations of the teachings of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth - is upsetting to the orthodox church.  A common response is that these heretical gospels were written a hundred years or more after the first century canon.  But we know that copies of Judas existed before the year 180 when
Irenaeus denounced it as fiction and heresy.  That the Gnostic gospels appear to emerge from earliest time in church history lends further credence to their authenticity.  The meaning of these gospels is most upsetting to the orthodox church.  In the National Geographic film, Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral asks why he would need to know any more than what the orthodox gospels offer?  The Catholic church represented by Fr. Donald Senior of the Pontifical Biblical Commission finds the Gnostic gospels “bizarre.”   But he also acknowledges that ultimately it is a question of faith and religious judgment to give the Gnostic texts authority.  In the end, the diversity of early Christian teaching illustrated by as many as thirty different gospels threatened the power and position of early church leaders.  And so, like many other authoritarians, they eliminated the competition.

Historical discoveries and the sometimes confusing revelations they bring about are a valuable step in learning who we are.  While the existence of the Gnostic gospels dispels the narrow view of Christianity put forth by its early framers - they enlighten us to another view.  We must come to understand our own ignorance is as much the bondage of humanity as is our commission of sin.  Humanity has wrestled with the commission and forgiveness of sin for thousands of years.  Now we must consider that our lack of knowledge has betrayed our search for enlightenment.  We will eventually come to know that the Gospel of the Divine shines its perfect light toward all humanity.  By throwing off the cloak of  ignorance and fear we allow that light to illuminate even the most decrepit and despondent of us.  The truly astonishing revelation is
that the knowledge of the Divine Light of God shines brightest within each of us - even when shadowed without.