The Lost Books of the Bible
Most people consider ancient heresies obscure, boring, and irrelevant, but in the twenty-first century Gnosticism, is alive, well, and making news.
Gnosticism was not so much an organized religious system as a variety of beliefs in which the material world was thought to be evil and salvation comes through a higher knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. Stephan Hoeller, a modern Gnostic, explains that Gnosticim is a “conviction that direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings . . . and that the attainment of such knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human life.”
“Gnosticism . . . was not a heresy so much as a rival” to Christianity,” says historian Will Durant.
Various Gnostic groups had mostly disappeared by the fifth century and would be nothing more than an interesting footnote for students of early church history if not for three recent events.
First, in 1945 a library of more than fifty Gnostic texts was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, about forty miles northwest of Luxor. The best known, the Gospel of Thomas, is not an account of the life of Christ, but 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Other texts (popularly known as The Gnostic Gospels) include the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of Truth, and the Acts of Peter. They created quite a stir when they were discovered. Headlines promised a new look at the life of Christ, playing on popular intrigue with anything new, secret, or suppressed—a clever marketing twist on the early church’s condemnation of Gnosticism.
Second, in 2003 The Da Vinci Code, one of the bestselling books of this century, suggested that the Gnostic Gospels had as much—or more—validity as the New Testament books and that their exclusion from the canon occurred at the time of Constantine (a misinterpretation of Constantine’s request to Eusebius to make fifty copies of Scripture for the churches in Constantinople). The Da Vinci Code was a well-written novel with suspense, intrigue, and murder, but because it suggested that what the church has taught about Jesus is wrong and that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, it heightened interest in Gnostic writings.
Third, in May 2006 The National Geographic published a lead article on the discovery of The Gospel of Judas, which
contains “the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke” with Judas Iscariot. The magazine gave the article major promotion and presented Judas not as the disciple who betrayed Jesus, but as the disciple who was the closest to Him and turned Him over to the authorities because Jesus had asked him to do so. The New York Times quoted an executive of the geographic society that The Gospel of Judas “is considered by scholars and scientists to be the most significant ancient, nonbiblical text to be found in the past 60 years”—a claim that is more hype than fact.
In spite of the headlines and press releases, there is nothing new about the Gnostic texts. The Gospel of Judas has been known for centuries. Irenaeus called it “fictitious history.” The fourth-century historian and theologian Eusebius distinguished “between those writings which, according to the tradition of the Church, are true and genuine and recognized” and “those which the heretics put forward under the name of the apostles; including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, . . . and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles.” (The Gospel of Thomas was among the manuscripts at Nag Hammadi.) The “thought and purport of their contents are completely out of harmony with true orthodoxy and clearly show themselves that they are the forgeries of heretics . . . to be cast aside as altogether absurd and impious.”
In spite of the warnings of Irenaeus and Eusebius, Gnosticism is alive and well.