Do You Want to Know a Secret?
The Gnostic Gospels
Rev. Douglas Taylor
In 1945 a farmer from the Nag Hammadi village in Upper Egypt while digging for fertilizer nitrates uncovered a 6-foot-tall clay jar. Historians believe that fourth-century monks from the St. Pachomius monastery, near the present-day village of Nag Hammadi hid that clay jar there centuries before. In the jar, bound in tooled gazelle leather, were the 52 manuscripts that are now known as the Gnostic gospels.
These papyrus texts: the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Thomas were all so strange and radical it took decades for the information to come to the public. Meanwhile the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first of which were uncovered in 1947, have been available to the public for quite some time. The difference may be that the Dead Sea Scrolls are renderings of the Hebrew Scriptures. While they are considered the oldest manuscripts of these texts, they are generally consistent with what we already knew of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Nag Hammadi discovery however did not conform at all to what we already knew of the Gospel stories of Jesus. What was uncovered in what are now called the Gnostic Gospels constituted the various letters, gospels, and sayings that were not included in the Bible.
One of the strong characteristics of these Gnostic books is that they offered the secret teachings of Jesus. The opening greeting for The Secret Book of James reads: “Since you asked me to send you a secret book that was revealed to Peter and me by the Lord, I could neither refuse you nor dissuade you; so [I have written] it in Hebraic letters and have sent it to you – and to you alone.” In the Gospel of Mary we read about the time: (Chap 6) “Peter said to Mary, “Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard.”
The Gospel of Thomas begins with: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” (Prologue) And later (Chap 13) Jesus took Thomas, “and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends [the other disciples], they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’ Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”
But my favorite set up of it is in the recently published Gospel of Judas where we find this: “Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, ‘Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.’” This element of it is all the more interesting based on the context. These proclamations of secret truths are contained in documents have been only recently revealed from their hidden places. The buried treasure condition in which these texts were found serves only to enhance the secret-ness of their content.
For all the mystique, these books might not have made it past the veil of academia if not for a young professor of religion from Princeton University. It was Elaine Pagels who wrote The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was that little book that sparked in the popular culture this interest in these obscure, so-called heretical religious writings. Her more recent book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003), spent more than three months on the New York Times bestseller list. Certainly books of a religious nature have been on the bestseller list before – the Left Behind series and the DaVinci Code, but the unique quality of this bestselling religious book is that it is not fiction. Beyond Belief is a researched piece of scholarship offered in an engaging style palatable to the popular culture. It was a very interesting response from the broader culture. Every now and then I wonder what the western world would have been like if these hidden Gospels had been a regular part of the New Testament all these years. What would it have been like?
The writings from the cave near Nag Hammadi have been kept in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Scholars from all over North America and Europe have studied these poems, prayers and sayings for quite some time now. “They look like golden tobacco leaves inscribed with black ink,” Pagels says about the manuscripts that she first saw them preserved between sheets of Plexiglas. “The texts are quite beautiful.”
So, why they weren’t they included? Why weren’t these accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus included in the Bible? If there are four different accounts, why are there not five or six or even twenty-six? How was it decided?
To begin with, any decent Bible will include a section at the beginning explaining the process of how the Bible was constructed. “Biblia” means book or books. It is a collection put together over time. The Hebrew scripture was pulled together in an authoritative collection a few hundred years before the Christian scriptures were collected in this same way. The Christian Scriptures were organized into what we know now as the New Testament around the same time as the Council of Nicaea and the creation of the Nicene Creed under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century of the Common Era.
According to the current scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, the earliest writings in the Christian Scripture are the letters of Paul and other letters attributed to Paul around 20 or 30 years after Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Thomas was possibly written around this time as well, but it is hard to be certain. For many years the stories were passed down in oral tradition until they were finally written down a generation or two later. So, the claim that the author of the Gospel of Thomas was Thomas the apostle is quite unlikely. Instead it is more likely that the author wrote down the story that had come to him or her through oral tradition as Thomas’ words. The Gospel of Mark was likely written around the time of the destruction of the temple, in 70 C.E. Ten to twenty years after that is the other synoptic Gospels were written down, along with the Gospel of Peter and a collection entitled Dialogue of the Savior. Then around 90 or 100 C.E. the Gospel of John was written – this was roughly 60 or 70 years after the death of Jesus. By 150 C.E., the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of James, and something called the Egerton Gospel had also been complied.
During all this time, each small community of Christians held a copy of one or two Gospels and perhaps a letter or a copy of a letter from Paul. Each worshiped in a small way, rereading the words they had and interpreting them together. The Christians of that time lived under constant threat of persecution. They were regularly rounded up to be burned at the stake, beheaded, or torn apart by wild animals. So they tended to gather in small and secluded groups. Each community developed its own character and style based on the particular texts they held. This is the way it was for the first few centuries.
In the beginning of the fourth century, the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine oversaw a shift in Christianity more radical than anything that has happened in Christianity since. Christianity was a multifarious thing before Constantine. Christians suffered great persecution during the first centuries. Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, thus ending the persecution and ushering in an official theology. This official theology included the Canon of the New Testament with Four Gospels to match Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures worship around God’s throne.
The reactions to this were of three sorts. Some, of course, accepted this change with open arms and saw it as a good thing. These people saw the conversion of Constantine as the culmination of both the history of the church and the history of the empire. Others saw it as a great apostasy and broke away from the community of Christians, forming their own separate sects. These sects were a thorn in the side of the church for a while, but that is another chapter in early church history.
Of more interest this morning are those people who also saw the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity as an imperial takeover of the church, yet they did not wish to remove themselves communion with the church. Instead they physically withdrew into the desert to practice a strict asceticism. With the end of great persecution, the true Christian could no longer aspire to martyrdom and so instead they opted for monastic life to continue what they saw as their training. The fourth century saw “a massive exodus of devoted Christians to the deserts of Egypt and Syria.” (from the Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez; p 124) Remembering that these were the Christians who rebelled against the merging of the church and the empire, and against the creation of an official theology as seen in the Nicene Creed, we should not be surprised that the texts of the “Gnostic Gospels” were centuries later found in Egypt written in the Coptic language, which is a first-century form of Egyptian.
Until a few decades ago, all that was known about these Gnostic gospels came from their detractors, the fourth-century bishops and archbishops who had denounced them as heretical works. But as we can see, that was all part of the process of formalizing the beliefs of the Nicene Creed and ordaining the biblical canon. In 367, Athanasius, the archbishop of Alexandria, sent an Easter letter to far-flung churches – including those monasteries out in Egypt and Syria, demanding that they destroy all the “illegitimate, secret books.” Obviously someone took a few of these texts out into the desert and buried them in order to preserve them.
What did these texts contain that is so radical and heretical? What is Gnosticism? The word Gnostic derives from the Greek word Gnosis, meaning “knowledge” or “insight.” One component of Gnostic texts is that what they offer is the secret teachings of Jesus, the secret knowledge. It also spelled out a strict duality between physical and spiritual with the physical being evil. One predominant theology of Gnosticism contends that this world was a mistake created by a demigod. Indeed, humanity is not of this evil world, instead we are fallen or entrapped by it; and thus are caught in the physical realm. Most people are anesthetized to the truth. Only those who uncover the truth (which can be found within) can transcend this world back into the true realm of heaven.
Much of the Gospel of Judas, for example, is taken up with Jesus laughing at the disciples, explaining the intricate cosmology of gods, demigods, and angels to them and then going away from them to visit ‘other great and holy generations.’ In the midst of it all Jesus says to Judas, “You will exceed them all, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” According to the Gospel of John, Satan whispered in Judas’s ear telling him to go betray Jesus. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus whispered in Judas’s ear telling him to conspire with Jesus to release him from his human façade. And that is typical of the Gnosticism of that time.
Certainly, there is a part in this Gnostic theology that rings true for our way of faith: the part that about the truth being found within. Emerson said as much: look within yourself, “there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins.” The truth is found within, we like that idea from Gnosticism. But the rest of Gnostic theology does not quite fit with Unitarian Universalism very well. I certainly cannot believe this world is somehow a big mistake or cosmic joke, concocted by a malevolent and rebellious demigod.
And while many of the Gnostic Gospels support the strict duality of nature and spirit, The Gospel of Thomas goes the furthest in heretical idea that Jesus called us to be like him, to find the light within ourselves. (Thom 70:1-2) Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
As Pagels writes,
While Mark, Matthew, and Luke identify Jesus as God’s human agent, John and Thomas characterize him instead as God’s own light in human form. … John calls him the “light of humanity,” and believes that Jesus alone brings divine light to a world otherwise sunk in darkness. John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in Jesus. But certain passages in Thomas’s gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made “in the image of god.” Thus Thomas expresses what would become a central theme in Jewish – and later Christian – mysticism a thousand years later, that the “image of God” is hidden within everyone, although most people remain unaware of its presence. (p40 – 41)
Pagels demonstrates fairly convincingly that the Gospel of John was written as are argument against the ideas outlined in the Gospel of Thomas. The character of Thomas in the Gospel of John, for example, is continually shown as a faithless, doubting disciple who does not understand and does not receive the fullest of Jesus’ blessings in the way the other disciples do – according to John. Also, there is the deeper distinction of how you find the Kingdom of God or the divine light. According the John, Jesus is “the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through” him. Incidentally, in John’s Gospel, that line comes when Jesus is telling the disciples that he is going to prepare them a place in the Kingdom, and he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14) Guess which disciple John has saying “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” You guessed it Thomas! (You don’t know the way, Thomas? I am the Way.)
Thomas’ Gospel, on the other hand, holds the conviction that the divine dwells as “light” within all beings. (Thom 24:3) “There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world.” It also has Jesus saying, (Thom 108) “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person and the mysteries shall be revealed to him.” According to the Gospel of Thomas ‘the Way’ is not Jesus, ‘the way’ is within. Certainly Jesus is a major part of that process, (Thom 77) “I am the light that is over all things. I am all; from me all things came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, there are striking similarities between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. John, reacting against the Gnostic theology, carries some Gnosticism forward. Just as we Unitarian Universalists reacting against Calvinism carry a surprising amount of Calvinism into our theology. But they are very different in answering the question “who is Jesus?” I wonder what it would have looked like today if Thomas’s Gospel had been included in the canon.
One might ask how John prevailed over Thomas to be included in the official canon. Was it that John’s Gospel was better connected to the people in positions of authority at the right times? Was it a matter of historical luck-of-the-draw? Was it that John’s Gospel had a better campaign manager, a bigger war chest, a more effective set of smear tactics? Is that John’s Gospel was more accurate? I tend to think it was more pragmatic that all that. I think John’s Gospel leaned more toward an organizing principle for authority, it offered incentives for the people to be a part of the system: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” If word got around that the Kingdom of God was within you and the real work was to explore yourself, what would you need the church for?
The people wanted to know God and to know what they needed for salvation. What does it take to be a true Christian? The church wanted them to hear that the way to know God was to come to church. The way to salvation was through Jesus and there was no other way. This makes it a lot easier to build a church. It makes it a lot easier for an Empire to control its citizens.
But we Unitarian Universalists have been managing with the Emersonian/Thomastic message or personal search for about two hundred years now. I will admit that I have heard attempts to build a message saying the only way to be a true Unitarian Universalist is to go to church. This message, interestingly, comes out around the time of financial campaigns for the UUA and for the individual churches. So keep alert! I say this as a dyed-in-the-wool institutionalist. I believe in the power of our gathered community. I believe strongly that the institution is worth supporting; but not for the purpose of controlling people or raising money – that’s getting it all backwards! The institution is here to support and nurture the light that shines out from you – that unique divine light that shines out from each of us as a ray of hope, a beacon of truth, a spark of holiness.
In a world without end.
May it be so.