“And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” Jesus said, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all.” (The Gospel of Thomas 1&2)
For the better part of 2,000 years we’ve been led to believe that Christianity took the best of a small number of writings and made them our Bible, canonized them, made them the authoritative, beyond reproach, text for our faith and practice. We’ve also been led to believe that early Christianity was much purer, simpler than what it has morphed into. And, I daresay, we’ve been led to believe that any other writings that were not canonized simply had nothing spiritually valid in them.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
All of these things are wrong, and we are only beginning to realize how wrong as study and research into the Gnostic Gospels has progressed in the last 30 years. Because of the discovery of these texts, we now know that there were many, many other writings circulating in early Christianity. In fact, one scholar has postulated that it is likely that we have lost 85% of early Christian literature, and that is only the literature that we are aware of! Also, we now realize that early Christianity wasn’t pure and simple, but very diverse and complex.
With the research and study done on these text, a broader picture of Christianity is being painted, more wisdom is coming to light, other paths are being illuminated. Now, I may be naive, but I would think that the churches would be excited about these finds, that they would be introducing them to their congregations. I would think that we, as Christians, would be studying to see what new, exciting things we could learn. But, clearly this has not been the case.
We, however, are a very curious community. And, so, we will embark on an exploratory journey of the gnostic gospels over the course of three weeks. We begin with a brief introduction.
“Gnosis” means “to know”, hence a “gnostic” is someone who believed they had special knowledge, and direct experience of the divine. Scholars had some awareness of these “gnostics” for a long time, but only through what their critics said about them. By the fourth century the gnostic gospels (as we know them now) were considered heretical and it was a criminal offense to be in possession of them. Many, many of the non-canonical writings were destroyed. It was only with a chance discovery in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, that 52 texts came to light and finally gave us a glimpse into the theology, practices and stories of the various gnostic communities. These codices date around 350-400 CE, but come from originals that could have been as early or earlier than the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
It would be mistaken of us to assume that all gnostics thought alike; however, there seem to be some consistent themes:
- Self-knowledge is knowledge of God; God is within
- Jesus was a spiritual guide, not a god
- God as Mother and Father
- Jesus speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not sin and repentance
- Focus on knowing/enlightenment, not sin/salvation
- Resurrection was symbolic
- Authority in God and personal experience of the Divine (not church or church hierarchy)
- Evil is internal emotional distress, not violence against others
It seems like when gnosticism was forced underground, or destroyed, that we lost a piece (or pieces) of the Christian puzzle. Some of these pieces appear to directly answer some of the spiritual questions of our day, so perhaps this is the right time for these documents to come to light. In the words of the Gospel of Thomas, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds.”