As we continue our look at the gnostic writings, here is the scoop on early Christianity’s stance on the resurrection of Christ. The orthodox church held that the resurrection of Jesus literally happened and the twelve original apostles were the special recipients of his bodily resurrection visitations. Peter was the most special of all, having been the first of the twelve to experience the risen Christ (never mind the women, and especially Mary Magdalene, who were the first to see him in three of the gospels), and so was considered chosen by Jesus to be the first pope.
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Being one of the twelve apostles, and one of the original witnesses of the risen Christ, were the criteria for Christian authority. Anyone outside of this circle had no authority to experience God, to interpret scripture, to proclaim anything outside of the bounds of what the twelve were teaching. This set the stage for apostolic success, the doctrine that all popes follow in succession of Peter, and all ordained priests and deacons are ordained by someone who has been ordained by the pope. One did not question what this line of authority teaches, and one did not seek to connect directly with God, but went through the priest or saint as an intermediary.
Gnostic Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus was metaphorical and symbolic. To be dead was to be spiritually dead, to be caught up in the material world, to be driven by one’s ego, to be disconnected from the Divine, love and compassion. Resurrection, on the other hand, was to be spiritually alive:
[Resurrection] is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness. For imperishability descends upon the perishable; the light flows down upon the darkness, swallowing it up; and the [divine fullness] fills up the deficiency… (Treatise on Resurrection)
To the gnostics, the spiritual path was to seek resurrection, and once one experienced it, their first-hand knowledge of the Divine served as the only religious/spiritual authority they needed. They believed that God didn’t stop speaking once Jesus ascended. The spirit of the Living God continued to speak in a myriad of different ways, and so, they believed, certainly spirituality should evolve over time. You can see how “the Church” might frown on this.
Personally, I believe that whether one takes the resurrection literally or figuratively is not the point. I believe the most important part of this is for our individual experiences of the Divine to be validated and valued. The Catholic Church has told us that ultimate authority lies in the pope and the priests. Protestants have told us that ultimate authority lies in the Bible, and that there is no question that the Bible can’t answer. But, for those of us who have known that the Divine is to be found within, that God is still speaking, and that we should be evolving spiritually, can rejoice at having the affirmation from early Christians who felt the same way.