Over the last couple of years, my dad and I have been having the greatest conversations. I consider myself very blessed; I’m not sure how many people get to have deep conversations about theology or spirituality with their dads these days, even if they don’t always see things the same.
For the last few years, my dad has been intrigued by the Gnostic Gospels and what they bring to the table of the conversation about faith history, the development of theologies, and such. He’s recently read some intriguing books by Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief. I have no idea how he found them, but I enjoy the dialog we’re in.
Before I knew my dad had been reading the books above, I picked up Judas and the Gospel of Jesus by N.T. Wright at a local discount bookstore for maybe $2. I guess I thought it would be a nice read someday. Well, since the conversations I’ve been having, I remembered I had this book stashed away on the shelf, found it, and started reading it. Enlightening! I’m learning a great deal about more than Gnostic Gospels – the early church, being reminded of Jesus the Messiah being absolutely Jewish in context (that there would be a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven), and other elements of Jesus, the real person, the real God-Man.
So, why is this even a question for my dad and myself?
It’s more than intrigue and curiosity. For many people, there’s a deep skepticism of a church that has felt and been pitched historically at times as controlling, manipulative, and only out for political gain. Sadly, that is a part of the Church’s history. Sadly, there have been many times and experiences in history where eyes have been taken off Jesus and his Way and placed on things like political gain, personal pride, or others.
As for my dad – I think he brings some of that experience, that personal experience of a controlling church. (I’ll have to post this later as another story about Dad’s LDS mission to Australia in the late 60′s and how he felt things to be insincere and controlling.)
At any rate, I can see, as Wright writes in his book, that the Gnostic Gospels have become intriguing today because they carry an allure of an alternative, that the power-hungry church is quite wrong and misled, and that Jesus had come to provide an alternative spiritual life that was a form of spiritual escapism, zipping off to some other non-physical plane of existence when you died. That’s the Gnostic teaching. I have enjoyed Wright’s book because it helps me remember the historical Jesus, the one rooted in Jewish anticipation of God’s Kingdom coming, and the one who viewed resurrection not as some kind of spiritually zipping off into a non-physical plane of existence, but rather a real, physical, bodily resurrection and a restoration of creation.
Other helpful considerations I’ve had about the Gnostic Gospels:
They’re written at the earliest within the mid-2nd Century, CE. This places them at a distance from the Canonical Gospels in Scripture.
Within the Canonical Gospels, we see something rooted in Jewish anticipation – the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. Within the Gnostics, we see the development of a different theology/spirituality that is more in line with Greco-Roman mystery religions of the day than a Jewish belief.
The Jewish system would clash with Rome; the Gnostic system would be accepted by Rome because of its similarity to the culture of the day and because it posed no threat to the empire by speaking of a different lord or king – titles reserved from Caesar alone.
The canonical Gospels are a narrative of Jesus; the Gnostic Gospels are mostly a collection of sayings of Jesus – wisdom pieces.
I do appreciate being able to read the Gnostics, to hear about other views of life and spirituality within the early church. However, they’re a very different piece of literature than the Gospels within the Bible today. The Jesus they mention is a Jesus unconcerned with the physical or with the notion of God coming to earth to bring peace and life. Instead, everything turns into a divine escape plan.
I think I’ll have to write some more about the Gnostics sometime later…