The Gnostics: Heretics or Highbrows?
Last Sunday’s bulletin announced that I would like to respond as often as possible in sermons this year to your specific requests. I was delighted to have the first volunteer at the close of that same worship hour. One of our finest wondered whether we know anything about the home life of Jesus, and whether there is any reason why he should not have been married and had children. A quick answer to both of those is “No,” but they raise deeper issues I would like to address in this sermon. Although Jesus lived at least a decade past the time most Jewish young men would have married, there is utter silence both in and out of Christian scripture about his marital status. We assume from the silence that he was not married, but silence is not proof. As to whether there is any valid theological reason why he should not have been married, with children, I would say “No” out of my view of his life. Not if he was truly human, as the church claims to believe. One of the most vivid stories in the gospels has him at a wedding, blessing it by his presence, helping the wedding party when they run out of wine. There is never anywhere a hint that he did not see marriage as a natural part of life.
But the questions have their roots in a deeper and more profound issue: the true nature of Jesus. The church has always paid lipservice to his genuine humanity but you can’t spend any time at all in most churches without realizing that what they really stress is his divine nature. He is both God and man, they say, but you have all surely felt at times the inherent difficulty in that statement. How can we really understand someone to be truly human who is also a God? It is a contradiction in terms, and we tend not to confront it except as a creedal statement uttered without much thought. So what has happened in the church is this: most who profess to believe in the dual nature of Jesus play up his divinity and ignore, for all practical purposes, his humanity. They do this even though Jesus seems to have preferred the title “Son of Man” in speaking of himself, a title which surely points to a real kinship with us, and even though he once said to a certain man, “Why do you ask me concerning what is good? There is only One who is good” — a remark which is either false modesty or else clearly suggests that he did not place himself on a par with God. But if that is what he meant, the early church quickly elevated him to Godhood anyway, and composed a sacred book to perpetuate their conviction. So no wonder his followers have held different opinions of his life, from the first century to the 20th. Was Jesus of Nazareth a mysterious clone of God himself and only masquerading as one of us, or was he a unique but truly human being who deserved the title “Son of God” because he so totally gave himself to learning and doing the will of God? One thing is absolutely certain: in every century Christians who answered those questions differently have lived equally splendid lives.
I was taught as a child that Christianity, with its doctrines and scripture and institutions, all appeared in harmonious perfection and that conflicting interpretations came along much later. Nothing could be further from the truth. Orthodoxy evolved slowly and painfully through bitter battles over the nature of Jesus, the role of women, leadership in the church, even the meaning of the resurrection. Some of this is reflected in the Christian scripture we now use, but far more of it was lost as powerful churches and bishops developed orthodox interpretations and branded as heretics those who disagreed — consigning them to obscurity and destroying their books. We know this from the voluminous writings of early church “Fathers” like Irenaeus and Clement and Tertullian and others, but within the lifetime of many of us in this room a sensational discovery has proved that early Christianity was even more diverse and divided than we had thought.
In December of 1945 an Arab peasant, digging around a massive boulder near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt struck with his spade a large red clay pot. He did not break it open at first for fear it might be the home of an evil spirit, but the thought that it might, on the other hand, contain gold overcame his reluctance and he smashed it. His face fell when he found nothing….except 13 papyrus books bound in leather. Too ignorant to suspect they might be worth more than their weight in gold, he took them home and dumped the books and some loose papyrus leaves on straw next to the oven. His mother admitted later that she burned many of the leaves, along with the straw she used to kindle fires. By chance a local history teacher saw one of the books and sent it to Cairo where it, and the rest of the books — written, it turned out, in an ancient language known as Coptic — were placed in Cairo’s Coptic Museum. What happened over the next 40 years is traced in this brilliant book by Elaine Pagels which I bought to read on vacation last month.
When a distinguished Dutch historian of religion first heard, years ago, of the Coptic manuscripts he flew to Cairo and began to decipher them. Tracing out the first line he was startled and then astonished to read: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” The Gospel of Thomas….did Jesus really have a twin? Was this an authentic record of the sayings of Jesus? Some of it sounds like the gospels we have, some of it is very different. Among the other books found at Nag Hammadi were the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel to the Egyptians. What were these books, and why had they been buried for so many centuries?
They turned out to be Coptic translations, made about 1500 years ago, of still more ancient manuscripts written in Greek — the language of the New Testament. A contemporary Harvard scholar (Helmut Koester) thinks the Gospel of Thomas may include some traditions even older than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As to why they were hidden, the answer is that in the critical struggle for the formation of early Christianity these texts, and others like them, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the 2nd century. We have known for a long time that many early followers of Jesus were condemned by other followers as heretics, but nearly all we knew about them came from what their opponents wrote, attacking them. The fury of that campaign suggests that those called “heretics” were dangerously persuasive, and when Christianity became a state religion under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, possessing unorthodox books became a criminal offense and seized copies were burned. But in Upper Egypt, someone, possibly a monk, took a little library of such books and hid them from destruction in that tall clay pot where they lay in silent oblivion for almost 1600 years.
Understand that the ones who wrote these books did not regard themselves as heretics. They felt they had knowledge that many others lacked. We know them as “gnostics,” from the Greek word gnosis , usually translated as “knowledge.” We very commonly use the word agnostic (not-knowing); these early Christians saw themselves as gnostics, (knowers) although as they use the term it seems more like “insight.” Some of their books are so mystical I find it hard to make much sense of them, but others express clearly certain ideas the early church called heretical as it tried to shape its creed but which are now held by many, many Christians who go to church every Sunday.
Like what? Well, to come back to the question that prompted these remarks, while the orthodox Christianity that won out insisted Jesus is the Son of God in a unique way, the gnostics quote Jesus as saying that true disciples have their being from the same source. He was a God’s child, we can be the same. They refused to accept the idea that the church in Rome, which became preeminent in the second century, had the right to exercise authority over what others believed. To put it in the simplest terms, they believed in a principle dear to Congregationalists: the priesthood of all believers. You can imagine how well this went over by 200 A.D. when the church had become a highly structured institution headed up by a hierarchy of bishops and priests who saw themselves as guardians of the only true faith. Bishop Irenaeus, for example, insisted that there is only one true church and out of that there is no salvation. This one true church, he said, must be “catholic,” that is, “universal” — and anyone who argued for any other form of Christian teaching should be expelled as a heretic.
Although there are now thousands of Christian ministers who understand the resurrection of Jesus as a spiritual rather than a physical event, when the gnostics explained it that way they were branded as heretics without hope. Gnostics, I must say, did not help their case by being arrogant in what they held to be their superior wisdom. They scoffed at the idea of a literal resurrection as “the faith of fools,” an insensitive remark certain to inflame the keepers of orthodoxy. They served their cause better when they described the resurrection story as a way of saying that death did not end the influence of Christ’s life and that the living Christ can be encountered by anyone in any century….an encounter, they would claim, which is itself a “resurrection.” Bishop Irenaeus, guardian of orthodoxy, ridiculed them in words reminiscent of the language used to this day by fundamentalist Christians against those they consider liberal: “They imagine themselves,” Irenaeus wrote, “to have discovered more than the apostles. They think they are wiser and more intelligent than the apostles.”
But what really irritated the orthodox, male-dominated early church was that many of the gnostics were first-century feminists. Their texts include a feminine element in the divine, celebrating God as both Father and Mother, and they made no bones about calling the majority heretics for not realizing this. Mary Magdalen, as you recall, is presented in John’s gospel as the first person to see the risen Christ, and the gnostic Gospel of Mary depicts her as one favored with visions and insights far beyond those even of the Apostle Peter. You can imagine how that played! The gnostics turned their theory into practice: not only did they break down the wall between clergy and laypeople, but they made women equal in worship , as — horror of horrors! — we do. So the church father Tertullian protests, exclaiming that among the gnostics women actually teach and engage in discussions and heal people. He suspects that they may even baptize, which would mean — God forbid! — that they were acting as if they were bishops.
Bishop Irenaeus notes with passionate dismay that women were especially attracted to these heretical gnostic groups. “Even in our own district of the Rhone valley,” he admits, the Gnostic teacher Marcus has attracted “many foolish women” from his own congregation, including the wife of one of Irenaeus’ own deacons. This may help you understand why what are now called the pseudo-Pauline epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy, Ephesians, and Titus – insist so vigorously that women should be quiet and subservient in church, never usurping authority over a man, asking her husband at home if she needs information. The Apostle Paul, in a letter accepted without question as genuine, says that “in Christ there is neither male nor female” but the church has been agonizingly slow to recognize that principle. Nearly 2000 years later, in 1977, Pope Paul the Sixth could still declare, with extraordinary logic, that a woman cannot be a priest “because our Lord was a man”! Do you wonder any longer why the powerful male leaders of the early organized church condemned the gnostics as heretics? They were goofy enough in a great many ways to get them called heretics, , but ideas like the priesthood of all believers, and a non-literal resurrection, and the equality of women guaranteed that they would be a squelched minority.
Their ideas did not lend themselves to a mass religious movement in superstitious times and they were no match for the highly effective system of the organized church. But as Elaine Pagels, a world-renowned student of gnosticism admits, the church would probably not have survived without organization and orthodoxy. Ideas alone do not make a religion powerful, although it cannot succeed without them. Equally important are the social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation. So, Gnostic Christianity was no match for the institutional church, but it is useful and perhaps encouraging, to know that there were dissenting views….especially if some of them coincide with our own!
I can’t know at this moment your reaction to my attempts to answer a question that was asked in all sincerity. I’m sure the person who asked it could not have dreamed it would lead me into a discussion of gnosticism and of how through the centuries the church has walked through a veritable minefield of differing opinions, passionately held. What I hope is that such a history will convince you all over again that we will never unite on a single creed or theory of interpretation, and that perhaps Jesus himself understood such things when he said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” Not by whether we all understand certain theological issues exactly the same, but by whether we bear the fruits of love and justice in all those places where we spend our time when we are not in church.
We go from this place to remember that we have in song
and prayer and sermon exercised both heart and mind, and
in remembering to find the strength we need to seek justice
and to create brotherhood in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.