In preparing to reach CH601 (Ancient Church) this fall, I’ve been reading a lot of primary and secondary texts that I’ve not read or that I’ve not read for a long time. One of the more interesting has been Simon Gathercole’s book, The Gospel of Judas: Re-Writing Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Gathercole is a very good writer and tells a fascinating story with a number of threads. The first of which is the mystery of the discovery, virtual destruction, and reconstruction of the text of the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” It’s a story of greed and stupidity. Another thread concerns the commercial investment made by companies in this fourth century coptic text (probably a translation of an older Greek text) so that it became a vehicle not just for scholarly study but for commercial exploitation via sensationalism. It also became another vehicle for the promotion of Gnosticism as either the “true” (a typically gnostic thing to claim) Christianity or the original version of Christianity later displaced arbitrarily by “orthodoxy.”
There is a great debate in the academic literature about how to define “Gnosticism.” Broadly defined, it is teaches an ontological dualism between “evil” matter and “good” spirit (immaterial). It teaches “salvation” from evil matter by the acquisition, through revelation, of special knowledge (gnosis) of the true nature of things. When Christians have tried to synthesize Gnosticism to Christianity it has meant the denial of the true humanity of Jesus and the radical separation of the Old and New Testaments. The ancient gnostics denied that Yahweh was “God.” They referred to him as a “god” or a “demiurge.” In the “Gospel of Judas,” the Jesus character is more satanic than Son of God.” He mocks the piety of the disciples, he mocks them for giving thanks to a “god” who demands thanks. Hmm, this all sounds very familiar. Something about a serpent and “has God really said?”
A third thread in Gathercole’s book is the story of the spiritual relationship some of the scholars came to have to the text. The study of gnosticism, in the modern period, has not been just an academic exercise. This is not to say that there have not been scholars of Gnosticism who have not been dispassionate, fair, and careful in their analysis but there has also been a sizable lot of advocate-scholars who are themselves gnostics and who want others to become gnostics.
Of course The lure of Gnosticism is great. As Peter Jones has been pointing out for years, it fundamentally reverses the natural Creator/creature relationship. It offers deification to the creature while it marginalizes the God of the bible as an evil demiurge. It turns Jesus into a master of spiritual enlightenment rather than the God-Man who obeyed for us, died for us, was raised for our justification and who is coming again in power and glory to judge the earth.
It’s ironic that gnosticism should be such a nasty, this-worldly, political business. It’s ironic because the whole point of gnosticism is to escape this “evil” material world. The history of gnosticism, however, is a history of misrepresentation, lies, and outright deception. It’s been going on since before the apostolic fathers. Indeed, there are more than a few indications that some of the very same threads that coalesced into “gnosticism” proper existed during the apostolic age. Prior to the crisis that prompted the Nicene Creed, perhaps no other issue so dominated the attention of the ancient church as the attempt by the gnostics to corrupt the text of Scripture, to corrupt the story of Scripture, and to turn the faith on its head.
This post first appeared on the HB in 2008.