“What is truth?” Pilate asked — a question worthy of a philosopher. For nearly two millennia Christian theologians, clergy, and laymen alike have tried to answer this question and define their identity as people “of the truth.”

 

But conflicts soon arose over what Jesus taught, and visible borders began to be inscribed defining truth and error, right views and heresy, and, inevitably, “our God and your god” — a tragic paradox in a faith that teaches gentle loving wisdom. Discerning Jesus’ actual teachings is another paradox. “Seek and you will find” is commended in both Testaments, and our surest answer is said to be in our hearts. But as to scripture and tradition, who defines truth and what is spiritually authentic?

 

A Diversity of Belief:

In the first three centuries after Jesus there were widely diverse Christian communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Different groups with differing ideas about what Jesus taught, who/what Jesus was, and who taught different things. These included:

 

  • the Jewish-Christian Ebionites;
  • the anti-Jewish Marcionites,
  • a variety of groups now called ‘Gnostic’;
  • and groups which were the forerunners of today’s Christian Church – the ‘Proto-Orthodox’.

 

There was then no monolithic Church; no formally defined New Testament; no ruling orthodoxy; wide disagreement about the observance of Jewish law and basic theological issues such as the Resurrection and the Divinity of Jesus.

 

Winners and Losers:

Saint Paul reinterpreted and transformed the teachings of a relatively small Jewish esoteric sect into a growing Gentile movement proclaiming the risen Christ. Irenaueus (130-202AD) Bishop of Lyon, fathered a church orthodoxy that became normative theology for virtually all Christians today.

The First Council of Nicea in 325AD formulated our traditional view of Christ today under pressure from the Emperor Constantine and epitomized in the Nicene Creed (amended in 381AD) and repeated in most churches at Sunday services throughout the Christian world today.

Research into the diversity of early Christian belief has been well summarized in Bart Ehrman’s: Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew – 2003.

 

The Ebionites: Ebionites were Jewish Christians who did not reject Judaism. They held that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but at baptism had been “adopted” by God as the most righteous man on earth. In addition to Hebrew scriptures, they appear to have accepted Matthew’s gospel, or an edited version of it (e.g., no nativity story of a virgin birth), but strenuously opposed Paul as an apostate from the Law, especially for allowing male Gentiles to remain uncircumcised, the sign of the covenant. As to secret teachings, aside from the virtually certain inference of Jewish esotericism, there are several references in the Pseudo-Clementine literature used by the Ebionites, e.g., “the true gospel must be secretly sent abroad for the rectification of heresies that shall be” (Homilies 2.17).

 

The Marcionites: At the other pole were the Marcionites, founded by the second-century theologian, Marcion, son of a Christian bishop and a bishop himself. This well-organized community was regarded by the orthodox church as perhaps its most dangerous foe. Revering Paul as the only true apostle and Christ’s gospel as a universal message, Marcion attempted to purge Christianity of its Jewish elements, even to formulate his own Christian canon:  ten letters of Paul and an abridged version of Luke.

He had been troubled by the dichotomy between the wrathful, vengeful, and harshly punitive God of the Hebrew Bible and the loving, merciful, and forgiving God preached by Jesus.

He came to understand that there was not one, but two gods:

 

  • the previously-unknown God over all “separated by an infinite distance”

 

  • from the just (but not evil) God of Genesis who created man and the material world.

 

Sent by the former, Christ was neither the promised messiah nor was he born of a woman. Rather he was a divine manifestation: a ‘docetic’ [docetic means: the doctrine, important in Gnosticism, that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent.] “phantasm” who died on the cross to redeem mankind from the ownership of its inferior creator. Marcion’s doctrine rejected bodily resurrection, affirming instead liberation from this material world through strict asceticism and faith in the promise of eternal life with the God above all.

 

The Christian Gnostics attempted to address, among other questions, the problem of why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Their writings depict the material world as the imperfect (sometimes evil) creation of an ignorant creator, usually identified with Yahweh (Jehovah), though often under other names.

Not all Gnostic groups shared this theology and it is impossible to synthesize their views, presuppositions, religious perspectives into one monolithic system. However most groups believed in some or all of the elements listed below:

 

  • Gnostic thought distinguished between the supreme God and the creator.

 

  • The supreme God was separated from the God of the Old Testament.

 

  • Matter was considered to be independent and eternal.

 

  • The created world was the product either of an evil being or of an intermediary acting out of hostility to the supreme God.

 

  • Evil was a force inherent in matter.

 

  • Christ revealed a previously unknown God.

 

  • Gnostic Christology distinguished Jesus in his human appearance from the heavenly Christ.

 

  • Humans were divided into two or three classes, depending on whether they possessed spirit (pneuma), soul (psyche), or only a material (hylic) nature. Only the spiritual were “capable of Gnosis and the divine life . . . in virtue of their constitution.”

 

  • Gnostics rejected the second coming, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment, waiting only for delivery from the sensuous world into the heavenly Pleroma, the “fullness” of God’s kingdom.

 

Gnostics and Buddhists share four basic assumptions:

(1) Salvation by Gnosis or Jnana (the words share the same Indo-European root),

 

(2) Ignorance (i.e., blindness to the true facts of existence) is the cause of evil,

 

(3) Knowledge is derived solely from revelation which each one has to experience within himself, and

 

(4) The crucial role of Wisdom in each system.

Scholars realize that the inner content of secret gospels remains largely hidden and that Christian origins are still shrouded in mystery. However diverse and complex its expressions, Gnosis by its own definition requires its ethics be lived if its “secret” is to be revealed.

Even then gnosis offers two fundamentally different paths to the truthseeker: personal escape from the evils and suffering of the world or, like the bodhisattva of compassion, to remain and help transform it with the light of knowledge and divine wisdom.

Information on Gnosticism has been provided to modern scholars largely from the discovery of the ‘Naj Hammadi Library’ of early Christian writings in 1945. Also known as the “Chenoboskion Manuscripts” and the “Gnostic Gospels” is a collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.

Thirteen leather-bound vellum codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local farmer named Muhammed al-Samman. The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic treatises, but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation/alteration of Plato’s Republic. In his introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson suggests that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery and were buried after Saint Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D. The discovery of these texts significantly influenced modern scholarship into early Christianity and Gnosticism.

The contents of the codices were written in the Coptic language. The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery, scholars recognized that fragments of these sayings attributed to Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898 and matching quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. Subsequently, a 1st or 2nd century date of composition circa 80 AD or earlier has been proposed for the lost Greek originals of the Gospel of Thomas. The buried manuscripts date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The Nag Hammadi codices are currently housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt. [from Wikipedia].

 

The Proto-Orthodox (ie ‘orthodox’ in the sense of being the forerunners of modern Christianity):

 The “proto-orthodox” were mainly the early Christian theologians whose views prevailed over other quarrelling bishops at the 4th-century Nicene council.  Having “won” the sanction of Constantine and subsequent Roman emperors, they commenced their suppression of rival “heresies,” especially Gnostic groups, chose the “approved” texts, revised church history, resulting in the loss of many Christian voices that deserve to be heard today.

 

More details on this fascinating subject are available at: Thackara, WTS: Secret Gospels and Lost Christianities at: http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/sunrise/53-03-4/xt-wtst.htm

 

Further reading:

  • Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Random House, New York, 2003; ISBN 0375501568, 258 pages.
  • Marvin Meyer, Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark, Trinity Press Int’l, Harrisburg, PA, 2003; ISBN 1563384094, 208 pages.
  • Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003; ISBN 0195141830, 336 pages.
  • Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Harper One, ISBN 9780061778186.
  • Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2003; ISBN 067401071x, 358 pages.

 

If you wish to contact the author please email: andrewrooke@hotmail.com