Hiding and Seeking
I know a certain gospel which is called The Gospel according to Thomas, and a Gospel according to Matthias, and many others have we readlest we should in any way be considered ignorant.... Nevertheless, among all these, we have approved solely what the church has recognized, which is that only the four gospels should be accepted.
SCHOLARS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT often argue as to which of the words attributed to Jesus might plausibly have come from his mouth. One criterion used in this debate is that of difficulty, namely that a passage which would have seemed baffling or off-putting to early Christians is more likely to be authentic, since no early writer would have dared to invent it. Early editors recorded the story because a strong tradition linked it to Jesus himself, so that it was not to be denied or tampered with lightly. By this standard, some scholars feel that one saying that is likely to be genuine concerns the woman who carries a jar full of meal. Unknown to her, the jar cracked while she was walking home, and by the time she arrived home, the jar was empty. The story ends provocatively, irritatingly, at that point, allowing hearers to deduce from it any meanings which might seem appropriate. In his book on current views of Jesus, Russell Shorto describes this as "one of the strangest and most alluring of the parables," a prime example of the startling, counterintuitive, and even frustrating teachings of the Master. According to the Jesus Seminar, that body ofcriticalscholars whose attempts to determine the actual words of Jesus have been so widely publicized, this parable is classified as probably authentic, which is a rating higher than that given to the vast majority of the best-known sayings in the New Testament (not a word of the Gospel of John receives so positive a judgment).
Though this story echoes many well-known parables attributed to Jesus, it is not familiar to most readers, even to those with a thorough knowledge of the New Testament, simply because it is not found in our Bibles: the account of the woman with the jar of meal comes instead from a text called the Gospel of Thomas. In other words, at least some contemporary scholars present as probably genuine a saying of Jesus which is not recorded in the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but which is exclusively found in a document of which most people had never heard before the 1950s. Nor is this example unique. Thomas is widely quoted as authoritative in modern studies which seek to rediscover the historical Jesus, and these same works cite a battery of other gospels with unfamiliar titles, gospels attributed to Mary Magdalen, Peter, and others. Gospel texts bear the names of the Egyptians and the Hebrews, and dozens or hundreds of others are known, at least by name, and some survive in fragmentary form.
For nonspecialist readers, the very existence of texts with such names can be tantalizing, if not shocking. Not much Bible literacy is needed to know that there are, or should be, only four gospels, so just what are Thomas and the others? Did Mary Magdalen really have a gospel devoted to her? Or did Thomas, Philip, Peter, or some other disciple write such a thing? Not only do these other gospels existthough they are certainly not by the actual apostlesbut distinguished scholars treat these works as serious historical sources. For the lay public, respectful references to Thomas and the rest are puzzling, since the concept of "gospel" is so embedded in our culture and language. Still, after decades of secularization, gospels symbolize an absolute standard of truth: people swear on the gospel, and the very phrase "gospel truth" indicates unwavering certainty. The existence of newly discovered gospels suggests that the Bible itself might not be as clearly defined as most people believe. And if the other gospels existed, why have such treasures been lost or hidden in the first place: was it because they contained unpopular or subversive truths? Other questions come to mind: are these other so-called gospels true in anything like the same sense as the texts we know, as valuable perhaps as the documents in the New Testament? Do they tell us anything new or startling about Jesus himself? And does the existence of such alternative gospels require a radical revision of what we think of as Christianity?
In many ways, the answers to these questions are disappointing. Though the rediscovered texts are very informative about the byways of early church belief, in very few cases do they reveal anything of significance about the times of Jesus and the apostles, or indeed about the first century of the Christian era. Even the few exceptions to this statement, namely, Thomas and the hypothetical text known as the Q gospel, tell us much less about the earliest ages than their advocates like to believe. The vastly exaggerated claims made on behalf of these gospels are more revealing about what contemporary scholars and writers would like to find about the first Christian ages, and how these ideas are communicated, accurately or otherwise, to a mass public. The alternative gospels are thus very important sources, if not for the beginnings of Christianity, then for what they tell us about the interest groups who seek to use them today; about the mass media, and how religion is packaged as popular culture; about how canons shift their content to reflect the values of the reading audience; and more generally, about the changing directions of contemporary American religion.
Discussions of the "other gospels" generally focus on the spectacular haul of over fifty texts which were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These documents had been concealed in the late fourth century, presumably by someone who felt (reasonably enough) that if they were not concealed, the texts would be destroyed by heresy-hunting vigilantes. The best-known text from the Nag Hammadi treasure trove was the Gospel of Thomas, which in the last two decades has widely, if controversially, been attributed a degree of authority little less than that of the four gospelsand perhaps a great deal more. Other items in this collection supplied countless alternative views of Christianity: though only four explicitly bore the title of "gospels," dozens claimed to record the words or deeds of Jesus. New Testament scholar Marvin Meyer has described the Nag Hammadi collection as "just as precious, and perhaps even more precious" than the texts in the New Testament.
Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in Palestine two years later, the Nag Hammadi collection quickly became available to the general public. Thomas was translated into English in 1959, and over the coming years the work excited a flurry of media attention. A new wave of interest followed in the late 1970s, when all the Nag Hammadi texts were made available in translation as The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977), and Elaine Pagels published her influential account of The Gnostic Gospels (1979). Pagels's book, a masterpiece of popularization, immediately became a favorite item in church reading groups no less than college classrooms.
Since the 1970s, scholars working on Jesus and Christian origins have made much use of the Nag Hammadi collection, as well as other related texts such as the Gospel of Mary, which had been known previously, but which only now became generally available. Based on these long-lost texts, countless popular books and media reports suggest a picture of Christian origins quite at variance with standard accounts, and present the hidden gospels as the precious remains of a whole lost world of ancient Christianity. The suppressed gospels indicate the existence of alternative currents within the startlingly diverse Jesus movement, or The Way, as it was probably known before anyone coined the term Christianity.
The impact of the new sources is not hard to comprehend. Traditionally, the story of primitive Christianity told how the church developed organically from the time of the apostles: though this community had to fight off some serious rivals over the years, the voice of true Christianity was always associated with one clearly identifiable mainstream church. There was never any doubt about which was the one true path, namely, orthodoxy, and which were the byways, the heresies. Rival groups with unfamiliar names such as the Gnostics and Montanists, Ebionites and Marcionites, were deviant breakaway sects, historical dead-ends doomed to extinction. In the case of some heretical factions, scholars even doubted whether they were Christian in anything more than name. Today, though, we commonly read that there existed in the first Christian centuries an enormous range of doctrines and practices, all equally legitimate, all with equal right to boast a link to Jesus and his first apostles. No particular path should ipso facto be labeled orthodoxy or heresy. What later became orthodoxy, the Catholic Church, originally held no privileged position, but was just one strand of opinion among many: it was not a case of the mainstream versus the heresies, but rather a struggle of competing mainstreams. Following the subtitle of a recent book, this is a story of "How Jesus Inspired Not One True Christianity, but Many."
In the modern vision, too, the classic four gospels have lost their privileged position. Traditionally, a clear and straightforward division separated the classic four gospels, which were early and reliable sources for the life of Jesus, and the apocryphal texts, which were late and spurious. The word apocrypha comes from the same root as crypt or cryptic, and literally signifies that the works in question are "hidden." In modern English usage, an apocryphal story is one of dubious origin, far removed from reliable fact. To speak of a story as apocryphal is to label it a rumor, perhaps an urban legend, so how could an apocryphal text possibly claim to possess gospel certainty? Already in the second and third centuries, some orthodox Fathers of the early church used "apocryphal" as synonymous with "forged" or "false." Today, though, it is argued that the other currents of early Christianity also had their own gospel traditions, quite distinct from those we have known over the centuries. These works might even be "apocryphal" in the positive sense of that word found among other ancient religions, namely, material that was hidden from anyone unqualified to receive these weighty mysteries.
The existence of these early gospels raises troubling questions about the limits of the New Testament and its approved list of contents. Since the fourth and fifth centuries, twenty-seven books constitute the New Testament canon, which is the Greek word for "rule": literally, the canonical texts are the "regular" books. But why is Luke canonical, and Thomas not? With so many hidden gospels now brought to light, it is now often claimed that the four gospels were simply four among many of roughly equal worth, and the alternative texts gave just as valid a picture of Jesus as the texts we have today. When we read the gospel texts found at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere, we are rediscovering quite authentic records of the earliest Christianityor should we rather speak of Christianities?
According to the modern account of the emerging church, the spectrum of acceptable Christian opinions narrowed dramatically over time. As orthodoxy won, it proceeded to destroy its rivals and their texts, in which the vindictive mainstream church found so many subversive ideas. The winners then declared their favored texts canonical, and the losers became apocryphal. The four gospels survived a kind of Darwinian struggle because they were favored by the churches and religious traditions which eventually arrogated to themselves the names of catholic and orthodox, by the Great Church that achieved political power when the Roman Empire was converted in the early fourth century. To quote a book produced by the Jesus Seminar, "With the Council of Nicaea in 325, the orthodox party solidified its hold on the Christian tradition, and other wings of the Christian movement were choked off." If political accident had resulted in the triumph of other groups, then presumably the distinctive texts of these "other wings of the movement" would have become the Christian norm. In that eventuality, perhaps, works such as Luke and Mark would then have vanished from view, with the last surviving copies buried in a jar in some Egyptian desert or Judaean cave. At the same time, our histories would relegate the upholders of what we call orthodoxy to the position of minor heretical thinkers, on the margins of Christian development. The winners chose the canon, and on grounds of political expediency rather than historical judgment.
While the implacable orthodox church felt that destroying its rivals was necessary to preserve the purity of true Christianity from Satanic pollution, many modern scholars have a far greater sympathy for the texts and ideas which, often literally, went underground. Elaine Pagels writes that today, "We now begin to see that what we call Christianityand what we identify as Christian traditionactually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Who made that selection, and for what reasons?" The loss of the almost limitless diversity of early Christian thought is commonly seen as a lamentable suppression of much that was most valuable in the Jesus tradition. Conversely, modern accounts portray the mainstream church as suspect and devious, and the canonical gospels as weapons wielded by the powerful.
While the newly found documents have enriched our understanding of the early Christian movement, many scholars also believe that they have revolutionized the study of the world of Jesus himself. The pioneering Quest of the Historical Jesus followed the emergence of critical historical methods in the nineteenth century, which was described in a classic book by Albert Schweitzer. The second quest followed in the 1960s and 1970s, and was swiftly followed by a distinct "third quest" in the 1980s and 1990s. (We can debate whether each of these supposed events was a discrete phenomenon, or whether it was in fact a phase in a continuing endeavor.) In large measure, this latest quest is distinguished from its predecessors by the discovery of new sources of information, above all, the hidden gospels. According to some scholars, we finally have access to documents and other resources which had been unavailable since not long after the time of the apostles: only at the end of the twentieth century did it become possible to gain an understanding of Jesus and his age infinitely superior to that of the past sixty or seventy benighted generations. To quote Stevan L. Davies, "For nineteen hundred years or so the canonical texts of the New Testament were the sole source of historically reliable knowledge concerning Jesus of Nazareth. In 1945, this circumstance changed" (the reference is to the finding of the complete text of Thomas).
Much of the attention received by the hidden gospels reflects the advocacy of the Jesus Seminar. Fundamental to the Seminar's approach is what the group's founder Robert Funk has called "the end of canonical imperialism," the determination not to be constrained by only those sources approved by imperial and ecclesiastical authorities over the centuries. In 1993, the Seminar group published their new edition of The Five Gospels, in which they state that "foremost among the reasons for a new translation is the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas." Throughout the writings of Seminar Fellows, Thomas is used as a yardstick to assess the accuracy of words attributed to Jesus. Seminar members have also been diligently engaged in publishing other suppressed texts, and have presented a major collection which boasts the title The Complete Gospels. This volume "presents for the first time anywhere all twenty of the known gospels from the early Christian era.... Each of these gospel records offers fresh glimpses into the world of Jesus and his followers." This effort is advertised as an attempt to restore the suppressed scriptures to the lay public, much as Luther and the early Protestant reformers gave the people the Bible in their own vernacular tongue.
If we can believe some claims about the hidden gospels, then this historical Jesus was utterly different from what most of us would have imagined until very recently. According to readings of Thomas and its like, the earliest Jesus Way was nothing like the religious system which it ultimately became, the world of Churchianity. Instead of focusing on concepts such as sin and judgment, redemption and otherworldly salvation, early Jesus followers were seekers after mystical illumination, of heavenly Wisdom. Neither hierarchical nor liturgical, the movement was individualistic, egalitarian, and intoxicatingly diverse. Based on Thomas, it is claimed that Jesus' "message is strongly counter-cultural: he shuns materialism and directs the reader towards the simple life, a spiritual existence.... Jesus here is not a messiah but a social radical, telling listeners to reject society's phony piety and the hollow values of the business world." This Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is present and attainable here and now, within each follower: he mocks concepts of eschatology, any hopes or fears about the end of the world. The rejection of the apocalyptic Jesus is probably the greatest single insight derived from the hidden gospels, and presented as unshakable fact, the idea pervades contemporary critical New Testament scholarship. For the radical scholars at least, the change of attitude toward the nature of Jesus' core message represents a full-scale paradigm shift. Early Jesus followers were not even "Christians," as that term implies a belief in the concept of the messiah (christos, or anointed one), with all its theological baggage. Jesus was neither Christ, nor a Christian.
Though the controversial "Quest for Jesus" has been widely publicized, no less significant for contemporary Christians is the equally subversive Quest for the Earliest Church, a search which depends entirely on insights from the hidden gospels. In rediscovering the real Jesus, scholars ask how the subversive inner kingdom which he preached gave way to the all too worldly power of the institutional churches. In this process, it is claimed, Jesus' principles of love and individual self-discovery were transformed by ideas of law and patriarchy; a popular spiritual movement became an authoritarian empire; democracy gave place to hierarchy, spontaneity to ritualism, gender equality to misogyny. According to this view, triumphant catholicism concealed the revolutionary origins of the Jesus Way, and labeled as heretics those groups and individuals who had the courage to maintain the pristine vision. The true Jesus tradition was not primarily found within the Great Church, but was rather preserved within the dismissively named heresies. In only a few isolated areas could a pure Jesus-oriented spirituality survive the constricting pressures of the bureaucratic church. In a currently popular view, one such area of resistance was the Celtic church, which flourished in Ireland and Western Britain during the early middle ages, and which has proved immensely attractive to many moderns, both Christians and New Age adherents.
For Elaine Pagels, perhaps the most important of these submerged early traditions was Gnosticism, the followers of gnosis or spiritual knowledge, who were most active in the second and third centuries, and whose ideas permeate the Nag Hammadi writings. Viewed through her wistful account, Gnosticism was a glorious historical might-have-been, which is both relevant and attractive to a modern audience. This was a forgotten movement of mystics unfettered by dogma, who followed Jesus in their rejection of institutions and hierarchies. Gnostic believers practiced "equal access, equal participation and equal claims to knowledge," to the extent of allocating clerical functions by lot at their ceremonies. Like other so-called heresies, Gnosticism gave women a far higher status than did orthodoxy. Gnostic spirituality is easily reconciled with the insights of modern psychotherapy, as the heretics believed that the conflicts and dramas described in the Christian world-view occurred within the mind of the individual. Gnostic writers were intuitive and subjective, and "considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive." It is implied that the historical Jesus would have been far more at home in these circles than in the stodgy and authoritarian church which claimed to speak in his name. The very early date of the lost scriptures gives the Gnostics and their like a plausible claim to rank as a genuine form of early Christianity and, who knows, perhaps even the one true voice.
Supported by such laudatory reviews, dense mystical texts written 1800 years ago by obscure Syrian and Egyptian heretics have demonstrated real appeal for a modern mass audience. The alternate gospels play a central role in the "Jesus books" published by the major commercial publishing houses, which give the impression that Thomas, Peter, and the rest do in fact represent gospel truth, that they even predate the famous four evangelists. The picture of early Christianities described here has been popularized not just through academic books and articles but through many popular presentations, in television documentaries such as the PBS series From Jesus to Christ, broadcast in 1998. Through such means, texts like Thomas have become a familiar presence in religious debate and consciousness. As one orthodoxy is established, so older ideas are relabeled as deviant or marginal: in terms of understanding early Christianity, the heretical has virtually become orthodox, and vice versa.
Evaluating the New Gospels
But are the new views true? In fact, the iconoclastic views of early Christianity so often proposed in recent years can be challenged in many ways, so many in fact that it is amazing that these ideas have achieved the wide credence they have. One basic problem is the claim that the hidden gospels contain a wealth of information which is new and incendiary. To the contrary, much of what was uncovered is not relevant to Christian origins, while what is relevant is not new, still less inflammatory. Conservative scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and John P. Meier have fired powerful counterblasts against the whole historical methodology of the New Quest, particularly as practiced by the Jesus Seminar. As one aspect of this counteroffensive, and by no means the central one, conservatives largely reject the evidence of the various hidden gospels on which so much of the radical scholarship relies. Both Johnson and Meier attack the claims advanced on behalf of an early date for the gospels of Thomas and Peter, which also attract convincing rebuttal in the collection of essays entitled Jesus under Fire. Conservatives cite an impressive array of specialist scholars who are thoroughly unconvinced by arguments for the revolutionary significance of the lost gospels, even outstanding texts like Thomas.
Despite the claims of their advocates, the problems with taking the hidden gospels as historical sources are, or should be, self-evident. The idea that these documents have opened a window on the earliest days of Christianity stands or falls on whether they were written at a primitive stage in that story, and much depends on determining the dates at which these texts were written. The scholarly literature offers a very broad range of datings for these texts, but the consensus is that most of the works found at Nag Hammadi belong to the late second and third centuries. This is much later than the canonical gospels, on which the Gnostic works can often be clearly shown to depend. While the Gnostic texts are ancient, their value as independent sources of information is questionable, so that the canonical gospels really are both more ancient and authoritative than virtually all their rivals.
Far from being the alternative voices of Jesus' first followers, most of the lost gospels should rather be seen as the writings of much later dissidents who broke away from an already established orthodox church. This is not a particularly controversial statement, despite the impression that we may get from much recent writing on the historical Jesus. The late character of the alternative texts is crucial to matters of historicity and reliability. Historical research is as good as the sources on which it relies, and to the extent that the latest quest for the historical Jesus is founded on the hidden gospels, that endeavor is fatally flawed. To take a specific example, it is wildly unlikely that the parable of the woman with the jar derives from the historical Jesus, stemming as it does from Thomas alone, unsupported by any other source. The most remarkable point here is why any scholar should have assumed differently.
For the same reasons of history and chronology, it is difficult to see the hidden gospels as crucial new sources about the development of the church, or the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy. These texts depict a world of individualistic mystics and magi whose unfettered speculations are unconstrained by ecclesiastical structures, and it is common to suggest that this freewheeling situation represented a primitive reality which was ultimately destroyed by the emerging hierarchical church. But the institutional church was by no means an oppressive latecomer, and was rather a very early manifestation of the Jesus movement. We have a good number of genuinely early documents of Christian antiquity from before 125, long before the hidden gospels were composed, and these give us a pretty consistent picture of a church which is already hierarchical and liturgical, which possesses an organized clergy, and which is very sensitive to matters of doctrinal orthodoxy. Just as the canonical gospels were in existence before their heterodox counterparts, so the orthodox church did precede the heretics, and by a comfortable margin. And for all its flaws, that church has by far the best claim to a direct inheritance from the apostolic age. Despite all the recent discoveries, the traditional model of Christian history has a great deal more to recommend it than the revisionist accounts.
Nor are the "new" findings touted in recent years all that new: contrary to some recent writings, the scholarly world did not flounder in darkness until illumination came from Nag Hammadi. Basic to the dramatic account of the rediscovered gospels is the idea that they restored to the world knowledge which had been lost for many centuries. At last, we are told, after 1600 years, we finally hear the heretics speak for themselves. The problem with this approach is that many of the insights about early Christianity found in the lost texts had been known for many years before the Nag Hammadi discoveries, and had in fact already penetrated a mass audience.
With few exceptions, modern scholars show little awareness of the very active debate about alternative Christianities which flourished in bygone decades, so that we have a misleading impression that all the worthwhile scholarship has been produced within the last thirty years or so. To the contrary, much of the evidence needed to construct a radical revision of Christian origins had been available for many years prior to the 1970s, if not the 1870s. Through the nineteenth century, the idea that Gnostics might have kept alive the early truths of Jesus was familiar to critical religious thinkers, some on the far fringes of academe, others more respectable. Even the theory that Jesus was an Essene mystic, a member of the group that probably wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, was familiar over a century before those documents were uncovered and ignited so much popular speculation. Speculations about the Essenes overlapped with ideas about the Gnostics, and both were seen as close to the earliest Christianity: even a century ago, people dreamed of finding actual documents to verify these theories.
Particularly between about 1880 and 1920, a cascade of new discoveries transformed attitudes to early Christianity, both the mainstream and the heretical fringes. The most exciting find involved portions of the Gospel of Thomas located in Egypt, and then known simply as the Sayings of Jesus. Though the work did not have quite the revolutionary impact that it has on modern scholars, quotations from Thomas were appearing in works of popular piety long before the Nag Hammadi finds. And just as modern writers claim Thomas as a fifth gospel, so many experts a hundred years ago awarded a similar laurel to the recently found Gospel of Peter. Many of the insights and observations which have been based on the recently found Gnostic texts were also well known before 1900. Even the special role of women disciples, which has attracted so much comment in recent years, was already being discussed in that epoch. The image of Jesus choosing Mary Magdalen as his especially beloved disciple runs through a large Gnostic work called the Pistis Sophia, which was available in a popular English translation as far back as 1896. The notion was quoted in feminist and New Age writings of the early twentieth centuryand though this tends to be forgotten in modern writings, both feminists and New Age adherents wrote extensively on early Christianity in this period. Radical perspectives on religion were not an innovation of the 1960s. Far from being decently concealed in abstruse academic journals, the new speculations reached a mass audience through magazines, newspapers, and novels: they were thoroughly familiar to any reasonably well-informed layperson.
Over the last two or three centuries, scholars and activists have periodically rediscovered the notion that the historical Jesus was a subversive individual mystic whose suppressed doctrine survived in the teachings of lost heresies and hidden gospels. This lengthy prehistory must affect our view of the latest quest, making it difficult to see current interests as simply a natural response to the outpouring of data from the rediscovered texts: there really is nothing new about the Jesus reconstructed from texts such as Thomas. To the contrary, the search for alternative Christianities has been a perennial phenomenon within Western culture since the Enlightenment: it has never vanished entirely, though in different eras, it has attracted larger or smaller degrees of public attention.