Alternative Christianities

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On average, the Biblical world sees a startling new discovery of allegedly cosmic significance every four or five years. Most recently, we had Jesus's Wife, with the Gospel of Judas not long before that, and no great powers of prophecy are needed to tell that other similar finds will shortly be upon us.

In themselves, the finds are usually interesting (if they happen to be authentic), but where the media always go wrong in reporting them is in vastly exaggerating just how novel and ground-breaking they are.

So powerful are such claims, and so consistent, that it sometimes seems as if nobody before the 1970s (say) could have known about the multiple alternative Christianities that flourished in the first centuries of Christianity. Surely, we think, earlier generations could never have imagined the world revealed by such ancient texts as the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gnostic documents that turned up at Nag Hammadi. Lacking such evidence, how could older scholars have dreamed what we know to be true today: the vision of Jesus as a Zen-like mystic teacher, or perhaps a Buddhist-style enlightener, who expounded secret doctrines to leading female disciples, and who may even have been sexually involved with one or more of them? Today, for the first time, we hear the heretics speaking in their own voices!

But here's the problem. Virtually nothing in that model would have surprised a reasonably well-informed reader in 1930, or even in 1900, never mind in later years. In order to make their finds more appealing, more marketable, scholars and journalists have to work systematically to obscure that earlier knowledge, to pretend that it never existed. In order to create the maximum impact, the media depend on a constructed amnesia, a wholly fictitious picture of the supposed ignorance of earlier decades.

Just imagine an educated European or American in the 1920s. How on earth could they have broken the constraints of orthodoxy to imagine the primitive Christian world as we know it today, in all its strangeness and diversity? Well, for a start, they would actually have had access to an excellent range of original Gnostic texts in the orthodox Christian writings of the Church Fathers. But "alternative" gospels and texts had also been turning up steadily since roughly the time of the French Revolution. By 1900, G. R. S. Mead published an extensive collection of translated works in his best-selling Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, which influenced such towering cultural figures as Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats and Carl Jung.

Mead himself was a remarkably modern figure with a profoundly global vision. As a Theosophist, he created an esoteric Jesus who fitted neatly into the Hindu and Buddhist world-views that were having such an influence on educated Westerners. It's no insult to either party to say that Mead's writings served the same popularizing role for his generation as the books of Elaine Pagels have in modern times.

In 1896, Mead translated the book-length Gnostic tract called the Pistis Sophia ("Faith-Wisdom"), which had come to light in the late eighteenth century, and which Mead plausibly understood as a Gnostic Gospel. Pistis Sophia depicted a Jesus who preached at inordinate length to his disciples after his Resurrection, and who interacted closely with at least two Marys, namely his Mother and the Magdalene. If the "Mariam" character really is the Magdalene, then she is described as "thou blessed one...she whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all thy brothers." Also central to the mythical system is Sophia, Wisdom, a kind of divine feminine counterpart to Christ. The Nag Hammadi discoveries certainly offered lots of additional information about this bizarre spiritual world, but in no sense did they bring it to light for the first time. If you'd read Pistis Sophia, you already had an excellent idea of the Gnostic universe, and entirely from the Gnostic point of view.

Nor would a reader from the early twentieth century be too taken aback by the Gospel of Thomas. At least it you believe its advocates, Thomas portrays something like the authentic original Jesus, a pantheistic guru who utters cryptic sentiments like "Raise the stone and there you will find me; cleave the wood and there am I." But although Thomas was only discovered in full text at Nag Hammadi in 1945 (and translated years later), finds of miscellaneous passages had made much of the work quite familiar long beforehand. In fact, I'm taking the verse I just quoted from a popular British anthology published in 1932 and owned by my mother, a highly intelligent woman who was nevertheless no academic. This is just what ordinary people in the pews liked to read about.

If you want to see just how much general readers knew about alternative early Christianities, then read Robert Graves's bizarre novel King Jesus, a book so floridly heretical it makes The Da Vinci Code look like a pious pamphlet from Our Sunday Visitor. King Jesus appeared in 1946, just as the Nag Hammadi documents were being unearthed, and even before the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet Graves already had full access to a panoply of lost gospels and Gnostic fragments, from which he concocted a mythology that includes virtually every radical view of Jesus that has surfaced in later years. We find Jesus as the secular revolutionary; the husband of the pagan Goddess of the land; the expounder of Oriental wisdom; the secret heir to the secular kingdom of Israel; the master of Hellenistic mysteries; participant in ancient tribal fertility rites; the esoteric teacher and numerologist; and (of course) the husband of the Magdalene.

Huh, Jesus's wife, what a revolutionary new theory...

Oddly, though, when a scholar wishes to present a new discovery or thesis to a publisher or a funding agency, they don't generally begin by saying, "Well, this really doesn't break any new ground in terms of what we know about the early church, but for specialists in Coptic linguistics, it's just heart-stopping." Rather, the aspiring author succumbs to the inevitable temptation to proclaim just how many boundaries he or she is shattering, and how, at long last, cutting edge research is breaking the irrational taboos set by the churches and their jaded orthodoxies. We are boldly going where no Jesus Quest scholar has gone before; and we will boldly ignore any evidence to the contrary.

People being what they are, I know that situation won't change any time soon. But can I at least make a minimum demand? If you are going to claim a new gospel fragment as a revolutionary scholarly breakthrough, can you at least demonstrate that it significantly advances the state of knowledge beyond what existed in the era of Herbert Hoover?

Is that too much to ask?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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