The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.
“Jesus rose from the grave” may be considered the fundamental element of Christian faith. Many religions celebrate cycles of birth and death but Christianity introduced the first case of the dead coming back to life. The disciples were said to be in awe and under the impression that they were seeing a ghost until Jesus asked for food and ate broiled fish with the disciples. Anyone who denies the resurrection of Christ is deemed a heretic and not a Christian.
Gnostic Christians interpreted this miracle as the witnesses encountered Christ on a spiritual level upon his death. In the New Testament Luke, John and Thomas describe Jesus as returning in his original earthly form. But other stories, juxtaposed with these, suggest Jesus appeared in another form to two disciples as they walked on the road to Emmaus. Interesting enough, they mention walking and talking with this stranger for hours. Upon eating dinner, while sitting and blessing the bread, they recognized this stranger as Jesus and he vanishes right before their eyes.
Within the New Testament there are many different interpretations of the type of resurrection each disciple experienced. From Mary Magdalene seeing a gardener, hearing her name, recognizing the presence of Jesus but being told not to touch him, to Thomas being told to “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” If the New Testament supports a range of interpretations into the experiences of each disciple upon seeing Jesus again, why did orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical?
To understand the importance of the literal view of Jesus’ resurrection, one must look at it from a political standpoint. It legitimizes the authority of any man who claims to exercise exclusive leadership over churches as the successor of the apostle Peter. Gnostic Christians who interpret the resurrection differently have a lesser claim of authority. You can see this first hand in the lineage of the Pope. The Pope and all Popes who came before him claim their ordination going back to Peter himself. “First of the apostles”, who in some Catholic interpretations claim he was the “first witness of the resurrection”, even though the gospels within the New Testament themselves speak of Mark and John claiming Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the resurrection.
From a Gnostic standpoint one can look at a passage from a conversation where Mary reveals the Lord came to her in a vision. Andrew states he doesn’t believe the savior came to her. Peter agrees with Andrew and Mary is said to have wept because of their disbelief. Levi intervenes stating to Peter who has “always been hot-tempered… If the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her?” Peter and Andrew, the leaders, represented an orthodox approach, suspicious of those who see the Lord in visions. Mary can be interpreted as representing the Gnostic approach, claiming a continual presence being felt.
Jesus is said to have spoken in parables only when in public. When his disciples ask the reason he states, “To you it has been given to know the secrets [mysteria; literally, “mysteries”] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” The Gnostics claim some disciples kept Jesus’ esoteric teachings and only taught in private to those who proved themselves to be spiritually mature, those who qualified to be initiated into gnosis, the secret knowledge.
After the crucifixion, Paul encounters spiritual communication with Christ while in an ecstatic trance. He states he heard, “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” This can be perceived as secret wisdom or insight into a hidden tradition. Gnostics view it that way; orthodox historians argue that Paul didn’t mean it in the sense of having secret knowledge of any kind.
Many Gnostic writings can be perceived as the complete opposite of the New Testament for instead of focusing from birth to death on the rabbi from Nazareth, they focus on the message delivered to the disciples from Christ after he had risen. In these writings Jesus appears at various times to various disciples offering to teach the secrets of the holy plan. He doesn’t just appear in one form but in multiple forms. Revealing him “to the great as great… (and) to the small as small.” Loosely translated, he appears to each as they expect him to appear.
Many orthodox Christians believe “the one and only truth [comes] from the apostles, which is [then] handed down by the church.” Simply stating the New Testament serves as the canon (literally, “guideline”) to measure all future doctrine and practice. Gnostic believers view spirituality much like science or psychology is viewed today. As time progresses so will understanding, anticipating the future will always call for a continual increase of knowledge not previously understood.
The Apocalypse of Peter, one of the later Gnostic writings (circa 200 a.d. to 300 a.d.) tells how dismayed Peter was to hear many believers would be ruled heretically. The risen Christ explains to Peter that those who “name themselves bishop, and also deacon, as if they had received their authority from God,” are, in reality, “waterless canals.” The author accuses them of having misinterpreted the apostles teaching, and thus having set up an “imitation church” in place of the true Christian “brotherhood.”
The controversy over the resurrection proved critical in the shaping of the Christian movement into an institutional religion. All Christians agree that Christ himself, or God, was the ultimate source of spiritual authority. But who in the present administers that authority?
Many orthodox Christianity preached it was those who came in contact with the “living one” and continued the tradition of the apostles. Thus the Roman Catholic Church, as perceived in that time, and anyone in the future only had to look back to this church to find God; for their authority was greater then anyone else’s in this world. The resurrection is critical to this theory because without it they no longer hold authority over those worldly individuals who didn’t experience the message of Christ first hand. The political war begins…
Since the death of the apostles, believers are expected to rely solely on the word of priests and bishops, who have claimed since the 2nd century that they are the only legitimate heirs. The Gnostic belief was in complete disagreement with this theory stating that one could find God within himself, thus not needing priests, bishops or the Church.
In the next part of this series we will take a look into the One God vs. Two Gods theory and why One God is important to the authority of having one bishop.