The Gnostic Gospels Part 5; “The Passion of Christ”

The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.

There is only one fact on which nearly all accounts about Jesus of Nazareth, whether by hostiles or those devoted to him, agree upon; he was condemned and crucified (circa 30 A.D.) by the order of Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. An aristocratic Roman Historian Tactius (circa 55-115 A.D.), knowing virtually nothing about Jesus, mentions only this in his writings of Rome.

Relating the history of Emperor Nero (circa 54-58 A.D.) he states Nero had people; “…punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of persons hated for their vices, which the crowd called Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty… by sentence of procurator Pontius Pilate… the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where everything horrible or shameful in the world gathers and becomes fashionable.”

According to the gospel of John; his popularity grew and attracted numbers to his movement. Some already acclaimed him as Messiah and said he would liberate Israel from foreign imperialism and restore the Jewish state. During Passover, when thousands of Jews poured into Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday, fear began amongst officials that overwhelming feelings of Jewish nationalism might spark a revolt. The chief priest Caiphas felt it would be safer to arrest one man then endanger the entire population.

Sources agree on the basic facts of Jesus’ execution, yet Christians disagree sharply on its interpretation. On Gnostic text, the Apocalypse of Peter, details the “living Jesus” glad and laughing while on the cross. The Savior then tells Peter it is a substitute having nails driven through his flesh. “They put to shame that which remained in his likeness. And look at him, and [look at] me!”

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth relates Christ’s teaching that, “…it was another… who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. [It was another] who bore the cross on his shoulder… whom they placed the crown of thorns [on]. But I was rejoicing in the height over… their error… And I was laughing at their ignorance.”

The Acts of John describes Jesus as not being human at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception. The Acts details a time standing on shore when John and James both saw Jesus but his appearance was drastically different between the brothers. John added that Jesus never left footprints or blinked his eyes. This demonstrated to John that Jesus’ nature was spiritual, not human.

John continues to speak about sitting in a cave in Gethsemane, while Jesus “was hung (upon the Cross) on Friday, at the sixth hour of the day [and] darkness [came] over the whole Earth.” A vision of Jesus comes before him and explains, “John, for the people below… I am being crucified… But to you I am speaking…” The vision reveals a “cross of light” and explains that, “I have suffered none of the things which they will say of me; even that suffering which I showed to you… it [will] be called a mystery.”

Followers of Valentinus interpret the meaning of this paradox in a different way. According to the Treatise on Resurrection, insofar as Jesus was the “Son of Man,” being human, he suffered and died like the rest of humanity. But since he was also “Son of God,” the divine spirit within him could not die: in that sense he transcended suffering and death.

Orthodox Christians insist Jesus was human and all “straight-thinking” Christians must take this historical event literally. Pope Leo the Great condemned writings like the Acts of Johns as “a hotbed of manifold perversity,” which “should not only be forbidden, but entirely destroyed and burned with fire.” Heretical circles continued to circulate this writing and then 300 years later the second Nicene Council, had to repeat judgments and declare, “No one is to copy [this book]: not only so, but we consider that it deserves to be consigned to the fire.”

What lies behind this vehemence? Why does faith in the passion and death of Christ become an essential element, some say the essential element, of Orthodox Christianity? This cannot fully be answered until we recognized the controversy over the interpretation of Christ’s suffering and death involved, for Christians of the first and second centuries, an urgent practically question: How are believers to respond to persecution, which raises the imminent threat of their own suffering and death?

Christians recognized the danger after the crucifixion of Jesus of being affiliated with the movement. Tactius and Suetonius, (historians of the imperial court [circa 115 A.D.] who shared an utter contempt for Christians) mention the group for the target of official persecution. Christians were arrested, convicted, ridiculed, covered with wild beast skins and torn to death by dogs, fastened to crosses and when the sun went down, burned to serve as torches at night.

The Christians were deemed conspiracists. They identified themselves with a man accused of “magic” and executed for treason. They were “atheists” for they denounced as “demons” the Gods who protected the Roman State. They also belonged to an “illegal heretical” society. They held secret concealed atrocities including “eating human flesh and blood”, a practice common with known magicians.

Pliny, governor of Bythynia (a province of Asia Minor, circa 112 A.D.) wrote to Emperors Trajan requesting clarification on how to investigate suspected Christians. In his letter he describes how he approaches one and asks if they are a Christian; if they simply reply no after 3 accusations, he sends them to be executed for “I had no doubt that whatever it was they admitted, in any case they deserve to be punished for obstinacy and unbending pertinacity… As for those who said they neither were nor ever had been Christians, I thought it right to let them go.” He would then have them recite a prayer to the Gods and curse Christ, which he heard true Christians cannot be made to do.

The Romans went along killing any and all Christians they could find that refused to curse Christ and offer prays in the name of the Emperor. Many Christians were publicly executed during this time period. Most were happy to die for their Lord calling the spectators atheist as they were burned to death. The movement was deemed to be full of morbid, misguided exhibitionists. Some people, even today, dismissed them as martyrs. For Jews and Christians in the first and second century the term martyr bore a different connotation: in Greek, martus simply means witness.

In the Roman Empire members of certain religious groups fell under government suspicion in the Roman Empire as criminal entities. Anyone who dared to publicly protest would find themselves likely targets of police action. The choices were simple; continue to speak out and risk death or keep silent and stay safe.

Every day new Christian victims were arrested and tortured in prison as they awaited a mass execution to be held August 1st; a holiday to celebrate the greatness of Rome and its emperor. Normally gladiators, boxers, etc. would be used for such an event but with the passing of a new law, condemned criminals could be substituted to offset the cost of gladiatorial shows. Killing off Christians would become cost efficient holiday entertainment.

Not all Christians spoke out and many found dying of martyrdom a waste of human life. “Christ having died for us, was killed so that we might not be killed.” Here is where the interpretation of Christ’s death became the focus for controversy between both sides of Christianity.

With many orthodox Christians being publicly executed in the name of Jesus, they began to question the faith of the Gnostics (even some declared them truly atheist) who worshipped in silence; those especially who didn’t participate in martyrdom. The Gnostics felt that the interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion was misunderstood by the orthodox Christians. The Gnostics regarded Christ as a spiritual being; above this physical world, therefore it only appeared he suffered and died on the cross. In turn they questioned the value of voluntary martyrdom.

The Gnostic belief was that only Christ’s human form experienced suffering, while his divine self transcended it. The orthodox belief was with Jesus being Christ and the Son of God, both forms (being the same) suffered equally; he became Savior for those who confessed and lost their life for him. Orthodox Christians disagreed with the Gnostic belief wholeheartedly because them dying through persecution would then by in vain since Christ did not truly suffer or die on this plane.

One Gnostic writing on the stance of anti-martyrdom can be found in the Testimony of Truth, which declares that enthusiasts for martyrdom do not know “who Christ is”:
The foolish, thinking in their heart that if they confess, “We are Christians,” in word only [but] not with power, while giving themselves over to ignorance, to a human death, not knowing where they are going, nor who Christ is, thinking that they will live, when they are (really) in error.. They fall into their clutches because of the ignorance that is in them.

The author goes on to ridicule the popular view that martyrdom ensures salvation: if it were that simple, “everyone would confess Christ and be saved!” Many orthodox Christians of the time believed suffering and “giving blood” in the name of Christ was the way to gain God’s complete forgiveness. The author considers this a form of “human sacrifice” and such a belief would make God into a cannibal.

The Apocalypse of Peter discloses how Peter became enlightened and learned the true meaning of Jesus’ passion. He describes a group of priests, armed with stones, approaching, ready to stone him to death when he falls into ecstatic trance and receives a vision of the Lord. The Lord warns him; many who “accept our teaching in the beginning” will fall into error. These “false believers” (described from a Gnostic viewpoint) represents orthodox Christians. All who fall under their influence “shall become their prisoners, since they are without perception.”

The Apocalypse of Peter didn’t reject all martyrdom, just the orthodox view of it. Once you obtain Gnosis, you acquire a new understanding of the meaning of your own suffering. Peter feared he and the Lord would die, but only the flesh can die. The intelligent spirit is released to join “the perfect light with (Jesus’) holy spirit.”

The Valentinians became the “first Christian theologians” attacking the problem that became central to Christian theology two hundred years after his death; how could Christ be simultaneously human and divine?

Heracleon, a distinguished Gnostic teacher, himself a student of Valentinus, considers the question; What does it mean to “confess Christ”? Some confess in their day to day conduct. Some through means of verbal confession (“I am a Christian”). Many Orthodox Christians of the time considered the latter the only form of acceptable confession. But as Heracleon pointed out, “even hypocrites can make this confession.” He believes the first type is universally required of all Christians, the second is only required by some. Disciples like Matthew, Philip and Thomas never “confessed” before the magistrates; but did in the superior way, “in faith and conduct throughout their whole lives.” These disciples often typify Gnostic initiates (as in the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas). Heracleon even went as far as to say their Christiandom was greater then that of Peter, whom orthodox Christians held to such high regard.

Even though never quite clear on his complete stance on martyrdom, Heracleon never suggests believers “suffering” imitates that of Christ. For if only the human element of Christ suffered then a believer only suffers on a human level as well. This difference in opinion may have been the spark that divided Gnostics and the Orthodox; for it devalued what many of Orthodox Christians believed to be the “ultimate sacrifice.”

Why did the orthodox view prevail? Maybe due to the publicized cases of violence against the orthodox Christians. The torture and execution of a small group of people known only to friends and relatives dies down fairly quickly. But when made public (much like the recent Trayvon Martin murder) it may arouse the concern of various communities who identify with the various victims, in this case through religious affiliation.

Times are different of course. Today such a case would be to free the tortured souls from persecution. In Ancient times it would’ve been to warn Christians in distant lands of the coming danger. Many of the condemned Christians with power (i.e. Ignatius) used his time awaiting execution in Rome to write letters to many provincial churches to warn them of their situation. Ignatius also urged them to support a catholic (“universal”) church organized around the bishops and stray away from heretics who deviated from the bishops authority and from orthodox doctrines of Christ; passion, death, resurrection.

In 190 A.D. as the message of the martyrs spread, members of the earlier churches noticed the regional differences amongst the Christian Churches as they traveled. Irenaeus insisted that all churches agree on all vital points of doctrine, but was shocked when Victor, Bishop of Rome, attempted to move the regional churches toward greater uniformity. Victor demanded Christians in Asia Minor abandon celebrating Easter on Passover and conform to Roman custom, or else give up their claim to be “catholic (once again meaning universal) Christians.” Around this same time the Roman Church was compiling the definitive list of books to be accepted by all Christian churches. The result, a network of groups becoming increasingly uniform in doctrine, ritual, canon, and political structure.

After the initial wave of Christian slaughters, many Non-Christians began to ponder the strength of this new religion. For even after so many public murders and tortuous executions, the movement did not appear to slow down. Many began to ponder what inspired their courage and compassion. Many investigated and then converted. Tertullian writes in defiance to Scapula, the proconsul of Carthage:
“Your cruelty is our glory… All who witness the noble patience of [the martyrs], are struck with misgivings, are inflamed with desire to examine the situation… and as soon as they come to know the truth, they immediately enroll themselves as its disciples.”

The Orthodox view of Jesus saw the man as the rest of humanity. A man that was born, lived in a family, became hungry and tired, ate and drank wine, suffered and died. They even insist that he rose bodily from the dead. The orthodox tradition affirms the bodily experience as the central fact of human life. The Gnostic tradition regarded the essential part of every person as the “inner spirit” and dismissed such physical experiences as a distraction from spiritual reality; it is all an illusion.

It’s no wonder that more people gravitated to the orthodox portrait of Christ and not the “bodiless spirit” of Gnostic tradition. The story of Christian remains, 2,000 years later, the story of the human Jesus.


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