The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.
History is written by the winners, their way. No surprise that the traditional accounts of the origin of Christianity are written from the viewpoint of the successful majority. Ecclesiastical Christians coined the terms “Orthodox” & “Heretical” then proceeded to say their victory was “guided by the Holy Spirit.” Not mentioning the fact that once the Catholic Church received political and military backing from the Romans, the “War for Christianity” turned violent and was really soldiers vs. pacifist; with, of course, the soldiers coming out on top.
The discoveries at Nag Hammadi, at the very least, gave us an alternative perspective into the origins of Christianity. Maybe it had developed a different way then we have been taught, or maybe true Christianity did not survive at all. We may though owe the survival of Christianity, in whatever form you except it, to the organizational and theological structure of the emerging church. There’s no telling if a “secret” religion, that is passed verbally, would have lasted twenty centuries or if its integrity would have been kept intact after so long.
Historians tend to interpret the controversy between Orthodox and Gnostic Christians in the terms of varying ideas and the battle for supremacy. Tertullian, before he left the church, stated “questions…made people heretics.” Some of the questions he felt Christians should not concern themselves with were: Where does humanity come from, and how? Where does evil come from, and why? Tertullian believed, for a time at least, that the Catholic Church offered truer answers.
Many religious people concern themselves with religious experience. For example, a man and a woman are likely to experience the idea of God being masculine differently. Gnosticism and Orthodoxy then, by definition, appealed to different types of people.
Gnostics viewed the origins of evils in the terms of physical pain, misfortune, suffering. The followers of Valentinus referred to emotional harm, fear, confusion, grief. The Gospel of Truth details the process of self-discovery beginning as a person experiences the “anguish and terror” of the human condition as if one is haunted in sleep by terrifying nightmares.
Since the fear of death are located in the body, the Gnostics tend to mistrust the body, regarding it as the saboteur that engages you into that very suffering. Gnostics did not trust blind forces that prevail in the universe for they constitute the body therefore to escape suffering once must look within. Thus begins the intensely private interior journey of the Gnostic.
Gnostics focused on human nature, something the Orthodox disagreed with. Plotinus, student of Plato, castigated the Gnostics for “thinking very well of themselves, and very ill of the universe.”
Gnostics did not recoil from society but focused on immediate experience. “No one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act.” Gnostic teacher Heracleon believed, “people at first are led to believe in the Savior through others,” but when they become mature, “they no longer rely on mere human testimony,” but discover instead their own immediate relationship with “the truth itself.” The unenlightened people of the world believed that they would find fulfillment in family life, sexual relationships, business, politics, ordinance employment or leisure. The Gnostics rejected these beliefs as an illusion.
Orthodox Christians primarily were concerned with relationships with other people. Recalling the Story of Adam and Eve, they insisted the presence of evil came from the human violation of the natural order. The orthodox view of evil was violence against each other. Be it physical or in terms of Jesus’ prohibition against mental and emotional violence; anger, lust, hatred.
They recognized the process of human biology; tending to trust and affirm sexuality (in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox viewed Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as “fullness of God” come down from human experience into bodily experience to sacralize it.
Bishop Irenaeus, one of the main enemies of Gnostic teachings, went as far as to say Jesus suffered through many ages to sanctify them all; infant, child, youth and old. Irenaeus disagreed with common belief that Jesus died in his thirties but claims he was more then 50 years old when he died.
The orthodox church also gradually developed rituals to sanction major events of biological existence: the sharing of food, in the eucharist; sexuality, in marriage; childbirth, in baptism; sickness, in anointment; and death, in funerals.
While the Gnostic viewed himself as “one out of a thousand, two out of ten thousand,” the orthodox experienced himself as one member of the common human family, and as one member of a universal church. Origen, a brilliant theologian of the third century, declared God would not have offered a way of salvation accessible only to an intellectual or the spiritual elite. He agreed what the church teaches must be simple, unanimous and accessible to all. Irenaues agreed, encouraging his communication that their faith rested upon absolute authority: the canonically approved Scriptures, the creed, church ritual, and clerical hierarchy.
Going back to the earliest known sources of Christian tradition, the sayings of Jesus (though many disagree on which sayings are authentic), we can see how Gnostic and Orthodox interpretations could emerge. Those attracted to solitude would note in the New Testament gospel of Luke includes Jesus stating whoever “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus demanded that those who follow him must reject everything. He himself, as a prototype, can be described as a homeless man who rejected his own family, avoided marriage and family life, a mysterious wanderer who insisted on truth at all costs, even the cost of his own life. Mark relates that Jesus concealed his teaching from the masses, and entrusted it only to the few he considered worthy to receive it.
The New Testament also offers accounts that lead to a very different interpretation. Jesus blessed marriage and declared it inviolable; he welcomed children who surrounded him; responded with compassion to the most common forms of human suffering, and wept when people rejected him.
Many conflicts arose in the formation of Christianity between those who focused on self-discovery vs. the institution. Once the Roman political and military backing in the forth century arose, orthodox Christianity grew increasingly stable and enduring. Gnostic Christianity proved no match and was forced outside; for the orthodoxy’s wide appeal tended to correspond to the needs and aspirations of ordinary humanity.
Many revolutions against the church occurred throughout the Middle Ages, then with the Reformation, Christian tradition took on new and diverse forms.
Over the years many have embraced the message of Christ though many ride the edge of orthodox. Many have revolted against the orthodoxy institutions, some as far as becoming Atheist due to institutional beliefs that they feel are contradictory or outdated in today’s society. Many will not rest solely on the authority of the Scriptures, the apostles, the church; at least not without inquiring how that authority constituted itself and its legitimacy.
In the end we are defined by our own experiences and view things through different perspectives. All one can do in life is find the truth that pertains to oneself. Perception is reality, just make sure you have a firm grasp on what you perceive.
We leave this journey in the words of William Blake;
The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s deepest enemy…
Thine is the friend of all Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind:
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell gates…
Both read the Bible day and night
But thou read’st black where I read white…
Seeing this False Christ, In fury and passion
I made my Voice heard all over the Nation
All credit for this blog series goes to Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and her book The Gnostic Gospels published in 1979. I simply took notes and shared my findings.