Quid ergo Athens et Hierosolymis
- What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
De praescriptione haereticorum
(On the prescription of heretics)
Prof. Pagels discusses the issue of what to make of Gnosticism in her The Gnostic Gospels. I want to take issue with some of it. For example, in her introduction, she writes,
What Muhammad 'Ali discovered at Nag Hammadi is, apparently, a library of writings, almost all of them gnostic. Although they claim to offer secret teaching, many of these texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them include the same drama tis personae as the New Testament -- Jesus and his disciples. Yet the differences are striking.
Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the Gnostic's who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.
Second, the "living Jesus" of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal -- even identical.
Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out....He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him."
Does not such teaching -- the identity of the divine and human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide -- sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the "living Buddha" appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or Buddhist traditions have influenced gnosticism?
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books 1981, pages xix-xx