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Supplements » Fantasy Faith (October 2004)
Fantasy Faith by David Holloway
It has well been said that when people cease to believe in the God of the Bible they don't believe in nothing: they believe in anything. A recent instance of this may be the huge success in the United States of the novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. People are now reading it in this country. Working on this Coloured Supplement in the train at the end of September, what should I see across the aisle but a woman reading this very book! James Hitchcock writes a good summary: "Dan Brown turns the biblical story into a thriller in which Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, a rich woman who financed his ministry, but after his death (there being no resurrection), the apostles conspired to suppress the truth in order to maintain male dominance." None of this is based on fact. As Hitler said (to justify his lying to millions): "the great masses of people ... will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one."
The so called "evidence" for such a view comes from the apocryphal Gospel of Philip, one of the documents found in 1945 in a cave near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These were "Gnostic" texts from the third to fourth centuries. We have known about the heresies of Gnosticism from the 2nd century writers Irenaeus and Tertullian. But here was more of the Gnostics own literature than we had before. However, we already knew the fictitious nature of what the Gnostics believed. That is why the early Church rejected Gnosticism. It was simply false. And these discovered documents confirm that the Church was right to do so.
The Gospel of Philip
The Gospel of Philip was probably written in the second half of the third century AD. As Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, says: "that puts it as long after Jesus' life as we are today after the time of George the Second, when Handel and Bach were writing music and George Washington was a small boy ... it tells us a good deal about third-century practice in the Gnostic sect which wrote it, but nothing of any value about the first century." So what does it say about Jesus and Mary Magdalene? This: "the companion of the [Saviour is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] ... They said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?' The Saviour answered and said to them, 'Why do I not love you as [I love] her?'"
But, as Tom Wright points out, that passage is sandwiched between such texts as: "God is a man-eater. For this reason men are sacrificed to him. Before men were sacrificed animals were being sacrificed, since those to whom they were sacrificed were not gods." And: "The Lord went into the dye works of Levi. He took seventy-two different colours and threw them into the vat. He took them out all white. And he said, 'Even so has the Son of Man come as a dyer.'" As Professor F.F.Bruce says: "A comparison of the New Testament writings with the contents of The Nag Hammadi Library should be instructive." It is!
The New Testament
The early Christians did compare these Gnostic writings with the New Testament and they judged them to be spurious. It is important to remember that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are not the result of some arbitrary selection of some church synod or committee that sat round the table with a stack of Christian documents and said. "Let's decide which of these shall we say has divine authority." No! Rather it was when these twenty-seven books were generally accepted by Christians throughout the known world that then they were said to be authoritative.
So "when at last a Church Council gave a ruling on the matter, all that it did was to ratify the general consensus of Christians, who (we may believe) had been guided in this respect by a wisdom higher than their own ... Canonicity implies supreme authority in matters of faith. By including a document in the canon, the early Christians meant that it might be confidently appealed to in the establishment of matters of doctrine, whether in debates within the 'catholic' [the Greek word for the Latin word 'universal'] church itself or in disputes with heretics. But they included these writings in the canon because they already recognized their authority; the writings did not acquire authority by being included in the canon. One of the chief criteria (though not the only one) in recognizing the authority and canonical quality of a work was apostolic authority. So much was this so, that individuals or groups wishing to invest their own line of teaching with special authority liked to set it forth in the form of a 'Gospel', a book of 'Acts', an 'Epistle', or even an 'Apocalypse' [a 'Revelation'], bearing the name of an apostle" (F.F.Bruce). And so you have the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John and so on.
Gnosis is simply the Greek word for "knowledge". But in Gnosticism it was knowledge of a superior sort; and salvation came not through faith in Christ and his death for us on the cross with the victory of the Resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, but through knowing (bizarre) secrets. The key secret was that Jesus came into this world to release the divine element that had become imprisoned in our flesh and lead it back home. So "the fall" was not rebellion against God, but being involved in the material world. Nor did the supreme God create the world. That was the work of the demiurge, often identified as the God of the Old Testament. So Gnosticism was "dualistic". It saw not one God, but two irreconcilable principles: spirit and matter, or light and darkness.
Some Gnostics became very ascetic, as in the heresy behind Paul's letter to the Colossians, "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" (Col. 2.21). Some others said that if the spirit is everything and matter nothing, it doesn't matter what you do with your body - so indulge it if you wish. Gnostics did not accept the Incarnation of Jesus (matter being evil). They, therefore, asserted that the Gospels were not to be taken at face value but as stories with hidden symbolic meanings. So they felt free to write new gospels. The Gnostics did not see themselves bound by what may or may not have happened while Jesus was on earth. That is how they could say that Mary Magdalene become Jesus' lover, even though it was quite untrue and blasphemous. They could dismiss the New Testament as essentially false even though it was essentially true.
All this is so congenial to many moderns. It leads to distinguished scholars coming up with the most unlikely theories. Hence Elaine Pagels, an academic who specializes in Gnosticism, suggests that Thomas is written up as doubting Thomas in the New Testament in order to discredit the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. There is not the slightest evidence whatsoever for this. But as "truth" for many is no longer important, what can you expect?
I first came across Elaine Pagels in an Observer article she wrote on Sunday 23 December 1979 - the sort of article "journalistic charlatans" (to quote Professor Charlie Moule) produce to destroy the faith of people at Christmas time. Referring to the Nag Hammadi texts her headline said, "they challenge traditional belief in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection." In the Spring of the following year, 1980, her best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels was published which expanded on her theories.
However, Pagels is not a disinterested scholar. 20 years later she made a confession. In her book Beyond Belief she says that she was brought up with an evangelical background, but couldn't cope with the way some people spoke about Hell. So she was turned off church. She still, however, chose to do a Doctorate in religious studies, in the course of which she read a text in the Gospel of Thomas: "if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you." This had a profound effect on her. She said: "The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self evidently true." Her personal history may have affected the way she looks at the Gnostic texts.
The tragedy of Gnosticism
This is so sad. For she and many ancient and modern Gnostics have a gospel of self-actualization, which is no gospel at all. The human predicament is that we cannot find the answers to life's problems within ourselves. We are not God. In the recent past, men and women have been trying to live as Gods. The result, in particular in the 20th century, was probably more killing and more suffering than in all previous history put together. No! We need the true God to reveal his truth to us. This he has done in history, climaxing in the death and the Resurrection (in history) of Jesus, as recorded in the Bible. The apostle Paul was spot on in his second letter to Timothy in a passage that is so important to remember amid all the confusions of today:
"In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry" (2 Timothy 4.1-5).