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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
The Rightful Omission of Gnostic Writings
By Fr. Barnabas Powell, St. Michael’s Orthodox Church.
From the Editor: As we had observed during past pre-Christmas periods, the mass media will once again stand ready to release (in whatever form they consider moss effective) "new historically-based" stories or television specials that are based on so-called "ancient Christian manuscripts" that have "finally gained the exposure they deserve." They will tell us that their aim is to make the Bible text more understandable for all humans and to provide that "missing insight" into Jesus. It is our personal contention that their true aim is simply another form of attack on the truth of our Faith. The subject article correctly exposes one such "manuscript" and places it into the perspective that it deserves.
We appeal to all Orthodox Christians that they treat these "ancient Christian manuscripts" with the disrespect that they deserve; they are truly nothing more than religious trash-talk that is being utilized by the Dark Forces of our days. Their aim continues to be the instilment of doubt in the hearts and souls of our brethren towards the great mystery of His Incarnation and the salvific power of our Faith.
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Perusing the religious sections of major bookstores over the years, I’ve noticed a growing fascination with material that fell to the cutting-room floor as the Church produced a biblical canon. In 100 back-cover endorsements, pop-scholars pose the provocative question "What doesn’t the Church want you to know?"
Given our post-modern disillusionment with authority and penchant for conspiracy theories, obsession over "lost" books of the Bible is not surprising. Before we remove such works from the trash, however, it may be worthwhile considering why they were tossed in the first place.
As the apostles’ successors continued their work of spreading the Gospel, they were shadowed by a group of revisionists who claimed to possess an arcane knowledge of God that the Church at large wasn’t privy to. They were called Gnostics ("gnosis" is Greek for "knowledge"). They rejected the physical world and its Jewish Creator God, denied the incarnation of God in Christ, and promoted a puritanical spirituality that rejected the body and its redemption.
To promote their teachings, they attributed them to Christ by authoring "gospels" under apostolic pseudonyms. No Gnostic work has better captured popular imaginations than the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Purporting to fill in the years of Jesus’ Egyptian childhood, this work titillates us with the prospect of information not included in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We expect something cute, if not inspiring.
Yet there’s nothing endearing about this Gnostic Jesus. An all-powerful brat with a vindictive streak, he strikes a playmate dead for bullying him. When the boy’s parents complain to Joseph and Mary, they’re struck blind for their trouble. When a rabbi tries teaching Jesus the alphabet, the boy declares his omniscience and mocks his pedagogue. The rabbi raises a hand to rebuke the arrogant cur, and winds up dead. When Jesus channels five mud puddles into a single pool, a Pharisee stamps out his project because it constitutes work on the Sabbath. You guessed it. He, too, ends up dead.
Like the child demigods of Greek mythology and Far Eastern demonology, this Jesus is no innocent babe, but a malevolent and capricious trickster. Why would the Gnostics depict him thus? Their goal was to cast his humanity as mere illusion, a thin cloak barely concealing the divine being within. He only seems to be as we are, only seems subject to human limitations.
The canonical Gospels depict a God who empties himself to the point of suffering and death. The Gnostic deity would never stoop to such depths. Even his childhood is a facade.
Modernist scholars urge us to include such works in our understanding of the "historical Jesus." They accuse the early Church of deliberately covering them up in a prejudiced desire for orthodoxy over diversity. As a member of that same Church, I plead guilty. I’m glad such twisted icons were rejected, because Jesus is, after all, not simply an object of worship. He’s the perfect man we seek to become. Imagine if the Gnostic Jesus were part of that model. What kind of Christians would that produce? What kind of Church? Vengeance would be next to godliness; a martyr not so much one who dies for his faith as one who kills for it.
Although secularists exploit isolated, historic aberrations to accuse Christianity of fitting that bill, let’s get real. There are other faiths in which such a paradigm is no aberration at all. Their claim to secret knowledge continues to inspire Gnosticism’s spiritual successors, who focus today on the secret sex life of Jesus, or whatever the latest cultural psychosis dictates.
Gnosticism may inspire Hollywood blockbusters and New York Times best-sellers, but has never inspired love of neighbor. It produced no saints. Gnostic writings are an interesting read, but there’s a reason they didn’t make the biblical cut. Christ didn’t leave a text. He left a Church, which compiled a text.
Perhaps we can all be convinced now that the Mother Church truly knew what She was doing…