Most churches ignore the Gnostic Gospels. Some avoid them like the plague. Others just do not want to rock the boat of traditions. Almost all denominational-type churches in America, certainly the "orthodox" churches, listed from American Baptist to Western Orthodox, follow traditions and rituals more or less based on the Catholic Church, some with or without the same dogma or the gold and bronze bling. These churches read and discuss the Bible in a literal manner and seldom ever venture into any figurative readings. These churches have been losing congregants.
On the other hand, almost half of all church-going Americans now attend non-denominational, or "unorthodox," independent churches. Many of these nondenominational churches operate more as spiritual centers. Congregants in these "new thought" organizations "are now more open to churches that have a commitment to social justice and activism." (1)
These "spiritual organizations" are much more apt to dabble into all sorts of philosophies and religions from Buddhism to meditation and even tolerance, peace, and yoga. Most of these unorthodox churches tend to focus on Christianity as a base while considering other forms of spirituality.
One such spiritual organization is Unity Church. It actually encourages the pursuit of truth and that includes reflecting on various ways to read the Bible as well as the Gnostic Gospels. Its members study the Bible for all its historical origins as well as its stories as they apply to our world today. The founder of Unity Church, Charles Fillmore, wrote a book, The Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, which sheds light on how readers can discover the Bible's layers and meanings by considering non-translated names and places from Biblical Hebrew and Greek.
Figurative reading of the Bible requires a step further beyond the literal text. Figurative reading enables the reader deeper understanding of the Bible and its messages as they apply to our lives today even though people created these stories thousands of years ago.
The "new thought" approach to this spiritual pursuit is not really "new." It might be new to us as we learn to understand the ancient texts of the Bible and other such "sacred" texts. New thought enables us to learn the ancient wisdom and awareness.
Some people might not want to take that next step and look beyond the literal and to delve into the rich and creative world of ancient spirituality. It requires a little more effort, a little more time taken away from our modern schedules of work and family, but it empowers everyone to live a more peaceful and rewarding life. Maybe consider it as a hobby, much more enriching than, say, crossword puzzles and as intriguing as reading thrilling novels. A great topic of dinner conversation.
To poke into the Gnostic Gospels is to open a whole new can of views about spirituality and the history of Christianity in general as well as about the man and legend, Jesus Christ. Consider this passage from the Gnostic Gospels:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." (2)
From Jesus' sayings here we learn that our existence depends on our knowing what is inside us, who we are, and of what we are capable. We find our source from within and not from exterior temples or authorities. These Gnostic Gospels contain more mystical expressions than the Gospels of the Holy Bible that the Roman Catholic Church authorized and codified.
These Gnostic Gospels are "possibly as early as the second half of the first century" (3) (50--100 A.D.), "as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John." (4)
The Gnostic Gospels express a different spiritual path, one that does not require any institutionalized church. This Gnostic philosophy or belief leaves out any need for a hierarchical institution like the Roman Catholic Church.
Is it surprising that these some fifty Gnostic texts disappeared some two thousand years ago? The first most powerful church at the beginnings of Christianity would make sure that any and all of these Gnostic Gospels be destroyed.
As part of a remedy for a crumbling Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine I convened with a group of bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to codify the greatly popular Christianity. Rather than persecuting annoying Christians since Nero until Maximian, Constantine I found a use for the new, charismatic ideology as the mortar to patch up the broken empire. As a Roman emperor, Constantine was eager to bond the people together into one national belief. It was necessary to find ways to unify and refortify a failing empire.
Personally the Emperor Constantine I did not become baptized as a Christian until the end of his life even though his mother, Helena, encouraged him. For most of his life, Constantine adhered to the pagan cult of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun). Like many other rituals and Zodiac calendar dates, it is commonly claimed that the date of 25 December for Christmas was selected in order to correspond with the pagan Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun."
By accepting this new and extremely popular Christianity and molding it into a new and useful religion, Constantine envisioned how he could take ownership and seize the opportunity to regain centralized power and cohesion in the empire.
By blending the traditional pagan Roman religion and traditions with Christianity, the progressive Christian movement became more palatable to the Roman pagan diehards. At that time Rome was a pagan city. Constantine I had to fight two civil wars--Maxentius and Lucinius--as well as to enforce the empire's far boundaries. It was during these civil as well as foreign wars that Constantine's armies adopted the Christian symbols on their banners and shields to rally the troops.
Constantine eliminated any gospels that might undermine his goals. The emperor needed soldiers ready to fight and die for a righteous cause, one that guides the way to bravery, to glory, and to a place in eternal heaven. The so-called Gnostic Gospels, like the passage below, contradicted his needed messages and mindset. Like so many other texts from the Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostics, these independent spiritual concepts were counterproductive for Constantine's goals. Constantine needed centralized power and the belief system that encouraged his citizens and his soldiers to submit to authority:
Jesus said, "If those who lead you say, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky; then the birds of the sky will precede you.' If they say to you, 'It is in the sea, then the fish will precede you.' Rather the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." (5)
The passage teaches us that God is within us and we need not look outside in the material world to find the Kingdom of heaven when it is simply inside ourselves, our mindscape.
These Gnostic Gospels did not bode well with Rome's ambitions to make Christianity a political force to control and unify the scattering and disenfranchised groups of people who had already begun to lose any allegiance to Rome. At the time many middle-class Romans had begun to lose everything, and life was growing more difficult. People found consolation in Christ's teachings of equality, righteousness, and eternal life beyond worldly struggles.
More than a century before Constantine, other Roman officials had already begun to abolish any texts that contradicted a Roman-styled Christian religion structured in hierarchical authority, similar even to the Roman government and the army. In 180 A.D. Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, France, was a staunch and influential leader in this crusade against the Gnostic Gospels. Irenaeus had already begun to establish many of the tenets of the orthodox Christian church, a.k.a. Catholic.
The Gnostic Gospels circulated since the early days of the Christian era. Orthodox, Roman Christians--like the Roman Bishop Irenaeus--denounced the Gnostic Gospels as heresy early in the second century. Even fellow Christians condemned many early disciples and followers of Christ as heretics. As the saying goes, the winners of conflicts are often the ones to live to tell about their opponents' misdeeds. This applies to Christianity's early development. The opponents to the "Gnostics" were almost the only ones to have written about them and did so in a disparaging way. Bishop Irenaeus wrote five volumes of The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Knowledge and aims "to show how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements."
Fifty years later, Hippolytus, a Roman teacher, wrote a thick volume, Refutation of All Heresies, "to expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of the heretics."
Bishops and other officials fought long and hard to destroy any trace of the so-called heretical Gnostic Gospels and while Roman elitists persecuted Christians. It appears that the orthodox, conservative Christians wanted to abolish the Gnostic Gospels in order to make this new belief system, Christianity, more adaptable and comfortable to the Roman ruling class and to work in an authoritarian structure as it had already been extremely popular for the plebs. By the middle of the 4th century Romans began to accept Christianity for all its ideological and political uses.
Ironically, as soon as rulers commanded Roman police to soften the persecution of Christians, the orthodox Bishops were allowed to command Roman police to burn all heretical books and to criminalize Gnostic teachers. Fortunately for us, a monk, probably from the nearby St. Pachomius monastery, had hidden some fifty books in an urn at one of the many caves around Nag Hammadi, a village in Egypt. Now we can learn more about Jesus Christ's philosophy for us mortals.
1) Desert News, 2011, The rise of the nons: Why nondenominational churches are winning over mainline churches; by M. De Groote; Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011:
2) The Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and John; Kindle Edition.
3) H. Koester, Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas; pg. 117.
4) Elaine Pagels; Gnostic Gospels; Vantage Books, Sept. 1989; Introduction pg.xvii.
5) The Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and John; Kindle Edition, verse 8.