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Heresy and Orthodoxy

How Were the Gnostic Gospels Discovered?

This now is the fourth of  FIVE FAVORITES with which I'm beginning the new launch of our blog site, one from our fourth year of operation 2015.  I am trying to pick different kinds of posts and even though I am not saying these are my all-time favorites of all, they certainly are posts (from five from sequential years) that for one reason or another I very much like. I need to give a more extensive introduction to this one.  It is actually one of a series of posts connected with the discovery of the "Nag Hammadi Library" -- known more popularly as "the Gnostic Gospels."  These "heretical" books were discovered by accident in 1945, not by archaeologists looking for ancient books but by Egyptian fellahin in a wilderness area near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt.  Scholars have long told the story of their discovery -- I have done so roughly 4000 times; but my friend and colleague in NT studies at Duke, Mark Goodacre, has argued that the story itself is an unsubstantiated [...]

The Opening Section of the Gospel of Judas

Here is the first bit of the Gospel of Judas from the translation of my colleague Zlatko Pleše in our book The Other Gospels.  After this bit here, the Gospel gets very strange, at least to most modern readers.   But as you can see, it is really interesting. The first paragraph is the explanation of where we got the text from; then the translation of the opening scends, and after that I give the bibliography for further reading that we cite in our book.   ************************************** Our translation is based on the Coptic text of Rodolphe Kasser, and Gregor Wurst, eds. The Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition.  Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007.   New portions of the Gospel appeared in 2006, when the one-time owner of the manuscript declared bankruptcy and his remaining antiquities collection was turned over to a bank in Ohio; included in this collection were numerous small fragments of the Gopsel of Judas.   These have been photographed and they have begun to be studied; for our translation of the account here we have [...]

What is the Gospel of Judas About?

I have said some things about the Gospel of Judas in my previous posts, but not much, really, about what is actually in it.   You can find a translation, done by my colleague Zlatko Pleŝe, in the volume we co-edited and translated: The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament.  We also give the following Introduction to the text; I will give the rest of the Introduction and a bibliography, and a bit of the translation itself, in the next post.   ***********************************************************   The Gospel of Judas is the most recently discovered Gospel to be published, and is arguably the most important and intriguing Christian text to appear since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945.  Details of the discovery and the mishandling of the manuscript by antiquities dealers are provided in the exhaustive account of Herb Krosney.  The manuscript containing the Gospel preserves three other gnostic works as well: the “Letter of Peter to Philip,” known in a slightly different version from the findings at Nag Hammadi; the [...]

2020-08-05T15:20:17-04:00August 5th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Sethian Gnostics and the Gospel of Judas

Soon after scholars had a chance to examine the Gospel of Judas it became clear that it embodied a form of early Christian Gnosticism known as "Sethian."   Most descriptions that you find of Gnosticism are simplistic and do not actually reflect the mind-boggling complexities of the texts that embody it, to the extent that even if you master the basic descriptions you find, it is very hard to make sense of any of the texts. That is certainly true of the Sethian writings! To say they are gloriously confusing is a serious understatement.  They involve myths filled with wierd names and intricacies of relationships and events that are hard to explain in the abstract. But hey, you gotta try!  And if you don't have much space to do so, well, you do the best you can.  Here is how I explain Sethian Gnosticism in my book After the New Testament , 2nd edition.  (The book is actually an anthology of early Christian texts writings all kinds, and I include selections from three key Sethian texts.) [...]

What Is Gnosticism?

I have been talking about how I came to learn about the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, the most significant Christian document discovered in modern times (since the 1940s).  Now I want to explain what the Gospel is.  I have just called it a "Gnostic" Gospel, and so to begin I need to say something about what Christian Gnosticism was.  It is a fascinating topic, but widely misunderstood. The reading-public-at-large was *somewhat* introduced to it in the 1950s with the publication of the Gospel of Thomas (which scholars today are reluctant to label "Gnostic," as it turns out); but it became much more widely known in the 1970s when Elaine Pagels published her blockbuster, The Gnostic Gospels.  She too has changed her views on lots of things (including the Gospel of Thomas), but her book is still a terrific read.  I assign it to my undergrads. I talk about Gnosticism in a number of my books.  The following is some of the basic information from my textbook on the New Testament.  In the next post I'll [...]

How I First Learned About the Gospel of Judas Iscariot

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a thread dealing with Judas Iscariot and another thread dealing with claims from the second century that Christians were highly immoral (sexual reprobates, murderers, and cannibals).  Or at least that some Christian heretics were.  As it turns out, these two threads are closely related in a way one would not expect – at least in a way I never expected until I got involved with the “Gospel of Judas” that was discovered in recent times.  I posted on this many years ago but it would be interesting to do so again. This will take several posts.  I begin with how I first found out about the Gospel of Judas, back when experts in early Christianity knew virtually nothing at all about a Gospel of Judas. In the Fall of 2004 I was in my study minding my own business (well, talking with a graduate student) when the phone rang.   It was a woman named Sheila, whom I had known for years.  Sheila had sponsored a number of archaeological [...]

Slurs Against Religious Opponents and Makin’ Stuff Up

In yesterday's post I detailed the scurrilous accusations made by the 4th century heresy-hunter (i.e., "heresiologist") Epiphanius against a group of Christian "heretics" he calls the Phibionites.  Among other things, he claims they used a Gospel that depicted Jesus engaging in a bizarre sex-act with Mary Magdalene.  But then I asked whether there really was a Gospel that described such a thing and if the Phibionites themselves were engaged in the kind of activities Epiphanius alleges.  He claims he has first-hand knowledge.  Does he? Here I explain why I don't think we can trust him on these claims (he is commonly among scholars thought to be untrustworthy in general), that in fact I think he's just makin' stuff up.  It's not just a feeling I have.  I think there are reasons for drawing that conclusion.  Here is what I say about it in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  How would we know? ********************************************************************* One obvious place to start is with Epiphanius’s sources of information.  Because he had some contact with the group as a young man [...]

2020-07-15T19:40:22-04:00July 15th, 2020|Heresy and Orthodoxy, Proto-Orthodox Writers|

Thomas: The Most Important Gospel Outside the New Testament

The Gospel of Thomas is almost certainly the most important Gospel from outside the New Testament.  Here I talk about what it's overarching message is, and how it relates to the Gospels that did make it into the Christian Scripture.  Again, this is taken from my textbook on the NT.   ************************************************************************************** The Overarching Message of the Book.      The meanings of many of Thomas's sayings are in no way obvious. If they were, they would not be called secret! Even though the book contains nothing like the Sethian or Valentian myths, some of the sayings do seem to reflect roughly analogous understandings of the world and the human’s place in it (see earlier posts on Gnosticism). Within the hearer is an element of the divine—a soul—that had a heavenly origin (it originated “in the place where the light came into being”). This world we live in is inferior at best, and is more appropriately thought of as a cesspool of suffering, “a corpse.” A person’s inner being (the “light” within) has tragically fallen into this [...]

2020-04-03T01:05:16-04:00August 29th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

The Gospel of Thomas: An Overview

I started this thread with a question about the Gospel of Thomas -- almost certainly the most important Gospel not in the New Testament.  Now that I have situated “Thomasine” Christianity in the context of the Nag Hammadi Library the broader Gnostic movement – and questioned whether it is actually a kind of Gnosticism, or simply something similar – I can turn to the Gospel itself.  This will take three posts.  The one today is a broad introduction to its character.   I have taken this from my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.   The Gospel of Thomas The Gospel of Thomas is without question the most significant book discovered in the Nag Hammadi library. Unlike the Gospel of Peter, discovered sixty years earlier, this book is completely preserved. It has no narrative at all, no stories about anything that Jesus did, no references to his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus. The Sayings of the Collection.    The sayings are [...]

2018-08-28T08:04:44-04:00August 28th, 2018|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Thomasine Christians and Others, From After the New Testament

In this thread of posts I have been reproducing my comments on Gnosticism from the 2nd edition of my anthology, After the New Testament. In addition to the Sethians and the Valentinians, scholars talk about the school of Thomas and about yet other Gnostic groups that are not easy to identify with any of the other three or to group together in any meaningful way. Gnosticism was a messy group of religions! Here is what I say in the Introductions to the Thomasines and the Other Gnostic groups in the book. ***************************************************************** Thomasines A number of books from the early Christian tradition are connected with a figure known as Didymus Judas Thomas. The word “Didymus” means “twin” in Greek; so too the name “Thomas” means “twin” in Aramaic. And so this person is Judas, or Jude, the twin. But the twin of whom? In our earliest surviving Gospel, Jesus himself is said to have a brother who is named Jude (for example, Mark 6). And in later traditions, especially from Syria, this Jude was thought [...]

The Valentinian Gnostics from After The New Testament

In my previous post I reproduced my Introduction to the Sethian Gnostics from the second edition of my reader in early Christianity, After The New Testament. One other highly important group of Christian Gnostics are known as the Valentinians. Here is what I say about them in the book *************************************************** Valentinians Unlike the Sethian Gnostics, the Valentinians were named after an actual person, Valentinus, the founder and original leader of the group. We know about the Valentinians from the writings of proto-orthodox heresiologists beginning with Irenaeus and by some of the writings discovered among the Nag Hammadi Library that almost certainly derive from Valentinian authors, including one book that may actually have been written by Valentinus himself (The Gospel of Truth). Valentinus was born around 100 CE and was raised in Alexandria Egypt. He allegedly was a student of the Christian teacher Theudas, who was in turn a disciple of the apostle Paul. Valentinus moved to Rome in the late 130s and there became an influential speaker and teacher. According to some of our early [...]

The Sethian Gnostics, from After The New Testament

In my previous post I reproduced the new discussion of Gnosticism in the second edition of my book After the New Testament. In this post and the two to follow I will reproduce my new discussions of the various “types” of Gnostic texts that I include in the anthology. Many scholars would consider this first type the most important historically: it is a group of texts produced by and for Gnostics known by scholars as the “Sethians.” Here is what I say about them in the book. *************************************************************** Sethian Gnostics The group of Gnostics that scholars have labeled the “Sethians” are known from the writings of proto-orthodox heresiologists beginning with Irenaeus (around 180 CE) and from some of the significant writings of the Nag Hammadi library. They were a thriving sect already by the middle of the second century. Members of the group may not have called themselves Sethians.   Scholars call them this because among their distinctive features they understood themselves to be the spiritual descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve.   [...]

Our Knowledge of Gnosticism

Now that I have said something about the Nag Hammadi library in general (the traditional scholarly account of its discovery; the contents) I can move on to a discussion of "Gnosticism" as we have learned about it from these texts.   This is a topic I covered over four years ago on the blog; the occasion, at the time, was that I had been forced to rethink my views because of a new publication I had been working on.  Here is what I said then: ****************************************************************************************** On to a different topic for a bit. I am now in the process or reading the copy-edited version of the new edition of my anthology of ancient Christian texts, After the New Testament. In early posts, back in January (2014) I talked about what would be in this anthology and how it would differ from the first edition, which I published fifteen years ago. In addition to adding some sections (full new rubrics, for example, on Women in the Early Church and on the History of Biblical Interpretation), I [...]

Did They Crucify the Wrong Guy? Jesus’ Identity Switch.

Yesterday I posted about the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, which clearly differentiated between the man Jesus and the spiritual being, the Christ, who inhabited him temporarily – leaving him at his suffering and death since the divine cannot suffer and die.  That understanding of Jesus Christ is not, strictly speaking, “docetic.”  The term docetic comes from the Greek word DOKEO which means “to seem” or “to appear.”  It refers to Christologies in which Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human but only “seemed” to be. In reality, what they saw, heard, and touched was a phantasm. That is not what is going on in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter.  Here there really is a man Jesus – flesh and blood like the rest of us.  But he is indwelt by a divine being who leaves him at his death, abandoneding him to die alone on the cross.  That is similar to a docetic view, but also strikingly different.  I call it a “separationist” Christology because it separates Jesus from the Christ (who himself separates from [...]

Did Jesus’ Death Matter? The Intriguing View of the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter

From remembering the birth of Jesus (Christmas!), we turn for a moment to remembering his death.  I recently received this question, in response to my statement that some Christians did not think the death of Jesus mattered for salvation, and others maintained that he never actually died.   QUESTION: Can you give some reference to where I can explore this idea of the Crucifixion being unimportant or not happening at all? RESPONSE: I will take two posts to answer this question, since they involve two different sets of “Gnostic” belief, which, in brief, was a distinctive and “declared-heretical” understanding of the Christian faith that stressed that the ultimate divine realm was not closely connected with this material world (the highest God was not the Creator), a world that was to be escaped, not one that would be redeemed.  One document that embraces the view that the death of Jesus had no bearing on salvation is the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, which provides an alternative understanding of what happened at Jesus’ death – as witnessed by [...]

Fun with the Jewish Christian Gospels: A Blast from the Past

I was looking through the blog archives today, and ran across this interesting one from four years ago.  In additional to being rather informative about Gospels outside the New Testament, it shows how even in antiquity Christians had to figure out how to reconcile minor discrepancies among the canonical Gospels.  Enjoy! ********************************************************************* Yesterday in my graduate seminar we spent three hours analyzing the three so-called “Jewish-Christian Gospels.” These are very tricky texts to deal with. We don’t have any manuscripts of them – even small fragments. They come to us, instead, in the quotations of church fathers such as Origen, Didymus the Blind, Jerome, and Epiphanius. These (orthodox) church fathers sometimes quoted or referred to one or the other of the Gospels in order to relate what it said; and sometimes it was in order to attack what it said. There are all sorts of questions raised about these no-longer surviving Gospels in these quotations. A good part of the problem is that some of these fathers – especially Jerome, on whom we depend for [...]

Is There Evidence that Luke Originally Did Not Have the Story of Jesus Birth?

This is the second of three posts on the question of whether Bible translations should place the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel in brackets, or assign them to a footnote.  For background: read the post from yesterday!  Again this is a Blast from the Past, a post I made back in December 2012. . ******************************************************************** In my previous post, ostensibly on the genealogy of Luke, I pointed out that there are good reasons for thinking that the Gospel originally was published – in a kind of “first edition” – without what are now the first two chapters, so that the very beginning was what is now 3:1 (this is many centuries, of course, before anyone started using chapters and verses.) If that’s the case, Luke was originally a Gospel like Mark’s that did not have a birth and infancy narratives. These were added later, in a second edition (either by the same author or by someone else). If that’s the case then the Gospel began with John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus, [...]

Charges and Anti-Supernatural Biases! Readers Mailbag August 6, 2017

I will be dealing with two interesting questions in this weeks’ Readers Mailbag, one involving a criticism of my work by the well-known New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who apparently challenges me (publicly) for taking a position that, in fact, I have never taken, and the other about whether it is pure anti-supernatural bias to think that prophets like Daniel did not predict the future. - N. T. Wright is the author of several books, including Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion.   QUESTION: I saw a Youtube clip with Dr N T Wright giving a short talk on Gnosticism, where he mentioned Elaine Pagels’ and your names, stating:  “…scholars like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, several others, have said quite stridently: this [Gnosticism] was the real early Christianity; and Mathew, Mark, Luke and John tried to cover it up, muddle it up, and they told this very Jewish story about things going on on earth, and with, um, sacraments and all of [...]

Why Was Marcion Declared a Heretic?

              The question I will be dealing with this week relates to the issue of heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity.  If you have a question you would like me to address, let me know!   QUESTION: As I am reading about Marcion being declared a heretic I wonder, who had the authority to do this?   RESPONSE: It’s a very good question, and more significant than, on the surface, one might think.  First some background. Marcion was a second-century philosopher/theologian/teacher who eventually came to be branded as one of the arch-heretics of early Christianity.   Our only sources of information about him are the writings of his enemies – proto-orthodox church fathers (church writers who embraced the theological views that later came to be endorsed as “orthodox” – that is, teaching the “right beliefs”) who saw him, and his views, as dastardly and demonic false teachings meant to led the faithful astray.  It is much debated how much we can trust what his enemies said if we want to determine what it is that [...]

Christians Who Thought Jesus Was Adopted by God: A Blast From the Past

I have been talking about some of the textual variants in the Gospel of Mark, and I want to discuss the very first one in the Gospel, whether Mark 1:1 calls Jesus the "Son of God" or not.  But to make sense of what I want to say about that matter, I need to provide some background that at first sight may not seem all that relevant.  But it's highly relevant.  It has to do with how some early Christians understood Jesus not to be innately the Son of God, but the Son of God because God "adopted" him, the man Jesus, to be his son at some point of his life.  I've covered that issue before on the blog, and so this is a blast from the past: ****************************************************************************** For some posts now I have been talking about “docetic” Christologies in the early church – views of Christ that said he was so much divine that he was not really a human – and about how these influenced proto-orthodox scribes who changed their texts [...]

2020-04-03T02:34:25-04:00February 26th, 2017|Heresy and Orthodoxy, Historical Jesus, Public Forum|
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