The Church’s suppression of the apocryphal literature was pretty successful during the fifteen or so long centuries when European scholarship was either conducted by the Church or approved by it. Increasingly, however, secular modern scholarship has broken the Church’s monopoly on religious investigation. One result is the liberation of the Christian apocrypha. Already in 1820 W. Hone compiled an Apocryphal New Testament, subsequently much improved and enlarged by M. R. James’ volume in 1924. This in turn has been superseded by the various editions of E. Henneke and W. Schneemelcher, now consisting of two bulky (and indispensable) volumes. But “Schneemelcher” is still incomplete, contains predictably conservative views on the various texts, and needs to be used with caution. Like Wikipedia (I use the analogy deliberately) it offers only an introduction that must be augmented.
The earlier conception of Jesus
When we begin to explore the apocryphal literature, one of the first things we discover is that the “Jesus” described is very different from Jesus of Nazareth. As a rule, in the apocryphal literature Jesus has no body!
It’s true. Anyone who begins to explore the vast terrain of non-canonical Christian texts is soon swimming in works describing a spiritual Jesus, a shape-shifting Jesus, and what scholars today call a “docetic” Jesus. The massive presence of this spiritual Jesus in the apocryphal Christian literature is nothing less than embarrassing to the tradition. No wonder it was all hidden! But liberal scholarship is now realizing that the non-fleshly Jesus was, in fact, the dominant view before the second century. Heresy preceded orthodoxy, and not the other way around. This conclusion is based on several factors, not least of which is that the corporeal “Jesus of Nazareth” of the canonical gospels belongs not to the first century, but to the second. We know this from recent work on Marcion of Pontus, work that proves Marcion’s gospel predated the gospel of Mark. Amazing, indeed…
It is even possible that Marcion of Pontus invented the figure “Jesus the Nazarene.” At the current breathtaking pace of research, I think we will have clarity on this question within a few years. Marcion’s gospel dates not before 90 CE (and as late as 150 CE). The question is whether Marcion was or was not dependent on an earlier “gospel.” In any case, the German researchers M. Klinghardt and M. Vinzent have recently shown that the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are all later than Marcion. Thus, the bulk of the New Testament must leave the first century. It is fair to say that the thousands—nay, millions—of books on Christian origins written prior to the year 2000 are now obsolete. For with this colossal redating comes a paradigm-changing realization: Jesus of Nazareth was not the original Jesus. He was a late-comer—and a fake.
We are all conditioned to read the apocryphal Christian writings through later lenses, a mis-reading that has been systematically encouraged by the tradition. Even the Pauline epistles, when read without preconceptions, seem to describe a spiritual Jesus. The jury is still out on how much of those epistles was actually written in the first century (see discussion here)—and this is another question that should be clarified soon—but it is becoming increasingly clear that “Paul” (including his biography in Acts) is an invention of the second century.
The Pauline epistles make no mention of Nazareth and hardly any mention of a human Jesus. A multitude of apocryphal writings also make no mention of “Nazareth” or “Nazarene”—yet they speak exhaustively about a “Jesus.” In fact, the entire Nag Hammadi gnostic library (52 tractates) contains not a single mention of “Nazareth,” though the Gospel of Philip mentions “Nazara” once (62:14)—but it defines that not as a place, but as “the truth.” These are telltale signs that the Nag Hammadi library is concerned with a “Jesus” different from the Jesus of the canonical gospels. It is entirely valid to ask: does the NHL know Jesus of Nazareth at all?
The Jesus of the gnostic texts is disembodied, eternal, within, from on high, sometimes a “name” or “word” of God (Gospel of Truth 21–23), and generally communicated to us after “death.” The latter shows, critically, that Jesus has the power to conquer death. However, because Jesus is a spiritual entity, we are dealing here with a long-forgotten definition of “death”—not death of the body, but death of something immaterial. To the gnostics, this would be death to ignorance, that is, acquisition of the all-saving gnosis. “Death,” then, for the gnostic is a variable concept. It can be positive—as in the passage to life, enlightenment, even baptism (its earliest celebration, where water is a symbol of gnosis). “Death” can also be negative, meaning the lack of life, enlightenment, gnosis… The subtle ways gnostic texts use the concepts “death” and “life” are signs of the richness of their repertoire. We find in gnosticism a deep, well-articulated worldview. These rather advanced concepts inform earliest Christianity and predate the canonical stratum of the second century CE.
As in virtually all religions, what begins as a spiritual teaching becomes materialized, as the masses eventually demand a religion announcing not merely spiritual might (an oxymoron, some worldlings may claim) but manifest material might—something the masses well understand, venerate, and before which they are taught to bow. So, the overcoming of spiritual death (“ignorance”) through secret knowledge (gnosis) carried little truck with the common people. It gave way to something they could worship (though hardly understand): a quasi-human phenomenon born of a virgin, resurrected from the grave, who walked on earth (as also on water) raising the dead, multiplying fish, curing the infirm, stilling the storm, and resurrecting bodily from the grave. As we read in Mk 9:1, that’s Jesus coming with power!
On the other hand, the name of God, the word of God, and the truth of God—all abstract gnostic definitions of Jesus—have little to recommend them for the masses. But those who embraced such abstractions saw through the sham of the late-comer, the corporeal Jesus. They doubted the existence of Jesus of Nazareth from the start. The gnostics insisted: “Jesus has no body.” Today, we call them “docetists,” not realizing that they had an older and far more subtle conception of “Jesus” than did the later Church.
According to the gnostic, the spiritual Jesus is available to all. Though an abstraction, it is quite real—for its attainment (and that alone) bestows true happiness. To find this Jesus (“the truth,” according to the Gospel of Philip) we need only foray off the beaten path into the voluminous literature rejected by Catholic Christianity. The Repose of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle is one such work. This virtually unknown Coptic Christian text announces:
Christ our Lord… has never made himself manifest to you through the eyes of the body, neither have you heard him through the ears of the body, but he has made himself visible to you through the integrity of your heart, and by visions, and by works which are holy. (Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental, No. 6782. See E. Budge, p. 233 [online here].)
One might ask: How can “integrity” of heart, “visions,” and “works which are holy” (that is, your works, or my works) lead to the manifestation of “Christ our Lord”? The answer must be: he/it is nothing other than the result of such good works. The conclusion: through integrity, through seeing (i.e. gnosis), and through meritorious conduct, we become Christs—we enter Nazara, what Philip defines as “the truth.” This early and surely authentic theology has ever been anathema to the Catholic Church, which since its birth has offered mankind a savior and little more. Without any need of a savior, however, no one has need for the Church either…
The Repose of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle also writes of “your majesty that is invisible,” of “you who have spoken words in our hearts,” of “you who made yourself to be apprehended by every person of reason,” and of the soul “worthy of your gnosis.” We have here an alternate path to salvation (reason), an alternate conception of (the spiritual) Jesus, and even an alternate conception of God (gnosis). Obviously, this text was anathema to the Church. No wonder that today it is entirely unknown!
The Nag Hammadi library, too, was unknown to the world until its almost miraculous discovery in 1945, buried in the sands of the Egyptian desert. Most of its works—including the Gospel of Thomas—exist in no other manuscript, showing the astounding efficiency of the Church’s destructive efforts. What a debt of gratitude we owe to that nameless monk who, one dark night about 362 CE, loaded his donkey with precious manuscripts and ventured out into the starry desert, dug a deep pit, and there deposited his single earthen jar containing the entire Nag Hammadi library! Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a single thoughtful, committed person can change the world; indeed, that’s all that ever has” (my edited version of her great saying). Well, that nameless monk changed the world. His midnight ride colossally influenced history. The monk knew that the texts he was burying would almost certainly never be seen again. But he buried them anyway, unwilling to simply destroy them. And, as it happens, his treasure constitutes the only copy of many seminal scriptures that we possess today. I have to digress here and say, his act is an astonishing example of the exhortation to do the right thing—especially when no one is looking! When Athanasius, the archbishop from Alexandria arrived a few days later, rounding up heretical manuscripts to destroy, he no doubt found none at the Pachomian monastery of Chenoboskion and conferred upon the monastery his fulsome praise. Little did the famous archbishop know that he had been foiled by the actions of a lowly monk.
If one opens the Nag Hammadi library to virtually any page, one reads of a spiritual quest leading towards perfection, liberation, or some sort of divinity. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (NHL VII.2.57–58), for example, speaks of the soul that is liberated when it “becomes free and when it is endowed with nobility in the world, standing before the Father without weariness and fear.” This liberation occurs already in the world—not in some future life. And the liberation occurs through being “endowed with nobility.” That nobility, for the gnostic, is emphatically self-attained, the product of effort and wisdom (gnosis, secret knowledge).
One might signal here also the Ascension of Isaiah, a work popular in gnostic traditions from the Manichaeans to the Cathars of the Middle Ages. The Ascension essentially blurs the line between man and God, chronicling the change of God into man and man into God. All this was rank heresy (and impossibility) in both Jewish and Christian eyes—though such transformation was the very heart of the so-called “mystery religions.” Bart Ehrman writes:
The Ascension of Isaiah contains certain motifs otherwise widely associated with Gnostics, in particular, the ascent and descent of the Beloved, who changes into a new shape in each realm of the heavens and delivers the passwords necessary to be granted passage. (B. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery, Oxford Univ. Pr. 2013, p. 398.)
The initiate changing “into a new shape in each realm” is shape-shifting, in this case on the way to full divinity. This concept is unacceptable to modern man mostly because we have a different concept of God than did the ancients. Gods (of which there generally were many) were not creators of the physical realm (the primary attribute of God to us today) so much as potencies. The physical creation was merely their lesser manifestation, a byproduct of their various potencies. Mankind, too, is merely an ephemeral byproduct of those potencies. If he wishes to reach divinity (and his full realization), he must rise above his carnal, physical limitations—no easy task. This mindset already underlies the religiosity of the Bronze and Iron Ages. It is extremely old. The hard separation between man and the divine is comparatively recent. In ancient times, man was a form or manifestation of divinity—albeit a more-or-less corrupted manifestation. This was the problem. Mankind was not manifesting his and her full potential. The secret to salvation, then, was emphatically to rid oneself of corruption. This is a transformation, one eventually enshrined in various notions ranging from baptism, to resurrection, to enlightenment. Man could become divine. In fact, this is the goal of life, whose main purpose is to transcend this short, unsatisfactory, and bestial carnal existence.—R.S.