Virginia Episcopalians Delve into Gnostic Gospel, Historical Jesus

on March 21, 2014

Jesus fought wars and was a revolutionary, according to one author and researcher into the life of the Historical Jesus. Other 20th Century scholars decided he was a philosopher, rabbi, healer and even a magician.

But ultimately, the Historical Jesus is an enigma, according to a Princeton University professor and author who spoke on the Gnostic gospel of Thomas to an audience of Virginia Episcopalians March 13-14.

“Our sources are not answering questions about the historical Jesus,” Elaine Pagels asserted to a capacity audience of mostly retirement-age clergy and laity.

Pagels’ offered two presentations at Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Dunn Loring, Virginia on Thursday, March 13 and Friday, March 14. The Thursday evening presentation was entitled “The Many Faces of Jesus,” and looked at five 20th century views of the Historical Jesus. The Friday lecture on the Gnostic gospel of Thomas, intended for clergy, was co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

The lectures follow a 2013 adult education series at Holy Cross when Jesus Seminar co-founder Dominic Crossan spoke to clergy and laity.

An Unknowable Jesus?

The Princeton University professor outlined five views of the historic Jesus: as teacher/philosopher, rabbi, magician, miracle worker/healer and a revolutionary against Rome.

“We have to fill it [Jesus’ life] in with historic imagination,” Pagels quoted German Theologian Albert Schweitzer.

Pagels explained the teacher/philosopher view of Jesus as the “liberal social critic” advocated by Crossan. The view of Jesus as a charismatic rabbi was credited to British-Hungarian scholar Géza Vermes. Jesus as magician was linked to Columbia University professor Morton Smith, while author Stevan L. Davies suggested Jesus had shaman-like powers and asserted that many accounts in the Gospels suggest psychosomatic healings brought about by Jesus’ power of suggestion. Lastly, Anglican Clergyman S. G. F. Brandon was credited for his 1967 book Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity and for articulating the view of Jesus as political revolutionary.

Pagels noted that, more recently, Muslim author Reza Aslan put forth a similar view to Brandon in his own book, Zealot, and suggested that Aslan’s work was essentially a repackaged version of Brandon’s similarly-titled volume. Aslan, Vermes and Schweitzer all eventually departed Christianity.

Pagels contended that the gospel of Thomas was intended for those already familiar with a public account of Jesus’ life. Paired with John’s gospel, which the Princeton academic asserted was written in the same tradition, Thomas was written so that readers would have a “new, deeper meaning” “to be read complementarily” with John’s message of salvation.

Pagels speculated that Jesus was “probably illiterate” but memorized scripture the way Jewish boys memorize the Torah. It was “very likely” he quoted them all the time.

The Earliest Teaching of Jesus?

Speaking to two dozen area clergy on Friday morning, Pagels assessed that Thomas shares a common tradition with the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John. The author may have had access to Q, a speculated source material for the synoptic gospels.

Introducing the history of Thomas, Pagels explained that in the year 367 the Archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt effectively banned the book alongside other extra-canonical volumes, relaying to monks “these books will lead you astray.”

A series of 51 books were removed from an Egyptian monastery, hidden in jars and placed in burial caves, where they were discovered in the 1940s. The volumes were ultimately made available in the 1970s, Thomas among them.

Pagels noted that Gnostics typically considered a “gloomy view of the world” and adhered to a “bizarre mythology,” but Thomas, in contrast, “is a simple list.”

“Whoever put John and Thomas together shared the same teaching tradition,” Pagels concluded.

Noting that Crossan and the Jesus Seminar assigned Thomas as the earliest teaching of Jesus, Pagels instead suggested that it was a “third stage” work combining both early elements with later traditions.

Thomas, Pagels interpreted, tells how the early Christian movement was put together and how it was trusted.

“The gospel of Thomas is a theological interpretation of Genesis,” Pagels offered, speculating that the image of God is not human form, but “divine light.”

“According to the gospel of Thomas, Jesus is the divine energy through which all things come,” Pagels explained, summarizing Thomas’ message as a light within, but hidden.

This contrast with the gospel of John was very clear, Pagels noted, in which Jesus is God’s only begotten son.

In seeking to explain the name of the book, Pagels charged that the name “Thomas” was not intended to be interpreted literally, but as Jesus’ “spiritual twin” – with Jesus as brother and family member.

Quoting from Thomas verse 13, Pagels read: “Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.’ And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three saying to him. When Jesus came back to his companions, they asked him, ‘what did Jesus say to you?’ Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you even one of the saying he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me. Then fire will come forth from the rocks and devour you.’”

Pagels also quoted Thomas verse 108, “Jesus said ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the mysteries will be revealed to him.’”

Positing what message Jesus would have communicated solely to Thomas, Pagels pointed to scholars of oral tradition who determined it could be “secret teaching” for those able to receive it. Noting that some monastics withheld certain knowledge until the age of 35, the Princeton scholar relayed the possibility of Jesus’ message to Thomas “that you have access to divine light as Jesus did.”

Concluding her presentation, Pagels also read from the end of Thomas, which she acknowledged many would find jarring.

Verse 114 reads: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

Pagels noted that some scholars speculated the verse might have been added later to the text, citing a tone inconsistent with many of the book’s earlier sayings.

  1. Comment by Holgrave on March 21, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Break out the bubbly! This champagne scholarship may unfortunately be taken seriously a generation of Virginia Episcopalians who still think the Jesus Seminar is cutting-edge theology.

  2. Comment by Russ on March 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    What a naive comment. Pagels has a 30+ year record as an accomplished scholar.

  3. Comment by Jay Ferguson on March 21, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    LOL High Five for Holgrave. Russ, Pagan I mean Pagels is a joke. Read NT Wrights response to her heresy. The only thing she has accomplished is causing the Church to stumble.

  4. Comment by E25 on March 21, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    First, merely inviting someone to give a lecture hardly qualifies as evidence that an entire group of people buy into the speaker’s theories.

    Secondly, I’d much rather be associated with gnosticism than the homophobia that many believers of the so-called Faith Once Delivered espouse. Wake me when Franklin Graham or ACNA denounce the homophobic laws in Russia or Uganda.

  5. Comment by Jay Ferguson on March 21, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    LOL You will wake up when jihad is at your door. But I bet you would be an easy convert to Islam.

  6. Comment by PUZZLED on March 21, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Why does every article not about homosexuality end up being about homosexuality in the comment section? Let the comments speak to this particular issue, and let Scripture speak to all.

  7. Comment by Patrick on March 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    How about Jesus as Son of the Living God… who came to die on a Cross as the substitutionary atonement for the sins of those who claim Christ as both Lord and Savior? What, that did not come up? Why would one expect a bunch of apostate Episcopalians to think that Jesus who makes the exclusive claim of being the Way, Truth and Life as the only way to salvation would have any meaning…. What a bunch of fools! The idea that Salvation comes in faith alone, by Grace alone, in Jesus Christ alone must seem soooo passé’ to them!

    “Pagels explained the teacher/philosopher view of Jesus as the “liberal social critic” advocated by Crossan. The view of Jesus as a charismatic rabbi was credited to British-Hungarian scholar Géza Vermes. Jesus as magician was linked to Columbia University professor Morton Smith, while author Stevan L. Davies suggested Jesus had shaman-like powers and asserted that many accounts in the Gospels suggest psychosomatic healings brought about by Jesus’ power of suggestion. Lastly, Anglican Clergyman S. G. F. Brandon was credited for his 1967 book Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity and for articulating the view of Jesus as political revolutionary.”

  8. Comment by George on March 21, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Oh, I feel so “enlightened.” No, wait so I can drink the KOOL-AID

  9. Comment by E25 on March 21, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Look at the laws in Russia and Uganda and how those right-wing Christians treat their fellow human beings, with support from right-wing Christians here in the U.S. Then an episcopal church listens to a lecture on gnosticism and the right-wingers soil their pants. Those so-called traditionalists can no longer even muster a pretense of theological high ground.

  10. Comment by Jay Ferguson on March 21, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    E25 has a clear case of Orthophobia. You clearly display a hatred for anything Orthodox. You are irrational and emotional. You rambling is coherent. I would recommend taking a vow of silence just to give your friends and family a break. The you must attend a Southern Baptist Church to recover your understanding of soteriology. Once you have display competency in this area you will need to attend a Salvation Army community to help you realize the Church is not about you. Your narcissistic approach has clouded your perspective. Lastly Attend a Pentecostal Church to witness the Living God at work to contrast your humanistic morality projected on to the Revealed God in Christ. You may break your vow of silence only when you begin to speak in tongues. ( Please Lord tell me E25 doesn’t believe in Tongues) This will cure you of your irrational fear of Orthodox persons. Don’t thank me….well OK thank me. You are welcome E25 you are welcome.

  11. Comment by E25 on March 21, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    Thank you for your helpful comments. I now can surmise, at least approximately, what Orthodoxy means. It apparently has something to do with being homophobic, the Southern Baptist Convention, standing on a street corner ringing a bell, and accepting your view of the bible, which, of course, would make me non-narcissistic (because you’re not). However, if one were to perform these steps in reverse order, would one be cured of homophobia?

  12. Comment by BillyBoy on March 21, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    I am not sure what a so called homophobe or discussion about this has to do with the E Church becoming nothing more than a round table discussion at the local starbucks. It is about as relevant. In terms of homosexual behavior, I don’t understand how evolution would permit genetic disposition to breed to the point of not being able to breed. Maybe that’s what happened to the dinosaurs-they all became gay and could no longer pro-create. Just saying.

  13. Comment by Dewey on March 21, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Fyi, most episcopalians are not homophobic. All Christians are not one issue trick pony’s. Take your hypersensitivity about your gay-ness to someone who cares.

  14. Comment by Tim on March 21, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    I really do pity these apostate Episcopalians. They must be a most miserable lot. Why do they even claim to be a church? In another generation, they won’t even exist. Very sad.

  15. Comment by Yesterday...Today...Forever on March 21, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    The 20th Century Jesus is the same as the 1st Century Jesus – the same Jesus who was present in the beginning and who will reign in all glory for eternity. These imposters are the same recycled first century heretics and apostates warned about in Scripture. Nothing new here.

  16. Comment by Yesterday...Today...Forever on March 21, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    21st Century…and any other.

  17. Comment by James M on March 22, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I’m open minded about the bible and anyone talking about it as long as they show love. It’s good that Virginia Episcopalians are curious about Gnosticism, we are after all supposed to study the word for ourselves and let our minds be open to what it offers. Being closed or narrow minded gets us nowhere. There’s a great deal of information available to learn from when studying the life of Christ.

  18. Comment by Thomas Leavitt on March 23, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Elaine Pagels is an academic scholar, not a theologian or evangelist. She’s interested in exploring the historical context in which Christianity emerged, not in persuading people to a particular point of view with regards to the philosophical approach and specific activities of the historical Jesus, for which I’d venture to say she believes there is simply not enough evidence to come to any firm conclusions. Rather, we can draw tentative conclusions as to what various groups within the larger Christian tradition thought, as well as examine historical research in context (as she did here) for insight into various points of view on Christ’s message.

    As a Gnostic Christian with a fascination for the history of the early Christian era, I appreciate all the scholars who have done so much to shed light on the events, historical figures, and documents associated with that period, but they have no influence on my own religious practice. The truth of the Divine Light expressed in a document or teaching shines forth regardless of its historical validity. As such, we use documents in our liturgical practice that most of us would freely accept were likely composed centuries after the death of Christ, and are not threatened by the findings and speculations of academia.

  19. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on March 24, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    In accordance with New Age teaching, Gnostics divide Jesus from the Christ. The early Gnostic Valentinus said that Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism and left before his death on the cross. “Against Heresies,” written by the early Christian theologian Irenaeus, affirmed that Jesus was, is, and always will be, the Christ. He wrote: “The Gospel…knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again.”

    Irenaeus goes on to quote John’s affirmation that “Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31), against the notion that Jesus and Christ were “formed of two different substances,” as the Gnostics taught.

    In dealing with the idea that Christ did not suffer on the cross for sin, Irenaeus argues that Christ never would have exhorted His disciples to take up the cross if He in fact was not to suffer on it Himself, but fly away from it.

    For Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the apostle John), the suffering of Jesus the Christ was paramount. It was indispensable to the apostolic “rule of faith” that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross to bring salvation to His people. Irenaeus asserted there was no uncorrupted divine spark in the human heart; self-knowledge was not equal to God-knowledge. Rather, humans were stuck in sin and required a radical rescue. Because “it was not possible that the man…who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself,” the Son brought salvation by “descending from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation.”

    The Gnostic Jesus is predominantly a dispenser of cosmic wisdom who waxes on themes like the spirit’s fall into matter. Jesus surely taught theology, but he dealt with the problem of pain and suffering in a far different way. He suffered for humanity, rather than escaping the cross or lecturing on the vanity of the body.

    That’s why Gnosticism is a heresy.

  20. Comment by Episcodun on July 16, 2014 at 12:00 am

    As I noted to Thomas a few minutes ago, I’ve just discovered your blog post.

    Thanks for noting that Gnostics, like New Agers, “divide Jesus from the Christ.”

    On my bookshelf, I have an old copy of _The Kingdom of the Cults_. For each cult, Walter Martin notes five markers for cults–one being the division of Jesus from Christ. (You likely know that this book is now available online as a pdf file.)

    Now I see the connection between New Age and the Gnostics.

    Though the Gnostics claim mystical knowledge for salvation, I have a Savior who died as the propitiation for my sins.

  21. Comment by Thomas on March 25, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    A few years ago I did a book review as follows:

    Thomas, the Other Gospel
    Nicholas Perrin
    139 pp

    The Gospel of Thomas, discovered in a Coptic version at Nag Hammadi in 1945, has 114 sayings attributed to Jesus (about half having parallels in the synoptic gospels), but contains no narratives. Some consider it to be earlier (and more authentic) than the canonical gospels. Yet scholars diverge greatly as to its date and authorship. Nicholas Perrin engages with three leading experts, identifying six issues (two for each scholar) that their theories leave unresolved. He then offers his own elegant single solution to all six.

    To take just one: Stephen J Patterson wonders why the sayings in Thomas are in a different order from their counterparts in the synoptics; this suggests an independent source of Jesus traditions. Perrin argues that (a) Thomas was originally written in Syriac; (b) Tatian’s Diatessaron, a harmony of the four canonical gospels, was also in Syriac; (c) Thomas follows Tatian’s order and many of his specific verbal constructions.

    The consequences are significant. Thomas is not a ‘fifth’ gospel; it was not written in the 70’s AD [Patterson] since its primary source was written in 173 AD. Departures from synoptic order are due not to independence, but to Tatian’s harmonising. The same logic renders groundless Elaine Pagels’ notion that John’s gospel was written to refute the (prior) Gospel of Thomas by painting Thomas in a bad light (‘Doubting Thomas’ etc). Similarly, April deConick’s theory that Thomas is a ‘rolling corpus’, the result of multiple layers accumulated over a century – which must be removed like layers of an onion to reveal the original material – is untenable.

    Perrin’s speculative reconstruction of the social setting in which Thomas was written is fascinating. Tatian and the Thomas Christians lived in Edessa, Syria, as rivals to the orthodox church in the city, who had as yet no bishop but were in communion with Serapion, Bishop of nearby Antioch. The Thomas Christians wanted, in Pagels’ words, “not so much to believe in Jesus, as [John’s gospel] requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given, capacity …”. They sought to “demythologise” the Christian message, just as, Perrin suggests, his dialogue partners do today: ‘Perhaps the broad sense among North American scholars that Christian origins finds a significant point of departure in Thomas speaks less to first-century realities than it does to the truism that history repeats itself’ (p 137). For Anglicans the poignancy of this repetition of history is acute: before 200 AD the orthodox and the Thomas Christians were already ‘walking apart’.

    This brilliant book unfolds like a detective thriller.

  22. Comment by Episcodun on July 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I’ve just discovered your blog post.

    Thanks for posting your book review which provides additional information about Pagels and the gnostic gospel of Thomas.

    Before I departed from the Episcopal Church (TEC), I had concerns that I was hearing teaching which contradicted Scripture. I now know that the Holy Spirit was leading me out of TEC.

  23. Comment by Thomas on March 26, 2014 at 5:23 am

    BTW, not Thomas Leavitt

  24. Comment by James M on March 26, 2014 at 6:58 am

    One man’s Archon is another man’s demon. We do battle with each other over theology while our mutual enemies reap the benefits. We will never fully agree on anything, so let’s not deal with that. Let’s respect each others differences and concentrate on our mutual agreement. There’s much work to be done as mutual allies on the cause of battling the beings who would like to limit us.

  25. Comment by Jay Upadhya on November 8, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    the aglican bible is different from the other protestant bibles so his means what gnostic gospels are accepted in the Anglican New testament?

  26. Comment by Chris on March 18, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Both gnosticism and androphobia are what lead to grabbems and worse. Secret gospel of Mark is probably just a longer version but probably actually was in an earlier Bible. No gnostic stuff has been and for all these same reasons

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