The internet gives us the power to encounter people that we could never have otherwise met, and then disagree with them. I found an article by a certain Michael Kaler in a Canadian paper, the Globe, entitled “Hip Gnostics”. (The title is nice, since it highlights the hippy interest in gnosticism). It began with the following whopper:
If there ever was one unified Christian movement, it probably died with Jesus at the first Easter. Ever since, Christianity has been a collection of any number of diverse groups.
Coming across it, by accident, I wrote a comment, but as this was abbreviated by their software and crunched up — and because I quite liked it — I thought that I would post it here.
* * * * *
Every so often, someone decides to make up their own religious group. If they live in a culture where Christianity has some moral authority, they will try to hijack that in some way. They will pretend that they too are Christians, as the Moonies did, or the successors of Christianity, as the early Moslems and the Manichaeans did. But of course it’s terribly easy to spot the fake; you just get hold of their holy books, and look for the bits added on. The bits will always be taken from the contemporary culture, instead of the teachings of Jesus.
This process has gone on for centuries. The earliest Christians tell us that it was going on in their day. The apostle John had gone to the Roman baths. Told that a certain Cerinthus was in the baths, he exclaimed that everyone should get out, because Cerinthus was so dishonest that if he leaned against a wall the place would probably collapse. John’s disciple Polycarp taught in Rome ca. 150 AD, where he met the early cult-maker Marcion, and refused to have anything to do with him. Polycarp’s own pupil Irenaeus, while sympathetic to Christians who thought different things, wrote a long attack on these outsiders who were trying to hijack the reputation of Jesus for their own ends.
It is mildly depressing to see that your article pretends that none of this happens. The writings of the Fathers of the church are online in English. Which of them, we might ask, contains descriptions of themselves as leaders of differing factions? What do those whom the apostles appointed to lead churches, and their successors, say on this? Do they talk about “diversity” — such a 20th century US idea! — or orthodoxy and heresy?
There can be no doubt that they do the latter. Nor is this surprising. Christians had a reputation in the ancient world, for living and dying for their beliefs. Others, making up their own ideas, wanted the name, although not to die for it. These others were the gnostics. Their teachings came from the pagan philosophical schools, not from Christ (Tertullian, De praescriptione 7); and no gnostic felt obliged to follow the teaching of any other unless he felt like it! The diversity of this movement was commented on very harshly by the Fathers.
So I’m sorry to say that your article is rather misleading. The statements made in it result from a piece of linguistic legerdemain which goes like this (1) first label all early people who claim to be Christians “Christians”, regardless of what they teach and where they got it from; (2) argue that since this label includes people who held wildly different ideas, this proves that early Christianity was diverse. Such circular “reasoning” hardly deserves our attention.
It is an old anti-Christian debating ploy to argue that since there are many Christian denominations, any Christian who comes along to talk about Christianity must be lying, since which — he is asked, mock-piously — is the “real” Christianity? Elaine Pagels is merely the latest in this line of polemicists. But a look at the Ante-Nicene Fathers — all online — should dispose of this swindle. A look at the Nag Hammadi texts — which include a portion of Plato, and are also online — should make the difference plain.
The Nag Hammadi texts are indeed very interesting, as is the story of their discovery. How many people realise that the sands of Egypt have produced a steady flow of other books written in antiquity over the last few decades? The find that included the Gospel of Judas included three other ancient books; a Greek mathematical treatise, and a Coptic Exodus and some Letters of St. Paul. More manichaean texts have been found at Kellis in the Dakhla oasis, with a text of an oration by Isocrates. A pile of leaves were found at Tura in 1940 under some stone blocks, which turned out to be lost works by church Fathers Origen and Didymus the Blind. And so it goes on. Undoubtedly there are many more, waiting to be found.
Is there an Indiana Jones among your readers, willing to go and find them and restore them to the knowledge of mankind?