“The Gnostic Gospels:” A Review Article -- By: Wayne S. Flow
“The Gnostic Gospels:” A Review Article
Scholars for years have referred to various specific phenomena as the soil from which gnosticism sprouted, grew and developed. Some have indicated that Christianity was the main soil, others have considered Hellenistic Judaism as a most likely fertile source, others have looked to Palestinian and Syrian sources (beginning with Simon Magus, who is mentioned in Acts), a fourth group sees Hellenistic philosophy (particularly stoicism and neo-Platonism) as the root, and many affirm that oriental pagan religions had some original influence on gnosticism.1
Elaine Pagels’ peculiar contribution to the subject of gnostic studies is her belief that gnostic and “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity developed side by side until the political and social goals of the stronger “orthodox” led to the suppression and exclusion of gnosticism, to the impoverishment of Christian tradition and the distortion of the institutional Church.2 Pagels writes that the Nag Hammadi library opens the eyes of the reader to at least a glimpse of the complexity of the early Christian movement and enables one to see that what has been identified as early Christian tradition actually only represents a small, arbitrary selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others.3 The implication is that there came into being a pool of written religious works during the later first and early second centuries out of which “Christian” leaders arbitrarily chose those that supported their own political and social ideas and that they foresaw would contribute to their goals for the institutional Church.
It is apparent then that “Christian” gnosticism for Pagels does not find its source in pre-Christian phenomena, nor is it to be considered as a heresy arising out of Christianity or as a parasite feeding upon Christianity, but rather as an equal rising out of the same historic milieu only to be set aside, rejected and ultimately destroyed by what came to be orthodox Christianity, in the greater interests of the institutional Church. The implication is that gnosticism might well be the “orthodox” Christianity of today if the Church leaders of the late first and second centuries had not done their work well. By the time of the conversion of Constantine, when Christianity became an officially approved religion, Christian
*Wayne Flory is associate professor of Biblical studies and theology at Biola College in La Mirada, California.
JETS 24/3 (September 1981) 252
bishops saw to it that possession of heretical books was made a criminal offense and that copies of such books...
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