Playing devil’s advocate in a discussion about the current interest in Gnosticism and Gnostic writings is like playing a theologically profound game of “What If?”: What if the so-called Gnostic gospels were true? What if the early church had in fact been conceding to Roman culture—and not to the will of God, as many assume today—in relegating women to “silent” status in their gatherings? What if the men who determined the canon of the New Testament really were politically motivated, as some charge, rather than led by God to include certain books and exclude others?
What if Jesus intended all along for women to enjoy equal status with men?
Even in churches that allow women to be ordained and hold leadership positions, the unique “voice” that women bring to theological discussion has frequently gone unheard. Now, though, the greater accessibility and heightened popularity of the Gnostic gospels—especially the Gospel of Mary Magdalene—is underscoring the need to re-examine Scripture from a female perspective.
But why all the interest now? Early in December, Newsweek featured women of the Bible in its cover story the same week that the evangelical magazine Christianity Today ran a cover story on the Virgin Mary.
That also happened to be the same week that the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston launched its “America the Spiritual” series with a panel discussion on “Women and Spirituality: Breaking the Code”—an event that brought the question to center stage for audiences both on site and online at Spirituality.com: Since we’ve known about these writings for anywhere from 50 to 100 years, a participant asked, why are we just now recognizing their relationship to the prominent role women played in the early church?
Panelist and Harvard Divinity women’s studies professor Ann Braude is so quick to answer that question that you just know she’s been thinking about it, and studying it, for decades. “Who was reading those texts?” she asks. “Who had control of the tools of biblical scholarship, of theological education, of the languages that were necessary to read and interpret these texts? Whose voices were being taken seriously when they spoke about these topics?”
Only since around the 1970s have women had the resources available to them to pursue theological research, and only recently have their voices been taken seriously, Braude pointed out, putting to rest the argument that this Gnosticism-inspired focus on women is a fleeting trend riding the coattails of the pop culture fascination with The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code.
One of those women whose voice is being taken seriously is Elaine Pagels, another panelist in the “Breaking the Code” discussion, which was moderated by a seemingly unlikely choice—evangelical author Leonard Sweet, a professor of preaching at Drew University. Pairing him with Braude and Princeton religion professor Pagels is bound to rankle more than a few of Sweet’s evangelical brethren; as various factions of the Christian church begin to examine Gnostic writings more carefully, evangelicals are expected to be the next-to-last holdouts in even reading the “secret” gospels—fundamentalists, of course, being the very last.
But why all the fuss? What’s the big deal, especially in an age when female clergy and theologians are gaining greater and greater acceptance? The title of Pagels’s New York Times bestseller—Beyond Belief—provides as good a two-word description of this big deal as you’ll find anywhere. The Gnostic writings reveal an expression of faith that is rooted in a deep and intimate knowing, a lived religion that mirrors the way women have experienced spirituality for millennia. It’s a faith that extends beyond the confines of belief in a specific set of doctrines established hundreds of years ago by, well, men.
Embodied in what we know today as the Nicene Creed, that specific set of doctrines was formulated at roughly the same time, give or take a hundred years, that the canon of Scripture began to be established—and the Gnostic gospels were deemed heretical.
The fathers of the church determined that the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip, along with other writings that had circulated among churches for several hundred years, were dangerous and a threat to the future existence of Christianity.
Copies of the banned writings were quickly hidden from those who wanted to see nothing less than the complete destruction of these early Christian documents. Only 54 of what is believed to be hundreds of books have been unearthed.
Indeed, some of the teachings do run counter to accepted Christian doctrine, not the least of which is the belief in a lesser god responsible for creating an imperfect world.
But other writings simply present a different way of expressing faith in God. Pagels highlighted several passages that have proven problematic for orthodox Christians:
Apart from the teachings, though, the writings evidence a faith expressed through what Pagels calls “creative awareness.” “This literature abounds in intuition, visions, revelations,” she said. “One finds … an extraordinary explosion of imagination and intuition. Had this kind of literature been included [in the canon], I think there would be much more of that in Western Christian tradition.”
But while the writings may infuse new life into religious institutions, neither Pagels nor Braude, and certainly not Sweet, is suggesting that the current doctrines of the church and the canon of Scripture be dismantled.
“It’s like opening the windows and letting in some more light and some more space and some more breathing room so that there’s more possibility,” Pagels said.
Added Braude: “There may be revisions and reforms … but we do need to be honest with ourselves about the cost of not having institutions that convey values and that are capable of perpetuating them into a new generation.”
Images are used with permission of The Gnostic Society. For more information please see their website www.gnosis.org.
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