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Flak on gnostics article

7 January 1989

Published in The Advertiser (Adelaide)


My pre-Christmas article on the gnostics drew much criticism. The Advertiser (Adelaide's daily newspaper) published two extra pages to accommodate it. This is my response to it:



The last three weeks have seen an extraordinary response to my article on the origins of Christianity - mainly negative. The rebukes from believers were hardly surprising. What did surprise me was an overture from a leader of the Atheists Association of SA, offering me the Editorship of The Atheist Times. This person additionally announced that he would be visiting me shortly, to "discuss tactics". I can assure my Christian critics that this turn of events alarmed me far more than they did.


Anyway. The many letters published by The Advertiser, and Rev. John Gaden's article last Saturday, did little to alter my view that Christianity began as a visionary movement, was usurped by a faction within itself, and was thereafter - with the help of the Roman state - turned into its own opposite. Ignoring the hyperbole and insult (and for space reasons, the more trivial claims), let's look at the complaints point-by-point.


DAVID PAECH (President, Lutheran District, SA) states that the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD "did not make Christ 'Very God', but acknowledged the fact." I'm afraid there is little evidence that Christ was generally regarded as God before Nicaea. Is Mr Paech implying he was God, but the majority of Christians failed to realise it for three centuries?


Mr Paech also feels that my comparing the 4th Century bishops to Stalin is "a bit strong... one does not judge antiquity in the light of the present; things are just so different." On the contrary, Mr Paech, things have changed remarkably little. Pick up The Advertiser any day of the week and you will read of brutalities that match Constantine's, and of powerful political hegemonies which have taken shape from the bones of visionary movements. This was the very point of the political parallels I drew. (Regarding the 4th century bishops in particular: history tells us that many of them oversaw a purge just as brutal as any of Stalin's.)


Mr Paech attacks my sources too. The gnostic writings, he says, "were never accepted in the Church". "Never" is quite wrong. Gnostic writings were a major part of a very diverse Christian movement, up till around the year 200. They played a significant (though diminishing) role until the early fourth century.


MICHAEL WOOD says that my "statement on the authorship of the gospels is inaccurate... scholars have little doubt on the authorship of Mark, Luke and John." This is itself inaccurate. The German theologians Baur, Lachmann, Holtzmann and others established a century ago that contemporaries of Jesus did not write the New Testament gospels.


Mr Wood claims that there "is an abundance of evidence within scriptures for the divinity of Jesus". Actually, there's much ambiguity about even this. But my article said that, after the Council of Nicaea, "Jesus, against the evidence of the Gospels themselves, had become 'Very God' for all time." Now, it can be argued that figures like Elijah, John the Baptist - and maybe even you and I - are in some senses "divine". But Jesus was declared, at Nicaea, as having been inseparable from God - and ruler of the universe - from the beginning of time. This is, I submit, somewhat different! Mr Wood is also "mystified by what John Macgregor is trying to say regarding the evidence for the resurrection. This is a matter of faith, not proof." So is the flat earth theory, Mr Wood.


ANGELO AUCIELLO points out that "the Council of Nicaea may have been called by Constantine, but the man who championed the scriptural view of Christ's divinity was Athanasius". Nit-pickingly true. But I did not claim otherwise. Moreover, Athanasius's "scriptures" had been carefully doctored to exclude any gnostic or other "dubious" books. Therefore his "scriptural view" is akin, perhaps, to a view of the American Civil War derived from reading the first half of Gone With the Wind.


Mr Auciello, in attempting to prove that Christ was always regarded as "Very God", quotes the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 of a Messiah who was to be the "Mighty God". This could hardly apply to Christ, for (as Mr Auciello fails to mention) it goes on to state that "the government will be on his shoulders". As I recall, the government in Christ's time was, more accurately, breathing down his neck.


Defending the New Testament against my claim of bias, Mr Auciello refers to the "assembling of the early writings according to whether they measured up to the high standards of apostolic authority and doctrinal integrity and consistency". There is endless evidence in contradiction of this most fanciful statement - however I will content myself with two pieces. Firstly, by the time the sifting of the various orthodox Christian writings ended (perhaps around 200 AD) all the feminine imagery for God had vanished. Presumably the innumerable texts which gave God a female dimension, and women equality with men, all failed to live up to Mr Auciello's "doctrinal integrity". Exhibit B comes from Oxford University historian Ian Wilson:


"Modern theological studies suggest that the...two letters of Peter...were most likely forged in Peter's name by some pro-Pauline writer, and that other letters attributed to Paul, notably the Pastorals, were fabricated to create a false impression of harmony."


Mr Auciello complains that "Mr Macgregor claims that the Gnostics were the adherents of Christ's original teachings..." The most persuasive evidence that they were among the adherents of his original teachings (which is what I claimed), is that the gnostics lived in accordance with Christ's spiritual precepts, and rejected the power-seeking of the orthodox Church. Additionally, they practised a tolerance which, curiously, disappeared from Christianity at the same time as they did.


FATHER RJ BARRY'S complaint (echoed by others) about the mistake made by "a writer who thinks Mark was an apostle" - is the fairest thing said by any of the letter-writers. As it happens I do not "think" Mark was an apostle - but I did erroneously refer to "the apostles Matthew and Mark, or their followers Luke and John" instead of (correctly) "the apostles Matthew and John, or their followers Mark and Luke." This carelessness derived from my pre-deadline rush, and I acknowledge it without reservation. It is, however, of no relevance to any conclusion drawn in the article.


Father Barry continues, "To imply that the [gnostic] Gospel of Thomas gives a reliable picture of Christ and his message in contrast to the four canonical gospels flies in the face of New Testament scholarship throughout the world." Father Barry should forget "the world", and direct his attention no further than Belair, where a senior lecturer in the Adelaide College of Divinity, of which Father Barry is President, seems to hold a somewhat different view. Rev. John Gaden, in his article last week, stated that where New Testament gospels contain the same saying as Thomas, "in some cases Thomas preserves it in an earlier form. Of equal interest is the fact that Thomas contains some sayings of Jesus which most scholars regard as genuine, even though they are not found in the New Testament gospels."


Let's hope they can iron this one out before the academic year begins.


That my view on this matter "flies in the face" of modern biblical scholarship is simply not true. I urge Father Barry to read Professors Quispel and Koester on the subject.


FATHER RICHARD MORRIS writes that "Constantine's vision was entirely visual; there was nothing aural in it." On the contrary, Ian Wilson tells us in his book Jesus: The Evidence that in his dream Constantine heard the words, "By this sign you shall be the victor." (NB: Readers interested in this whole subject - especially my letter-writers - are strongly advised to watch the SBS TV series of Jesus: The Evidence, now showing on Monday nights.)


Father Morris also holds that "there were no female bishops or priests in the years immediately following the time of the apostles." Why, then - when writing of gnostic women - did the orthodox Tertullian fume: "These heretical women - how audacious they are! They are bold enough to teach...and, it may be, even to baptise!" ? (De Praescriptione Haereticorum, 41.) Additionally, the early Christian leader Marcion horrified some contemporaries by "appointing women on an equal basis with men as priests and bishops". (The Gnostic Gospels, p. 81.) And the orthodox Irenaeus wrote (in his Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses, 1.13.1-2) that the gnostic Christian teacher Marcus "hands the cups to women" to offer the eucharistic prayer, and to consecrate.


THE REVEREND ROBERT ILES writes that "Gnosticism was not the kind of composite movement he implies it was". If Rev. Iles means that gnosticism was diverse and diffuse, I agree with him: I did not suggest otherwise. "Nor," he adds, "was it censured only after Constantine's conversion." Again, my article did not imply anything to the contrary. Rev. Iles writes at some length of how gnostic beliefs "cannot be reconciled with the New Testament". This complaint (like so many others) addresses an assertion I did not make. Indeed my central point was that the New Testament is incomplete, and therefore inaccurate, because it omitted a whole dimension of Christ's message for political reasons. Of course gnostic beliefs cannot be reconciled to the New Testament.


As the next week wore on, still the letters poured in. The SA College of Advanced Education's Senior Lecturer in Religion Studies, Jerome Crow, dedicated his to the relationship between politics and religion. He concluded that there are "thousands of your readers waiting for an in-depth treatment of Gnosticism - but by somebody who knows something about it."


Regarding this charge, I'll quote - if I may - Dr Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Pagels is probably the best-known gnosticism scholar in the world. She has certainly written the best-known book on the subject, The Gnostic Gospels - which I reviewed in an academic magazine about three years ago. A letter I received from her in 1985, after my review was published, addresses the very subject Mr Crow is unhappy about:


"What I am most grateful to you for is the fact that you speak of the central point of the book - what I, too, saw as its most original point - which is the interaction between religious perception and politics - trying to convey that in a non-reductionist manner - as you rightly understood it. Out of about 700 reviews I've seen, only 3 mention this - yours, that of Prof. G Quispel (discoverer of the Gospel of Thomas) and another by Prof. David Scholer."


(Prof. Quispel, a former colleague of Jung's, is the "grandfather" of today's gnostic scholarship. Prof. Scholer manages the world's central bibliography on gnostic study.)


Lastly - THE REVEREND JOHN GADEN'S more conciliatory article last Saturday was a change from the fire-breathing of the previous week. Unlike his co-religionists, Rev. Gaden would apparently rather split a hair than a heretic's skull, for which I am grateful. With qualifications though - for he splits many.


For reasons which are (I hope) obvious, I have no desire to dispute whether Christ was "indistinguishable from the Father" or merely "shared the same reality as the Father". I am equally uninspired to quibble whether it was the "supreme being" who was male and female, or "a product or image of that being". (And so on.) It's a telling exercise to contrast the simple, ringing words of Christ himself with such empty intellectualisation.


Three things are worth noting from Rev. Gaden's article. One is that it frequently contradicts the other Christian critics. Another is that he, too, misconstrues the things I said about Christ's divinity, and the diversity of the gnostics. (These matters are dealt with above.) Most importantly, in addressing the major points in my article, Rev. Gaden introduces historical errors. He states that there is little evidence that women were ordained as priests or bishops. (See above.) That the Gospel of Thomas "shows no influence of the gnostic sect". (This is only so if we define the word "gnostic" very narrowly indeed - which we can't do, because of the much-emphasised diversity of the gnostics.)


More glaringly, Rev. Gaden - around the middle of his article - describes the famous teacher Valentinus as "gnostic"', yet near the end clearly tells us he was not gnostic. (For the record, he was right the first time.)


Rev. Gaden concludes that the gnostics "emphasised some basic features of Christianity, but took them to extremes". The irony of this sentence is that it would probably be applied to Christ himself, were he to reappear today.


Disappointingly, not one critic of my article was a woman - surely itself a comment on the current state of Christianity. Of these male critics, the most senior - Father Barry, President of the Adelaide College of Divinity - employed the most colorful language. "Impertinent nonsense" is probably his most revealing phrase. To thinking people, the arrogance implicit in this sums up some of the difficulties of accepting modern Christianity.


My article was written from research material for my recent novel, Propinquity - which attempted to explore all these matters in some depth. Both novel and article were written in the hope that readers would examine the origins of Christianity more closely - and even, optimistically, that Christianity's boundaries would widen a little, to encompass more of that compassion and tolerance so impeccably embodied by its founder.


But then, he himself discovered that no undertaking is so perilous as telling the truth.



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