The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is both fascinating and tedious. Who Jesus was has been argued by billions for thousands of years, so why should anyone assume we can solve an unsolvable puzzle? Before the Catholic Church became the monolithic institution that defined Christianity for centuries, there were a few centuries after Christ’s death where many different Christian beliefs flourished, and among those were the Gnostics. Gnosticism wasn’t limited to Christian thinking, but Christian Gnosticism in various forms were large enough movement that early orthodox leaders wrote books teaching against Gnostic thinking. Gnostics were heretics early orthodox Christians hated even more than the Romans. The orthodox did everything it could to wipe out the heretics and burn all their books. In 1945 we found 52 texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is a short overview of alternate Christian beliefs before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Now here’s the rub. You have many Christian philosophies before 325 AD, then hundreds of years of the Catholic Church, and many Christian philosophies after the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The Catholic Church spent centuries hammering out who Christ was and what his teachings meant, but there are always other people believing he taught something different. Gnostics had very radical ideas about Christ that sound just as good or better. Who is the real Jesus?
How Christianity evolved is a fascinating historical mystery. I’ve been watching Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication, A Great Course lecture by Bart D. Ehrman. I got The Gnostic Gospels as a supplement. The Gnostics are intriguing because they claim to have secret knowledge of Jesus based on his mystical teachings, like Eastern religions. Some Gnostics thought the virgin birth and bodily resurrection were silly stories the orthodox Christians believed in and claim to know the real truth. They said Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was within and had already arrived and with the right practices and secret knowledge it would be revealed here on Earth. It wasn’t faith, but direct experience.
While studying these early Christians I got a strange idea. History is full of religious charlatans and con men. What if Jesus had been a con man gathering his flock with a promise of secret knowledge. Then he gets killed, and after that all his followers taught something different about his “secret knowledge” creating endless religions never knowing they had been conned. Most people like to assume that one view of Christ is the right one. But what if they are all wrong?
The more I study the history of Christianity the more its obvious that every Christian see a different Jesus and it’s impossible to know the real Jesus. Reading The Gnostic Gospels only made me feel more conclusively that Jesus and his teachings are unknowable – and all we can know is an endless series of imaginary Christs created by people who have their on unique beliefs.