What follows is my retelling of observations made in a lecture titled “Did We Get Jesus Right? Jesus in the Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels” by Simon Gathercole and response by David Chapman at Lanier Theological Library on September 8, 2012. My retelling will appear as a text box entitled “Understanding Gnosticism Today” in the forthcoming 4th edition of Church History in Plain Language.
Two analogies or comparisons may help us assess Gnostic claims about Jesus. The first is about historical proximity. The church’s Gospels are written about 30 to 65 years after Jesus’ life. This span of time would be comparable to a professor’s (age 55 at year 2010 in our thought experiment) relationship to the Vietnam War or the Korean Conflict. This professor can assess what he reads about these conflicts with his own living memory and that of his eyewitness contemporaries. By contrast the earliest Gnostic Gospel is probably written 140 years after Jesus’ life (and much longer for all except the Gospel of Thomas). This span of time would be comparable to our professor’s relationship to the Civil War. Our professor would have no living memory of or connection to these events. Fortunately it is one of the remarkably well-documented events in all of history; otherwise we would be precariously dependent upon a limited number of stories without living memory to serve as an anchoring restraint.
Another comparison centers upon the difficulty of offering historical reconstructions of events and persons. There have been a great many books and movies that reconstruct the life and work of Abraham Lincoln. These typically share some general consensus about the outline of his basic life story, family, and service but still vary about his motives, religion, and person. But a very different reconstructing of his life emerges from the vampire mania of contemporary culture. This carnivorous cultural phenomenon seems to offer a variety of takes on a seemingly endless variety of topics. Its reconstruction of Lincoln replaces some of the consensus story and supplements the surviving elements of the story. Intriguing elements take on new significance; e.g. Lincoln was prone to long sleepless nights and he could handle an axe. Even the overall reconstruction yields an interesting insight; slavery, like vampire wars, was draining the life-force from slaves and the nation for the sake of money (see the numerous reviews). The book picturing Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter is typically understood as fantasy; but on the issues of proximity and methodology, it is an illuminating comparison to the Gnostic versions of Jesus. The old narrative is replaced or supplemented to make a substantially different story.
But these observations or stories are but new and creative versions of a longstanding conversation. The second- century Irenaeus mocked his Gnostic opponents saying “there were no Valentians before Valentinus;” he drew attention to the publically accessible chain of custody (so Robert Wilken in The First Thousand Years, p45) – the church claimed to be recipient of eye witness testimony from Jesus’ followers. Early churchmen were aware of the variety in the four Gospels which Irenaeus embraced, but they believed these Gospels had the right “big picture.” Irenaeus compares Gnostic readers to bad craftsmen who take the pieces of a mosaic and offer a picture of a dog while losing sight of the noble royal subject. The question was not who could come to a text and venture a creative reading but which text faithfully pictured Jesus and who read the text faithfully.