Gnosticism vs. The Canon: A Comparison

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on a diverse number of topics during this pandemic and I found this little gem, the other day: A New New Testament: A Bible for the Twenty-first Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts edited by Hal Taussig.

I’ve long wanted to read the Gnostic Gospels to see why so many swear by them, but it’s hard to figure out which translation is best. This project was a nice effort to collect all of the traditional New Testament writings with Gnostic writings that didn’t make the cut. The argument that many make in defense of the Gnostic writings is that there was no monolithic movement of Gnosticism but rather a catch-all for a variety of early Christian beliefs and writings.

Got to say, I’m glad I read this because it actually serves to reinforce my trust in the books and letters that did make it into the Biblical canon. Part of the issue is dating the various texts, and that is a tricky business. It often relies largely on certain assumptions about when strands of thoughts developed and of writing styles that are difficult to measure objectively.

I tend to fall into the camp who finds the evidence for most of the writings in the canonical New Testament being written in the 1st century. The Synoptic gospels have enough similarities and historical details that match up with what we know of the period that their arising from a common oral tradition makes a lot of sense–the idea of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple being the main catalyst for his crucifixion also makes a lot of sense. The Gospel of John is tad more objectionable but most scholars seem to point to its composition in 90 CE which merits its inclusion. The Pauline epistles are perhaps the most debated of the New Testament texts with only 7 considered authentic by a majority of scholars–but a number of New Testament scholars such as N. T. Wright make a compelling case for the inclusion of all but the Pastoral Epistles–and yet even they can be reconciled upon a closer linguistic and historical context analysis that brings them more in line with Paul’s more egalitarian writings.

By contrast, the Gnostic writings were somewhat suspect. I’ve heard a lot about the Gospel of Thomas and the debates about when it was composed–but the idea of it predating Mark, Matthew, and Luke is doubtful now that I’ve read it. Nowhere have I seen it pointed out that one of the “sayings” attributed to Jesus in it has Jesus declaring circumcision unnecessary. That’s deeply anachronistic with much of the early Christian witness that portrays Jesus largely focused on his fellow Israelites. The debate about circumcision doesn’t seem to arise until Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and nowhere else is circumcision mentioned in the canonical gospels. That tends to suggest to me that the Gospel of Thomas would be dated later, otherwise the debate about circumcision wouldn’t have been quite as heated.

As for the other Gnostic texts included in this book The Secret Revelation of John seems far too esoteric and even Manichean; the Act of Paul and Thecla don’t really square with Paul’s egalitarian ethos, and don’t really square with what Paul taught about marriage–while he did indeed celebrate celibacy, he also didn’t bash marriage to the extent in that text. The Gospel of Mary is perhaps the closest to Biblical canon but given that Mary’s testimony is included in the canonical gospels and she is given her due, it’s questionable that Peter would have been so set against Mary. Jesus was already a defier and overturner of gender norms throughout his ministry so anyone traveling with him would reasonably be accustomed to that.

All in all, the majority of these Gnostic texts seem to contain a higher degree of anachronistic elements and to contain worrisome elements of dualism, Manicheanism, and Platonism, above and beyond what the canonical texts contain. As such, this compilation was actually useful in terms of cementing for me my respect for the decision of what to include canonically being far from arbitrary. It also means, for me, that we must continually wrestle with the canonical text and refine our interpretations of it so that it is no longer used to abuse and oppress but to liberate and embrace.

Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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