Colloquy Podcast: The Secret Teachings of Jesus
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Is the quote above from a Buddhist Text? The Hindu Bhagavad Gita?
Actually, these are the words of Jesus . . . according to the 2,000-year-old Gospel of Thomas.
The Princeton University scholar Elaine Pagels, PhD '70, says that this text—discovered in Egypt in 1945 along with the Gospel of Philip—contains Christ’s “secret teachings,” in contrast to those meant for public worship and included in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament.
So, why did the church ban the gospels of Thomas and Philip as illegitimate and heretical over 1600 years ago? And how do they change the way we understand the Christian tradition today? This month on Colloquy, Pagels breaks down the “Gnostic Gospels” and their place in the history of early Christianity.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and correctness.
What does it mean to call something a gospel, and why do we say this is the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip?
We call them that because that's what their anonymous authors named them. It just means the good news. It's about the teaching of Jesus, and it's about who Jesus is in relation to the capacity to offer salvation to the human race.
What do the Gnostic Gospels say, and how do they differ from the Orthodox Christian canon?
What we call Gnostic Gospels are really very different from one another in many ways. But what they do suggest is that a major question is not “Who is Jesus?” but “Who are you?” How do you understand yourself in relation to God? And they suggest—well, the Orthodox Gospels, John's particularly, says there is one son of God, and that is Jesus of Nazareth. And you must be saved through him. If you're not, you're condemned to eternal damnation. That is actually the message of the Gospel of John.
These texts suggest that Jesus has teachings, and he teaches you not only how to act with one another, but also who you are. And who you are is a being that is connected with the source of the universe—the way everything in the universe is connected with the divine source.
So in these texts, Jesus doesn't say, you know, believe in me, and you'll be saved. He says in the Gospel of Thomas, for example, "I am the light that is before everything." Before the world was created, there was divine light, according to Genesis, when God said, “Let there be light.” And that divine light, it's an image of divine energy pouring into the universe and bringing forth the world.
That is strikingly resonant with what becomes later Jewish mystical teaching in Kabbalah, for example, if you look at the teachings of how that began. And so many people have been asking is this—was Jesus teaching? Or, alternatively, whether he taught it or not, we can't tell.
Did people say that he was teaching the mystical teaching of Judaism, which connects us with the divine source? Not through him, but he becomes a channel for the deeper truth, which is about our connection with the divine source. So here, Jesus appears more like a Buddha—that is, a person, a prophet, a teacher, who's awakened, who's illuminated—but who says, within a person of light, there's light.
If you want to be illuminated, you look inside yourself. And you discover that deep within, you have a secret link with the divine source from which everything came. So it isn't just Jesus who comes from the divine source. It's all of us. And recognizing that allows each person—you, me, any of us—to find a way back to the divine source ourselves by looking within.
That doesn't support what in the fourth century is constructed as an institutional church, outside of which you're eternally damned. It instead supports interior exploration, the way much Buddhist teaching does. I'm not saying it's identical with Buddhism, though there may be connections between Buddhist teaching and this teaching.
But there are certainly connections with Jewish mysticism as well. It's different. It doesn't sound like the Gospels we know, and that's why I wrote The Gnostic Gospels. I wanted to say, wait a minute. This really changes the picture. The teachings, which were not useful for institutionalizing this very diverse and scattered and actually persecuted movement, are the ones that the bishops said, forget those. That's too complicated. Anyway, we don't want people thinking they can do this on their own. They should come to the Catholic Church, which means the universal church, and be saved through us. Because we alone channel the incarnate God Jesus of Nazareth.”
Let's talk about that. In 367, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, established the 27 books of the New Testament that thereafter represented the orthodox Christian canon. And he wrote, "In these writings alone, the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them." And he called books that lay outside that canon secret and illegitimate and heretical. Nearly 1,600 years later, more or less the same things were said of your book, The Gnostic Gospels. How do you understand this orthodoxy in light of historical research?
Athanasius was the Bishop of Egypt at the time, newly funded by Constantine. And he had two purposes in mind: he wanted to establish the only books that Christians should read, and the ones that supported what he would call the teaching of godliness, which is outlined in the Nicene Creed—essentially that Jesus is God. And he succeeded. He was right. For his purposes, this worked really well. The purpose of the canon is to define the books that should be read in public worship.
And that's what it does. It established the idea that Jesus was God, and the only way to be saved in the universe is to go through the Catholic Church, which alone has access to the only divine human who ever walked the Earth. That's the claim. Outside the church, there's no salvation. That was very effective. These other texts claim to be secret. They claim to be teaching that wasn't what Jesus taught publicly out on the hills of Galilee. It's what he said secretly to his disciples when they were alone.
And if you look at the Gospel of Mark, which is, everyone knows, the earliest gospel written, it says that Jesus spoke a mystery of the Kingdom of God to his disciples when they were alone. But Mark says almost nothing about what was in it. He just gives you the public teaching. That's what the Gospels now in the New Testament do. They give you the well-known teaching of Jesus.
But the secret teaching, whatever it was, was hidden and was meant to be hidden and only taught from one teacher to a student. You weren't supposed to write it down because the wrong people could read it and get sort of megalomaniac ideas, you know. Esoteric teaching has always been treated that way in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sources.
[The New Testament Gospels] give you the well-known teaching of Jesus. But the secret teaching, whatever it was, was hidden . . . Esoteric teaching has always been treated that way in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sources.
Is there a historical record of the conversation between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the fourth century when the canon was established?
We don't have the disputations of bishops, unfortunately, at the councils that early. What we do have are massive volumes sort of attacking the heretics. So, in the process of attacking these secret gospels—for example, Irenaeus says, well, they say that anyone can become like Jesus. That is, anyone can become awakened and find their way to a connection with the divine source. It's a kind of mystical path. They're completely deluded. They really have to come through the church, and they have to believe what we believe.
All of that Orthodox structure of belief is written by a committee in the fourth century, a committee of bishops—over 300 of them—gathered at Nicaea writing a creed that speaks of Jesus not as a human being, not as a prophet, or only a healer or a teacher from God, but rather as God in human form. And that message is actually only found in John's gospel.
But if you read everything through John's gospel, which is what the Orthodox leaders taught people to do, then you get a creed that says Jesus is God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not created. That is, Jesus is not a human being like us. He's genetically a divine being. That's what the creed says. And still, Orthodox churches all over the world repeat that.
I have no problem with that, except their insistence that this collection of sources that were to be read in public excluded all the others. It had to be a closed canon. Athanasius adds to his letter, which you mentioned, don't read anything else. That other stuff is completely wrong. Or he said, well, it's not all totally wrong, but it'll lead you the wrong way. And so, get rid of those books. You have to destroy them.
Wasn't there a bishop in France who was the one who really started to push the primacy of the Gospel of John and say we really should be reading these other gospels in the context of that story?
Yes. He was living between 140 and possibly 160 or 70 in Lyon. And he is called the Bishop of Lyon and Vienne, these two little towns. And later I realized, why was he so passionate about saying just read these gospels? Why was he so intent on unifying churches all over the world? Because he said, look. We can't have Christians in Africa, Christians in Spain, Christians in Germany. These illiterate people—these barbarians—believing different things. If we're all Christians, we all need to agree on the basics of our teaching.
And the urgency of it, Paul, is about persecution. This is a leader who had seen dozens of people that he knew hauled into court. Some had been beaten and attacked by mobs. Their houses had been burned, and some of them were condemned to death in the stadium in France, in Lyon—which we can still see—to be publicly tortured as entertainment for the public on the emperor's birthday. And it was a horrendous scene.
So this bishop, Irenaeus, one of my favorites—he's the one who spent 40 years fighting alternative versions of Christianity—says, look, we've got to simplify it down to the basics that we all believe. And he was doing that in an effort to create a network of this universal church from Syria to Spain to Africa to Egypt through what is now France, Germany, England. And it was really the whole world as the Romans saw it. But he wanted to create a network that would strengthen groups that were endangered by being destroyed. And he wanted to say we're all part of the same communion, and thereby strengthen the conviction of all of them. And he did a great job of that.
The Gnostic Gospels were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1940s. You've talked about sort of three phases of New Testament scholarship since then. Can you talk about what those phases are and how the understanding of the texts found at Nag Hammadi has evolved?
Yes. And long before 1945, we knew there were secret gospels because some of the early fathers of the church complained about them incessantly. In fact, the most famous bishop, who wrote a massive five-volume work against the heretics, probably spent 40 years contending against views of Jesus, views of the good news and the message, that he thought were mistaken.
So, they were widely known about 100 years after the death of Jesus, like the other gospels. We know that, too, because when you look at the garbage dumps of Egypt, like at Oxyrhynchus, where you find fragments of bills of sale and wills and pieces of literature—Plato and so forth—you find scraps of these early gospels. You find scraps of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Matthew. So we know people were reading them 2,000 years ago, and there's a lot of controversy and discussion about them. They were very controversial then, and they became massively controversial the moment we discovered for the first time a complete copy—not somebody saying, oh, this is what Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas and then there's a saying. But that's all we had—just little pieces. Now we have a complete copy of that text, which was originally written in Greek. It had been translated into Coptic, the language of Egypt. So we could find out what this supposed heresy was.
The first people who discovered it, there were three scholars: Gilles Quispel from the University of Utrecht and a scholar in Egypt and a French scholar. And they said, well, this can't be the real—these cannot be the real gospels. So they must be later than the others. They must be written long after the other gospels were written, and therefore they're not as authentic, which means close to the source of the teachings of Jesus. So they said, well, okay, if the Christian gospels that we know now in the New Testament were written about 40 years after the death of Jesus, let's just say these were written twice as long after. We'll say they were written around the year 140. Well, that was a guess. And they said, well these are probably derivative and late, and they're kind of weird.
The second stage of research, though, was taken up by a professor at Harvard and also one at Claremont and several throughout the world who said, wait a minute. Before there was a Gospel of Matthew or Luke or Mark, we know that they had lists of the sayings of Jesus. They had written lists. We call the earliest source which they probably used Q, which comes from the German word quelle, which means source.
So Matthew and Luke both used the same list of the sayings of Jesus, which they inserted in their gospels, both of which are revisions of the Gospel of Mark. That's how we know Mark is the earliest. The first stage of research was to say, well, these must be very late and derivative, and we don't know what they are. They are interesting.
But when we looked at them first at Harvard, our professor said, wait a minute. This looks like the kind of list that Matthew and Luke used when they wrote their gospels. This is probably the earliest thing we have. And many of the sayings are very close to those that we think are early and very authentic, things we find in the Gospel of Luke like "blessed are the poor," "love your brother"—you know, sayings like that. Parable of the mustard seed, very familiar to people who know the New Testament.
So the second stage—when we started working on them, we thought, maybe this is the earliest source we have. After that, some people pointed out that some of the sayings looked like they were sort of revisions and elaborations of earlier ones. And the current stage of research, I would say—the one with which I agree—started about 1995 and further, in which various scholars from Berlin to Cambridge University to all over the world, people recognize that some of the sayings are very early and some of them are later revisions. But that can mean different things to different people. People like Professor Simon Gathercole at Cambridge University say, oh, well, there are early sayings in there, and there are later sayings. That means that this is a worthless derivative gospel. And he likes, very much, the teachings of orthodoxy.
On the other hand, you had Professor Hans-Martin Schenke at the University of Berlin who studied these extensively. And he said, well, there are some early ones and some late ones, so this shows us how the early tradition developed. We can follow much more how people thought about, reflected, transformed the teachings of Jesus this way and that way. And so, they're enormously important sources for how we understand the tradition developed.
Why is it important for us to pay attention to these gospels today?
Because what we call Christianity is kind of a narrow stream that orthodoxy kept between specific banks, right? With specific doctrines sort of as the guards of that stream. What we now know is that the early Christian movement was a much more diverse, open, complicated network of groups, of teachings, of self-styled spiritual teachers who would offer you different kinds of teaching, who would have heard it from other sources. So it's a much more interesting and complicated picture than we ever had.
. . . the early Christian movement was a much more diverse, open, complicated network of groups, of teachings, of self-styled spiritual teachers who would offer you different kinds of teaching, who would have heard it from other sources.
Although you do talk about your research in your most recent book, Why Religion?, it's not primarily a scholarly work. It's really the story of your own search for meaning in the midst of suffering some years ago when you lost both your son and your husband in close succession. How have you drawn on your study of religion to understand those tragedies and to manage grief in your own life?
Well, of course, that's a huge and important question. I wrote that book—it's different from anything else I've written, as you said. The other books, one is about sex and politics in early Christianity—Adam, Eve, and the serpent—and one is about Christian anti-Semitism and how it started. Others are about—one is about the Book of Revelation and how it's been used throughout the centuries and still today in many ways.
But there was a time in my life when I just had to confront again those losses that you mentioned of our six-year-old son to an illness and my husband in a mountain-climbing accident. Those happened within a year. That was my whole family, and I adored both of them. And it was utterly devastating. I just didn't see how I could live through it, although my husband and I had adopted two children after our son died because we felt that the only way we could really live with joy would be to give to other children what we couldn't give to our son at that point.
But I had sort of taken those losses and put them way in the background. It was like a black hole in space. That's the only image I could think of. I just didn't want to go there. I didn't want to experience the feelings that—of course, I had experienced a lot of them. But I buried a lot of them too because I had to function. I had to raise two babies, and I had to go on living and become the provider for the whole family.
That works for a while, and it's probably a useful way of dealing with things you can't deal with. But decades later—it was actually 30 years later—I started thinking, wait a minute. You can't live fully if you have blocked off certain parts of your experience as a sort of zone that you can't enter. So I did realize I have to go back to those feelings because they don't go away. They're there. They're always present.
So I went back and started allowing those experiences to emerge and realizing that the work that I do as a historian of religion is deeply connected with that question you raised about finding meaning. When I went back to the work that I do, thinking, focusing on the loss of a six-year-old child to a very rare disease and my husband's sudden death in the mountains, I didn't find meaning in that.
And I thought, what is it about the work that I do? What is it about any of this Christianity that matters? And I found it in some of the teachings that I find in Matthew about how people should deal with each other. That struck me as really the heart of it, and that's found both in the New Testament as we know it, and it's found in the secret gospels. And I realized it was of great importance to me.
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