“’So, then, what do we say to the question, Who was this man Jesus?’” asks a character in Norman Rush’s mad, marvelous new novel “Mortals,” an African-American who returns to “de-christianize” Africa. The Achilles heel of Christianity, he claims, is the Jewishness of Jesus, which was religious as well as racial. The Founder of Christianity was not then, and would not now be, a Christian.
Rush’s character is a little cracked, but his thesis is not. In fact, it is the view of most contemporary New Testament scholars, summed up most recently in Geza Vermes’s “The Changing Faces of Jesus.” Jesus was a pious Jew, a charismatic teacher, a faith healer, and a prophet of the immediate arrival of the Kingdom of God, which would liberate Israel from the Romans. This description also fits a number of others in the 1st century, though apparently none of them was as eloquent as Jesus. For causing a ruckus in the Temple on the eve of a large popular festival, Jesus was handed over by the religious authorities to the Romans, labeled an insurrectionist, and – life being cheap then – summarily executed. Some of his followers, convinced that he had risen from the dead, carried on in his name. But, Vermes writes, “a generation or two later, with the increasing delay of the [Second Coming], the image of the Jesus familiar from experience began to fade, covered over first by the theological and mystical dreamings of Paul and John, and afterward by the dogmatic speculations of church-centered Gentile Christianity.”
It now appears that Christianity almost took an even stranger turn. In 1945 a trove of manuscripts from the 2nd century was found in the Egyptian desert and eventually published as “The Nag Hammadi Library.” One of the earliest researchers was historian Elaine Pagels, whose “The Gnostic Gospels” was a bestseller in 1977. In these newly discovered manuscripts – some of which had actually been anathematized by orthodox theologians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries – Jesus is portrayed as a teacher of Gnosticism.
“Gnosis” is intuitive, unsystematic knowledge, acquired by introspection, self-discipline, and a long relationship with a teacher. Sound familiar? Yes, Gnosticism strongly resembles Eastern mysticism. They also share a perception of the world as evil or illusory, and of the highest good (available only to the self-selected few) as individual liberation and enlightenment. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. This is a key Gnostic idea. It is useless, they taught, to look outward, to laws and rules, for wisdom or holiness; and of course they had little use for ecclesiastical authority. The Gospel of Thomas the Apostle, one of the key texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, declares: “Jesus said: ‘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.” This too sounds familiar -- apparently the Gnostic Jesus was a 1st-century Emerson, preaching spiritual self-reliance and the inner light; though even Emerson’s loftiest flights were earthbound, dry, and practical compared with Gnostic exhortations.
According to Pagels’s new book, “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” Gnostic Christianity was extremely widespread in the first two centuries. The orthodox faction went on the attack, emphasizing the divinity of Jesus, the infinite distance between God and man, the external aspect of morality, and the authority of the apostles and bishops. One key document in this campaign was the Gospel of John, written much later than the other three and very different – far more theological – in character. Pagels suggests that it was written to supplant the Gospel of Thomas, and that thanks to the first heresy-hunters, especially St. Irenaeus, the 2nd century’s Cardinal Ratzinger, it succeeded. Ratzinger – I mean St. Irenaeus – ordered that all copies of the Gospel of Thomas be burned, which is why we had to wait until 1945 to come across one.
Pagels finds Gnosticism attractive and speculates wistfully on whether she might have found a spiritual home in a more Thomas-friendly Christianity. Me, I don’t know – the secret teachings are too cloudy and esoteric. I like to argue, and there is almost nothing here to argue with.
And there’s another objection: the Gnostic gospels just don’t match up as literature. The New Testament appeals to imaginative writers, as Paul Elie’s fine composite biography, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” showed recently in the cases of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Another Southern fictionist, Reynolds Price, winner of the National Book Award in 1986 for “Kate Vaiden,” calls himself an “outlaw Christian” (not Gnostic or otherwise heretical, he explains, simply outside any of the existing Churches). Yet Price may be the best living religious writer and is one the best reasons I know of to consider becoming a Christian. In several memorable books (“A Palpable God,” “A Whole New Life,” “Three Gospels,” “Letter to a Man in the Fire”) Price has told in almost divinely luminous and musical prose the story of his early mystical intuitions, his vision of Jesus during a mortal illness which he unexpectedly (miraculously?) survived, and his penetrating but openhearted reading of the Gospels.
Price’s latest book, “A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined,” confronts Jesus with some problems that don’t arise in the Gospels. Price constructs three fables in Gospel style. In the first, the risen Lord appears to Judas, who confesses that his love for Jesus was physical as well as spiritual. In the second, the risen Jesus again appears to Judas, who is determined to commit suicide and asks for Jesus’s help. In the third, the woman taken in adultery tells Jesus a thing or two about gender inequality.
Creative writers now have more to tell us about the inner meaning of Christianity than bishops, theologians, even televangelists. A final recommendation: “The Man Who Died,” an astonishing novella about the Resurrection by another outlaw, D. H. Lawrence.