Heresy in the NYT

April 6th, 2006  |  Tags:  |  3 Comments

From a remarkably tone-deaf New York Times article about the newly-unearthed “Gospel of Judas:”

The Gnostics’ beliefs were often viewed by bishops and early church leaders as unorthodox, and they were frequently denounced as heretics. The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.

As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.

For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers….

Easy there, killer. There’s nothing particularly “troubling” to Christians about the existence of apocryphal gospels. Note also that we aren’t losing sleep over the fact that toxic charlatans like John Spong1 have re-created God in their own image and are preaching their own alternatives to Christianity, because it’s basically the same phenomenon. The mere existence of heretics — whether in the third, nineteenth, or twenty-first century — does not present a challenge to Christianity.

It is important to remember that the root of “heresy” (originally from Greek via Latin) literally means “choice.” Heresy is about choosing what to accept, what to reject, and what to fabricate in order to cover up the holes your “choices” have left in a formerly-cohesive whole. It should not be surprising to anyone — not even to the amateur anthropologists at the NYT — that the speculative writings of people who have decided to treat orthodox Christianity as a cafeteria line are not totally consistent with the doctrines believed, taught, and confessed by actual Christians.

The article’s treatment of the issue of the canon demands far more correction than I’m willing to provide,2 but here’s a start: As far as the “historical and political forces” involved in selecting the canon of the New Testament, why not consider a “rational” one first? The Gospel of Judas, according to scholars cited in the NYT article, was written sometime in the third century. By contrast, consider that the four canonical Gospels were completed between AD 70 (standard estimates for Mark) and AD 110 (late estimates for John); the Epistle to the Romans was likely written in AD 58. Why should we expect a document which didn’t appear for a century after the last canonical Gospel to contain reliable information about Christ not contained or even alluded to in the earliest accounts?

The Gospel of Judas is interesting as an historical artifact for what it tells us about Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnosticism is more popular now than it ever has been. (Consider its widespread adoption by secular academics and middlebrow wannabes, including many academic theologians; a different strain of Gnosticism is apparent in the subjective, ecstatic emotivism of much American popular religion3.) Gnosticism is an appealing heresy because its goal some secret and subjective knowledge, rather than trust in an objective, tangible, existing Christ as revealed to us in the Word and Sacraments.

A newly-unearthed Gnostic work may enable National Geographic to sell some magazines or bolster the Nielsen ratings of their pay-TV network. It may provide navel-gazing material for theological dilettantes and the spiritual-but-not-religious set. However, it does not challenge the foundations of Christianity, should not prove troubling to actual Christians, and can not give Christians any additional doctrine to consider “choosing” to adopt. For the NYT to breathlessly suggest otherwise betrays a ludicrous unfamiliarity with Christianity. (I eagerly await GetReligion’s treatment of this issue.)

(For more from me on mass-media ignorance of Christianity, see “Christian angst and television drama” and a post in which I revisit the issue.)

I’m currently listening to O Jesu, Wie Ist Dein Gestalt from the album “A Book Of Chorale-Settings For Johann Sebastian” by Johann Sebastian Bach


1 Indeed, Spong is a stellar argument for the validity of the Episcopal Church’s apostolic succession if I’ve ever seen one.
2 The article’s discussion (such as it is) of the canon is warped, but the bizarre reference to “the literal word of God” is a clear indication that the authors are outside of a comfortable sandbox.
3 For a nice discussion of this phenomenon (and more), see Mark Mattes in Lutheran Quarterly.