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The Hidden Gospels

[Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2001]

Imagine a convocation of New Testament scholars, circa 2100 AD, poring over a recently discovered cache of ancient scrolls. What a delightful, mystical figure Jesus cuts here! He’s hardly like the fire-and-brimstone version promoted in the establishment Gospels. Surely this is the *real* Jesus, the one suppressed for so long by a rigid hierarchy.

Sad, isn’t it, that all previous generations of scholars were too hidebound and fundamentalist to perceive the truth. Like those folks in the Jesus Seminar, a hundred years ago.

In “Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way” (Oxford University Press, 256 pages, $25.00), Philip Jenkins proposes that such a scenario is both amusing and nearly inevitable. Ever since the dawn of the Enlightenment, western Christian scholars have been trying to throw Churchified Jesus out the window, and to replace him with a more appealing figure. Yet there’s a catch: for the current generation of liberators to believe they are truly breaking new ground, they must forget that previous scholars did the same thing.

It’s the “underlying mythological structure” perpetuating this cycle that interests Jenkins. The discoveries themselves don’t warrant the astonishing claims made on their behalf, so some other need is driving their enthusiastic promotion.

Take as an example an ancient document, the “Gospel of Mary.” It concerns a revelation of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene, and because it depicts her in a leadership role it is prized by contemporary feminists. But for it to constitute evidence of Jesus’ intentions for the role of women, “The Gospel of Mary” must have been written when the other Gospels were, about the year 80 AD. A later, fictitious account would be as useless as a historical romance written last year.

Unfortunately for fans of this Gospel, its contents suggest a date of 180 AD or later. Its style and concerns resemble Gnostic mythologizing of that later era, and while it can teach us much about the controversies of the time, it can tell us nothing about the historical Jesus or Magdalene. This doesn’t prevent feminist scholars from treating the “Gospel of Mary” in the same literal way that they would mock in Southern Baptists’ handling of the Gospel of Luke. Jenkins calls this “inverted fundamentalism.”

A hundred years ago the freshly-discovered document “Pistis Sophia”played an remarkably similar role. This work, published in English in 1896, featured a mystical dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In 1909 feminist and theosophist Frances Swiney wrote “The Esoteric Teachings of the Gnostics,” based on “Pistis Sophia” and celebrating the superiority of its spirituality over that of the establishment church. In language that could have appeared elsewhere on this page [the religion page] today, Swiney praises Gnostic women as “pioneers of the liberation movement of their sex, dialectical daughters questioning the truth and authority of received opinion.”Jenkins finds is significant both that the same revisionist formulas keep reappearing, and that current generations maintain firm amnesia about the crusades of earlier revisionists.

Recently-discovered Gnostic texts pretty much resemble older ones, so why do we keep thinking such scholarship is daring or new? “The whole idea of hidden gospels and lost Christianity…appeals at the level of myth,” Jenkins writes. The campfire story goes like this: the real Jesus was hidden by evil bureaucratic forces who wanted to bar people from the truth and reserve power to themselves. But wait! Hidden documents have been discovered that can overthrow this conspiracy! Courageous people are fighting to bring the truth to light, despite powerful opposition from the oppressive church.

“Phrased in this way, modern perceptions of Christian history sound less like scholarly reconstruction than the sort of mythology common to many societies, with their tales of original innocence, catastrophic fall, and fortunate redemption.” During times of social change, people instinctively cling to interpretive stories that give meaning to life, featuring clearly-defined good guys and bad guys. The good guys are the rebels, of course; this is particularly true in the context of American culture, in which both patriotic rejection of England and Protestant rejection of Rome feed the flames of romance. Bad guys are the evil Roman church, a stereotype which has endured for centuries. That ancient texts supply the proof for rebellion echoes another familiar theme, that of conservative biblical literalism grounding all things in biblical text.

Thus there exists a powerful desire to inflate the importance of recovered texts, to place them as early as possible in history, and to use them to challenge historic faith. The very fact that the texts had been hidden is taken, illogically, as proof they they’re true: if they didn’t contain important secrets, why were they hidden? Where the Gnosticism in the texts is incompatible with current sensibility (misogynist, anti-Semitic, relentlessly hierarchical, impenetrably abstruse), difficulties can be elided or reinterpreted to suit modern fashion. Most important, the work of previous generations of scholar-rebels must be ignored, so that these revelations will appear dramatically new. News media can be relied on to trumpet startling claims, since the man-bites-dog principle readily extends to Jesus-bites-church. Where texts are flimsy, wishful thinking fills the gaps. Jenkins says, with admitted cynicism, “If I hadn’t believed it, I wouldn’t have seen it with my own eyes.”

Jenkins explains his thesis in language that is both clear and fair. The book is admirably even-handed and far from the taunting, self-righteous tone revisionists habitually level at conservatives. He relies on facts to speak for themselves, though there is one fact that points beyond itself toward something worthy of further contemplation on this spiritually significant weekend. “[A]fter so much alleged secularization,” Jenkins writes, “the faith that people are struggling to disprove is still Christianity.”

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