Jason Pratt recently reminded me of this old interview we did six years ago, the first part being about The Truth About Jesus and the “Lost Gospels”. Since the books we're talking about -- the gospels and their alleged Gnostic competitors -- are thousands of years older even than the interview, and since the issues they raise remain with us, I asked Jason if I could reproduce our conversation here. He kindly agreed. Here is the first half. The second part of the interview is about The New Atheism.-- David
JP: Not all the alternative gospels which we know about are Gnostic, though many of them are. But your work in this book seems to focus on the Gnostic Gospels. Is that because the people you're responding to tend to focus on the Gnostic Gospels? If so, is there some indication, from what they themselves talk about, as to why they focus there and not with other alt-gospels?
DM: As I argue, the Gnostics are used to undermine Christianity in two ways. First, some people actually take them seriously for what they say about Jesus -- people like Dan Brown, or at least a few of his fans, or people who have been watching The Matrix too long. The ultimate act of rebellion may be to buy into basic Gnostic myth -- God as an evil creator, the material world as essentially deceptive and second-rate, Jesus as an enlightened spirit-being who didn't die on the cross. It's a kind of neo-Promethianism for a post-Marxist culture.
But more common is the Elaine Pagels / Bart Ehrman / Jesus Seminar school of deconstructionism.
These folks don't think the Gnostics are telling the truth about history, but use them as an ally to undermine Christianity. They say, "orthodox" early Christians, or "proto-orthodox" Christians, were just one school out of many, and no more legitimate than all the rest. This feeds into the modern democratic feeling, the idea of relativism and equality and the post-modern love of "plural narratives." Hard-nosed Christians were to blame for trying to force one version of Christianity down everyone's throat.
I call this story line "neo-Gnosticism," and it's a primary goal of my book to describe and disprove it.
Other, non-Gnostic "alternative gospels" may be less useful for this form of attack. Too innocuous, I guess, or too orthodox.
JP: Of the known non-canonical works connected to Christianity (both orthodox and otherwise), only a minority (though a sizeable minority) are called gospels at all. Do the scholars you're responding to, even when they focus on Gnostic work, try to make use of any alternative not-gospels? (Alternative Acts, Epistles, Apocalypses, etc.)
DM: The term "gospel" here is problematic. I argue that no real gospels, in any real sense of the term, aside from the four that begin the New Testament, have ever been found. [JPNote: David spends much of Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus... analyzing the four canonical texts and a wide selection of other ancient texts, using an innovative genre classification method.] Thomas is not a "gospel." It is a collection of 114 metaphysical sayings, less than half of which were borrowed loosely from the New Testament.
Most of the Nag Hammadi library consists of Gnostic works that aren't even called gospels. So in that sense, the answer would be "yes." But Pagels and her fellows also try to read Gnostic views into the other parts of the New Testament. I've seen it attempted with Paul. And of course lots of people see shadows or echoes of the Gnostics in John, and he wrote more than a gospel. There's lots about "light" and "darkness" in his letters and in The Revelation, which also resonates in these circles.
JP: Readers of press-releases, articles and books from these alternate-gospel proponents, frequently receive the impression that by appealing to these texts we're more likely to find a human Jesus whom we can better relate to, instead of the highly mythologized divine-man of the canonical four. (Not even counting things like the canonical RevJohn!) How much substance is there to this appeal?
DM: There is such a thing as a negative infinite, isn't there? Sorry if that sounds like childish hyperbole, but this popular caricature is the exact opposite of the truth. What's grossly obvious about the Gnostic texts -- and I assume that's what you're referring to -- is that they not only didn't care about the "historical Jesus," the humanity of Jesus, but that they despised the whole concept of flesh and blood -- even for us humans, let alone for anyone divine. This is why, in the "Gospel" of Judas, Jesus laughs at the "stunt double" who dies on the cross in his place. Mortal existence is "dead creation," the "bond of flesh," the "lowest region of all matter."
By sharp contrast (and contrasts don't get much sharper), the Jesus of the real gospels -- and that's the only word for them -- is indeed "flesh and blood." The divine puts on humanity in a way that makes it only that much more human. Jesus is frustrated, tired, angry, delighted, amazed, sad. He hurts when you kick him. He bleeds when you cut him. He eats fish, even after he's risen from the dead. Jesus is infinitely more human than the phony action figures, pompous windbags, and vague legends that scholars sometimes compare to Jesus, in a desperate attempt to plug gaps in the universe.
Jesus is presented as divine in the gospels, for sure. But his divinity shines through his humanity, somehow. Reading skeptics' attempts to find parallels, only makes me feel the extraordinary uniqueness of this accomplishment more intensely. There is no one like Jesus in world literature.
JP: So, the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels actually tends to be more 'divine' than 'human'.
DM: Yes, absolutely.
JP: 'Divine' in what way?
DM: Certainly not in the sense of "sweet" (as with "divinity," the candy). I point out that the Jesus of the Gnostics seemed to have a positive aversion to niceness, like a muddy boy to hot showers. So there is nothing in this "Jesus" that reminds one of the character of God -- nothing "divine" in that sense.
Spooky, ephemeral, ghostly -- those might be better adjectives.
JP: So, if the Jesus of these Gnostic gospels is actually more 'divine' than 'human' in some way, is there any indication among the proponents of those texts for why they'd even want to be focusing on them?! One might have supposed that such radical sceptics would be staying even further clear of such texts than of the canonical texts!
DM: I think part of the answer is that the texts are considered less positively useful in themselves, than useful in trying to undermine 'orthodox' Christian faith! Of course, I'm not saying there are no admirable or praise-worthy qualities in the Gnostic Jesus. He gets in some good lines. There are a few Zen-like aphorisms that titillate certain Starbucks-related regions of the brain... The best for that might be Gospel of Thomas, Thunder, Perfect Mind and (off the top of my head) Mary.
JP: Now that I think of it, would you consider giving a comparison of the Gnostic gospels to RevJohn? The style of the two sets is often much closer to one another than the style of the Gnostic documents to any of the canonical gospels. If we decide to compare Jesuses even then, though, what similarities/differences will we find?
DM: That's more of a project than I should take on right now -- but an interesting question. Pagels wrote a book comparing the Gospel of John to Thomas, and while her idea that Thomas came first is absurd, there are some stylistic or rhetorical similarities. And the Gnostics were fond of apocalypse and psychedelic imagery.
But there is no trace of the Jesus we find in the narrative parts of the Gospel of John in any of the Nag Hammadi literature. Here is a Savior of flesh and blood: he shows emotion, eats, sweats, bleeds. In some ways, the Jesus of John is even further removed from Gnostic thinking than the Jesus of the other gospels. And Revelations seems to me a continuation of that. Very earthy, within his mysticism. That's the remarkable combination.
JP: When these scholars are trying to make a case for these alternate gospels (and similar texts) being appealed to instead of the canon, do they proceed by arguing about how much more reliable these other texts are than the canon?
DM: No, never. Almost always when the subject is forced on them, they admit that the Gnostic texts are NOT reliable. I give several examples. The trick -- and it is a trick, a shell game -- is to make their readers transfer this skepticism to the real gospels. So in a book of 200 pages, someone like Karen King will admit once, in one phrase, that the Gospel of Mary is not historical. But you'll find dark insinuations about the real gospels all over the place.
The worst in this regard may be Marvin Meyer, whose books on the Gnostics fill secular book stores. He will be quite naïve and welcoming to the ridiculous idea that the Islamic "Jesus sayings" contain useful new historical material from Jesus himself -- these are texts most of a millennia after the time of Christ -- then turn around and try to undermine the historicity of the gospels themselves.
Real scholars, apart from a few very nutty ones -- and I think even Meyer may be faking it -- all know the Gnostics have little or probably nothing to tell us about the historical Jesus. The game is to trick our eyes off that question. Prod one text up, push the other one down, throw up a bunch of rhetoric about "narratives" and "oppressive authority structures" out into the gabosphere, and hope people will forget about such silly little questions as historical truth and moral value. That's how I see it when I'm feeling cynical, anyway.