No More Creeds: How the Gnostic Gospels Are Transforming Christianity

A cache of secret gospels reveals that for nearly three hundred years before Constantine's Nicene Creed was written, diverse Christian groups had considered themselves 'seekers,' not believers.

| August 26, 2004

The morning she was told by doctors that her year-and-one-month old son Mark would need a lung biopsy, Dr. Elaine Pagels, a historian of religion, went to church. A few years earlier, as a researcher had Barnard College, Pagels had analyzed early Christian documents in order to write The Gnostic Gospels, a book that exploded the myth that early Christianity was a unified movement. Here was a place 'to weep without imposing tears on a child.' Pagels looked at the families in church one after the other, and resting her eyes on a woman in gold on the stage she thought, 'Here is someone who knows how to face death.'

As Pagels began attending a support group in addition to her regular church attendance, she marveled that people would say things to her like, 'Your faith must be of great help to you.' 'What is faith,' she asked herself? In these sessions she dropped all her defenses, exposing grief and faithlessness as often as an expression of what would categorically be labeled as faith. Certainly the recitation of the same rote prayer each week cannot be the source of people's so-called faith, Pagels thought.

Christians had survived for centuries before people began transforming their beliefs into creeds. What happened in history then, that made Christianity synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs? Only in the fourth century, after the Roman emperor Constantine himself converted to the new faith -- or at least decriminalized it -- did Christian bishops, at the emperor's command, convene in the city of Nicaea, on the Turkish coast, to agree upon a common statement of beliefs. The resulting statement, the so-called Nicene Creed, defines the faith for many Christians to this day. During his time as Emperor, Constantine believed that making and enforcing such creeds would unify and standardize rival groups. Since then, most churches have required those who would join to profess a complex set of beliefs about God and Jesus -- beliefs formulated by those fourth-century bishops. But Pagels and others have always wondered, what does it mean to say that Jesus is the 'only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,' or that 'we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church?'

The astonishing discovery of the Gnostic gospels, or the Nag Hammadi Christian texts -- a cache of ancient secret gospels and other revelations attributed to Jesus and his disciples -- has revealed a much wider range of Christian groups than had been known before. Many of these diverse groups welcomed newcomers in ways that today do not subscribe to any creed recognizable in Christian doctrine. Some historians even think that the Gospel of John was written as a response to the Gospel of Thomas, a so-called Gnostic Gospel. Although later denounced by certain leaders as 'heretics,' many of these Christians saw themselves as not so much believers, but as seekers, people who 'seek for God.' Before discovering these heretics' texts, people only knew what 'their enemies had said.'
-- Elizabeth Dwoskin

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