No More Creeds: How the Gnostic Gospels Are Transforming Christianity

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
Elizabeth Dwoskin

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More Creeds: How the Gnostic Gospels Are Transforming

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