The Astonishment of Creeds
To his credit, Bart Ehrman is not as giddy a cheerleader for gnosticism
as, say, Elaine Pagels. Readers of 'The Da Vinci Code' will recall that
Dan Brown, with no apparent familiarity with gnosticism beyond its modern
propagandists, came away with the impression that the gnostics were progressive
humanitarians who emphasized Jesus' humanity. This inversion of the truth
came from a determined effort to change the subject, to emphasize minor
matters of church order and governance over basic theology. Do you love
or hate the God of Israel? The gnostics hated their Creator, even understanding
Him to be such. Do you love or hate your fellow man? The gnostics hated
'em all, men and women equally, excepting only their small elite. They
considered the bulk of humanity mere cattle devoid of an immortal soul.
Do you love or hate the world, with all its beauty and sorrow? The gnostics
hated it. One wonders how a human being can thrive on such a chalky diet
of hate and disdain. And they're back, thanks to the determined effort
by 'modern scholarship' to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative
in all discussion of this ancient religion, which now reappears as a modern
religion. Even if they took to robbing banks, under the theory that money
is mere material junk, the gnostics could never have paid for the positive
publicity they got, for free, from the religious publishing industry.
Though, to his credit, Dr. Ehrman does admit frankly that the gnostics
were polytheists who despised the God of Israel, he nevertheless stresses
the paradigm laid down by the other pro-gnostics. We are to believe that
the early Christians pursued a religion as malleable as Play-Doh, and even
died in the Colosseum for this great uncertainty. They worshipped and revered
the God of Israel, or maybe they despised Him. They counted only one God
in their God-census, or maybe dozens, hundreds, thousands, a full fullness
of 'em. You see, they hadn't quite made up their minds. When people asked
the very basic questions inquirers ask about a religion: How many gods
do you know of? Whom do you worship and serve?-- the embarrassed Christian
had to reply, 'This has not yet been ascertained.'
Was there ever such a puzzled, confused and inchoate religion? Are not human beings reasoning creatures? Is not 'a is not not-a' a principle accepted by pagan and monotheist alike? Does not the first principle of classification require like to be classed with like, not with what is wildly unlike? So what is going on here?
It's a simple equivocation on the word 'Christian.' Both groups, the polytheist
gnostics and the monotheist apostolics, called themselves 'Christians.'
These two religions were in basic theology as far apart as any two religions
could be, yet because they are called by the same name, the reader is supposed to imagine that here is a compact, unified group
of people, who just haven't quite made up their minds yet what it is they believe.
And this compact, unified group of people are sitting around, don't you
know, deciding what to 'include' and what to 'exclude' from their canon.
The debates about this canon must have been remarkable. If one author,
Moses, criminalizes polytheism and recommends stoning, mightn't those polytheist
authors who find themselves buried beneath a barrage of stones under this
regime become skittish and uneasy, or even sluggish and ultimately lifeless?
Or will they find a way to brush it off, patch up their differences and
make one, big happy family?
"If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter,
the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly
entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not
known, neither you nor your fathers, of the gods of the people which are
all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth
to the other end of the earth, you shall not consent to him or listen to
him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him;
but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to
put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. And you shall
stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away
from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from
the house of bondage." (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
So if someone says, 'Let us go and serve the goddess Barbelo, whom neither
we nor our fathers knew,' and the others pick up stones to stone him, might
this not lead to dissension, with one party chasing the other faction down
the street? Or was it all one big love fest, up until "heresy hunters"
like Irenaeus disturbed the peace, as Dr. Ehrman suggests?
A 'canon' is a measuring stick; when the pagan philosopher Epicurus named his magnum opus 'The Canon,' he meant that his students should measure themselves by the
principles laid forth therein. If they fell short they should exert themselves
and stretch to measure up. There is no 'canon' or measuring stick which
has some of its divisions running along the negative axis, others extending
into positive territory. There never was a 'canon' which combines a law
code classing polytheism as a death-penalty crime with treatises laying
out a well populated pantheon for the goddess Barbelo and her buddies to
inhabit; this would be a thicket of contradictions, not a yardstick. The
polytheists rejected the Old Testament, the monotheists rejected the gnostics'
literary efforts. Neither of these two groups was tentative or uncertain
in their allegiance; the early Christian martyrs were martyrs as much to
the cause of monotheism as to the cause of Christ. Nor were the gnostics
uncertain that when Jehovah thundered that He was the only God, the other
Yet these modern authors repeatedly present it as a live option that polytheistic
gnostic texts like 'The Gospel of Judas' were ever going to be bound into
one volume with the Old Testament, that it was only "eventually" that they were "excluded" from scripture:
"What is the distinctive portrayal of Judas in this gospel? How does
its overall religious perspective differ from the 'orthodox' views that
came to be embraced by the majority of Christians? And why was it, and
other books like it, eventually excluded from the canon of Christian scripture?"
(Bart Ehrman, Christianity Turned on Its Head, p. 91, 'The Gospel of Judas').
Notice how Dr. Ehrman projects monotheism into futurity: "the 'orthodox' views that came to be embraced." Did monotheism really still lay in the future for the Christians
of the second century? Dr. Ehrman is sure that it did, and that monotheism
was a novelty when it was incorporated into the Nicene Creed: