Sunderland (The Obelisk and the Cross, 2016) analyzes the central divisions between orthodox and gnostic interpretations of the life and meaning of Jesus Christ.
The orthodox, or traditional, version of Christianity’s Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is the foundation of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations. However, the Judaic and Messianic narrative promoted by these books faced competition from a rival set of scriptures, which were largely lost to history until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945. The Gospels of Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and others provided early Christians—particularly those in the vicinity of Alexandria, Egypt—with an alternate story of Jesus Christ, Creation, and the entire spiritual order. This book first deftly notes their differences from traditional Christian writings, then examines attempts by orthodox Christians and Gnostics to find a “middle path” to reconcile the two sides: The Apostle Paul does this in his epistles by reaching out to gentiles who’d be alienated by an overemphasis on a Judaic Messiah; Gnostic theologian Valentinus does it by acknowledging the supreme deity as “Father.” However, by the year 325, orthodox Christians had successfully linked their interpretation with Emperor Constantine, officially canonized Scripture that aligned with that interpretation, and denounced Gnosticism as heresy. The book’s final third argues for the continued relevancy of Gnosticism in our postmodern world, which values tenets that Gnostics promoted—individualism, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment. Overall, non-Catholic readers may find the author’s relative dismissal of distinctive Protestant theology to be off-putting. Indeed, by lumping Protestants into the same “orthodox” category as Catholics, the author misses potential opportunities to explore some similarities between Protestant ideas and Gnosticism, such as the Quakers’ emphasis on “inner light.” These criticisms notwithstanding, the author writes in clear, concise prose that effectively explains the complex and varied theologies of Gnosticism for a general audience while also maintaining an academic tone and providing a solid foundation of research.
A scholarly yet accessible introduction to Gnosticism.