By now we’ve come to expect it: once or twice a year, some “sensational” new archaeological or manuscript discovery in the Bible Land threatens to undermine Christianity, or so it is claimed. Or it may be the radical opinion of some revisionist scholar that gets media attention, sending worried believers to their pastors. It’s an annoying trend, since so many of the “discoveries” don’t even apply or are misinterpreted, while most of the “new, scholarly insights” foisted on a credulous public are neither new nor scholarly. All of them have this in common: they are vastly overblown.
In systematic fashion, Darrell Bock attempts to address this concern as he focuses on the all-important first two centuries of the church, comparing the evidence from the New Testament sources and the Apostolic Fathers with whatever is known from the Gnostic movement and its sources at the time. He finds, for example, that the new school is hardly that new. It was German theologian Walter Bauer’s book in 1934, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, that began revisionist thinking on Gnosticism and other heresies, while many texts of the “New Testament Apocrypha” were known long before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.
Bock waded through all the Gnostic documents for their views on God and creation, Jesus as divine and/or human, humanity’s salvation, and other themes. He credits the new school for calling attention to the diversity in early Christian beliefs, but faults their findings as overblown distortions. The credentials behind all four traditional Gospels, he finds, are much stronger than those of the Gnostic Gospels, all of which are later and derivative from the original four. This dooms the Gnostic writings from having any authority parallel to that of the canonical Gospels, according to all rules of historical investigation.
The orthodox tradition, furthermore, always represented centrist, normative Christianity that easily distinguished itself from fringe movements such as Gnosticism, which early Christians recognized as aberrant from the start, and which never had the broad following claimed by some new school scholars.
Finally, Bock concludes that it is not Christianity that needs some sort of makeover on the basis of the Gnostic Gospels, but the new school itself. His careful study brilliantly undercuts their distortions and augmentations of the evidence. In fact, I have only one disagreement with Bock: In the interests of fairness, I think he has been overgenerous to the Gnostic fixation of the new school, when the material discovered at Nag Hammadi ranges from word salad to wild claims involving not the God we know, but Gnostic-jargon images of Sophia, demiurges, luiminaries, aeons, eternities, firmaments, and, above all, gnosis: the secret knowledge available only if you join the cult. Only one of the Gnostic documents, the Gospel of Thomas, seems more rational, and yet its final claimed saying of Jesus implies that only men will enter the kingdom of God!
The current media mania over the Gnostic Gospels, then, will eventually prove to be a passing fad. Bock’s book should help speed that passing.
—Paul L. Maier
Paul L. Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University.