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Dr R Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, has discussed the recent papyrus fragment discovery which has made a sensational splash in the press. He points out that various similar discoveries have been around since the 1890s.

Clark explains that various versions of Jesus’s life began appearing during the first few centuries AD:

So, we cannot be surprised that Karen King has found a fourth-century fragment from Alexandria. Of course she did! There were lots of folk running about in the 4th century, many of them Alexandria, teaching all many of crazy things (e.g., Jesus had a wife). The general media seem to have no idea that scholars have long been aware of  texts alleging to be written by Jesus himself. There was a Coptic (Egyptian) “Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ.” This was a 4th/5th-century text brought to Cairo in the 1890s. Of course, the  most famous (or notorious) competing Gospel the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas,” a collection of 114 sayings (logia) which “Thomas” attributes to our Lord. It dates perhaps to the the first half of the 3rd century and presents a rather different account of our Lord’s teaching.

Perhaps some of you, as I do, wonder why we a) see a proliferation as well as popularity of such documents and b) why they were written in the first place.

Clark explains the struggle Gnostics — heretics — have with Christianity (emphases mine):

The second-century fathers, i.e., the Apostolic Fathers, argued that the truth always precedes error and that the Gnostics and other (spirit v matter) dualists were derivative of Christianity. The objective evidence actually supports their position but there has been a movement since at least Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy (1934) to say that the categories “orthodox” and “heretical” are arbitrary and that what we consider “orthodoxy” was really the result of politics and the exercise of power. Dan Brown anyone?

In our late-modern age, which is deeply skeptical about the existence of any sort of “orthodoxy,” is quite prepared to believe that the orthodoxy of the early fathers was really the result of politics and not the consequence of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. The great problem for this (now) fashionable and (apparently) attractive (hypo)thesis is that it relies on assumptions, misconceptions, and generally very late texts. The canonical gospels were established at least a century (and more) before the Gnostic texts.

Clark explains simply and clearly the heresy of Gnosticism:

Yes, there were movements that were derivative of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The church reacted to them. Her theologians, e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Polycarp and others, responded by showing how the biblical account of Christianity taught a view of creation that was completely contrary to the spirit-matter dualism of the Gnostics (and other dualists). They showed how Jesus and the Apostles taught a view of God, man, salvation, redemptive history, and the church that contradicted the claims of the Gnostics (and Gnostic-influenced Christians). Where the Gnostics made salvation a question of overcoming matter and sort of ladder climbing process up a hierarchy of being, Jesus and the Apostles taught that Jesus, God the Son incarnate, true God and true man, had come down from heaven for us and our salvation. Where the Gnostics made salvation a matter of obtaining esoteric, secret knowledge (hence Gnosticism), Jesus and the Apostles taught openly and plainly, in public, for all to see and hear. Where the Gnostics denigrated the goodness of creation and made the OT the story of a crude demi-god, Jesus and the Apostles taught the unity of the history of salvation, and the goodness of creation before the fall.

Conspiracy theories sell books and cinema tickets but this discussion isn’t about the recent discovery secret texts hitherto hidden by corrupt, powerful, self-interested authorities but rather the ancient struggle between two accounts of God, man, Christ, salvation, and revelation. The late modern era seems quite taken with the Gnostic account (as Peter Jones has been noting for a couple of decades). Edwin Yamauchi (Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), showed, to my satisfaction, long ago that the pro-Gnostic interpretation of Christianity (that “orthodoxy” is really the heresy here) doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

Now for my personal observation, which concerns the latest Bible commentaries. Hmm. It seems that many who use the most recent commentaries — and make a point of purchasing them because they are new interpretations — are at least peripherally tied to or attracted by Gnosticism. I am mystified that ‘Christians’ could read the New Testament purely as socio-political history or as mystical books. Where an orthodox Christian reads the promise of salvation, the pseudo-Gnostic sees allegory right the way through (i.e. as someone described the Gospel of John!).

It seems that a number of nominal Christians in our era have more faith in their own power or so-called superior knowledge than in the mercy and redemptive grace of Jesus Christ. Hence, the thirst for or haste in throwing out His teachings on eternal life for those who are faithful and repent of their sins, not to mention His condemnation (eternally) for unbelief — the greatest sin of all (see John’s Gospel). For them, anything other than a late 20th or early 21st perspective on Scripture is fundamentalist and literalist. That is far from being the case, but, as Clark says, to them, orthodoxy is the heresy. One Anglican vicar described biblical faith as ‘something for children’. I would invite that man to read the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Reformed Confessions, especially the Westminster Confessions of Faith. It would be interesting to hear what he would have to say afterwards.

Any reading of redemption and grace appears to be fundamentalist or literalist for pseudo-Gnostics.

Christian students of the Bible would do well to ask themselves if they wish to read heresy into it or if they wish to absorb what the unchanging truth of Holy Scripture says to them.

Hence my caution about what commentaries. Caveat emptor. Read online reviews before making that vital purchase.

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