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Chapter 1: Gnosticism: The Religion of the Code

A serious question ignored by The Da Vinci Code is this: Why should the writings of the Gnostics be considered more dependable than the canonical writings, especially when they were written some fifty to three hundred years later than the New Testament writings? It’s easy for writers such as Brown, who are sympathetic to the gnostics (or at least to some of their ideas), to criticize the canonical Gospels and call many of the stories and sayings contained in them into question. But without the canonical Gospels there would be no historical Jesus at all, no meaningful narrative of his life, and no decent sense of what he did, how he acted, and how he related to others.

As we pointed out, the "gnostic gospels" aren’t gospels at all in the sense of the four canonical gospels, which are filled with narrative, concrete details, historical figures, political activity, and details about social and religious life. Contrary to Teabing’s assertion that "the early Church literally stole Jesus" and shrouded his "human message . . . in an impenetrable cloak of divinity", and used it to expand their own power (233), the Church was intent, from the very beginning, on holding on to the humanity and divinity of Christ and on telling the story of his life on earth without washing away the sorrow, pain, joy, and blood that so often accompanied it. The Church fought to keep Christianity firmly rooted in history and fact "rather than the random mythologies reinvented at the whim of each rising Gnostic sage. The church was struggling to retain the idea of Jesus as a historical human being who lived and died in a specific place and time, not in a timeless never-never land."

The Jesus of the gnostic writings is rarely recognizable as a Jewish carpenter, teacher, and prophet dwelling in first century Palestine; instead, he is often described as a phantom-like creature who lectures at length about the "deficiency of aeons", "the mother", "the Arrogant One", and "the archons"–all terms that only the gnostic elite would comprehend, hence their secretive, gnostic character. One strain of gnosticism, known as docetism, held that Jesus only seemed, or appeared, to be a man. Adherents believed this because of their dislike for the physical body and the material realm, a common trait among gnostics. The tendency towards a docetist understanding of Jesus–if not a fully formed docetist Christology–existed in the first century and was addressed in some of the later writings of Paul (Colossians and the pastoral Epistles) and John (cf. 1 Jn 4:2; 5:6; 2 Jn 7). In the second century, docetism became a developed theology and made its appearance in various Gnostic writings, including the Acts of John, written in the late second century:

"Sometimes when I would lay hold on him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other times, again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all. And if at any time he were bidden by some one of the Pharisees and went to the bidding, we went with him, and there was set before each one of us a loaf by them that had bidden us, and with us he also received one; and his own he would bless and part it among us: and of that little every one was filled, and our own loaves were saved whole, so that they which bade him were amazed. And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the earth: and I never saw it."

If the material realm is evil, as almost all gnostic groups believed, why would a being such as Christ have anything to with it? And why should we be concerned at all with history and the common life of ordinary people? The gnostic Christ is not interested in earthly, historical events as much as freeing the spirit from the entrapment of the body. In many gnostic texts, Christ and Jesus are posited as two separate beings–Christ being from above and Jesus, the bodily vessel that Christ dwelled in for a time on earth, from below. "This kind of Christology could be called ‘separationist,’ in that it saw two clear and separate persons, the human being Jesus and the divine aeon Christ who temporarily dwelled in him", notes Ehrman. "According to some forms of these Gnostic views, the Christ descended into Jesus at his baptism, empowering him for his ministry, and then left him prior to his death. Thus it was that the divine Christ escaped suffering. Jesus, in this view, suffered alone."

Gnosticism was exclusive, elitist, and esoteric, open only to a few. Christianity, on the other hand, is inclusive and exoteric, open to all those who acknowledge the beliefs of the Faith handed down by Jesus and enter into a life-giving relationship with him. Jesus Christ of the canonical Gospels is a breathing, flesh-and-blood person; he gets hungry, weeps, eats and drinks with common people, and dies. Jesus Christ of the gnostic writings is a phantom, a spirit who sometimes inhabits a body and sometimes doesn’t, and who talks in ways that very few could understand. Once again, The Da Vinci Code has it backwards.