An Uncommon Lectionary provides selections for each Sunday from sources outside the scriptural canon, drawing mainly from texts rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, including the so-called “gnostic gospels.” The gospel readings for the season of Lent are all from The Gospel of Thomas.
I first became aware of the term “gnostic gospels” when Elaine Pagels’ book, The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979. Not that I had any interest in reading it for myself. In 1979 seminary wasn’t even a glimmer in my mind’s eye. At that time I was a floor manager at B. Dalton Bookseller’s flagship store in Philadelphia. My job was to keep the book, which had won the National Book Critics Circle and the National Book Awards, in stock.
Even when I went to seminary in 1982, these gospels weren’t part of the curriculum – and even if they had been, I had enough challenges with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to keep me occupied. Plus – it was made very clear that anything with the name ‘gnostic’ attached to it was verboten.
It wasn’t until I was doing doctoral work in Berkeley that my interest was finally piqued. Pagels’ latest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, had been released in 2004 and I had the opportunity to hear her speak at a book talk. One thing that stuck with me from that night was Pagel’s statement that if she had it to over, she wouldn’t name her previous book The Gnostic Gospels. Not only does the word ‘gnostic’ have negative connotations for most Christians, it also doesn’t adequately encompass the wide variety of beliefs deemed as heretical by the early church. In subsequent years, I did a little bit of delving into these mysterious works. Beyond Belief was a breakthrough work and a good starting place. The Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar) also had a symposium on some of the gospels, like those of Mary, James and Judas. What I learned was that not all of these texts carry the same weight as others. Their main value, though, is as a window into the diversity of early Christian thought and belief – before orthodoxy, with its creeds and dogmatic requirements.
I am fully aware that for some, using these texts in a congregation is a heresy that places me outside of the Christian fold. For others, it may be a breath of fresh air that blows into the church as we open ourselves up to a fuller understanding of our tradition.
I’m not worried about being called a heretic. What I find most challenging is the fact that there are very few exegetical and no homiletical or liturgical resources, so it feels a bit like working without a net. And I certainly don’t want our Lent journey of discovery to be simply a series of lectures of the Nag Hammadi texts. Rather, I hope that we’ll be able to glean some insights, not just about our past but also about our faith in this 21st church.
And right now, I have a sermon to write.