Gnosis then and now

It was reported quite widely that Rowan Williams had referred to the Da Vinci Code in his sermon on Easter Sunday. I’ve seen quite a few comments that imply that he didn’t provide a proper rebuttal of it or that he was somehow trying to close down discussion of the topic. Having read the full text of the sermon ( and an article he wrote for the Mail on Sunday (, I think his critics have got this wrong and he actually made some very important points.

A sermon isn’t really the place to point out the problem with Dan Brown’s theories; for one thing, a sermon isn’t long enough. There have been whole books published, pointing out the vast numbers of errors in his account. Anyone knowledgeable about early Christianity or early medieval history or art history (or probably several other topics) could easily tell you just how ludicrous his book (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) are. If people believe what they read in Dan Brown, it’s not for want of scholars trying to correct them.

So Rowan Williams was considering the question: why do people choose to believe these ideas even when they’re not from anyone with any authority? His answer (implicitly): Because it’s not by someone with any authority. The conspiracy theory view of history means that anyone in authority (which gets interpreted to mean anyone from a parish priest to a lowly academic) must be covering things up and trying to hide The Real Story!! The archbishop, therefore, points out a simple fact. When the gospel stories were written, Christians weren’t in authority, they were a persecuted minority. Indeed, becoming Christians lessened any power they might have: it put them outside any previous religious tradition, including Judaism.

In the rest of his sermon, Rowan Williams goes on to talk about other Christians who have voluntarily accepted this powerlessness, even to the extent of being martyrs today. In his newspaper article, however, he engages with the Gospel of Judas (the newly discovered gnostic work). Again, his point is a simple one: look at the Jesus of the New Testament and the Jesus of this gospel and judge for yourself. (So much for the claim that he’s trying to stop discussion and discourage us from reading such things).

I think this is one of the best arguments that Christians have (see for similar comments about Mary Magdalene in the Bible and the Gnostic gospels). If people actually read some of the key works of gnosticism (much easier than previously, since they’re on the web , see e.g. they may well be much less impressed by them. After reading Dan Brown I went and looked at the Gospel of Thomas and thought: all the good bits I knew already. If it was a source for the New Testament gospels, as has sometimes been claimed, then they either had a lot of other sources or they were some of the most marvellous writers ever known. The Gospel of Thomas isn’t a book worth dying for – or living for. If someone finds some truly inspirational passages in all the gnostic writings, then I’d be interested to hear about it.

But in one sense, I’m missing the point by saying that. The whole point once of Gnosticism was to learn the secret knowledge (gnosis) of God so that one could come to the Truth. The interest in gnosticism now, however, isn’t to find a knowledge of God, it’s to debunk it. The Gnostic gospels, the Dead Sea scrolls etc aren’t of interest to most people because they might provide a real truth to live by, but as a handy excuse for why they needn’t take Christianity seriously. They don’t want to know, they just want to know better than us poor benighted Christians. I’ll stick to my gospel: at least it doesn’t require me to believe in the holiness of the Merovingians.

2 thoughts on “Gnosis then and now

  1. I’ve read the Da Vinci Code; and it didn’t affect me, because it is only a story. But, even if Jesus was married, it wouldn’t bother me. It’s no where near as important as the ressurection!


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