Our final objection to the positive case for Christ will require additional time to consider, and that is the gnostic origin theory, that appears to be quite popular in our pseudo intellectual culture. One of the attacks against Christianity that is becoming increasingly common is the argument that the gospels arose as a myth, based on earlier myths. This attack is all the more insidious because it has wide access to the media. Documentaries and books in the pop-religion section of the book store would make it seem that this idea is well proven and accepted in scholarship. The reader will probably be surprised to find out that this idea is not as common among Biblical scholars (even among unbelieving scholars) as it is among the general population. Actually, the modern version of this theory was popularized in works by those who are not experts in the field, such as Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Cambell’s work drew on previous works, many of which were known to be flawed before Campbell popularized them. Before actually touching on the gnostic origin theory itself we are going to begin by clearing away some underbrush that makes this belief seem so daunting. Thus I will note some facts that the reader should keep in mind.
Fact 1: Your college or high school English teacher is not an expert in Biblical literature.
Many of those who perpetuate the gnostic origin theory are not actually experts in the field. Most of them have gotten their information from people such as Campbell, who is not an expert in the field of Biblical studies. While your English teacher understands literary devices, themes, etc., they will likely not be familiar with books some of the more important books written in the study of the New Testament. Likewise, they will not have more than a cursory understanding of the history of New Testament times, or for that matter the history of New Testament studies. They will also be unlikely understand or study the Bible in the original languages. In fact, your English teacher’s primary professional contact with the Bible will come from studying the impact of the Bible on English Literature.
Fact 2: Documentaries about the Bible are placed on TV less for their intellectual value than for their ratings.
Television stations care primarily about what their viewers want to see. Television producers are rarely experts in the Bible themselves, so they have no ability to judge the merits of a particular works accuracy. Like many in our age they have an interest in the things that grab headlines. For example, compare the following two headlines, “Archeologist calls Luke a historian of the first rank,” and “the Tomb of Jesus has been found.” The latter is more likely to make the front page, the previous is true, while the latter is dubious. The result is that the history channel, TLC, and PBS are increasingly becoming Coast to Coast with George Nory when discussing Biblical subjects. I rarely find a documentary on the Bible on television that is of any real intellectual value.
Fact 3: The proponents of the Gnostic Origin theory tend to ignore the evidence of the historicity of the Gospels.
In some sense, the gnostic origin myth has no answer to what we have already demonstrated about the historical value of the gospels. Yet, this historical value is of extreme importance to their case. If someone is going to write a myth (also known as fiction) to present a moral lesson, they will probably not worry about the accuracy of the details. In fact, they will probably write about something that happened “a long time ago, in a land far away.” The writers of the gospels, on the other hand, are accurate. This is a serious problem for those who advocate a gnostic origin for the New Testament, but it is one that they ignore, rather than address.
Fact 4: The assumptions of gnostic origin proponents are speculation masquerading as facts.
The Gnostic origin theory rests on claims about the nature of the early Church. For example, they claim the first century Church is was much broader and tolerant than the Church in the time of Constantine (the time when they say Christian belief’s actually solidified). As an example, one of the major proponents of the gnostic myth viewpoint, a man named Rudolf Bultmann, spent nearly one hundred pages discussing diaspora churches. The problem is that there was not a single concrete fact in evidence that these groups even existed as a separate set of views from the teaching of the apostles. More often than not, when Gnostic origin proponents say something is a proven fact, what they really mean is that certain people have speculated something and presented that speculation as if it were a proven fact.
Fact 5: Many of the proponents of this theory have been influenced by existentialism.
This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a trend that I’ve noticed, and it affects the discussion in two ways. Existentialism is a major philosophical system that is outside of the scope of this article. When it comes to the issue of literature and interpretation, existentialists argue that meaning is found in the reader’s response rather than in looking for the author’s intended meaning. Many existentialists do not tend to apply the same rigor than those of us who consider this type of “interpretation” to be intellectually dishonest.
Fact 6: Literature is not necessarily opposed to history.
Finally, many of those who hold to the gnostic origin theory tend to state that the Bible is literature and not history. Occasionally, this is stated by noting that the gospels were intended to persuade rather than to present historical facts. This is an artificial dichotomy. The Bible can be literature and history. While the gospels were written to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah, that does not discount that they are works of history. After all, Tacitus, one of our primary sources about the early Roman Empire, wrote his works trying to persuade people that many of the problems of his day were caused by the early Emperors rather than by the Senate. No one denies that his writings are works of history, or that they are historically accurate. Likewise Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was a major influence on historians for several generations, begins with a preamble that could be considered a classic of English prose, in which he describes the decayed beauty of Roman ruins, and his longing for the greatness that was Rome. In reality, many works of history have “an agenda” of some type, but that does not deny that they seek to present facts accurately. Many writers use various literary devices to communicate and organize their thoughts, but that does not lessen their historical value. The study of literature is the study of a form of communication. Ultimately, many historical writers use literary elements in their works to communicate their central message.
Moving forward from here: Hopefully, this will make the task of attacking the gnostic origin theory less daunting. Our next step is to do what we have done in our introductory articles in the past: explain the basic elements of the theory, and describe our plan of attack.