The Hypergnostic / Hyperorthodox Debate

When Gnosticism, a controversial belief system within the 2nd century Christian community  was labeled heretical many of the writings branded as Gnostic were tarnished, dismissed, and some even destroyed by the dominant “orthodox” communities.

 One example of a favourite early text that had to be protected was “The Gospel of Thomas."
Other examples even include some of Paul’s writings.

 Many of these texts have much to contribute. Guilt by association to the Gnostics, or the later debates may not be useful.

 To read the Gospel of Thomas or to “read Paul either way – as hypergnostic or hyperorthodox – is to read unhistorically, attempting to interpret the apostle’s theology in terms of categories formulated in second century debate.” …

 “Some of what has been described as “gnostic terminology” in the Pauline letters may be explained more plausibly instead as Pauline …terminology
in the Gnostic writings.…

 “Whoever takes account of the total evidence may learn from the debate to approach Pauline exegesis with renewed openness to the texts.”
(The Gnostic Paul, Page 164, by Elaine Pagels)  

Regarding “The Gospel of Thomas”, Barnstone and Meyer point out that although it had “a considerable influence on the development of religions including gnostic religions” it is not “unequivocally gnostic”, but rather "proclaims a mystical wisdom and knowledge." (The Gnostic Bible, Barnstone and Meyer, Page 115)

 In other words, some of the early writings have been misunderstood because we have imposed our own historical understanding, the winnings side’s interpretation onto the author’s words. Rather than approaching the text with subsequent historical debates in mind, and the labels they imposed, we do better to let the authors speak themselves. Rather than approaching the text with preconceived ideas about who won subsequent debates about the text, it may be useful to hear both sides, and then see past the debate and back to the author.

For those with a willingness to seek, they may even find The Gospel of Thomas to be a good read.

Dean Johnson  



The Gnostic Paul
Gnostic Exegesis of Pauline Letters

Books by Elaine Pagels

"Gospel of Thomas" Audiobook


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