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"The Jesus of the Cults": How the esoteric Christ became the Christ of scholars

Philip Jenkins

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Since the mid-nineteenth century, new and fringe religious movements have often generated distinctive images of Jesus, who is presented as a sage, philosopher and occult teacher, whose views have much in common with those of Asian teachings. This idea runs for example through works like the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ and the work of Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner and Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Ironically, these pictures have a very great deal in common with the images which increasingly dominate the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. In modern scholarly writing, Jesus has become more of a Gnostic, Cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist than the traditional notion of the reformist Jewish rabbi. This paper will illustrate the growing convergence between the once marginalized ideas of the fringe religions and the concept of the mainstream denominations. I will suggest that in both cases, the popularity of these related views of Jesus reflects the ideological needs and predilections of the audiences to whom they are presented.

"The Jesus of the Cults": How the Esoteric Christ Became the Christ of Scholars

Perhaps the most important single finding that students of new religions have to report to their colleagues is that there is no hard and fast division between "religions" - good, stable and socially valuable - and "cults" - evil, pernicious, destructive. Fringe religions became mainstream churches, and ideas which originate several leagues beyond flaky can easily become orthodoxy. In this paper, I want to trace how one set of seemingly bizarre religious theories have decisively entered the mainstream, and within the lifetimes of most people in this audience. Specifically, I will trace how the heterodox image of Jesus which has played so lively a role in countless fringe and esoteric sects has within recent years become almost a dominant paradigm within the scholarly world. Though Biblical scholars have not experienced any kind of mass conversion to Gnostic Christianity, nevertheless ideas which were once stigmatized have now become accepted, even orthodox: to coin a phrase, the stone which was once rejected has become the cornerstone. I believe that my story offers a classic case-study of the very permeable boundaries that separate the ideas of cults from those of religions.

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University. A paper presented at CESNUR 2000 international conference, Riga, Latvia, August 29-31, 2000. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce without the consent of the author.

Read the entire article on the Center for Study on New Religions website.

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