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STUDENT INVESTIGATOR: LQ McDonald III
Mentor: Dr. David Simmons
Title: Illuminating the Gnostic Gospels through Buddhist Thought
The Gnostic Gospels offer a radically different view of the Jesus we have come to know in the canonical New Testament. The teachings of these Gospels present a challenge to the more conventional views of mainstream Christianity regarding the role of Jesus and the doctrine of salvation. Nevertheless, even the most esoteric aspects of Gnostic Christianity may become intelligible when viewed in the light of Buddhist thought and philosophy.
The Buddhist emphasis on wisdom or knowledge as a first step to nirvana is paralleled by the gnosis that Jesus is presented as teaching in the Gnostic Gospels. Yet there are other aspects of Buddhist thought that have Gnostic equivalents. In both traditions, ignorance is frequently described as the chief obstacle to manifesting the Buddha Nature or Divinity within. The dualistic structure of much Buddhist philosophy, exemplified in the Abhidharma as the opposition of absolute and conditioned truths, is matched in part by a dualistic Gnostic opposition of spirit and matter, as well as the True God and demiurge of the Old Testament. Finally, the central Buddhist concept of sunyata, "emptiness," is echoed in a recurrent Gnostic theme that the material, phenomenal world has in itself no intrinsic value.
A comparison of Buddhist sutras and commentaries with certain Gnostic Gospels (especially the Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Thomas, and Gospel of Mary) can contribute to a recovery of Gnosticism from its condemnation as heresy in the early church, particularly when gnosis is understood to supplement, rather than oppose, faith.
Presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Upper Midwest Region of the American Academy of Religion in St. Paul, MN.