Monday, January 31, 2011

Lost Gospels

I am reading Bart D. Ehrman's collection Lost Scriptures -- a companion piece to his Lost Christianities -- in which he collects scriptures that were "lost" (some of them very recently found) or that fell out of favor and didn't make it into the New Testament. The book includes gospels, acts of the apostles, epistles, and apocalypses. Some of them are "Gnostic" (a sect of Christianity that didn't win out in the end) and some are not.

I am going to focus on gospels included in Ehrman's collection. Primarily I want to give you a summary of them, in case you haven't encountered them and would like to read them yourself. Many of them can be found online, though I do strongly suggest picking up Ehrman's book. I also give some of my own commentary in the process. I have skipped a few of the more heavily fragmented gospels and the ones about which I have nothing much to say.

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas

This book doesn't contain stories, just teachings of Jesus. It's more like a book by Confucius or Lao-Tzu. While many of the teachings and sayings are found in the four canonical gospels, their significance seems illuminated more greatly here.

The Gospel of Thomas demonstrates (even more than usual) that Jesus (a) spoke almost entirely in metaphor (when he wasn't speaking in parables) and (b) that one of the major metaphors was the Kingdom of God, which signifies not a literal place but a state of mind. God himself is a metaphor as well. For example: "When you come to know yourselves... you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father."

Life and death are also metaphor. Jesus says, first thing, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death." He isn't referring to literal, bodily death, but to a recognition of a greater life, of one that has always and will always exist. Or, as he later typifies it, the "light." He tells his disciples that they "came from the light, the place where light came into being on its own accord and established itself and became manifest through their image."

Joseph Campbell once explained the above concept through a metaphor of a light bulb. When a bulb burns out, you don't say, "Well, no more light for me." You simply replace the bulb. The light is "manifest" through the bulb, which is yourself, so when it's your time to shine, shine as bright as you can. And when you burn out, that's just the end of your body, but not the light, which is (as Jesus says in this gospel) where you came from. (This might also bring new meaning to God's phrase "Let there be light.")

Another key message in Thomas is that what you're looking for (literally) is already here (spiritually, inside you). After the disciples ask when the new world will come, Jesus says, "What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it."

A final passage worth noting is about Mary and women. When the disciples say that Mary Magdalene needs to leave the company because she isn't "worthy of life," Jesus says, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." It sounds backward at first, but it's feminist in a figurative sort of way, simply saying that women will have the same privileges as men.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Genesis Retold: Part Two

Read Part One.

Based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.

Chapter Four

The man had called himself Adam, or "Earth," because he was a man of the earth, and he called his wife Eve, or "Life," because she was going to give life to all of their offspring. Eve gave birth to two boys: Cain was a tiller of the ground and Abel was a keeper of sheep. While Abel managed to make a great offering of food to his family with his sheep, Cain's offerings were not as well regarded. Because of this, Cain became very angry with his brother.

Though Cain tried to reason within himself that he needed to take control of his anger, the anger overtook his reason and he said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up and killed his brother Abel. In his mind, Cain knew that people would wonder where Abel was, but Cain had an answer prepared: "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

But Cain's guilt overtook him; the guilt was so strong that Cain imagined he heard Abel's blood crying from the ground. Cain could no longer imagine himself tilling the same ground on which he killed his own brother, thinking that it might not even produce food for him, so he decided to leave home. But Cain was afraid that someone would kill him while he was wandering abroad, so he put a mark on himself to frighten others away. The mark suggested that whoever killed Cain would be avenged seven times over. So Cain left toward the east and settled in the land he called Nod, which meant "Wandering."

Cain found a wife among other groups of people and they had a son named Enoch. And Cain built a city, which he named after his son. Enoch had a son named Irad who had Mehujael who had Methushael who had Lamech.

Lamech had two wives, Adah and Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabel, who taught his offspring to live in tents and raise livestock. She also gave birth to Jubal, who taught his offspring to play the lyre and the pipe. The other wife, Zillah, gave birth to Tubal-cain, who made all varieties of bronze and iron tools. Zillah also gave birth to a daughter, Naamah.

One day, Lamech told his wives, "I have killed a young man for striking and wounding me. If Cain is avenged seven times over, then I am to be avenged seventy times over."

Chapter Five

Meanwhile, Adam and Eve had a third son who she called Seth, which means "Appointed," because Eve had said, "Since Cain killed Abel, this child is appointed for me." Seth had a son named Enosh who had Kenan who had Mahalalel who had Jared who had Enoch (who died young) who had Methuselah who had Lamech who had Noah. Lamech felt that Noah would be of the generation of people who would find relief from years of working the unyielding ground, so he named him a name that meant "Relief." Noah also had sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Chapter Six

During this time, as the population of the earth increased, many felt that times had been different before. People seemed to live longer and men were like giants on the earth, heroes and warriors of renown, as if they had not been born of mere mortals. But then people began noticing that humankind was wicked, with their hearts fixed on violence continually. So when natural disasters occurred on the earth, many felt that it would be better if the disasters simply killed everything: people and animals and birds. But Noah was more optimistic.

Noah also was able to read and predict weather conditions, and he predicted the coming of a large flood. So Noah made a large wooden boat, complete with rooms spread out among three levels, covered inside and out with pitch. He made it as large as he could, so that he could fit himself, his sons, and their wives. He also wanted to save as many of his animals as he could, making sure to save both male and female. He even planned on rescuing birds. Noah stored food in the boat and was ready for the flood.

Chapter Seven

A little before the flood came, Noah and his family entered the ark, along with as many animals and birds as he could fit. On the day the flood came, it felt as if the fountains of the chaotic waters burst forth, as if there were windows in heaven that opened up. It rained for many days and flooded the area, as Noah had predicted. While many living creatures -- birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures -- and many human beings died, Noah's boat floated on the water and he and his family and the animals he saved were protected against the flood.

Chapter Eight

After the flood subsided and the waters began to recede, Noah opened a window of the boat and found himself atop a large hill. To test how far the flood waters had gone down, Noah sent a raven out of the window, which could only go to and fro. Next he sent a dove, but the dove could not find a place to land, so it returned to the boat where Noah put out his hand and took it and brought it into the boat with him. The next day, he sent the dove again and the dove came back to him in the evening with a freshly-plucked olive leaf in his beak. So Noah knew that the waters were subsiding. When he sent out the dove again the next day, the dove did not return, so Noah and his family left the boat to find dry land.

Noah immediately made a fire, killed an animal, and cooked a feast of meat for his family, because they had been living off of stored food for several days. As he smelled the pleasing odor, Noah said to himself, "Although the human heart is evil from youth, no one deserves to die in a flood like this, and I hope this never happens again."