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.

The Gospel of Peter

Only a fragment of this book exists: the pre-crucifixion, the crucifixion, and the post-crucifixion. Most of it seems to be just another version of what is found in the four canonical gospels. But there are a few weird and interesting bits. While on the cross, the text says that Jesus "was silent, as if he had no pain." (Take that, Mel Gibson.) Before dying, instead of saying "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus says "My power, O power, you have left me behind!" This, to me, seems like a more accurate assessment of what is going on, no matter what you take the "power" to be.

Finally, the most unusual part is an account of the ressurection itself. Two men whose heads reach up to the sky (presumably angels) are supporting another man whose head reaches above the skies (presumably Jesus himself). Behind them, a cross is floating. Stranger than this is that a voice is heard from the sky asking "Have you preached to those who are asleep?" The cross itself answers, "Yes." This kind of makes talking snakes and donkeys look tame.

The Gospel of Mary

This is another one that only exists in fragments, but what fragments! As the title suggests, this book is about Mary Magdalene and shows her as the most beloved of all the disciples (which I guess means that The Da Vinci Code was right), not John (not that the book of John ever says he's the one). In the book, Andrew and Peter question that Jesus would tell Mary, a mere woman, things that he didn't tell them. But Levi sets them straight, saying that they should listen to anyone who Jesus favored. Levi is the one who suggests that Jesus loved Mary most of all.

The parts that are even more interesting to me, however, are some of Jesus' teachings. He gives a "circle of life" / conservation of mass explanation of life and death, explaining that all things "exist in and with one another and they will be resolved again into their own roots."

In Matthew 24:5, Jesus warns against the coming of false messiahs. It's difficult to tell if he is being literal or not here. But it's more clear in Luke 17:20 when Jesus says that the coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, that it is in our midst, and again warns about running after false messiahs. But it is even more clear in the Gospel of Mary when Jesus says not to look for false messiahs because "the Son of Man is within you." At any rate, the three passages seem to be relating the same story/message, right down to the people saying "Look here!" and "Look there!" rather than looking inside themselves.

Jesus the law-basher is shown more clearly in this book as well. He says to "not lay down any rules" and "do not give a law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it." As William Blake said, "One law for the lion and the ox is oppression."

The Gospel of Philip

Like the Gospel of Thomas, this work does not contain any stories, only messages, this time even more centered around the idea of the image and how it works in stories. I know it seems as if I'm writing about nothing but ideas of the figurative vs. the literal, but -- although with the four canonical gospels I could go either way -- lots of these "lost" gospels make it more clear that the figurative is winning the day, the Gospel of Philip perhaps most of all.

The book claims that most people only know the "wrong meaning" and not the "right meaning" of certain words, such as father, son, life, resurrection, and maybe especially God. But, even though we run the risk of getting words wrong, it is good to use them so that we can know the truth at all. "The truth did not come naked into the world, but came in types and images." This is one conception of God -- often an Eastern and especially Taoist conception -- that God cannot be named or talked about or you're not talking about God (or the Tao) at all. However, you can talk about the "10,000 things" (as Lao-Tzu puts it, at least in some translations) that come from God, including yourself.

On the other hand, the writers of these Gnostic works -- as opposed to the "proto-orthodox" (Ehrman's term) writers we're more familiar with -- seemed to have their own potentially-literal conceptions. For example, this book says, "Some say Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. They err... When did a woman become pregnant by a woman?" This seems to be less an attack on literal interpretation and more of an explanation of the nature of the Holy Spirit and their different understanding of Mary's story (which is explained in the Proto-Gospel of James). So initially it seems that the Gnostics are more liberal in their interpretations and presentations of these ideas, but -- in the end -- it does just seem like another perhaps-just-literal strain.

The Gospel of the Savior

This one was only found in 1991, and only fragments exist, of the last bit of Jesus' life, from just after the last supper until death, and because of the fragmented nature it's very hard to read or get into. But it has a few standout moments, like when Jesus says to clothe yourself with "the garment of the kingdom, which I have bought with the blood of grapes!" (A new spin on communion.) He also speaks directly to the cross several times (as he did in the Gospel of Peter), this time saying to it, "Do not be afraid," "I will fill you with my wealth," and "I will mount you."

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

This is probably the most fun gospel, since it's about Jesus as a kid, from the age of five to twelve. It concludes with the story of Jesus in the temple, as reported in Luke. Jesus develops from a little supernatural brat into someone who can control his powers and go about his father's business. This almost seems like the inspiration for the Smallville stories in the Superman comics. At any rate, it's the same idea: someone from another world who has powers beyond those of normal humans, who has a hard time fitting in as a result, always tempted to use his powers selfishly instead of for others.

One of the first miracle stories involves Jesus breaking the sabbath by making sparrow sculptures out of mud. When he's about to get in trouble for doing so, he tells the sparrows to "Be gone!" and they become real sparrows and fly away. This story is also alluded to in the Koran (and not in a negative way).

When another kid annoys young Jesus, he whithers the kid's skin. Having a taste for this kind of revenge, Jesus supernaturally kills a boy simply because he bumped into him. Not content to punish children, he also makes adults go blind who get angry at him for doing these things. Jesus has stirred up and scared the entire neighborhood.

Then there is a series of would-be tutors for Jesus. But when they try to teach him the alphabet, Jesus instead points out that he knows more than they do, saying, "Since you do not know the true nature of Alpha, how can you teach anyone the Beta?" He tries to explain what that true nature of Alpha is, but he seems to essentially describe the nature of a triangle (which of course is what the letter looks like)--I guess simply to show that he knows geometry (and the tutors don't?) already so he doesn't need these basic lessons. But maybe he means something more, maybe even referring to himself as the Alpha and Omega.

Eventually, Jesus starts performing miracles that we're more accustomed to, even if they are still in service of keeping him out of trouble and he's still being a smart aleck. When he was playing on the roof with a kid named Zenon, the kid falls and dies. Since Jesus has a bad reputation, people gather around and accuse Jesus of killing the boy. But then Jesus says, "Zenon! Rise up and tell me: did I throw you down?" And then Zenon comes back to life (long before Lazarus). The parents of Zenon, in this case, begin to worship Jesus.

A man is chopping wood but accidentally chops his foot, so that he almost dies from blood loss. But Jesus heals him, saying to "Remember him." And long before the loaves and fishes, Jesus causes one grain of wheat to produce one hundred bushels. Sometimes Jesus loses his temper (usually with tutors) and kills them like in his very young days, but now he tends to bring them back to life again.

As Bart Ehrman points out, it's difficult for modern readers to tell if these stories are meant to be taken seriously or as entertainment, stories told by those who want to fill in the blanks of Jesus' life. It certainly does have a different feel from any of the other gospels ("lost" or otherwise). It's almost as if these childhood stories don't "count" as scripture, not because they're not "true" or just as authentic as anything else, but because they tell the story of a man as he was before he came into his own as a prophet. This may be why the story of Luke includes the temple story; in it, you can see the germ of the Jesus we come to know.

No gospels get into Jesus from twelve to thirty, so for information about Jesus' teenager years, you have to turn to the song by the Canadian band the Rheostatics called "Jesus Was Once a Teenager Too."

The Proto-Gospel of James

While the Infancy Gospel of Thomas told of Jesus' early life, this gospel details the birth of his mother Mary: her upbringing, relationship with Joseph, and Jesus' birth.

Mary's mother, Anna, feels useless (and is treated as such) because she can't have a baby. But an angel tells her that she will have one, miraculously. There's a big deal made about how Mary is to remain pure and clean, and Mary is kept in the temple from the age of two until twelve, where she is fed from the hand of an angel.

When Mary reaches the age of twelve, Joseph is chosen to care for her, like an adoptive father more or less, not really like a husband. Joseph was reluctant, but he was chosen by a miracle (a dove lands on his head), and everyone made him feel afraid to refuse, so he agreed. But he leaves Mary immediately to go off to work elsewhere, and when he comes back, she is six months pregnant (a good narrative alibi to help prove the virgin birth).

Of course, Joseph immediately feels guilty for not protecting her, and of course everyone accuses Joseph of knocking her up. It's during these episodes that the well-known stories of angels' visitations to both Mary and Joseph occur. But while the four gospels don't explain how the community eventually thinks everything is okay, James does. It is explained that Mary and Joseph drink the "water of refutation," a kind of holy truth serum, and they're shown not to be lying, so all is fine.

This is when the nativity story begins, but with a few added details. Jesus is born in a cave (the manger scene comes later when he's hiding from Herod) while Joseph is out looking for a mid-wife. While he's out, he sees time freeze (during the moment that Jesus is born), apparently out of time himself in order to witness it. When the would-be mid-wife enters the cave, there is a bright cloud and bright light in and around the cave. When it disappears, they see the baby Jesus. The mid-wife reports this to a woman named Salome who has to prove to herself that it was a virgin birth by putting her finger in Mary's vagina. This act causes her finger to burn and "fall away," but it is healed when she feels bad about her doubt. (This, to me, is an even more extreme version of the Doubting Thomas story.)

The entire book is interesting and contains other details big and small (such as Mary miraculously making a moutain split open for her to hide from Herod) that I haven't summarized. Unlike the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, this one seems to contain the right amount of "holiness" so that it fits well with the nature and tone of other scriptures. This book also seems to have been used to fill in some historical gaps for the screenwriters of the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

The Epistle of the Apostles

The Gnostic Christians were known for writing "secret" epistles in which they revealed secrets that not everyone was privy to. As a reaction, non-Gnostic Christians wrote the Epistle of the Apostles which specifically calls out two Gnostics named Cerinthus and Simon. Because of the nature of this work, it is a more conservative recap of many of the other gospels, but it does have a few interesting moments worth noting.

One is "the Word" declaring that it became Gabriel and then became Jesus. In other words, the Word -- as Gabriel -- told Mary that he would be entering her, and then he did, and came out as Jesus. The Word also says that it will return as the Father in the 150th year. (Whoops.)

In talking with the disciples, Jesus (as usual) gets angry at them for not understanding his basic teachings, in this case that the flesh itself will become whole and resurrect, not just the spirit. He also predicts the coming of Paul, which I guess gives Paul more credit, since he didn't seem to have anything to do with Jesus and yet he took over his enterprise: kind of like Walter Hooper did with C.S. Lewis.

The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter

A Gnostic work in which Peter has a vision of "the Savior" who explains to Peter that there were two persons during the crucifixion. There is one above the cross who is glad and laughing, and he is "the living Jesus." The one who is being nailed to the cross is "his physical part, which is the substitute." While this short work simply seems to draw a distinction between the body and soul, the mortal and immortal, the next book in question -- The Second Treatise of the Great Seth -- goes all out and suggests that Jesus (in any form) wasn't killed at all.

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

While the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Islamic Koran seem to be pretty connected, with of course many corrections here and there as things progress (or digress, depending on who you ask), Gnostic works like this one (though not all of the Gnostic works) seem to promote something almost entirely separate from those stories, even while using the same "characters."

In this work, to show what I mean, the god (called Yaldabaoth here) who created Adam is not an almighty god, not the highest power. This book is narrated by "Christ" who is that highest power, and he calls God a "laughingstock." He also calls Adam, Moses, Solomon, and the rest of the Hebrew prophets laughingstocks. Why? Because they think they are more than they are. They are simply the creations of this creator god Yaldabaoth, but they are not the most important people in the world, and their god is not the ultimate god. And their religion is nothing more than a doctrine "to keep dietary rules and bitter slavery" (which is my favorite line from this gospel).

Imagine a small child who makes little paper dolls. Now imagine if that small child thought that he was the god of all the universe, not just the "god" of his little paper doll creations. That's the idea of Yaldabaoth, who everyone who follows Abrahamic religions think of as "God."

So when "Christ" does enter the world, the world sure feels it. Christ says that all of the false gods and angels (the "archons") were disturbed when he entered. This Christ enters a man named Jesus. Specifically, he casts out the human who was inside Jesus and wears his body.

But even Jesus, the human, wasn't crucified. Simon was. Another person drank the vinegar. Another person had the crown of thorns put on him. Meanwhile, Christ was continually changing forms and (as he did in the previous book) laughing at the confusion all around him.

So Judaism, what we think of as Christianity, and Islam at least have in common the idea that God is God (whether they realize they're worshipping the same god or not). For the writer of this book, however, God is a silly boy playing with paper dolls being laughed at by the true god.

The Secret Gospel of Mark

Said by some to be a forgery, this is a fragment of a letter (not a gospel itself) describing a gospel of "secret" extra bits to be included in the book of Mark for those readers who are more spiritually advanced. Think of it like an expansion pack for a video or board game.

The only part that remains is supposed to be inserted at Mark 10:34, and it describes Jesus raising a young boy from the dead, the young boy approaching Jesus days later "wearing a linen cloth over his naked body," and spending the night with Jesus to learn "the mystery of the Kingdom of God." Another part of the letter claims that a phrase reading "naked man with naked man" was added by a Gnostic sect that practiced sexual rituals.


So there you go. I'll continue reading Bart Ehrman's great collection and -- if you're lucky -- report to you on the rest of the work.

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