Category Archives: Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism”

Sex and salvation in the Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip has more to do with sex than you might imagine. This is one of the writings that was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, a third century work that is among those traditionally considered “gnostic”.

Sure, there’s the fact that this writing is cited in conspiracy theories regarding the supposed sex life of Jesus. The Da Vinci Code‘s use of the Gospel of Philip illustrates this approach. The (incomplete) passage that is used in the book and movie is the one that refers to Jesus, a companion, and Mary Magdalene, and then goes on to refer to some kisses and the jealously of other disciples because Jesus apparently loved Mary most (but the “translation” in the movie–unlike the one here–fills in the blanks):

And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene. [. . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [the disciples . . .]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?. . . When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness (Gospel of Philip 63.30-64.9).

The passage is, in fact, less than clear on any claim that Jesus was the companion, in the sense of sexual partner or lover, of Mary Magadelene. (I’ll also add that none of the second or third century Gospels tell us much at all about the first century peasant Jesus; rather they tell us about how later Christians understood Jesus centuries later). Instead, this is one further instance of what we find in other early Christian writings, namely, the claim that Jesus favoured a particular disciple (a disciple who “saw the light”, in this case) and may have offered that special disciple some secret or important information. The point is that a particular community that uses that gospel is claiming some direct and special access to Jesus’ teaching, and claiming that they have the truth more than some other group (compare the Gospel of Mary Magadalene, The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,or the Gospel of John, with its “beloved disciple”– I won’t go into any other inventive theories around the beloved disciple, or the scantily clad guy in the Gospel of Mark, Secret, Elongated, or otherwise).

Not to steal Hollywood’s excitement, but the kisses in question in the Gospel of Philip are best understood not as sexual ones but as further examples of the “holy kiss” greeting among members of Jesus groups as early as the mid-first century (see Rom 16:16, for instance). The followers of Jesus who used the Gospel of Philip also apparently attached an even more important significance to this kiss (59.1-5 and 58.30-59.6) and to breath (63.6-10; 70.23-24) in connection with their understanding of how the spiritual spark in some human souls is connected with the spiritual realm as a whole . It is true, however, that some outsiders–both Greeks and Romans– accused early followers of Jesus of incest (as well as cannibalism), but that had less to do with any knowledge of Christian “holy kisses” or their tendency to call one another “brothers” or “sisters” than it had to do with common mud-slinging in characterizing foreign peoples or minority groups as dangerous barbarians (see my posts here and my article here).

Nonetheless, there is some sex, quite a bit in fact, in the Gospel of Philip. I’m talking about the consistent way in which the author of the materials gathered in this writing uses sexual union as a METAPHOR for salvation itself. And the way in which the community of Christians that used this gospel enacted this salvation in a ritual known as the “bridal chamber”. So this is not sex of the usual type and is a little more tame than Hollywood likes–sorry to disappoint.

This writing expresses the poor condition of humanity, our present fallen state, using the metaphor or analogy of the separation of the genders and speaks of salvation in terms of the reuniting of the male and female: “When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more” (68.22-25). Further on it explains this “separation” again and refers to the reparation that the saviour figure, Christ, brings: “If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them” (70.9-18).

The Gospel of Philip presupposes a particular mythological and cosmological worldview that I have discussed in many other posts on “gnosticism” and related literature (browse some posts in my “gnosticism” and apocrypha category to understand this a bit better). Here Christ is the Saviour figure who brings salvation not by dying on a cross but by bringing the knowledge (gnosis), knowledge of the fact that an element within humans (certain spiritual humans) ultimately belongs in the perfect spiritual realm, not this inferior material realm framed by the creator god (the demiurge) of the Hebrew Bible.

So, for this follower of Jesus, salvation is about reunification. But how is this reunification understood and completed. Well, there is a specific ritual or process of initiation that this group felt was a way of enacting the process of gaining knowledge that brings reunification with the perfect spiritual realm: the bridal chamber, which was preceded by baptism and anointing (“chrism”). So once again, sexual union is the prominent metaphor for salvation, in this case within the ritual context. To be clear, it is not a real man and woman that unite in the ritual context of the “bridal chamber”. Rather, it is “the image” (here conceived as “male”) that unites with “the angel” (65.20-24). It is the image within man that unites with its female angelic counterpart in the bridal chamber. It is the spiritual element within certain people that reunites with its spiritual consort, thereby returning to where it belongs, namely ascending above to the perfect spiritual realm or “fullness” that is one and the same with the Father God (not the creator of this material realm).

So despite the sort of thing you’ll read in church fathers like Epiphanius (see here), the followers of Jesus that used the Gospel of Philip did not engage in actual sex for this ritual; instead it is a metaphorical way of expressing and enacting salvation. But did such Jesus-followers have sex at all? There’s a scholarly debate on precisely this matter. April DeConick is among those scholars who suggest that the Gospel of Philip reflects Christians with a relatively positive view of marriage and sexual union within marriage (article title to come soon). Scholars like this point to the positive use of the analogy of sexual union in the discussion of the bridal chamber ritual, when the author speaks of “marriage in the world” to explain the other “spiritual” marriage of the chamber (82).

Other scholars would suggest that this author of the Gospel of Philip, like many other Nag Hammadi authors, had a less positive or quite negative view of bodily matters and would suggest that “it is proper to destroy the flesh” (82.25-29), including sexual activity even within marriage. In other words, the followers of Jesus who used this Gospel filled with sex (in the metaphorical sense) may well have been sexually ascetic and refrained from the real thing in any context, (real) bridal chamber or otherwise.

The “savage” Marcion: Ethnographic stereotypes in attacking “heretics”

On a number of occasions I have discussed ancient ethnography (posts here), namely the ways in which ancient authors describe the practices and beliefs of other peoples. These descriptions of “foreign” peoples are often heavily laden with stereotypes and, to put it bluntly, nasty characterizations. As minority cultural groups, Judeans and followers of Jesus could be on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes of “barbarous” peoples, as when some Greeks or Romans charged Christians with incest and cannibalism (see a full article on the topic here). I have discussed Tertullian’s defence of Christians against such stereotypes, including the notion that followers of Jesus regularly sacrificed little children: ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort.

But this church father, Tertullian, could also dish it out quite well, even in dealing with others who claimed to follow Jesus. Around the turn of the third century, Tertullian wrote a five-volume work (Against Marcion) in which he put on trial, so to speak, the views and practices of Marcion, a follower of Jesus who had substantially different views from Tertullian’s. Tertullian opens this massive work with a somewhat extensive ethnographic description of the peoples of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) and Pontus region — this is where Marcion came from. Here Tertullian characterizes these people as barbarians with extremely strange practices, including “deviant” sexual practices he dare not name (“If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”) and “savage” practices such as carving up their own fathers for a stew. These stereotypical accusations of barbarity are neither here nor there in terms of realities of life around the Black Sea or in terms of what Marcion was like, but it is interesting to see such name-calling techniques used in one Christian’s attack on another. Marcion, it turns out in Tertullian’s not so subtle characterizations of everyone from Pontus, is, no doubt, a savage, father-eating sexually-deviant barbarian. Don’t listen to Marcion’s form of Christianity is the message:

The sea called Euxine, or hospitable, is belied by its nature and put to ridicule by its name. Even its situation would prevent you from reckoning Pontus hospitable: as though ashamed of its own barbarism it has set itself at a distance from our more civilized waters. Strange tribes inhabit it—if indeed living in a wagon can be called inhabiting. These have no certain dwelling-place: their life is uncouth: their sexual activity is promiscuous, and for the most part unhidden even when they hide it: they advertise it by hanging a quiver on the yoke of the wagon, so that none may inadvertently break in [blogger’s note: “If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”]. So little respect have they for their weapons of war. They carve up their fathers’ corpses along with mutton, to gulp down at banquets. If any die in a condition not good for eating, their death is a disgrace. Women also have lost the gentleness, along with the modesty, of their sex. They display their breasts, they do their house-work with battle-axes, they prefer fighting to matrimonial duty. There is sternness also in the climate—never broad daylight, the sun always niggardly, the only air they have is fog, the whole year is winter, every wind that blows is the north wind. Water becomes water only by heating: rivers are no rivers, only ice: mountains are piled high up with snow: all is torpid, everything stark. Savagery is there the only thing warm—such savagery as has provided the theatre with tales of Tauric sacrifices, Colchian love-affairs, and Caucasian crucifixions.

Even so, the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there, more uncouth than a Scythian, more unsettled than a Wagon-dweller, more uncivilized than a Massagete, with more effrontery than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Danube, more precipitous than Caucasus. Evidently so, when by him the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is torn to bits with blasphemies. More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of that barbarous land: for is any beaver more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse is more corrosive than the man who has gnawed away the Gospels? Truly the Euxine has given birth to a wild animal more acceptable to philosophers than to Christians (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972], pp. 4-5).

Oh yes, Tertullian doesn’t like philosophers either.

April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

The Gospel of Judas has been quite controversial, primarily in connection with the question of how Judas Iscariot is portrayed in the document. (Scholars did not see this as reflecting the actual historical Judas back in the first century, I should clarify, simply second or third century understandings of the figure). The original work of transcription and translation of this “gnostic” work by a National Geographic team resulted in an inverted picture of Judas. According to the translators and according to interpreters such as Bart Ehrman, Judas was the hero of this writing and was seen as the ultimate student of Christ in his role in having Jesus killed, thus freeing Christ’s spirit from the prison of Jesus’ body (see my earlier post on Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, now apparently very wrong on the overall portrait of Judas, which was based solely on my reading and trust in that translation, the only one available at that time).

Quite clearly, this picture of a heroic Judas was quite different from traditional understandings of Judas as betrayer doing the work of Satan. I had since expressed my doubts about the National Geographic picture and my own first post upon hearing about Louis Painchaud’s (a Nag Hammadi expert) major doubts. Painchaud saw major problems in the National Geographic transcription of the Coptic and in their translation: Judas Iscariot may be evil after all.

I just finished reading April DeConick’s new book on the Gospel of Judas which I picked up at the SBL meeting:

April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (London: Continuum, 2007). Buy at Amazon

The book’s main contribution is in pointing to the problems in the National Geographic (NG) work on the manuscript in terms of errors in transcription of the Coptic and errors in the translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst. She presents her own translation. Here DeConick is clear and convincing. She points to a number of major problems which change entirely interpretations of this document.

Some of the main, major changes that DeConick presents (pp. 45-61) are as follows:

  • The Coptic term daimon (borrowed from the Greek) should not be translated “spirit” as in NG but rather “demon”. Judas is called a “demon”.
  • The NG translation “For you (Jesus) have set me (Judas) apart for that generation (the generation that will see salvation)” should read quite the opposite: “you have separated me from that generation”. Judas is condemned by Jesus, not saved in this document.
  • Jesus does not, as in NG, say that others “will curse your (Judas) ascent to the holy [generation]”. Rather it says the opposite: “you will not ascend to the holy [generation]”.
  • Jesus does not simply say that Judas “will exceed” all of the other disciples, but rather that Judas “will do worse than all of them” (exceed them in doing evil).

These are major errors, indeed, on the part of the National Geographic Society’s work. DeConick’s careful presentation of how these errors were introduced and how the Coptic should actually be read are convincing.

April DeConick’s book then argues that the Gospel of Judas presents a demonic Judas, perhaps even harsher than portraits in the canonical gospels, who is seen as the ultimate, terrible representative of the disciples. For the author of the Gospel of Judas, the disciples, with Judas at their head, are the equivalent of the types of Christians that the “gnostic” author has most problems with and he even charges them with the equivalent of murdering children (see my post on The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”). The overall effect, as DeConick argues, is that the Gospel of Judas is a parody aimed at critiquing what DeConick calls “apostolic Christianity” (the equivalent of what some others label “the proto-orthodox”).

DeConick’s introductory chapters and her chapters assessing the content of this gospel are well-written and useful as an introduction not only to the Gospel of Judas but also to “gnostic” thought and its place within a variety of forms of Christianity in the early centuries. So the book would serve well within a course on the variety of early Christianity.

However, there are two terminological choices that I find problematic, one minor but notable and the other quite significant. Since these chapters are clearly aimed at beginners and carefully presenting ideas in an non-anachronistic way on the whole, it is strange that DeConick speaks of “Lucifer” (e.g. pp. 31ff) when explaining notions of personified evil and “gnostic” notions of the world-creator as the evil one. The term “Lucifer” came to be applied to a fallen angel or to “Satan” only after the fifth century Latin translation of the passage in Isaiah 14:12 and after a conflation of this passage about a Babylonian king with developing notions of personified evil figures. The way that DeConick speaks of this seems as though she is unaware of this, though it is perhaps simply an anachronistic slip.

The second, more significant terminological problem is DeConick’s use of the phrase “apostolic Christians” throughout her book as a convenient catch-all category. Like the problems with Ehrman’s “proto-orthodox” category, such categories might serve to confuse rather than clarify the variegated nature of early Christianity when teaching students. There is some anachronistic thinking involved in the use of such categories. First we might (should) be telling students that orthodoxy and apostolic Christianity did not exist as some clearly defined monoliths in earliest Christianity, and that the formation of “orthodoxy” was a long and complicated process involving the exclusion of certain forms of Christianity (I think that both Ehrman and DeConick would agree with this). But then some scholars nonetheless continue to use terms that presume the future arrival of orthodoxy, as though it had precursors in a specific group that can be identified and that various Christians can be categorized together. Who is to decide which specific Christians are to be fit into either the category of “apostolic Christianity” or “proto-orthodoxy” and would such figures agree to being grouped together in this way?

These are some more general theoretical problems that I have with a work that is in other respects a fine new translation and a very useful introduction for students.

The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”

In ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’ I discussed the ways in which ethnographic stereotypes concerning the dangers of foreign ways and peoples also came to be applied by outsiders to Christians as minority cultural groups in the ancient Mediterranean. Some Greek or Roman authors who described the cultural practices of others, including those of both Judeans (Jews) and Jesus-followers, did so in a way that emphasized the “inhuman” or “sub-human” activity of apparent foreigners who were either little known and/or disliked. And there was a common stockpile of accusations that were used in stereotyping “the other” including human sacrifice, cannibalism, and “improper” sexual practices. One reader of that post (Nathan) astutely asked:

“In regards to the allegations of infanticide and cannibalism [in the case of Christians] might the gospel of Judas also allude to such allegations, when it characterizes certain of the proto-Orthodox as ‘slayers of children’ (sec. 40; cf. 38)”

In Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, I have discussed other aspects of the Gospel of Judas (for online translations and discussions go here and here). The passage in the Gospel of Judas which Nathan has in mind runs as follows:

The twelve disciples ‘[said, “We have seen] a great [house with a large] altar [in it, and] twelve men—they are the priests, we would say—and a name; and a crowd of people is waiting at that altar, [until] the priests [… and receive] the offerings. [But] we kept waiting.”

[Jesus said], “What are [the priests] like?” They [said, “Some …] two weeks; [some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke your [name], [39] and in all the deeds of their deficiency, the sacrifices are brought to completion […].”

After they said this, they were quiet, for they were troubled.

Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled? Truly I say to you, all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my name. Again I say to you, my name has been written on this […] of the generations of the stars through the human generations. [And they] have planted trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.”’

(Gospel of Judas 38-39. Translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard, cited from the online version on the National Geographic website).

Troubling indeed. Here we are witnessing the use of ethnographic stereotypes (slaughter of children, “improper” homosexual activity, etc.) in order to demonize, or to characterize as “other”, those who consider themselves to be part of the same cultural group, namely followers of Jesus. Notice especially that “all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my (namely, Jesus’s) name.”

Here the author of the Gospel of Judas has Jesus taking sides in the internal debates within Christianity. Jesus, claims the author, is on the side of the author and his group of Jesus-followers and not on the side of others who claim to follow Jesus. This is an internal battle within Christianity itself here.

There is irony in the way that the Gospel of Judas does this, however. For Jesus is here presented as speaking to the “twelve disciples” and the vision of “twelve priests” slaughtering children and generally running amuck that these disciples witness is, it seems, a vision of themselves! They, the twelve disciples of Jesus, are the ones that behave in a shameful manner, and it is the twelve that represent other followers of Jesus with whom the author of the Gospel of Judas has major disagreements. In this writing, Judas is taken as the ideal disciple and follower of Jesus who is set apart from the other shameful twelve disciples. Judas, as I have discussed in my previous post on the subject, is the favourite of Jesus in this writing.

It seems that many combatants in these internal battles within Christianity used similar ammunition, namely the stereotypes which were common in some descriptions of foreign peoples, in ethnographic descriptions. Previously we had known quite a bit about Christian authors like Epiphanius who condemned certain Christian “gnostic” groups and accused them of engaging in heinous crimes of human sacrifice and sexual perversion. Now we have a clear case in which one particular “gnostic” author or group turned the tables.

Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?: The Gospel of Judas

UPDATE: Now see my more recent posting based on subsequent translations. The National Geographic translation, upon which the post below was based, is problematic precisely in areas relating to the depiction of Judas: April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

I just had a chance to read through the newly published translation of the fascinating Gospel of Judas (though I have yet to read the accompanying commentaries and articles by Meyer, Ehrman and others): Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas (Washington: National Georaphic, 2006). The Gospel of Judas appears within a 66 page long book, Codex Tchacos, which was only recently brought to scholars attention after it was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in 2000.

If you are not accustomed to reading the second or third century writings that are often labelled “gnostic” by scholars (how many are?), such as the Nag Hammadi writings discovered in the 1940s, then this one too will be very bewildering. Like other such writings, this is a document that claims to be Jesus’ own secret discussion (a dialogue gospel) with a disciple, and the content of Jesus’ teaching is very philosophically dualistic and quite different than what one encounters in most parts of the gospels in the New Testament.

Yet for those with some familiarity with the various writings called “gnostic” (on which see my many earlier posts here), there is a sense in which this is “run of the mill” in many respects. The thoroughgoing dualism of the Gospel of Judas, in which there is a bad material realm and a perfect spiritual realm with sparks of the perfect realm trapped in inferior human bodies, is characteristic of most of the Nag Hammadi writings. Likewise common in these Christian intellectual circles is the notion that the God who sent the Christ to bring knowledge of these circumstances is not the same god (or angel) who created the material realm (our visible world). So many of Jesus’ teachings to Judas here reflect this worldview that was common to at least a minority of early Christian intellectuals in the second and third centuries.

Still, even with some familiarity with other gnostic writings, there is something very odd about this writing. We have many examples of “gnostic” authors presenting the secret teachings of Jesus in the form of a dialogue between the Christ and one of the disciples, with different authors choosing different apostles as their favourite (see, for instance, my earlier discussion of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene). Still what is absolutely astounding, in some ways, is the choice of Judas Iscariot as the favourite of Jesus! There seems to be no precedent for choosing Judas Iscariot, who “betrayed” Jesus, as the favourite disciple who received the secret revelation of the Saviour.

In fact, this gospel presents Jesus as commending Judas for an action that was usually interpreted by other Christian authors as out-right betrayal (even though it could also be seen as “within God’s plan” that it took place in the view of many early Christians — Jesus death was necessary, in other words). The passage in question, which needs some training in gnosticism to interpret, goes as follows:

“Judas said to Jesus, ‘Look, what will those who have been baptized in your name do?’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say [to you], this baptism [. . . ] my name [– about nine lines missing –] to me. Truly [I] say to you, Judas, [those who] offer sacrifices to Saklas [. . .] God [– three lines missing –] everything that is evil. But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me'” (trans by Kasser, Meyer and Wurst, pp.42-43).

It doesn’t help that large portions of this section are missing, but what is clear is that Jesus speaks positively of Judas’ future act of betraying Jesus, of “sacrific[ing] the man that clothes [Jesus]”. How sacrificing Jesus human body (“the man”) through betrayal can be a positive thing is only understandable once one realizes that this author’s worldview is the thoroughly dualistic one of spirit vs. matter mentioned above, in which the material realm, especially our bodies, are a prison from which one wants to escape. In fact, the material world around us is created by an inferior being or angel or demiurge, here called “Saklas”, not by the God who sent the Christ, in the view of this and other “gnostic” authors. (In some “gnostic” writings, this creator god plays a role similar to the role that the rebel angel Satan plays in the worldview of other early Christians). In other words, Judas helps Jesus by assisting in the elimination of this material body or prison and, therefore, the spirit’s return to the perfect spiritual realm of the God who sent Christ. This act of returning to one’s proper place as part of the perfect spiritual realm is, in itself, the salvation that Jesus achieves and that other spiritual sparks trapped within human bodies, other perfect Adams, will likewise achieve by receiving the secret “knowledge” (gnosis, hence gnosticism) that Jesus brings concerning the nature of reality (in the view of this author).

This is just one of many features of the Gospel of Judas and gnosticism. I would recommend reading further for yourself. Do see the many other posts here on this site regarding the Nag Hammadi writings, New Testament Apocrypha, and “gnosticism”, which may provide a bit of a primer.

A guided tour of the heavens: The Ascension of Isaiah (NT Apocrypha 21)

When scholars of early Judaism and Christianity identify a writing as an “apocalypse” (in terms of genre), they usually have in mind a first-person visionary report that claims to narrate a “revelation” (apocalypsis) from God himself. Almost always the content of the visions that are narrated also presuppose or directly pertain to an apocalyptic worldview, namely, an ideology in which this present world is dominated by evil forces (headed by Satan, or Beliar, or what have you) which will ultimately and imminently be destroyed (or perpetually punished) in the final intervention of God and his angelic forces (there is a thoroughgoing dualism in this way of thinking).

One of the two main types of apocalyptic writing that have been identified is the so-called “historical apocalypse”. Here the focus of the visions relates to the unfolding of God’s historical plans (on this, see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, which is browsable online here). The Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible (written about 160s BCE) and John’s Apocalypse or Revelation (written about 70-90 CE) in the New Testament are largely characterized by this historical focus: both relate the unfolding of God’s plan for history in relation to actual political powers (Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors, respectively), and these political powers are cast in the role of the ultimate evil opponents of God (on John’s Apocalypse see my earlier post on Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor).

The second main type of apocalypse is the “otherworldly journey”. Here the visionary is taken on a tour of the far reaches of the world and beyond, usually a tour of either the heavens or the underworld (hell). The earliest surviving example of this type is the first book (chs. 1-36) of 1 Enoch (online here) written about 200 BCE, in which the Enoch of Genesis is presented as the visionary who expounds the story of the fallen angels (Gen 6) and is guided by an angel in order to witness the workings of the universe.

In its present Christian form, the Ascension of Isaiah (reflecting materials ranging from the second century BCE to as late as the fourth century CE; online here) consists of the story of the prophet Isaiah’s martyrdom (who is sawn in half) and a report of Isaiah’s vision in which Isaiah is taken on a journey through the seven heavens with an angel as guide (chs. 1-5 and 6-11 respectively). The martyrdom and the vision are linked in their present form, since it is because Isaiah had gone on the tour, witnessing God’s plan to send his Beloved (Christ) to destroy the evil powers, that Beliar (Satan) seeks to have Isaiah killed (through the evil angel Sammael and king Mannaseh) (3:13).

Isaiah’s otherworldly journey begins as he ascends with the angel-guide to “the firmament” above the world, but below the heavens. Isaiah then proceeds through each of the seven heavens. In each heaven he witnesses a throne flanked by angels, and the glory of each heaven and its angels increases until he reaches the final, seventh heaven, the dwelling place of the Most High (God) and his “Beloved” (Lord Christ). There, says Isaiah,

“I saw all the righteous from Adam. And I saw there the holy Abel and all the righteous. And there I saw Enoch and all who were with him, stripped of the garment of the flesh, and I saw them in their higher garments, and they were like the angels who stand there in great glory” (Ascension of Isaiah 9:7-9; trans. by Müller in Schneemelcher)

Isaiah then gains a revelation of what will occur in the future, final intervention of God (the end times). Ascending and descending are important not only for Isaiah here, but also for other key figures in the apocalyptic visions. Isaiah hears the voice of the Most High himself calling on his Beloved (Lord Christ) to descend, to trace the steps that Isaiah had just traversed, in other words:

“Go and descend through all the heavens; descend to the firmament and to that world, even to the angel in the realm of the dead (on the descent to hell see my other posts on Satan) . . . that you may judge and destroy the prince and his angels and the gods of this world and the world which is ruled by them, for they have denied me and said ‘We alone are, and there is none beside us’. And afterwards you will ascend from the angels of death to your place, and you will not be transformed in each heaven [i.e. you will not be affected by the inferiority of each heaven in relation to the seventh heaven], but in glory you will ascend and sit on my right hand. And the princes and powers of this world will worship you” (Ascension of Isaiah 10.7-14).

Almost immediately, Isaiah then witnesses the descent and ascent of the Beloved (Christ). But there is more of this ascending and descending. Earlier in this writing we learn that, as part of the “consummation” of the world, an anti-Beloved (so to speak), Beliar himself, will be sent before the Beloved comes:

“And after it has come to its consummation, Beliar, the great prince, the king of this world who has ruled it since it came into being, shall descend; he will come down from his firmament in the form of a man, a lawless king, a slayer of his mother, who . . . will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted; and one of the twelve will be delivered into his hand. . . All that he desires he will do in the world; he will act and speak in the name of the Beloved and say ‘I am God and before me there has been none else’. And all the people in the world will believe in him, and will sacrifice to him and serve him saying, ‘This is God and beside him there is none other’ . . . And after (one thousand) three hundred and thirty-two days the Lord will come with his angels and with the hosts of the saints from the seventh heaven with the glory of the seventh heaven, and will drag Beliar with his hosts into Gehenna” (4:1-14).

In a manner reminiscent of John’s Apocalypse (esp. ch. 13), the author is here presenting an end-time evil figure in the form of an actual king and, more specifically, a king modelled on a returning emperor Nero (Nero redivivus) who is worshipped as a god. It is important to remember that the line between “otherworldly journey” apocalypses and “historical” apocalypses is by no means stark (as with the fluidity of genre as a whole), and there are some apocalypses with the characteristics of each, of course.

The ascending and descending theme is an important component in this apocalyptic author’s worldview, and the apocalyptic seer’s own guided tour gives him a first-hand experience of otherworldly travel himself.

Sophia’s repentance: The Apocryphon of John (NT Apocrypha 20)

In a previous post, I have discussed the (“gnostic”) mythology surrounding the figure of Sophia (Wisdom personified) as developed in some of the Nag Hammadi writings. My earlier discussion of Sophia’s mistake in connection with the document called The Sophia of Jesus Christ placed this mythology within the framework of Middle Platonic philosophy and discussed the manner in which Sophia, as a divine being (aeon), was responsible for the mistake that led to the creation of the inferior material realm, our world as we know it.

The second-century Apocryphon of John (or Secret Book of John, online here) presents a far more developed story of the emergence of the perfect spiritual realm and the abortive creation of the material realm. Here Sophia is once again instrumental in performing a massive blunder that leads to the creation of our physical world, but the story is extended in various ways, including a more developed reference to the fact that Sophia was repentant for the mistake and willing to do penance, so to speak.

In the Apocryphon of John, Sophia is once again among the many emanations from the original monad or perfect spirit, the Father. Sophia is also once again responsible, on her own (apart from her “consort”), for the emergence or emanation of the “ruler” (archon) or “world-creator” (demiurge), here called Ialdabaoth:

“Now the wisdom [Sophia] belonging to afterthought, which is an aeon, thought a thought derived from herself. . . She wanted to show forth within herself an image, without the spirit’s [will]; and her consort did not consent. . . And out of her was shown forth an imperfect product, that was different from her manner of appearance, for she had made it without her consort. And compared to the image of its mother it was misshapen, having a different form” (Apocryphon of John 9.25-10.7; trans. by Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions [New York: Doubleday, 1987]).

Ialdabaoth (also spelled Ialtabaoth or Aldabaoth), who is largely identified with the creator god of Genesis, then goes on to create other “rulers” (archons) like himself who assist in creating the material realm, including human beings (Adam and Eve). He is an ignorant god (ignorant of where he had come from and from where his power came), according to this author, a god who just loves to assert how he’s the one-and-only (playing on passages from the Hebrew Bible), when in fact he is not : “It is I who am god, and no other god exists apart from me” (11.21-22), or “For my part, I am a jealous god. And there is no other god apart from me” (13:8-12). (This author, like some other “gnostic” authors, expresses some clear anti-Jewish tendencies, at least in the rejection of the Jewish scriptures’ creator God as an ignorant god.) So the physical world comes into being as a result of acts of ignorance and a divine element is trapped within the physical bodies of human beings, an element that properly belongs in the spiritual realm of the Father.

The repentance of a pacing Sophia comes into the picture once she sees what has happened as a result of her independent action:

“when she saw the imperfection that had come to exist and the theft that her offspring had committed, she repented. And in the darkness of unacquaintance, forgetfullness came over her. And she began to be ashamed, moving back and forth. . . And the entreaty of her repentance was heard, and all the fullness lifted up praise on her behalf unto the invisible virgin spirit, and it consented. And while the holy spirit was consenting, the holy spirit poured over her something of the fullness of all. For her consort did not come to her (in person); rather, it came to her through the fullness in order to rectify her lack. And she was conveyed not to her own eternal realm but to a place higher than her offspring, so as to dwell in the ninth (heaven) until she rectified her lack” (13.21-14.12).

Sophia’s mistake, however massive in the view of this author, did not preclude rectification and a continuing important role as part of the perfect spiritual realm.

The morphing Jesus: Christology in the Acts of John (NT Apocrypha 19)

Early Christians of all kinds unanimously agreed that one should follow Christ, but they varied considerably in how they understood or portrayed Christ (and how they defined following). Scholars use the term “Christology” to refer to a particular author’s (or group’s) spin on Jesus, particularly with respect to issues such as Jesus’ relation to humanity and to God. Thus, for instance, the Gospel of Mark is considered to have a low Christology in certain respects (relatively speaking) since it portrays a Jesus who experiences many human emotions or feelings (e.g. a Jesus who is tired [6:31], hungry [11:12], angry [3:5], and who is in wonder [6:6]). At the other canonical extreme is the gospel of John, which has a pre-existent Logos or Word (identified with Jesus) who was present and instrumental in creation (John 1:1-18), and a Jesus who sometimes claims oneness or even equality with God. One must remember that there was no clearly defined doctrine of the Trinity in the early centuries.

Among the more interesting Christologies in the apocryphal Acts is the Acts of John‘s morphing (apparently metamorphosizing) Jesus. (I have posted earlier on this same writing; text online here, probably early third century). The Acts of John relates the adventures of the disciple John, who journeys through the cities of Asia Minor performing (God-powered) miracles, especially raising many people from the dead. Each resurrection leads to the conversion of others in the narrative, which seems to be an important point of the story.

The author’s understanding of Christ in these travel narratives (section A: chs. 18-86, 106-108, 110-115) is never explictly the focus, but it does clearly bubble up in references to Christ as the “physician” or healer par excellence (e.g. 22, 56) and in John’s prayers. This is a high Christology that is in some ways similar to the Gospel of John’s but which goes its own direction as well (some scholars call this “Christomonism”). In the prayers, Jesus Christ is presented as a very powerful being who is one and the same with the Father (chs. 77-79). So much so that the terminology for Jesus and God blend together into one in an emphatic way: “our God. . . Jesus Christ” (78), “God of ages, Jesus Christ” (82), “God Jesus Christ” (107), “God, Jesus Christ, Lord” (108).

In a section that may be considered a later addition (section B, chs. 87-93, 103-105) John has a flashback to the good old days when Christ was with the disciples. It is here that there is once again a high Christology, but one that goes beyond the travel section in some ways in presenting a Jesus who morphs and whose appearance can be deceiving, so to speak. John recollects that Jesus sometimes appeared to the disciples as a “child” or a “handsome, fair and cheerful-looking man”, and at others as a “bald-headed” man, a “small man with no good looks”, or an “old man” (88-93). On another occasion, John himself witnessed Jesus, without clothes, emanating light, and the nude Jesus was “not like a man at all”, namely, he was without the expected sexual organs. Remember that this and other Acts present the ideal pious life as the sexually ascetic life that denies the powers below-the-belt (29).

This same section culminates with a statement that would make it hard to follow “in Jesus footsteps”: Jesus has none.

“I [John] will tell you another glory, brothers; sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, and as if it did not exist at all. . And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see if his footprint appeared on the ground. . . and I never saw it” (93).

This rings of what scholars often call a “docetic” Christology, a high Christology which suggests that Jesus only “appeared” or “seemed” (Greek dokein) to be human when in fact he was not. The following hymn of Christ (section C, chs. 94-102), which has Christ singing and dancing with the disciples in a circle, goes even further in stressing that Christ never did suffer in a human manner on the wooden cross (this section likely has a separate origin and different Christology again, however).

For more on the Acts of John (and for the basis of the sections A, B, and C mentioned above) see: Pieter J. Lalleman, The Acts of John: A Two-Stage Initiation into Johannine Gnosticism (Studies on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles 4; Leuven: Peeters, 1998).

Thecla, Tertullian, and controversies over women’s leadership (NT Apocrypha 18)

Among the controversies that led to conflicts between early Christians (both authors and groups) was the role of women within the congregations. Leadership was generally undefined and varied from one Christian group to the next in the first century. As certain Christian authors and leaders (such as Ignatius and the author of the Pastoral epistles) began to seek and impose a clear definition of leadership structures (especially beginning at the turn of the second century) there was a tendency to expressly exclude women from the more important positions in the newly emerging hierarchy in some congregations.

The Acts of Paul (and Thecla) (online here) is among the sources that attest to circles of Christians (in second century Asia Minor) who continued to see an important role for women in teaching and leading. The author presents a Thecla who is extremely attentive to Paul’s preaching (which centres on celibacy in this case) and who, in the end, baptizes herself in the midst of potential martyrdom in a pool of vicious seals (sharks?): “And when she had finished her prayer she turned around and saw a large pit full of water and said, ‘Now it is time to wash myself.’ And she threw herself in saying ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on my last day'” (34). Thecla ultimately goes on to have her own mission of “teach[ing] the word of God” with the acknowledgement of Paul (41) and “enlightened many” (43), according to this narrative. (Translations from J. K. Elliott, ed. and trans., The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993].)

The positive stance of this author to women’s leadership within the Christian congregations is mirrored, in some ways, in contemporary movements in Asia Minor specifically. The so called Phrygian movement (aka Montanism) was characterized by a heavy emphasis on prophetic authority, and its main charismatic leaders were two women prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla.

But there were opponents to this active role for women, including the author Tertullian who lived in North Africa and who, despite adopting some aspects of the Phrygian movement himself at a later point (esp. the prominence of the Spirit), openly opposed those who (most likely) used the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) to support women’s activity in baptizing converts in North Africa. Tertullian writes the followingin his treatise “On Baptism” (chapter 17; c. 200 CE):

“To round off our slight treatment of this subject it remains for me to advise you of the rules to be observed in giving and receiving baptism. The supreme right of giving it belongs to the high priest, which is the bishop: after him, to the presbyters and deacons, yet not without commission from the bishop, on account of the Church’s dignity. . . Except for that, even laymen have the right. . . But the impudence of that woman who assumed the right to teach is evidently not going to arrogate to her the right to baptize as well – unless perhaps some new serpent appears, like that original one, so that as that woman abolished baptism, some other should of her own authority confer it. But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home.'” (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism [London: SPCK, 1964]. Online source: The Tertullian Project).

Tertullian clearly opposes the local people in North Africa who appealed to writings associated with Paul and likely Thecla (the textual evidence for the reference to Thecla is shaky) which had women baptizing and teaching. Moreover, the modern historian should not take Tertullian’s perspective (or the perspective of those who spoke against the elder in Asia) as though it was an objective description of the situation. Also problematic would be to argue from this passage (as does Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 29-32) that Tertullian provides objective evidence that the author of the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of, “forgery” in some sort of official hearing (see the earlier posts on the “forgery” issue here and here). (Nor is this further evidence that writing in the name of a respected figure of the past was universally rejected, as implied by Ehrman). With both Tertullian and the opponents of the “elder” in Asia, we are witnessing one side of a many-sided struggle over how to define Christian practice within the congregations, and the figure of Paul (understood or portrayed differently) was one of the weapons in the struggle. Polemical rhetoric and accusations on any side of the struggle should not be mistaken for historical description.

Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17)

Tensions between the historical Paul and Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) are attested early on, as Paul’s retelling of an incident at Antioch suggests. There, so Paul says in his letter to followers of Christ in Galatia, Paul “opposed [Cephas] to his face” because Cephas had withdrawn from eating with uncircumcized Gentiles after “certain people” came from James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:11-14 [NRSV]). Peter’s concern evidently centred on properly following the Jewish food laws. F.C. Baur and the Tübingen school made this opposition between Paul and Peter the key to interpreting all of early Christianity, as I have mentioned in a previous post in this series (no. 2). Although this reduction of early Christianity to these two camps (Pauline Gentile Christianity vs. Petrine Jewish Christianity) is oversimplified, there are times when the figures of Peter and Paul, as understood by later interpreters, continued to be at odds with one another.

The novelistic stories about Clement of Rome and his conversion under Peter’s direction, which are known as the Pseudo-Clementines, illustrate continuing battles that existed between some who claimed Peter as their founder (Jewish Christians, who can be associated with “Ebionites”) and others who considered Paul as most central (Gentile Christians who no longer followed the Jewish law). Previously I have discussed the notion of false passages ” in scripture that comes up in this writing. (It is important to mention that the form in which we now have this Christian novel comes from two alternate retellings of the fourth century known as the Recognitions and the Homilies, which likely reflect an earlier edition of the mid-200s, the so-called “basic document”; see the introductory material in Strecker’s translation in Schneelmelcher). The full text of both the Recognitions and the Homilies is available online here.

The author of this novel presents a Peter who emphasizes the need to follow the Jewish law and opposes another figure, his “enemy”, who does not (often called Simon the Samaritan or Magician [Magus] but sometimes clearly a cipher for Paul) . In the supposed letter from Peter to James that prefaces the novel, Peter complains that some “from among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid! For to do such a thing means to act contrary to the law of God which was made known by Moses and was confirmed by our Lord in its everlasting continuance. For he said: ‘The heaven and earth will pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall not pass away from the law'”(Epistula Petri 2:2-5; trans. by Strecker in Schneemelcher; cf. Matthew 24:35).

Clearly, the Pseudo-Clementine literature attests to a form of Jewish Christianity (sometimes labelled “Ebionite”) which continued to practice the Jewish law and to oppose those it considered to be neglecting the law, namely the heirs of Paul and a Gentile brand of Christianity (including Marcion). There also seems to be a reference here to some portrayals of Peter which tried to lessen any conflict with Paul by presenting Peter as though he did not require obedience to the law (see, for example, the Acts of the Apostles’ portrayal of a Paul and Peter, whose speeches on inclusion of Gentiles sound very much alike). Later in the Pseudo-Clementine stories of Clement’s journey to Judea and conversion there is a disputation which takes place between Peter and one Simon Magus (the Samaritan), Peter’s “enemy”, which again sometimes clearly serves as a cipher for a “lawless” Paul who had a supposed vision of Jesus (esp. H II 16-17; H XVII 13-19). Paul’s relaxing (for Gentiles) of certain aspects of the Jewish law (including circumcision and food laws) in order to include Gentiles in the Jesus movement was the focus of controversy in Paul’s lifetime (read Galatians) and, long after, continued to arouse the response or anger of some Jewish Christians who felt themselves in continuity with Jewish figures such as Peter.

UPDATE (Oct 21): A relevant article on the fourth-century Recognitions version of the Pseudo-Clementines has appeared. Nicole Kelley argues, among other things, that the author of the Recognitions attempts to establish the authority and ultimate knowledge of Peter (via the True Prophet, Jesus) over against other claims to knowledge (especially astrology’s claims of true knowledge with respect to “fate”, but also claims of knowledge among competing forms of Christianity). And she places this assertion of Peter’s access to true knowledge within the context of religious rivalries in fourth century Syria (among Jewish Christians and followers of Marcion, Bardaisan, and others). The romance (story of Clement’s family) in particular functions in this manner: The old astrologer’s claim that “fate” determined the dissolution of Clement’s family is countered successfully by Peter’ knowledge that God’s providence, not fate, was at work. And the reunion of Clement’s family proves Peter (and the source of his knowledge, the True Prophet) right. See Nicole Kelley, “Problems of Knowledge and Authority in the Pseudo-Clementine Romance of Recognitions,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 13 (2005) 315-348 (online institutional subscription required).

Sophia’s mistake: The Sophia of Jesus Christ and Eugnostos (NT Apocrypha 16)

The mythologies preserved in the Nag Hammadi documents can be both fascinating and bewildering to the modern reader. Many, such as The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ (usually dated to the second century CE) quite clearly express their views concerning the origins of the divine realm. Often they build on the assumptions and concepts of contemporary Platonic philosophers who elaborated on the creation of the universe in Plato’s Timaeus (online article on “Middle Platonism“; online translation of Timaeus). One of The Sophia‘s main sources, Eugnostos the Blessed, is saturated in such Platonisms (and Sophia takes them on) in presenting its insights into the five main beings which emerged from the one perfect and indescribable Good, called “God of truth” or “Forefather” by the author. (Eugnostos and The Sophia available online here — check them out for yourself).

Both Eugnostos and The Sophia then go on to innumerate the other main emanations or beings that came to constitute the perfect, spiritual realm along with the Forefather. These beings include the “Self-Father” (the image of the Forefather as if viewed in a mirror), the “Immortal Androgynous Man” (who emerges in the beam of light as the Forefather views his/her image), the “Son of Man” (who is the first-begotten–the others were not begotten), and the “Saviour” (who is “revealed” as a “great androgynous light” by the Son of Man). Each of these figures are androgynous and have their corresponding “female” portion, usually called “Sophia” (Greek for Wisdom). So far, so confused, and I won’t try and sort these out for you now (in the document it is only the Saviour who can explain the whole thing in order to bring understanding).

What I especially want to point out is what The Sophia of Jesus Christ does with this source and an important “story” which the author uses to supplement this scenario. The Sophia places the whole letter of instruction into the form of a dialogue between “the Saviour” (identified with Christ) and his disciples (Eugnostos, on the other hand, shows no signs of being “Christian”, and very little, if any, indication of being “Jewish”). Absent in Eugnostos is any elaboration on how the material realm (rather than the spiritual realm discussed above) came to be, or on who it was that created the material realm in which we humans live and on how we got here.

Enter Sophia and her mistake, referred to in The Sophia document. “Saviour” (Christ) talking here:

“All who come into the world, like a drop from the Light, are sent by him to the world of Almighty, that they may be guarded by him. And the bond of his forgetfulness bound him by the will of Sophia, that the matter might be revealed through it to the whole world in poverty concerning his (Almighty’s) arrogance and blindness and the ignorance that he was named. But I (Saviour) came from the places above by the will of the great Light. . . I have cut off the work of the robbers (powers that created or control the material realm); I have wakened that drop that was sent from Sophia, that it might bear much fruit. . . And you (disciples being addressed) were sent by the Son, who was sent that you might receive Light and remove yourselves from the forgetfulness of the authorities. . . Tread upon their (the robbers or authorities who rule the material realm) malicious intent” (Sophia of Jesus Christ 106-108; trans. D. M. Parrott in The Nag Hammadi Library in English ; explanatory notes added by me).

Here we have what does recur (in variant forms) in some other Nag Hammadi documents (such as the Apocryphon of John) and which is referred to in some heresiologists (like Irenaeus). This is a reference to the story of Sophia’s mistake in desiring, by herself and without her consort, “to bring these (authorities including Almighty, or Yaldabaoth) to existence” (114; BG 118). She created, by this mistake, the “Almighty”, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and his “robber” buddies, in this author’s view. Here the god of the Hebrew Bible is cast as the ignorant creator of the material realm (demiurge), whose work necessitated the sending of a Saviour from another God, the perfect and ineffable Forefather, to awaken and bring back the drops of the perfect spiritual realm (trapped within bodies-prisons in this material realm) to the place they belong. The Saviour came to bring the knowledge of the situation so that “they (the drops) might be joined with that Spirit and Breath. . . and might from two become one,” one with the perfect spiritual realm of the Forefather. This scenario is precisely what salvation is all about, for this author (and some others who also thought of themselves as followers of Christ).

But don’t expect to understand such mythology easily, since the documents that present it presume some previous knowledge of this way of thinking. We (moderns) can at least begin to get a sense of how different this is from some other early Christian writings where salvation instead pivots on Jesus’ death and resurrection (as in Paul’s letters, for instance).

These discussions of Nag Hammadi material (traditionally “gnosticism”) are far longer than what you want a blog entry to be and they certainly do not do justice to the topic. But what can you do?

“Gnosticism” as a scholarly category and the study of the diversity of Christianity (NT Apocrypha 15)

Early Christian writings can be used as a window into the various worldviews and practices of specific Christian authors (and sometimes provide glimpses into the groups to which a particular author belonged). One of the things we’ve been trying to do in our study of the early Christian Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi documents is to shed off any preconceived notion of what to expect (concerning the form of Christianity reflected therein) and instead begin by approaching the worldview within each writing, as best we can, on its own terms. We try to begin with a blank slate, so to speak, and we can’t assume that the key to interpreting one Nag Hammadi (“gnostic”) document, for instance, will fill in the gaps in another. Overall, we should expect that answers to our questions will not always be forthcoming due to the nature of the evidence, rather than plugging in information from some other writing to substitute for this lack of knowledge.

Some scholars (including those that introduce the writings in the Schneemelcher edition of the New Testament Apocrypha) too readily jump to the conclusion that some document is “gnostic” and then too readily assume a whole set of beliefs (and related practices) to be characteristic of that writing without any clear evidence of such within the writing itself. This does not facilitate understanding the variety of “Christianities” in writings that are traditionally categorized as “gnostic” (including some of the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels). One of the things that scholars like Michael Allen Williams and Karen L. King have now (thankfully) engrained in us is the problem with the category of “gnosticism” / “gnostic” itself, at least as it is now used. The term has come to be applied to so many writings and movements that its application often acts as a hindrance to understanding the specifics of a particular author’s worldview (and the practices implied by that worldview). It seems that application of the term sometimes acts as a substitute for trying to understand the specific and individual characteristics of a writing and the form of Christianity it may reflect. Categorizing a writing as “gnostic” and then assuming the set of beliefs and practices that have, over the years, been attached to that category may make things a lot easier, but it will not do in assessing the diversity of early Christianity (-ies). If we do continue to use the term “gnosticism” at all, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the above situation and not let the term distract us from careful analysis of the evidence we have.

See:
Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Michael Allen Williams. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

The Fall of the temple of Artemis according to the Acts of John (NT Apocrypha 14)

Troels’ discussions of Greek temples being converted or rededicated for use by Christians (go here) got me thinking of the portrayal of “pagan” temples in the Apocrypha. Among the more exciting is the story told in the Acts of John (about which I have posted before in connection with bed-bugs).

The apostle John is portrayed as very frustrated by the Ephesians’ refusal to convert despite the numerous miracles that were performed before their eyes. He is so frustrated that he goes to the temple of Artemis (photo of goddess here) during her festival and threatens that his God will kill them all if their goddess (demon) could not kill John (the good old test of whose god is more powerful): “You say that you have Artemis as your goddess. . . pray to her, then, that I, and I alone, may die; or if you cannot do this, then I alone will call upon my own God and because of your unbelief I will put you all to death” (39). The unbelieving crowd believes that at least this is possible and is a bit worried. To sway them further, John then prays to God, with the following results:

the altar of Artemis split into many pieces, and all the offerings laid up in the temple suddenly fell to the floor and its glory was shattered, and so were more than seven images; and half the temple fell down, so that the priest was killed at one stroke as the pillar came down. Then the assembled Ephesians cried out, ‘There is but one God, the God of John!. . . We are converted, now that we have seen your marvellous works!. . . And the people rising from the ground went running and threw down the rest of the idol temple, crying out, ‘The God of John is the only God we know; from now on we worship him, since he has had mercy upon us!'” (42-43; trans. Schneemelcher, with adaptations).

This story of the Ephesians abandoning their patron deity, Artemis (a “demon” in the perspective of this author), and assisting God in destroying their own temple in honour of the deity contrasts somewhat to another story related by the author of Acts. There the guild of silversmiths responds to Paul’s preaching that “gods made with hands are not gods” by chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” in the theatre for several hours (Acts 19:23-41 — you can read about that account of the silversmiths’ riot at Ephesus here). No mass conversion or destruction of temples this time.

Photo above (by Phil): Remains of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis today.

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas and an interesting online debate (NT Apocrypha 13)

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas (available online here), not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (see my earlier post) or the Acts of Thomas, is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus without any narrative framework (just sayings), many of which have parallels in the canonical gospels. It seems quite clear, however, that The Gospel of Thomas is independent of these other gospels in the forms of the sayings it preserves, including the following version of the banquet parable which offers little interpretation and differs from the spin that other gospels have Jesus put on this parable:

“Jesus said: Someone was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. 2The slave went to the first and said, “My master invites you.” The first replied, 3″Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.” 4 The slave went to another and said, “My master has invited you.” 5The second said to the slave, “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.” 6 The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 7The third said to the slave, “My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.” 8The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 9The fourth said to the slave, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.” 10The slave returned and said to his master, “Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.” 11The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner. 12Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father (Gospel of Thomas 64 trans by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, as linked below; see the parallels in Matthew 22 and Luke 14, both depending on the so-called Q-source).

“Forgery” (deceit) or “pseudonymity” (admiration): Ehrman’s take (NT Apocrypha 12)

View other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

One of the issues that has been raised in discussing Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is his free use of the term “forgery” in reference to early Christian literature (especially apocryphal literature; e.g. pp. 29-32 or thereabouts). Nor is he adverse to using accompanying notions of active “deceit” as well. He claims that ancient authors just about unanimously agreed in condemning the practice of presenting one’s own work as though by another respected figure (citing only the physician Galen, who had come across someone selling a work falsely in his name during his life-time). Certainly concepts such as forgery, deceit or related notions of conspiracy make for exciting reading, and Ehrman’s book is indeed intended for broad audiences (and still would have been exciting without these terms). Yet there is also a sense in which this take on writings that claim to be authored by some important figure of the past (apocryphal Gospels and Acts) is quite misleading.

More appropriate, I would suggest, is a recognition that, although moderns may see such practices of pseudonymity (“false-name” authorship) as improper or even criminal (I take plagiarism by students as a crime!), the ancients had very different cultural concepts when it comes to attributed authorship and the free use of figures (and their authority) from the past. The fact that the practice of attributing a work to some respected figure of the past was widespread in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, and that the ones doing this almost always liked or respected the figure whose identity they were “borrowing”, suggests that something other than deliberate deception and forgery was going on. Ehrman is far more on track when he briefly mentions, but does not explore in any detail, the fact that philosophers (neo-Pythagoreans) frequently produced writings in Pythagoras’ name with intentions involving (primarily) admiration and respect. Namely, they wished not only to give a hearing to their writings by calling on Pythagoras’ authority, but also to show just how well they (imagined they) could continue to express what Pythagoras would say if he were still around. They “forged” for the love of Pythagoras, so to speak, and their intentions were focussed on inspiring similar respect or honour for this philosopher on the part of their readers or hearers. This is, in large part, what was going on in the case of most early Christian apocryphal writings attributed to apostles or other respected figures. We are better off steering away from value-loaded terms in the study of religion and in avoiding misconceptions about active deceit or underhanded dealings in relation to writings of the past, even if the language of conspiracy would make things seem far more exciting.

(Excuse the lack of references to page numbers in Ehrman here [except the one section whose page numbers I remembered, hopefully], since I do not have the work with me at the moment. I had to express myself when it came to me nonetheless).

UPDATES AND CLARIFICATIONS: Definitely see the ongoing discussions in the comments section.

CLARIFICATION (Mon, Sept 19): Just to clarify what I am or am not saying here (also see comments): I am saying that Ehrman’s blanket use of “forgery” to describe a variety of different writings is likely to obscure a variety of things that were actually going on, especially in terms of motivations behind writing a document in the name of someone else. In some, perhaps many, cases using the term “forgery” to describe apocryphal writings would give a false impression to the modern reader, especially implying negative motivations of deceit on the part of ancient authors in question. Motivations are very difficult to determine (even among contemporaries let alone someone living over a thousand years ago in a different culture), but in engaging in historical study we are better off not assuming negative motivations (on the part of our historical subjects) unless there is actual evidence of such. In other words, we need to approach writings that claim authorship by an important figure on a case by case basis, attempting to assess what is going on (and what motivations may be involved) in a particular case. There is a sense in which my objections to Ehrman’s approach arise more from historiographical concerns (from how I approach history) than they do from any specific concerns or positions about the pseudonymity issue. Hope this clarifies things even though there are so many more issues to deal with that will never be sufficiently solved.

I just pulled out my marked up version of Bruce M. Metzger’s classic article (“Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 [1972] 3-24), which does begin to try to sort through the variety of motivations that may have been involved in pseudepigraphy (e.g. financial gain, malice and defamation, respect, modesty, practicing one’s rhetorical abilities, etc, etc), as well as the differing receptions of such writings. It is worth a read, if you’re interested.

By the way, my position arose not from the Metzger article (which I had forgotten about and had read years ago [my memory is not that great;] and only dug out in hindsight to see what he said, and with which I disagree on important points). My position, as I have stated, arises from my problems with Ehrman’s position based on his interpretation of particular evidence (e.g. the Thecla case) and from my overall approach to history, which avoids imagining I can understand the motivations or intentions (whether “deceitful” or otherwise) of a large number of different persons in antiquity (see above and comments). The term forgery entails active and self-conscious deceit, with the implication that it is a “crime” (in my Webster’s dictionary and in popular usage, at least). This is not an appropriate blanket term to use in reference to writings in the name of a respected figure in antiquity, though there may be a few cases where it’s closer to the mark than some other terms.

Jesus said: Let the children. . . get lost? (NT Apocrypha 11)

Several early gospels portray a Jesus who has a positive view of children and who even uses the analogy of the child to explain what qualities are necessary to enter God’s kingdom:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:13-16 [NIV]; compare Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17; Gospel of Thomas 22).

Quite different is the apocryphal Acts of Thomas‘ take on what Jesus might say about having children at all (available online here). Many of the second and third century Acts, which relate stories about the disciples of Jesus, emphasize the need to maintain an ascetic lifestyle in order to follow Jesus in an ideal way. This includes the need to avoid bodily things, especially sex, whether in marriage or not. In the Acts of Thomas, Jesus’ supposed twin brother, Thomas, makes his journey to India in order to preach the gospel of continence, and he happens to attend a wedding of the local king’s daughter. Following the wedding, the new husband enters into the bridal-chamber to consummate the marriage only to find what appears to be Thomas, but is really his twin brother, Jesus (down from heaven), lecturing the man’s new wife. Both then listen as Jesus teaches them about sex and children:

“Remember. . . what my brother [Thomas] said to you. . . that if you abandon this filthy intercourse you become holy temples, pure and free from afflictions and pains both manifest and hidden, and you will not be weighed down by cares for life and for children, the end of which is destruction” (12; trans. from Schneemelcher with adaptations).

Is it be like children or have no children?

The Diversity of Early Christianity course: Early Christian Apocrypha (NT Apocrypha 1.1)

Welcome to ongoing discussions about the “Diversity of Early Christianity” which will take place on this blog in connection with a graduate course on the New Testament Apocrypha and “Gnostic” writings (see course outline under courses).

Although my brief blog entries on this topic will arise from what we are learning in the class, I will consciously write with both students and other regular or occasional readers of this blog in mind. Writing for this diverse audience will be a task well worth undertaking, I believe. Always feel free to post your questions or comments! (In order to leave comments, you will need to sign up with blogger, which is easy. Why not do it now by clicking on “comment” at the end of this entry. You can always just say “hello” on the initial sign up to make sure it works). I may also bring your comments or questions to the fore in subsequent blog entries (with the permission of the students in question, of course).

Today we will begin to get a general sense of the difficulties in approaching the various forms of early Christianity as well as the various theories, both ancient and scholarly, which have arisen to deal with issues of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” (including those of Eusebius, Baur, and Bauer as I discussed here). How to approach this topic from an historical viewpoint and what categories are most or least useful will be ongoing occupations as we read through writings in the early Christian Apocrypha (literally “hidden writings”). Bart Ehrman’s work on Lost Christianities will get us thinking early on and we will have an initial discussion of the entire work next week.

Throughout the course, we will focus our attention on two main things:

  1. We will be concerned with the types or genres of literature produced by Christians and in assessing the common characteristics of these genres, placing our discussion within the Jewish and Greco-Roman literary contexts.
  2. We will focus our attention on discussing and comparing the various forms of Christian belief and practice reflected in the writings.

I have already made several brief posts on the New Testament Apocrypha in the past few weeks as I was preparing for the course. You can read the earlier posts in the Apocrypha series by clicking here (the present entry is 1a).
Also feel free to browse some of the other entries here which deal with social and religious life in the ancient Mediterranean, as well as the cultural history of Christianity (the reformations of the early modern era are another ongoing topic this term in connection with another course).

Come again!

The brilliant student and the humiliated teacher again: Smart young Apollonius of Tyana (NT Apocrypha 8)

In previous posts I discussed stories of the birth and childhood of Jesus, including the story of little Jesus zapping his less-than-brilliant teacher dead in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (go here). This was, in a sense, an expansion and embellishment of Luke’s story of the wise young (12 year-old) Jesus amazing even the teachers of the law in the Temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:39-51). In each case, the childhood brilliance is a sign of things to come in the figure’s adulthood.

Christian authors were not alone in relating stories of the childhood feats and miraculous doings of important persons, including stories of the child’s education. Philostratus wrote a biography of the first-century Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, in about 220 CE. Included is the following story, reminiscent of Jesus’ school-days mentioned above:

“On reaching the age when children are taught their letters, he showed great strength of memory and power of application. . . [Apollonius had some good teachers who recognized his abilities.] However, his teacher of the Pythagorean system was not a very serious person, nor one who practised in his conduct the philosophy he taught. For he was the slave of his belly and appetites, and modelled himself upon Epicurus. And this man was Euxenus from the town of Heraclea in Pontus, and he knew the principles of Pythagoras just as birds know what they learn from men. For the birds will wish you ‘farewell,’ and say “hello” or “Zeus help you,” and such like, without understanding what they say and without any real sympathy for humankind, merely because they have been trained to move their tongue in a certain manner. Apollonius, however, was like the young eagles who, as long as they are not fully fledged, fly alongside of their parents and are trained by them in flight, but who, as soon as they are able to rise in the air, outsoar the parent birds” (1.7; trans. by F.C. Conybeare in Loeb Classical Library, with adaptations). Apollonius nonetheless is nice to this poor, ineffective teacher, says Philostratus.

This is not the sort of reputation a teacher wants, but it’s better than being zapped dead.

“Are we. . . to listen to her?”: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (NT Apocrypha 7)

There is a tendency among modern scholars and theologians to find in the ancient sources sentiments and views which accord with their own. This is especially the case when it comes to issues of gender and the evaluation of women’s place within certain varieties of Christianity. Thus, for instance, Dennis MacDonald’s study of the Acts of Paul and Thecla tends to cast Thecla in terms familiar from modern feminism (The Legend and the Apostle) . Yet a closer analysis of details in the story provides a more complex picture of how the author of that document viewed what we would call issues of gender. While there is no doubt that the Christians who used the story of Thecla were advocates of women’s leadership (Thecla is charged to go and preach the word of God by Paul, after all), there are also other elements such as the clear hints of Thecla becoming man, so to speak, in order to achieve her mission, as when she cuts her hair (25) and when she donnes a man’s cloak (40). This manly requirement is something other than what moderns consider women’s liberation.

There is a sense in which this is echoed, though in a different way, in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas‘s saying 114, in which Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) is addressed by Jesus as follows: “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” (trans. by H. Koester in J.M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library. Revised ed. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1990).

A very different sentiment (in terms of gender issues) and portrayal of Mary’s relation to Jesus is presented in the Gospel of Mary (of Magdala), a dialogue gospel written sometime in the second or early third century. There Mary is presented as the recipient of secret teachings from Jesus to which she and no other disciple was privy. After Jesus makes a final appearance to his disciples, teaches them about the coming dissolution of matter, and that the means to overcome matter was within them, he calls on them to go and preach the good news of the kingdom (8:20). Then as the disciples are in distress at the Saviour’s departure, Mary takes a leading role in comforting them and in sharing with them the secret teachings that she alone had received from the Saviour. The content of the message focuses on the ascent of the soul, which needs to overcome the Powers of the material realm in order to reach its proper home in the spiritual kingdom. The disciples’ response is less than receptive, as Thomas complains that these are awfully “strange” teachings (17:10-15). Peter goes further in jealously dismissing the whole thing based on gender: “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” (17:15-20).

Mary’s reaction is great disappointment, and Levi chimes in appropriately calling Peter a hot-head. Levi says, “if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?” (18:10). The result is that they do go out and preach, evidently accepting Mary’s revelation. The male disciples learning from Mary the true revelation of salvation is quite different than requiring that Mary be a man in order “to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

There is now a very useful and popularly accesible study of the Gospel of Mary: Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003. This will give you a more balanced look at Mary Magdalene in myth and reality than something like the DaVinci Code, as you might imagine.

Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

Before approaching the study of the diversity of Christianity reflected in writings such as the early Christian Apocrypha, it is important to be familiar with some of the main historical theories that have been put forward regarding the nature and varieties of early Christianity (especially with respect to notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”). Historiography (the study of how history is written and what “spin” historians put on their materials) is very important. Here I have chosen to simplify the discussion by briefly outlining three historians’ viewpoints in terms of unity (Eusebius), duality (F.C. Baur), and diversity (Walter Bauer, with an “e”). For a proper understanding you will need to study these and other works for yourself, as well as the ancient documents that these historians use to build their theories.

  1. Eusebius and Unity (Ecclesiatical History, c. 311-323 CE): The traditional view of early Christianity emphasized the unity of early Christians and downplayed any tensions or struggles among them. Truth, unity and orthodoxy (right belief) came first and were strong; error or heresy came later and was always in the minority. The emphasis on unity can already be seen in the Acts of the Apostles’ history of the early church, but this came to expression in a more comprehensive historical theory with the first major church historian, Eusebius (who built upon what many anti-heresy writers had been saying for a while). This theory posits that from the beginning all Christians agreed and got along: the church was a “pure and uncorrupted virgin” (3.32.7-8; some relevant passages from Eusebius are now available here on this website). But, subsequently, through the work of the devil, errors or heresies were introduced (usually pictured as beginning in the second century). These errors were readily recognized as such and successfully battled by representatives of “the universal and only true church” (such as Hegesippus), who “held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all. . . the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching. . . [O]ur doctrine remained as the only one which had power among all” (see 4.7.1-14). Orthodoxy came first and was in the majority, heresies later and in the minority. Many, though not all, of the writings we call the New Testament Apocrypha would be considered heretical by Eusebius.
  2. F.C. Baur and Duality (mid-late-1800s): The theory of F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school is quite thorough-going, but its main contours can be simplified thus: Early Christianity was characterized by a fundamental conflict between a particularistic Jewish form (Peter) and a universalistic Gentile form (Paul). The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very important here. This thesis (Jewish-Petrine Christianity) and antithesis (Gentile-Pauline Christianity) finally settled into a synthesis (catholic Christianity) in the second and subsequent centuries (F.C. was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel). Most early Christian writings and Christian groups, including writings in the Apocrypha, can be understood and categorized based on this struggle. On the one hand, the Acts of the Apostles reflects an attempt to hide and smooth over the battle. On the other, a writing such as the Pseudo-Clementines (in the Apocrypha), which has Peter battling Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul), shows that the battle really continued beyond the time of the canonical Acts (which F.C. dated to the second century). Baur would tend to trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines over the canonical Acts of the Apostles (in terms of its reflection of historical reality). Although there is certainly truth in observing a tension between Pauline and other Jewish forms of Christianity (read Galatians!), most scholars now see a problem with this oversimplified picture of just two main camps in early Christianity, with just about everything fit into this dual framework.
  3. Walter Bauer and Diversity (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1932, translated into English in the 1970s): Walter Bauer wrote what can be considered among the most influential works in the study of early Christianity. Turning the traditional theory of Eusebius on its head, Walter argued that heresy came first, orthodoxy later. Not only that, but the various forms of Christianity often called “heresies” were, in fact, in the majority. When orthodoxy began to emerge in the second and subsequent centuries, it continued as the minority for some time until the church at Rome increased its hold on Christianity elsewhere. Walter continued to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” despite the fact that his own theory began to deconstruct these very notions. Most who study early Christianity now recognize that, although Walter’s theory clearly has its problems, Walter was at least correct in emphasizing that various forms of Christianity existed from early on, and that “orthodoxy” only developed later in an attempt to get the diversity under some control. He was also correct in deconstructing the Eusebian view of the orthodox, united church threatened by later heresies, which does not accurately reflect what actually went on in the first centuries of Christianity.

As I said, this is certainly a simplification of the matter, but a basic acknowledgement of the diversity of early Christianity will be essential as we discuss the Apocrypha further and as we attempt to see what specific Christians in particular places were thinking, doing, and writing about. Certainly we will observe some common denominators among followers of Jesus (at least they followed Jesus [as each understood that]!), but there were also important differences that we need to attend to in mapping out early Christianity.

Acts of John: Be thou like the bed-bugs (NT Apocrypha 5)

Scholarly debates continue regarding what genre (type) of literature were the apocryphal Acts, with the Greek novel often being considered a close relative of these Acts by most. Certainly both the apocryphal Acts, which relate the miraculous deeds of the followers of Jesus, and the novels share in common the aim of entertaining (alongside teaching and admonishing certain values or behaviours).

In the Acts of John, the disciple John is depicted on his journeys to demonstrate the power of God (dating sometime in the second or early third century; available online here). Among these demonstrations or signs are the repeated resurrections of various characters in the story, from bad guys like the priest of Artemis to good guys like the permanently sexually-abstinent Drusiana. Resurrection of the dead is John’s favourite miracle, so to speak. Just about everyone converts as a result of these miracles, including the aforementioned bad guys, so there is a purpose to it all.

One of the “miracles” of John that stands out, however, involves bed-bugs. While staying in an inn at Ephesus, John is trying to catch some wink-eye while other of his followers talk quietly in the background. The bed-bugs are driving John nuts, and so he commands, “I tell you, you bugs, to behave yourselves, one and all; you must leave your home for tonight and be quiet in one place and keep your distance from the servants of God!” (60).

That we, the readers, are meant to be entertained and to laugh is suggested by the fact that John’s followers do laugh, and think that John is just joking (he’s not really commanding bugs, is he?). To these followers’ surprise, they find a mass of bugs waiting just outside the door in the morning, and John says that since the bugs have behaved themselves, they can go back home to bed. But even in this humorous story there is a lesson. Be thou like the bed-bugs, who quietly listen and obey: “This creature listened to a man’s voice and kept to itself and was quiet and obedient; but we who hear the voice of God disobey his commandments and are irresponsible; how long will this go on?”, queries John (61). (All translations, again, are from Schneemelcher).

UPDATE: Once again Ken Penner is on top of things and, in the comments, points to a passage that involves commanding worms in the Testament of Job (of the OT Pseudepigrapha, translation available online here). Job is once again facing the torments which God allows Satan to send upon him, and he shows a particularly heightened ability to withstand and, in what you could call an ascetic spirit (or perhaps just an attempt to ensure that God’s will is done to its completion), even further the torture:

“In great trouble and distress I left the city, and I sat on a dung heap worm-ridden in body. Discharges from my body wet the ground with moisture. Many worms were in my body, and if a worm ever sprang off, I would take it up and return it to its original place, saying, ‘Stay in the same place where you were put until you are directed otherwise by your commander” (Testament of Job 20:7-9; trans by R.P. Spittler in Charlesworth, OTP).

This story is less funny than John’s;)

Peter (in the Pseudo-Clementines) on “false” passages in scripture (NT Apocrypha 4)

From the beginning, Christians and Jews have taken a variety of approaches to passages in scripture which they find difficult to interpret or troubling in some other way. One common approach taken by an adherent of a religion is to cite the passages the interpreter likes, and to ignore or at least avoid the passages the interpreter finds problematic. In a sense, it is not uncommon to develop a canon (authoritative writing) within the canon, so to speak.

Many among the highly educated in Roman times found descriptions of God which rang of human emotions and physical daily behaviour (anthropomorphic passages) particularly distasteful. This is due in part, to the influence of Platonic philosophy, which emphasized the transcendence of God (in contrast to the very anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks generally). In other words, God was as far away as possible from the imperfect world around us, including the emotions and daily behaviours of humans (the “passions”). For Jews and Christians who adopted similar notions, several passages in the Hebrew Bible became very problematic (any that had God showing human emotions such as anger, or God changing his mind, or God seemly not foreseeing all), and there were different strategies for solving the conundrum.

One interpretive technique was allegorizing. Namely, you read a passage and explained a deeper, almost hidden meaning beyond the literal (thereby avoiding the literal in many cases). Philo of Alexandria is most known for this approach, but he is certainly not the only one.

Another very interesting approach is taken by the Jewish-Christian author of the so-called Pseudo-Clementine writings, which purport to be the autobiography (so to speak) of Clement, the bishop that succeeded Peter at Rome (dating to the fourth century but reflecting earlier materials). Here “Clement” presents Peter in a debate with Simon Magus, both of whom make use of scripture to support their points. Simon points to passages in the bible which speak of “gods” plural and then goes on to expound the view that the creator god is in mind in those passages of the Bible which speak of that god’s “dubious passions” and inability to know exactly what is going on in a situation (H III 38:1-3). But, argues Simon (in a “gnostic” manner), there is indeed another god not mentioned in scripture who is transcendent, who “foresees the future and is perfect, without needs, good and free from all dubious passions” (38:3). Peter’s refutation of Simon is quite fascinating: “Those statements of the Holy Scriptures which are in keeping with the creation wrought by God must be counted as genuine and those which contradict them as false” (42:3). In essence, Peter’s approach here is to take away his opponent’s passages: “All these passages. . . are shown to be false and are overturned by others which assert the opposite” (43:3). Further on in the so-called “preachings of Peter” (Kerygmata Petrou) section, the author explains that it was in the process of the Law being written down and subsequently passed on and copied that “false pericopes” (false passages) were introduced. And the author considers among the false passages those which portray God acting much like a human in lying, being ignorant, grieving, mocking, and craving after offerings and sacrifices (H III 48-52; H II 43-44).

Saying that there are false passages that have been inserted into the bible is not an approach often taken within most of Christianity today (the canon within the canon is the favourite, so to speak), but it was among the options in antiquity. However, there may be affinities here with some moderns who do pick and choose what they consider true or false in the Bible, but they are usually not imagining interpolation conspiracy. More about the Pseudo-Clemetines later.

Jesus’ descent into hell and Satan’s conversation with Hades (NT Apocrypha 3)

The notion that Jesus, after his death, descended into the realm of the dead in order to achieve some aim has a somewhat long and complicated history, of which I will only touch on some points. By the time 1 Peter is written (late first century), the author can refer to the fleshly death and spiritual resurrection of Jesus and to the fact that “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (1Peter 3:18-20). The Gospel of Peter (perhaps 2nd century but maybe later) makes brief reference to a descent at the point of Jesus’ emergence from the tomb in having a voice from heaven ask Jesus, his two angelic escorts, and the walking cross, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” (10:41). The cross answers in the affirmative. The Apostles Creed of later centuries includes the descent into hell, without further clarification, among Jesus’ deeds.

Somewhat different than this preaching to the sinful people of Noah’s generation or to the sinful in hell is the very important story preserved in The Gospel of Nicodemus (aka Acts of Pilate) which reflects more detailed thinking and elaboration about this descent (available online here). In The Gospel of Nicodemus, three (Symeon and his two sons) of those who were raised from the grave (Sheol = Hades) testify to the Jewish council about what they witnessed.

According to this story, it is all of those who went to the grave (all of the dead, both good and bad) that were imprisoned under the rulership of Hades, god of the underworld. Jesus’ action in descending is what allows the righteous, including Adam, Seth, Abraham, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and others to make their way out of these chains and into paradise. In other words, without Jesus’ resurrection, the righteous would have remained in Hades (Sheol). In fact, when Jesus breaks through the gates of Hades, “all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains” (21:3). In essence, the tree of knowledge brought death (through Adam), and the tree of the cross brought life (through Christ; 23-24).

Also fascinating in this gospel is the portrayal of the grave personified, namely Hades, and Satan as separate figures who debate what to do about this Jesus figure. Satan is nearly begging Hades to do something and take action against this Jesus, the “common enemy”. Hades is a bit concerned about about losing his sustenance of dead bodies, and remembers that “a certain dead man named Lazarus. . . [was] snatched . . . up forcibly from my entrails” (20:3). But, despite the stomache ache, in the end Hades turns out to be a little more realistic and rational about the (im)possibilities: “And if [Jesus] is of such power, are you able to withstand him? It seems to me that no one will be able to withstand such as he is” (20.2).

In an interesting convergence of my teaching preparations, John Calvin gave considerable attention to assessing what he thought was valuable or true in notions of Christ’s descent to hell. He clearly steers away from ideas that are also reflected in the Gospel of Nicodemus, but nonetheless sees Christ’s descent as an essential part of the story of salvation in “God’s Word” (it’s in 1 Peter and the Apostles’ Creed, after all).

The Little Drummer Boy and Protevangelium of James (NT Apocrypha 2)

One exercize that can be useful in introducing students to the academic study of the New Testament is to have them study independently the birth stories about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, and to consider each of these birth narratives within the continuing story of each gospel. For those familiar with the Christmas stories, these two narratives tend to blend together inseparably, as in the claymation version of the Little Drummer Boy which has both the shepherds (from Luke–at Jesus birth) and the three “wise men” (from Matthew–placed a couple years after the birth) in a stable at Jesus’ birth. (This is not to knock the show, which I’ve enjoyed since little, along with all the other claymation ones. I have to admit that the one with the Heat-miser tops my list, however).

In historically studying early Christian gospels (or Paul’s letters for that matter or any other ancient document), it is important not to blend everything together into one big lump, thereby losing the distinctive characteristics and aims of the individual narratives (stories) or writings (and the specific audiences involved).

This process of blending the originally independent birth narratives in Matthew and Luke began quite early, as attested in the Protevangelium of James, for instance (late second century CE; available online here). This writing in the New Testament Apocrypha expands on the origins of Jesus in the canonical gospels not by telling the childhood deeds of Jesus (as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in a previous post), but by going back further to the origins of Mary herself. This story of the miraculous birth of Mary to the infertile Anna and Joachim, followed by Mary’s Samuel-like dedication in the temple, came to heavily influence the cult of Mary in the middle ages, of course. It is also worth noting that Mary took her first steps at the early age of 6 months (6:1), according to this story (beats my little Nathaniel, who is always ahead according to my biased opinion).

But for present purposes what is especially noteworthy is the way in which the Protevangelium tells and considerably expands the story of Jesus’ birth. The author (supposedly James, the brother of Jesus from an earlier marriage) weaves together detailed threads from both Matthew and Luke in a way that creates a new story different from each. The author also considerably expands the story along the way, as when the priestly authorities of the temple have Mary and Joseph take a “truth serum” (“the water of the conviction of the Lord”) to see if they are lying about Mary’s virginity (15:1-2), or when the midwife double-checks Mary’s virginal status after birth (19:2).

Although such blending of stories might be expected in religious (church) and popular (TV) settings, it is important to take a different approach within the academic study of religion.

The Cursing Infant Jesus: Ancient vs. modern sensibilities (NT Apocrypha 1.2)

I have just been speaking about the ancient fascination with “marvels” (in connection with paradoxography), and there are plenty of these in Christian literature as well. One of the struggles faced by a modern reader in approaching ancient literature and religion is the cultural gap that exists between us and the ancients, in many respects. Thus, to modern ears, a cursing Jesus would be a less than favourable Jesus. But the fact is that a cursing Jesus WAS popular, at least in certain circles. It is difficult to know precisely why, however.

I am referring to the very popular Infancy Gospel of Thomas (in the sense of multiple manuscripts and multiple translations from Greek into Syriac, Latin, Georgian, and Slavonic). This story, which fills in the gaps in Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories, was most likely written in its original version in the second century CE. It is one among the writings that are called New Testament Apocrypha (or, quite literally, New Testament “Hidden Writings”) by scholars.

In this gospel, Jesus’ adventures from 5 to 12 years are related in an exciting and somewhat over-the-top manner. In essence, in a fashion typical of well-known and miraculous figures in antiquity, Jesus is portrayed in a way that “foreshadows” all that he is to accomplish as an adult (as recorded in the canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, for instance).

But this foreshadowing of power includes the ability to knock you down dead. On several occasions in this gospel, the actions of the wee boy Jesus result in the death (or near death) of other characters in the story. A boy (son of a scribe, by the way) who messes up the pool of water that Jesus miraculously formed literally whithers up as a result and Jesus doesn’t hold back words in calling the boy an “insolent, godless dunderhead” (3:1-3). Those who suffer as a result of the cursing pretty well beg Joseph to teach Jesus to bless rather than to curse after the death of another boy (4:2). When a child runs through town and bumps into the Jesus, Jesus says, “‘You shall not go further on your way’, and the child immediately fell down and died” (trans from Schneelmelcher, ed., 1991-1992, full citation below). Jesus’ first teacher, Zacchaeus, is quite lucky in only being shamed by the high intelligence of the boy. His second teacher is “cursed” after striking the (what we might call) smart alec Jesus (who makes fun of his teacher’s lack of wisdom) and immediately the teacher falls down dead (14.1-2). Death is not the only negative result of Jesus’ curses, as, for example, those who oppose him are struck blind (5:1).

Thankfully (for modern sensibilities, at least) Jesus is also portrayed helping others, as when he raises a little boy from the dead after his fall from the roof while playing (9:1-3). Another young man is saved from bleeding to death after an axe accident by Jesus as well (10:1-2). And at least one of the guys he strikes dead (the teacher) is also raised from the dead when a subsequent teacher (a good friend of Jesus’ father) behaves in a pleasing manner in Jesus’ eyes (15.4). When a little sick child died in the neighbourhood, Jesus responds to the mother’s great mourning by raising him: “I say to you, do not die but live and be with your mother” (17:1). And this is not the only person Jesus raises from the dead (18:1)–premonitions of the Lazarus and resurrection story, so to speak.

For the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (and presumably for his readers and hearers), both what we would call positive (blessing) and what we would call negative (cursing) activities of Jesus are equally indicative of the great powers he possessses and point to the need to worship him (cf. 9:3; 10:2). They are a sign of what is to come in Jesus’ adulthood.

This is the first in what will be numerous posts on the Apocrypha in connection with a graduate course I will be teaching in the Fall. All translations here and in the future, unless otherwise noted, are from: Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed. New Testament Apocrypha. Translated by R.M. Wilson. 2 volumes. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991-92. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Thomas) is also available online in various translations here. (Here I have been using the shorter Greek recension A as a basis for the discussion.)