Category Archives: Gospels

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 Jesus Ultimatum: Action and suspense in Mark’s gospel

I joked to my students the other day that, of the portraits of Jesus in the gospels (on which also see my earlier post on “Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus), Mark’s would be the closest to a Bourne flick in terms of action and suspense.

True, the action in Mark may not be as intense as a car-chase through the streets of Moscow, but there is certainly some speed in the narrative. Jesus does just about everything “immediately” and the reader is brought from one episode to the next at almost lightning speed. In chapter one alone, Jesus appears, is baptized, goes out to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, collects together some students, teaches in the synagogue, has run-ins with authorities, casts out a couple of very vocal unclean spirits, heals both a woman and a leper as well has “many who were sick with various diseases” or possessed by demons. Hearing this gospel, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering what Jesus is going to do next.

Beyond the action, suspense is also built into Mark’s story of Jesus. Sometimes the author slows things down quite deliberately in order to build suspense of another kind, as in the section that deals with Jesus’ authority as healer. So, for example, Mark’s story-telling abilities come to the fore when he gets us quite worried about a poor girl on the verge of death: “Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.'” (Mark 5:22-23 [NRSV]).

With Mark’s record for having Jesus do just about everything in a flash, this time things go very slow despite the fact that a little girl is about to die. The narrator or story-teller is quite deliberately building suspense here, as many scholars note. Instead of flashing ahead to Jesus healing the girl in the nick of time, Mark goes on to relate Jesus’ healing of another woman with internal bleeding, and the author of Mark doesn’t do this quickly. The hearer of this story is left wondering: “What happened to the poor little girl! She’s going to die! Hurry up!!”

Then, after this story of the healing of the older woman, the hearer’s worries are confirmed. The little girl is indeed dead. Jesus is too late: “While [Jesus] was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?'” (v. 35). This is when the panic of the hearer is alleviated as the story of Jesus going to the girl and raising her from the dead is narrated: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement” (vv. 41-42) — as are the hearers of this story. At last, things are happening “immediately” again.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus: Prophet Elijah and “Saviour” (NT 2.14)

There are a variety of approaches one can take in studying the gospels from an historical or academic perspective. Among them is an approach that looks at the gospels as ancient biographies, with each sketching out a particular portrait of the main protagonist, Jesus. This is a particularly fitting method in studying documents that are explicitly advocating a particular understanding of Jesus (namely the gospels are more interested in what scholars sometimes call the “Christ of faith” rather than the “historical Jesus”, that peasant). One can ask literary questions like what is the main plot of this story, who are the main characters, and how is the main protagonist, Jesus, portrayed?

Previously I have discussed the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, particularly the centrality of the secrecy of Jesus’ identity and the way in which this identity unfolds at key points in the narrative, when characters in the story, including Jesus himself, identify who he is (suffering Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ): Who is this guy? The Gospel of Mark and the Identity of Jesus. While Mark’s gospel can’t help but have a Jewish Jesus (because Jesus was a Jew in a Judean context), Mark is usually considered a Gentile author writing to a Gentile audience (the author has to explain basic Judean culture).

On the other hand, I have discussed the very Jewish portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: A very Jewish Jesus: Matthew’s portrait. There Jesus is cast as the new messianic David (anointed king) and the new Moses (prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15), and Jesus repeatedly fulfills scripture and advocates following the Torah (law) to the “t”.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is likewise heavily indebted to Jewish models, but Luke is also concerned to present Jesus in a way that would make some sense to Greeks and Romans, at least to some degree.

On the Jewish side, Jesus is most emphatically a prophet, and at times the author seems to have in mind the promised prophet like Elijah specifically (see Malachi 4:5-6). The author of Luke chooses to begin Jesus’ adult teaching and healing activity with Jesus reading a passage from Isaiah (61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21). Jesus then goes on to explicitly identify himself with the prophet mentioned in Isaiah, an anointed prophet who will preach good news to the poor, bring freedom to captives, and give sight to the blind. This emphasis on Jesus as a prophet to the socially downtrodden or marginalized continues throughout the gospel, beginning with Jesus healing the blind, casting out demons and hanging out with social outcasts, “sinners” and tax-collectors. Luke preserves or presents many teachings of Jesus focussed on supporting the poor and condemning the rich, and this reversal theme is explicitly linked to his role as the prophet.

Almost immediately after identifying himself as the prophet (of Isaiah), Jesus then goes on to compare his rejection in his hometown as a sign of his affinity with Elijah and Elisha (4:24-30). Not only that, but there are further signs that Luke wants his readers to think of Jesus as the promised Elijah prophet (of Malachi). Jesus, like Elijah (in 1 Kings 17:17-24) raises from the dead the widow’s son, and those who witness this call him a “great prophet” (Luke 7:11-17). Almost immediately after this, as if to underline-and-bold-with-all-caps his point, Luke presents John the Baptist asking Jesus who Jesus is. Jesus’ answer once again echoes the Isaiah passage: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).

Alongside this emphasis on Jesus as the ultimate Jewish prophet like Elijah who has come to help the poor is the portrayal of Jesus as “Saviour” (John’s gospel does momentarily apply this title to Jesus). No other gospel identifies Jesus in quite this way. In Luke’s gospel to be a saviour is to quite literally save people here and now by giving sight to the blind and healing the lepers. The identification as Saviour comes early, in the birth story, and continues to bubble up at various points in Jesus’ down-to-earth salvation for the sick and the outcasts. The title “Saviour” (soter in Greek) was a very common one to use in the Greco-Roman world for benefactors, especially gods but also emperors and others, who brought safety and security–salvation in down-to-earth terms–on an ongoing basis. Emperors from Augustus on, for instance, could be praised for their good works in the form of the title “saviour and benefactor”.

Here, then, in Luke is a portrait of Jesus that might ring bells for both Jewish and Greek or Roman hearers.

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 very Jewish Jesus: The Gospel of Matthew’s portrait (NT 1.4)

Something I often stress to students of early Christianity is that this Jesus movement was very much a form of Judaism in its origins. The peasant Jesus was a Jew, and all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, Jews who continued to feel that following the law (the Torah) was humanity’s response to God’s covenant with his people (Paul, the Jewish Pharisee, was a bit of an exception in not requiring that gentiles follow certain aspects of the Jewish law — especially circumcision and food laws — in order to join. Still Paul was very much a Jew and did not object to Jewish followers of Jesus following the law and, in some respects, expected gentiles to follow other aspects of the law beyond those that created a social or status distinction).

So just about every portrayal of Jesus in the first century would naturally reflect the Jewishness of Jesus, as is in indeed the case. However, among the gospels in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew stresses perhaps more than others the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus is presented as the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures in over a dozen fulfillment citations. The gospel begins by presenting Jesus as the son of David, the anointed king par excellence.

Furthermore, Jesus is often presented as the new Moses, as in the birth narrative. This continuing theme of Jesus as the expected prophet like Moses continues in what Matthew has as the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). There Matthew’s Jesus affirms the continuing validity of the Jewish law for the followers of Jesus:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus’ followers were to follow the law in a way that excelled the Pharisees, who had a reputation (outside of the gospels and in this passage in Matthew) for carefully following the law in their daily lives, beyond the practice of many other Jews. This is the interpretive key to the material that follows (falsely called “antitheses”) which have Jesus quoting the law of Moses and interpreting it in a way that strongly affirms the original intention of the laws (as Jesus’ Matthew understood it). These are not replacements for the law of Moses, but rather a radicalization of the reason why those laws were given by God, in Matthew’s view. Matthew and some in the community for which his gospel was written in the late first century evidently continued to place an importance on following the law and continued to think of themselves as Jews in this way.

“Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus (NT 1.3)

One among the many academic or historical approaches to studying gospels such as Mark is narrative analysis. One asks literary questions like: What is the overall plot of this story and how does it unfold? Who are the main characters in the narrative and how do they relate to one another? What story-telling techniques does the author use to move the narrative forward or to build tension? How does this author portray the main protagonist, Jesus?

As ancient biographies (“Lives”, bioi), all of the gospels are very much concerned with the question of who was Jesus. Still, the Gospel of Mark in particular has issues of identity at the heart of the unfolding of the plot in a way that is somewhat different than the other gospels. For more on the gospels as ancient biography, see  Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, 2nd edition, 2004). From the outset, the reader (or hearer) of this story is very much aware of who Jesus is: the first sentence says that this work is the beginning of the good message about Jesus, “the Son of God“, after all. Yet, from this author’s perspective, the human characters in the story generally do not know who this Jesus is until key moments in the narrative. Not only that, but Jesus himself is portrayed as not wanting his identity revealed, as when he tells non-human forces — demons who do know who he is — not to tell anyone (see, for instance, the exorcism in Mark 1:23-26). This is the so called “messianic secret” that is characteristic of Mark specifically and less so the other gospels that likely used Mark as a source (Matthew and Luke). This gap between what the reader knows and what the characters in the story know about Jesus’ identity is what makes the overall story ironic in a literary sense.

Throughout, just about everyone is asking “Who is this guy” (Beezelbub? Elijah? John the Baptist returned?) and it’s only at several key moments, which I want to just briefly mention here, that this identity is revealed more openly to some of the characters in the story. Up to the middle of the story, only demons know clearly who Jesus is (“Holy One of God”, “Son of the Most High God”), and he tells them to be quiet about it. But at about the mid-point of the story (Mark 8:27-33) one of his misunderstanding disciples finally outright recognizes and says who Jesus is (namely what we readers knew all along). But immediately after, the same disciple misunderstands what that identity means: Peter proclaims “You are the Messiah” but then attempts to stop Jesus’ talk about suffering and dying as the “Son of Man”, with the result that Jesus rebukes Peter as the ultimate Adversary, Satan. So the identity is now momentarily revealed to the disciples of Jesus alone, but even they are not completely on to the whole project yet. So Jesus repeatedly states to the disciples what the “Son of Man” has to do (9:12-13, 9:31-32; 10:33-34) — namely suffer and die — often with continued misunderstandings (the disciples are consistently portrayed as not getting things or as lacking “faith” in Mark). They just don’t get it, right to the very end, when they deny or desert Jesus after his arrest.

The next key identity revelations take place in the passion narrative, and these happen in a more public setting (rather than among only the disciples). They represent the culmination of Mark’s story in many respects. After his arrest, Jesus is brought before the highpriest and other Judean authorities, where he is accused of threatening to destroy the temple. More importantly here, Jesus is publicly asked “Are you the Messiah (Christ)?” and, in an unprecedented manner (for Mark’s narrative), he openly proclaims “I am”. The secret is out. Then, when he is brought for another hearing before Pilate, the Roman governor, the issue of identity is at the fore: “Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so'” (15:2 [NRSV]) — which likely amounts to a “yes” here (or a qualified yes — see the update below). Finally, as Jesus passes away on the cross, a Roman (Gentile) soldier proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:19). So the issue of who is Jesus is fundamental to the unfolding of Mark’s Gospel, and the final character to openly proclaim Jesus’ identity is a Gentile (non-Judean / non-Jew). Scholars generally point out that Mark’s gospel was likely written by a Gentile for a primarily Gentile audience (see, for instance, Mark 7:3-4, where the author needs to explain what any Judean [Jew] would know). This post touches on only a few important factors in the narrative of Mark; much more could of course be said.

Menocchio on the Synoptic problem (Reformations 6)

Other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

In a previous entry in this series, I have discussed the peasant miller Menocchio who lived in the 16th century and was put on trial in the inquisitions. For those of you who study the synoptic gospels, I thought you might find his brief take on the synoptic problem and redaction criticism, so to speak, humorous and maybe a little insightful:

As for the things in the Gospels, I believe that parts of them are true and parts were made up by the Evangelists out of their heads, as we see in the passages that one tells in one way and one in another way” (Ginzburg, p. 11).

At another point in the trial, he suggested that a good portion of the New Testament writings were, in fact, made up in his own time (or just before) by devious priests and monks. Here and in other statements he reflects a peasant’s dislike for the higher-ups in the system. Don’t expect consistency from Menocchio, but do expect creative thinking and fascinating statements.

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).

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 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.

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)

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.)