Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Of Gospels and Apocrypha

Dean Jorge Bocobo posted a long series of comments on my previous entry "Dan Brown, where is thy sting?". I'm mighty grateful for the challenge. It's just what I need to jolt me out of the funk I'm in.

Based on my understanding of the posts on his blog and his comments on mine and elsewhere, I think Dean and I at least find common ground in acknowledging that Jesus Christ is a real historical person and the Passion as a real historical event. However, we differ in approach: Dean opines that certain aspects of Christ's life are (or could be) fiction (including the Resurrection) but nevertheless be the basis for Faith; I take it the other way around and say that Faith tells me that the events are fact until proven otherwise. (Is this summary correct, Dean?)

Against my favor, certain of the beliefs I hold are outside the realm of common contemporary human experience, though they are not contradicted by logic and philosophy as impossibilities; and, of course, charges, as yet unsubstantiated, of an ancient Church conspiracy to cover up the truth. Fair enough, these being unavoidable handicaps. This discussion, though, will only address the latter, and even then, partially, in the context of the points that Dean raised.

Now, I don't purport to be an expert on Church history, but I think Dean's points with some help from Google.

The starting point of Dean's comments are Apocrypha, viz. the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas the Doubter, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. From Dean's description, they give very compelling messages and are therefore plausible. Could these be documents that account some secret life of Christ yet are suppressed by the Church in favor of the prevailing orthodox views?

Well they might be. However, any document taken by itself, outside of its original context, will always achieve some degree of plausibility so as to support a specific view. This is nothing new: Christian fundamentalists have become masters at this art. I could even be doing it right now.

So what context could we speak of? First, compare the content. What makes the Gospels different from the Apocrypha? The Gospels "all see Jesus as the pivotal person, the one on whom everything depends, the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord (see PBS' The Emergence of the Four Gospel Canon). As for the apocryphal gospels:
These other gospels, many of them, see Jesus as a teacher, as a kind of figure of enlightenment, a kind of bodhisattva figure, but one whom you and I could emulate, whom we could perhaps become. And that's a very different kind of emphasis. I think the gospels of the New Testament were chosen because they do share this conviction of the importance and uniqueness of Jesus.

Now, one might object: that doesn't necessarily mean that the Apocrypha are false just because they differ from the canonical Gospels in focus. Indeed, it doesn't. But it does show the uniqueness of the Four Gospels and how they stand out from the rest.

Now, if we were to accept them wholesale by virtue of their historicity, the other apocryphal books now present an interesting twist:
In the second and third century, we know that there were many other gospels that were developed. We have a charming array of popular kinds of stories of the life of Jesus. There's baby Jesus stories; the infancy Gospel of Thomas is one of these where you have the stories of the little child Jesus performing all sorts of miracles. And obviously these are developing out of a kind of what we might call popular interest. You can imagine the stories of Jesus developing in a lot of ways much like any famous figure. I mean, let's think of a Superman character. Once you know that Superman's a great guy, what was he like as a child; the same thing happens with Jesus. Baby Jesus stories are one of these, and we get some wonderful little legends that develop this way.

So why stop with Jesus the Teacher? Why stop with Jesus the Lover? Why stop with Jesus the Magician? Why not have UltraJesus? You end up with the same problem of discernment: at some point you have to say that this story is true (or divinely inspired, if you will), and this story is not (just fanciful legend.) If we fall back to relativistic approach, then whose to say that your selections are correct and the Church's wrong?

Which is where we end up with the second context: history. The canonical Gospels and apocryphal accounts do not stand alone; they are part of the unique historical development of the Church.

It's easy for us to kick back in an easy chair, read an apocryphal account and say "this Gospel speaks to my heart, it agrees with my philosophy, and therefore it must be true" but Christianity did not develop that way! If we wanted to debate on the authenticity of certain documents, it should not be from the comfortable distance of 2,000 years but from up close, no later than AD 300. Now, if you really want to get up close, why not face the business end of a spear or the mouth of a hungry lion?

The early years must have been a large milieu of conflicting beliefs and legends and just as many subsects of the cult? Why have we come to the state of orthodoxy that we have today? Because of a Church conspiracy to stamp out heretics? Fancy that, arguing the finer points of theology and hatching plots when you're on the run from Roman soldiers who don't care to distinguish one kind of outlaw Christian from another.

Against this background, you have one Iraneus.
The Bishop Irenaeus was about 18 to 20 years old when his little community was absolutely decimated by a devastating persecution. They say that 50 to 70 people in two small towns were tortured and executed. That must have meant hundreds were rounded up and put in prison. But 50 to 70 people in two small towns executed in public is a devastating destruction of that beleaguered community.

And Irenaeus was trying to unify those who were left. What frustrating him is that they didn't all believe the same thing. They didn't all gather under one kind of leadership. And he, like others, was deeply aware of the dangers of fragmentation, that one community could be lost. And so it is out of that deep concern, I think, that Irenaeus and others began to try to unify the church, and, and create criteria like, you know, these are the four gospels. These are what we believe, these are the rituals, which you first do. You're baptized and then you're a member of this community.

It would be absurd to suggest that the leaders of the church were out to protect their power. Because to become bishop in a church in which the 92 year old bishop had just died in prison, which is what Irenaeus did as a very young man, he had the courage to become bishop, is to become a target for the next persecution. This is not a position of power, it's a position of danger and courage. And those people were concerned to try to unify the church. So it would be ridiculous to tell the story of the early Christian movement as though the orthodox were, you know, power mad, and trying to destroy all diversity in the church. It's much more complicated than that.

This analysis, by the way, was written by Elaine Pagels, who's certainly not a fan of the Catholic Church.

From a safe distance of 2,000 years, sitting in our armchairs, we can call it many things: We might call it luck. We might call it astute manuevering. Or we might call it the action of the Holy Spirit. Any which way, it's an extraordinary story we'd be hard-pressed to re-enact. But historical records of this evolution do exist, not only from ecclesiastical sources (not necessarily in New Testament) but also from the perspective of the Romans, both early Christian and Empire. Tertullian would be especially informative.

See: PBS' From Jesus to Christ