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


  1. Dom,

    Thanks for indulging me on this subject. Let me comment in small pieces:

    DOM: "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?"

    I guess what I am really saying is that Faith doesn't have to be based on facts! That is why it is called, "faith." Of course, faith should not be based on nonsense either, but somehow, I don't think that people actually become Christians because they come to believe in certain historical details from the first few centuries anno domini. Most of the time it happens by accidents of birth and by luck.

    I know from self-examination that my "Christian morality" arose because my mother loved me from childhood and let me know it, and so I just followed her example --for the most part-- in my dealings with other people. The rest of Religion just seemed like part of her reading materials and cultural practices, which became my own external vestments and tradition.

    Only LATER ON did I come to think it was because "I believe in Jesus Christ true God and true man, etc..." as set forth in the Catechisms and Bibles, which I never actually read as a child except what was dimly encountered during Epistle and Gospel at Mass. Then much later on, one wonders about those historical details, and the truth of doctrines like Transubstantiation and Virgin Birth. Yet inner core of faith or morality does not seem to be affected! That is because faith is not based on knowledge alone.

    Indeed, even true believers one encounters today, who would never cotton to anything called the Apocrypha, nonetheless believe in a lot of weird things that have nothing to do with the "truths" of Christianity that even I would join you in affirming. In other words, I think it is virtually impossible to say WHAT exactly the faith of any given Catholic or Christian is actually based on.

    Faith is not based on knowledge, certainly not scientific knowledge. In your case or mine, it might be based on things that are recognizable and identifiable, as either historiographic or sentimental.

    I think of my own life as a kind of fiction through which I am proceeding, not knowing the plot or ending. I have received from others an historic and physical connection to their own lives through experience and diverse information.

    When we as Christians and Catholics look at the texts and literary traditions of other faiths, and their cults, sects and variants, for example Mahayana vs Hinayana Buddhism, Sunni, Shia and Wahabi Muslims, or the myths, legends and fairy tales of other religions, let's be honest, we may "respect" the people who practice them, but we think of all their literature as being basically "fiction." Only it's THEIR fiction, and we have OUR fiction, and unless we respect each other's rights to believe as we wish, there will surely be war.

    In the same way, when I look at "strict" Catholics who hew to the Roman Curia's official teachings as much as possible, I can only accord the same respect I do to those other faiths. For to go further, to say that my faith in Christianity is based on a belief in its factual, historical claims, would be to DISRESPECT all those other faith traditions as liars and fantabulists, no?

    I don't know if I am making my position clear. But it is basically this: Faith is not necessarily, or even often, based on historical facts. To assert that would be to claim ours is the one true religion.

    I guess I am just not a sectarian.

  2. I see Literature as a force for spiritual and moral upliftment. There is absolutely no doubt that as pure literature, few other works of man come close to the Judaeo Christian scripture in sheer power, depth, and historicity.

    Viewed in this manner, the gospel genre, in which I include both the canonical and the apocryphal works, may not have been fully utilized YET for this high purpose.

    I don't really buy into the conspiracy theories involving the Catholic church. They are probably too naive and simplistic compared to what really happened.

    But for whatever reason, the Church did with its scripture what it had to do with it. If there is anything we must respect in an institution or tradition it has to be LONGEVITY, and 2000 years is long. So the RCC must have done something right.

    I see Religion as an extremely plastic and evolutionary thing, much as doctrinaires may wish to deny this.

    I think the Christian ethos is "large enough" and "deep enough" that it can take historical revisions or extensions, much as it has done it the past!

    It is unreasonable to think that even the official Text has not changed. Tradition has encrusted it with much that is hard to distinguish from the original, but even that is not essential to its overall integrity.

    The gospel of mary magdalene may yet provide an important insight into the role and status of women in the church, surely an anomalous and unjust situation.

    I think in fact this is about male chauvinism in the church and the all male hierarchy. It is not about history, though that is the "virtual battleground".

    But it is a new round in an old conflict between MEMES. I foresee a reformation, a renewal of Christianity to humanity, including womanhood, that is not to be found alone in the canonical works.

    Great institutions change but slowly, but when they do, usually a major revolution occurs in the hearts of men, and women.

    We need great literature to inspire us to undertake such grand paradigm shifts as the abolition of slavery, the freedom of nations, and gender equality.

    In the case of the latter, the energy is in the sotry of Mary Magdalene. As is love...again!

  3. Please allow me to throw my 2 cents:

    Faith is defined in Hebrews 11:1

    If I am not mistaken, one of the bases for the canonization of the books of bible is it will not contradict itself and the other writings, specially the old testament.

    The apochrypal books is not the general term used for gospels and books that were not included in the bible.

    Instead, these are the books not included by the church fathers (leaders after all the 12 apostles have died or killed) to now we understand as the bible.

    The catholics, at a later date, called these books "deutrocanonical" books. These books can be found in catholic

    Sorry, I don't have the listings of these books right now but definitely the gospel of judas and the other gospels are not there.

  4. Thanks, Sonnie. I explored this territory in my earlier post. I wanted to show that faith was a natural human act, operative in daily life, and had to be based on at least some factual evidence. I was hoping GK Chesterton or CS Lewis might have something to say on the matter. I'm sure they did, but I didn't have time to turn them up.

    Deuterocanonicals are a different matter from the apocryphal gospels. Anyway, fodder for more research.

  5. Allow me to join in into this discussion, primarily because I take on a different personal path with regard to faith and the Gospels. I may be considered your cafeteria type of Catholic, since I tend to pick and choose the doctrines/dogmas I adhere to. Thus, I may be said to be straddling between being a very doctrinaire disciple of Church teachings (In the Gospels, for one) to that of a very tolerant and very inclusive believer, allowing any earnest seeker to follow his/her own faith/path to righteousness and salvation.

    But, this is how I look at Christ and his Gospel teachings of truths that may best be explained by giving an example.

    He confronted doubting Thomas with this admonition: You believe because you have seen, but blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.

    And I mean particularly to belief of His teachings of truths, since his resurrection affirmed and confirmed every thing he taught, including His person. His teachings, whether considered then revolutionary or reactionary, once preached start standing on their own, free and independent from Christ. Man’s intellect is given that free choice to process and rationalize them, allowing the will to make its own determination about their goodness.

    Christ himself admits this much, when he said that what he says comes not from him, and neither is the authority to preach them. Thus, coming from another Higher Being, which to Christ was His Father. And this is again, where I may be parting company with orthodoxy, since I do not believe in a personal God, one understandably invested with qualities and characteristics that are within the gifts that the human intellect has been endowed to discern.

  6. Perhaps some persons are unable (or unwilling) to say their faith (if that is what we can call it) is mainly based on knowledge. That, however, is not always the case for Catholics, many of whom came to believe precisely because of knowledge.

    Pretending to be nonsectarian is just an excuse to sit on the fence. Any proposition, when affirmed, necessarily claims that contradictory propositions are false. No two contradictory propositions can both be true. One is necessarily false and the other is necessarily true. For example: The proposition that God exists, vis-a-vis the proposition that God does not exist. Both cannot be false, both cannot be true.

    Real faith involves belief in some fundamental propositions. If these propositions are not clear to the believer or are not firmly held, then that "faith" is also shaky.

    Catholic faith -- particularly my Catholic faith and that of many others -- is based primarily on knowledge and reason. I made it so, having taken the time many years ago to understand the propositions put forward by the Catholic Church. After long and painful examination, I found them to be totally reasonable and based on fact. The Church has reasonable basis to claim it has certain truth which it propagates. To say otherwise is to ignore reasonable arguments and historical facts. That, in itself, is unreasonable.