Monthly Archives: September 2010

brave and bumptious

While searching through Archive.org, I stumbled upon an insanely huge book title:

  • Spense-Jones, H.D.M., ed. 1889. Thirty thousand thoughts, being extracts covering a comprehensive circle of religious and allied topics, gathered from the best available sources, of all ages and all schools of thought; with suggestive and seminal headings and homiletical and illuminative framework: the whole arranged upon a scientific basis. With classified and thought-multiplying lists, comparative tables, and elaborate indices, alphabetical, topical, textual, and scriptural. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Did I mention that it’s 6 volumes?!  I think I’ll take a pass on that one (or, those ones).

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they’re still not lost (2)

In my last post I gave a quick summary of why the ‘Lost Gospels’ show on BBC 4 caught my attention as well as made me laugh.  In this post I want to address some of the major points and issues discussed in the show.  This summary of the show and my input will be ‘live’–i.e. I’ll be typing as I watch.  (I may have to do this in a couple posts, just to save on space).  By way of contextualising things a bit, here are the first and last parts of the tagline for the show:

Documentary presented by Anglican priest Pete Owen Jones which explores the huge number of ancient Christian texts that didn’t make it into the New Testament. Shocking and challenging, these were works in which Jesus didn’t die, took revenge on his enemies and kissed Mary Magdalene on the mouth*–a Jesus unrecognisable from that found in the traditional books of the New Testament. . . .

The worldwide success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code sparked new interest, as well as wild and misguided speculation about the origins of the Christian faith. Owen Jones sets out the context in which heretical texts like the Gospel of Mary emerged. He also strikes a cautionary note–if these lost gospels had been allowed to flourish, Christianity may well have faced an uncertain future, or perhaps not survived at all.

Notice the language and the use of key phrases that deal with mysterious texts, the disruptive contents of these texts, radical reinterpretations of traditional views, and even conspiracies to cover up these other ‘Christian’ texts (and the views they express).  Marketing 101.  Before getting into the details of the episode, I have to point out one thing in this tagline that struck me as funny.  The claim is made: ‘The worldwide success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code sparked new interest, as well as wild and misguided speculation about the origins of the Christian faith.’  Two things stand out with this claim.

First,’wild and misguided’ speculations on Christian origins as well as interest in such things are nothing ‘new'; the early Church Fathers confronted these same ‘wild and misguided’ speculations head on when they first appeared.  Saying these things are ‘new’ is like saying current fashion trends are ‘new’.  There’s nothing ‘new’ about current fashion; it’s nothing more than a repeat of the crap from the 80s.  I digress.  The second thing that stands out, and this is the one that was funny for me, is that Dan Brown’s book is itself an example of wild and misguided speculation about the origins of the Christian faith.

On With the Show
Owen Jones, begins with a story similar to that found in Bart Ehrman’s, Who’s Word Is It? The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why (2006) and with similar pathos: started out with the four NT Gospels, was drawn into them, learned to appreciate their meaning, found out there were other ‘Gospels’, became disillusioned over why these others were excluded, questioned the canon, etc.

He then makes the rather astonishing claim that the four canonical Gospels and the 20 other ‘Gospels’ (along with 15 apocalyptic texts) were locked in a battle for acceptance.  Ummm . . . no they weren’t.  He also states that the theological perspectives of those who composed these other texts ‘represent a religion far removed from the sanguine and organised movement I believed it to be.’  First of all, thanks for the no-so-kind categorical statement about Christianity.  Secondly, this would only be problematic if early Christianity and Gnostic-Christianity were one and the same, which, historically and theologically speaking, they weren’t.  So yeah, there’s going to be some differences.

Owen Jones further asserts that the other texts, which the early Church Fathers rejected from the canon, are absolutely foundational for understanding the origins of early Christianity.  Understanding the origins, not so much; understanding the developments of Christianity in response to fringe groups calling themselves Christians, yeah.  Or, to be fair: if he wants to claim that these other texts are foundational for understanding the origins of these fringe groups, then I could go with that.  But again, these groups and the Christianity from which they borrow key concepts are not the same.

He then begins his investigation in Alexandria (Egypt) with the sermons of Athanasius (293-373 CE), where he–according to Owen Jones–had ‘something rather controversial to say.’  This ‘controversial’ claim was that the 27 books of the NT are the only ones recognised by the Church as ‘Scripture’ and that all other books are disallowed.  The reason why Owen Jones believes this claim to be controversial is because all of the other texts that were necessarily condemned by Athanasius’ statement ‘were–up until that point–regarded as Christian.’  Ummm . . . no they weren’t.  He puts the blame for this on those who held positions of power in the Church (oh boy, here we go), those who desired to keep works they deemed heretical out of the hands of others.

Strangely enough, Owen Jones points out that the only knowledge we had of these texts–presumably after Athanasius’ statement–came from the ‘enemies’ of these texts, the early Church Fathers who railed against them as heretical documents.  What I find strange about this is that many of these early Church Fathers (and others)–specifically those who spoke against these other texts–predate not only Athanasius but also his claims about canonicity.  Polycarp (60-155 CE) Hegessipus (120-180 CE), Irenaeus (130-200 CE),  Tertullian (160-240 CE), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), Tertullian (160-225 CE), Ephraem Syrus (306-373 CE); all of these openly spoke against the theology and influence of Gnosticism, from which these ‘other texts’ emerged.

Owen Jones then asserts that the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts ‘forced scholars to completely rethink the nature of early Christianity’ (split infinitive original).  He then teams up with Bart Ehrman to discuss the significance of the findings at Nag Hammadi.  Ehrman gives a quick summary of how the texts were found–i.e. by accident–and then Owen Jones carries on with his claims: the texts date to the 4th century CE but ‘some scholars believe’ (who?) that they were written earlier; these ‘Christian’ texts contain Gospels of Jesus, only the Jesus described therein varied considerably from the canonical Jesus.  (Well, duh).

Ehrman comes back into the picture (literally) and adds a bit of clarity to things: the other Gospels represented ‘alternative visions of Jesus and what Christianity was meant to be.’  I can go with that.  However, Ehrman states that these ‘alternative views . . . might be what Jesus actually taught during his ministry.’  This is where I part company with Ehrman.  Owen Jones then tries to understand why these other texts came to be buried in the middle of nowhere.  From the nearby monastery?  Maybe–so ‘some scholars’ (who?) say.  On this view, when Athanasius issued his decree, the people/monks of the monastery couldn’t bring themselves to destroy these texts because they considered them sacred.  So, they buried them to be unburied later.

Owen Jones then travels to the museum in Cairo where the Nag Hammadi texts are housed, and he meets up with Stephen Emmel.  (At this point, he keeps banging on about these texts not being included in the canon, that these texts are ‘Gospels’, etc).  The primary focus of the visit is the Gospel of Thomas, and the discussion at this point in the show is fairly standard.  The focus then shifts to another (standard) point about Thomas: the date of the text.  As stated before, Owen Jones claims that scholars believe that the text dates to c. the 4th century CE, but others believe it is much earlier.  Says Owen Jones: ‘As the logic goes: if the Gospel of Thomas is dated to the 1st century, then it could be earlier than the canonical Gospels; and if that is the case, then that is the nearest we will ever get to the historical Jesus.’  I have to go with Nicholas Perrin on this one who says that such a radical early date is not likely.**

Owen Jones continues his inquiry into the meaning and significance of the Gospel of Thomas by pointing out their pithy and cryptic nature.  He stresses the fact that these sayings were written with the intention of being ‘decoded’, and only those who were successfully able to ‘decipher’ the true meaning of these sayings were granted immortality.  (Excuse me; the phone’s ringing. . . . Sorry about that.  Valentinius was just wanting to know when Owen Jones was going to return his ‘Introduction to Gnostic Theology’ book).  Owen Jones proclaims that it was because of these cryptic saying and the promises they dangled that the leaders of the Church condemned as heresy.  Well, not necessarily; but I think I know what you’re trying to say.  Although, I fear where you’re going to take this sort of claim.

On that note: I’ll end this post for today.  I’ll try to do more later this weekend.

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* It should be pointed out that this ‘kissing on the mouth’ claim is a bit overplayed (not to mention misguided).  First of all, so what if Jesus kissed Mary.  I’m sure being an Israelite in the ancient world, Jesus would have kissed several people.  Being shocked that Jesus kissed someone is like being shocked that an Italian drinks wine.  Secondly, because the reference to Jesus kissing Mary is found in a Gnostic text, and because the contents of this particular text are largely symbolic, the focus is more on the symbolic meaning of the act rather than the act itself.  In the Gospel of Philip (which is where the reference is found), Mary represents wisdom and Jesus kissing her signals his love for wisdom; it has nothing to do with any supposed romantic love for  the historical Mary Magdalene.  Besides, the language in the Gospel of Philip is not specific enough to support the usual romantic speculations about Jesus and Mary, and the phrase ‘on the mouth’ is missing (or, corrupt) in the manuscripts.
** See N. Perrin, Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship Between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (2002).

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hardly any tears

Yahoo Movies has provided a list of 10 movies that are supposedly the ones ‘that make grown men cry.’  Naturally, being a dude and being one not often brought to tears (especially because of something fictitious) I was curious to know which movies they had in mind.  I was quite surprised to see what they said.  Here’s what they had to said along with what I have to say:

  1. Field of Dreams–a great movie, and admittedly the end is quite touching, but not really a tear-jerker
  2. Shawshank Redemption–an amazingly well-written movie, but still no tears
  3. Backdraft–even though I’ve never seen this one all the way through, I could understand why it would be on the list
  4. The Wrestler–never heard of it, and it doesn’t really sound all that interesting
  5. Transformers: The Movie–seriously? this one is on the list?
  6. Rocky–maybe Rocky 3, where ‘Mickey’ dies and there is a grown man crying; but the first Rocky: no tears here
  7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day–unless I have some sort of demented ‘daddy-complex’, then maybe; otherwise, no tears for me in this movie
  8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–never seen it, but I’ve always wanted to
  9. Billy Elliot–I think I cried when I realised that I couldn’t get my money back after watching this
  10. Up–never heard of it

Now, by way of self disclosure and to show that I don’t have a heart made of lead, there have been a small handful of movies that have caused me to shed tears–and I’m speaking more about quasi-recent flicks and not ones from when I was a little tot.  The three that immediately come to mind are: Awakenings, Patch Adams (strangely enough), and October Sky.

Update: I forgot about one other movie that made me cry: My Life.  That was tough to watch.

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they’re still not lost (1)

I grew up in Atlanta, GA.  This means that any time I travelled north, particularly to Kentucky or Ohio, I had to pass through Tennessee and passing through Tennessee meant being inundated with billboards about attractions I had to visit (or, so they wanted me to believe).  The big attractions specifically in mind are Rock City, Ruby Falls, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge.  And just in case I snubbed all of those, there was one more and it was this final one that always made me laugh: the exciting ‘Lost Sea‘ in Sweetwater, TN.

I would always laugh at this not just because the ‘Sea’ is really a lake (but let’s not quibble over semantics) but also because, if the ‘Sea’ is a tourist attraction (and has been for quite some time) then the ‘Sea’ is no longer ‘lost.’  They should really change the name to, the ‘Found Sea’ because that’s really what it is; they’re not fooling anyone by calling it ‘Lost’.  However, it seems as though they kept the name because it adds mystery and excitement–and let’s not forget money in their pockets. Let’s face it, we live in an age when mystery, intrigue, lost things being found, and conspiracy theories are the attractions, and they are certainly the kinds of things that rake in the dough.  (That’s really the primary reason why Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code did so well).  So I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised if the good people over at the ‘Lost Sea’ want to capitalise on this because they know it works.

The BBC (channel 4) ran a show back in March of 2008, which they re-aired a couple of weeks ago, on the so-called ‘Lost Gospels‘* which made me laugh.  Quick caveat: I did not see the original airing in 2008, mostly because my wife and I did not move to England until September 2008, did not have a TV (or want to pay the TV license) and we had no knowledge of a thing called an ‘iPlayer’ until early 2009.  By that point, the show was certainly no longer available.  Knowledge that the show had aired before my finding it yesterday tempered my enthusiasm.  I wanted to do a summary of this show in the spirit of, ‘check out this new thing’ but I then realised that it’s possibly been done before.  However, I’m still going to give it go–just for fun.  Caveat over.

I laughed at the title for the ‘Lost Gospels’ for many of the same reason I laughed at the ‘Lost Sea’ billboards.  First of all, the so-called ‘Gospels’ in question are no longer ‘lost'; they’ve been found and they’ve been known about for quite some time.  Again, I think they retain the ‘lost’ qualifier simply to add intrigue and/or attraction to the story about these so-called ‘Gospels’.  Secondly, and this explains my use of ‘so-called’ and the use of scar-quotes around ‘Gospels’ (I just can’t stop myself): in terms of form and content, the documents in question are not Gospels in the same way that the four canonical Gospels are.  In the words of NT Wright (slightly paraphrased): these other ‘Gospels’ claim to be ‘good news’, which is what ευαγγελιον essentially means, but their news is not really news and even if it were news it’s not really good.

These other texts, and this will certainly open me up to some criticism, are often nothing more than a collection of either esoteric stories about or sayings from Jesus and the early disciples.  I will admit that these other texts do show affinities with material found in the canonical Gospels, usually with regard to basic historical elements (e.g. characters involved, places, timeframes) but specifically key ethical teachings.  However, these other texts present a (theological) view of Jesus and the early disciples that not only conflicts with the canonical portraits but also emerges from esoteric groups of a later period who operate within a theological framework that is primarily Gnostic with a few bits of Judaism and Christianity thrown in for flavour.  To adapt the phraseology of the Jesus Seminar: these other texts are theologised history whereas the canonical Gospels are historical theology.

I’ll leave things there for the moment.  In the next post I will give a summary of the key points of discussion from the show as well as provide a critique of those points.

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* If you do not have the ability to see things on BBC iPlayer, then you’re out of luck.  Sorry.  If you do have the ability, give it a go before you luck runs out, which will be on 28-Sep.

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new hand-dryers at the Uni blow

something between cool and tepid air, which seems to make the machines rather useless.

Sure, the Uni is trying to save money (and the environment) by installing more eco-friendly machines; not to mention installing machines in general because it saves on buying paper towels, which ensures saving a few more trees.  The machines might be more cost-efficient in the sense that they are sensor-activated (and de-activated) and run for a set period of time, which is typically not that long.

However, when the machines blow air at a rate that is equivalent to a small jet plane, and when the air that is blown from the machines is barely tepid thus requiring the drying experience to be considerably longer; I am left wondering if there is really any saved costs by installing such next-to-useless devices.  With the old dryers, my hands were dry before the set time elapsed; now, I go through two full intervals before finally giving up and finish drying my hands on my jeans.

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good for him

John Mayer, that is.  The quick version of this story is that Mayer has quit and deleted his Twitter account.  Read the story to see his good reasons for doing so.

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random bits

Today is my day off (sort of) from my usual routine, so I’ve decided to do very little except nose around the internet and see what’s happening in the news.  For those of you who know me, if I’m purposefully looking at the news then I must be really bored.  My first find was this interesting little juxtaposition of stories:

I could be wrong, but I don’t think those two ‘facts’ jive too well.  (I think the writers and/or researchers need to have a little chat with each other).  If the first is true, then the people behind the second have some splanin to do.  However, if the second is true, then people of whom the second speaks have cause for fear.  Just as an aside (or two): that’s a real shame about Leno’s break down, and the deal with Burnquist (the tab next to the Yahoo tab) is pretty sweet.

In other news, I found this story and was deeply bothered by it.  (My apologies if you have to deal with the stupid flashplayer ads on that page, especially if it’s the deplorable ‘Lynx Wingman’ ad).  While it might be true that accidents in the 60s and 70s are ‘not significantly different’ than they are today, that is not good reason to propose what is being proposed.  Using the same logic as DiSimone, why not propose paying a daily fee for not wearing a seatbelt; after all, the majority of cars prior to the 1960s were not equipped with seatbelts.  Asinine.  I think the real reason why this story bothers me has two parts: 1) it fosters the idea that breaking the law is acceptable as long as you can pay for it, and 2) the motivation for the proposal is money; there is no real concern for human safety.

Moving on.  The ‘sort of’ part of my day off means that I still do some routine things.  One of those is a quick glance at the job-market for positions in my field of study.  I know that I still have some time before I finish my PhD, but it doesn’t really hurt to see what’s out there and what sort of expertise is needed.  One of the places I typically search is the SBL Career page, which tends to be quite good.  (The others I usually search can be found here and here).  If you clicked the SBL link, you would have seen the other bit of ‘news’ that caught my attention.  If you didn’t click it (shame on you), then here it is:

I tremendous respect for Duke University and all that they do specifically for biblical scholarship, and I know that the position on offer is a named position; but you have to admit that the blurb is quite amusing.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

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