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.
* 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).