Tuesday, August 21, 2007

beyond belief

I just finished reading this book by Elaine Pagels. She is a renowned scholar on the "gnostic" gospels, the ones that didn't make the cut into the New Testament, but she wrote this book for a general audience. You don't have to know a lot about scholarly work in this field in order to understand the book, which is nice. I appreciate it when scholars write that way--it helps to have introductory works that one can read to get into the field, and it also helps for those who don't want to get into the field deeply but just want to learn a little about it. I hope that if I ever write anything I'll keep that in mind...

Anyway, the book was very interesting. She spends quite a bit of time comparing the themes of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John, as well as the Secret Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mary and a few other lesser known gospels. She suggests that the Gospel of Thomas and other ones that didn't make it into the New Testament mostly focus on Jesus' humanity--maybe he was the Christ, the Messiah, the one who was expected, but they don't assign divinity to him. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John have many similar themes and phrases, but John emphasizes Jesus' Godhood while Thomas emphasizes Jesus' humanity. (Thomas also has much in common with the other three gospels, and in fact some scholars believe Thomas is the elusive "Q" document, which Matthew and Luke purportedly pulled from to get their material which is the same but outside Mark. This could be true, although there are also many similarities with Mark and Thomas.) In John, the disciple Thomas is shown (famously) as one who doubts, and who doesn't quite get who Jesus is and what he's doing most of the time. The author of John is probably saying something about the gospel connected to Thomas. In Thomas, of course, the disciple Thomas is given secret information none of the other disciples hear (which is similar to Mary's status in the Gospel of Mary, etc.). Thomas is a collection of sayings and does not have a story line. There are parts of Thomas that seem to show Jesus as something other than what any other person could be, while there are other parts that show him saying his disciples could be the same as him.

Pagels' point is that John's theology won out in the end. She suggests that if the other New Testament gospels are read without John, it is not obvious that Jesus is divine, although it is obvious he is the Messiah, the Son of Man, etc. We read them with the knowledge of John and with the Nicene Creed and all of church history in mind, so we see Jesus as divine, but she suggests that was not a given at first among the many branches of Christians in the first couple hundred years after Jesus. But John's theology prevailed eventually.

Was John right? Was Jesus the Son of God in a way that none of the rest of us can be? Or was Jesus just another person, a person who happened to be really close to God?

Although there is much reason for cynicism in the whole canonization process because of all the jockeying for power that happened among the bishops who lived in Constantine's time and beyond, I still believe that the things that were canonized became part of our "Holy Scriptures" for a reason. I think there's something important about Jesus, that although we're all able to be children of God, Jesus was the only child of God in the sense that he WAS (and is) God. We all may have "that of God" within us, something that connects with God, the image of God in us, but we are not all God.

So I agree with Pagels that it was not altogether clear to everyone who called themselves Christians in the first few hundred years CE that Jesus was "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God" (as the Nicene Creed puts it), but I think God worked even through crooked bishops and politicized theologizing. That gives me hope, actually, because that means that God can also work through me, even though I too have the tendency to mess up a lot!


Alan said...

I've not studied or even read about the "other" gospels save for a TV special some years ago about the one supposedly authored by Judas, aired I think by National Geographic. If I'm not mistaken, he too was given secret information leading to his betrayal.

Thanks for writing this, Cherice. I hope to find more time to reading some of these books my friends and acquaintances read and report on.

Nancy A said...

I read Elaine Pagels back in the 1980s. I was a big fan.

I too am fascinated by the idea of "what made it" in Christian thought and what fell by the wayside.

That the three gospels written most closely to the time period of Christ, two of which were written by Jews, should take the backseat to a gospel written in stylish poetry 200 years later, by a Greek who had never traveled to Jesus' land, makes my scientific mind withdraw sharply.

I can't help it. There's something about it that doesn't seem honest. If Jesus had been divine in the sense that John implied, I think it would have been mentioned in the other gospels at least once or twice.

Alas, I don't have much faith in the early church. By the time the bible was being compiled, Christianity had already become the mighty Holy Roman Empire. I fear, like many scholars, that the church's emphasis on John was deliberately to downplay the revolutionary teachings of Jesus. If they could make Jesus's mission about a salvation scheme, then they could protect the Empire from radical and unsettling ideas.

The divinity of Christ was a big debate in the early church. Once the church settled which faction won, it persecuted or killed anyone who did not agree, often butchering entire towns or villages for heresy.

Not very promising as a way of bringing out the truth.

Yet to make the gospel of John take a backseat to the other gospels, and to incorporate yet other gospels into the mix is to draw up a completely different Christianity. One in which Jesus is more human, less deified. One in which his teachings have to do with our life together, rather than our own personal life after death.

That changes rather a lot.