December 01, 2003


I've long admired the work of Elaine Pagels, and have been reading with interest her latest work, Beyond Belief, which contrasts the doctrinaire version of Christianity which developed historically with the early history of the religion, during which there was no small amount of diversity of opinion as to what Jesus's coming meant, what his message was, and what it meant to be a Christian. At the heart of Pagel's work is a contrast between the Gospels of the Canon, particularly the Gospel of the John, and the Gospel of Thomas, which was one of the works found in 1945 among the papyrus codexes found in Egypt in 1945 and translated in toto in the Nag Hammadi Library.

Perhaps needless to say, I find such discussions fascinating. The Nag Hammadi find is certainly of major importance; while I haven't read the whole collection, I have found several texts worth pondering. I suppose, though, that what gives me pause is the argument made by some commentators that these previously lost tracts, which were denounced by the Orthodox and later suppressed by the Church as it grew in power and influence in the waning era of the Roman empire, represent a more authentic Christianity than the Gospels. They seem to discount the notion that the early Church fathers might have been capable of separating texts which captured what they understood, from tradition, from centuries of believers, from the writings and letters of their predecessors (not all of which are extant), what was authentic and what was corrupted.

Take for example the above linked edition of the Gospel of Thomas, translated by Marvin Meyer, and including a lenghty concluding essay by Harold Bloom. I picked it up over the weekend while, perhaps appropriately enough, while out Christmas shopping in a mega mall. I desperately needed a haircut, and just as desperately needed something to read while waiting in line for my turn.

I have no doubt that it's a fine translation (it reads much better than the version in the Nag Hammadi collection, and Meyer's notes are encyclopedic). But the dust flap gave me pause:

Reportedly dictated by Jesus to his brother, Judas Thomas the Twin, founder of the churches of the East, Thomas reveals a Jesus who merges with the wisdom of the Sophists, with Diogenes, Plato and Socrates.

Why a Jesus who sounds more like Sophists, Diogenes, Plato and Socrates would be more authentic than a Jesus who sounds like a Jewish Prophet is never quite made clear. In his introduction, Meyer notes that one of those early Christian attacks on heresy, the rather immodestly titled Refutation of All Heresies by Hippolytus of Rome, written in the third century, noted that one passage of the Gospel of Thomas came, not from Jesus, but rather from Hippocrates. Meyer notes a Greco-Roman current running through Thomas, and suggests that Jesus might well have been influenced by the Cynics, an interpretation Meyer believes is supported by the collection of sayings contained in the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus is reduced, in a memorable phrase quoted by Meyer, to a "peasant Jewish Cynic," and, apparently, what was revolutionary in the Synoptic Gospels, in John and later in Paul, was inauthentic.

We are at a great remove in time from the Council of Nicea, from the earlier era in which the Gnostic heresiarchs competed with the second and third generation of Church fathers who sought to exclude the former's constructs from the "one true faith." But it is worth noting that the Gospel of Thomas was found with 44 other texts, one of which tells us,

"He said, 'An image that has no likeness is the rationality of the soul,' so that he who said these things will understand... these now have become natural creatures -- even Chimaera and Cerberus and all the rest that were mentioned. They all came down and they cast off images. And they all became a single image. It was said, 'Work now!' Certainly it is a single image that became the image of a complex beast with many heads..."

And so on. The source of the excerpt is a parable from the ninth book of Plato's Republic, which was not immediately apparent to the translators of the Nag Hammadi library:

What has proved more difficult is to account for is the extent to which the Coptic version deviates from the Greek original. So much does it deviate from Plato that the tractate's first editors (1971) did not recognize it for what it is. The deviation has been accounted for in two ways. In the first, it is viewed as the product of inept translation... In the second, it is viewed as the product of gnosticizing redaction of the Greek original, a redacted version which was then translated into Coptic... These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and the truth may therefore be a mixture of both...

There is yet another explanation, not suggested here: That Plato was actually a gnostic philosopher, that the text contained in the Nag Hammadi library represents a more authentic Plato that was suppressed by the classicists, and that the Nag Hammadi library preserves one of the few authentic fragments of Plato's thought.

Posted by Ideofact at December 1, 2003 10:38 PM

Well, I find your insight into the esoteric Plato useful. It's based on about as much evidence as the Gnostic Jesus, too! Those hegemonic and doctrinaire classicists, gotta watch 'em.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at December 2, 2003 10:14 AM

Interesting thoughts! I dig yer blog-- I'll add it to my 'roll (as soon as I remember the stinkin' password).

Found you through Camassia-- just an fyi, in case you're interested, I've been/will be blogging on a verse of the Gospel of Thomas every day (or so). I'm currently up to 27-- drop by and take a look!

Posted by: J. Puma at December 2, 2003 03:53 PM

I don't really know that Jesus sounds that much like a Jewish prophet, even in the canonical gospels. The prophets were pretty extreme characters, who served as mouthpieces for a very different concept of God than Jesus preached. Jesus sounds (in the gospels) more like a rabbi than like a prophet most of the time.
In any event, by the time of Jesus' ministry, Judaism had been fairly heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and/or mystery religions. This explains, in part, why the New Testament's loving God the Father is so very different in character from the Yahweh of the Old Testament.

Posted by: Rob at December 2, 2003 04:20 PM

Thanks, all, for the comments. I'm sure that the good professor's comments are offered in the spirit of a good Medievalist. whose skepticism comes in part from the farsightedness he achieves by standing on his Classical brethern's shoulders...

Mr. Puma -- I'll add a link to you as well, and thanks.

As for Jesus's character, perhaps Rabbi is more accurate, although the money changers in the temple story always seems more like something a Prophet would do. A Rabbi might discourage it, but a Prophet would go in and kick their asses.

Posted by: Bill at December 3, 2003 01:06 AM

The money changers...h-m-m. Okay, so Jesus was an *activist* Rabbi. Actually though, when Muslims say that Jesus was *only* a prophet, Christians tend to take offense. To Christians, Jesus was he concerning the coming of whom the prophets were sent to prophesy--John the Baptist, most notably in the Gospels.
Despite the money changers, I would still maintain that the teachings of Jesus are more like those of a Rabbi than like the ravings of an Old Testament prophet. Sorry for nit-picking, I loved your post.

Posted by: Rob at December 3, 2003 04:48 AM

Historically speaking, I was always led to believe that the term "rabbi" wasn't used during Jesus's Era in the sense that it is now-- had different connotations when the temple/Jerusalem still existed.

In his book "Jesus the Magician," Morton Smith argues pretty convincingly that Jesus fit the bill of the "wndering magician/healer" type that was incredibly common in the Roman Empire. He also has an entire appendix devoted to comparing Jesus w/OT prophets to conclude that they're nothing alike.

Though I disagree with some of his conclusions, it's an excellent book-- highly recommended!

Posted by: J. Puma at December 3, 2003 12:34 PM

J. Puma:
You are correct that the meaning of the term "Rabbi" as used in Jesus' time differs from how it is used now, but there were Rabbis before, during, and after Jesus, some of whose teachings were of a similar kind. My point was that we don't find Jesus serving as a conduit for the voice of Yahweh, cursing apostates with plagues and boils, or threatening to bring down the wrath of foreign potentates on anybody that doesn't listen to what he has to say, etc. I don't consider Jesus to have been a prophet, at least not in the tradition of Hebrew prophets that came before him. He was a teacher, a healer, perhaps a magician (I liked Smith's book, too), but not a prophet.

Posted by: Rob at December 3, 2003 12:49 PM

Just another though, in reference to the dustflap of Meyer's translation that you quote: seems to me that since the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered so recently, the study of Gnosticism has been relegated to a few ivy league scholars who have "cornered the market," as it were. Meyer is one of them, Pagels is another, Morton Smith also comes to mind. The end result has been a sentimentalization of Gnosticism that completely ignores the diversity of material.

There were indeed Greco-Roman influences in Jesus's teachings; he lived in the Greco-Roman Era. Also, it's worth keeping in mind that Plato was the de facto final word in philosophy-- Jewish Platonists abounded (vide Philo). However, Meyer & Friends (and their publishers) are often guilty of painting the "Gnostics" with a broad brush indeed, and I've come to the conclusion that one can usually fairly safely ignore about 75% of anything written on Gnosticism by this cabal (and their publishers) in favor of reliance on the primary sources.

Just my two cents . . . .

Posted by: J. Puma at December 3, 2003 12:56 PM