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