Sunday, January 14, 2018

Weighing the Alternative Gospels: Non-Gnostic Gospels

Resuming a long-term project here, this post continues a presentation of objective, computerized statistical analysis of all the various documents that are called gospels, both those that are in the Bible and those that are not.

In the previous post, we'd looked at several documents that are often classified as Gnostic gospels, and another that is sometimes nominated for the category of Gnostic gospel. In this post, we continue with another collection of that are popularly referred to as gospels, though not as Gnostic ones.

Again, the first task is to take the expectations that come with the word "gospel" and see if those expectations actually apply to these other documents. We're starting with a simple orientation to the relative size of the documents, and using English as a "rough analysis" basis for word-counts in a common language. As a point of comparison, the Biblical gospels run in length from the shortest as the Gospel of Mark at around 13840 words, to the longest as the Gospel of Luke at around 24180 words.

The relative lengths of the non-canonical documents here, in round numbers are:
  • Gospel of the Savior - 1420 words
  • Infancy Gospel of Thomas - 3210 words
  • Proto-Evangelium of James - 5310 words
  • Gospel of Peter - 1590 words
The four of these together are shorter than the Gospel of Mark alone. The longest of these, the Proto-Evangelium of James, is less than 40% of the length of the shortest Biblical gospel; it is mainly concerned with the events in the lives of Jesus' grandparents and parents leading up to his birth.

In the next installment I plan to look at another introductory question, the relative focus on Jesus, in both the Biblical and non-Biblical gospels. This will put us in a better position to have an overview of the documents in general.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Weighing the Alternative Gospels: The Gnostic Gospels

This post resumes a project that I had set aside and have always intended to continue: an objective, computerized statistical analysis of all the various documents that are called gospels, both those that are in the Bible and those that are not.

I had previously posted word clouds as an overview of several alternative gospels that are (or some contend might be) classified as Gnostic. This type of introduction is important because the word "gospel" may cause certain expectations for those familiar with the four Biblical gospels. In the Biblical gospels, the focus on Jesus' life and teachings results in documents where the most commonly-used word is "Jesus" in each of the four. That expectation of the word "gospel" may not apply to all of the alternative gospels, which do not always share that same focus on Jesus. I've included the most commonly-used word here for each of the Gnostic gospels, with links to more complete word clouds for those interested.
For reference, there is also a Venn diagram of their major areas of focus showing the top 10 words used in each of those gospels. "Jesus" is included as the most common word for the Gospel of Thomas, but does not make the top 10 words for any of the other Gnostic documents covered here. It is important for those familiar with the Biblical gospels that we do not not carry forward too many assumptions about the content of the alternative gospels simply from the fact many scholars refer to them as gospels.

One important item lacking so far is any indication of their size. For instance, in the Biblical gospels, Luke is the longest (the NIV text that I used had around 24180 words) and Mark is the shortest (around 13840 words), by word count.

How much material is in the Gnostic gospels? This type of overview is important again as a perspective-check for people who are used to the word "gospel" referring to the canonical gospels, and so carry over some expectations to the alternative gospels, to find that those expectations may not apply.
The Gnostic gospels are relatively shorter than the Biblical gospels. They range from the longest (the Gospel of Philip, where "Jesus" is not among the top 10 most common words) at about 2/3 the length of the Gospel of Mark, to the shortest (the Gospel of Thomas, the most Jesus-focused of the group) at less than 1/10 the length of the Gospel of Mark.

I hope to continue this series with other, non-Gnostic gospels in an upcoming post

Technical notes: This initial comparison has been done using English texts for the word counts. Since the various documents are in different original languages, if we want to compare word counts at all then the comparison has to be in a common language, otherwise the different meaning-density of the languages would skew the results. So English will work as a common-denominator language for an initial survey of relative lengths. For the sake of the word counts, I did not include things that were not part of the original document's text such as introductory remarks, concluding remarks, chapter headings, or parenthetical references to other documents. I also excluded thing that were not actual words such as verse numbers or the standalone punctuation mark " - ". I did keep any ellipsis marks ("...") as part of the text for word counts, on the hopes that the translators were accurate there and it did stand for one or more words in a damaged ancient manuscript.) The results are rounded to the nearest 10 words.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of the Blogroll 2017

Here are my favorite posts of 2017 from the Christian blogs that I read regularly:
Independent bloggers are becoming rarer, and I deeply value the commitment and dedication of the bloggers represented here. I'd encourage my readers to try a few of these links if you're looking for edifying and thoughtful material. 

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 29, 2017

50th Anniversary: The Trouble With Tribbles

It was 50 years ago today that "The Trouble With Tribbles" -- an episode of Star Trek -- first aired. In honor of that, I hope I can be forgiven for putting a limerick in the mouth of Montgomery Scott:  

There once were wee creatures called tribbles
That wreaked havoc with endless nibbles
  They ate triticale
  And gorged themselves daily
And turned the seed grain into kibbles
Here's to Classic Trek!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Advent 4: A child is born

Of all the joyful celebrations, there are few that rival the birth of a new child.

Yesterday (as I write this), a friend of mine needed to organize her things and so briefly handed me her daughter Molly, born four months ago. Holding her awakened that deep human need to love.

I find that holding an infant is always something of a spiritual experience for me. Molly harbors no hate and no suspicion. She brings no ulterior motive. She practices no unkindness, attempts no manipulation, brings no emotional risk other than having my heart stolen. I am free to set aside any vigilance against attacks or traps, and simply connect. Little Molly is at the age where she can make meaningful eye contact, and can smile. Freed from any need to watch my back, I can experience genuine amazement at a remarkable little person. Holding an infant reminds me how much other human connections may be tainted in comparison -- and wondering how much of the cause is within myself. But the longer I hold a child, the more this self-cynicism passes -- not because it's wrong but because there are better things to do. No matter what's in me, the infant offers a fresh start. I find myself free to be more relaxed, more authentic, more joyful in return. There's a connection to be made, and nothing to poison it.

In reaching out to us, God chose weakness. Some scoff at the idea of God in a human baby: foolish! But the weakness of God is stronger than our strength, and the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. That purity that I experience when holding an infant is something that many of us also experience when we are around nature, or any time that we find ourselves in the presence of the holy. Considering God as an infant reminds me how much my other connections with Him may be tainted in comparison, wondering how much of the cause is with me, and finally letting the self-cynicism pass. There's a connection to be made, and nothing to poison it. There's a fresh start: For unto us a child is born.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3: If Not for Mary?

God has chosen certain people for very specific roles at different times. Consider Abraham: without Abraham, how and when would monotheism have gained a lasting presence in the world? Or Moses: without Moses, how and when would the world have gained the idea that the worship that pleases God is when we treat each other with honesty and compassion? In both of these cases, Christians will see the hand of God -- and yet God chose to work through a person. We can honestly say that the world is different because of the people through whom God works, like Abraham and Moses. And in both cases they were just the beginning, and the world began to fill with a stream of people who saw their service to God in terms of honesty and compassion towards their neighbors.

It's unfortunate that so many arguments have occurred surrounding Mary, mother of Jesus. She also holds one of the era-defining roles in history. And the virgin consented to remain a virgin while others would think of her as an immoral woman. That is so different from the way of the world, where so many of us would gladly settle for the appearance of decency, for hiding our sins, if only we could keep our reputations. Here's the temptation: Will the appearance of being good become more important to us than the reality? For Mary, the reality was more important than the appearance. In some small way she shared in her son's suffering, if only for a short time: numbered among the transgressors, despised and rejected without deserving it.

And again God chose to work through a person. The world is different because of Mary. "Wait," someone might say, "All she did was bring Jesus into the world." Well, that's like saying "All Abraham did was move to a new place." Some of the world-changers didn't do complicated things. Some of the controversy about Mary has been this: By focusing on her, do people take credit away from God? How much mention of her is appropriate? In Scripture, she focuses not on herself but on her son. That's exactly how she brought light into the world.

Since everything happens because of God, it is easy to think that we do not matter. But God has chosen to make a world in which we matter. God typically works through people. When he heals people or rescues people, it's generally done through someone else with human flesh and blood. Our struggles matter. When he feeds the hungry or visits the sick, it's through us. Even in matters of redemption, at every point we see that people matter. That is, after all, the point of redemption.

In dark times, we are called to bring light into the darkness. We are the vessel that carries Christ. For those hostile to Christ, we carry a quiet and humble form of Christ: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and serving God by honesty and compassion towards our neighbors. Because God works through us, and we matter.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2: Centuries ahead of his opponents ...

Reading Matthew's account of Jesus' conception and birth, the second chapter recalls prophecy after prophecy of God's plans for the age of the Messiah. Centuries before, the prophets wrote: "born of a maiden ... called Immanuel (God-With-Us)", in "Bethlehem of Judea". But if Jesus was to be King of the Jews, then the man who held that title wouldn't keep it forever, or pass it to his own descendants. So he set out to kill an infant.

At that point in the narrative, it is easy -- and right -- to look with disgust on someone who would kill a child. We see a lot of evil in this world, and if we didn't already know how that story ended, it would be easy to worry if enough evil could overcome God's purposes for the world's redemption. How could God make so much depend on a baby who couldn't keep himself safe? Joseph and Mary were not incredible super-heroes. They were no match for the soldiers dispatched by a murderous king.

We know what happened: in a dream, an angel warned Joseph to take the family to Egypt. But the soldiers didn't know the exact identity of the child, and still killed the remaining boys of similar age in that town. And ... centuries before, the prophets wrote: "out of Egypt I will call my son", and "a voice is heard ... Rachel weeping for her children, and will not be consoled." God knew. He knew the evil of his enemies. He knew their plans. He knew how low they would go. While his enemies were trying to undermine God's plans, in reality they were fulfilling prophecies as God foresaw how they would try -- and fail -- to undermine his plans. So even their attempts to stop him were confirmations of God's predictions.

One reason we can worry about evil is because we have a suspicion that it could get out of hand. We worry that it is out of hand already. We recognize that the level of evil in our world is sometimes beyond our ability to overcome it (as it was beyond Joseph and Mary). We worry -- in some quiet, unrecognized part of our minds -- that it is beyond God, that things have gotten away from him. (That thought is behind some streams of atheism, as the common answer for why they do not believe in God: it's the evil in the world.) Almost all Christians agree on this: evil is contrary to God's will, by definition. If God does not desire evil -- and here it comes anyway -- does that mean that things are beyond his control?

I think that is one reason why God tells us some events in advance. He knew what his enemies would do then. He knows what evil is doing now. He knows what evil will do tomorrow. He told us in advance, centuries in advance. Evil has not outsmarted God, has not taken him by surprise, has not thwarted his plans. At this point in the world's story, it is easy -- and right -- to look with disgust on the evil in the world. But if we have listened to what Mary and Joseph's -- and God's -- son said, we may be a little less self-righteous, a little slower to blame God for not having eradicated us yet. We may begin to suspect that God is not a slacker, but patient. We may find ourselves trusting him.