Thursday, July 31, 2008

Training to pray

I was considering my first reaction to two different scenarios:

1. I hear that someone I know is sick.
First reaction? Pray.

2. Someone does me wrong -- whether on purpose or not.
First reaction? Anger -- or its politer cousin, impatience.

When someone wrongs me, I am suddenly in the middle of temptation: a temptation to hatred, even if it is in a mild form. Christ calls us to pray for our enemies so that, whenever I think of my enemies, it should trigger prayer as automatically as when I hear that someone is ill. Whenever I am wronged, it should call me to prayer as surely as the liturgy. Whenever someone curses me, I should hear the call to bless them.

Am I living up to that? Not even close -- but it's time I gave it a try.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Gospel of Mary: An Assessment of Its Historical Value

Many of us are familiar with the canonical gospels of the life of Christ, but less so with the non-canonical "lost gospels". The Christian canon of Scripture was settled some time ago. These days the question is being revisited: was that question decided appropriately? Were legitimate witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus excluded? This post will examine the historical value of the Gospel of Mary, both in terms of knowing the history of Jesus and in terms of its own value as an ancient text related to Christianity.

The events recorded in the Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary as we have it survives only in part. The surviving parts relate a conversation between the Savior and several disciples, then a vision of Mary and her comments on the revelation, which occupy much of the text. At the end we have a discussion among Peter, Andrew, Levi, and Mary on how Mary's vision and revelation will be received.

Identifying the people discussed
The named characters in the text that we have are Mary, Andrew, Peter, and Levi. Another main character, the Savior, is not identified by name in the surviving text, though there is no serious doubt that Jesus is intended. The other characters -- Mary, Andrew, Peter, and Levi -- are not introduced in the text that we have; what we know of them is mainly their names. Possibly the missing earlier pages identified the people with more certainty or gave them some background, or possibly the readers are expected to be familiar with these people already.

Identifying the time and place of the events
The text is short of clues for determining the time and place of the conversations and vision recorded. No dates or physical places in this world are mentioned. It is debatable whether a time and place are actually significant for visions, which are typically ahistorical in their focus.

Identifying the culture
One striking feature for readers already familiar with the canonical gospels is the lack of Jewishness of the Gospel of Mary. There is no mention of the names of Abraham or David or Moses, no mention of previous written Scripture or the prophets, nothing of the historical consciousness of the Jewish people that is so familiar from the canonical gospels. There is no mention of towns or cities in Israel, the Temple, the synagogue, the annual feasts, the Jewish priesthood, or anything that would locate the speakers firmly within a Jewish context. There is no mention of dates, places, or events that would locate the speakers in the first century, unless we accept as given from other sources about Jesus that it is enough to name these people, likely already well-known by the time this document came to be written.

There are, to be sure, a few ideas with obvious Jewish references, particularly sin, law, and the Son of Man. Other ideas may be the shared intellectual property of many cultures. The reference to the Jewish concept of law is brief, as the Savior is reported to say early in the surviving text: "See that you do not give any law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it." A similar idea is repeated towards the end of the text. It is difficult to be certain whether or not the author(s) of the text had an understanding of the Jewish concept of law. The material on such things is so brief that it is difficult to assess. At any rate, ideas such as sin and law are minor in this text in comparison to the ideas which are more emphasized.

Besides the text's striking lack of Jewish context and culture, some of the sayings of Jesus seem foreign, not only to our expectations based on canonical Scriptures, but foreign to the Jewish mindset. We find the Gospel of Mary's Savior saying, "The nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its nature alone" followed closely by the familiar refrain, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." While on a few occasions the Gospel of Mary presents familiar phrases, there are many phrases which seem out of place not only to those familiar with the canonical gospels, but also with those expecting a phrase at home within Second Temple Judaism. The concern with resolving the nature of matter seems more reminiscent of non-Jewish philosophy. The Gospel of Mary's Savior does not speak of lost sheep and breaking bread, but speaks of philosophical abstractions. The words "God" and "Father" never appear in the surviving text. "Nature" and "matter", "roots" and "forms" play a significant part in the Gospel of Mary. These clues may eventually allow us to identify with more certainty the cultural or intellectual background behind this text. At any rate it seems out of step with first-century Judaism.

The nature of the vision and the revelation
The vision and revelation occupy a good portion of the text we have, though that too is interrupted by missing pages in our best surviving manuscript. We have portrayed a soul's ascent past a series of obstacles. The soul ascends apparently alone and on the way meets hostile powers. An excerpt gives the flavor of the material here: "When the soul had overcome the third power, it went upwards and saw the fourth power, which took seven forms." Here we see a familiar mystical pattern of assigning exact, typically symbolic, numbers to the metaphysical abstractions or spiritual manifestations being discussed. Along the way, the soul meets foes such as the Power of Ignorance and the Power of Wrath, which are overcome by the pilgrim soul, alone, by means of a wise answer. After passing the final obstacle on the pilgrim way, at the end of the journey, the soul was "released from a world, and in a type from a heavenly type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient. From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence."

Again, this may take an adjustment for those accustomed to visions from a Jewish or first century Jewish-Christian context. At the end of the journey here, the soul finds no vision of God, nor of the world restored, nor of paradise, nor of a restored Temple. The soul hears no voice from God and has not even an angel for a companion. The consummation of the vision is apparently an aeon of silence. Again, comparative studies may eventually allow us to locate the cultural or religious background in which a mystical vision would climax in an aeon of silence.

The drama
The most interesting point of the Gospel of Mary is not so much the words of Jesus which are frequently of stock philosophical material though not of Jewish stock, nor the vision, which again seems of conventional material. The most interesting point is the confrontation which ensues when Mary has delivered this material to the disciples.

The first to speak is Andrew. "Say what you wish to say about what she has said, I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas." Andrew responds that these ideas are strange; but where would the Gospel of Mary's Andrew get an idea of what is strange? Unless the early missing pages turn up, we may not know the basis for his statement. But if he is meant more as an "everyman", then possibly these ideas were considered strange compared with the things Jesus was known to have taught from other sources. At any rate, regardless of how Andrew's comments are to be taken, there is at least a kernel of accuracy there: the ideas revealed by the Gospel of Mary's Savior are by and large unJewish, foreign concerns from a Savior now transplanted to foreign lands. Andrew's words go largely unnoticed because at that moment, someone else says something truly asinine.

The next to speak is Peter. "Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?" At this Mary, predictably, dissolves into tears, making a brief speech of the "Don't you believe me?" variety.

The last to speak is Levi. "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said."

The drama is nicely done. The Gospel of Mary's Peter had it coming: his inexcusable rudeness and appalling pettiness is soundly put down by Levi, the damsel in distress is defended, and they all proclaim the gospel boldly ever after.

The Gospel of Mary and the Historical Jesus
The Gospel of Mary portrays the Savior as a philosopher interested in the abstract, one without Jewish context. There is a tendency throughout the Gospel of Mary to the abstract. Not only is Jesus interested in the abstract of resolving the roots of nature, but Jesus himself is abstracted. He is no longer Jesus from the town of Nazareth. In the surviving text, he has no ties to "Jesus" or "Nazareth", he is simply -- and abstractly -- the Savior. Unfortunately, we will not gain any fresh insights into Jesus of Nazareth from the surviving text as we have it.

The Gospel of Mary and Early Christianity
Fortunately, the Gospel of Mary is not without historical value. It shows us an early stage in the formation of Christianity in which Christ was first transplanted into foreign cultures. Here Jesus has no Jewish context, and makes himself understood in a foreign land with foreign ideas. We see Jesus at a stage when his Jewishness may have been viewed with suspicion by other nations, not always at peace with the Jews. In comparing this text to other gospels, we see a struggle over the identity of Jesus at a time when religion often went hand-in-hand with ethnic identity. Was it possible for a non-Jew to have a Jewish savior? In this text, at this stage in the battle over the identity of Jesus, Jesus has almost entirely lost his Jewish identity.

It would be tempting to comment on the battle of the sexes in the Gospel of Mary, but that aspect has already been thoroughly discussed. I will say this: the battle of the sexes is probably the most human part of the Gospel of Mary, which otherwise tends to dwell in a world of abstractions. Without Peter acting the part of the insensitive macho, Andrew's objections might well have stood, and the whole Gospel of Mary might have been lost to us.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Did Tertullian speak of purgatory?

The doctrine of purgatory is a matter of controversy between different church bodies. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on purgatory, "the Church has always taught the doctrine of purgatory." The earliest Christian writer cited is Tertullian, who lived in the late 100's A.D. and early 200's A.D. Here I will review the works cited with a question in mind: did Tertullian speak of purgatory? The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on purgatory cites two of Tertullian's works: De corona militis and De monogamia.

De corona militis
Tertullian's aim in this writing is to show that a Christian, if he is in the Roman army, may not wear the customary crown or wreath, as it amounts to idolatry.
"De corona militis" mentions prayers for the dead as an Apostolic ordinance ..." - Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory, subsection titled Tradition.
The reference is apparently to a sentence in chapter 3, a chapter which is only a paragraph in its entirety. Because of its relative brevity, I will reproduce the entire paragraph to provide some context allowing the reader to gauge the accuracy of various comments on it:
[1] And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. [2] Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. [3] Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. [4] We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord's day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign. (Tertullian, De Coronis Militis, Chapter 3 in entirety, emphasis added)

Tertullian indicated his purpose in his introductory notes in the previous chapter: to cite things held by custom or tradition that are not in Scripture. Reviewing the list, some of these ancient customs have survived into modern times, while others have not, such as refraining from bathing for a week after baptism or feeling pained when normal household bread falls upon the ground. At any rate, Tertullian mentions the practice of making offerings for the dead. This is not, however, mentioned as an Apostolic ordinance.

There is another place in the same writing which has some bearing on the question of whether the primitive church taught a doctrine of purgatory. Chapter 11 contains a discussion of whether it is permissible for a Christian to be a Roman soldier in the first place. He writes a chain of questions designed to show the incompatibility of being a Christian in the Roman army.
Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?
He multiplies examples at some length, then comes to the one of interest for our present purposes:
And shall the Christian be burned according to camp rule, when he was not permitted to burn incense to an idol, when to him Christ remitted the punishment of fire?
This quote, perhaps less advantageous to the idea that Tertullian spoke of purgatory, is not considered in the article.

De Monogamia
De Monogamia, or On monogamy, is a writing that few Christians today would be comfortable endorsing. It was written while Tertullian was a Montanist, generally considered a heretical sect. The purpose of the writing is to show that it is morally wrong -- a breach of marriage vows and a rejection of monogamy -- for a widow to remarry. The teachings of Paul on remarriage are explicitly set aside in favor of a supposed new revelation of the Holy Spirit. For all of Tertullian's colorful views, he does still bear a kind of witness to the state of Christian teaching in the primitive church.
"... and in "De Monogamia" (cap. x, P. L., II, col. 912) he advises a widow "to pray for the soul of her husband, begging repose for him and participation in the first resurrection"; he commands her also "to make oblations for him on the anniversary of his demise," and charges her with infidelity if she neglect to succour his soul." - Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory, subsection titled Tradition.
Here, then, is the applicable section of Tertullian's writing:
Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship (with him) in the first resurrection; and she offers (her sacrifice) on the anniversaries of his falling asleep. For, unless she does these deeds, she has in the true sense divorced him, so far as in her lies; and indeed the more iniquitously----inasmuch as (she did it) as far as was in her power----because she had no power (to do it); and with the more indignity, inasmuch as it is with more indignity if (her reason for doing it is) because he did not deserve it.
I think few of us would accept Tertullian's characterization of any widow's actions after the burial of her husband as a "divorce"; the point of interest is that he this time mentions both prayers for the dead and offerings or sacrifices for the dead.

Did Tertullian speak of purgatory?
The question then remains: did Tertullian speak of purgatory? If purgatory is, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions," then we must ask whether Tertullian has spoken of these things when we ask whether he spoke of purgatory. In the passages cited in the article on Purgatory, Tertullian does not mention a place or condition of punishment for the saved after death, or sinners paying the satisfaction due to their transgressions, or any reckoning of payment for sins apart from the cross of Christ or the final day of reckoning.

Among the interesting questions raised is the nature and purpose of the annual offerings for the departed. Is the offering simply the Mass, or is it something else? Was the intent to spare punishments in the present time as purgatory would suggest, or to have the person readier to participate in the resurrection, or to ease the mind and build the confidence of the living by the remembrance of Christ in the face of upcoming judgment? Similar questions arise about prayers for the dead: is the prayer intended as a plea for mercy in the face of coming judgment, or is the prayer intended as a plea for the mercy in the face of ongoing punishment? While Tertullian does not mention any of the key ingredients of purgatory, the standing practice of prayers for the dead came to play a role in the development of that doctrine.

In the final analysis, prayers for the dead are not incompatible with the doctrine of purgatory but not in themselves proof that the prayerful accept the basic premises of purgatory: that there is guilt not remitted for Christ's sake to those who inherit eternal life, and that such unremitted guilt works itself out as an ongoing punishment for the dead at some time between their deaths and the Last Day.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Animals too large for the Ark?

Dr. Pursiful recently posted a round-up of posts on Noah's flood from a fellow who thinks the flood was historical but not global. Along those same lines, it bears mentioning an ancient Jewish legend about the flood: that there were animals too large to fit on the ark. After first discussing the question of whether or not the flood had covered the land of Israel, the discussion continues:
On the view that the Flood did not descend there, it is well: thus the re'em (an animal too large for the ark) stayed there. But on the view that it did descend, where did it stay? — Said R. Jannai: They took the young [of the re'em] into the Ark. But surely Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said: I saw a sea re'em, one day old, which was as big as Mount Tabor. And how big is Mount Tabor? Forty parasangs. Its neck, stretched out, was three parasangs; the place where its head rested was a parasang and a half. It cast a ball of excrements and blocked the Jordan! — Said R. Johanan: They took its head [only] into the Ark. But a master said: The place where its head rested was three parasangs? — Rather, they took the tip of its nose into the Ark. But surely R. Johanan said: The Flood did not descend in Eretz Israel? — He explains [it thus] on the view of Resh Lakish. But the Ark plunged up and down? — Said Resh Lakish: They tied its horns to the Ark. (Talmud: Zevachim 113b)
I'm not entirely convinced this conversation recorded in the Talmud was meant to be taken seriously. Still, it's interesting to note that even in older days there was discussion of animals too large to fit on the ark.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Poetry / experiments

It's been nearly 2 years since I posted any poetry here -- and it was with the promise that I wouldn't do it often. I still promise I won't do it often -- but having been nearly two years, I feel I'm not pushing the limits of "often". These are mostly standalone haiku; if they bear any relationship to each other it's that my quiet time is often spent in the woods or, when I can, at the beach.

Forest Verses

A forgotten path
A half-remembered journey
A glimpse from the trail

The twig's snap echoes
Announcing the intruder
The trees hold their breath.

A mossy blurred shape
Winding vines wrapped round the tree
A serpentine wreath
Obscuring the trunk
Caduceus' hidden form
Conceals the flowers.

Ocean Verses

Steady my heartbeat
I feel your breath on the shore
The pulse of the earth.

The child waves the bread
The gull in the ferry's wake
Turns his wings and dives.

Neighborhood Walk

The squirrel bounded
Tracing a wave through the air
Seeking out his tree.

So that's my haiku collection from my latest verse experiments. It will likely be another year or two before I inflict any more poetry on you. I am curious -- does anyone else try verse?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tolkien: Reality, Fantasy, and Awakening Desire

“I didn’t want it to be a fantasy. I wanted it to be a history.” – The Fellowship of the Ring special extended edition, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line Home Entertainment, Inc., 2002, cast commentary, comment by actor Sean Astin

“Isn’t this just the place everybody wants to have grown up?” – The Fellowship of the Ring special extended edition, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line Home Entertainment, Inc., 2002, cast commentary, comment on the Shire by actor Orlando Bloom
J.R.R. Tolkien was not content just to write a story. It was not enough for him that people should like his world, like his story, like his characters. It was not enough that we should admire or appreciate his world. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did not set out merely to entertain; he set out to entice. He set out to awaken desire, to arouse longing. A reader hasn’t really understood Tolkien until he has wanted to go to the Shire, to visit Rivendell and Lothlorien, to see the great dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf in its day.

How far Tolkien succeeded in arousing desire is seen not only in the enduring popularity of the story, but in the unprecedented extent to which people want to make that world their own. An entire new genre of games – the modern fantasy role-playing games beginning with Dungeons and Dragons – began with fans of Tolkien who were not content to let the story be someone else’s story, the world someone else’s world. Tolkien succeeded in making us want those places as part of our lives, those friends as our friends, that quest as our quest.

Many authors are said to treat the themes of good and evil, and many authors do treat the subject of evil seriously and extensively. But relatively few treat the subject of good in any depth at all. Tolkien has one of the more deep and sustained focuses on goodness – and its desirability – in modern literature. He adeptly sidestepped shallowness, triteness, and (possibly worse) a dry, inorganic approach to good that renders it impossible to desire profoundly.

Tolkien also did a great piece of workmanship by making the most desirable parts of this fantasy world to be entirely natural. Magic appears in the story – but it is not what gives the world its allure. The Shire has no magic; it has little more than grass, sunshine, and friendship to commend it. The dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf was not made by one dwarf with a magical ring, but by a host of dwarves employing a great natural wonder: the ingenious craftsmanship of those who pour their hearts and souls into their work. The elven kingdoms’ greatest boasts are the forests, poetry and music, and the memory of ancient beauties. What we most desire in Middle Earth is already part of our own world. Neither is it beyond our grasp – we could live in the hillsides and carved mountain-halls if we chose. The humbler, still satisfying joys of sustained friendship and enduring accomplishment are still available to us.

So Tolkien has made his answer as to the value of this world, and of goodness. If we get to the end of Lord of the Rings and think, “I want to go on the ship to the Undying Lands,” then he has won us over.

Originally blogged at CADRE comments January 1, 2005.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Patrology Online

Phil at Hyperekperissou has asked his readers to weigh in about the state of patrology online. Here is my two cents' worth:

Question #1: Best on-line resources for patristics?
No doubt the best resources online are ccel and Roger Pearse's Tertullian (et al) project.

Question #2: What still needs to be done?
Now here I have a wish-list. I'll limit myself to three things:
  1. There are still gaps in things available in English in public domain translations. For example, for one project last year in which I was chasing down a patristics quote from Marius Victorinus, there was no public domain translation and I had to go to considerable trouble to verify the source quote. I wouldn't have minded too much if I'd had to translate it myself from Latin -- it was short enough -- if only I could have easily found the Latin on-line. Which brings me to my next point:
  2. An original-languages version of ccel might be in order.
  3. As someone else has mentioned at Phil's site, the search capabilities are severely limited for the free online resources. On this one, I feel a slight twinge of guilt as I do have the programming skills to put together the solution, I simply don't have that kind of free time. Picture this: Each work is registered (example: Eusebius' History is registered by at least title, author, and date); the structure of the text is registered (e.g. how many books, chapters, etc. down to the smallest division); different translations or editions are registered (if more than one is available); then the text of the different translations are added into the database. As icing on the cake, a registry is entered of Scriptural quotations / references in the text. Then it's a fairly simple matter (from the programming point of view) to add search capability of the history of commentary on a particular verse within certain dates and return titles, dates, authors, and links to the relevant passages, or all passages containing given combinations of words. If only they gave Sabbatical years to programmers. The coding is honestly not that difficult, but it would still take some time. After the database is set up, the main trick is the data entry and anyone who can cut and paste from ccel could do that part. If I ever do a thing like that, I suppose I would want to open it up beyond just patristics and have it so each book could register under any applicable field of study (e.g. "patristics - primary sources", or "history - primary sources"). The biggest on-line searchable library in the world ... all-new indexing ... I can dream. :)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Miracles violate the laws of nature" -- or do they?

It is fairly common to hear atheists say that miracles violate the laws of nature. It is more irksome when Christians actually repeat that claim as if it were the right and valid definition of a miracle rather than an opponent's slur.

Nature and the Miracles of Healing
Most miracles recorded in the New Testament are miracles of healing. Such a miracle is not remotely about "violating" the laws of nature. Instead of being anti-nature, the healing miracles are restorative, putting nature right again. The healing miracles and resurrections are also, without exception, a benefit to those who receive them. They are not random or capricious acts, but acts of blessing. The power at work here is not opposed to the natural order but a source of renewal for it, returning it to its originally right state or healthy pattern.

The most common type of a miracle recorded, then, is a restoration of nature. In a healing miracle, God acts to bless people by restoring their natural human bodies to full natural health. That is hardly the transgression of the law of nature proclaimed by Hume and company.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Highlights: New Testament Word Frequency Studies by Book

I hope I haven't tried peoples' patience too badly with the word clouds. I've now completed the New Testament word clouds by individual book. I find them interesting because they allow such a quick and easy check on an author's main point. As I was doing them, I spotted a few interesting things about individual books:
  • All four of the gospels have "Jesus" as the most frequent word.
  • In the book of Acts, the most frequently used word (not counting background words) is "Paul". The book names "Paul" more often than "Jesus"; also more than "God". Hmm.
  • The Book of Revelation actually has "dragon" among the frequently-used words. As Dorothy once said, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
  • The Book of Romans' top 10 words, sorted by frequency, almost reads like a diagram of its basic message: God, law, sin, Christ, Lord, man, faith, Jesus, spirit, righteousness.
  • Every book in the New Testament has either "Jesus" or "Christ" (or both) in its common words list except two books: James and 3 John, both of which have remarkably little to say about Jesus. Those two, interestingly, were slow to gain acceptance in Christian circles.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Interesting fact about several "lost gospels"

The "lost gospels" and "suppressed Scriptures" of the early church are the topic of books and publications fairly regularly. Entire academic careers have been built around examining those documents and the claim that they represent equally valid alternative source material on the life of Jesus.

I have been working on a project analyzing those alternative gospels and I came to notice an interesting thing: the Gospel of Mary -- as much of it as we have, at any rate -- never identifies Jesus by name1. How, exactly, is anyone sure that the "Savior" it often mentions is actually Jesus? Granted, some of the sayings recounted in it and the people are already familiar to us from other gospels about Jesus. But if we had no other sources about Jesus, we would hardly place this as a book about Jesus as it doesn't mention his name. Can the Gospel of Mary stand on its own as a historical source about Jesus under the circumstances? Her "Savior" is unnamed in the text we have available.

Oddly enough, the fragments we have of the Gospel of Peter are in the same situation: Jesus is never identified by name. The scenes here are far more familiar to us than those in the Gospel of Mary. In places, the Gospel of Peter portrays scenes that are recognizable from the canonical gospels. Still, if we did not have those canonical gospels, we might not have been certain that the Gospel of Peter is about Jesus, since again it does not mention the name of the "Lord" to which it refers. I think it is regrettable that the Gospel of Peter survives only in fragments; I suspect this one probably would be an interesting read if it had survived. The small part we have contains some legendary material in it (a talking cross), but is still an interesting read. In the meantime, those studying the Gospel of Peter are relying heavily on the canonical gospels to determine that the "Lord" being discussed is Jesus.

Again, interestingly, the portion we have of the Gospel of the Savior never actually mentions Jesus' name. That's three so far that I've found that never specifically identify Jesus by name. In this one, the narrative is carried on from a first-person point of view so that the "Lord" is the primary speaker. No other speaker or narrative in the text identifies the Lord, though again the similarities to other gospels make it fairly simple to determine that the person speaking -- and the "Lord" being spoken to -- is supposed to be Jesus.

To give a basis for comparison, all four of the canonical gospels have "Jesus" as the single most common word in the Gospels outside of background words such as "the", "and", etc. We can discuss the pros and cons of taking those gospels as historically accurate, but the texts do at least independently establish the identity of the person being discussed.

I consider it entirely possible that some of these lost gospels, if they survived in their entirety, might have mentioned that they were discussing Jesus of Nazareth, or even simply Jesus. Though even that is not entirely certain; even the shortest of the surviving texts is long enough that if it mentioned "Jesus" as often as a comparably long section of the canonical gospels, it should be expected to contain Jesus' name at least 10 times2. We can hope to find fuller texts of these lost gospels in the future. But I do have a question for the present, given the fragments that we have in hand: Do the academics who study these documents professionally consider it a problem, as far as their historical independence as sources for the life of Jesus, that the material we have for them never identifies the "Savior" or "Lord" as Jesus?

1 - Absence of "Jesus" in the texts mentioned here verified against Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament by Bart Erhman, 2003 Oxford University Press.
2 - Based on the prevalence of "Jesus" in the Gospel of Luke, which has the lowest prevalence of any canonical gospel at 91.7 occurrences per 10,000 words of text.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Blessings for many occasions

I have been enriched over the years by some traditional blessings. If you have ever felt a rush of gratitude towards God for any certain goodness or gift, but have lacked a blessing to give voice to it, these may be helpful. The blessings below are from Learn Hebrew Today: Alef-Bet for Adults by Paul Michael Yedwab with Howard I. Bogot. I've altered "Adonai our God" to "O Lord our God" to put the translated blessing fully into English, and their "Ruler of the Universe" to "King of the Universe" since it seems more Biblical and less sterile. I've also made them uniformly "Blessed are you" (direct address to God) rather than some to God and some praising God in the third person but not addressed to him. Other alterations from the originals are mentioned individually.

Blessing over wine: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.

Blessing over bread: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Blessing for Bible study: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who command us to study His Word. (Originally: who commands us to engage in the study of Torah)

Blessing over pastry (count me in): Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of many kinds of food.

Blessing over fruit that grows on trees: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of the fruit of the tree.

Blessing on seeing lightning or other natural wonders: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, the source of creative power.

Blessing on hearing thunder: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, whose power and might pervade the world.

Blessing on seeing the ocean: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, maker of the great sea.

Blessing on seeing the beauties of nature: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, whose world is filled with beauty.

Blessing on seeing trees in blossom: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who created lovely trees to enchant the heart. (Abridged.)

Blessing over the spice box: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of all the spices.

I've left out a few from the book, such as blessings for lighting candles and for putting the mezuzah on the doorframe of the house. But I think there are other blessings missing from the collection. A blessing for children is foremost in my mind, but I'm sure there are others.

Revelation: Word Cloud

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Jude: Word Cloud

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3 John: Word Cloud

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2 John: Word Cloud

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1 John: Word Cloud

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2 Peter: Word Cloud

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1 Peter: Word Cloud

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James: Word Cloud

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