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.

4 comments:

SeekWisdom said...

This has nothing to do with your topic, but it goes back to your interest in the Trinity and Old Testament references, etc.

I think you can find what you're looking for, not exactly, but boy does this guy do a lot of work for you in Ulrich Luz's masterful scholarly commentary on Matthew.

You need to get hold of Volume II, and read his long, detailed, amazing commentary on Matthew 11:25-30. Follow up on every single biblical reference, so be sure you read all the footnotes as well as the text. (and follow all the biblical references too) You'll need to set aside ample time for this. Pages 155-176. That sounds like a piece of cake, maybe, till you get into it.

Published by Fortress Press in their Hermeinia Series - about as scholarly as you can find.

I totally buy his reading and the texts he references as he threads his way carefully through all the problems of the text - and the historical commentaries etc.

What impresses me about his work here is that he is not basing his argument on abstractions or some kind of Greek logic. And it's not really about the Trinity only, as it concerns the relationship of Father and Son and "knowing." (So it also touches on what we had discussed earlier about "knowledge" versus "wisdom" etc.) So, he's not building a case based on philosophy or "human logic" (if you follow my use of the term) - but instead is totally looking for Biblical texts, pro and con to the issues he considers.

I think you will find his "argument" to be fascinating and inspiring, really. And it may point you in some useful directions.

As a freebie and on topic, he actually does reference the Gospel of Thomas at one point!

Peace and blessings.

Weekend Fisher said...

That sounds like a good read.

The "yoke is easy" is another time when he is basically calling himself God's Word, God's binding command, the Way of Life. The Talmud describes coming of age and taking your own place in the covenant with God as taking on the "yoke" of the Torah.

I'm glad for the book recommendation.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

SeekWisdom said...

I think we are both people who "think" and "believe." And somehow I just knew you would appreciate this info.

What grabs me is the whole idea of "word," that the Torah is sacred because of being God's word (Holy Presence). (And the meaning for us as Christians, of course.)

"Come to me.... " is a line from scripture that spoke to me as a very young person. I truly felt God's call when I heard that. I was less than 10. I've been meditating on that for over 50 years.

Come... Rest. So much wisdom in those two words.

Peace. And many blessings. I'm glad to help push the ball down the road. But I don't want the work of a blog. I'm glad to help from the sidelines.

Tony-Allen said...

After reading your post on the Gospel of Mary I was happy to come across this post. I'm doing a similar project, where I'm reviewing the heretical churches of early Christianity and explaining their errors briefly to counter the idea that a "Pauline church" oppressed other churches that were just as valid.