Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gnostic Gospels and Canonical Gospels: An Assessment of Jewish Context

As I mentioned when reviewing the canonical gospels for Jewish background, an obvious thing runs the risk of being overlooked or undervalued. The canonical gospels, on a basic level, are Jewish documents: they assume Jewish background, religious concepts, and culture. The Gnostic gospels, on that basic level, are far less Jewish.

Again, as mentioned with the canonical gospels, the basic "wordcount" method gives a useful snapshot but does miss a few things when assessing Jewish background. In some of the Gnostic gospels -- even some with higher Jewish context scores -- much of that Jewish context score comes from a handful of key words being repeated frequently. For example, the repetition of "holy", "sacrifice", and "Adam" account for the majority of the Jewish context score in the Gospel of Philip. A handful of mentions of the three words "holy", "law", and "Sabbath" account for almost the entire Jewish context score of the Gospel of Truth. The surviving text of these four Gnostic gospels contains no mention of Moses or David, no mention of a synagogue, no mention of the Feast of Passover or any of the Jewish feasts, only one mention of Abraham among the four of them, and no mention of Isaac or Jacob. For comparison, in the canonical gospels there are over thirty mentions of Abraham, over twenty mentions of either Isaac or Jacob, nearly forty mentions each of Moses and David, over forty mentions of a synagogue, and over thirty mentions of specific Jewish feasts such as the Feast of Passover. The relative absence of Jewish context in the Gnostic gospels is striking.

Another thing seen less clearly from the composite scores is the actual count of words. The Gospel of Mary -- second highest-scoring among these four Gnostic gospels -- contains only eight total words including repeat occurrences of the same words. The four occurrences of the word "sin" account for fully half the Jewish context score of the Gospel of Mary. The entire combined count of Jewish context flag words in the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Truth is in the low thirties; nearly half of these are either "sin" or "holy". To take another thumbnail sketch of Jewish context: the combined length of the four Gnostic gospels is slightly longer than the Gospel of John, yet the combined count of Jewish context words among them is roughly half that of the Gospel of John. This is more remarkable given that the Gospel of John is the least saturated with Jewish context among the four canonical gospels. Among this combined set of Gnostic gospels, the majority of Jewish context words comes from the Gospel of Philip, in which the three individual words "holy", "sacrifice" and "Adam" account for the majority of its Jewish context score. The average Jewish context score of the other three Gnostic gospels is roughly 1/4 of that of the lowest-scoring canonical gospel.

Individual Gnostic gospels have interesting emphases; for example the Gospel of Philip mentions Adam more often than all the canonical gospels combined, though it is it unclear whether the author of the Gospel of Philip was fully familiar with the account of Adam from the book of Genesis or whether there is some other explanation for the noticeable variances from the Genesis account. Likewise the concept of the holy (including Holy Spirit) is emphasized more in some of the Gnostic gospels than in the canonicals, where in some of the Gnostic gospels the use of the word "holy" is the single most prominent carryover from the Jewish worldview. The word "holy" figures so prominently as the key Jewish concept in the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip that the word "holy" by itself accounts for roughly 40% of the Jewish context score in each of those two gospels.

At times, the Gnostic gospels bring up a Jewish concept only to disagree with it as already seen in the review of the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Philip discusses Jewish Temple sacrifices in a way that makes it highly unlikely that the author(s) had ever personally been to the Temple in Jerusalem while it was still standing. The specific handling of Jewish concept-words in the Gnostic gospels does not always reflect familiarity with and acceptance of a Jewish context, but at times instead reflects unfamiliarity with or disagreement with those same Jewish concepts. The Gospel of Philip has some interesting features in its appropriation of Jewish words and concepts which will be discussed in a separate post.

The Gnostic gospels seem to reflect a stage in Christianity in which there was some hesitation from the Gentiles about Jesus' Jewishness; one of the most distinctive features of these four Gnostic gospels is the relative de-emphasis of Jesus' Jewish context compared with the four canonical gospels. Christian readers may well be familiar with the fact that the early Jewish Christian church struggled with the influx of Gentiles; it appears that, on the opposite side of the same coin, the early Gentiles struggled with Jesus' Jewishness in a day and age when worship was closely bound up with national identity. Most of the Gnostic gospels show Jesus -- and Christianity -- systematically stripped of Jewish context. The Gnostic gospels are a fascinating remnant from an earlier stage of Christianity with an early competition over the identity of Jesus. In the Gnostic gospels, the Gentile Christians pose a question to the early Jewish Christian church: does Jesus require a Jewish context?

A note on which gospels were included here as Gnostic gospels: I am aware there is some discussion about which gospels qualify as Gnostic, and again some discussion about whether "Gnostic" is an entirely useful category. I have included the Gospel of Thomas in this discussion about Gnostics even though there is still some question whether it truly belongs with the Gnostics, still there is enough possibility that it belongs here that I will include it here. I have not included the Gospel of Judas even though I am sure it belongs, but the ongoing controversies about the correct translation have made me prefer to delay this type of review until the vital translation controversies are better settled.


Tony said...

Thanks a lot for posting this!

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm glad you're enjoying. I know this kind of thing can be tedious and that I have to be trying the patience of anyone reading along. I think one of the basic sets of questions non-Christian scholarship is asking of Christians is: why the canonical gospels? Why orthodoxy? Of the radically different kinds of Christianity seen in the early church, why prefer one over the other?

The questions deserve an answer; it's just such an obvious answer that it can be tedious to demonstrate: among all the competing versions of Jesus, the early quest for the historical Jesus was the one that cared about his human reality, his Jewish history. The very first quest for the historical Jesus was the original foundation of orthodoxy.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF