Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Gospel of Philip: Setting expectations on its authors' terms

This post analyzes the last of the documents for the series in which the goal is to set expectations of the document's contents on the authors' terms. This is necessary to get beyond the labels and titles sometimes attached to these documents. They are included in the collection because they're referred to as gospels, but there are marked differences in content. So we study them individually to determine what each document actually contains apart from any preconceptions associated with the group label.

Here is a sample of how the Gospel of Philip introduces the early items contained in it:
  • A Hebrew makes another Hebrew, and such a person is called "proselyte". 
  • The slave seeks only to be free, but he does not hope to acquire the estate of his master. 
  • A Gentile does not die, for he has never lived in order that he may die. 
  • Those who sow in winter reap in summer. 
  • Christ came to ransom some, to save others, to redeem others. 
  • Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. 
Each item is introduced with a key concept or theme. We find content centered around what is meant by a word, or discussion of ideas on a topic. The Gospel of Philip does not have a framework of timeline and geography in which the main movement comes from people and their actions; it is not a narrative of events. While a few people known from the Bible are mentioned (including one brief mention of Philip), they are not the focus. Rather, the author develops key concepts and gives a series of thoughts on their importance and their right understanding. The overall framework is a relationship to eternal powers of light and truth, with continuing reference to the Bridal Chamber, and to the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The overall development is not focused on particular individuals, but on ideas that may aid people on their way to light and truth with a culmination in "a perfect day and a holy light."

For those who share my interest in the various passing references to people and places and earthly events, it would be worthwhile to conduct a separate study of passages which mention such things. There are some "compare and contrast" moments that would be of interest to me (did they identify Levi as a dye worker, and what do we make of that beyond the dye motif running through the Gospel of Philip)? However, that kind of question is clearly outside the focus being developed by the author of the Gospel of Philip. Here I pause only to call attention to the fact that those expectations would misdirect us here. The Gospel of Philip is not a narrative but a spiritual treatise; it is not intended to document the life and teachings of Jesus but to develop key spiritual concepts. The author's own focus touches briefly on certain people and actions, but revolves more heavily around thoughts of light and darkness, life and death, and our identity in relation to the eternal.

I find the Gospel of Philip to be an interesting window into a part of early Christian thought. It seems to reflect a time and place when the Gentiles in the Christian community -- maybe especially those from backgrounds other than the apostles' Jewish backgrounds -- were trying to make sense of some key Christian concepts in relation to their own culture's intellectual backgrounds. I see human histories and actions being considered by a culture in which transcendence belonged more to the realm of philosophy. I see baptism being interpreted by a culture without a tradition of ritual washing in terms of purification and reflection and dyeing (not dying but dyeing), introducing some different thoughts on what Jesus accomplished by entering the water. I see salvation and redemption being transposed into a culture without a concept of a last judgment, with concepts of light and brotherhood and holiness. And I wonder about unfamiliar items like the persistent references to the Bridal Chamber (referenced more often than Christ), whether we have enough information to piece together what that was all about, and how it fits into the author's picture of the future perfect day and holy light.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Gospel of Peter: Setting expectations on the authors' terms

In the current series, we have this and one more writing to analyze before completing the review of documents that are in the scope of the series. Today we will review the Gospel of Peter which survives only in a fragment.

Here is a sample how of the document introduces several of the items contained in it:
  • ... but of the Jews no one washed his hands, neither did Herod nor any one of his judges.  
  • Joseph stood there, the friend of Pilate and the Lord, and knowing that they were about to crucify him, he went to Pilate and asked for the body of the Lord for burial. 
  • They took out the Lord and kept pushing him along as they ran; and they would say, "Let's drag the son of God since we have him in our power."
  • And they brought two criminals and crucified the Lord between them.
  • Now it was midday and darkness prevailed over all Judea.  
The document introduces different items with people, actions, and times; sometimes there are also places. That is to say, in the Gospel of Peter we have a narrative of events. In the surviving fragment, the timeframe begins when Pilate sentences "the Lord" to death and ends after the women have found the tomb empty and some of the disciples head out fishing. While "the Lord" is never named in the document available to me with the remaining pages of the fragment, I have not heard anyone seriously question whether Jesus is the intended reference.

In contrast to some other documents we have reviewed, the Gospel of Peter does not make a habit of mentioning the specific location of events. One interesting exception is that the location of the tomb is said to be called "Joseph's Garden". There are also details of the guard deployment at the tomb that are not recorded in the Biblical accounts such as the name of the centurion Petronius. 

When reading a narrative like the Gospel of Peter -- something that covers events that are familiar from other sources -- it can be tricky to get a fresh view of the events from only the material in the current document. It can also be tricky to gauge whether that document's author intends for the current account to be seen entirely separately from any other accounts that they might have expected their readers to know. For instance:
Now it was the last day of Unleavened Bread, and many were returning to their homes since the feast was ending. But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, continued weeping and mourning, and each one still grieving for what had happened, left for his own home. But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, took our fishing nets and went to the sea. With us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord...
The end of the fragment leaves the reader anticipating but not certain that the next event may have been Jesus in a post-resurrection appearance to Simon Peter, Andrew, and Levi. The fragment that we have shows basic agreement with other known accounts on the main points of the narrative: that Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and his tomb was discovered empty by the women including Mary of Magdala. And yet the account here is not entirely like that found in the New Testament gospels. (Speaking for myself, I find the timing and location of the fishing trip to be a point of interest, since the Biblical gospels place the fishermen as having boats on the Sea of Galilee some distance away from Jerusalem, while the Gospel of Peter indicates that they had their nets with them in Jerusalem at the feast, and isn't specific about which sea they might have fished on that day starting from Jerusalem.) It would be a worthwhile study of its own to compare and contrast certain details in this writing to those from the accounts in the Bible.