Back in September 2010 I watched a ninety minute TV documentary by (Rev) Peter Owen Jones where he looked at the things he was never taught in Theological College. He arranged these under various headings, beginning with an overview of what was lost.
Apparently, it was Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria who compiled the ‘canonical’ list of 27 New Testament ‘books’ in the fourth century. As a result of this over fifteen Gospels, about fifty other texts referring to Jesus, and fifty or so Apocalypses became disapproved and, hence, banned. And so they disappeared – until recent times.
In December 1945 a cache of papyrus texts was discovered (and nearly destroyed) by goat herds at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Amongst these was the Gospel of Thomas, not a biographical text like the canonical gospels but a collection of the sayings of Jesus. These have a Zen-like elusiveness which demands insight (or ‘gnosis’) from the reader and hence makes them inaccessible to some outlooks. For example: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ This elusiveness did not fit with the salvation-for-all message of the early church fathers, so the Gospel of Thomas became lost. (Indeed in A.D. 447 Pope Leo ordered all gnostic texts to be ‘burnt with fire’.)
Another Nag Hammadi text is the Gospel of Philip which gives prominence to Mary Magdalene. For instance; ‘The Saviour loved her more than the other disciples’ – and – ‘He kissed her many times on the...’ The missing word, alas, was eaten by ants during the centuries when the gospel lay hidden in its cave, but the best guess based on analysis of Coptic grammar would be ‘mouth’. Whatever the word, though, we have something pretty explosive here. It would appear that Mary Magdalene was more important to Jesus than was Peter, on whom the whole edifice of male-dominated Christianity became built. This impression is strengthened by looking at another missing gospel. After 1897 British archaeologists, excavating ancient rubbish dumps around the Egyptian town of Oxyrinthus, found portions of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In this Mary conveys her understanding of Jesus’s teachings – before and after his death – to the other disciples, which once again emphasises her greater importance. These two gospels suggest a strong role for women in the early church, an impression that Peter Owen Jones bolstered by taking us into the Catacomb of Priscilla beneath Rome, where frescoes in the ‘Greek Chapel’ show women taking prominent parts in Christian rituals.
The Nature of Jesus
Owen Jones then moved on to other Lost Gospels, for instance the Gospel of Peter, found in Egypt in 1886 by French archaeologists. In this Jesus does not actually die on the cross because he is entirely divine and therefore incapable of death – or even of suffering. Hence his passion is an illusion. This outlook contrasts with that found in the Gospel of the Ebionites where Jesus is entirely human and plays host to the divine Christ spirit only after his baptism in the Jordan. This gospel is completely lost and we only know about it because of the vigorous written opposition it aroused.
The Nature of God
The Ebionites emphasised the Jewishness of their faith, whereas Marcion entirely rejected it. In The Antitheses Marcion of Sinope contrasts Old Testament texts with Jesus texts and decides they are so radically different they must involve different gods. For instance, where Leviticus forbids the touching of lepers, Jesus touches a leper to heal him. Because of examples like this, Marcion decides the god of Jesus was previously unknown to us – ‘a Stranger God’ – who gives love and forgiveness and saves us from the vengeful god of the Old Testament. Following the line of his logic, Marcion drew up a list of texts, entirely excluding the Old Testament and including only the Gospel of Luke and ten letters by Paul. However, the response from his fellow churchmen was to excommunicate him.
Choosing the Canon
Nonetheless, Marcion’s list set a precedent, and eventually we ended up with the canonical list of 27 approved texts. How were they decided upon? Largely in response to Roman policy, is the answer. First of all, the Romans martyred so many Christians that it became logical for Christians to favour those gospels which emphasised Christ’s passion and death. (After all, Gnostic riddles would not give much consolation to the bereaved and the persecuted – which may be why the less persecuted Egyptian Christians retained more loyalty to those texts, burying them when ordered to burn them). Secondly, when Constantine converted in 312 A.D. he wanted a unified Christianity to help unify his fragmented empire. Therefore he and his successors supported those leaders who, like Athanasius, wanted to exclude such controversial texts as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
Early Christianity sounds to me very much like a New Age religion – lots of interesting and exciting ideas, some weird, some fascinating, some challenging, some uplifting. In this respect it sounds a little bit like the present New Age buffet. We don’t have the disadvantage of Romans messing things up nowadays, but give us time. Soon we’ll have some power hungry dictators telling us which ideas we are allowed to accept and practise. And if we go for anything different, well, get ready to be burnt!
May I invite you to make certain purchases? (I may? Why, thank you...)
(a) The Salamander Stone (by my most excellent and trusty pal, Mrs Me) from one of these outlets:
Direct from the publisher, Burst Books: click here
Amazon UK: click here
(b) The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole (by Mrs Me’s most excellent and trusty pal, Me):
Amazon UK: click here
Amazon.com (US): click here
(You’ll be getting both of them? Well, that is an admirable choice, if I may say so...)