Monday, November 26, 2007

Love One Another, As I Have Loved You

A review of Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way by Philip Jenkins & The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken:

Could something called the Jesus Seminar be that bad? What is wrong with a chic cleric searching for the "historical Jesus" in the Gospel of Thomas—or some other ancient text that depicts the life of Jesus yet is somehow absent from the standard Catholic or Protestant Bible? In Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way, Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, shows why the authentic Jesus is found in the four Gospels canonized by the early Church, not in the "hidden gospels" that produced the Da Vinci Code and the academic stardom of modern Gnostics like Elaine Pagels.

Jenkins begins by noting that the quest for Jesus in the non-canonical depictions is not new. Under Hegelian influence, 19th-century German biblical scholars viewed the origins of Christianity as a clash between competing visions of Jesus. The four canonical gospels, they claimed, were a product of history, not the Holy Spirit. In the 1930s, Walter Bauer popularized the claim that various forms of Christianity prospered across the Greco-Roman world before Emperor Constantine imposed orthodoxy. The newly ascendant Catholic Church, Bauer claimed, quickly declared a slew of Christian scriptures heretical and settled on the quartet of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John only because they facilitated the Church's power grab. (Never mind that the early Church began formalizing the canon well before Constantine, at a time when Christians had little political power.) Jenkins observes that partial discoveries of so-called hidden gospels more than a century ago aided the early revisionists. One-fifth of the trendy Gospel of Thomas was available by the end of the 19th-century. The assault against the traditional scriptures was already underway with articles on the "new sayings of Jesus" popping up in periodicals from Harper's Weekly to the Nation.

Then came the discovery in 1945 of fifty hidden gospels—including the Gospel of Thomas in its entirety. The revisionists had a literal treasure trove of new material. Plus, the hidden gospels offered something to each of the soon dominant academic schools. Marxists blamed "canonical imperialism" for the "monopoly" held by the standard four gospels. Feminist and gay scholars pointed to the hidden gospels as proof that the traditional gender roles present in the New Testament are not authentically Christian. Multiculturalists pushed the "diverse" depictions of Jesus in the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Mary. Relativists who doubted the existence of historical fact welcomed the new "perspectives," hoping, in the words of one regular at the Jesus Seminar, that the Bible may soon be seen "as a collection of scriptures without a fixed text, like the myth of the American West." In the book wars that ransacked universities in the 1980s, critics saw the Christian canon in the same light as the Western canon—an arbitrary selection of texts that reflected cultural conditioning, not historical or theological merit. Finally, in Elaine Pagels, the ship of Jesus revisionism acquired its captain. Pagels's Gnostic Gospels (1979)—a rare example of an academic book that attracts a popular following—moved the hidden gospels from lecture halls to the pages of People magazine. "Today," writes Jenkins, "we commonly read that there existed in the first Christian centuries an enormous range of doctrines and practices, all with equal right to boast a link to Jesus and his first apostles."

The revisionists also flocked to the hidden gospels because they preferred the non-canonical Jesus to the canonical Christ. Revisionists and traditionalists agree that the Jesus of the hidden gospels is less messianic and more attuned to the perfection of the mind than the resurrection of the body. In the Gospel of the Egyptians, Jesus tells Salome (long mystical dialogues with female disciples are more common in non-canonical texts) that death will continue "so long as you women bear children." The hidden gospels provide little basis for what later generations would recognize as Christian dogmas. Jenkins notes that Thomas, the most popular hidden evangelist, never claims that the first disciples saw Jesus as the Son of God.
There is nothing vaguely approaching the miraculous here. His followers had no interest in the coming of a future kingdom of God or an apocalypse, nor indeed of God in anything like the traditional sense found in the Hebrew Bible. In addition to being dechristianized, the Jesus of this interpretation also strays far from any obvious Jewish roots.... Thomas never once refers to the figures of Hebrew antiquity, beyond a couple of general references to "the prophets."
The hidden gospels depict a more modern Jesus, one that is more psychological and less moralistic than the traditional Jesus (although Jenkins rightly points out that the hidden Jesus's hatred of the flesh is rather judgmental). Hidden gospel fundamentalists would usher Jesus straight into New Age spirituality.

Having explained their present popularity, Jenkins moves to his main task: dismissing the hidden gospels as inaccurate portrayals of Jesus and his first followers. His chief argument is that the non-canonical texts were compiled long after Jesus preached in Galilee and represent not the authentic words of Jesus and his chosen disciples, but the views of 2nd- and 3rd-century Gnostics, who had already broken from the existing Christian community that believed in the incarnation and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jenkins evidences the fact that Thomas is filled with images, ideas, phrases, even entire sections that are common to 2nd- and 3rd-century Gnostic texts. In addition, none of the three hidden gospels containing this Gnostic view of the resurrection, argues Jenkins, was written before 150 A.D. In contrast, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, written no later than 55 A.D., is clear evidence of the early church's belief in the bodily resurrection. ("For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.") Lest anyone believe that Paul was a "creative cult leader" who hijacked true Christianity, Jenkins adds that Paul's letters contain passages on Jesus's divinity likely taken from hymns and creeds that the Christian community was already reciting. Thus, the view that Jesus rose only figuratively as an Idea—a belief present in several hidden gospels—is more likely a product of the 2nd-century than the earliest Christian churches. Carefully considering the evidence, Jenkins concludes that the hidden gospels are best viewed as the protest writings "of later dissidents who broke from orthodoxy, not first followers of Christ." The canonical gospels, in contrast, "are by far the best historical sources that we have for the life and times of Jesus."

Jenkins's conclusion has important implications. The institutional Church fares well in Hidden Gospels. By canonizing the gospel accounts that reflected authentic Christian beliefs and rejecting later embellishments, the early Church acted in conformity with the first disciples. This is the opposite of the typical story—common in popular histories and political reporting—of a corrupt institution set against righteous freethinkers. Here, the early Church looked at the hidden gospels and rightly decided they were not worth reading as Christian texts. Jenkins's thesis complicates matters for those who desire a Christianity untouched by institutional authority, including conservatives suspicious of ecclesiastical establishments. In the words of Yeats, one cannot separate the dance from the dancer. "The more we explore primitive Christianity," Jenkins concludes, "the earlier we find some of the most 'catholic' beliefs"—in this case, the authority to pronounce heresies and canonize scripture.

* * *

At one point in Hidden Gospels, Jenkins regrets that the search for Jesus does not center more on the writings of the Church Fathers—the early ecclesiastical giants who heard, preached, and practiced the teachings of Jesus. To this end, University of Virginia historian Robert Louis Wilken has written a comprehensive yet readable summary of the Fathers in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. Like Jenkins, Wilken argues that evangelism and orthodoxy were inseparable in the early Church.

According to Wilken, "the study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas." Moderns have portrayed the Church Fathers as "solitary intellectuals, each working out his own system, beholden chiefly to the world of ideas and arguments." To the contrary, Wilken argues that the Church Fathers were not at all like modern-day graduate students. For one, the Fathers prayed a lot. Most also had full-time responsibilities as bishops and presided regularly over the Eucharist and annually baptized catechumens at Easter. The writings of the Fathers are often the same sermons they preached to their congregations. (The thought of a 4th-century peasant listening to St. Augustine read sections of City of God from the pulpit certainly lessens one's sympathy for those who lived in less "advanced" times). Linked to a living faith community, the Fathers explained in exhaustive and brilliant detail how the particulars of worship (prayer, the breaking of the bread, and fellowship) related to the heights of dogma (the Trinity, the Resurrection, the communion of saints).

Wilken presents the Church Fathers as the ideal vehicle for Catholic-Protestant ecumenism. Because the Fathers were regular practitioners of the faith, their writings place extraordinary attention on the written basis for Christian worship—Holy Scripture. Gregory the Great, for example, wrote a thirty-five volume opus covering every verse of the book of Job. Wilken writes that the Fathers considered the Bible as "more than a platform to build something else, and biblical interpretation was not a stage on the way to the real work of thinking. Thinking took place through exegesis, and the language of the Bible became the language of Christian thought." The Fathers rarely speculated about natural law. Evangelicals can take comfort in the fact that the Church's first thinkers "thought through the deepest theological, philosophical, and moral issues with the pages of Holy Scripture before them."

For Catholics, the Fathers provide early evidence of the Church's central tenets. In the 2nd-century, Justin Martyr described the liturgical breaking of the bread this way:
The food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins for rebirth, and who lives as Christ taught us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink, but as Jesus Christ our Savior who became incarnate by God's word and took flesh and blood for our salvation.
Through the Fathers, Catholic practices can be traced back to the early Church. It is harder to believe that the invocation of the dead at Catholic liturgies is a creation of the medieval Church or an extension of Dante's imagination after reading the Fathers' descriptions of prayers for the "faithful departed" at ancient liturgies. Moreover, the Fathers make sense of the continuity of the early Church's beliefs by squarely rooting them in scripture. Gregory the Great could say that "choirs of angels" were present "at the hour of the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus Christ" because Psalm 138 reads, "In the presence of the angels I will sing a psalm to you." The Fathers also provide a link between the early Church and Jewish tradition. "Those who celebrate Pesach [the Jewish Passover meal] are not spectators, they are participants," explained a 3rd-century Jewish text. Similarly, the Fathers believed that the faithful stood by at Christ's passion at the Eucharistic meal.

That the early Church was not intellectually elitist is a key point for both Wilken and Jenkins. It is common to portray the Gnostics, for example, as a nice egalitarian alternative to the dark hierarchical Church. However, the Gnostics also believed that Christianity was something that could only be understood, not lived. Everything a person saw was fallen and evil. One imagines a modern Gnostic railing against SUVs and strip malls. The Church Fathers, on the other hand, regularly stood in front of large bodies of actual Christians. They believed, as Wilken puts it, that "Christianity is an affair of things" and did their best to explain how the faithful could connect with the divine through ordinary things.

Wilken anticipates one critique of the Fathers' intellectual modesty. "Set against the vast horizon of classical thought," early Christian thought "seems embarrassingly parochial, a severe narrowing of vision." The faith of the Fathers comes at reason's expense. Not so, says Wilken, since agape (Christian love) bridges the gap between faith and reason. "Without love, [reason] is tethered to the earth," writes Wilken. The Church Father Origen made this point when he argued that the risen Jesus appeared only to those who had followed him. Perhaps Jesus himself alludes to the connection between love and knowledge when he responds to the Sanhedrin, "If I tell you [that I am the Christ], you will not believe." Wilken's study of the Church Fathers ends on a distinctly compassionate note: "Love itself is a form of knowledge" ("Amor ipse notitia est," in the words of Gregory the Great). The intellectual confusion of ancient and modern Gnostics, who look down upon the liturgies of religious and family life, can be understood by a simple fact. They do not love enough.

- Michael Toth

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