I’ve always been a good student. So, when it came to a study of religion and the church, I went at it like I would have any research project. I read several versions of the Bible (you knew there are different versions, right?), including a Standard Revised HarperCollins Study bible that contained the latest information on what biblical scholars knew about the age and probable authors of each book, and notes in the text itself that defined unfamiliar terms and connections to other texts. I also had a Concordance, or “bible dictionary,” for when I read the other versions.
I read the catholic Catechism, as well as what was considered the true “History of the Church,” with writings from Bishop Tertullian who chose the four gospels of canon, Saint Thomas Aquinas who (as an oversimplified description) gave a Christian slant to Aristotle, Saint Francis of Asissi who is believed to be the first ever to manifest all of the stigmata or the wounds of Jesus, as well as other other authors, mostly Bishops of the new church.
I read an English translation of the Torah, the Jewish Holy Scripture, that Christians call “the books of Moses.” I also read an English translation of the Talmud, which is commentary on the Torah by learned Rabbis—a way to explain some of the inconsistencies in the scriptures. And, I read an English translation of Josephus‘ “History of the Jews,” not understanding at the time that he was writing it more from a Roman perspective than his own Jewish ancestry. (I should have known, as history is always written by the winners.)
I went farther into my studies by reading an English translation of the Q’ran, the Holy Scripture of Islam, originally seen by the Prophet Muhammad as the final chapter to the “children of Abraham,” though he was to change his mind later. Muslims, or followers of Islam, were originally from Arabia and saw themselves as children of Ishmael. Ishmael was the son of Abraham and his wife’s servant, Hannah (with permission of Abraham’s wife, Sara, who was barren) so that he would have an heir. Abraham had cast them out into the desert, expecting them to die, after Sara miraculously gave birth to their own son, Isaac, in her elderly years.
Then I spread out my search. As biblical scholars began publishing translations of the Nag Hamadi Library, ancient scrolls accidentally discovered in sealed jars in a cave near the town of Nag Hamadi that had been caught up in bureaucracy for decades, I read each one. Some were copies of well-known texts, while others had been heard of by reference by people like Bishop Tertullian who called them heresy, and still others hadn’t ever been heard of before.
There was also a discovery of ancient texts near Q’mran, long thought to be where a sect called the Essenes had established a community. The Essenes believed the Temple Priests in Jerusalem had become corrupt, and had removed themselves to the desert in order to purify themselves and make themselves worthy of the salvation of God. Here there were the Community Rules and the “war scroll” (their vision of the final battle between good and evil), along with other scriptural texts.
Among these discoveries were what are referred to as “the Gnostic texts.” They were named as such because they relied on an initiate’s eventual “gnosis,” or direct experiencing of God. In this case, they were Christian gnostics, experiencing a gnosis of the Christ. (There had been, before Christian gnostics, both Jewish and Pagan gnostics.) Here there were familiar names of Jesus’ disciples on unfamiliar texts.
One of the most interesting, to biblical scholars and myself, was the Gospel of Thomas. It was a sayings gospel, rather than one of stories, that appeared to be nearly as ancient as the canonical gospels. It contained many of the now familiar sayings of Jesus along with others that were unknown, and with some sayings pointedly missing. Most of them were pithy, short sayings or parables, which is how many biblical scholars believe Jesus actually spoke, or at least what would be remembered. Biblical scholars believe this is why some of the longer speeches of Jesus in the canonical gospels, such as the Beatitudes, weren’t found in Thomas.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene I found particularly curious as it contains some obvious resentment on the part of Peter, who questioned why their Master would entrust any of the secret teachings (alluded to in the canonical gospels) to Mary Magdalene, a woman. He was reproached by other disciples, saying it wasn’t his place to question who it was that Jesus chose as his “beloved disciple,” with whom he shared secret teachings. Until this gospel was found and translated, Christianity in general agreed that the term “beloved disciple” meant John.
The disagreements also point to why there wasn’t immediately a single universal church but rather many with their own collections of gospels. And it’s in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene where one finds the now famous kiss between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that led to speculation about Jesus being married to her and carrying on his bloodline in the book and movie “The DaVinci Code.”
One of the most controversial texts is the Gospel of Judas. This gospel implies that Judas Iscariot, rather than being the traitor of Jesus, was his partner in the coming events. We learn through Jesus’ translation of a dream where Judas was stoned by the other disciples that it was Jesus who began the events that would lead to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. He requested that Judas assist him by turning him into the Jewish authorities, explaining the necessity of his leaving his body temporarily in order to rise again in three days. Judas at first balked, but this was his Master asking, and his reward would be to leave his body to once again become spiritual, which Jesus would also do after his miraculous rising. This was seen as the ultimate reward because then one is reunited with God.
The Bishops were attempting to build a universal church (the definition of the term “catholic”) with administrative structure, a standardized set of texts, and the intercession of Priests between God and man. I can see why they would fight so hard against Gnostics and call them heretics. Instead of a standardized set of texts like the bible and an intecessory, Gnostics were encouraged to read those texts that would lead to their own encounter with the Divine, or “gnosis,” which translated means “knowing.”
My studies weren’t yet finished. I’ve found before that some of the most valuable information can come from observers, outsiders, and critics. This was no less true when it came to God. Which is where we’ll start next week. Have a blessed weekend!
Much Love and Many Blessings, ~Annie