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Wasn’t Early Christianity Basically Unified? Why Fret About Occasional Diversity?

I have spent three posts talking about the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” and why they are problematic; in doing so I have been explaining both the traditional view of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy (as found, for example, in the writings of Eusebius) and the view set forth, in opposition, by Walter Bauer.   So, where do we now stand on the issue, some 90 years after Bauer’s intervention? As I indicated in my last post, there are some problems with Bauer’s analysis, but also much positive to say about it.   Conservative scholars continue to hold to a more traditional view (e.g., conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical scholars); others find it *basically* convincing, even if they would write the details up very differently from Bauer. I am very much, and rather enthusiastically, in this latter camp.  It was when I was in graduate school, as a committed evangelical myself, but as one who was moving away from my conservativism based on my detailed research into the New Testament and the history of the early Christian [...]

What Is the Gospel of Thomas All About? And Did the Author Use the New Testament Gospels?

What is the Gospel of Thomas trying to teach?  In my previous post I gave a basic overview of the book; here I go into some more depth (not a huge amount) about what it's all about, what it's trying to teach, and whether it depended on Matthew, Mark, and Luke for its sayings. ****************************** The Overarching Message of the Book.      The meanings of many of Thomas's sayings are in no way obvious. If they were, they would not be called secret! Even though the book contains nothing like the Sethian or Valentian myths, some of the sayings do seem to reflect roughly analogous understandings of the world and the human’s place in it (see earlier posts on Gnosticism). Within the hearer is an element of the divine—a soul—that had a heavenly origin (it originated “in the place where the light came into being”). This world we live in is inferior at best, and is more appropriately thought of as a cesspool of suffering, “a corpse.” A person’s inner being (the “light” [...]

The Most Famous Non-Canonical Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas

We've talked about Gnosticism and in the previous post I mentioned Gnostic groups connected with "Thomas," allegedly the (twin!) brother of Jesus.  There are a number of writings written in the name of Thomas, the most famous of which is the Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi.  I haven't talked at length about it on the blog for several years now, so it seems like a good time to return to it here. This will take three posts.  The one today is a broad introduction to what the Gospel is and what it contains.   I have taken this from my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. ****************************** The Gospel of Thomas is without question the most significant book discovered in the Nag Hammadi library. Unlike the Gospel of Peter, discovered sixty years earlier, this book is completely preserved. It has no narrative at all, no stories about anything that Jesus did, no references to his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings [...]

Thomasine Gnostic Christians, and Sundry Others

In this thread of posts I have been reproducing my comments on Gnosticism from the 2nd edition of my anthology, After the New Testament. In addition to the Sethians and the Valentinians, scholars talk about the school of Thomas and about yet other Gnostic groups that are not easy to identify with any of the other three or to group together in any meaningful way. Gnosticism was a messy group of religions! Here is what I say in the Introductions to the Thomasines and the Other Gnostic groups in the book. ****************************** Thomasines A number of books from the early Christian tradition are connected with a figure known as Didymus Judas Thomas. The word “Didymus” means “twin” in Greek; so too the name “Thomas” means “twin” in Aramaic. And so this person is Judas, or Jude, the twin. But the twin of whom? In our earliest surviving Gospel, Jesus himself is said to have a brother who is named Jude (for example, Mark 6). And in later traditions, especially from Syria, this Jude was thought [...]

The Gospel of Philip: An Example of a Valentinian Gnostic Gospel

In my previous post discussing Valentinian Gnosticism I mentioned an intriguing Valentinian text, the Gospel of Philip. Now I'd like to explain what it is and give you a bit of the opening section in translation so you can get a taste of it yourself.   I've taken all this from the second edition of my book After the New Testament; the introduction is mine but the translation comes from Marvin Meyer, referenced below **************************** INTRODUCTION Even though the Gospel of Philip, also discovered at Nag Hammadi, is easily recognized as Valentinian, the book is notoriously difficult to understand in its details.  In part this is due to the form of its composition.   It is not a narrative Gospel of the type found in the New Testament or a group of self-contained sayings like the Gospel of Thomas (see Chapter 8).  It is instead a collection of mystical reflections that have evidently been excerpted from previously existing sermons, treatises, and theological meditations, brought together here under the name of Philip -- presumably Jesus' own disciple.  Since [...]

Check Out This Gnostic Myth from the Gospel of Judas!

A lot of people over the years have told me they are drawn to the Gnostic way of looking at things, but it’s pretty clear they’ve never actually read any Gnostic texts.   Gnosticism is a lot easier to like in the abstract than in the on-the-ground (or out-of-this-world) reality. When scholars typically describe Gnosticism to general audiences (at least when I do), it usually sounds very weird, rather fascinating, and more-or-less sensible.   When people actually read the Gnostic texts, some of them are like that too (weird/fascinating/sensible) – but lots of the texts seem anything but sensible.  They are (or seem to be) completely incomprehensible. I thought I’d illustrate the point by giving one form of the Gnostic myth as found in a relatively small but rather dense portion of the Gospel of Judas. Some people find that if they have a basic explanation/sense of Gnostic thought (a weird, fascinating, but sensible one as I tried to several posts ago), it is often possible to get the gist of this kind of myth (although parts [...]

The Gospel of Judas: Here’s a Taste of It

Here is the first bit of the Gospel of Judas from the translation of my colleague Zlatko Pleše in our book The Other Gospels. The first paragraph is the explanation of where we got the text from; then the translation of the opening scene. After this bit here, the Gospel gets very strange, at least to most modern readers.   But as you can see, it is really interesting. At the end I give the bibliography for further reading that we cite in our book. This translation is based on the Coptic text of Rodolphe Kasser, and Gregor Wurst, eds. The Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition.  Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007.   New portions of the Gospel appeared in 2006, when the one-time owner of the manuscript declared bankruptcy and his remaining antiquities collection was turned over to a bank in Ohio; included in this collection were numerous small fragments of the Gospel of Judas.   These have been photographed and they have begun to be studied; for our translation of the account here we have been able [...]

The Gospel of Judas: The Most Recently Discovered Sethian Gnostic Gospel

For anyone interested in Gnosticism, the most recent full Gnostic Gospel to appear, the Gospel of Judas, is a real treasure.  In my previous post I described the broad contours of Gnostic views and the more specific Sethian understanding of the divine realm, the world, humans, an salvation.  Different Sethians, of course, would have different views of things (think of all the Catholics, Episcopalians, or Baptists you know or know of!).  The Gospel of Judas presents a particularly intriguing form of the Sethian myth. I have said some things about the Gospel of Judas on the blog, but it's been a few years, so it's worth talking about again.  You can find a translation, done by my colleague Zlatko Pleŝe, in the volume we co-edited and translated: The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament.  We also give the following Introduction to the text; I will give the rest of the Introduction and a bibliography, and a bit of the translation itself, in the next post. ****************************** The Gospel of Judas is the [...]

Interesting Questions About the Books From Nag Hammadi

There are a lot of unsettled questions about the "Gnostic Gospels," that is, the books of the Nag Hammadi Library. After my recent posts I received some interesting questions that *can* be settled, and here I deal with two of them: one that’s a zinger and the other that has been asked by several readers. First the zinger. The reader noted that I indicated that the books of the library were manufactured in the fourth century; we know this because the leather bindings on the books had their spines strengthened with scrap papyrus (and is therefore called cartonnage) and some of these papyri were dated receipts. And so the reader’s question: QUESTION: Just out of curiosity – what form of dating did the compilers of the books use, that would correspond to our “341 CE” and so on? I’m assuming they weren’t using Roman dates. But were the Romans themselves, in that era, still using dates “ab urbe condita”? RESPONSE: This is a great question, and I have to admit, I had [...]

The (Lost) Greater Questions of Mary (Rated R) (X?)

In my last post I mentioned Gospels that we know about because they are mentioned, or even quoted, by church fathers, but that no longer survive.  A second, particularly intriguing, Gospel like this – one that I desperately wish we had, for reasons that will soon become clear -- is known as “The Greater Questions of Mary” (i.e., of Mary Magdalene). One of the “great questions” for scholars is whether such a book ever really did exist. It is mentioned only once in ancient literature, in a highly charged polemical context by Epiphanius of Salamis, a Christian heresy-hunter who was prone to exaggeration and fabrication, who was incautious at best in his attacks against heretical sects in his book the Panarion (= “Medicine Chest”; in it Epiphanius supplies the “antidotes” for the “snake-bites of heresy”). The most notorious of the groups that Epiphanius attacks were known by a variety of names, including the “Phibionites.” According to Epiphanius -- our sole source of knowledge about the group -- these gnostic believers engaged in nocturnal sex rituals [...]

The Lost Gospel of Basilides

I sometimes get asked about "lost Gospels" -- Gospels that we know at one time did exist (because they are mentioned and sometimes even discussed by ancient authors)  but that, alas, exist no more.  I dealt with this question on the blog many moons ago, and I regret to say that in the interim, the books I'd love to show up have not.  And I don't expect them to.  But then again, life is full of surprises. One of the very early ones I'd *love* to get my hands on is the Gospel of Basilides. Basilides is one of the early Gnostic figures mentioned by the late-second century heresy-hunter Irenaeus.  Regrettably, we do not have any writings from Basilides or any of his followers, and so all we know about these people and their writings is what authors like Irenaeus tell us. That is somewhat like asking Mike Pence for a fair assessment of Bernie Sanders. You have to take the description with a pound of salt. We don’t know if Basilides actually had a [...]

More on Secret Mark as a Forgery (by Morton Smith?)

Here now is the second of my two posts on reasons for suspecting that Morton Smith himself may have been the one who forged the “letter of Clement” that discusses the “Secret Gospel of Mark” (see my post from yesterday). Again taken from my article,   “Hedrick’s Consensus on the Secret Gospel of Mark,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003) pp. 155-64. ****************************** (2) Several things that are hard to explain about the “discovery.”  For those who want to show the letter is authentic (i.e. really written by Clement of Alexandria), these are the issues to address.  I leave off several other matters that some have raised, such as why the letter is never mentioned by Clement or any other heresiologist who opposed the Carpocratians otherwise: (a) Why does this letter contradict in content what Clement says elsewhere?  For one thing the attitude toward true gnosis in this letter is completely at odds with what is found elsewhere in Clement, as Eric Osborne trenchantly noted.  Never for Clement is true knowledge a matter [...]

Did Morton Smith Forge the Secret Gospel of Mark?

Last month (April 2023) I published a thread of blog posts on the intriguing and controversial Secret Gospel of Mark, allegedly discovered by Columbia University scholar Morton Smith in the library of the Greek orthodox monastery Mar Saba twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem.  He did not actually discover the Gospel itself, but (allegedly) discovered a letter that described and quoted it, allegedly written by the church father Clement of Alexandria (200 CE or so), allegedly copied by a scribe of the eighteenth century in the back blank pages of a seventeenth-century book otherwise (actually) containing the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (110 CE or so), in which Clement allegedly discusses a potentially scandalous edition of Mark’s Gospel allegedly used by a nefarious Gnostic group called the Carpocratians.  Confused yet?  Read the posts, starting with this one from April 12: In my posts I did not give any evidence to show that this “alleged” discovery might not have been a discovery but a forgery, possibly by Smith himself, even though from the outset some (many?) [...]

A Scandalous Discovery of a Scandalous Gospel?

Later scholars have sometimes claimed Morton Smith forged the Secret Gospel of Mark; he claimed he *discovered* it.  Which is it?  Here I continue with my account of how he said it all happened.  In my previous post I indicated that in 1958 Smith was catagaloguing the books of the library of the monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, when he found a book that had a text written into its final (blank) pages.  It was allegedly a letter of Clement of Alexandria, a famous theologian and ethicist who lived and wrote around 200 CE. Smith immediately recognized that it was a letter we did not have before.  And here is how I discuss what he did next, in my book Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003). ****************************** On the spot, Smith decided to photograph the three pages that contained the handwritten copy of Clement’s letter, but chose to hold off translating the entire text until later, reasoning that if some such treasure had turned up, there might be more where that came from; given [...]

Could the Mysterious “Secret Gospel of Mark” Be Authentic?

In my previous posts I discussed how Morton Smith claimed he discovered a copy of an ancient letter of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), written in the back of a 17th century book, by a scribe of the 18th century, in which Clement described a mysterious “Secret Gospel” – an intriguing and possibly scandalous longer version of the Gospel of Mark. In yesterday’s post I indicated how Smith went about trying to authenticate the discovery.  Here I pick up at that point, again, as recounted in my book Lost Christianities. ****************************** A key question was whether the copyist who put the alleged letter of Clement of Alexandria that Smith mound into the bak of a book was copying an actualy letter of Clement of Alexandria.  There is no difficulty believing that a scribe of the eighteenth century might have had a fragmentary copy of an ancient letter at his disposal – possibly a loose sheet in the ancient library, known for its famous ancient texts – and that rather than simply discard it, he [...]

How Do You Prove an Ancient Manuscript is Ancient? The Secret Gospel of Mark

In my previous posts I explained how American scholar of early Christianity, Morton Smith, claimed to have discovered the Secret Gospel of Mark in 1958.   Now I’ll discuss how, once he discovered it (assuming he did – some scholars think he actually forged it…), how he went about trying to find out if it was actually an ancient Gospel. Again, from my book Lost Christianities:  Authenticating and Interpreting the Letter Morton Smith devoted much of his research for the next fifteen years studying this find.  Roughly speaking, the work involved establishing the authenticity of the letter and determining the meaning of the passages quoted from the Secret Gospel.  In 1973, Smith published the results of his labors in two books, one a popular account for general audiences, full of interesting anecdotes and still worth reading, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the the Secret Gospel According to Mark, the other an erudite report on his investigations for scholars in the field, an amazing book of scholarship but inaccessible for the most part to [...]

The Discovery of a Lifetime: A Secret Gospel of Mark?

In this thread I am discussing the discovery of the Secret Gospel of Mark in 1958.  Or was it the forgery of the Secret Gospel of Mark?  Entire books have been written on the topic.  My first foray into the fields was in my book Lost Christianities (Oxford Press, 2003).  Here is how I begin to talk about the matter there: *******************************  The Discovery We need to begin with the tale of the discovery, as recounted by Morton Smith himself in his sundry publications on the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” especially the two books published fifteen years after the discovery – one for a general audience, a beautifully written piece that reads like a detective novel, and one for scholars, a detailed linguistic and philological analysis of the text and its significance.[1] In 1941, as a twenty-six year old graduate student, Smith had gone to the Holy Land on a traveling fellowship from Harvard Divinity School.  Unfortunately, the Mediterranean was closed by the war, and he was stuck in Jerusalem.  While there he became acquainted [...]

The First Actual Account of the Resurrection (Hint: It’s Not in the New Testament)

On this Easter Sunday I thought it would be appropriate to repost a blog from several years ago on a Gospel not in the New Testament -- a Gospel that gives us an actual narrative of the resurrection.  I often say that there is no story of the resurrection in the the New Testament -- and people think I'm nuts.  Of *course* there is!  No, there's not.  In the New Testament, Jesus is buried on a late Friday afternoon.  The action picks up, then, on the third day when the women arrive at the tomb, only to find it empty. The resurrection happened *between* these two events.  It is never narrated.  We have no account of Jesus being revived and coming out of the tomb. But we do from *outside* the New Testament, in a book that some early Christians considered canonical Scripture, the Gospel of Peter.  This was an account that was lost for many, many centuries.  It deals not just with Jesus' resurrection (though that is clearly the highlight), but with his trial [...]

Dreaming of Purgatory

Yesterday I began to talk about the Martyrdom of Perpetua, one of the most interesting and moving texts to come down to us from early Christianity.  It is an account of a 23-year old Roman matron who is willing to die a gruesome death for her Christian faith.  Among other things, the text shows that her faith is far more important to her than her family.  In particular, she is shown in conflict especially with her father (no husband is mentioned, which has led to considerable speculation: Divorced? Widowed? Unwed mother? Something else?).  And even though it is with regret, she is willing to leave behind her own infant child by being martyred. Family figures prominently in the two excerpts here.  In the first her father begs her to avoid martyrdom, to no avail.  In the second (chs. 7-8) we have an account of her dream and intervention on behalf of her dead brother Dinocrates.  This is the part that I will be most interested in for the next post.  Is it an early adumbration [...]

Is the Gospel of Mark in Papias Our Gospel of Mark?

Can we trust a source such as Papias on the question of whether our Gospel of Matthew was written by the disciple Matthew and that our Gospel of Mark was written by Mark, the companion of the disciple Peter? It is interesting that Papias tells a story that is recorded in our Matthew but tells it so completely differently that it appears he doesn’t know Matthew’s version.  And so when he says Matthew wrote Matthew, is he referring to *our* Matthew, or to some other book?  (Recall, the Gospel he refers to is a collection of Jesus’ sayings in Hebrew; the Gospel of Matthew that *we* have is a narrative, not a collection of sayings, and was written in Greek.)  If he *is* referring to our Matthew, why doesn’t he see it as an authoritative account? Here's the conflicting story.  It involves the death of Judas.  And it’s quite a story!  Here is my translation of it from my edition, The Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Classical Library, vol. 1; 2004). But Judas went about in this [...]

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