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 Gospel, but Irenaeus does tell us of an episode from the life of Jesus from one of the writings used by Basilides, so it’s completely plausible that this was found in a Gospel book available to him (alternatively, it could simply have been a tradition he passed along). It has to do with Jesus’ crucifixion. And it’s an amazing story.
To understand Basilides’ account of the crucifixion, it’s important to realize (or remember) that many Gnostics did not believe that Christ, as a divine being, could actually suffer. If he seemed to suffer (he was crucified, after all), then it was in fact all an appearance. Different Gnostics had different ways of explaining how it was an appearance: some said that Christ did not have a real flesh-and-blood body, so that when it appeared that his enemies inflicted pain and death on him, they were actually unable to do so; others said that the Christ was a divine being and that Jesus was a separate, human being, in whom the Christ came at his baptism and left at his crucifixion, leaving Jesus, the man, to suffer alone, while the Christ, the divine being, was beyond suffering. And Basilides had yet a different explanation.
According to Basilides, since Christ was a divine being, he had all sorts of divine powers. And he used them when it came time for him to be crucified. What he did was pull an identity switch. He transformed Simon of Cyrene, who was carrying his cross, to make him look like him, Jesus, and he transformed himself, Jesus, into the appearance of Simon of Cyrene. And so, when they arrived at the place of crucifixion, the Romans crucified the wrong man. And Jesus stood beside the cross laughing.
Presumably Simon didn’t think it was so funny.
This idea of Jesus laughing at his enemies who think they can hurt him is found in some other Gnostic writings that do survive, unlike this lost Gospel of Basilides (if it was a Gospel). For example, Jesus laughs four times in the Gospel of Judas (at the ignorance of the disciples) (who are not his enemies; they are just dunderheads); and in the writing from Nag Hammadi called the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and the other one called the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter (not to be confused with the other Apocalypse of Peter that presents a first hand account of a guided tour of heaven and hell), Jesus laughs at the scene of his crucifixion, specifically at the ones who think they can harm him when in fact all they can do is harm the shell of his body, which is not the real him.
One reason all this laughing is interesting is that Jesus is never said to laugh in the New Testament. I’m not sure what to make of that.
In any event, the earliest account of him laughing may well have been the Gospel of Basilides, if it really existed, from some time in the early second century. It is one of many books that we very much wish we still had!
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