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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  1. MarkWiz July 1, 2023 at 7:01 pm

    Wow, bad day for Simon of Cyrene! It would have been much more satisfying if Jesus had switched places with Judas, Pilate, or one of the Roman soldiers. One wonders what the author was trying to say about the personality… and morals… of Jesus.

    I’ve always thought it is a shame that no stories exist about Jesus having a sense of humor. It’s hard to believe a group of followers would travel together for three years without sharing a few laughs. (“Remember the time Peter tried to walk on water? Man, did you see the look on his face when he started to sink?”) I suppose, though, that humor was not an element those early Christians wanted to stress.

  2. Pattylt July 1, 2023 at 9:17 pm

    Has any founder of a religion ever been known to have a sense of humor?

    • BDEhrman July 4, 2023 at 12:25 pm

      Well, Jesus is sometimes thought to have; some of his metaphors are pretty funny (camels through eyes of a needle; logs dangling from people’s eyes). Elton Trueblood wrote a book a long time ago called The Humor of Christ (I think that’s the title).

    • Bewilderbeast July 15, 2023 at 3:05 pm

      L Ron Hubbard started Scientology to get rich. Joke was on his followers. After a brief bankruptcy, he achieved his aim. So, sort-of a sense of humor?

  3. nicolausaldanha July 2, 2023 at 3:16 pm

    “Jesus is never said to laugh in the New Testament.”

    You are certainly familiar with Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose”, which in a sense is about this issue. In the book, characters discuss whether Jesus would or could have laughed. I wonder how much of that discussion actually happened.

    Then there is also the movie “La Voie Lactée” (does this count as a Jesus movie, I wonder?). There is a scene where Jesus tells a parable. But the parable is a joke. When Jesus finishes, everybody laughs, Jesus included.

  4. RizwanAhmed July 4, 2023 at 5:05 pm

    Ah yes, this is one of the “books” that Muslim apologists love to cite as “proof” that Jesus wasn’t actually crucified. As a Muslim myself, I always die a little bit inside whenever I hear that argument!

    • AngeloB July 9, 2023 at 7:05 am

      Very interesting Rizwan!

    • OmarRobb July 9, 2023 at 10:00 am

      It would be useful here to highlight the historical development of this story.

      # Quran said in 4:157 that Jesus wasn’t killed and wasn’t crucified but it appeared to the Jews that he was.

      There wasn’t any clarification for this verse in the Quran or the Hadith.

      1# The first hypothesis that came after the death of Muhammed said that a companion of Jesus voluntarily took Jesus identity. I assume that the drive for this hypothesis came from the disbelief that God would allow Jesus to be tortured for 6 hours, and also it came from the new-converts to Islam.

      2# The second hypothesis said that Judas Iscariot himself was transformed to look like Jesus and the people took him and crucified him.

      3# The third hypothesis came from Ahmad Deedat in about 1980AD. He highlighted that the crucifixion is the killing on the cross, therefore, it is legitimate to say that Jesus was nailed to the cross but didn’t die there.

      4# Some Muslim apologists (and not all, and not even most) did recently speak about Simon of Cyrene. But to my understanding, there is no ancient Muslim Scholar that mentioned anything about Simon of Cyrene.

  5. Stonefeather July 11, 2023 at 9:24 am

    I believe it was the novelist Tom Robins who, in one of his books, wondered how different Christianity might be if there were a verse in one of the gospels, “Jesus laughed.” Another favorite writer of mine, Kenneth Patchen, includes in his masterwork, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, a transcription of a tape recorded conversation between Christ and Hitler, in which the latter demands–and eventually sobs and pleads–to be given credit for his guilt, while all Jesus does is laugh. So this vision of the Chortling Galilean seems to be an idea that has traversed the centuries under the power of spontaneous generation alone.

  6. Bewilderbeast July 15, 2023 at 2:58 pm

    Wicked at last! Almost all gods are / can be wicked – except Jesus. Now he too, has a wicked streak.

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