I fell asleep last night all curled up in front of my laptop, with the strains of this doc on The Gnostic and Heretical Gospels, ringing through my dreams. Fascinating program, and a rather hot (IMHO) Anglican Priest as the Narrator – Peter Owen-Jones. I had been flipping through some videos related to the discovery and preservation of the Gospel of Judas Papyri found in Egypt – which was found in the same region as the Nag Hammadi library.
In his BBC documentary How to Live a Simple Life (2009), Owen-Jones tried to live a life without money, in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi. His 2010 documentary, The Lost Gospels, discussed the Apocryphal Gospels which were omitted from the canon of the New Testament, and Owen-Jones considers how their contents might have altered Christian theology if they had not been suppressed.[ WIKIPEDIA]
These ancient books have not been read by anyone in close to 1800 years. The fragments represent bits and pieces of a whole bunch of different Gospels that were around between the time of the 1st c. AD – to around 350 c. AD. A time of various factions, with various writings and modes of thought, scribed by many ancient hands and followed by various and diverse Peoples through those early centuries.
The Ebionites are one of these early sects and their sacred text was a unique version of a familiar Gospel.
The difference between the Gospel sacred to the Ebionites, and the version we have today is one critical point – their Gospel said that Jesus was born of a man and woman, Mary and Joseph, and only became Divine at his baptism. This went against other factions of the early church, who then asked… so what made Jesus different?
Ebionites, or Ebionaioi (Greek: Ἐβιωναῖοι; derived from Hebrew אביונים ebyonim, ebionim, meaning “the poor” or “poor ones”), is a patristic term referring to a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. The Ebionites used only one of the Jewish Gospels, revered James the Just and rejected Paul of Tarsus as an apostate from the Law. Their name suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty. The Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect that sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple, at Qumran, whom many believe were the Essenes.
What fascinates me is the great dichotomy and theoretical soup this time would have been. With all these various Gospels and debates over Jesus’ true nature, in a time rife with conflict. The whole argument surrounding his divinity was ultimately the compromise that turned the Christian church into what it is today.
The take away for me after watching this, is the point that these decisions were not arrived at from sheer arbitrary, or merely selfish or otherwise greedy means – instead – the question was one of how to unify these diverse groups? They recognized that there needed to be one unifying voice, to match their monotheistic faith. The early church was searching for the elements that would refine the message, and thus draw these followers together underneath the banner of THESE words, THESE thoughts, and thus defining what be sacred, and what is not. The Canon was thus established. Yet, lost in the desert for centuries was the alternative stories; perhaps one could say the roads not taken.
NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY: The contents of the codices were written in the Coptic language, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery, scholars recognized that fragments of these sayings attributed to Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898 (P. Oxy. 1), and matching quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. Subsequently, a 1st or 2nd century date of composition circa 80 AD has been proposed for the lost Greek originals of the Gospel of Thomas. The buried manuscripts date from the third and fourth centuries.
Various sects, led of course to friction, and thus a people divided – and thus weakened. Eventual dominate factions believed that the truly attractive aspect of Jesus, was the sense that ANYONE can have salvation, if you do these particular things.
This particular voice strived to aid these early Christians, as they faced the Roman Spectators gathered to watch the lions or fire test their monotheistic faith, saying THIS IS THE WORD OF OUR GOD.
Be the slave, freeman or woman, the early followers were humble, and often poor and disenfranchised by what they saw around them. For within the pagan domains of this time existed just as much intolerance of poverty, and established hierarchies saw these people as beneath them. Somewhat similar to the many conflicts we face today. Very little has changed, as intolerance towards the OTHER is a sign of a weakened faith.
Amongst the many voices, amid a time of change and enslavement to the Roman juggernaut, these early Christians were teetering in their infancy. A unifying voice would give those who face the maw of death, meaning to their life and help them to believe they did not live in vain – as anyone could still obtain salvation. Heady stuff of a time and place, a certain faction of Peoples, who were intrigued and ready for this sense of tribal loyalty the faith offered. No multitude of gods, no complicated chants and simple words, that today seem almost Buddhist in nature. Words of mercy and light, shepherds and fisherman, following a faith whose early churches were family hearths and paths towards the divine that subscribed to a particular patient, middle way.
Women had a dominate role too, although you would be hard pressed to find anything of that in this New Testament. The Bible is but one VOICE.
Almost mystically, hidden for centuries within an earthen jar in a cave at the edge of the desert in Egypt, lay the writings and thoughts of the early apostles. Nothing has changed, woman played an important role within the early followers, since their gatherings were held in homes.
Hearth, home, family, Mother, Father, these principles defined the early wisps that drifted through the air in those early centuries. Clinging to this figure from history, his sayings, his nature, and even the nature of his humanity, was a living debate. Each Gospel written from different perspectives, each unique, and each I believe sacred.
Diversity is necessary within any healthy ecosystem in order to maintain a certain balance. Trimming the top only serves to enhance its ability to change and grow underneath, at its roots. In a real and basic fashion, the medium IS the message, as McLuhan once stated. The medium, the spirit, the divine, the flesh and the nature of the spirit, are all abstracted concepts early Christians gravitated towards.
As today, these early Gospels represented different ways in which to see their mundane lives, and how to absorb it into their day to day world. The message altered to embrace different cultures, and to recognize a diversity of lifestyles, and needs of the spirit. Adaptable, with a simple message, and open for debate in so many new and unique ways. Early Christians were in many ways the torch bearers of early writing. One has to wonder where the art of writing would be in the West today, without those early scribes.
The fragments of these ancient Gospels, as they exist today, are only even in existence due to some mysterious faction of Early Christians who could not bring themselves to destroy the words and wisdom contained, the knowledge they imparted could not be lost forever. So this mysterious group packed them in jars, and hid them in a cave at the edge of the desert – romantically one can believe they foresaw one day these writings would again see the light of day, and once again serve to enhance the many and diverse ways to serve and see the divine, the sacred.
I have been fascinated by early Christianity for some time now. Beginning first with my personal discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I have POURED over every scrap I can get that illuminates this time period. I am so enamoured I suppose by beginnings, and how belief comes to be. What drives a people to embrace certain things? AND, in turn, what other ways are there to look at the same thing? Again, it’s a time of transition, and this is also a fascination of mine.
Transitional times are in and of themselves sacred. I’ve always believed that ideas fostered within these stretchmarks of time, in some ways strengthen and define faith and belief.
With movements of people surging throughout the landscape, migrations from the pastoral, nomadic life to the Urbanized city states, this time represents a clashing of beliefs, goals and cultural memes.
Today we are strengthened by the contents of this theological soup. Although the message may be simple, people are not.