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The Gnostic Gospels and Current Popular Views of Jesus

The Gnostic Gospels and Current Popular Views of Jesus

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Published by Richard Rivera

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Published by: Richard Rivera on May 19, 2010
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07/04/2010

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The Gnostic Gospels and Current Popular Views of Jesus
Arland J. HultgrenIt is astonishing, even if fascinating and entertaining, to read the claims of LeighTeabing, a fictional historian in
The Da Vinci Code
, concerning the gospels and ourknowledge of Jesus. He makes the following claims, among others:(1) The life of Jesus was “recorded by thousands of followers,” and “morethan eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament.”
1
 (2) The Bible was “collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine theGreat,” leaving all of them out except four.
2
 (3) Constantine “commissioned and financed” a Bible that “omitted thosegospels that spoke of Christ’s
human
traits and embellished those gospelsthat made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up,and burned.”
3
 (4) But some of these “gospels” have survived. The Dead Sea Scrolls andNag Hammadi scrolls tell “the true…story” and “speak of Christ’sministry in very human terms.”
4
 (5) The Q document was possibly written by Jesus.
5
 (6) Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and the Nag Hammadidocument known as
The Gospel of Philip
is the basis for the claim.
6
 (7) And “it was not
Peter 
to whom Christ gave directions with which toestablish the Christian church. It was
 Mary Magdalene
.”
7
The claims of Teabing are not spun out of air, for some of them can be derived fromscholarly literature. It is common knowledge, for example, that dozens of other gospelswere written in addition to the four canonical gospels. These have been published intwo widely used collections. The first is the two-volume
New Testament Apocrypha
,edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher,
8
containing the actual texts of apocryphal gospels,fragments of others, and references in early Christian authors to even more that existedat one time but are no longer extant. The texts of the apocryphal Nag Hammadi
1
Dan Brown,
The Da Vinci Code: A Novel
(New York: Doubleday, 2003), 231.
2
Ibid.
3
Ibid., 234.
4
Ibid.
5
Ibid., 256.
6
Ibid., 245-46.
7
Ibid., 248.
8
 
 New Testament Apocrypha
, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, rev. ed., 2 vols. (Louisville: WestminsterJohn Knox, 1991-92).283
 
 
gospels—Coptic documents discovered in 1945—are included in the work bySchneemelcher, but are also in the widely used volume,
The Nag Hammadi Library inEnglish
, edited by James M. Robinson.
9
To say, as Teabing does, that more than eightygospels were composed may be a numerical stretch, but even more is it a stretch tosuggest that “more than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament.” Thatthe Bible was “collated,” “commissioned,” or “financed” by Constantine rests on afanciful imagination.
Whoever composed the (hypothetical) Q document—assumingthat there was one—cannot be known. And the Dead Sea Scrolls contain nothing in theway of direct information concerning Jesus of Nazareth.There are two other claims by Teabing that are of interest for a more lengthy discussion,for they have been taken up in other places and have had an impact on popular viewsof Jesus. It is those issues that will be addressed in the following sections.
I. Was Jesus Married?
Whether Jesus was married and had descendants, as claimed by Teabing, has beendiscussed before. In 1970 a book by William Phipps was published with the title,
Was Jesus Married?
Phipps picked up the usual answer to the question and challenged it.The usual response is that, since the gospels say nothing about his having a wife, weconclude that Jesus was single. But, according to Phipps, one should actually come tothe opposite conclusion. Since it was expected in the world of Jesus that Joseph wouldhave arranged a marriage for his son, and that a person was to marry in one’s youth,and since the gospels do not say that Jesus did
not
have a wife, we should expect that hedid.
 The issue can be dealt with as both theological and historical. On the theological side, ithardly seems like a formidable Christological problem. Assuming that Jesus was trulyhuman, his having a wife would be but an aspect of his incarnate life. The church hasnever affirmed a doctrine of “the perpetual virginity of Jesus,” even though hissingleness has been assumed. A person who thinks that a sexual relationship between Jesus and a wife would undermine the “sinlessness” of Jesus could have a problem, butthat would be a matter of personal opinion, probably not something that can be raisedto a doctrinal level.
9
 
The Nag Hammadi Library in English
, ed. James M. Robinson, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1988).
10
For brief treatments of the process of canonization, see the discussions of James A. Sandersand Harry Y. Gamble, “Canon,” in
The Anchor Bible Dictionary
, ed. David N. Freedman, 6 vols.(New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:837-61.
11
William E. Phipps,
Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition
 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 15-38.284
 
 
The question whether Jesus was married or not is, in the final analysis, a historical one,not a theological one. The assertion by Teabing that Jesus was married and that his wifewas Mary Magdalene rests on two points. First, as with Phipps, Jesus would have beenexpected to marry. Not to be married would be an anomaly. But even though it wouldhave been unusual for Jesus to have been single in his religious and culturalenvironment, it would not have been unheard of or impossible. There were men whodid not marry, such as Saul of Tarsus (1 Cor. 7:7), perhaps John the Baptist, and—according to both Philo and Josephus—the Essenes, of whom they both count fourthousand throughout Palestine and Syria, and both claim that the Essenes werecelibate.
The saying of Jesus at Matthew 19:12 (“there are eunuchs who have madethemselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”) indicates that there musthave been some Jewish Christians who remained single as well.Second, Teabing relies on the apocryphal
Gospel of Philip
, in which it reads (in theversion that Teabing has):And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved hermore than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.The term “companion” is then explained by Teabing to mean “spouse” in Aramaic, thelanguage of Jesus.
 There are a number of issues here. First, the
Gospel of Philip
, as we have it from NagHammadi, exists in Coptic (not Aramaic), and no other versions have been found. It iscommonly thought to have been composed originally in Greek in the third century, orperhaps even in the second, but the extant Coptic text is conventionally dated from 350-400.
The lateness of the gospel is already sufficient cause to be a bit skeptical aboutits traditions concerning Jesus and those around him.Second, the text quoted is riddled with lacunae. It reads as follows in
The Nag HammadiLibrary in English
with lacunae in dots and brackets and conjectures within brackets:And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […loved] her more than[all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her […].
(
Gospel of Philip
63.32-34).
12
Philo,
 Hypothetica (Apology of the Jews),
11.14;
 Every Good Man is Free,
12.75-87; Josephus,
 Antiquities,
18.1.5.
13
D. Brown,
The Da Vinci Code
, 246.
14
R. McL. Wilson,
The Gospel of Philip: Translation from the Coptic Text, with an Introductionand Commentary
(London: Mowbray, 1962), 3; Wesley W. Isenberg, “The Gospel of Philip:Introduction and Translation,”
The Nag Hammadi Library in English,
ed. J. Robinson, 139-41.
15
 
The Nag Hammadi Library in English
, ed. J. Robinson,148. The translation is by Wesley W.Isenberg.285

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