Return here to the Shadows in Eden home page.....

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Matthew, Mark, Luke …and Mary?

The woman who sits quietly writing already has known the greatest love, and because of that love has also endured the greatest loss. She writes from the depths, both of her love and of her wisdom, which is the wisdom of the inner ways taught to her as the one worthy to receive such precious knowledge. And she also writes from her own first-hand experience as a witness to the events which she relates, and from the wellsprings of insight which are uniquely hers. The woman does not know, nor can she know, the cruel twists of the invented history about her that is to come. And perhaps that is as well, for were she to know these things, even her great spirit might falter.

A yawning gulf stretches between the Mary Magdalene who shows us a wisdom and nobility of spirit as revealed in the original texts about – and possibly actually by – her, and the redeemed woman of former ill repute perpetuated by the Church. My imagined portrait of Mary features a fragment of the surviving Gospel of Mary in the background: a text which presents us with a radically different version from the Mary of the Church.
Mary, the Magdalene, writes in ink on papyrus the [1]Gnostic declaration: In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. This text written in her own [2]hand has no title. It is simply a manuscript. But its spiritual clarity and emotional intensity, and the immediacy of the events which it describes will ensure that it remains one which is read, copied and circulated.

This original text will be lost to history, but some fifty years later other hands less tolerant, and perhaps more jealous, of a mere woman’s authorship of such wisdom will radically amend her text, altering it to seem as if a man had written her words – a simple matter for a copyist to alter ‘she’ to ‘he’, apparently to make it acceptable to the new orthodoxy. The text itself clearly tells us that it was written by the [3]‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, the orthodox assumption being that this is John. And there are indeed two points in the narrative where both Mary Magdalene and this unnamed ‘beloved disciple’ appear in the same scene: at the foot of the cross, and at the tomb following the Resurrection. Yet it is precisely at these points in the story that the narrative appears to stumble, [4]contradicting itself as to exactly who was where, and when. It is as if an unknown hand is shuffling the deck in the middle of the deal, attempting to shoehorn events to fit the changed context.

The weeping Magdalene outside the tomb, as portrayed in the 19th-century by Antonio Ciseri. In the fourth Gospel Mary is described as simultaneously running away from the tomb and remaining behind at the tomb alone: an impossibility of circumstance which only can be reconciled if the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ and John are not the same person. Mary’s luxuriant loose tresses were the traditional artistic means of signalling her status as a former prostitute.
And the Magdalene herself? Already ciphered away as the true author of the text, this most wise of the original disciples now becomes demoted and reinvented by the triumphant forces of orthodoxy to be portrayed, not as one of Jesus’ inner circle, but as a mere follower and a former whore. The fact that scripture never actually describes her in such terms seems of little consequence. Such tactics are not unknown to the Church, which already has reinvented such apparently pro-Gnostic writers as [5]Anthony, Clement of Alexandria and [6]Paul to become paragons of orthodox doctrine.

Not for nothing did Clement ironically caution that ‘not all true things are the truth.’ For almost two thousand years the image of Mary Magdalene as a [7]redeemed whore will persist. Artists down the centuries become willing and unwitting co-conspirators, seeing their chance to depict the Magdalene in her penitent scarlet woman guise as a pious pretext to reveal some vulnerable female flesh. But as it always does eventually, the tide of opinion and scriptural scholarship turns.

A staged photograph from the 1920’s portraying the penitent Magdalene. Even up to the previous century we see the loose hair and the element of suggestive nudity being used to denote Mary’s presumed repentance of her former profession: a lifestyle for which there is no evidence whatever anywhere in scripture. The unknown photographer nevertheless engages our sympathy with a dramatic simplicity of composition and by keeping the face of the model hidden from our view.
So what is the basis for our calling this particular book 'The Gospel According to St. John'? In the 2nd-century [8]Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, was considering what he should call the untitled manuscript. He seemed to recall that his mentor, Bishop Polycarp, had once mentioned to him that the manuscript was written by John the apostle. And so under the editorial hand of the bishop, the text became accepted into scripture with its new title. Incredibly, this tenuous boyhood memory of a single individual is the only basis we have for calling John the author. For impartial contemporary scholarship the text is anonymous.

This sympathetic 19th-century portrayal of the Magdalene by Mateo Cerezo, while still endowing her with a prostitute’s loose tresses, nevertheless creates around her an atmosphere of devotion and study. The skull was used as a memento mori – a reminder of human mortality – which the artist counterpoints with Mary’s tender gaze towards the promised immortality offered by the crucifix.
When the only reason we have for attributing the authorship of the fourth Gospel to the apostle John is based upon a hearsay boyhood memory, then tradition rests upon foundations of sand. But if John did not write it, then who did? The ‘beloved disciple’ remains unnamed, and yet entrenched tradition insists that it is John. But other [9]texts tell us specifically that the ‘beloved disciple’, the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, is Mary Magdalene. Remembering that the fourth Gospel originally was a [10]text belonging to these other writings, by restoring the inconsistencies and changes of gender we can read this fourth Gospel very much as it could be read in what perhaps was its original form, before the alterations were made which allowed the text to become an acceptable part of the orthodox canon.

If for you this all seems a little far-fetched, how differently would you feel about things if new evidence would come to light that the text was written by (for example) the disciple Bartholomew? Is it after all mere chauvinist bias which makes the idea of a female authorship implausible? And if you still resist the idea, then consider this: it is a cold fact that we have more circumstantial evidence for considering that Mary was the text’s author than ever existed for assigning the authorship to John.

Today, 22nd July, is traditionally the day of Mary Magdalene: a good day for redressing the outdated misconceptions which orthodox opinion has been only too prepared to allow to accrue around her name.

[1] The term Logos (right) is essentially Gnostic, and this is the word used in the Gospel’s original Greek. The concept of the Logos actually has its origins in the pre-Christian Greek mystery schools (as does the concept of the Trinity). The author David Fideler describes the Logos as “the pre-Christian idea of ..the pattern of Harmony which was seen as underlying the order of the universe.” In subsequent translations of the fourth Gospel, the term ‘Logos’ has been exchanged for the more simplistic term ‘Word’, but ‘Logos’ and ‘Word’ are not interchangeable concepts.

[2] Such texts also could have been dictated to a scribe.

[3] John 21:20 and 21:24.
[4] During John 20:1-11, Mary’s location pops in and out of being both already at the entrance to the tomb and simultaneously running away from it. An assumption that it is she who is the ‘beloved disciple’ and not the separate figure of John makes this discrepancy disappear.
[5] Please see my post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction.

[6] Just as the orthodox bishop Athanasius presented the life of Anthony as a fictionalized biography after his death to make it appear as if Anthony was a paragon of orthodoxy, the letters of Paul were altered and supplemented for the same reason. The letters appearing in Paul’s name in the New Testament as 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are forgeries. 1 Timothy 2:9-15 notoriously emphasises the subservient role of women, but these are all chauvinist dictums put into the mouth of Paul by a later unknown hand. Please see my post "Behold This Woman" (left) for more about this subject. These writings attributed to Paul, but not by him, are the very letters which turned up (perhaps a little too coincidentally?) at the time that Irenaeus was writing his massive multi-volume work Against Heresies, attacking all that he judged to be non-orthodox. The rigorous anti-female stance of this forged letter has served the Church well ever since. So does the fact that we now know these letters to be forgeries mean that they will at last be dropped from the canon? Of course not. We have made scripture immutable. That is its weakness. 

[7] Please see my post The Gospel of Mary.

[8] Irenaeus himself tells us this in his writings. Please see my post The Gospel According to Somebody.

[9] This notably occurs in the Gospels of Philip and Mary. Stylistically, the Gospel of Mary is particularly comparable to the fourth Gospel. That the fourth Gospel is fundamentally different from the other three is signalled by the collective term Synoptic (meaning: ‘viewed together’) Gospels used for Matthew, Mark and Luke. The fourth Gospel has a specific spiritual and emotional intensity and didactic style which is mirrored in The Gospel of Mary, pointing to the possibility that these two texts, and perhaps also the Gospel of Philip, came from the same community, of which Mary could have been the spiritual leader, or at least in which she played an influential role. 

[10] In my post Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish, I cite the author Margaret Starbird’s conclusion that the number 153, the number of fish in the disciples’ net in John 21:10-11, is actually the gematria equivalent of the name η Μαγδαληνή – The Magdalene – which opens the possibility that if Mary is indeed the author of the fourth Gospel, then the inclusion of this specific number can be viewed as her authorial signature – and one which was not recognised by orthodox powers for its true significance, hence its being included in scripture. And if this specific number is mere whimsy, why include it?

WTF?? This note has been added 23 July 2015, after reading a post on another blog which also chose Mary Magdalene as its theme for yesterday. The post which can be read here, written by Erik Richtsteig, a Catholic priest based in Ogden, Utah, provided me with one of those jaw-dropping moments of incredulity which I'm seriously considering for my 'WTF Moment of the Month' award. Here's why: Father Reichsteig acknowledges (as I do) that there is no evidence whatever in scripture for the baseless tradition by the Church that Mary Magdalene was a whore. He then immediately follows this with the assertion that he nevertheless "will go with tradition every time over the fads of academe." Put plainly: this particular priest prizes baseless Church tradition above actual scripture, above the Bible itself.

Much of the basis for this post comes from the paper Mary Magdalene: Author of the Fourth Gospel?, by Ramon K. Jusino, 1998. The complete text may be read here. The proposition that Mary was the author of the fourth Gospel remains a hypothesis, although a credible and well-reasoned one. What is not in doubt is the vast and unfounded discrepancy between her depiction in these early contemporary and near-contemporary texts and her portrayal by the Church.

Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Trinity Press International, 1975.
Hans-Josef Klauck: Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. Baylor University Press, 2006.
David Fideler: Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism. Quest Books, 1993.
Margaret Starbird: Magdalene’s Lost Legacy: Symbolic Numbers and the Sacred Union in Christianity. Inner Traditions, Bear and Company, 2003.

Statue of the weeping Magdalene (above) by Antonio Canova. Imagined portrait of Mary Magdalene (top image) created for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Word of God

What is the bottom line of your faith? If you are Christian, is it accepting the divinity of Jesus? Perhaps it is in the acknowledgment of his sacrifice to take your sins upon his own shoulders, or in tracing his perfect [1]lineage back to the prophets of old. But none of these things, however vital they might be to your faith, are necessarily at the foundation of what makes your faith workable. The keystone upon which all these other things rests is the simple acceptance that scripture is the revealed Word of God: that the texts of the [2]Bible, and every word which appears in them, are the product of Divine Revelation. Because without accepting this premise scripture becomes like any other secular text, and its supernatural elements – all of them – are reduced to an interesting but questionable fiction.

Ascribing authorship to the four gospels and other such texts is a considerably less certain exercise than the editors of my own [3]King James Version admit to. In fact, it’s not certain at all. Centuries before copyright laws existed, it would not have been considered a subterfuge to attach the name of some respected prophet or apostle to a text with the wish to imbue that text with an aura of authority.
That in almost every case we simply do not know who wrote these texts (regardless of the various names to whom these texts are nominally attributed) need not in itself be a reason to preclude them from being divinely inspired, any more than some of the greatest [4]literary works which we have are diminished in their greatness simply because their authors are unknown to us. So we must use other criteria to determine these texts’ divine source. But what are these criteria? By what standards can we possibly determine beyond doubt whether, when we open our Bible, the words that we read are truly those of God speaking through his chosen ones? 

While I was reading through some of the many annotations and footnotes in my copy of the [5]Gnostic Scriptures, a singular thought occurred to me. Here was a volume of texts presented with scrupulous scholarship. Its various translators of the original [6]Coptic and [7]Greek languages into English were happy enough, where appropriate, to provide possible alternative phrases and meanings where the original language had no exact English equivalent or was ambiguous. Little or no attempt had been made to polish the language of the originals for the sake of introducing a poetic turn of phrase. What richness of language there was emerged from the original texts, and not from any over-enthusiastic translation, however well-intentioned.

A portion of the poorly-preserved Gospel of Judas, written in Coptic. Such fragments dramatically illustrate the herculean task faced by scholars to recreate such texts, with reasonable assumptions made upon the basis of the context of the words around them being used to suggest what the words in the missing lacunas might have been.
But that was not all. Any ambiguities were further referenced to the works and examples of other translators beyond this particular edition, making any amount of cross-checking possible. And any lacunas (gaps in the text, usually caused through damage) were acknowledged as missing from the originals. If a word or a phrase used by the translator to fill such a gap was a speculative guess, then it was called just that. Scholastically, it was all impressively honest stuff.

My singular thought was: is there anywhere an equivalent volume published which deals with canonical texts in the same way? I know of individual books which do this for [8]specific texts in scripture, and there are of course individual studies and papers dealing with specific books or parts of books, but not a volume (or a series of volumes) which covers the whole of the Bible. On the face of it, there is no reason why there should not be a canonical (yet scholarly impartial) equivalent of my edition of the Gnostic scriptures. All of these texts, whether canonical or outside the canon, are ancient texts in ancient languages, written on scrolls or in [9]codices in various states of preservation. They are not even the original texts (no, none of them), but were written down by scribes and copyists, sometimes by blindly copying the characters of a [10]language unfamiliar to them, and with the inevitable scribal errors which this involves.

Part of the Dead Sea scroll in Ancient Hebrew known as the Great Isaiah Scroll. Where more than one copy of a text is available we can use these copies to create the complete text. But what if (as has happened) two copies contradict each other? How can we choose which version is the correct one? Perhaps only one copy is more true to the original – or perhaps even neither.
When reading, say, the King James Version, it is the easiest thing in the world to imagine that, yes, this must be the definitive complete version of scripture, simply because that is what it sounds like, and forget that the 17th-century KJV has been superseded in its accuracy both by contemporary scholarship and by new discoveries made since, particularly the Dead Sea scrolls, discovered just two years after the unearthing of the Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945.There is no ‘definitive’ version of scripture, simply because we do not have one. Neither can there ever be one, for who knows what texts still lie somewhere undiscovered that would yet demand revisions to what we now have? 

Just as with the Gnostic texts, what we instead have are variant readings with scribal errors, and the grappling with the exact meanings of words which [11]translation inevitably involves. Often-enough, a slight mistranslation can lead to a major error, such as the KJV having the Israelites cross the Red Sea, when the texts specify that they actually crossed the Reed Sea (Yam Suph: Hebrew: יַם-סוּף) – then an area of marshland east of the Nile Delta (at the time of these texts the Red Sea was actually known as the Erythraean Sea), or specifying the resting place of Noah’s ark as Mount Ararat, when the texts say, not ‘Ararat’, but the word ‘RRT’: the vowel-less rendition of the considerably less specific area of the kingdom of Urartu.

The Lord’s Prayer translated into the language of the Native American Choctaw Nation. Such powerfully-expressed sentiments as are found in this prayer perhaps lend themselves more readily to translation than complex episodes which took place within the cultural context of the Middle East of the Late Bronze Age, and which were written down in the Early Iron Age by minds already distant from the original settings of the events which they describe.
If I choose examples which already have been covered on this blog, then events taken as ‘Gospel’ truth shift under scrutiny from being actual historical events (the [12]Exodus, or the bloody Israelite [13]conquest of Canaan under the sword of Joshua) into being revealed either as metaphor or as concocted fiction. This hardly need surprise us, as the narratives relating these and other such Biblical events were only written down centuries (in the case of Joshua, almost a full thousand years) after the events which they describe. In our terms, the Book of Joshua is a historical novel.

How, then, can we reconcile these ancient texts, so full of errors, [14]contradictions and mistranslations, with being the immaculate revealed Word of God? Even Noah and his [15]ark turns out to be a story imported from the Babylonia of Israelite exile. David and Solomon might have existed, but their historical reality in all probability made them mere local warlords, rather than being the mighty father-and-son kings whose deeds resound in the pages of the Old Testament. If our belief accepts scripture as being divinely inspired en bloc, with all its omissions, mistranslations, bloody slaughters in God’s name, and shamelessly invented pedigrees of conquest, how do we reconcile these less-than-perfect (and certainly in places, morally odious) texts with divine perfection? In short: what is, or is not, divinely inspired, and how do we separate the two?

Two pages from a letter written in 1943 by Etty Hillesum in the holding camp of Westerbork in occupied Netherlands, prior to her deportation to Auschwitz. If this remarkable young woman could both find and recover a state of grace in a place that was a waking nightmare of inhumanity, why should we not consider that the Spirit acted through her at least as much as through the words that are written in scripture? How can we know where such a line exists?
The letters and diaries of Etty Hillesum reveal an ongoing dialogue with God through which she was able, even when facing the ultimate horrors of the Nazi death camp in which she died, to draw upon deep wellsprings of solace within herself, and even find compassion for her captors who took her life. Contrastingly, in the second book of [16]Kings we are told that forty-two little children are torn to pieces by bears, apparently for doing what little children do everywhere: for making fun of a bald man. In this case, the bald man in question being the prophet Elisha, the wrath of the Lord seems to have descended upon the children with ruthless [17]finality. Which of these two sources are we to consider more worthy of being divinely inspired: the horrific killing of little children for a triviality, or the profoundly spiritual yet deeply human words of a Holocaust victim?

You might criticize me for choosing such a grotesquely bizarre episode of scripture as my example, but that’s the whole point about scripture: it’s all in, or all out. If you want Psalm 23 and the Sermon on the Mount, then you also get the cruel deaths of those forty-two children and many other such shockingly inhuman episodes along with them. But what about those worthy ancient texts which are nowhere to be found between the covers of the Bible? Where is the magnificent passage from the Book of Enoch describing his ascent through the spheres of heaven, at least as stirring as anything in Ezekiel? Where are the profound spiritual insights offered by the Gospel of Thomas?

The prophet Enoch, who was claimed to be the seventh generation from Adam, and the great-grandfather of Noah. The book which bears his name might not have been written by him, but it does provide us with many of the details which otherwise are frustratingly missing from Genesis, from the nature of the fruit in Eden to the true reason for the Flood, as well as a stirring description to rival that of Ezekiel of Enoch’s ascent through the celestial spheres. We are left to wonder why this remarkable text never actually made it into scripture, but I for one consider scripture to be the poorer for its omission.
And that is what seems to be the problem with scripture as it has come down to us: the gaping flaw in our logic of perceiving it as being the result of Divine Revelation. However divinely inspired it might or might not be, whether a text – any text – is or is not the Word of God is something which is decided by imperfect and very fallible us.

[1] Luke 3: 23-38 meticulously traces the lineage of Jesus from God, then Adam, all through the generations to the carpenter Joseph: a logic which passes me by when doctrine declares that his conception was of divine origin, and so making the tracing of such an earthly lineage redundant.

[2] Clearly this also applies to any texts which other religions deem to be the result of Divine Revelation. However much respect (or the lack of it) we might give the texts of another belief, one religion does not regard the text of another religion as falling within this category, otherwise the world would be of one faith. I have various editions of the Bible in my collection, including three editions in Dutch (right: the Dutch edition of the Bible illustrated with Rembrandt's etchings of Biblical subjects), as well as an authorized English translation of the Quran. Irrespective of my own beliefs, I treat them all with due consideration and respect. 

[3] King James Study Bible. Zondervan, 2002.

[4] The epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, and the 14th-century romance of chivalry Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are three examples which fall into this category.

[5] The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer. Published by Harper One for Harper Collins, 2008.

[6] Coptic is an adaptation of written Egyptian using the Greek language.

[7] Such texts were written in Koine Greek: the common form of the Greek language in the Hellenist Middle East (that is: the areas which were subject to Greek influence following the conquests of Alexander the Great, which would have included Galilee and what is now Syria).

[8] Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (Trinity Press International, 1975) and Hans-Josef Klauck’s Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis (Baylor University Press, 2006) both provide exhaustive analysis of the letters of Paul.

[9] Codices are manuscripts bound in book form.

[10] From Ancient Hebrew into Greek for the Septuagint, or from Greek into Coptic. It is only to be expected that the more remote from the source, the less certain is the accuracy of the translation. The list, of course, goes on: from Aramaic into Greek, from Greek into Latin, from Latin into Middle English, from Middle English (and German) into the poetically archaic English of the King James Version, and so into all the languages of today. Translation, as anyone knows who has tried it, is not just a matter of transposing words. So many, many words simply have no equivalent in another language. Inflexions of meaning and differences in syntax and idiom can all conspire to force drastic compromise upon the translator, and subtle metaphors can become lost in a plodding literalism to take on new meanings which the original writers never intended. On this title page (left) of the Bible, translated from the Greek and Hebrew into German by Martin Luther in 1524, the artist Lucas Cranach depicts Joshua as an armoured knight very much belonging to his own time. 

[11] Please see my post A Simple Misunderstanding.

[13] Please see my post The Butcher of Canaan.

[14] Please see my post The Words of Jesus.

[15] Please see my post The Lost Ark of Noah.

[16] 2 Kings 2: 23-24. I personally view these two short verses as two of the most callous and brutal which I have come across in all of scripture. This is not to say that I believe this shocking incident actually happened. It is what it says about it being included in scripture, and about what those who wrote it imagined to be God’s suitable justice. The two verses are short enough to include in full here: “23: And he (Elisha) went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. 24: And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” If you think such bloody brutality would make even a Christian Apologist bend a knee, I refer you to this Christian website. Just scroll down to the picture of the bears and read how the ‘little children’ of scripture have mysteriously morphed in this commentary to become ‘young men’ who (according to this writer) get their well-deserved come-uppance. Seriously?

[17] While there appears to be much focus on the incident of the bears tearing the children to pieces as the result of Elisha’s cursing them, the following episode of Elisha raising a child from the dead (2 Kings 4: 8-37) seems to be glossed over in terms of placing it alongside the first incident to create a savage irony (which is why I do so here). Scripture tells us that Elisha had the power of life over death. Why then did he not compassionately use that power earlier – or more to the point: why did Elisha behave so despicably in the first place?

Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries 1941-43, and Letters from Westerbork. Henry Holt and Company Inc. 1996. Other sourced titles are included in the notes above.

Gospel of Judas from National Geographic. Great Isaiah Scroll from Wikimedia Commons. Choctaw translation of the Lord’s Prayer provided by John C. Sacoolidge. Choctaw beaded sash from the 1830’s from the Oklahoma Historical Society. The imagined portrait of the prophet Enoch is painted by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, with a section of the Greek text of the Book of Enoch as a background.