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Without Paul
June 2, 2009 12:42 AM   Subscribe

We declare the man Paul of Tarsus [non-ebonite link], the false teacher against the mark of Covenant and God's Torah, to be outside of the Way taught by Yeshua, the anointed, son of Maria and Yosef.
posted by bigmusic (183 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Coralized Links:

We declare the man Paul of Tarsus [non-ebonite link], the false teacher against the mark of Covenant and God's Torah, to be outside of the Way taught by Yeshua, the anointed, son of Maria and Yosef.
posted by bigmusic at 12:43 AM on June 2, 2009


Note: "non-ebonite link" -- that should be "non-Ebionite link" (judging by the links).
The Ebionite Community is the living continuation of the Jewish religious movement of Jesus. Christianity is the religion of Paul and others, and not part of the biblical faith and revelation of the God of Israel nor is it of Jesus. (Please note that we have used "Jesus" to clarify for our Christian readers. We call him Yeshua or Yahshua, and will use Yeshua from this point on in the site.)

We declare the man Paul of Tarsus, the false teacher against the mark of Covenant and God's Torah, to be outside of the Way taught by Yeshua, the anointed, son of Maria and Yosef. The Ebionite Community is the only real "mission to the gentiles." [...]
Also not to be confused with the Samsonites.
posted by pracowity at 1:15 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Samsonites? A religion with baggage.
posted by jonnyseveral at 1:32 AM on June 2, 2009 [24 favorites]


obligatory
posted by DreamerFi at 1:46 AM on June 2, 2009


Ha, that's awesome. I love seeing all of the subtle shades that Christianity differentiates into (though I'm sure for someone who isn't an outsider the differences aren't subtle) and I wish I had enough context to be more aware of the variations in other religions like Islam or Hinduism.

It always seemed to me that Paul was a bit of a jerk and a showoff like in this part in Galatians where he tells off the apostles in front of an entire congregation.
posted by XMLicious at 1:59 AM on June 2, 2009


Yeah, Paul always gave me the shits as well. Remove his writings from the Bible, and Christianity takes on a whole different flavour.
posted by Jimbob at 2:14 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


From the FAQ:

We are in no way Christian or supportive of Christianity.

This is an unusual Jewish cult, not an unusual Christian one.

And under the heading "What Do You Mean When You Say 'Bible'?"

It includes none of the writings that Christians have added to the Bible as their "New Testament." Actually, the first Christians used only the Bible (Tanakh) and did not have what they would call a "new testament" for centuries after Yahshua, although some writings that would be included in their book were circulated early on.

Although it's kind of interesting to think of religious FPP's as Rorshach tests where the point is for me to get to see whatever your own personal bugaboo is, I can only do that so long before I start beating my head against the wall and glaring menacingly at small animals. Maybe, just for kicks, some of you could read the links and then comment, instead of just jumping in to remind us that you don't know much about Paul but you're pretty sure he's a bad person and should feel bad about himself.

On the other hand, I have to admit that you were led there by the FPP title "Without Paul." Without Paul isn't the point--this is a religion without any of the New Testament, and without anything much of Jesus except his social justice teaching (which is good stuff, to be sure). This isn't Christianity minus some things as much as it is a kind of radical Judaism filtered through a view of Jesus as an anointed teacher in the tradition of previous prophets.

Ebionites are interesting and worthy of a good FPP. Too bad they didn't get one.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:42 AM on June 2, 2009 [13 favorites]


And what the hell is up with the second link? Throwing a radical Episcopal blog post into an FPP that is otherwise about Ebionites is weird and misleading. It would be like doing a post about the history of waffles and randomly including some bit about the chicken farms because they both contain eggs.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:50 AM on June 2, 2009


We call upon the gentiles to repent, to abandon paganism and the perverse testament, and enter into true covenant through Torah, circumcision...

OK, you lost me right there...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:09 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is an unusual Jewish cult, not an unusual Christian one.

If you've got some evidence that the group that's publishing this web site is actually a group of Jews in Tennessee, or otherwise sprang from a Jewish community, I'd be interested to see it. Otherwise I'm rather inclined to assume that it's the same sort of thing as the Sacred Name Movement. (Not similar in theology, but similar in deriving from Christianity.)

Just because their PR tries to avoid being categorized with Christianity doesn't make anyone compelled to regard them as such. (Though if I was speaking with one of them in person out of politeness I probably wouldn't dispute the point.) Mormons want to be called Christians but I don't categorize them that way. (Although I regard Mormonism as an Abrahamic religion.)

If you're so certain that based upon what I've said I can't know anything about Paul and therefore my opinion of him can't be valid, Pater Aletheias, go ahead and demonstrate it, don't try to get away with simply asserting it.

I do agree this could be a much more thorough post on the Ebionites.
posted by XMLicious at 4:17 AM on June 2, 2009


XMLicious: Ha, that's awesome…It always seemed to me that Paul was a bit of a jerk and a showoff like in this part in Galatians where he tells off the apostles in front of an entire congregation.

Jimbob: Yeah, Paul always gave me the shits as well. Remove his writings from the Bible, and Christianity takes on a whole different flavour.

With due respect, on what does anyone base this opinion? I've heard it before, but it's always struck me as somewhat ridiculous; I think it has to do with an impression of the Christian scriptures that comes from being relatively unfamiliar with their actual content. In other words, if you actually consider “Pauline” theology carefully, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that it's precisely the same theology that Christ taught. People don't seem to want to remember that this is the sort of thing the church herself spent several hundred years carefully considering and weighing. Even in the times of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, when Christianity was still forming into the cohesive and complete whole that it later became and when there were plenty of people who stood up and made all sorts of strange and ridiculous claims about the provenance and nature of the Christ and the Church, there was no one claiming that Pauline theology differed essentially from Christine teaching; even the Valentinians sought to claim a direct lineage from Paul.

I have a feeling that the somewhat irrational modern dislike of Paul (and it is modern; I can't seem to find evidence anywhere of the rather pointed disdain toward him that I see constantly before about fifty years ago) stems largely from two facts. Firstly, as democratic souls, we are made extremely uncomfortable by any kind of religious heirarchy or structure, since such structure must of necessity be theocratic, having been ordained by God. People are always kvetching about so-called “organized religion,” as if this phrase meant anything distinct. It is a nicer simplicity for the casual agnostic to look to a perfect revolutionary who just suffered and died rather than an inherently flawed but nonetheless highly complex and thoughtful tradition of structured and heirarchical religion. Secondly, I believe that members of almost all societies but especially members of societies which emphasize freedom tend to feel somewhat uneasy with converts. Paul is scary to us because he means that perhaps we will meet on the road something which challenges our freedom to believe whatever we wish; and many of us are threatened by that.

I'm happy merely to stand on the point that the Pauline letters are doctrinally consistent with anything and everything in the Gospels; and if anyone can quote me one jot of inconsistency between the two, I'm all ears.

Anyhow, Pater Aletheias is right: the issue in the post isn't really an issue of Christianity at all. One may as well talk about the different images that Muslims have of Jesus.
posted by koeselitz at 4:23 AM on June 2, 2009 [16 favorites]


The Pauline corpus was the only record from that time period to make it into the bible -- I don't know what you have left if you take it out. The gospels themselves, and probably the Q document, were informed heavily by it and written decades later.

Some pre-gospel sources include Clement, in the 90s, which contain Pauline references, and Ignatius, which contain proto-gospel references but might just be because he had access to the Q document.

Post-gospel, but early on, you've got Eusebias, Barnabus, and Papias, but they're dated fairly unreliably and contain references to Paul, and only somewhat to the gospels.

Thus:

Regardless of the filter that Paul had on the world, i.e. he was a fundamentalist woman-hating Jew before he became a fundamentalist woman-hating Christian, it's the most reliable filter we have of a period of history and a place where there was a great oral tradition. His sources were only 5-10 years removed from the death of Jesus, while the authors of the Gospels where 60-90 years removed, and used Paul anyway. All of our existing sources, along with the first attempts at canonization (the Didache, the Exigetica) pull from Paul extensively.
posted by taumeson at 4:43 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The great BBC radio show In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg had an episode on St. Paul last week. Thoroughly enjoyable and informative. Can't recommend it enough.
posted by Kattullus at 4:49 AM on June 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


BTW, from the site's History page:

The modern Ebionite Movement began it's growth in 1978 with Shemayah Phillips while still a Christian, and disillusionment with that religion earlier still. Through a number of pivotal experiences I found Evyonut (Ebionitism). Originally studying history, language, and Bible to improve my Christian faith and to actually missionize Jews, I came to reject most of the teachings of Christianity and adopt Jewish practices, briefly joining the Assemblies of Yahweh formally in 1985.

The "Assembly of Yahweh" is a name of one of the larger Sacred Name churches. (Though when I've looked in the past there appear to be a quite a number of groups taking that name or one like that.)

koeselitz: Christianity was still forming into the cohesive and complete whole that it later became

You know how that happened, right? Through the exile or extermination of a great many other sects like the Donatists or Nestorians or Arians who differed from or were at odds politically with the Romans. Your certainty that 1800 years ago there was no one disagreeing with Paul seems a bit misplaced.

But in any case, I didn't say anything about there being something wrong with Paul's theology. I said that despite him being lauded and saintly and directly guided by God-Christ he seems personally like a bit of a jerk from that incident in Galatians.

I'm happy merely to stand on the point that the Pauline letters are doctrinally consistent with anything and everything in the Gospels; and if anyone can quote me one jot of inconsistency between the two, I'm all ears.

I assume that by the "Gospels" you're talking about the selection of canonical scriptures by the Roman church, as opposed to things like the Gospel of Thomas, right? How surprising that all of that would agree and present a synoptic view of Christ. It's almost as surprising as the absence of material supporting doctrines labeled as heresy by the early church from that selection of scripture. Just shocking and startling.

The fact that the last century or half-century has been the only period for millenia that people have been able to get away with seriously discussing the historical Jesus makes me similarly unsurprised that recent doctrinal variation on this stuff has been greater.
posted by XMLicious at 4:55 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Excellent Katullus (just wished I had caught up with IOT earlier so that I could add something of interest in this thread).

On reading the FAQ linked in the FPP being 'denied employment because of Sabbath observance' seems a real bug bear of the Ebionite writer- is the Ebionite sabbath the same as that of mainstream Judaism?
posted by Gratishades at 5:08 AM on June 2, 2009


Pater Aletheias: " It would be like doing a post about the history of waffles and randomly including some bit about the chicken farms because they both contain eggs."

I see what you're saying. But chicken and waffles actually have more in common than that.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:11 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


XMLicious: I assume that by the "Gospels" you're talking about the selection of canonical scriptures by the Roman church, as opposed to things like the Gospel of Thomas, right? How surprising that all of that would agree and present a synoptic view of Christ. It's almost as surprising as the absence of material supporting doctrines labeled as heresy by the early church from that selection of scripture. Just shocking and startling.

Yes, just shocking that the Gospel of Thomas was marked 'heretical.' So scandalous. There are so many precious, wonderful teachings there. Like, for example, the time when Jesus tells the disciples that women really will be allowed into the kingdom of heaven after all; it's just that God has to turn them into men first. The Gospel of Thomas (like every other “non-canonical” gospel that I know of—the gospel of Mary, etc.) isn't part of the synopticon because it's silly and untrue, and because, yes, the church seems to have taken on the audacious and presumptuous task of not promulgating doctrines that are untrue.

The rather self-important bishops of Rome have had a tendancy to be ridiculously zealous in trying to root out opposing viewpoints, I'll grant—anyone like myself who's a devotee of St. Origen knows just how ugly those things sometimes got. But this:

You know how that happened, right? Through the exile or extermination of a great many other sects like the Donatists or Nestorians or Arians who differed from or were at odds politically with the Romans.

…is in a certain sense simply not true. Christianity was a fully formed and cohesive whole before the reign of Constantine; I'd submit that St. Irenaeus was really the final moment in the documentary development of the Church—keep in mind that he had already pointed up almost all of the authoritative gospels and argued for their authenticity and centrality. I point this out because St. Irenaeus died more than a hundred years before the Church even came close to gaining enough power to stamp out so much as a vicious rumor, much less heresy. Perhaps more importantly, it seems to me that St. Irenaeus gives solid arguments for his disproofs of gnosticism and his placing of the foundations of Christianity. He was, in a word, right; and what does remain of the writings of those who he (and other early Church fathers) opposed does not in the end impress me as true.

Also, it seems as though you're sort of viewing these early-Church times through the lens of later-medieval Catholic temporal power; for example, the Donatists weren't “exiled or exterminated”—they were the ones calling for exile and exterminations! That is, the Donatists were those who had a much stricter view of who was allowed to be within the heirarchy of the church, and wanted to toss people who had capitulated in any tiny way to the Decian persecution out of the church on their ears. In opposing the Donatists, the Church was being more forgiving and encouraging people not to dredge up past events in the hopes of guilt-tripping people. The Nestorians weren't actually exterminated or exiled; there are still Nestorians in the world today. And Arianism wasn't precisely hunted down and extirpated—it was the fashion for a generation, and then it stop being popular. Constantinius, Constantine's son, exiled all who weren't Arians from Rome—most famously St. Athanasius, who the orthodox are fond of painting as a sort of keeper of the sacred flame during this time.

The whole of history since the empire of Constantine has not been one long dictatorship of the Church. When I said that Paul wasn't generally argued against in those early times, I didn't mean that everyone agreed with him on every point—there were certainly many different sides—but that even those who disagreed substantially with the “official church positions” still didn't see much merit to the notion that Paul was completely separate from the Gospels.

taumeson: The Pauline corpus was the only record from that time period to make it into the bible -- I don't know what you have left if you take it out. The gospels themselves, and probably the Q document, were informed heavily by it and written decades later…Some pre-gospel sources include Clement, in the 90s, which contain Pauline references, and Ignatius, which contain proto-gospel references but might just be because he had access to the Q document.

…according to some accounts. And, of course, if the so-called 'Q document' isn't a figment of our imagination.

Biblical criticism is not even really an 'inexact science;' it's not a science at all, but an elaborate guessing game. I don't put very much stock in it, especially since I get the feeling that most of the people who are, for example, behind the 'Q document' theory don't really care much either about Christianity or its documents.
posted by koeselitz at 5:45 AM on June 2, 2009 [12 favorites]


I've thought quite a bit about why St. Paul is considered the bad guy of Christianity by so many these days. My theory is slightly different from koeselitz. I agree that the reigning conception of Jesus among people who dislike organized Christianity is that he was a guy with good hippy/buddhist ideas who wanted to spread peace and love among all. To make those two ideas cohere (Jesus=good, Christianity=bad) you need something to go wrong between the death of Jesus and the spread of Christianity. St. Paul is the most obvious candidate to point to. He's the first major Christian figure not to have known Jesus.*

It hasn't helped his case that he's been the flashpoint in debates about the role of women in Christianity. Furthermore his bit about the malakoi and arsenokoitai in Corinthians has been much bandied about by Christians condemning gays which has helped cement St. Paul's reputation as a conservative fundamentalist. Since conservatives would often bring up St. Paul in their feminist- and gaybashing it's not strange that the reputation of St. Paul has suffered. Why would anyone like a gaybashing womanhater? (I'm not saying he is, but that's his current public image)

* Which kind of makes St. Paul the Doug Yule of Christianity. The cults of authenticity and originality reject those who aren't present at the initial moment. The modern distrust of St. Paul is similar to Doug Yule not being included when The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame.
posted by Kattullus at 5:48 AM on June 2, 2009 [6 favorites]


This is an unusual Jewish cult, not an unusual Christian one.

They call Yeshua "the annointed". Isn't that the very definition of "Christian"?
posted by DU at 5:50 AM on June 2, 2009


koeselitz: (and it is modern; I can't seem to find evidence anywhere of the rather pointed disdain toward him that I see constantly before about fifty years ago).

Bentham's Not Paul but Jesus was published in 1823 (and is also hugely interesting in itself, especially given his related advocacy for the decriminalization of sodomy).
posted by dickymilk at 5:53 AM on June 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


DU: They call Yeshua "the annointed". Isn't that the very definition of "Christian"?

Yeah. The "WE AREN'T CHRISTIAN, WE'VE NEVER BEEN CHRISTIAN, SO DON'T CALL US THAT, MMM'KAY?" bit on their FAQ doesn't really help matters, though.
posted by koeselitz at 5:54 AM on June 2, 2009


the church seems to have taken on the audacious and presumptuous task of not promulgating doctrines that are untrue.
LOL
posted by Flunkie at 5:55 AM on June 2, 2009 [14 favorites]


Yes, dickymilk, and now that I think of it, I'm certain Leo Tolstoy was of the same opinion.
posted by koeselitz at 5:55 AM on June 2, 2009


This is an unusual Jewish cult, not an unusual Christian one.
They call Yeshua "the annointed". Isn't that the very definition of "Christian"?
Muslims also call Jesus (Isa) "the anointed" (al masih). Are Muslims Christian?
posted by Flunkie at 5:59 AM on June 2, 2009


Muslims also call Jesus (Isa) "the anointed" (al masih). Are Muslims Christian?

Yes, as long as there are no further questions.
posted by DU at 6:02 AM on June 2, 2009


Kattullus: The modern distrust of St. Paul is similar to Doug Yule not being included when The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Dammit, there's gotta be a joke in there somewhere about Sister Ray…I just can't think of it.
posted by koeselitz at 6:05 AM on June 2, 2009


(and it is modern; I can't seem to find evidence anywhere of the rather pointed disdain toward him that I see constantly before about fifty years ago).
"Like other Enlightenment rationalists, Jefferson was convinced that the real villain in the Christian story was the apostle Paul, who had corrupted the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus, which thus had, in combination with the otherworldly outlook of the Fourth Gospel, produced the monstrosities of dogma, superstition, and priestcraft, which were the essence of Christian orthodoxy."

-Jaroslav Pelikan
posted by Flunkie at 6:09 AM on June 2, 2009 [8 favorites]


Oh, sorry, I should have been explicit: The "Jefferson" in that quote is Thomas Jefferson.

He even wrote his own version of the Gospel, in which he stripped out all references to Jesus as a god, miracles, et cetera. Spoiler alert, it ends with Jesus being entombed.
posted by Flunkie at 6:12 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ugh, I somehow screwed up the link to The Jefferson Bible
posted by Flunkie at 6:14 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't put very much stock in it, especially since I get the feeling that most of the people who are, for example, behind the 'Q document' theory don't really care much either about Christianity or its documents.

There's nothing in the acceptance of a possibility of a "Q gospel" (ie, documents and writings upon which the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were based) that is in opposition to Christianity. It's fairly well known that the gospels came together over time; it's just that we have as the four gospels is what the pre-Nicene fathers seemed to quote from, while documents like the Gospel of Thomas were writings taken up and developed by various egyptian Gnostic movements.
posted by deanc at 6:15 AM on June 2, 2009


There were real Ebionites in the middle east in the early centuries. Eusebius, mentioned above, discusses them quite a bit. There was a general theme of Christian sects in the early years who preserved (or adopted) Jewish practices and the Mosaic laws. Whether or not to do this is a controversy that goes back to the book of acts.

But even the original Ebionites used the gospel of Matthew (reputed to have originally been written in Aramaic, but we've never seen such a copy first hand).
posted by deanc at 6:19 AM on June 2, 2009


With due respect, on what does anyone base this opinion? [disliking Paul]

As was mentioned above, he wasn't exactly pro-women's rights. Also, his Romans is the only bit of the new testament that's homophobic. But mostly the women's rights thing. As a possessor of ovaries, I feel free to ignore any person who tells me that I shouldn't be heard.
posted by jb at 6:24 AM on June 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Relevant passage, courtesy of the Brick Testament.
posted by jb at 6:26 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


The Gospel of Thomas... isn't part of the synopticon because it's silly and untrue...

How do you explain Revelations?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:32 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


How do you explain Revelations?

It's a little-known fact that Revelations was considered controversial enough that it was almost not accepted as canon. It held currency amongst the early Christians and was, of course, reputed to have been written by St. John, but the material was obviously a bit unusual, and other similarly-themed apocalyptic literature like the Shepherd of Hermas had similar amounts of popularity. So ultimately the decision was to accept it, ratifying its already-existing popularity within the Christan community, but agree not to include it in the cycle of readings during weekly services.
posted by deanc at 6:40 AM on June 2, 2009


Muslims also call Jesus (Isa) "the anointed" (al masih). Are Muslims Christian?

Yes, as long as there are no further questions.


Mohammed was taught to read by Nestorian dyphysitic monks on the lam from the Byzantines for heresy, so you put it together.

See also.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:49 AM on June 2, 2009


The bigger problem I have with Paul is that he seems to be pushing a body/spirit dualism I don't see much in Jesus' words. I think the sexism, homophobia and authority issues stem from that.

And of course, there will always be suspicion of him because he simply wasn't there with Jesus and took over that religion. It's pretty odd that a huge chunk of the"sacred writings" consists of letters Paul wrote running the church. Not hard to see how "infallible" papal bulls descend from that. I'm with Jefferson.
posted by msalt at 6:51 AM on June 2, 2009


I point this out because St. Irenaeus died more than a hundred years before the Church even came close to gaining enough power to stamp out so much as a vicious rumor, much less heresy.

So what? That does not mean that heresies contemporary to Irenaeus didn't get stamped out or otherwise eliminated from what we currently know. It's just ridiculous to speak with certainty that no one in the first century diverged substantially from Paul.

If the Nag Hammadai texts which disappeared for millenia could've been lost how many other things have probably not been preserved because people who believed that they already had their hands on the literal word of God, a record of the true miracles of Jesus, and the real Good News thought those other texts were silly and untrue?

The followers of Nestorius definitely faced excommunication and therefore exile from Christendom.

And if you're suggesting that the Donatists simply died out on their own and we need to trust the Roman Church that it's the Donatists who were really the bad guys in that conflict you're being credulous. As an undergrad at a Catholic university when the Donatists were covered I asked several professors whether the story that had just been told in lecture came at all from any Donatist sources, they said it hadn't and they didn't seem particularly concerned about how that reflects on its authenticity; my guess would be that not too many people during the past sixteen centuries have been concerned either.
Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction?

Is it not a part of the care of the shepherd, when any sheep have left the flock, even though not violently forced away, but led astray by tender words and coaxing blandishments, to bring them back to the fold of his master when he has found them, by the fear or even the pain of the whip, if they show symptoms of resistance;


St. Augustine, The Correction of the Donatists
Arianism was the dominant religion among the Gothic and other Germanic tribes that conquered the Western Roman Empire. The fact that they gave it up after moving into Roman territory is no accident, it was the product of a concerted effort on the part of the Roman Church to eliminate what it regarded as heresy and a threat to its political sway amongst the imperial elite.

There's more I'd like to write but I have to go afk.
posted by XMLicious at 6:57 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


...that should be "second century" above, the 100's would be second century stupid me...
posted by XMLicious at 7:01 AM on June 2, 2009


...also, I don't mean that the Donatists were the good guys, I just mean that it appears to me that both the Romans and the Donatists probably used the same tactics and the Donatists won.
posted by XMLicious at 7:03 AM on June 2, 2009


Actually, many Muslims consider Paul to be a heretic who spoiled monotheism with his Trinity doctrine.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:11 AM on June 2, 2009


Let's not forget that there were some Paulite heresies, most notably Marcionism, which Tertullian wrote against. Unfortunately, as is the case with most ancient heterodox belief systems, what we know about Marcionism comes down to us from its lambasters.
posted by Kattullus at 7:17 AM on June 2, 2009


Mohammed was taught to read by Nestorian dyphysitic monks

Pollomacho, do you have a cite for that? Most scholarly traditions suggest that the Prophet Mohammed remained illiterate his whole life.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:21 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Christianity was a fully formed and cohesive whole before the reign of Constantine

I have trouble with that statement. It was the power of the Empire that forced cohesion on the church. Without that, it likely would have splintered into branches (Arian, Monophysite, etc.) much in the same manner that that Protestant denominations did.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:27 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: (and it is modern; I can't seem to find evidence anywhere of the rather pointed disdain toward him that I see constantly before about fifty years ago.

Seriously? I'm not particularly well versed in Biblical scholarship (from a religious or secular perspective) and I know better than that.

Nietzsche is very clear that he has different attitudes about Jesus and Christianity. This distinction is "no less than the distinction between life and death, the great 'Yes' and the decadent 'No.'" Furthermore, there is a "severance" between Jesus and the Christian tradition. This is clearly a result, according to Nietzsche, of the greediness and short-sightedness of St. Paul, who institutionalized Christianity so much that the religion has little in common with the ideas and teachings that its founder represented.
posted by raysmj at 7:30 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Very interesting stuff, thanks.
posted by caddis at 7:36 AM on June 2, 2009


And I'm sure there are no complications or any potential metaphorical readings of that line from Q re women turning into men. Let's just take that small section of an ancient text on its face, as a fundamentalist would. It would be more interesting to read a thoughtful examination of that line in historical or literary context, and in relation to the rest of Q.
posted by raysmj at 7:38 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately I'm not equipped to find the references at the moment but I always got the impression that Peter and apostles couldn't get rid of Paul fast enough. He shows up, makes an ass of himself and then Peter is like - look, go out to the gentiles in far away lands...faaaaar away lands....and then send back the loot. We'll stay here in Judea and take care of our end.

On a side note, I've been doing research on the original ending of Mark and roughly when the resurrection scene was added to it. I'd love to know if the Ebionites had any thoughts on that, but I suppose since they don't use the new testament it wouldn't matter to them anyways.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 7:38 AM on June 2, 2009


And I'm sure there are no complications or any potential metaphorical readings of that line from Q re women turning into men.

The Gospel of Thomas is not "Q". "Q" is the hypothetical source-text of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, which are notable for their similarity.

Because the GoT is quite old (2nd century or so) and was unknown before its discovery in the 20th century, some uninformed people said "it could be the 'Q' text!", and the two are still occasionally conflated.
posted by deanc at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2009


Last time I checked, there was still significant debate over whether (or which) letters ascribed to Paul were actually written by Paul. Just thought I'd toss that into the mix.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:44 AM on June 2, 2009


I'm happy merely to stand on the point that the Pauline letters are doctrinally consistent with anything and everything in the Gospels; and if anyone can quote me one jot of inconsistency between the two, I'm all ears.

Well, one pretty gaping inconsistency to my mind is between what Paul writes in Romans 13 and other very clear, direct statements in the gospels.
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves
Jesus, on the other hand, is described in John 12 teaching the following:
31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.

32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
And there are surrounding passages that make it clear that, in context, Jesus is challenging the legitimacy of the world's prevailing rulers and proclaiming himself an enemy of their authority. There's an even more unambiguous expression of this sentiment again in 1 John 5:
19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.
It's hard to see how to interpret it as doctrinally consistent that earthly authority, which is so frequently characterized as evil and corrupt elsewhere in the gospels, derives from God's authority as Paul writes. Especially since Jesus pointedly teaches that the God he speaks of is pure light and good, with no evil within Him. It's hard to see how these three different doctrinal claims (that earthly authority derives from and is approved by God, that the earth is ruled by evil and corrupt men, and that God is pure good) can be reconciled without ultimately resorting to hand-waving and deflections about God's ways being mysterious and the importance of faith.

(BTW, just out of curiosity, anyone know if there any mainstream denominations of Christianity that, sort of the reverse of the Ebionites, only accept the New Testament books as canonical, dispensing with the books of the Torah all together?)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:45 AM on June 2, 2009


There's an even more unambiguous expression of this sentiment again in 1 John 5

1 John is not part of the Gospels. And one can take that passage which speaks of rendering unto Caesar as a counterpoint to Jesus' alleged sociopolitical subversiveness.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:53 AM on June 2, 2009


deanc: thanks, but ... any explanation there? I only know of these two from casual reading, not serious scholarship--all the more reason not to toss a specific verse out at people here, without any discussion of, or a link to the discussion of, anything in the way of context.
posted by raysmj at 7:55 AM on June 2, 2009


Wikipedia has a pretty good writeup on the disputed authorship of Paul's letters.
posted by Kattullus at 8:03 AM on June 2, 2009


Yeah, yeah. Jesus says more or less "Look here: do you see the face on this coin? it's Caesars, isn't it? So if he asks for it back, give it to him. That's his money and his business."

He doesn't say he approves of Caesar's rule or thinks Roman authority is just peachy keen. Why would Jesus make so many promises about bringing his followers to God's kingdom or establishing the kingdom on earth if all he really meant to say was that earthly authorities are all just doing a really fine job the way things are now? Sure, it's possible to pick out a passage here or there that can be parsed to support Paul's take on authority, but for every one of those there are dozens more that criticize or condemn earthly authority.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:05 AM on June 2, 2009


deanc: thanks, but ... any explanation there?

Hm. Well, this writeup on Q from religioustolerance.org is pretty good. The Q hypothesis comes from the fact that Matthew and Mark seem very similar as Gospels. It is hypothesized that those Gospels came from a similar source as a "book of sayings" (which, IIRC, was already known to be a style of religious writing at the time) we call "Q" that didn't have any narrative, and the narrative was added later, perhaps from eyewitness accounts or other known traditions. The Gospel of Thomas happens to be a collection of supposed "sayings of Jesus" (though ones not known among the contemporary group of Christians that we now know as "mainstream Christianity"), and so it's in the same style that "Q" was hypothesized to be in, but we shouldn't conflate the hypothetical "Q" with the Gospel of Thomas. The other gospels we know today are clearly not derived from the GoT, and "Q" is, by definition, the text that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark used as one of their sources.
posted by deanc at 8:27 AM on June 2, 2009


Hey, I'm no fan of Paul's - he was a misogynist and he's directly responsible for the most obnoxious aspect of christianity - proselytizing.

But Ebionites have The Correct Way and Word...since 1985? What the hell happened in 1985, almost 2000 years after Jeshua supposedly was alive?

Even Paul was preaching in the same century as Jeshua. How the hell can Ebionites claim to be in the direct teaching line of Jeshua under those circumstances?

I don't have to repent a damn thing since I don't buy one damn thing about the Big 3 Abrahamic faiths - they make me tired. They've ruined the world.
posted by Tena at 8:29 AM on June 2, 2009


Mohammed received from the Nestorians of Persia the impressions which decisively influenced his personal religious message.-- Mohammed, the man and his faith / Tor Andrae, p. 90.
posted by No Robots at 8:45 AM on June 2, 2009


Like, for example, the time when Jesus tells the disciples that women really will be allowed into the kingdom of heaven after all; it's just that God has to turn them into men first.

According to the translation of the Gospel of Thomas I just read, that part was probably added later.

It certainly seems to contradict an earlier part, where Jesus says:

"When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]."

posted by overglow at 8:49 AM on June 2, 2009


1 John is not part of the Gospels.

I'm not sure I understand this statement, AdamCSnider. Care to elaborate?

And deanc, my comment on Revelations was in response to koeselitz asserting that certain writings weren't accepted as canon because they were somehow known to be "untrue", a standard that Revelations apparently passed. I cannot imagine how anyone can manage to think that way and not fall over laughing uncontrollably.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:54 AM on June 2, 2009


My understanding is that Paul placed all emphasis and importance on the literal truth of the supernatural aspects of Jesus' story, and made those the crux of salvation (indeed, made salvation the crux of belief). Gaining the more full picture of Jesus' teachings that we have in the past half century--because of the discovery of other texts--it's more clear that, whoever Jesus was, he may have been consistently speaking much more allegorically than Paul allows.

If this is at all accurate, Paul's consistent insistence on full, literal belief in the supernatural Jesus corrupts allegorical teachings utterly, and reads poetry as prose. This complete misunderstanding of what Jesus was talking about is where, in my experience, most anger/disdain for Paul's writings comes from. So Jefferson was right, even before the evidence.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:17 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whoa, whoa, whoa.

First of all, in antiquity, there was a distinct difference between Jewish Jesus Followers and Gentile Jesus Followers. This is is most evident in the differences between the Gospels of Matthew and John. Very different audiences there. Very different portraits of Jesus.

As for Paul, if the sect referenced in this post did some research, they might find that Paul was very pro-Jewish, not the other way around. Most modern interpretations of Paul's letters are based on St. Augustine's reading. However, recent scholarship indicates St. Augustine got it wrong (and most modern theology classes). Stanley Stowers, a classist, argues that Paul's letter to the Romans uses Hellenistic letter writing devices (such as speech-in-character) that would be immediately recognizable to anyone at the time. Recognizing these devices completely changes the central message of Romans. Instead of the letter establishing Gentiles as the new chosen people of God, when viewed in this light, Paul is basically saying: "Look, Jews are lucky because God has been on their case forever and so they haven't piled on massive amounts of sin like these Gentiles. You are still chosen and know God's ways. I'm actually glad Jesus didn't end the world when he was around, because all these Gentiles would have missed out on the kingdom. Now, because Jesus bowed out when he did, I have time time to save these people. My Jewish friends, please be patient with them. Thank goodness Jesus gave me a few years to whip the Gentiles into shape. (Paul thought Jesus was coming back ASAP). " Obviously, this is a way oversimplification of the reinterpretation, but you get the idea.

Also, the last chapter of Romans is a completely different letter, wherein Paul names a list of apostles at the end, many of whom are women. Early Jesus groups were very liberating for women, as was Paul (Galations 3: 27-28: ""For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."). Most early Jesus Follower sects were entirely celibate, so that the obvious markings of womanhood, like baby making, and lactating, could be avoided. Baby-making was very much the sole purpose of women in the patriarchal Roman society, and early Jesus Followers tried very hard to differentiate themselves from the prevailing culture through different practices. However, once the Jesus groups became more mainstream, and not so fringe, they began adopting the values of the prevailing culture.

Enter the letters of 1 and 2 Timothy. These letters seem to be a complete about-face for Paul. Suddenly there are a lot of patriarchal values: women can't speak, must cover their hair, must make babies. Men are in charge of everything. Hrm. Well, since F.D.E. Schleiermacher came out with his devastating case against Pauline authorship of these Epistles, the majority view among scholars is that Paul didn't write them. It seems someone else wrote them in the voice of Paul, to give them more traditional weight and validity. Who? Probably Polycarp, a guy who really thinks women should be subservient to their men, all the time. This enabled Christianity to partake of biological evangelism (making babies, lots) to ensure the survival of their faith. Otherwise, they probably would have died out.

Of course, you may ask, if all of this is true and taught to scholars of the New Testament (and by scholars I do not mean people doing isogesis at Bible College), why isn't it more widely known?

Well, it seems that the last public figure in Christian history to interpret Paul correctly was Origen (in fact, up until Origen, early writings indicate that Stanley Stower's re-reading was the prevailing view). However, as we all know, Origen got in some big trouble with his cosmology ideas (a little too woo-woo for the Bishops' taste) and was excommunicated for eternity. Then everyone jumped on St. Augustine's bandwagon and here we are today, many centuries later.

The point is, when Christianity has become as big as it is, even great scholarship can't overthrow a prevailing mis-interpretation immediately. F.D.E. Schleiermacher did his work over a century ago, but that doesn't keep people from attributing 1 and 2 Timothy to Paul. And why shouldn't they? To evangelicals, their English translation says it was by Paul and to them, uses the same vocabulary as the other Pauline Epistles (though in Greek, 1/3 of the vocabulary in 1 Timothy is different from any other of Paul's letter, and 1/5 is not used anywhere else in the New Testament). To them, scholarship can be dangerous because it is at odds with the perspective that anyone can read the Bible and "get it."

Stanley Stowers book changed my life when I read it. I highly recommend it to everyone. It is a solid piece of careful work, that has stayed under the radar despite its content, because it isn't inflammatory, and he wasn't trying to make a best-seller bang like a lot these people who come out with "OMG there were other gospels besides the four in the bible" books.

Over and out.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:19 AM on June 2, 2009 [18 favorites]


Pollomacho, do you have a cite for that? Most scholarly traditions suggest that the Prophet Mohammed remained illiterate his whole life.

Some do, some don't. It depends on if you translate iqra as "read" or "proclaim" and if you think that was the miraculous part of the Quran or the work as a whole as the miraculous thing.

I suppose also if you think an international merchant could function in and out of Justinian Byzantium without some literacy then he may very well have been illiterate. There's a lot of back and forth on the issue especially as it is a method by Islamic scholars to prove the Quran as miraculous and Christian scholars to prove Mohammed a heretic or worse, an apostate. He also disputedly wrote letters to friends.

He was certainly was taught the old and new testament by Nestorian monks (such as Bahira) and others with whom he stayed and traveled. If that was oral or written is definitely debateable and I probably should not have taken sides in the debate over his literacy.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:27 AM on June 2, 2009


Totally awesome thread. Maybe the best (and least contentious) religion thread I've ever read on MeFi. Thank you all, you've given me several new directions to explore on my own search.
posted by Roach at 9:41 AM on June 2, 2009


Yes, just shocking that the Gospel of Thomas was marked 'heretical.' So scandalous. There are so many precious, wonderful teachings there. Like, for example, the time when Jesus tells the disciples that women really will be allowed into the kingdom of heaven after all; it's just that God has to turn them into men first.

koeselitz, it helps to read that as metaphor. In that time, "men" were thought to be superior, so making women into "men" only meant seeing women as equal to men. I would call that very wonderful.
posted by shetterly at 9:54 AM on June 2, 2009


Really? Very wonderful?

Would you consider a religion that sprung up, in, say, mid-Nineteenth Century America to be "very wonderful" for saying that black people could go to heaven as soon as God turns them white?
posted by Flunkie at 10:43 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I understand this statement, AdamCSnider. Care to elaborate?

1 John is an epistle. It's a different book than the Gospel of John.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:49 AM on June 2, 2009


Would you consider a religion that sprung up, in, say, mid-Nineteenth Century America to be "very wonderful" for saying that black people could go to heaven as soon as God turns them white?

Not that this comment was directed toward me, but considering the vast differences in social perspectives between the mid-19th century and today, I would only regard such a message as anachronistic and not particularly fecund ground for spiritual growth in the 21st century. Of course, I feel that way about lots of the particulars of religious texts, and simply don't feel the need to justify them in contemporary terms, regarding them as primarily anthropological artifacts as I do.

So the question would be, as shetterly says, 'what did that mean to the audience for whom it was intended, as best we can discern?' And then, if one is so inclined, 'what can it mean for me today?'
posted by LooseFilter at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's a different book than the Gospel of John.

For those in the know (and sorry for this tangent), my understanding is that the Gospel of John was written a fair bit later than the synoptic gospels, and many scholars view it as a very political document--specifically that it elevates the literal truth of the supernatural aspects of Jesus' life in refutation of the then-popular Gospel of Thomas, which is clearly hugely allegorical. Is this accurate?

(I know I could just google it, but can't resist trying to tap the collective, uh, wisdom of the blue.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:56 AM on June 2, 2009


I wasn't asking if you would find it anachronistic. I was asking if you would find it "very wonderful".
posted by Flunkie at 10:58 AM on June 2, 2009


For those who would like to explore some of the historical issues discussed eloquently in this thread, I recommend Professor Thomas Sheehan's lectures on the Historical Jesus, available for free at Stanford on iTunes U.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 10:59 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


1 John is an epistle. It's a different book than the Gospel of John.

It's the difference between 1 John (an epistle that I think is one of the first references to the Trinity) and John 1 (which is the Gospel of John).
posted by Sparx at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2009


I was asking if you would find it "very wonderful".

Perhaps, for its time, if shetterly's reading is accurate, though I wouldn't use that adjective. But then, I didn't use that adjective, so I'll just stop talking about someone else's words.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:08 AM on June 2, 2009


AL&TL, thanks for that link. Downloading now.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:10 AM on June 2, 2009


Flunkie, sorry I wasn't clearer. The Thomas quote is not saying that God will literally turn women into men. It's saying that in a society where men are seen as superior, followers of Jesus will see women as the same as men, as equals, thereby "becoming" men, and women who follow Jesus's teaching will know they are the equals of men. It's saying that society's designation of who is "best" is a lie: men and women are both "best" and society's distinction is meaningless.

Since we're talking about Paul also in this thread, your point about blacks and whites applies to something he said. Though people didn't see each other in terms of race in those days, they did see tribal differences. As whimsicalnymph noted, Galations 3: 27-28 has Paul's response: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

It's what's meant by a couple of my favorite quotes, Malcolm X's "I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red," and Martin Luther King's "I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." That doesn't mean Jesus, Paul, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King didn't expect to be able to see physical differences in human beings. It just means they believed those differences are not what matters.
posted by shetterly at 11:17 AM on June 2, 2009


Flunkie, a P.S. Your reference to the 19th century made me think about the charge that Mormons believed black Mormons would be given white skins. There's a response here that's either reasonable or a desperate attempt to rewrite history.
posted by shetterly at 11:32 AM on June 2, 2009


Loosefilter, I dunno how popular the Gospel of Thomas was in comparison to the Synoptics, but I find the progress of divinity within the canonical gospels fascinating:

In Mark, there's no back story: Jesus shows up as a guy who's about 30 years old, John baptizes him, and he's proclaimed a son of God.

In Matthew, Jesus gets a genealogy that takes him back to Abraham.

In Luke, Jesus gets a different genealogy that takes him back to Adam.

In John, Jesus is tied directly to God: "He was in the beginning with God."
posted by shetterly at 11:51 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is an unusual Jewish cult, not an unusual Christian one.

Not exactly.

Thanks to the Ebionites' full-throttle obsession with Jesus of Nazareth and their efforts to proselytize to both Jews and non-Jews alike, they wouldn't be recognized as Jewish by any of the three modern sects. They're a cult who self-identify as Jews. That doesn't make them Jewish, any more than J4J are Jews.

However, in my inexpert opinion, their interpretation is in fact closer to what Jews generally believe about Jesus than Christians. Jews do agree that Jesus existed. We simply don't believe he was divine.

However, their efforts to convert others to their beliefs would be abhorrent to most Jews.
posted by zarq at 12:06 PM on June 2, 2009


"Q" is the hypothetical source-text of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, which are notable for their similarity.

Er...not really. The synoptic problem is that there are similarities between Mark, Matthew and Luke that are more than coincidental. The general hypothesis today is for Markan priority (that is, Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke took chunks from it). That part is at least fairly well settled. For the material not found in Mark, there is some overlap between Matthew and Luke, but only in terms of what Jesus says, not in their time / context within the narrative. So "Q" – which would be a collection of sayings by Jesus – is proposed as the common source of Matthew and Luke. It also has some overlap with the Gospel of Thomas, although that is not a canonical gospel.

Also, FWIW, most modern NT scholars would tell you that the idea of Matthew being originally in Aramaic or Hebrew are spurious.
posted by graymouser at 12:13 PM on June 2, 2009


Would you consider a religion that sprung up, in, say, mid-Nineteenth Century America to be "very wonderful" for saying that black people could go to heaven as soon as God turns them white?

Rastafari that sprung up in early 20th century America/Americas says largely the reverse of that and it's still pretty cool, mon.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:19 PM on June 2, 2009


Flunkie, sorry I wasn't clearer. The Thomas quote is not saying that God will literally turn women into men. It's saying that in a society where men are seen as superior, followers of Jesus will see women as the same as men, as equals, thereby "becoming" men, and women who follow Jesus's teaching will know they are the equals of men. It's saying that society's designation of who is "best" is a lie: men and women are both "best" and society's distinction is meaningless.
I understand that (or, at least, I understand that that's your interpretation of the passage).

But applying "figurative" to "women become men", while applying "literal" to my "blacks become white" question, really misses the point. My question was intended as an analogous situation.

So however you interpret "women can get into heaven as soon as God makes them men", that's how I intend you to interpret "blacks can get into heaven as soon as God makes them white". Now, do you find that "very wonderful"?
posted by Flunkie at 12:22 PM on June 2, 2009


Flunkie, I was using "very wonderful" in response to koeselitz's sarcastic "precious, wonderful," but I'm comfortable going on the record as believing a message that all people are equal is "very wonderful."

Now, if you want to quibble about the metaphor, I agree it's problematic. But poetry is like that. Thomas is asking us to think about the nature of what we privilege. A poet in the 19th century could've taken the same tactic using the pseudo-science of race to speak of the truth making everyone "white," which is to say, not literally the color of a bleached sheets, but being the equal of everyone else.

The sayings in Thomas are like koans. Are Buddhists supposed to literally kill the Buddha?
posted by shetterly at 1:05 PM on June 2, 2009


shetterly, I'll admit that I'm not very familiar with the Gospel of Thomas, but have you actually read Thomas 114? I mean this as an honest question, not as rhetorical snark, because it doesn't say 'God will make the women like unto men' or anything like that. It says:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
After some quick (and therefore very scientific) Googling, it appears that Marvin Meyer is among the foremost scholars on the GoT (and gnosticism as a whole). Meyer writes:
Some scholars have recognized a similar sort of misogyny in other ancient and late antique sources, such as the Gospel of Mary and Pistis Sophia, while others have been more optimistic in sensing that the saying in Thomas advocates androgyny or even the elevation of Mary.

[...]

Further, within gnostic texts this theme of gender transformation, with the female becoming male, occurs quite frequently…. In these texts the female is typically depreciated—a better word may be demonized—and comes to symbolize perishability, corporeality, and all that characterizes this mortal world, while the male typically is glorified and comes to symbolize imperishability, incorporeality, and all that characterizes God and God’s world.
Antti Marjanen says:
…it must be emphasized that in logion 114 the goal is not achieved by the removal of gender differentiation but by the transformation of female into male. Thus, in logion 114 salvation is defined by employing the patriarchal language patterns of the contemporary culture. It is important to realize that it is not only Peter’s statement which displays this attitude but also Jesus’ response. Although advocating Mary’s and all women’s right to attain salvation in terms equal to their male colleagues within the circle of disciples and the kingdom, Jesus does so by using language which devalues women.
There are a number of other scholars cited on the page I linked to-- again, I don't know much of anything about the Gospel of Thomas, so I don't know if these guys are on the fringe or in the mainstream, but it appears that even those in favor of a more symbolic reading of Thomas 114 describe its language and metaphysic as problematic. I really don't have a horse in this race, so feel free to explain why I'm wrong, but it doesn't sound like the egalitarian koan you make it out to be. (The nature of the metaphor you describe also, to my soaked-in-biblical-criticism-ears, also just doesn't sound like the way language is used in the first century CE, but what do I know.)
posted by shakespeherian at 1:36 PM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


shakespeherian, yeah, I've read it in two or three translations, and, yes, there are conflicting opinions on how to interpret it. I assume that the Jesus of Thomas's story is aware that maleness is privileged in his society, and therefore he uses the metaphor in a way to make his listeners' heads spin. Two important points about Thomas:

1. It does not designate twelve men as apostles. In Thomas, the male and female followers seem to be equals.

2. Peter, who seems to be a sexist jerk, asks Jesus to send Mary away. Instead, Jesus says she's a student/follower just like him. Here's how one writer puts it: "Jesus ridicules Peter, saying, with humor and sarcasm, “I will make Mary a living spirit, (male),” because Peter believed as did some others, that only males could enter the Kingdom of God."

One translation, "Any women who makes herself a Man will enter into the Kingdom of God," is fascinating. That's what women like Hatshepsut did to have power in male societies. It says, "Don't be content with the traditional role of women. Make yourself (equal to) a man."

There's no question that Jesus lived in a sexist age. The question is whether the Gospel of Thomas uses what we today would call a sexist metaphor to promote sexism or deny it. I look at the context and conclude it denies it. Which may be one of the reasons that Constantine's church chose to exclude Thomas from the canon.
posted by shetterly at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2009


shetterly:

Fair enough. I personally don't find that interpretation to be persuasive-- I find it hard to imagine the Jesus of the four canonical gospels ignoring a statement from Peter (of all oft-rebuked people) as bold as 'Women are not worthy of life,' even with the gloss of life as spirital life (which is a gloss I have no problem with, it's fairly common to the period). Perhaps the character of Jesus in the GoT differs from the character of Jesus in the canon, but his typical M.O. involves ignoring the question and answering the underlying assumption ('He who is without sin cast the first stone,' 'Who are my mother and brothers?' etc.), rather than ignoring the underlying assumption and explaining the metaphysic in a way that plays into the assumption. Again, I think Marjanen has it right when he says that 'the goal is not achieved by the removal of gender differentiation but by the transformation of female into male'-- counter this with the (usually criticized as misogynist) Paul's statement about the kingdom of God having no 'male nor female.' In short, I simply don't find persuasive the suggestion that the context for Jesus' statement in Thomas 114 encourages a metaphorical reading, and even given a metaphorical reading, I find the metaphor problematic.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:33 PM on June 2, 2009


Are Buddhists supposed to literally kill the Buddha?

Since as a Buddhist, you are not to intentionally harm another sentient being and work towards the enlightenment of every sentient being, I would go with "No."

I wouldn't go equating Western religious texts with koans. Koans are obnoxiously vague and not meant to ever really make any sense, per se. I don't believe that the historical Jesus would have gone on about the sound of one Jew clapping. The ideal outcome of koan meditation is spontaneous enlightenment: being that Christians don't believe that humans are capable of perfect one-ness with the Divine existence of the Universe, spontaneous or not, Christian apostles are not going to go around speaking in koans. One of the hardest things for Westerners to grasp about traditional Buddhist texts is the fact that they're non-narrative, non-linear, and completely and totally non-rational. Contrast any five pages of the New Testament with any five pages of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and get back to me on how "koan-like" the former is.

I'm a Buddhist who is very much interested in what I guess could be called "comparative religiousity," and I get kind of irritated with the comparisons between Christ and Buddha that are made simply on the basis of they both advocated not being a total asshole. See also: the idea that a "koan" is any sort of bite-sized Deep Thought. A koan is by definition inaccessible to rational thought and is, rather, accessible to the student's intuition. I have not read a word of Abrahamic thought that primarily appeals to intuition. Christianity in particular denies intuition and relies on a professed faith in its doctrine to teach The Way rather than some form of Inner Wisdom.

Please see also this description of what a koan is NOT:

English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use kōan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. Even so, a kōan is not a riddle or a puzzle.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:41 PM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


shakespeherian, likewise, fair enough. I'm just an amateur in religion. So I can't even begin to say how accurate any of these translations are. My take is that Peter is like the stupid students in the Socrates stories, someone who asks foolish questions in order to give the teacher a chance to show off. I think it's interesting that Mary and Salome are treated with more respect than Peter, and I really don't see how Peter's assumptions can be interpreted as similar to Jesus's--I see a difference of kind, not degree.

Marjanen seems to take a second-wave feminist approach: if the metaphor devalues women, the speaker must intend to devalue women. But it would be very odd for Jesus in that day to say bluntly, "It's wrong for our language to devalue women. Women are equals." It would also be less effective: parables, poems, and koans are all intended to sneak around the objections people might have to blunt propositions.

But interpretations of texts tend to say more about the interpreters than the text, so I'm prepared to be the wrongest of wrong here.

Oh, a question! Is there any evidence that the readers of the Gospel of Thomas interpreted it literally? Isn't the point of gnosticism that the easy reading is wrong?
posted by shetterly at 3:04 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have not read a word of Abrahamic thought that primarily appeals to intuition.--grapefruitmoon
Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text as communication, normal language. It places the focus on the reader and the personal struggle of the reader to reach an acceptable moral application of the text. While it is always governed by the wording of the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.--"What is a Midrash?"

MASHAL (plural meshalim): In the Hebrew tradition, a mashal is a broad, general term including almost any type of figurative language from short riddles to long, extended allegories. It denotes "mysterious speech." Some of the Psalms, for instance, are designated as meshalim. The New Testament Greek often translates the term as parabole or "parable." This translation, however, causes some problem. In Greek, parabole are always allegorical and open to point-by-point interpretation. Parabole were often used as a simple method of teaching by example or analogy. The meshalim in Hebrew, however, was often intentionally confusing or deliberately obfuscating in nature--much more like the Greek enigma (riddle). We can see this confusion in the New Testament, where Mark interprets the purpose of the parables as Hebrew meshalim. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples: "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise, they might turn and be forgiven'" (Mark 4:11-12). The common, modern idea that Christ uses parables for simple pedagogic purposes (i.e., "so that even a child could understand the secrets of heaven") is a creation of the medieval period, much later.--"Mashal"
posted by No Robots at 3:17 PM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


grapefruitmoon, in addition to No Robots' suggestions, you might enjoy reading about gnostics and sufis and quakers. Abrahamic thought is so diverse that I'd hesitate to give it a singular pronoun.

I agree that conventional Christianity has little in common with Buddhism. But this does not mean Jesus had little in common with Buddha, and that's especially true of the Jesus of Thomas. Elaine Pagels said, "...one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition... these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis."

There's an interesting interview with Marcus Borg about Jesus and Buddha here.
posted by shetterly at 3:26 PM on June 2, 2009


Don't get me wrong, I do understand that Jesus and Buddha had many philosophical similarities. The crux of my beef is using this argument to water down the teachings of either. I find this most often in contemporary Buddhist writing where references to "Buddha-nature" are riddled with references to "Christ-like" or "Buddha (or Christ)" as examples. It smacks of using Christ to make Buddha more palatable to Westerners.

Likewise, saying that Jesus was Buddha-like to make him seem like a kinder, gentler, Messiah is misleading.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:42 PM on June 2, 2009


Both the Bible and Buddhist texts have a Parable of the Mustard seed -- while the Buddhist story about Kisa Gotami is arguably more elegant, they're both pretty intuitive.

And the line in Matthew 16:25 wouldn't be out of place in an old Taoist book: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
posted by msalt at 3:47 PM on June 2, 2009


shetterly: Isn't the point of gnosticism that the easy reading is wrong?

Well, my impression is that the point of Gnosticism is actually that Βυθός and δημιουργός are the two sources from which all things emanate, that δημιουργός creates the world while Βυθός is the true ground and hidden backdrop of existence, that a shard of the metaphysical reality that emanates from Βυθός has fallen into the material of human beings, and that these bodily jails in which δημιουργός imprisons us, though guarded by its ἄρχοντες, can be transcended through the sacred πάθεια of γνῶσις which is revealed and illustrated by the redeemer who overcomes the ἄρχοντες and the δημιουργός, and who is variously identified as Adam or Christ or Sophia.
posted by koeselitz at 3:54 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


The weird thing to me is that Gnosticism bears a lot of similarities to the core beliefs (not the organization, thank god) of Scientology.
posted by koeselitz at 3:56 PM on June 2, 2009


And 'Gnosticism' really has nothing to do with 'gnosis' or 'knowing' in the standards sense of the word.
posted by koeselitz at 4:00 PM on June 2, 2009


koeslitz, big grin!

And you do make me wonder if Hubbard raided a book or two on gnosticism when he was cobbling together Scientology. (I have a pet theory that the Nation of Islam's Yakub inspired Scientology's Xenu, but it may just be that 20th century cults liked mad scientists.)
posted by shetterly at 4:09 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


What the fuck? Typical Mefi religion thread. Pater Aletheias is all calm and rational and respect deserving, koeselitz says just one immediately jumpable thing and people explicate learnedly, and then later I point out some difference in bible terminology that I only learned through reading and investigating via this thread! And then it just gets better with the early history

Did I pay 5 bucks for this?

Also. Top thread. I have learned a lot. Kudos metafilter. You got some bestotehweb going on.
posted by Sparx at 4:39 PM on June 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Amen, Sparx. This is the good stuff.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:50 PM on June 2, 2009


This is like a Lord of the Rings fansite, where people argue for hours and hours in intricate detail about the desires and motivations of imaginary people like it matters. "Gandalf was a jerk." "Was not!" "You've totally misinterpreted the meaning of the Sindarin for 'shit-stirrer'..."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:47 PM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Eagerly awaiting "Gandalf: Maia or just a cool dude?" thread.

not really
posted by Sparx at 7:24 PM on June 2, 2009


This is like a Lord of the Rings fansite,

parade pisser.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:00 PM on June 2, 2009


Oh yeah, I almost forgot:

This thread was fortuitous, because it's a great chance for me to plug my follow-up to my own “Nick Cave's rejected script for Gladiator 2” thread. That's right, y'all; I found it. And it's a riveting 103 pages. Anybody who wants to read a sequel to Gladiator that has St. Irenaeus, St. John Cassian, Christians taking up arms against the Romans, and all kinds of cool stuff will love it.
posted by koeselitz at 8:20 PM on June 2, 2009


I sincerely mean it when I write that I found the arguments and scholarship in this discussion excellent and informative, and I take nothing away from that when I mention that while appreciating those arguments, I, an atheist, could not help but simultaneously imagine that, after the coming fall of the West, when the only extant copies are some very poor Chinese translations, and some fragmentary fan-fic and slash-fiction based on the characters, two-thousand years hence a similar serious debate will rage over the original meaning of the Harry Potter series.
posted by orthogonality at 9:23 PM on June 2, 2009 [7 favorites]


Oh, a question! Is there any evidence that the readers of the Gospel of Thomas interpreted it literally?

This book's description suggests that the GoT's intended audience was early rural Christians (haven't read the book, so I'm not sure how well that claim is substantiated); Charles W. Hedrick seems to portray the audience for Thomas 109 as typical Jews, not necessarily sophisticated intellectuals. I'm not really sure if that answers your question or not.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:32 PM on June 2, 2009


orthogonality, I have two "Christianity for comics fans" raps. I just used one on my blog: "If you don't know about Golden Age Paul, Silver Age or Deutero-Paul, and Post-Crisis or Pastoral Paul, see Authorship of the Pauline epistles."

The other goes like this: To understand mainstream Christianity, imagine it's hundreds of years in the future, and much of the documentation for the 20th century has been lost. Someone finds a Kane-Finger Batman and creates a religion. Someone else finds an O'Neil-Adams Batman and does the same. A third group finds an Englehart-Rogers Batman. Then a fourth finds a Superman drawn by Curt Swan. The sects fight with each other until a strong political leader orders them to merge, so they create SuperBatmanism and tell of their founder who came from another planet to live among us as a millionaire reporter who fights for truth and justice because evildoers are a cowardly lot. Smaller sects that had based their faiths on Nedor and Charlton heroes are treated as enemies of the empire, while a faith based on the Phantom newspaper strip is barely tolerated.

shakespeherian, the first is an interesting link, but that's a different gospel of Thomas. The one sometimes called the fifth gospel is only a "sayings gospel." It has a little stage-setting, but no real stories about the characters.

Hedrick's take on that saying is interesting. Which is me admitting I haven't a clue what it's about.
posted by shetterly at 10:33 PM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Let's not forget that some scholars date the Gospel of Thomas potentially as early as 50 AD. This scholarship argues that it, and the theoretical Q text, are among the earliest recordings of Jesus (although both documents most likely evolved over time), and date to around the time of the Pauline epistles.

When I read The Lost Gospel: Q some years ago, one of the arguments that the author was making was that there were originally "Jesus people" and "Christ people" - two different movements within early Christianity, and that the "Christ" movement, which Paul as a part of, won. The religion based around divinity and worship of the Christ as a God is a very different religion than one where Jesus is essentially a wandering Jewish philosopher suggesting that we should love our neighbors.

He argues that Q (as a reconstructed document) and the Gospel of Thomas were part of the original Jesus movement, and one of the only ways to get back to see the pre-Pauline foundations.
posted by MythMaker at 10:41 PM on June 2, 2009


He argues that Q (as a reconstructed document) and the Gospel of Thomas were part of the original Jesus movement, and one of the only ways to get back to see the pre-Pauline foundations.

Is this based on anything other than Jesus' apparent lack of unique divinity in the Gospel of Thomas? Because the Jesus of the (yes, influenced by Paul) canonical gospels is most certainly divine, but this sounds a lot like those people who have very little knowledge of the New Testament who say, 'Jesus was just a good teacher, then Paul came and screwed everything up.' I'm very curious to know if this notion predates contemporaneous ignorance.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:19 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Gospel of Thomas (like every other “non-canonical” gospel that I know of—the gospel of Mary, etc.) isn't part of the synopticon because it's silly and untrue,

As opposed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
posted by grubi at 6:31 AM on June 3, 2009


His reconstruction of Q attempts to follow the evolution of the document over time. The narrative elements of the canonical gospels are later than the philosophical and spiritual insight of the sayings gospels, and Q was originally a sayings gospel that evolved into the earliest parts of the narrative.

Having just glanced at the book again, it is first and foremost a scholarly work, and argues that one of the issues that more liberal and conservative scholars had with the Jesus story was the conflict between the "wisdom" sayings vs. the "apocalyptic" sayings in Q. The current scholarship is that Q started as wisdom sayings of a form common to the the Hellenistic culture of the time, and present throughout the Near East of that era. Over time, the apocalyptic sayings were grafted on top of them, reflecting the changes in the early Church.
posted by MythMaker at 7:24 AM on June 3, 2009


That's pretty interesting. I remember wanting to pick up a copy of The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus when it came out, but never did. Maybe I'll pick up Mack's book instead.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:34 AM on June 3, 2009


Shakespeherian, have you read Wikipedia's entry on the Ebionites? While it's trying to point out the difficulty of tracking the Ebionites through history, it's interesting because it suggests a long tradition of thinking that Jesus was a great human teacher.
posted by shetterly at 10:17 AM on June 3, 2009


Is this based on anything other than Jesus' apparent lack of unique divinity in the Gospel of Thomas?

This is a fairly common idea I've encountered in other readings as well. Some of Joseph Campbell's writings argue very forcefully that the earliest Christian texts clearly indicate that metaphorical reading is most appropriate, and that the divine view of Christ was taking poetry as prose. Thomas really points this up, as shetterly mentions there is virtually no narrative aspect, and all of the sayings are obviously non-literal.

As Alan Watts has pointed out a few times, one has no choice but to speak by analogy, metaphor, etc., when discussing matters spiritual, because they are often non-corporeal. By definition, human beings simply lack the ability, the frame of reference to directly contemplate (or experience even a taste of) non-corporeal concepts like eternity, etc. (like a person born blind can't imagine the concept of color). So if Jesus were to address these ideas, he would have no choice but to speak in analogy, metaphor, parable, because he's addressing human beings.

The problem is that zealots are dogmatically-driven and authoritarian-minded, a psychological perspective grounded in the literal. When this literal-ness meets metaphor, the possibilities for hilarious misunderstandings abound, and when you add to that evidence of the past several decades affirming the existence of and a difference between Jesus followers and Christ followers, it becomes a real possibility that the zealots--who completely mistook the poetry for prose--won.

(I don't trust Paul anyway because in my view he never stopped being a zealot, he just changed teams.)

To me, a story about the entire world flooding is obviously metaphorical, along with all the other supernatural stuff in the Bible, and I don't need evidence or the force of history to affirm/deny that--it seems self-evident in the text. I never would have believed any of it literally as a child if I hadn't had lots of adults around me saying that it's all really truly true.

(And the reading that makes no sense to me at all is the mixed approach: well, of course Genesis and most of the Old Testament are just stories, myths; but the New Testament, well, that's the literal truth.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:32 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


MythMaker: His reconstruction of Q attempts to follow the evolution of the document over time.

One last comment on my own view of the whole Q thesis:

The attempt to see a document in the light of its own evolution is a particular aspect of modern literary criticism that strikes me as irrational and intentionally subversive of texts. Its irrationality stems from the necessary assumption involved—namely, that the text must have changed or that the author could not possibly have come up with the text in its present form. To assume either of these things, we must assume that we have more information than the author did; this assumption strikes me as (at best) unwarranted and (at worst) pretty arrogant.

People have tried to do the same with Plato, attempting to place his dialogues in an 'order of composition' reflecting a supposed 'evolution' in his thought and eliminating as 'spurious' those dialogues that don't fit into the given theory. These attempts are certainly 'scholarly,' but they are no less wrong for it.

The issue for me is this: whether or not Christians believe that the scriptures were formally unchanged from the time of the Christ unto the present day (I don't believe they were, and I don't think it's a belief of inherent importance to the faith) it is certainly a fact that Christians believe that the truth about the world and about God conforms to the truth expressed in the Gospels as we know them commonly, the so-called ‘later gospels.’ Now, in fact, it does not even affect matters of faith if every single so-called ‘christian’ alive between the death of the Christ and 150 a.d. was in fact a believer in a sort of weird Gnostic-mystic cult. To a Christian who is clear about his faith and its true roots, every ‘believer’ before the time of St. Irenaeus or St. Athanasius might just as well have been a Satanist; indeed, one does not need to believe that there have ever been a single other true Christian in the history of the world to believe, as a true Christian does, that the Christ was and is the emanation of the unlimited and boundless into the limited and finite, the second aspect of three of a supreme being that exists as both one person and three persons. But the intended implication of the Q-gospel biblical criticism is: ‘you Christians are not true or original Christians, but only a product of the evolution of Christianity from one thing to another.’

In short; the theorization surrounding the Q gospel springs up not because of genuine questions about the historical provenance of the biblical documents, but because certain people simple can't believe that the ‘true Christian faith,’ which they view as completely arbitrary, could have simply appeared out of nowhere and then continue unchanged for two thousand years. Whereas, since I believe that the true Christian faith reflects an insight into the truth about the world, it's not difficult for me to believe that someone truly wise could certainly have written the gospel of John within a few months after the Christ died on the cross in 1 AD.
posted by koeselitz at 10:35 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


and that the divine view of Christ was taking poetry as prose.

I don't know, it's pretty hard to think of another gloss for 'Before Abraham was, I am' aside from Jesus making claims to his own divinity. This is, again, from John's Gospel, which is Paul-influenced, but I don't think from that alone we can claim that John is any more likely to put words into Jesus's mouth than was Thomas (or anyone else).
posted by shakespeherian at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2009


the church seems to have taken on the audacious and presumptuous task of not promulgating doctrines that are untrue.

mmmmm, tautology.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know, it's pretty hard to think of another gloss for 'Before Abraham was, I am' aside from Jesus making claims to his own divinity.

I don't think it's that hard to imagine, if he's using himself as a metaphor. In Thomas (IIRC, been years since I read it), there are passages where he says similar things and extends them with 'and so are you', making clear that he was speaking to a divinity inside all human beings, that we are all children of God, just as he is. (Which parallels the Buddhist perspective.)

If that kind of teaching ran into a messianic cult, well, it's not hard to imagine that some of the fundamental metaphorical perspective was lost.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:52 AM on June 3, 2009


In short; the theorization surrounding the Q gospel springs up not because of genuine questions about the historical provenance of the biblical documents, but because certain people simple can't believe that the ‘true Christian faith,’ which they view as completely arbitrary, could have simply appeared out of nowhere and then continue unchanged for two thousand years. Whereas, since I believe that the true Christian faith reflects an insight into the truth about the world, it's not difficult for me to believe that someone truly wise could certainly have written the gospel of John within a few months after the Christ died on the cross in 1 AD.

koeselitz, that's a good point. But this reduces very complex scholarship and thinking to a false dilemma--many in the field trying to come to greater understanding of all this do not have any agenda, certainly not the narrow agenda you posit. There is much evidence to suggest a spectrum of beliefs in the decades following the death of Jesus, and that is something worth considering and learning about. (The scholarship that is directly subversive of Christian belief is, in my mind, that examining the question of the existence of the historical Jesus himself.)

Also, if one approaches all of this believing that the "true Christian faith reflects an insight into the truth about the world," this conversation is all moot, and I fail to understand why one would even be at the table to discuss it.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:08 PM on June 3, 2009


I don't think it's that hard to imagine, if he's using himself as a metaphor

That makes a certain amount of sense, but when you pair it with what he says immediately before-- 'Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad'-- I can see a reading in which Jesus is claiming that Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing the day when Jesus would spread enlightenment about the divinity of all, but the two glosses stick together pretty awkwardly. It sounds like trying to force the text to mean what you would like it to mean rather than a nuanced reading.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2009


LooseFilter, well said. I wish I could remember who first observed another curious thing about conventional Christians: while they interpret many metaphorical sayings literally, they interpret many literal sayings metaphorically, so explicit commands to share the wealth and answer violence with love are, to them, only some of Jesus's wackier bits of poetry that can be ignored.
posted by shetterly at 12:24 PM on June 3, 2009


but when you pair it with what he says immediately before

Well, by the time the John Gospel was written, the poetry would have already been mistaken for prose, and grafted onto the Jewish messiah prophecy. But you're right, that could easily be a forced reading on my part--but to me, much less forced than believing a literal one.

they interpret many literal sayings metaphorically

Or just ignore them. Exhibit A.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:32 PM on June 3, 2009


Well, by the time the John Gospel was written, the poetry would have already been mistaken for prose, and grafted onto the Jewish messiah prophecy.

Yeah, the more I talk the more I'm not really sure what my argument is supposed to be-- mostly just that the gnostic view of Jesus is at odds with the NT canon just as much as the orthodox view of Jesus is at odds with the NT Apocrypha. I don't know that anyone has tried to suggest otherwise, but there it is anyway.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:54 PM on June 3, 2009


In short; the theorization surrounding the Q gospel springs up not because of genuine questions about the historical provenance of the biblical documents, but because certain people simple can't believe that the ‘true Christian faith,’ which they view as completely arbitrary, could have simply appeared out of nowhere and then continue unchanged for two thousand years. Whereas, since I believe that the true Christian faith reflects an insight into the truth about the world, it's not difficult for me to believe that someone truly wise could certainly have written the gospel of John within a few months after the Christ died on the cross in 1 AD.

It goes both ways, though. As someone who isn't a Christian it's not difficult for me to believe that Jesus didn't exist at all given that the only mention of him outside of the writings of Christians is that one sentence in Josephus - probably as easy as it is for you to believe that John is the product of first-hand accounts. (Which would be circa 33 AD if that's a typo and you aren't making some additional point I'm missing.)

I'm not saying I'd find it likely that this is true, just that it wouldn't be difficult for me to believe. And of course as an atheist, were Jesus entirely mythical it wouldn't reduce for me the great deal of value I think that Christianity has.
posted by XMLicious at 2:59 PM on June 3, 2009


As Alan Watts has pointed out a few times, one has no choice but to speak by analogy, metaphor,

What we cannot speak of we must really shut the fuck up about.

-Wittgenstein, in the original Klingon
posted by Sparx at 3:09 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao; the name which can be uttered is not the eternal name. Without a name it is the Beginning of Heaven and Earth; with a name it is the Mother of all things. Only one who is ever free from desire can apprehend its spiritual essence; he who is ever a slave to desire can see no more than its outer fringe. These two things, the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their origin are one and the same. This sameness is a mystery — the mystery of mysteries. It is the gate of all wonders.--Tao te Ching, Chap. 1 (Translated by Lionel Giles, 1904)
posted by No Robots at 3:22 PM on June 3, 2009


making clear that he was speaking to a divinity inside all human beings, that we are all children of God, just as he is. (Which parallels the Buddhist perspective.)

Yes and no. Buddha-nature should not be mistaken for being a child of G-d, as Buddhists don't believe that G-d exists as such. Humans being children of G-d places us above all other sentient creatures on earth, which goes against the Buddhist teachings that every living thing has Buddha-nature. (Like the old koan: "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?" "Woof!")

This is where I get frustrated with drawing simple parallels between Christianity and Buddhism: Yes, be relaxed and groovy. But one is a theistic religion with an importance placed on scripture and doctrine first with real world practice second, the other is an intuitive philosophy based primarily on first-hand experience with scripture and practice following second. Buddhists can not be children of G-d, occupying a central position in the universe because that takes us away from the fact that all is emptiness, and we're all part of the same void. To put G-d into that equation is to deny the Buddhist belief in the fundamental same-ness of all elements of the universe.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:38 PM on June 3, 2009


grapefruitmoon, just as there are pantheistic and panentheistic Christians, there are Buddhists like the Tibetans who are obsessed with gods. See, for example, the Dorje Shugden murders.

I do understand the desire to focus on what makes your religion different. But I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so the similarities are always stronger for me.
posted by shetterly at 4:31 PM on June 3, 2009


Sparx, and did Wittgenstein take his own advice? Nooooo!!!!

And to address the point with, I suspect, unnecessary seriousness, what we can speak of by analogy, we can speak of.
posted by shetterly at 4:34 PM on June 3, 2009


"But I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so the similarities are always stronger for me."

Alternate ending: so I'll happily talk about religion until we're out of coffee.
posted by shetterly at 4:36 PM on June 3, 2009


For full disclosure, part of my crotchety-ness on this subject has to do with the fact that 'moonMan has developed an interest in Buddhism and I can not find a single contemporary source for a "beginner" that is not new-age self-help bullshit OR uses the phrase "Buddha (or Christ)" in every other sentence.

It's kind of gotten on my nerve that "Christ's teachings and Buddhism are really the same thing!" has gained a certain currency to 1) make Buddhism more appealing to Westerners and 2) make Jesus seem more peaceful and loving.

Yeah, plenty of similarities, but still, not the same thing and to say that they really are equivalent does each a disservice.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:40 PM on June 3, 2009


Buddha-nature should not be mistaken for being a child of G-d

Should've been more clear: the parallel is in the idea of inner divinity, that each of us has spiritual perfection inside already, and our task is to realize it. "A lotus flower for you, a buddha-to-be," which is not far from some of what Jesus says in Thomas.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:40 PM on June 3, 2009


Having not actually read the Gospel of Thomas, I'm going to go ahead and agree with you about the spiritual perfection bit and inner divinity and whatnot whosit lotus blossoms.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:42 PM on June 3, 2009


I can not find a single contemporary source for a "beginner" that is not new-age self-help bullshit OR uses the phrase "Buddha (or Christ)" in every other sentence.

Try either of Steve Hagen's books on the topic, I found them quite helpful and clear without distortion. The best fundamental introduction for a western mind to eastern philosophy and religious thought I can think of are the works of Alan Watts, they were key to much younger me understanding some of the crucial fundamental differences in perspective from what I knew.

to say that they really are equivalent does each a disservice.

I don't think anyone is really elaborating that theme--the casual references in this thread haven't read the same to me as the facile conflation you mention, and which I agree is frustrating.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:46 PM on June 3, 2009


grapefruitmoon, these two are excellent:

Buddhism Plain and Simple

Buddhism Is Not What You Think

And to all, for a good account of the ascendancy of the Gospel of John over the Gospel of Thomas, I recommend Pagels: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
posted by LooseFilter at 5:00 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks, LooseFilter!

I was raised as a Buddhist, so my first sources were coloring books and a Buddhist Sunday School that met in a shed (no lie). I'm not really up to date on my BuddhismLite sources, but I do have a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I also have three or four coloring books of Buddhist art.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:06 PM on June 3, 2009


The quasi-equation of Buddha and Jesus is, I think, part of a much wider trend in the liberal religious West to emphasize the "many roads, one destination" idea - as a way of distancing ourselves from unpleasant historical (and, particularly since 9/11, inescapably contemporary) interreligious tensions. Distinction implies value judgement, to too many people - if Buddhism is essentially different than Christianity, one must be superior or inferior to the other.
Something similar went on in liberal churches with the (once vital and furiously debated) differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, and the very term "Judeo-Christian" says a lot about how far the same idea has succeeded vis a vis Judaism.
The most important distinction, in fact, may become that between religious groups who accept this liberalizing, quasi-Universalist notion and the "parochial" or "fundamentalist" groups that don't. This may bode well for the liberals, since they have the potential for interreligious alliances against exclusivist groups which, by their very nature, have trouble networking with their fellow extremists in other religious traditions....
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:23 PM on June 3, 2009


The quasi-equation of Buddha and Jesus is, I think, part of a much wider trend in the liberal religious West to emphasize the "many roads, one destination" idea - as a way of distancing ourselves from unpleasant historical (and, particularly since 9/11, inescapably contemporary) interreligious tensions. Distinction implies value judgement, to too many people - if Buddhism is essentially different than Christianity, one must be superior or inferior to the other.

Yes, I agree, totally. To accept Buddhism is to say "Hey! We're hip to the Eastern religions, too! Look how multi-cultural and liberal we are!" as opposed to actually understanding it and realizing that while Jesus and Buddha said similar things, the religions constructed around their respective ideas of peace and inner spiritual divinity turned into completely different things.

Also, Westerners tend to look on Buddhism as some sort of peace-brigade without any structure or dogma, which also isn't true. So much Buddhist literature coming from the West reads like self-help that I actually once read someone describing self-help as Buddhism. We water it down for our palates to make ourselves feel that even we, in our Imperialist glory, can be enlightened.

Which is true! We can! But it's not as easy as those jerks who are asking the Dalai Lama "What's one thing we each can do for world peace?" would like it to be. Nor is it the same as saying "Everything is Buddhist/Buddhism is EVERYTHING!" which is also pretty popular these days.

(Yep. World's crankiest Buddhist. That's me.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:36 PM on June 3, 2009


"The ideal outcome of koan meditation is spontaneous enlightenment: being that Christians don't believe that humans are capable of perfect one-ness with the Divine existence of the Universe, spontaneous or not, Christian apostles are not going to go around speaking in koans."

As I understand it, it seems just as reasonable to say that Christians believe humans are capable of perfect one-ness with God the Divine as to say it of Buddhists.

In attributing this sort of doctrine to either faith you run into a mirror image of the same problem.

Christian concepts of theosis and diefication discuss an idea of oneness with the Divine, becoming partakers in the divine nature. The problem in calling this oneness with God is that the diefication is still predicated of something, so there seems to be a sense in which it's not total oneness.

Buddhism seems to have the opposite, but related, problem. The oneness is emphasized to the point where it's difficult to have anything to predicate it to and therefore it's hard to say that the oneness is something other than annihilation.

(This is not to suggest I'm trying to harmonize the two philosophies.)
posted by Jahaza at 5:40 PM on June 3, 2009


The oneness is emphasized to the point where it's difficult to have anything to predicate it to and therefore it's hard to say that the oneness is something other than annihilation.

Well, yes. The oneness isn't predicated on anything because if everything is, indeed, truly one there's nothing to predicate it on. If you view this as annihilation, that's a rather pessimistic view, but it is saying essentially that there can be no true beginning or building ground for anything since it's all the same thing.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:45 PM on June 3, 2009


grapefruitmoon, there's a translation of the Gospel of Thomas here. It's short. Oh! And several more here.

Regarding the earlier question of sexism in Thomas, I just noticed this, from Thomas 22 at the first link: "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]."

I like Christianity much better with Thomas in it. The first version I read was in The Five Gospels. (That's an Amazon link because I'm lazy.)
posted by shetterly at 5:54 PM on June 3, 2009


More important even than the fact that Christianity and Buddhism are distinct, I think, is the fact that both integrate elements of a completely different worldview than that of the modern, liberal Westerner. And that instead of facing the clash head-on we tend to try to write out the uncomfortable parts, explain or interpret them away - this goes on in both liberal and conservative camps, actually - it's just that the prejudices and assumptions which the text is being twisted into sync with are different.

I think that the most valuable aspect of the work of the founders of these two faiths was precisely the fact that they were challenging their contemporaries. Jesus was saying, by the standards of his day, some rather crazy and apparently ridiculous things, as was the Buddha. This isn't to say that they both weren't influenced by or building on other religious teachings in the environment, but that their teachings startled people. And I think the attempt to write out, for example, the Buddha or Jesus (or, for that matter, the Paul) who occasionally says things that disturb us is rather dangerous. It's precisely those sort of encounters which make us think, react, and grow. Taking a look at the bare words of these guys, even if you decide you don't agree with them, and in fact are horrified sometimes by them, is, I think, a greater act of spiritual development than comfortably using the texts to support your own predispositions, whether religiously conservative or liberal - and I say that as someone who essentially supports the moral predispositions of modern liberal culture. Religion should shock and frighten us sometimes.

Erm. Okay, so seems there's a cranky Christian on the forum too, apparently.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:04 PM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I agree with your comment wholly, oh cranky Christian! Let us join together and form a cross-spiritual cranky society in which we brood silently and meditate on the reasons why we can't have nice things.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:13 PM on June 3, 2009


Given the diversity and contradictory nature of the different branches of Christianity and its derivatives - from Trinitarianism to things like these modern Ebionites to many-deitied Mormonism, much less spectra like Christian Mysticism or syncretisms like Santeria - as well as having read a bit about different sorts of Buddhism - I don't think that either Christianity or Buddhism could really be boiled down to some single things that could could be equated with each other, in the first place.
posted by XMLicious at 6:36 PM on June 3, 2009


The Gospel of Thomas is, for me, possibly my favorite Christian gospel.

One of my favorite verses is:
6. His disciples asked him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?"

Jesus said, "Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."
Jesus is saying "don't be a hypocrite - don't lie and don't do religious acts for appearances merely because someone tells you to do them." That's something that mainstream Christianity could learn from.

I've always taken the verse
22. Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, "These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father's) kingdom."

They said to him, "Then shall we enter the (Father's) kingdom as babies?"

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]."
to be about trying to get past dualities. By eliminating dualities and dialectical thinking, and seeing all as one, only then will you enter the kingdom. In the East, you'd say that you achieve enlightenment by getting past dualities. This concept shows up all over Eastern religion and philosophy.
posted by MythMaker at 7:29 PM on June 3, 2009


LooseFilter: (And the reading that makes no sense to me at all is the mixed approach: well, of course Genesis and most of the Old Testament are just stories, myths; but the New Testament, well, that's the literal truth.)

I had a whole thing about this typed up which was (in an annoying glitch) completely deleted, but I'll try to type this carefully and thoughtfully:

Christianity is different from other religions in that it cannot be metaphorical. This is because its very message is: the infinite, absolute, uncreated reality has penetrated the finite, limited, create shadow-world which we inhabit, and that we frail creatures may thereby become as God thereby. As St. Athanasius says: “God became Man that Man might become God.” This teaching, which in most religions is an esoteric meaning buried beneath exoteric teachings, is clearly and bluntly stated by Christianity at the outset. Other religions communicate an esoteric meaning through exoteric teachings—Judaism has its laws, Islam its hadiths—but Christianity takes the form of an insistence that the esoteric is superior to the exoteric, that the esoteric rules the exoteric. A perusal of the recorded teachings of the Christ, especially those regarding the Halakhic Law, reveals this; he is always saying, “the law of Moses teaches this; but verily I say unto you, the meaning at the heart of that teaching is this.” And Paul's teachings regarding “circumcision of the heart” make this even clearer.

Other faiths take the form of signs and symbols which point to an intrinsic meaning, of metaphorical stories which can be read correctly to understand their deeper meaning. Maimonides himself, the greatest of the Rabbis, did not shrink from stating that the account of the beginning in Genesis was metaphorical (a fact I sometimes point out to the more ridiculous of hyper-conservative “Christians,” to their dismay). But Christianity cannot, because it states its most precious and deepest truth—that the absolute penetrates and permeates the relative at every moment and in every place—quite literally and directly. A burning bush speaking to a prophet can quite reverently be called metaphorical; but if the statement “the absolute flows into the relative is merely metaphorical, how can it mean anything at all? If God didn't really become Man, if that emanation of the divine into us wasn't real but metaphorical, how can such a statement even be coherent, much less meaningful?

To put it another way:

A symbol, a metaphor, is in its purest form the use of images of lower things—rocks, trees, matter, et cetera—to represent otherwise irrepresentable relations between higher things—human souls and the things which matter to them like justice, love, peace, et cetera. It is the recognition of a higher relation in lower objects, the recognition that that higher relation somehow is permeating the lower objects. The Christ of the scriptures cannot be a symbol for something else because he is symbol itself; he is, par excellence, the purest incarnation of symbol itself imaginable. So it would be absurd to see in him a symbol of something higher, since, technically, the whole purpose of the Christ-story is the claim that Christ himself is symbol in that he is the relation between the divine and the mortal. A common mistake made about the Christ-story is the notion that Christ became a man; but in truth Christ became Man, man himself, and thereby every individual man all at once. The point is that, through this act, mankind is a symbol of God, the most universal and absolute symbol that has ever existed, to such a degree that it can be seen as the source and whole essence of all symbols.
posted by koeselitz at 1:59 AM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


koeselitz, you've done an excellent job of describing your Christianity, but that's not everyone's. If you believe that, have you sold all your goods and given the money to the poor? Do you accept any priest or preacher or elder as an intermediary between you and God? What do you make of statements like this, from Mark: "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding"?
posted by shetterly at 9:08 AM on June 4, 2009


koeselitz, one more, from 1Corinthians 2:6-7 that all major scholars, to the best of my knowledge, agree is from Paul and not someone writing in his name: "Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God's wisdom, mysterious, hidden..."
posted by shetterly at 9:14 AM on June 4, 2009


Also, Westerners tend to look on Buddhism as some sort of peace-brigade without any structure or dogma, which also isn't true. So much Buddhist literature coming from the West reads like self-help that I actually once read someone describing self-help as Buddhism. We water it down for our palates to make ourselves feel that even we, in our Imperialist glory, can be enlightened.

And Eastern practitioners over the years (Tibetan Buddhists being a prime example) have all brought their own preexisting belief systems to bear on their understanding of Buddhism, so you end up with the elaborate death rituals of the Tibetan Buddhists, prayers and offerings to various local deities among lay Buddhists in Korea, etc.

I'd even argue that the various forms of Buddhism practiced in the East--Zen, the various Mahayana schools and cults, etc.--are at least as far-removed in their practices and dogmas from the teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha as any watered-down Western formulations of those teachings might be. All of them incorporate myriad practices and doctrines that bear little relation to what scholars consider the earliest written records of Gautama Buddha's teachings in the Pali cannon.

Consider just the fact that the earliest Buddhists, those who lived during Gautama's lifetime and immediately after, observed strict prohibitions on depicting images of the Buddha.

It's well known to students of early Buddhist art that there are very few confirmed images of the Gautama Buddha in Buddhist art from the earliest period. This wasn't accidental. Even images created purely to record or depict historical events in the life of the Buddha deliberately omitted his face. And although there's no explicit injunction against depicting the Buddha's image in the earliest texts, there is indirect support in the Pali scriptures for the view that these prohibitions did exist and were encouraged by the historical Buddha. The earliest continuing school of Buddhism, Theravada, maintains that it was never the Buddha's intention to be deified and that use of any image of the Buddha in devotional practice or prayer is in error.

So I'd argue that as many Buddhists over the years have asserted that Buddhism is just some kind of "peace-brigade without any structure or dogma" and the result is the rich, complicated picture that is modern Buddhism. It's unfair to assert, in a sort of reverse form of Western exceptionalism, that would-be devotees of Buddhism in the West are anymore likely to err and misunderstand what Buddhism really is or isn't about than those in the East.

As for where to get the real skinny on the Buddha's teachings, don't go to the secondary sources unless you just want to learn what somebody else thinks the Buddha's teachings are about. Go straight to the Tipitaka. Unless you're planning to become a monk, you can probably ignore the Vinaya Pitaka and skip straight to the Suttas.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:06 PM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, if you're looking for a gentler, more approachable introduction to the original teachings of the Buddha (in other words, what someone else thinks those teachings are, but in this case, a very credible someone), I'd recommend "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula. It served as my introduction to Buddhism back when I studied it as an undergraduate. If my memory serves correctly, it offers a fairly thorough introduction to the underlying metaphysical system that Gautama taught--going into the specifics of concepts like conditional arisal, the five skhandas (or aggregates), and the principle of sunyata (or emptiness), while also explaining how more familar concepts like anatman (no-self), karma, dukkha, etc., all fit into that system.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:35 PM on June 4, 2009


Yeah, I'm not looking for Buddhist sources for myself (at the moment, I do know where to find those), but for my partner who is completely 100% unfamiliar with any religious thought that isn't Catholicism.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:47 PM on June 4, 2009


grapefruitmoon: Then I'd still probably recommend "What the Buddha Taught." It's as good an introduction, for a general audience, to the common core of Buddhist thought as you're likely to find.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:43 PM on June 4, 2009


I'm not an expert on Buddhism, but I really enjoyed "What Makes You Not a Buddhist" by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. It's focused on Buddhist belief rather than practice.
posted by Jahaza at 3:39 PM on June 4, 2009


shetterly: koeselitz, you've done an excellent job of describing your Christianity, but that's not everyone's.

I don't believe that there is a sharp distinction between one man's Christianity and another's; right opinion matters, but faith is something which is secured by the scriptures, the spirit and the Church. This last part is sadly forgotten in the Protestant tradition, but it's essential; and my description is, I believe wholeheartedly, in accord with the words of the Church fathers and all the Saints, Dionysius the Areopagite, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Diadochos of Photiki, Basil, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, William Law, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis. The point is that it's a tradition, one that's constantly reinterpreted but that remains.

And, of course, ‘my’ Christianity or anybody else's doesn't matter much if it isn't a reflection of the nature of the world and of the higher reality. Heh. I may be completely wrong.

If you believe that, have you sold all your goods and given the money to the poor?

Now there are two kinds of poverty. One is external poverty, and it is good and much to be praised in people who take it upon themselves willingly for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he himself practiced it in the earthly realm. Of this poverty I shall say nothing more, for there is still another kind of poverty, an inward poverty, with reference to which this saying of our Lord is to be understood: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, or of spirit.” I pray that you may be like this, so that you may understand…for by the eternal truth I tell you that if you do not have this truth of which we are speaking in yourselves, you cannot understand me. Bishop Albert says: “To be poor is to take no pleasure in anything God ever created,” and that is well said. But we shall say it better and take poverty in a higher sense. He is a poor man who wants nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing…

The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything. But I say that God is neither a being nor intelligent, and He does not “know” either this or that. God is free of everything, and therefore He is everything. He then who is to be poor in spirit must be poor of all his own knowledge, so that he knows nothing of God, or creatures, or of himself.

—Meister Eckhart, “Blessed Are The Poor”


Do you accept any priest or preacher or elder as an intermediary between you and God?

Yes. I'm not God. And, frankly, I'd be somewhat ashamed if I had to talk much about my own spiritual habits too much; I don't think I'm much of an example, I'm just a guy who likes thinking about things.
posted by koeselitz at 8:21 PM on June 4, 2009


koelitz -

To read the Bible so literally as to miss the metaphor and parable is, IMHO, to willfully misread the document.

Look at something like John 10:9 - "I am the door" - Is Jesus saying that he is a literal door? Made of wood, with a doorknob and hinges? No, he's using metaphor.

And when interpreting what Christianity means, up until the Council of Nicea, there was no consensus within Christianity as to what they believed at all. The Gnostics believe that the hidden doctrine refered to in Luke 8:10, for instance:
"The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, 'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'"
referred to their inner gnosis - that the God of the Old Testament and the Father that Jesus speaks of were not the same being, and that, in fact, Jesus was there to help free mankind from the shackles of the God of the Old Testament.

Do you know the inner secrets that Jesus told his disciples? No, neither do I, but the Gnostics claimed to. Maybe their succession has more validity than one created within the Empire that actually killed Jesus.

If the scholars that date the Gospel of Thomas to 50 A.D. are correct, it is a closer representation of what Jesus had to say than, say, the Gospel of John, which is usually dated around 100 A.D., which is almost 70 years after Jesus died, assuming that the dates have meaningful relationships with historical events.

The "Church" (by which I am assuming you refer to the Roman Catholic Church) certainly has validity as a historically evolving religious and spiritual practice, but the fact that it has evolved and changed in its beliefs over time certainly doesn't point towards some single, literal Truth. What the RCC believes post-Vatican II and what it believed in, say, 1000 A.D. are radically different things. A pope in 1000 A.D. would probably burn most modern Catholics as heretics.
posted by MythMaker at 9:28 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, it's understandable why you want to interpret that metaphorically, but a person who has inward poverty won't hoard wealth while people suffer. Jesus lived very simply. So did his first followers, who had "all things in common" according to Acts. I'm inclined to think they had a good idea about what Jesus meant to be literal or metaphorical.

Hmm. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts is a good test of what people think is meant literally or metaphorically.
posted by shetterly at 10:07 PM on June 4, 2009


John 10:9 - "I am the door" - Is Jesus saying that he is a literal door? Made of wood, with a doorknob and hinges?

Don't hide your light under a bushel basket. Because here in x00 B.C., all of our lights involve fire, and the wicker basket will just burn up. Duh.
posted by msalt at 12:03 AM on June 5, 2009


I recently re-watched Luis Buñuel's "The Milky Way", and have to say that it is a great companion film to this thread.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:10 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


MythMaker: The "Church" (by which I am assuming you refer to the Roman Catholic Church)…

I mean the original church—the Orthodox church, in its true meaning—and not that collection of presumptuous roman bishops which we call the Roman Catholic Church. But know that there are Orthodox Christians everywhere, throughout the Christian communities. Many of them of late have been within the Anglican communion.

…certainly has validity as a historically evolving religious and spiritual practice, but the fact that it has evolved and changed in its beliefs over time certainly doesn't point towards some single, literal Truth. What the RCC believes post-Vatican II and what it believed in, say, 1000 A.D. are radically different things. A pope in 1000 A.D. would probably burn most modern Catholics as heretics.

You're assuming what you'd like to prove. You believe the Church has “evolved and changed in its beliefs over time;” I believe no such thing, and my arguments have all been to the effect that essential church doctrine has stayed the same. Not only that, but, even just in the case of Roman Catholicism, bear in mind that you're claiming that Catholics are themselves misled about their own beliefs; for, as you surely know, Catholics claim that their beliefs haven't changed. (And the church itself has denounced those execrable eleventh-century Popes since the moment their bodies were in the ground, for the record.)

If the scholars that date the Gospel of Thomas to 50 A.D. are correct, it is a closer representation of what Jesus had to say than, say, the Gospel of John, which is usually dated around 100 A.D., which is almost 70 years after Jesus died, assuming that the dates have meaningful relationships with historical events.

This is not at all necessarily true. You're leaving out two of your unspoken assumptions:

(a) That the scholars are correct;
(b) That the Gnostics were accurate.

I think I gave a good argument in one of my earlier comments why this line of reasoning might well be in error. I don't doubt that Gnosticism predates even the spread of the name of Christianity itself; but this doesn't make Gnosticism true or Christianity false, and wise men of insight could easily have percieved the truth of Christianity the moment the Christ appeared.

To read the Bible so literally as to miss the metaphor and parable is, IMHO, to willfully misread the document. Look at something like John 10:9 - "I am the door" - Is Jesus saying that he is a literal door? Made of wood, with a doorknob and hinges? No, he's using metaphor.

Ah, I see—you've misunderstood what I mean by “literally.” The point is not that every word of the New Testament is literally true; it is that the central statement of the New Testament, that God became Man, has to be literally true for Christianity to be at all coherent.

To try to be clear about this: I have read Joseph Campbell's arguments that the idea that God became Man is “just a metaphor,” but they don't make any sense to me, and I don't think it's possible in any way to uncover a deeper meaning that the notion that God became Man could possible be pointing to.

And when interpreting what Christianity means, up until the Council of Nicea, there was no consensus within Christianity as to what they believed at all.

There was a consensus amongst Christians—those who perceived the truth of the matter. St. Clement, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen Adamantius: all of these men stood for true Christianity before Nicean Council and before the time of Constantine, and they are only a few of many.

The Gnostics believe that the hidden doctrine refered to in Luke 8:10, for instance…referred to their inner gnosis - that the God of the Old Testament and the Father that Jesus speaks of were not the same being, and that, in fact, Jesus was there to help free mankind from the shackles of the God of the Old Testament.

This direct repudiation of the Hebrew Law is based on a complete misunderstanding of Judaism and its meaning. But then, the Gnostics were never much for consideration of other religious viewpoints. Aside from all of this, it seems to me very difficult to justify the belief that nature is dualistic, separated distinctly into matter and spirit, as Gnosticism teaches.

Do you know the inner secrets that Jesus told his disciples? No, neither do I…

You answered the question for me. Maybe my answer would be different from yours.

…but the Gnostics claimed to. Maybe their succession has more validity than one created within the Empire that actually killed Jesus.

You might imagine that I have some reverence for the Roman Catholic empire, but I don't; Rome is but another bishopric. And even if I did, your jibe about “the Empire that actually killed Jesus” doesn't make much sense; no one holds that the Roman empire killed the Christ. Some of the Gnostics (a diverse bunch) believe that the Christ was an evil demon, but those that revere him believe that he could not possibly die, since he is part of the Buthos. And the Church—Roman Catholic, Byzantine Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, all—has always taught that I killed the Christ, am killing him inside me every moment of every day of my life, just as within me he is being reborn at every moment, and just as in a certain sense I am the Christ. This is true for every human being.

I quote St. Basil:

[There is a] tacit and mystical tradition maintained down to our own times and…a secret instruction that our fathers observed without discussion and which we follow by dwelling simply in the simplicity of their silence. For they understood how necessary was silence in order to maintain the respect and veneration due to our Holy Mysteries. And in fact it was not proper to make known in writing a doctrine containing things that catechumens are not permitted to contemplate.


And St. Dionysius the Areopagite:

Salvation is possible only for deified souls, and deification is nothing else but the union and resemblance we strive to have with God. The things that are bestowed uniformly and all at once, so to speak, on the blessed Essences dwelling in Heaven, are transmitted to us as it were in fragments and through the multiplicity of the varied symbols of the divine oracles. For it is on these divine oracles that our hierarchy is founded. And by these words we mean not only what our inspired Masters have left us in the Holy Epistles and in their theological works, but also what they transmitted to their disciples by a kind of spiritual and almost heavenly teaching, initiating them from person to person in a bodily way no doubt, since they spoke, but, I venture to say, in an immaterial way also, since they did not write. But since these truths had to be translated into the usages of the Church, the Apostles expressed them under the veil of symbols and not in their sublime nakedness, for not everyone is holy, and, as the Scriptures say, Knowledge is not for all.

posted by koeselitz at 2:46 AM on June 5, 2009


Shorter koeselitz: My Christianity is true; yours is false. I'd prove it, but you aren't spiritually advanced enough to follow the proof.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:07 AM on June 5, 2009


There was a consensus amongst Christians—those who perceived the truth of the matter.

But then, the Gnostics were never much for consideration of other religious viewpoints.


No offense, koeselitz, and you have every right to believe as you do, but your arguments don't seem to have much foundation beyond "I assert this". If that's all you need, well and good for you. But I don't think many here will be impressed.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:35 AM on June 5, 2009


AdamCSnider: No offense, koeselitz, and you have every right to believe as you do, but your arguments don't seem to have much foundation beyond "I assert this". If that's all you need, well and good for you. But I don't think many here will be impressed.

Consider my atheist ass among those impressesd.

saulgoodman: Shorter koeselitz: My Christianity is true; yours is false. I'd prove it, but you aren't spiritually advanced enough to follow the proof.

I understood him, roughly, to be saying that his Christianity is based on following a spiritual tradition that he considers goes back all the way to Jesus. Logic doesn't really have much part in it. Again, I'm an atheist, but I feel that any religion that tries to appeal to logic and reason is doomed to fall short.
posted by Kattullus at 8:49 AM on June 5, 2009


Well, right Kattulus. That's what I mean by a "proof" others aren't spiritually advanced enough to follow (that there's a--whatchamacallit?--metaphor for faith).

Anyone can follow a rigorous logical proof with sufficient patience and effort. Only faith draws conclusions and makes claims about the truth values of linguistic propositions based on truths knowable only to initiates through alleged personal experiences of divine revelation.

Again, I'm an atheist, but I feel that any religion that tries to appeal to logic and reason is doomed to fall short.

As a Buddhist (and Christian, though I don't feel any more obligated to explain how these two belief systems are compatible from my perspective than koeselitz is obligated to explain his mystical certainty in the historical continuity of the orthodox Christian church), I find this claim absurd.

"Doomed to fall short" by whose measure? Buddhism is among the world's oldest extent religions and it's core doctrines are explicitly derived from reproducible logical argument. Just because Buddhism might "fall short," according to somebody like koeselitz's criteria, doesn't mean it falls short in any meaningful, absolute sense.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:30 AM on June 5, 2009


koeselitz, you've reminded me of another part of "Christianity for comic book fans": the retcon. Claiming a changed thing is unchanged is easy. Humans often forget what's changed--for example, a surprising number of English-speaking people of my generation don't remember that "impact" became a verb while we were alive.

If you're not studying something closely, you may not notice how it's changed. If you are studying something closely, your understanding of old words may change so you can impose your new meaning on them.

the Gnostics were never much for consideration of other religious viewpoints.


True. Nor were they unique in this. And, unlike a few religious viewpoints we could mention, they didn't kill, torture, or banish people who disagreed with them.
posted by shetterly at 9:43 AM on June 5, 2009


Yeah, saulgoodman, I used the wrong word, religion, when I meant faith. What I mean is that to me, an atheist, faith is beyond reason, that reason and faith are fundamentally different from each other, that faith can't flow from reason. I'm obviously quite influenced by Kierkegaard in this (but what can I do, I'm Nordic).

There's plenty of sense and logic and reason within religion but I don't consider faith to be within the purview of reason. To me it seems like the only way to really believe in the supernatural aspects of a religion is to abandon reason and give oneself over to its mysteries.

That said, I'm an atheist and it may be that I fundamentally don't understand religion.
posted by Kattullus at 9:52 AM on June 5, 2009


"Doomed to fall short" by whose measure? Buddhism is among the world's oldest extent religions and it's core doctrines are explicitly derived from reproducible logical argument. Just because Buddhism might "fall short," according to somebody like koeselitz's criteria, doesn't mean it falls short in any meaningful, absolute sense.

Yes, I agree. Anyone who wants to see a logical discussion of religion should read The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama which discusses Buddhist philosophy from a strictly logical background and also parallels Buddhist thought with current scientific discoveries.

To me it seems like the only way to really believe in the supernatural aspects of a religion is to abandon reason and give oneself over to its mysteries.

Religious belief doesn't necessarily need to be tied to anything supernatural. Buddhism has the bare minimum of the "supernatural" going on and a lot of Buddhists reject ideas like re-incarnation because they're not logical. Judaism as well encourages its followers to question its "mysteries" if they don't hold up to scrutiny. Mainstream Christianity tends not to do questioning and logic well, but that's not to say that there aren't religions where the "mysteries" are meant to be deconstructed, not swallowed blindly.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:23 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't consider faith to be within the purview of reason.

I don't consider faith, in the sense it's commonly used to justify dogmatic theological positions to be much of anything other than a dishonest deflection tactic, meant to shield specious arguments from being exposed as containing arbitrary, unjustifiable assumptions.

I'd even argue on the contrary that, in the more active and less dogmatic sense of the term ("faith" as the practice of critically examining and reexamining one's own beliefs and attitudes in a continual process of spiritual and ethical evolution that never descends into petty nihilism), faith is by definition nothing if not rational--even ruthlessly so.

I understood him, roughly, to be saying that his Christianity is based on following a spiritual tradition that he considers goes back all the way to Jesus.

FWIW, I believe Jesus was following in a much older, continuous spiritual tradition extending at least as far back as the sophisticated spiritual systems of the Hindu Brahmin, through the Gautama Buddha, the Essenes (which even orthodox Christian scholars have argued were likely influenced by Buddhism), and finally finding its fullest expression in the Jesus of the Gospels.

Its notable that before the Orthodox Church posthumously declared him a heretic in 553 A.D., Christian Theologian Origen of Alexandria even argued (and many Christians accepted) that the scriptures supported belief in a doctrine of reincarnation. (Some fairly convincing arguments can be made for this doctrine based on both canonical and non-canonical texts). So what was the Orthodox Christian doctrine c. 200 A.D., before Origen was martyred and around the time that he was writing one of the earliest philosophical expositions on Christian theology? If Christian Orthodoxy came down to us in the present day perfect and fully intact, what are we to make of the early Church Fathers reversing so many early doctrines?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:29 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, I respect the strength of your learning, understanding, and belief, but can you see how a statement like this:

I mean the original church—the Orthodox church, in its true meaning—and not that collection of presumptuous roman bishops which we call the Roman Catholic Church.

...is a tautology, completely circular?

There was a consensus amongst Christians—those who perceived the truth of the matter.

..as if there is an objective truth that can be found and demonstrated. "But Jesus DID prove his divinity!" the believer may cry, but your citing of "St. Clement, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen Adamantius," is more circular logic, because none of them knew Jesus or heard him teach either--Irenaeus lived in France for goodness sake! And that's the point of all the scholarship and discussion and thoughtful work, to try to piece together as best we can, from the few pieces we have, what was going on with Jesus and what he was really about, because all we really have is a bunch of stuff people who never knew him or heard him say about him. It is the child's game of telephone writ large, and I am baffled at those who are supremely confident that we have much of an idea what really went on, and in fact what was really said be this remarkable teacher who really should have taken some time to write some of this stuff down (or had someone do it for him if he was illiterate).
posted by LooseFilter at 10:35 AM on June 5, 2009


Katullus:

The tricky distinction is religion vs. philosophy vs. mysteries vs. supernatural, whatever that exactly means. Arguably, most or all of the major religions started with an essentially mystic revelation to an individual/teacher. This was told to others (first approximation and loss of accuracy), then written down (second loss), and repeated for hundreds of years (third loss).

It's like the game of Telephone, where the original message keeps getting distorted (and used for other purposes). That doesn't mean that the original message is irrational or false, though it may be unapprehendable through logic.

I follow my own version of Taoism which no doubt is very different than Chuang Tzu's) because it seems both true and relatively free of these distortions, perhaps because it starts ini the first line of the Dao De Jing by acknowledging the impossibility of perfectly grasping the full reality of the Universe. This humble insight is of course perfectly logical and seems like the starting point of understanding to me.
posted by msalt at 10:36 AM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is the child's game of telephone writ large
It's like the game of Telephone

Ha. What I have learned from this thread -

Religion: It's like a game of Telephone.

You start with "Jesus" and you end up with "Purple Monkey Dishwasher."
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:47 AM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


In my standup comedy act, I describe organized religion as a game of Telephone where Jesus said "Love your neighbor", the Pope heard "Don't use rubbers", and by the time it got to Pat Robertson all he heard was "Kill fags!"

And give money to Pat Robertson!
posted by msalt at 11:00 AM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


koeslitz, given your declaration that the Donatists weren't exiled or exterminated, when St. Augustine who was on the front lines of that in North Africa was declaring that they must be compelled by the "fear and pain of the whip" you are displaying some rather strong bias in your perspective on Christian sectarian interaction of that era. So forgive me if I'd require somewhat more extensive evidence before accepting your assurance that, against all appearances, all of Christianity unlike other religions ties up theologically into a neat and consistent package.
posted by XMLicious at 11:02 AM on June 5, 2009


saulgoodman: Shorter koeselitz: My Christianity is true; yours is false. I'd prove it, but you aren't spiritually advanced enough to follow the proof.

Excuse me? Did I rag on anybody's own opinion of their own beliefs?

As far as I can recall, the only people whose “Christianity” I've taken up against is those who feel like Christianity is worth dismissing or forgetting about or relegating to a matter for historiographers. If a person believes Christianity isn't worthwhile, why would I worry that I'm offending them by telling them they're wrong about what it is?

What's funny is that I've never actually met a Gnostic—but I imagine I'd have a lot in common with one, and I'd have interesting conversations.

But if I've at any point here claimed that spiritual advancement is a necessary qualification for talking about stuff with me, then I'm full of shit—I'm not really the best person to be lecturing anybody on spiritual advancement, and if I have, I'm truly sorry.
posted by koeselitz at 12:23 PM on June 5, 2009


AdamCSnider: No offense, koeselitz, and you have every right to believe as you do, but your arguments don't seem to have much foundation beyond "I assert this". If that's all you need, well and good for you. But I don't think many here will be impressed.

You're right—that was phrased horribly, even offensively. But that doesn't mean that there wasn't anyone in the world that agreed with what the church later said about Christianity alive in 50 A.D.
posted by koeselitz at 12:25 PM on June 5, 2009


But that doesn't mean that there wasn't anyone in the world that agreed with what the church later said about Christianity alive in 50 A.D.

True enough, but you can use "anyone in the world" for an argument for just about anything. You can usually find SOMEBODY who believes in whatever kind of religious thought you're trying to assert. If you could point to something that one of these dudes actually wrote down, it would help a lot.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:42 PM on June 5, 2009


koeselitz - are you including Trinitarianism in what someone in 50AD would have believed?
posted by XMLicious at 2:17 PM on June 5, 2009


…and, XMLicious, for the record, I've been very bad at communicating this: I'm no exclusivist. Christianity has no unique claim to the truth; I only say that it has a claim to the truth. I know it's easy to look back at the history of Christianity and bitterly conclude that there's nothing of value there; I'm only trying to say that there is something worthwhile about the Christian tradition.

This is absolutely, positively not to discount other traditions.
posted by koeselitz at 2:35 PM on June 5, 2009


Yes, I think it's possible that there were trinitarians in 50AD. Yes, I'm saying I believe that this is the case though there's no documentary evidence that such people existed.
posted by koeselitz at 2:36 PM on June 5, 2009


Admit it, you're an Essene!
posted by Burhanistan at 2:47 PM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


koeselitz - I don't think I get this, then - you're saying that Christianity converges on a single set of doctrines which have been present since the beginning, things such as the divinity of Christ and the broader Trinity, which have not evolved or changed over time - but that convergence isn't necessarily because of truth?

...or come to think of it you've been talking about "true Christianity", so are you saying that this set of doctrines is a true Christianity but there are or may be others? Or is there one true Christianity and there may also be truth in other religions? I may simply not be understanding something.

But for what it's worth, as I'm an atheist I don't see a need for transcendent truth for a religion to have value. Indeed, although I don't think any religions at all hold transcendent or supernatural truth, I still think that they're some of the most valuable things that humanity has. Like many other traditions and institutions of society there is some seriously high-grade wisdom encoded in religion just waiting to be found and I think more atheists and non-organized-religion people should appreciate that.

I kind of take delight in seeing the variations, both modern-day and ancient variations, is what I was trying to say above. Not only because I find fascination in the details of each sect but because it brings sharper definition to all the other ones. I find these modern Ebionites and the Sacred Name churches especially intriguing because I've always found it odd that Christians hold the Old Testament as scripture but don't engage in many of the Jewish practices enjoined by it. (I'm familiar with the whole "New Covenant" theology, I just never found the reasoning convincing enough that 100% of Christians agreeing with it seemed right.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:14 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll go further than koeslitz and say that the only real Christians were the people who actually knew and followed the historical Jesus. The rest that came later are all imitators of a shadow dance.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:16 PM on June 5, 2009


Burhanistan, as one of the religion nerds, I'll agree and disagree. If you're translating "Christian" literally--as in, a follower of an anointed one--that's arguably a good name for the people who didn't know and follow the historical Jesus. The earliest followers were known as Nazoreans.
posted by shetterly at 6:00 PM on June 5, 2009


koeselitz: you're right; i was being too hasty. the impulse behind my response to you originated with the passages your comment quoted, not with any original assertion you made. those arguments seem so steeped in a certain haughty, elitist attitude toward christianity it's hard not to mock them.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:19 PM on June 5, 2009


koeselitz, my bad also. I thought you were quoting those things in support of their content, not their attitude. I often complain about people reading too fast on the net, but I do it myself. Feh. Silly humans.
posted by shetterly at 7:48 PM on June 5, 2009


But that doesn't mean that there wasn't anyone in the world that agreed with what the church later said about Christianity alive in 50 A.D.

I can get behind that statement, actually. Sorry if I misread you, I thought you were making a different claim.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:26 PM on June 5, 2009


Everybody's friends now I guess, but looking back, it was this comment of koselitz that especially irked me:

There was a consensus amongst Christians—those who perceived the truth of the matter. St. Clement, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen Adamantius: all of these men stood for true Christianity before Nicean Council and before the time of Constantine, and they are only a few of many.

Am I misunderstanding? It sounds a lot like you (Koselitz) think you understand the Pure Truth here, that these guys did too, and that any doctrinal disagreements don't really matter in the face of your-all deeper understanding and agreement. Whereas to me, the history of Christianity seems like 2,000 years of battles over doctrine.

it seems to me very difficult to justify the belief that nature is dualistic, separated distinctly into matter and spirit, as Gnosticism teaches.

I agree but did Paul? He seems to champion spirit=good, flesh=bad. EG 1 Corinthians 11: 49-50, 1 Corinthians 5:5, Romans 8: 1-16, etc.
posted by msalt at 12:48 PM on June 6, 2009


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