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Speaking in Tongues

Recently the History International Channel presented a three-part series on who wrote the New Testament, what was left in and what was left out. As seems typical of these productions, they are long on moodbuilding and short on the kind of information for which you actually tuned in. Not to mention the plague on this field: that professionals cannot seem to divorce their religious prejudices and regard the field as dispassionately as science demands. Nevertheless, it got me thinking.

The biggest hole at the center of all this is, unsurprisingly, its namesake. Almost all the writings that made it in all came from the Greek wing of the Paulist movement and reflect Greek thinking. Paul, of course, never met Jesus and was proud of his noninvolvement with the Palestine/Egypt wing of the Jesus movement headed by James, considered by most to be the the brother of Jesus. While some epistles were attributed to Peter, these works lack any hallmarks of having been written by (a) someone familiar with the environs or (b) someone who had, at least once, been illiterate. Of the Pauline letters, the earliest writings included in the official New Testament, about half are now considered to not have been written by Paul. The gospels were written largely after Paul's demise by Paul's followers. And the later the gospel, the more fanciful and less factual the stories become. Of the manuscripts extant, the oldest, known as the Sinai Bible, consists of copies of copies, with some signs of tampering. Yet even the earliest of the source material for these surviving copies is estimated to have been written no sooner than 40 years after Jesus' last reported public appearance.

Nevertheless, very little material from James' line of the movement is represented in the compilation considered authoritative. Yet the Book of Revelation, written as many scholars concede by a crank unrelated to the four claimed authors of the accepted gospels was included. And it is this rant, which we would now recognize as the unskilled ravings of the socially disgruntled were it posted to a telephone pole, which has become the most influential, particularly in America.

So what became of the Middle Eastern wing of the movement? While many in James' immediate circle appear not to have written anything down, this may have had to do with their end times beliefs as much as illiteracy. And certainly the church did much to purge the world of anything extant that the Pauline lineage considered heretical. By far the most famous of early Christian "heresies" endemic in the region was gnosticism. We would know little of the gnostics were it not for their critics, however. That is until modern archaeology and the amazing find at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the late 1940s.

The historian in me thrills at the very concept of documents buried and untouched for almost two millennia. Nag Hammadi was a stone's throw from one of the most vitriolic antignostic crusaders and the parchments appear to have been stashed in a hurry, in the hopes of later retrieval. But the historian's good fortune is also indicative of the gnostics' ill fate. They died but their work survived.

Of the various manuscripts contained in the find, the most outstanding is the gospel of Thomas. It is among the earliest biblical writing, a book of sayings unadorned except by the briefest of descriptions. Most of the sayings are reflected in the canonical gospels, though with a more gnostic flavor here (with a few bonuses for the thoughtful reader). There is none of the flamboyant backstory or embellishments of the vetted gospels. Yet a living, breathing man can be sensed behind the plainer words. Who Thomas was is subject to much debate, particularly for the possible religious implications. But his writings represent a yardstick against which the Sinai text, and the distance between these two contemporaneous sects, can be measured.

Ultimately the Pauline sect emerges victorious and the Jacobean/gnostic line is extinguished. But where in all this mess is Jesus? I feel I am looking through a long, dark lens into the past to an unknowable figure: lost, misunderstood, discarded or embroidered in many ways by his more cultured Greek biographers. The glossy pearl of modern christianity bearing little resemblance to the irritation that started it all.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 2nd, 2005 08:01 am (UTC)
You just kept me up past my bedtime to read all that, and I sat down exhausted and planning to skim a few friends' entries at most. Bravo.
Feb. 3rd, 2005 04:10 am (UTC)
Thank you for your kind words. I hope we'll be able to make out to the temple on the 19th.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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