It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible

sky-1122414_1920It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible.

Several decades ago, the gnostic gospels seemed to be making a comeback after a couple of thousand years of loss and neglect.  Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979, and for the first time in a long time people outside the schools of theology began to talk about them.  Often favorably, as if the gnostic gospels contained a purer, less institutionalized form of Christianity. 

I bought into this in a vague way (most of what I thought about religion then was pretty vague), but recently I read The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a collection of forty-six texts that are generally referred to as gnostic, though not all are.  One is a selection from Plato’s Republic.  Most seem to date from the second and third centuries CE, but the Gospel of Thomas, the most well known gnostic gospel, may have been written around the same time as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  To make things complicated, the Gospel of Thomas contains both orthodox and gnostic elements.

After some more reading, I decided that on the whole I’m glad the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament, or a new canon. 

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Ecclesiastes is a very dark book

dandelion-463928_1920Ecclesiastes is a very dark book whose message can easily be taken to be that everything is meaningless, so what’s the point of anything, including living?  We read in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbath 30b) that the Rabbis tried to keep the Book of Ecclesiastes out of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  I can see why. 

The popular parts are taken out of context.  As a child of the 1960’s, who is now in his sixties, I remember when “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” by the Byrds was a big hit.  Written by Pete Seeger, the song is a musical recitation of Ecclesiastes 3.1-8.  Sung at too many weddings by young men and women with daisies in their hair, it might just as well have been sung at funerals, but as far as I know it wasn’t.  But I didn’t go to many funerals in those days. 

Grand mimetic incoherence

Ecclesiastes has been called a work of “grand mimetic incoherence.”  The incoherence of the style mimics (mimetic) a fundamentally incoherent reality (Berger, p. 163).  One moment the author, conventionally called the Teacher (Kohelet), tells us that

Meaningless, says the Teacher.  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless. (1.2)

Nice way to begin a book that says that everything is wearisome, whatever has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun, and in the end, a man’s wisdom and acts count for nothing.  Soon he will be dead and forgotten, his achievements momentarily eclipsed by another who will soon go the same way.

A few verses later we find the author, who purports to teach the wisdom of Solomon, arguing that God will bring the righteous and the wicked to proper judgment (3.17).  And back and forth it goes for twelve chapters: all is meaningless, but God has everything in hand, we just don’t know his plan. 

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