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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The loving Jesus is often angry. Why?

B0001074,peg[Revised, 7/8/16]

I teach ancient Greek political philosophy for a living.  Plato and Aristotle are the main characters.  Along the way I point out that the classical Greek virtues, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice, are only half the story of Western civilization.  The other half comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition: justice is necessary, but the Western tradition is also about love.  The Western tradition needs both Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (love) to be complete.  This is Christ’s great contribution. 

According to Harold Bloom in Jesus and Yahweh, “Yahweh’s love is Covenant-keeping, no more and no less.” (p. 164)  This does not seem a fair account of The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh).  It is not much of a stretch to read The Song of Solomon as an account of a love affair between God and His people.  What Jesus adds is the idea that God would allow himself to become man, suffer, and die in order to share in humanity’s suffering.

Yet, something about Christ’s love is frightening.  If Jesus is God, then it makes no sense to think of His love as comparable to human love.  I’ve never thought it made any sense to talk about taking Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  There is something terrifyingly stark and other about Jesus.  And there should be.  He is man, and not man.  Many Christians prefer the Gospel of Luke because in it Christ seems most “humane.”  But if one thinks about Christ seriously, that is a category mistake.  Christ is not humane because He is not human. One does not have to be a Docetist (representing the view that Jesus only appeared to be human) to believe that. 

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What if Job was right and God is wrong?

 

manhandstoheadThe Book of Job is one of the most puzzling books of the Hebrew Bible.   If we take Yahweh’s speeches from the whirlwind seriously, then there is no humanly comprehensible reason for the suffering of innocents and the righteous.  The good suffer, the bad flourish, and we must accept this without question.  Does this mean that Job was right and God is wrong?

One way out of this puzzle, generally called the problem of theodicy (if God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, then why do the innocent suffer?), is to read the Book of Job from the perspective of the New Testament.  This is what G. K. Chesterton does, seeing the suffering of the most innocent and righteous of men as a preface to Christ.   

Though God rewards Job at the Book’s conclusion with seven new sons and three new daughters even more beautiful than before, as well as doubling his flocks and oxen, most scholars agree that the section, 42:10-17 was an addition by later redactors to encourage the faithful.  The Book really ends with Job despising himself for his arrogance in questioning God (42.6).  Or at least that is one translation. 

The patience of Job?

To read the Book of Job from the perspective of the New Testament is to miss what is so challenging about it.  Job’s harsh criticism of God is not answered by God, at least not in any way the pious reader might expect.  Says Job

The good and the guilty He destroys alike.  If some scourge brings sudden death, He mocks the guiltless for their melting hearts; some land falls under a tyrant’s sway—He veils its judges’ faces, if not He, then who?  (9:22-24)

Job goes on like this chapter after chapter.  Whoever wrote about the patience of Job was crazy.  Job wants to take God to court and find him guilty (9:32-10:5). 

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