Saturday, March 17, 2012

The First Two Chapters of the Myth of Jesus Christ

Chapter One 

Everyone loves a good story. It has been said that the life of every living soul is a narrative in progress. ‘How I met your mother’ becomes ‘how we came to America’ and then ‘how you came to be born.’ Yet in some rare cases, all that is available to us is a great story. There’s just a myth which seems to be detached from any historical reality. Such is the case with the salvation offered by Jesus as preserved in our Bibles.

For almost two thousand years billions of souls ‘lived’ this story through the liturgy of the Church. It is only relatively recently that the gospel narrative has been approached as a mere ‘human event.’ This in no small part has a lot to do with the kind of people who are largely responsible for ‘studying’ the Bible in the last few centuries – white, Protestant men living in northern Europe and former British colonies.

They say that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. In other words, we participate in things we study. There is no such a thing as impersonal research. We shape, create and project our own values and beliefs even when we try our best to refrain from doing so. Human beings are born mythmakers. Instead of ‘uncovering’ the real historical Jesus, recent scholarship can be accused of merely substituting a modern myth better suited for contemporary tastes for an outdated ancient one. In other words, generations of Protestant academics and theologians marshaled the available evidence to support the notion that Jesus was a man at the expense of a more ancient understanding of him as a god.

The two images of Jesus – that of man and God - have of been at the heart of the Catholic Church for millennia. Yet modern sensibilities struggle with the notion of the divinity of Christ. How could God float down from the heavens and walk among us in the likeness of man? An unconscious conspiracy of sorts agrees to push this understanding to the side in favor of clear signs of Jesus’s humanity. He becomes a mere ‘Jewish teacher’ who suffered at the hands of the ‘ancient tendency for poetic exaggeration.’ Our mission apparently is to live according to his teachings, to ‘be nice to one another,’ to ‘turn the other cheek’ and hold hands together in a quasi-socialist utopia ‘inspired’ by the prophetic vision of a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

The problem with this approach is of course is that the first tradition to create a canon of New Testament teachings held that Jesus was wholly divine – that he was God rather than man – indeed a heavenly being in the likeness of flesh. The idea that this God was also a man came later - some would say much later - as a compromise position to avoid encouraging certain ‘heretical’ beliefs which gave the Church a bad name.

It will be our journey to venture back in time and uncover the real Jesus of history. This understanding will of course not be the ‘common sense’ consensus developed among white people in the last few centuries but will go back to the earliest sources and reveal the myth which is still beating heart of the liturgy of the most ancient churches. It is the truth embodied in the song that is sung when Christians receive the Eucharist and sing ‘taste and see that the Lord is chrestos.’ No amount of searching for the historical Jesus will explain the notion of being saved through his flesh and blood. Only a God is capable of such things.

To this end, we must cleanse ourselves of all our inherited assumptions and take a second look at the myth of Jesus Christ. It was through a myth of salvation learned through participation in divine mysteries that Christianity made its appeal to the ancient world. Can man be ‘saved’ another man? No, most certainly not. Indeed no one in the ancient world would have been convinced to join the Christian Church if the message that was being preached was from man. It is only with God that ‘all things are possible’ and to this end if we want to understand what made Christianity so successful in antiquity we have to seek to uncover its central myth.

Yet before we can get there we have to reevaluate what is meant by ‘myth.’ Joseph Campbell popularized the understanding of myths as “facts of the mind in the fiction of matter.” In other words, the essential truth of an experience lays buried within the details of what only seemed to have taken place to the naked eye. In a sense then it is possible that a real historical event occurred in ancient Palestine which became the basis for the gospel narrative. However, even with this said, Jesus – the one who saves - cannot have been a real person. He was originally conceived as a divine hypostasis who becomes one with the believer and saves through belief.

The challenge of the artist is to capture something beautiful and inspiring from the shapeless, ever-changing sands of time. When he succeeds at affording us a vision of the experience behind all experiences, i.e. God, he is no longer identified as a mere artist. He is then called a mystic. The original gospel writer was such a mystic artist who took a famous Palestinian crucifixion story and introduced the myth of the salvation through the God Jesus to that established narrative. In order to truly understand Christianity you have to come to terms with that original myth and the moreover the power of myth generally.

With respect to the original Christian myth about Jesus, knowledge of this is retained still in the dusty tomes of the Church Fathers. These men of course generally opposed the myths of previous generations, yet thankfully preserved invaluable information with regard to what the original interpretation of the gospel was. According to this understanding we learn that Jesus only appeared to be crucified in Jerusalem. It was someone else who actually suffered and as Jesus left him that man exclaimed ‘My God, My God why have you left me!’ So it is that we must delve into the mostly forgotten testimonies of the Christian myth. If we can figure out how the first Christians understood Jesus saved them we can at last know the real Jesus of history.

Storytelling is such an indispensible part of what it is to be human. Myths fulfill a need that science can never hope to provide. They give meaning to existence. They make life worthwhile living at least insofar as each of us has the potential to participate in the divine. Indeed we needn’t think of ‘divine’ here as something abstract and sublime. We are literally born into a world where direction comes from the outside. Our lives are neatly organized schedules until the moment we become emancipated from our parents and then we face our first ontological crisis. What are we supposed to do? From whence do we gain our new set of instructions for living?

This is how it has been from the very beginning. The transition from birth to life and back to darkness is the essential journey of every human being. It was out of love, the deepest and profoundest affection, that myths were woven into the fabric of this experience. If our ancestors lacked the creativity to develop stories of their own, there were cultural myths that served the same purpose.

It is utterly impossible to go through existence without develop a narrative about one’s own experiences. More often than not, people learn to develop a sense of who they are from examples in the media. Almost everyone who cites the words ‘get rich or die trying’ is utterly impoverished. Yet merely by uttering this magical formula a failed life suddenly becomes transformed into a narrative in progress.

Indeed the internet, television and various other media can be argued to serve the function of sheltering us from the pointlessness of our own existence. We exhaust ourselves each day with work and as a ‘cure’ for what little active spirit we have left in us we bombard our consciousness with electronically produced realities. It is only owing to the fact that we live in such a different world than our ancestors that we have often have difficulty making sense of their interest in religion and spirituality. At its most basic – they didn’t own play with Xboxes.

Yet as if we can imagine for a moment taking ourselves out of all that is familiar - stripping away all that is artificial, not merely parallel realities created in electronic media but pharmaceutically induced ones as well. If we then placed ourselves back in the world at the turn of the Common Era would any of us find the ancient obsession myth at all absurd? We wouldn’t likely view religion as a primitive form of ‘entertaining’ oneself. Indeed the ancient spiritual narrative would seem entirely noble. We would likely be moved by the experience of being initiated into these mysteries and come to regard the distractions we narcotize ourselves with as their impoverished descendants.

Our ancestors were always ‘in touch’ with their own inner soul. There was no ‘virtual reality’ – just life to be lived and the potential to experience something better and more divine. These ‘primitive souls’ searched for a common truth that not only connected them with their fellow man but allowed them to participate in the divine. There was of course a great religious variety in antiquity. Yet the religious mysteries became the most important form of spirituality in the Roman world. At its most basic, a chosen group was guided through an initiation established in the name of a god or goddess particular to a region or part of the world. These were highly dramatic events. They took place at night with the proceedings illuminated only by torchlight - the goal being to witness the hidden presence of God with one’s own eyes and senses.

It is difficult to avoid speculating that these participants were knowingly or unknowingly consuming mind altering substances before they saw otherworldly apparitions or heard supernatural voices. Nevertheless what exactly went on during these rituals will likely never be known. To the same end it is very difficult to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the Christian mystery religions. Nevertheless we see a similar pattern emerges here too especially in Alexandria with the ritual consumption of special food and drink, ritual nudity and men and women mixing together.

Many within the Empire were very suspicious about this mixture of elements. These misgivings seemed to have been confirmed when reports surfaced among pagan writers pointing to drug taking, alcoholism and sexual libertinism in early Christianity. The leaders of the contemporary churches in the Empire were quick to blame a number of sectarian groups ‘outside of the fold of the true Church’ for the bad press. For every pagan author who claimed to have uncovered ‘obscenities’ with early Christianity a new ‘heresy’ was created by the Church Fathers to diffuse the situation.

There was an unusual ‘truth’ at the heart of the Jesus religion which caused outsiders to think that Christianity was scandalous religion. Our investigation will focus on uncovering the essence of that strange myth and the practice associated with it. We will do so by pulling back each of the curtains which shielded the original Christian myth of antiquity and in the process demonstrate the hollowness of the claim that Jesus was originally conceived as a real person. Indeed the internet is filled with radical formulations from atheists who seek to ‘debunk’ Christianity by means of a ‘mythical Jesus.’

Indeed there is such interest in the blogosphere in this subject that many of the world’s leading scholars have either published or are in the process of releasing books on this very controversial subject matter. For instance Bart Ehrman, the best-selling New Testament scholar from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has been so bombarded with this very question that he felt compelled to defend the idea of a historical Jesus in his most recent book ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ Yet scholarship has until now failed to divine the essential issue. The real question is not ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ but rather what literary purpose was Jesus serving in the original gospel narrative?

While there are precious few clues which throw any light on the composition of the first gospel, most scholars date that text to the destruction of the Jewish religion by Roman armies at the latter part of the first century. Most experts are also in agreement that of the four surviving canonical gospels, the one ‘according to Mark’ is the most ancient. Matthew and Luke were written essentially as re-workings or even forgeries of his original text.

These two most basic points of agreement are surprisingly useful in establishing the inherent mythical characteristic to the original Christian narrative. Indeed our memories become less reliable the further removed we are from an important historical event. If Mark wrote his definitive narrative at some point after 70 CE, it is easy to see why Matthew, Luke and perhaps others felt justified at ‘correcting’ his account. It wasn’t so much that they had access to better information. It is more likely that they wanted to establish the story of Jesus’s ministry in a different mythical framework.

So it is that we have reached the first and most unusual feature of this central Christian myth. By all accounts, even the reports of the earliest Christian witnesses, was the gospel was not written as the ministry of Jesus was taking place - ‘as it happened’ as it were. The gospel began as a story of reflection. Indeed what makes this reminiscence so unusual is that they were first written by individuals who had never actually met or came into contact with Jesus. What prompted these strangers to lay down a narrative upon which they had no discernable authority or expertise? The answer must go back to our basic human need for myths, a deep need that was ultimately shared by the first evangelist.

We create stories to make sense of the world around us. This predisposition for myth-making or mythopoesis only becomes stronger when cultures find themselves in periods of great turbulence and uncertainty. The fact that most scholars think that around the time the Jewish religion was destroyed is therefore particularly significant. Mark, the first gospel writer was undoubtedly revisiting the story of Jesus to help explain and make sense of the single most catastrophic event in the history of Judaism – the destruction of the Jewish temple. It is for this reason certainly that Jesus is constantly portrayed as ‘knowing’ that the Jews will ultimately be punished for their conspiracy against him.

Yet even this common sense solution to the problem of how and for what purpose the gospel was written presents us with ever new difficulties. For instance, even if we can connect the writing of the gospel to the crisis of the destruction of Jewish religious life, it is difficult to see who Mark was writing for. How could the Jews have derived ‘comfort’ from a narrative which told them they were being punished from the sins of their ancestors?

As difficult as it may be for modern observers to accept, this feature of the gospel was hardly unusual in ancient Jewish literature. The essential Jewish myth is that all of history comes down to the relationship between God and his people. Mark’s gospel was not a condemnation of Jews as a race but only the particular Jewish leadership at the time of Jesus. The message to contemporary Jews and those Gentiles who had converted to some nominal form of Judaism was clear – the wickedness of the previous generation was established by God. The all-powerful God of Israel hardened the hearts of the Pharisees in the same way he had Pharaoh in the story of Exodus. He had provoked the old leadership in order to clear the way for the revelation of something new.

As such the catastrophic loss which accompanied the loss of the Jewish religion in 70 CE was transformed into a secret revelation of blessings for humanity as a whole. Indeed is the essential magic of the ability to create myths or mythopoesis. The most sensitive souls, those who suffer the deepest, can somehow transform their experiences into something which speaks to the broadest possible readership. It often doesn’t even matter if the one creating myths is trampling on essential facts to make his point.

John F Kennedy, one of the most inspiration orators of the twentieth century repeatedly made reference to an untruth in his speeches which has now become a commonly held ‘fact’ for most people. Trying to rally people in the face of the apocalyptic fear of nuclear war he offered solace from the wisdom of the East. “When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” Kennedy made frequent reference to this interpretation of the Chinese word wei-chi (= ‘crisis’) in speeches while president. Moreover the derived notion that ‘crisis’ means ‘opportunity’ in Chinese has made its way into the mouths of almost every president since then including those his rival Richard Nixon. All of this interest comes in spite of the fact that experts have scoffed at the etymology since the time Kennedy gave his original speeches.

The lesson here is that powerful mystical truths often manage to dislodge the facts of history. Mark’s original vision of Jesus as a mythical being who descended from heaven were so powerful and spoke so deeply to the hearts and mind of his generation that they pushed away whatever facts where known about the actual crucifixion. As such it might be useful for us to know something about this master myth-maker if we wanted to come to terms with his text. Yet even here, the great mystic seems to have been one step ahead of us. We don’t know much about the first evangelist beyond his name.

We know that there was a Life of St Mark which was originally published in Greek at some point in early antiquity. There are now many different variants of this original text. In one version which survives in a fifth century manuscript from the Stavronikita monastery in northern Greece we have the following account of his gospel writing efforts – “and encountering the prophetic books, and pondering the reading, and musing on the hidden and obscure meanings of the God-breathed predictions, by divine illumination he harmoniously interpreted with excellence and perfection, making the releases of these lofty divine discourses clear to all. So from this and from his virtuous way of living, the people called this man mystery speaker (mystolektês) and holy herald (hierokêroux).”

It is difficult to know how accurate any of these legends really are. Nevertheless they are a place to begin our journey into the heart of darkness which is the early Church. It is generally unknown that a wholly separate Christian tradition in Egypt is devoted to St Mark. They have preserved many other details from the Life of St Mark. New Testament scholars are typically ignorant of these traditions as they are now preserved only in Arabic texts from the twelfth and thirteenth century. Most have never been translated into English.

When we examine the greater body of traditions related to the original author of the gospel it would seem that Mark carefully cultivated his obscurity. Perhaps he didn’t want to distract us from the magic of his own narrative creation. This secrecy may be an important clue in itself. While the gospel is often described as a ‘biographical work,’ the life story of the ministry of Jesus we have already noted that this is really something of a misnomer. Mark’s original literary composition makes no mention of Jesus’s birth; there is very little reflection on his teachings and no explicit reference to his resurrection. The gospel ends with an empty tomb, an abundance of questions and a palpable sense of fear.

If the other writers hadn’t come along to expand Mark’s original paltry narrative, there would be very little reason to believe Jesus was ever human. The modern believer necessarily clings to this understanding because he feels that his faith would be irreparably challenged by the idea of God being presented walking and talking in mortal form. Nevertheless, as we have already noted the idea of an anthropomorphic visitation on the part of God is utterly essential part of the faith. Only the divinity can offer salvation to humanity. To speak in traditional theological terms - if God doesn’t come in the shape of a man, it would be impossible to be mystically reborn after his divine likeness.

Christianity could ably function without having a mortal Jesus. It did so from the very earliest period and as the influential Welsh Presbyterian minister William David Davies notes “some early Christians thought that this omission in Mark was highly significant. In fact, it could be claimed that Mark, by this omission, helped to prove that Jesus was not really a man at all; He only seemed to be such. Thus, the Gospel of Mark became a weapon for Christians who despised the flesh and refused to ascribe any fleshly reality to Jesus.”

It is only our modern sensibilities – heavily influenced by the Protestant faith - which resist what was certainly the original understanding of the evangelist. It was not a man that was understood to be ministering in Galilee, walking on water, passing through crowds and ultimately vanishing from inside of a sealed tomb. This wholly supernatural Jesus is completely removed from the religion we inherited from our ancestors. Yet truth does not come down to our parents believed or what our forefathers held to be true. It can only come from determining what inspired Mark to lay down his original gospel narrative after the destruction of the Jewish religion.

The gospel can’t be simply taken to the biography of an individual who lived in a certain year of the Emperor Tiberius. It is a reflection on these events filtered through the perspective of someone living in the period following the destruction of traditional Judaism. In other words, something of Mark is in the narrative. Mark was after all writing in the period immediately following the conquest of Jerusalem by Roman armies. So he is not merely telling about the lead up to the crucifixion of a particular individual but more importantly telling a myth directly to people living in the apocalyptic aftermath of Jewish hubris.

From Mark’s perspective the people of Israel deciding to take on the most powerful nation on the earth and losing the right to practice their traditional religion as a consequence of that action. The portrait of the leadership of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus is clearly seen through this lens. In one particularly poignant narrative of the original gospel, worshippers in a synagogue are egged on by their elders to attempt pushing Jesus over a precipice thinking he was an ordinary man. They are mistaken and pass right through his spiritual being and plummet to their deaths instead. Did this actually happen as a real historical event or was the evangelist crafting a story to make a point?

The starting point to the gospel is the Jewish concept of galut or ‘exile.’ The Jewish leadership had been vanquished by the armies of the Roman Empire; the people were still waiting for their comforter to appear. Yet Mark through his gospel recast that defeat as a divine triumph over Pharisees, the very same sectarian community condemned in many of the writings found at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea.

It is important not to lose sight of the underlying ‘Jewishness’ of the gospel’s literary purpose. The idea of a ‘mission to the Gentiles’ is something which happened much later. Mark’s genius was to formulate a mythical narrative which reduced the Empire itself to an inconsequential player in the age old struggle between God and his people. God had descended to earth over forty years before the current disfavor and was rejected and ultimately crucified by the Jews at the instigation of their leadership. This was the new myth which Mark released into an unsuspecting world.

So it is necessary for us to begin to look again at the original Christian understanding that Jesus only appeared in the likeness of man in Galilee, that he only appeared crucified in Jerusalem. The great secret of Mark’s gospel was that it developed from the same expectation for a divine visitation that existed in the Qumran scrolls found near the Dead Sea. This very Jewish expectation has since dropped from the Jewish religion. It is no longer recognized as a specifically Jewish train, in no small part because it was so actively incorporated into the faith of its hated rival Christianity.

Nevertheless it would be a grave mistake to ignore the obvious reality that Mark developed his gospel from this most Jewish of apocalyptic expectations. It is this ancient mythical narrative which not only served as the basis for the Jesus story but the very reason that Mark gave it the name ‘gospel.’ Yet most people haven’t learned to approach matters in this way. Most have learned instead to simply mouth the words that were established in the time of the Emperor Constantine to define ‘right belief’ about Christianity and its mysteries for all future generations:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

This Nicene Creed was supposed to settle the ambiguity and obscurity that Mark seemed to have deliberately injected into his narrative. Yet is any of it really true? Does any of this fourth century doctrinal compromise reflect the authentic vision of the original evangelist? The right place to start it would seem is to determine what Mark was thinking when he wrote his gospel. Was he a visionary or was he simply someone having visions?

Chapter Two

It should be as easy as pie. If you want to understand a book you have to dig up some information about the author. You have to piece together what was going on in his head while he was writing. Of course it’s not so easy with early Christianity. We can’t just ‘Google’ what Mark was up to in 75 CE. So what should we do? It would seem we are in most hopeless situation. Many are left to agree with Paul J. Achtemeier, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia who once quipped - “the best conclusion is to admit the uncertainty of our knowledge about the author of our Gospel.”

Of course most people aren’t nearly as troubled about making far reaching conclusions about Jesus. There are more cockamamie theories about the central character in Mark’s mythopoetic narrative than you can shake a stick at. There have been books and articles written about ‘Jesus the Galilean peasant,’ ‘Jesus the rabbi,’ ‘Jesus the revolutionary,’ ‘Jesus the magician,’ ‘Jesus the pacifist,’ ‘Jesus the Cynic,’ ‘Jesus the Jew,’ ‘Jesus the Gentile,’ ‘Jesus the Buddhist,’ ‘Jesus the hermaphrodite,’ ‘Jesus the sage,’ ‘Jesus the Essene,’ ‘Jesus the Pharisee,’ ‘Jesus the king,’ ‘Jesus the socialist’ and of course Jesus the Christ. How could so many intelligent people come to so many different conclusions about the same historical figure?

In 2011 the America charismatic pastor Wendell Smith organized a major media blitz on major billboards and buses to emphasize the ubiquitous nature of Jesus. The ‘Jesus is _________’ campaign was identified by its website as demonstrating to young people that:

Jesus is a lot of things, but the answer is in the Bible. It says that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to earth on a mission to restore mankind to God. By living a perfect life, dying on a cross, and coming back to life, His mission was a success. We can know God because of Jesus. So maybe the reality of who Jesus is remains too big for the blank.

This popular campaign was attempting to send the message that Jesus can be whatever you want him to be. It certainly was intended to reassure the youth of America that religion doesn’t have to be staid and rigid. It should rather be open to anything. Yet was this a purely modern conception? Could the same ‘openness’ to innovation and change – even to the point of reshaping the basic details of history - have existed in the earliest period of the Church?

Apologists inevitably put forward the idea that the gospels were originally conceived as biographies. This was apparently because Jesus was a real human being and the evangelists were writing books to proclaim his actual teachings. Yet scholars keep finding gospels and acts written from the first few centuries of Christianity with different stories and different teachings. How did all this diversity manage to get generated from the life of a single individual?

There is little agreement on the date of his birth, his death, the start of his ministry, how long it lasted or most any of the details in between or after. The way things become a ‘little bit clearer’ for everyone of course is by allowing the third century Church limit our information. Matthew, Mark and Luke are meant to reinforce the idea that three different people saw the same events and recorded them in slightly different ways. But wait a minute – none of these people were even eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. They simply copied and changed each other’s account in a manner which discounts any value to their agreement.

The reality is that these three ‘synoptic’ texts really only represent three different versions of the same witness – much like making three attempts to Photoshop an original picture. In the case of the gospels most scholars assume that the original account was established by Mark. Yet what about Mark’s testimony is so much more credible than all the other ‘crazy’ accounts about Jesus – the Gospel of Truth, the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Judas Thomas, the Acts of Pilate and the like which were obviously established by someone in a trance state? If everyone else was writing under the influence of visions and apparitions, why should Mark be thought to have bucked the trend?

This idea isn’t as crazy as it might seem at first glance. We have an ancient Christian romance from the late second century which tells the story of a ‘duel’ between St Peter and the heretic Simon Magus. The narrative juxtaposes the reliability of Peter’s eyewitness testimony of Jesus’s ministry with Simon’s deriving his information from supernatural visions. One would expect Simon to be quite embarrassed that he had no firsthand experience hearing the words come from Jesus’s mouth. Yet the reality is quite the opposite. Simon is quite proud to have only encountered Jesus as a figment of his imagination. Indeed he holds that Peter’s claims were an inferior way of getting to know Jesus.

Simon acknowledges that his rival holds “that real sight is more satisfactory than vision” yet he also notes that Peter doesn’t seem to know “that real sight can be human, but that vision confessedly proceeds from divinity.” This is a complete revaluation of what we would naturally think about the ancient environment which produced the gospels. It is our inherited presupposition to suppose that the gospel writers were trying to write accurate histories based upon reliable eyewitness testimonies. Yet this clearly wasn’t necessarily so.

Simon Magus apparently took the unusual position in this fictitious debate that visionary experiences should be the preferred way of getting your information about Jesus because these revelations come directly from God. Here is a small sample of their alleged confrontation on the question of visions:

And Simon said: If you maintain that apparitions do not always reveal the truth, yet for all that, visions and dreams, being God-sent, do not speak falsely in regard to those matters which they wish to tell.

And Peter said: You were right in saying that, being God-sent, they do not speak falsely. But it is uncertain if he who sees has seen a God-sent dream.

And Simon said: If he who has had the vision is just, he has seen a true vision.

And Peter said: You were right. But who is just, if he stands in need of a vision that he may learn what he ought to learn, and do what he ought to do?

And Simon said: Grant me this, that the just man alone can see a true vision, and I shall then reply to that other point. For I have come to the conclusion that an impious man does not see a true dream.

And Peter said: This is false; and I can prove it both apart from Scripture and by Scripture; but I do not undertake to persuade you. For the man who is inclined to fall in love with a bad woman, does not change his mind so as to care for a lawful union with another woman in every respect good; but sometimes they love the worse woman through prepossessions, though they are conscious that there is another who is more excellent. And you are ignorant, in consequence of some such state of mind.

And Simon said: Dismiss this subject, and discuss the matter on which you promised to speak. For it seems to me impossible that impious men should receive dreams from God in any way whatever.

This debate goes on for many more pages, yet the little snippet we have provided is enough to re-examine our assumptions about how the gospels were written. It was indeed possible that our gospels could have been laid down by an evangelist ‘communing’ with Jesus in an ecstatic state. Simon proudly puts forward that his transcendental acquaintance with Jesus was superior to the eyewitness testimony of Peter. As Simon Magus is generally acknowledged to have been an influential heretic this suggests that a gospels developed from visionary experiences would have found a popular audience.

It has long been noted by scholars however that the ‘Simon’ of the Clementine literature isn’t just some anonymous heretic. There is a specific point later in the same text where Peter condemns Simon for things said by Paul against his person. In other words, the name ‘Simon’ appears to be little more than a convenient substitution for the real identity of Peter's opponent - viz. St Paul. Indeed in another version of the same story Peter tells his hearers that the present world is dominated by ten pairs of figures (called syzygies in Greek), one of which was wicked and the other good. This pattern is followed through biblical history, ending up with Simon Magus and Peter (8th pair) and the false and true gospel (9th pair).

What is so astounding bout Peter’s declaration of course is that it makes clear that the gospel was originally established according to a vision and only later ‘corrected’ to conform to a historical narrative. The pertinent section in this account reads:

In like manner, the combination with respect to Elias, which behooved to have come, has been willingly put off to another time, having determined to enjoy it conveniently hereafter.
Wherefore, also, he who was among those born of woman came first; then he who was among the sons of men came second. It were possible, following this order, to perceive to what series Simon belongs, who came before me to the Gentiles, and to which I belong who have come after him, and have come in upon him as light upon darkness, as knowledge upon ignorance, as healing upon disease. And thus, as the true Prophet has told us, a false prophet must first be a false gospel from a certain deceiver; and then, in like manner, after the removal of the holy place, the true Gospel must be secretly sent abroad for the rectification of the heresies that shall be. After this, also, towards the end, Antichrist must first come, and then our Jesus must be revealed to be indeed the Christ; and after this, the eternal light having sprung up, all the things of darkness must disappear

It is simply astounding to our ears to hear that the gospel of Peter with its emphasis on a historical Jesus should only appear after a gospel established according to a visionary experience on the part of someone who never actually met Jesus. Yet this is certainly what the text says. The author could well have arranged for a different historical understanding of how the gospel was established. It was after all his free literary composition. The reason the text emphasizes that the historical Jesus came after the mythical Jesus is because this must have been the contemporary understanding in his age.

There is so much more to this narrative which often gets swept under the carpet by scholars. It is very important that we don’t lose sight of it all. It should be noted that not only was the gospel according to a visionary experience established first, it was connected by the author with the apostle Paul. Moreover the ‘true gospel’ associated with Peter is specifically identified by the author as a ‘secret gospel’ which was revealed to the world after the destruction of the Jewish temple. The obvious question which arises here is whether Peter’s gospel was a correction of the Simon’s text or a completely different composition. The surprising answer however is that Peter’s ‘true gospel’ appears in many places to be only a revision of Simon’s visionary gospel.

There are a few places for instance where Peter disputes the specific wording of a certain saying or expression of Jesus from Simon’s gospel. For instance, Simon says that:

Jesus, the teacher of Peter himself, came and said, No one knew the Father except the Son, as no one knows even the Son except the Father, and those to whom the Son may wish to reveal Him. If, then, it was the Son himself who was present, it was from the time of his appearance that he began to reveal to those to whom he wished, Him who was unknown to all. And thus the Father was unknown to all who lived before him, and could not thus be He who was known to all.
Yet Peter disputes the wording of Simon’s gospel saying that:

And Peter said: I shall reply to that which you wish me to speak of,—namely, the passage, 'No one knows the Father but the Son, nor does any one know the Son but the Father, and they to whom the Son may wish to reveal Him.'

The reality is that we know from later Patristic literature that there was an important dispute between the Catholics whose gospel read ‘no one knows the Father’ and the heretics whose text read ‘no one knew’ – implying that only those who had been instructed by Jesus had come into acquaintance with the hidden Father. Peter’s offers a number of explanations to get around the heretical understanding of both the Jews and the Jewish god being ignorant of the Christian Father god.

It should be noted that this entire section of the narrative is rooted around a simple textual disagreement which is witnessed in the second century Church. The Roman Church Father Irenaeus makes it quite explicit that the Catholic text is a reworking of both the original gospel of Peter and that associated with this enemies:

For the Lord, revealing Himself to His disciples, that He Himself is the Word, who imparts knowledge of the Father, and reproving the Jews, who imagined that they, had God, while they nevertheless rejected His Word, through whom God is made known, declared, "No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son has willed to reveal [Him]." Thus hath Matthew set it down, and Luke in like manner, and Mark the very same; for John omits this passage. They, however, who would be wiser than the apostles, write in the following manner: "No man knew the Father, but the Son; nor the Son, but the Father, and he to whom the Son has willed to reveal Him;" and they explain it as if the true God were known to none prior to our Lord's advent; and that God who was announced by the prophets, they allege not to be the Father of Christ.

This is an absolutely critical passage to begin our understanding of how our received texts of the gospels fit into the ancient milieu.

What must be seen here is that Irenaeus correctly identifies the reading of the gospel of the various traditions outside of the Church as agreeing with the gospel of Simon – “No man knew the Father, but the Son; nor the Son, but the Father, and he to whom the Son has willed to reveal [Him].” This clearly means that neither Jesus nor his Father was known to the Jews until the time of his ministry. Irenaeus then cites the exact wording which he thinks was shared by the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son has willed to reveal [Him]." Yet this reading does not agree with the order of the gospel of Peter in our second century romance. Nor does anything resembling this passage appear in our canonical gospel of Mark.

The connection with Mark is very critical because it is one of many indications that our received text had a great deal of material removed from it. What’s more Mark is traditionally defined as the author or interpreter of Peter’s gospel. It is very curious that there should be a dispute since earliest antiquity involving the very same saying which Irenaeus knows originally appeared in the gospel of Mark. Of course when Irenaeus identifies this saying as being present in the gospel Mark wrote for Peter he cites the ‘correct’ form of the saying – i.e. ‘no one knows the Father …’ Yet what if there was some dispute about the correct reading of the gospel of Mark? In other words, what if the reason this saying no longer appears in our canonical text commonly understood to have been written by Mark for Peter was related to the dispute between Simon and Peter that we have been examining up until now.

We have already noted that it is generally acknowledged by scholars that Simon is a mere disguise for Paul in that tradition. Yet it is often overlooked that Peter isn’t the apostle’s real name at all. The gospels tell us over and over again that his real name was Simon. Simon’s real name full name is preserved in our Greek gospels as Simon Bar-Jonah (Matthew 16:17) or "Simon, son of Jonah" (John 21:15-17). The gospels also tell us that ‘Peter’ is derived from the Aramaic word for ‘rock’ – kepha. Yet it should also be noted that these are not the only possible etymologies of these names and titles.

It has long been noted that baryona actually is more likely to mean ‘bandit’ – a common term used to describe the various Palestian revolutionaries. Indeed the term kepha is an odd choice also given that it almost never used to describe a ‘rock’ of any great size. It usually denotes a small stone that could fit in your head. More intriguing is the possibility that the name Peter comes directly from the Palestinian Aramaic root פתר or 'ptar.’ This term which means "to interpret" is the cognate to the common Hebrew פשר or 'pesher' which was the name given to a type of interpretive text which was found in great number at Qumran. A pesher typically assumes that scripture is written in two levels, the surface for ordinary readers with limited knowledge, the concealed one for specialists with higher knowledge.

In this way a pesher made a great deal of assumptions about the scriptures with the gnostics – a group of Christians who argued that the gospel was meant to be read in two different ways. If ‘Peter’ was a direct translation of the Simon’s original Aramaic title the founder of our Church would have been something of a mystic. We can see this clearly spelled out in the Habakkuk Pesher at Qumran where the author of the text asserts that God has made known to the Teacher of Righteousness, a prominent figure within the history of the Essene community, "all the mysteries of his servants the prophets." By contrast, the prophets themselves only had a partial interpretation revealed to them.

The more we begin to look at it then the strange situation where we have two Simons arguing over the correct reading of a common gospel may well indicate that there was in fact only one actual historical figure. The Catholic tradition may well have created this idea of one Simon being locked in combat with his twin as a mere distraction from the fact that the Christian tradition was founded on heretical revolutionary who was called ‘pitor’ because he received visions of God in his head. Indeed it is very significant that the specific word פתור (pitor) or 'interpreter' was almost exclusively used in the context of interpreting dreams (i.e. פתור חלמיה).

In other words, the more we start to examine the actual historical situation in earliest Christianity the more that we see that our Peter was a deliberately purified version of the Simon the heretic. Just as Simon is described as first establishing a gospel based on visions and dreams, the idea that ‘Peter’ came forward later to ‘correct’ this text according to the truth is a distortion of the fact. The author was merely employing the well-established idea that there were two texts developed from his original dream activity – the original text and a secret gospel.

Of course it has always puzzled scholars why it is that the Catholic tradition affirms that Peter never wrote a gospel. The answer is that clearly that his original writing activity was very controversial. At some point Mark is understood to have come along and established a final version of the text which had only formerly existed in an imperfect form. It is then that the title of ‘interpreter’ was apparently transferred to Mark. Nevertheless Irenaeus provides us with a very significant piece of information when he tells us that the gospel of Mark in his day still preserved some version of the contentious saying – ‘No man knew the Father, but the Son; nor the Son, but the Father, and he to whom the Son has willed to reveal [Him]’ His testimony clearly betrays the fact that material was later removed from even this finished version of Peter’s gospel established by Mark – undoubtedly owing to continuing disputes over the exact wording of the text.

It is only by a strange twist of fate that we happen to have a fragmentary clue as to the continued survival of this longer Markan text. For a certain Clement of Alexandria, a Church Father who lived in Egypt and Jerusalem, happens to make mention of the original reading of this saying in Book Five of his famous book the Stromata. It occurs in Clement’s discussion of the idea that knowledge is a gift of God:

And he, who announces what is his own, is to be believed. "No one," says the Lord, "knew the Father but the Son, and him to whom the Son shall reveal Him." This, then, is to be believed, according to Plato, though it is announced and spoken "without probable and necessary proofs," but in the Old and New Testament.

Scholars have been examining Clement’s writings for centuries without thinking about the full implications of this and many other references to this saying of Jesus. The Catholic Church wanted the saying to start with the words ‘no one knows’ but Simon’s original revelation was that ‘no one knew’ the Father until Jesus brought them into acquaintance with his hidden power. Clement and other members of the Alexandrian Church preserved the heretical reading.

Was Clement really a member of the same ‘Catholic Church’ as Irenaeus – the man who effectively outlawed the ‘no one knew’ reading? Many scholars have expressed doubts about the sincerity of Clement’s faith. Yet how did the Simon Magus’s mythical gospel get into the hands of Clement of Alexandria? We can’t overlook the fact that St Mark the first evangelist continues to be patron saint of Alexandria and all of Egypt. While it is well established in the ancient texts of the Church that Mark somehow wrote his gospel for Simon Peter, we have already begun to see that the real Simon of history was likely a radical heretic. Could it be that the ‘secret gospel’ of the second century Christian romance we were reading actually made its way to Alexandria?

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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