Monday, September 1, 2014

The Beginning of Another Book

Is it possible the gospel isn't what many of us suppose it to be?  Is it really a historical document?  Is it really about a man named Jesus the son of Mary or Joseph?  Certainly that is the easy answer, the answer which comes down to us from a selective reading of the surviving source material.  But is truth ever discovered through superficiality? 

I can't remember the first time I came into contact with the idea that the Christian faith that has been passed down to us, is fraudulent.  It is certainly not something that they taught me in university.  All I remember is the incredible lengths to which academics who study the origins of the Jesus religion avoided using the 'f-word' - at least openly.

Now admitted there are a number of atheists in the formerly sacred halls of the universities who think that God and religion generally is 'full of shit.'  But in my opinion, this isn't any better.  What I long for above all else is to be able to see the nakedness of the gospel without anyone whispering in my ear what I should think about it, what I should believe. 

The closest I have ever gotten is to have private conversations with the heads of religious studies departments in those major universities and hearing those men acknowledge the canonical gospels are forgeries.  If the gospel was a woman, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are altered photos to make her appear some other way than she looked à la naturelle

Of course these are things that are whispered in private conversations.  They are certainly never deemed as suitable for publication in a 'reputable' academic journal.  Yet the facts remain - Christianity and the gospel weren't originally what we presently believe them to be.  In order to become 'Catholic' or universal, most of what grounded that faith in the time it developed had to be jettisoned. 

I pin all my hopes on rediscovering the truth in following the thread associated with a first century preacher named 'Marcion' in the writings of the Church Fathers.  Over time I have come to assume that the truth rests with uncovering what the followers of this man believed.  As we shall see the followers of Marcion assumed he was the head of the apostles, the one who sat in the place of Peter in our present ecclesiastical tradition.  I don't ask you to believe everything that his followers said about him, only to consider what emerges if we give the Marcionites a voice to be heard. 

Most scholars agree that the gospel emerged around the time the Jewish temple was destroyed.  If Marcion's lost gospel was the original, the narrative wasn't about a nice Jewish man who simply wanted everyone to be nice to one another, but rather why the destruction of the temple was a good thing, a thing decreed by God.  Sure most of us don't have a cock in the fight as to whether the Romans were justified in destroying Judaism.  But if Marcion was right, this is what the gospel was really all about. 

Of course the question for the reader here - would any of us still care about Christianity if it turned out that it was really only limited to issues and concerns which faced first century Judaism?  Who among us is honest enough for this sort of truth?  I have always had concerns about the 'universal' characteristic of our inherited Jesus.  You know 'Jesus is _______' billboards which dotted the landscape in recent memory, the campaign effectively saying Jesus can be made into whatever you want him to be. 

Perhaps we shouldn't expect people to have honesty and the integrity does anyone openly encourage their sons or daughters to live in a fog and actively make stuff up about the person he or she is going to spend the rest of their lives with.  If someone is going to spend their life as a bride of Christ, shouldn't you at least start with some reliable background information about your respective mate?

To this end, let's start with the fact that the Marcionite gospel tells us that Jesus was an angel who came down from heaven.  When did he come down?  All evidence suggests that the Marcionites believed that the descent took place in 20 CE and that less than a year later - exactly forty nine years before the destruction of the Jewish temple - he appeared crucified in Jerusalem. 

What day did his descent occur?  There are strong reasons for believing the descent took place during the full moon of the Egyptian month of Tybi or Kislev according to the equivalent Hebrew calendar (mid to late November).  Most early Christians believed that Jesus ascended back to heaven exactly one year later and we have at least one third century Egyptian source which preserves exactly this understanding. 

Where did the Marcionite gospel say Jesus landed?  One late second century Church Father says that it was thought to have occurred in 'Judea' rather 'Galilee' - the geographical location associated with our canonical gospels.  Indeed another fourth century Church Father who lived in what is now southern Turkey says specifically that the place he landed was called 'Bethsaida.' 

For most of us of course 'Bethsaida' has come to be associated with a village in Galilee.  Scholars now believe that it means something like 'fishing house.'  But I think we can be certain from our existing sources that in reality 'Bethsaida' was a familiar way of identifying the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and it literally meant 'demon house' or 'house of demons.' 

Let's start with this indisputable fact.  Almost every early Church Father acknowledges that the first gospel was written in Hebrew.  It has been argued that by 'Hebrew' they mean the related Semitic language of Aramaic which was commonly spoken through the Middle East.  A Hebrew gospel happened to have come into the hands of a Castilian Jewish physician named Shem Tov in the fourteenth century.  Here we find that Beth Saida is spelled 'bit shidah.' 

What is so interesting is that 'shidah' is exactly the way a famous demon was spelled which was supposed captured by King Solomon.  According to a legendary story common to early Jews and Christians the temple of Jerusalem was 'powered' by a demon of this name who was placed in a pool of water.  These sources tell us that a passage in the Book of Proverbs tells us about this magical activity on the part of Solomon. 

The words of the Book of Proverbs are quite fascinating.  It has the king declare:

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired shidah and shidoth, and a harem as well—. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. [Ecclesiastes 2:5 - 10]

The story finds its way into the Talmud and early Jewish sources but also a heretical Christian book very close to Marcionism.  The Testimony of Truth discovered at the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi speaks of the Jewish indebtedness to such demons. 

This text speaks of the 'wickedness' of the Jewish religion which led them to worship idols.  The text continues:

Others have demons dwelling with them, as did David the king. He is the one who laid the foundation of Jerusalem; and his son Solomon, whom he begat in adultery, is the one who built Jerusalem by means of the demons, because he received power. When he had finished building, he imprisoned the demons in the temple. He placed them into seven waterpots. They remained a long time in the waterpots, abandoned there. When the Romans went up to Jerusalem, they discovered the waterpots, and immediately the demons ran out of the waterpots, as those who escape from prison. And the waterpots remained pure thereafter. And since those days, they dwell with men who are in ignorance, and they have remained upon the earth.
Who, then, is David? And who is Solomon? And what is the foundation? And what is the wall which surrounds Jerusalem? And who are the demons? And what are the waterpots? And who are the Romans? But these are mysteries ...

At this point the manuscript becomes unfortunately quite damaged and unreadable. Nevertheless we can be certain that the story was central to the anti-Jewish narrative that runs through the gnostic text as a whole, but also the gospel.

As noted earlier, the original gospel is lost to us, however it is worth noting that the text survives in numerous early copies in the related language of Syriac.  In those texts interesting 'shidah' and 'sheda' and consistently used in the place that daimon or 'demon' is used in the standard Greek text.  When we put all the pieces together, how didn't the Marcionite gospel imply that Jesus came down to 'beth shidah' - that is, the Jewish temple recognized as a house of demons throughout near contemporary literature.  When this is accepted and recognized, it should be plain that Jesus's 'healing' is in fact making a specific point about the flawed nature of the Creation, something which we know the Marcionites and related traditions made mention in their debates with the orthodoxy.


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