Reason for a New Age

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A History of God – Part 4

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/02


Before we can use the works from the Nag Hammadi collection or the other remaining or partially remaining documents from early Christianity, we must be able to determine which seem like they may plausibly contain relevant information about Jesus and his teachings from within a reasonable period of time after his death. And note that reconstructing the teachings of Jesus is not my intent. I will leave that to people who are far more interested in the topic than myself.

There are, in total, somewhere around 100 documents listed in the Nag Hammadi collection and documents from the New Testament apocrypha. While I would be fine to detail, individually, my reason for stating that a document would or wouldn’t be worth including in a study for determining the truth, unfortunately that would be very tedious to read.

Mostly, the criteria is one of dating, which is essentially a process of linking a document to a particular author or group of thinking.

Now, the way I view it, if a person is listed as the source of a work, this can mean 1 of 3 things:

1) It is the truth. Which probably means that we can pinpoint how many layers removed from Jesus the content is.

2) It is a white lie. Take for example that St. Paul might be too busy running the church to write a letter that denounces a heresy. Thus, he gives an aid a one or two sentence outline of what he wants, and the aid then goes off to write a five page letter that claims its provenance to be directly from St. Paul. While this does mean that St. Paul didn’t write it, for the purposes of dating the content we can still judge it to be within a certain time period.

3) It is a complete lie. Now if a person is willing to lie, we can presume that he might attribute his source of data to anyone. That person might be contemporary, or it might be 1000 years in the past and the letter made to look like it is ancient when it really is not. However, I would personally hold that taking that position would be foolish. When a person lies — regardless that he might believe the lie himself — he will choose as his source of information someone who others would think capable of actually supplying that information. It is a work of con-artistry and so you need a veil of plausibility. So, not only will you choose someone contemporary, but you will choose whoever would seem to be the best source of information. It is better to say — if you are a contemporary of Jesus — that Jesus told you this bit of wisdom just before he died, than you are to say that Jesus’ gardener told you a story that Jesus told him. If you are acting maliciously, you may as well choose the best name available. So even though we presume that our author is lying, we can still date the creation of the writing based on the source of information that was listed (assuming that there are not some flags that show it cannot be that date). We should, however, assume that the author will prefer someone dead (though within living memory) or physically removed, so it may be 40-60 years later.

If the work is a lie, even then this doesn’t mean that all or most of the work is a lie, simply that segments were purposely added towards some goal. Again, seeking a veil of plausibility, it is the con-artist’s job to include information that is believable — which is most easily accomplished by taking what knowledge is available publicly, and including it.

If no author is proclaimed, one must do the best that he can based on the content to judge its date and import. If an angel, God, or some other timeless entity is proclaimed, it’s fairly well a given that the person had no direct contact to any worthwhile source of information.

In total, the works that I would suggest as containing potentially worthwhile information are:

Apocryphon of James
Apocryphon of John
Gospel of Thomas
Book of Thomas the Contender
Dialogue of the Savior
The Apocalypse of Peter
Teachings of Silvanus
Letter of Peter to Philip
Gospel of James
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
Gospel of the Hebrews
Gospel of the Nazarenes
Gospel of the Ebionites
Gospel of Peter
Questions of Bartholomew
Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Gospel of Judas
Gospel of Mary
Ophite Diagrams
Epistle of Barnabas
Apocalypse of Peter
Didache

The disadvantage of these works is that it is hard to place the date of their manufacture and the level of knowledge of the person who wrote them, thus making it difficult to attest to their worthiness. The orthodox texts within the New Testament are of decently known and accepted provenance. But like I noted in my previous post, though we know the provenance of the orthodox works, their worthiness may be just as questionable.

If you click through some of those, you will find that there are two topics which regularly emerge. One is the question how Jewish the church should be, but more prevalent is the question of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism

Gnosticism appears, largely, to be the product of the influence of Greek and Roman mystery religions on Judaism, with a healthy touch of Plato’s philosophies thrown in.

A mystery religion is, to some extent, similar to the modern day Scientology, where there are levels of initiation and for each one certain secrets are revealed. In Scientology, those secrets apparently have to do with the revelation of the histories of alien species, while as in Gnosticism you would be initiated into various rituals and esoteric knowledge of how the universe is formulated.

If Jesus’s teachings were Gnostic, this is of great importance in terms of the reliability of the New Testament as a source of knowledge about Jesus and his teachings. With a religion that is specifically built around secrets and levels of initiation, if Paul’s information came from his legal work in debating the early Christians and from learning from Ananias — likely a Christian of the lower levels if he even exists (for no other mention is made of him in any work) — then it’s unlikely that he would know of most of Jesus’s teachings which were secret to the uninitiated. Since he took at least three years before finally visiting the church in Jerusalem, but appears to have already started publicly preaching before that time, it’s also quite likely that he would have been stuck continuing to preach his non-Gnostic version of the religion. Since the Jerusalem church was dependent upon Paul for financial support, they may well have decided to take no issue with his apparent lack of knowledge of the Secrets (Gnosis), in spite of his supposed divine revelation. There’s no evidence for that, of course, but it certainly is more closely in the realm of plausibility than “divine revelation”.

Now, there are two potential arguments to be made that Jesus had nothing to do with Gnosticism, in which case we would be able to ignore all of these Gnostic works that appear in our list of records.

1) Gnosticism may have been a popular general movement at the time and hence it influenced the early church.
2) Gnostic beliefs may have been incorporated into the early church by someone other than Jesus, and it is that individual’s influence which creates the Gnostic branches.

The first issue is simply dealt with. If, for example, you look through the items in the Nag Hammadi collection, you will note that the vast majority of the items are explicitly Christian; the ones which are not are either Sethian or are potentially Sethian (or Gnostic-Christian), i.e. they simply don’t contain any information that could identify their origin. If you look at all known Gnostic sects and who is credited as their founder they either trace themselves back to Jesus (possibly a student of John the Baptist), John the Baptist, Simon Magus (possibly a student of John the Baptist), or Dositheos (possible a student of John the Baptist). The only Gnostic sect which does not claim some relation to John the Baptist, that I have seen, is the Sethians, which is also the only one which has no known originator and which possibly predates Christianity — hence it’s possible that John the Baptist was, for example, the founder of Sethian Gnosticism. Given this direct correspondence to John the Baptist and Jesus, it seems unlikely that there was a general, widespread belief in Gnosticism of which all but the J & J segment somehow disappeared without leaving trace.

As to the second issue, the only person who could possibly be blamed within the early church — that I have found — is Nicholas, one of the Christian deacons in Jerusalem before Jerusalem was destroyed. The problem with that is that it’s not clear that Nicholas was Gnostic, just overly libertine, and that only the Borborites are even rumored to be related to him. All of the Gnostic works of Nag Hammadi claim their knowledge from either Jesus, one of his apostles, or a student of one of those apostles. Outside of the church, clearly the blame would fall on John the Baptist. The New Testament agrees that Jesus inherited many of John’s followers after John’s death, including St. Peter, so it seems plausible that it could be these shared students who caused the introduction of Gnosticism into Christianity. But at the same time, there’s plenty of evidence which leads one to believe that Jesus himself may have been one of John’s adherents. Besides having inherited John’s followers, Jesus was baptized by John; the adoptionist belief espoused in the Gospel of the Hebrews (possibly an earlier text than the Gospel of Matthew) claims divinity entered Jesus upon his baptism by John the Baptist; the Mandaeist school of Gnosticism teaches that Jesus was a student of John; in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist states that Jesus is the one who “comes after me”, the two travel together to Judea to baptize people, and whenever Jesus is in danger of being arrested, he uses John’s influence as a method of protection. If we accept that Jesus was a follower or even just a competitor of John the Baptist, we have no particular reason to think that Jesus wouldn’t have been a Gnostic preacher.

Since it seems unreasonable to expunge these Gnostic documents, if one wants to properly create a version of the truth of Jesus and his teachings, you must include them. They may well contain third hand information — which is quite likely, given the destruction of Jerusalem — but it would at least be information that is more likely to have come from the disciples of Jesus that he had when he was living, however corrupted it may be. And more importantly, these documents definitely are part of a branch of knowledge that was systematically expunged. Even if you hold the Pauline tradition to be perfectly valid, as I pointed out in my previous blog to reconstruct the truth you must include records from all branches of the tree.

Conclusion

Ultimately, one cannot prove definitively that John the Baptist nor Jesus were Gnostics. Between John, Jesus, Simon Magus, and Dositheos, in fact the only one who can fairly decently be believed to even have existed was John the Baptist and what he taught seems to be largely a mystery unless you do presume him to have been a Gnostic. Possibly Paul did know everything that Jesus did, via divine revelation or otherwise, but it would be foolish to think that the odds aren’t at least even between both options. Even if you accept magic and divine revelation as possible, the story told in the New Testament doesn’t explain why Gnosticism would have been born and why it would be so inextricably linked to the Christian religion as to have created at least an equal body of work (seeing as it’s certain that we are still missing most of it, and what we have already constitutes an equally large corpus) within a century of Jesus’ death.

Just like you can feel free to worship Yahweh as a storm deity, there’s nothing to stop you from studying Sethianism and plunging into it as the closest approximation of what Jesus taught. But of course, from the fact that there’s no evidence that Jesus felt Yahweh to be a storm god, why you would feel that he had divine knowledge to begin with is quite the question.

If you accept the idea that Sethianism (of all Gnostic sects) was likely the closest to what Jesus taught, you may also consider the following documents as worth adding to the above list:

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth
Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit
Apocalypse of Adam
Trimorphic Protennoia

These works make no claim and show no appearance of knowing Jesus or anyone who knew him, and so I excluded them. They are, however, Sethian documents of plausibly 1st or early 2nd century derivation. The Ophite Diagrams, which I did include before, also have no listed originator but are accepted as being 1st century documents from a Christian sect.

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A History of God – Part 3

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/01


The game of telephone works such that person 1 whispers something to person 2, that person then whispers what he heard to person 3, and so on. When one does this, you will generally find that what comes out the end has little-to-nothing to do with what was first said.

When a person hears something, he might mishear it, but his brain covers over the lapse with something else that sounds plausible; he might misunderstand what was taught to begin with, and so his explanation comes out different; he might have had some particular thoughts or ideas float in his head while he was listening, and his memory attributes these thoughts to the original speaker. Sometimes he might simply lie. For whatever reason, it’s a given that an account of lessons or of an event that was witnessed will be to at least some extent, original. Only some percentage will be an accurate rendition of the truth.

Below, I have an example where we assume that there is some wise philosopher on the left. He tells two students everything he has to offer. Those students tell someone else — but with their own information overwriting what their teacher said — who then teach their own version yet again, and so on. Each time, the data changes just ever so slightly.

Multiple Attestation - Example

I have also drawn a black bar vertically along the image. Pretend that the personal version of the truth has been recorded for each of the people in our diagram, but all of the records to the left of the black bar were lost. All of the records to the right, while the diagram shows them in relationship to one another — who was whose teacher — we haven’t received that knowledge. We have all of these records, but we don’t know which are closer or further from the truth. The record second down on the far right, for example, is nearly entirely wrong.

To some degree of accuracy, via a sort of puzzle game, one can reconstruct not only what the hierarchy of teacher<->student connections are, but also what the original true recording was. In Biblical study — e.g. in the reconstruction of Jesus’ teachings — this process is called the criterion of multiple attestation. You try to find the commonalities, and through that to discover what was original, and what was interpolated.

But while this is a scientifically rigorous methodology, it must be noted that it can only give answers about the probability of a thing.

The principal issue is the loss of data. Take for example that the top 3 records on the right side were also lost. This means that no surviving record contains the top purple box. The assumption will be that the top brown box is the most likely truth based on the available evidence. And with the grey colors more prevalent in the second, fourth, and sixth positions, it would be likely that we would assume these were the correct version compared to the purple. In total, 4/6ths of our presumed correct version would be wrong.

If the question of which records survive through history is open to random happenstance, so long as there is a wide enough spread of records from all branches, you will quite likely be able to accurately reconstruct the truth. But if there was a dedicated movement to destroy all records which, for example, contained the topmost purple element, then the truth is for ever after perverted. It’s only when you have some amount of information from all of the branches that the truth can actually be reconstructed.

The Question of Heresy

Heresy is, essentially, the spread of ideas that go against the “offical” statement of truth. For instance, if President Obama asserts that he was born in the US and someone else asserts that he was born in Israel, one of these positions is the orthodox belief and the other the heretical. But, at day 1, neither statement is primo facie the truth. One party must win a sufficient majority of adherents to declare itself orthodox, leaving the other party as the heretics. In the case of President Obama’s birth, this can be accomplished by allowing official documentation and records to be studied by an impartial third party to determine the truth. If it’s a question of what a philosopher said and meant, and that man is dead and can’t provide the evidence, then it becomes a battle among his students over who had the greater understanding. Obviously, if they were scientifically minded, they would all make record of their position and use the process of multiple attestation to reassemble the truth. It’s unlikely that the original Christians did this.

The process of becoming the orthodox is simply to gain the greatest number of adherents. That only requires the skill of popularity if there’s no other way of proving anything.

Now, when Jesus died, he left behind a small group of followers. They might number anywhere between a dozen or a hundred or two. Personally, I would guess that it was in the range of 30-50. Taking his place as the leader of this group, upon his death, was either Simon Peter (The Rock) or his brother James the Just. Presumably, this person would have a sufficiently accurate idea of the truth that he could continue to preach it without any major elements of incorrect data getting substituted in. Besides Peter or James, however, Jesus is purported to have appeared to another man near Damascus and revealed the truth directly into his mind. This man was Paul of Tarsus.

Now, according to Paul, everything he knew about Jesus and his Message was provided to him via direct revelation (Gal 1:11-12):

But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.

But on the other hand, Paul also states — within the very same paragraph — that he had acted as the legal prosecution against Christians (Gal 1:13-24):

For you have heard of my way of living in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the assembly of God, and ravaged it. I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I didn’t immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia. Then I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. But of the other apostles I saw no one, except James, the Lord’s brother. Now about the things which I write to you, behold, before God, I’m not lying. Then I came to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. I was still unknown by face to the assemblies of Judea which were in Christ, but they only heard: “He who once persecuted us now preaches the faith that he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God in me.

Not to mention that Paul also claimed to have been staying with a Christian evangelist at the time of his conversion (Acts 9:10-21):

Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He said, “Behold, it’s me, Lord.”

The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

Ananias departed, and entered into the house. Laying his hands on him, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized. He took food and was strengthened. Saul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus. Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God. All who heard him were amazed, and said, “Isn’t this he who in Jerusalem made havoc of those who called on this name? And he had come here intending to bring them bound before the chief priests!”

Even if we presume that divine revelation is possible, Paul still doesn’t come across as a particularly trustworthy source of information. Taking magic off the table, Paul is a very poor source of information. By his own admission, he never met the living Jesus and its impossible to say how much study he actually put into discovering what the real Jesus taught. By professing direct revelation, he had no large impetus to do so, which means that he may very well have taken but a few scraps of knowledge from Ananias — and other less-knowledgeable sources of Jesus’ teachings than James the Just, Simon Peter, or other high level apostles — and simply run with it.

As it turned out, however, Paul’s version of Christianity became the orthodox.

A large reason for this, and for which we can’t blame Paul, around the year 70 AD, Jerusalem was largely demolished by the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War. The church in Jerusalem was largely destroyed.

More importantly though, it seems likely that Paul was simply a much better vessel for preaching a message. His church, based in Antioch, was able to support the church in Jerusalem through a famine (possibly, this was also the first occasion that he ever journeyed to Jerusalem to meet the church there). Paul is also noted as bringing further financial aid the last time he comes to Jerusalem before being arrested and taken to Rome. Both of these attest to his ability to gather a flock and gain decent coinage from them. We also know that he was a professional lawyer and orator. Point in fact, a pre-revelation Paul of Tarsus was supposedly the leading proponent of having Saint Stephen driven out of town and stoned to death (Acts 6-8), and that this act was so destructive that it caused the people of Jerusalem to flee out of the city in fear and (in result) spread the word of Christianity farther.

If nothing else, the fact of Paul’s being the largest author of the New Testament is fairly good evidence of his ability to take control and lead a church — even while on trial in Rome. His influence is so great that, in fact, it is nearly just as likely that the character of Jesus and his church were the products of Paul’s imagination. There is no source of information that can be shown to be independent of Paul’s influence.

So, Paul’s vision of Christianity became the orthodox. That’s not necessarily bad, but it means two things. Firstly, if the Jerusalem church had any records, these may well have been destroyed with the sacking of the city. If they didn’t they may have been too scattered and disorganized afterward to actually compile them. And thirdly, even if they did get out of Jerusalem and make records of Jesus’ teaching, if those views were held to be heretical according to the Pauline orthodox, those records may very well have been suppressed and destroyed.

In point of fact, the church’s position for a thousand or more years, was to kill heretics and burn all of their documentation. Later heresies, from the middle ages or whenever, are of course only interesting to a historian interested in heretics, but the very earliest heresies from the first and second centuries may well have contained a significantly different and more complete view of the real Jesus and his teachings. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, in fact, the only source of information about early heresies was from the writings of early, orthodox writers elaborating on why some of the heretical viewpoints in existence, at the time, were incorrect.

Specifically, these are:

Justin Martyr – (103 – 165) Writing from 150, but relevant works almost entirely lost
Hegessippus – (110 – 180) Works almost entirely lost
Tatian – (120 – 180) Writing from 160 (but mostly off-topic)
Irenaeus – (? – 202) Writing from 180
Origen – (185 – 254) Writing from 240

We also have the Bible (the dating of which varies by section) and the writings of Josephus (37 – 100, writing around 94 but largely off-topic). So, as you can see, our earliest (and hence best) sources of information seem to have also had their information disappeared.

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