I spent the majority of yesterday composing a written statement for a fellowship application. Part of this process involved reflecting on the past 10 years of my life – where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’ve studied, and how all of those things have contributed to my present research interests. Self-reflection can be fun, and it forces you to remember things that you’ve long since forgotten.
As I was trying to come up with an answer regarding why I chose to study Christian apocryphal literature, I decided it might be helpful to think about the first time I even heard about Christian apocryphal literature. The answer, which I did not include in my written statement (because it’s stupid), made me chuckle.
During my senior year of high school, I watched a movie called Stigmata. It had just been released. The movie tells the story of a young woman who becomes possessed by the spirit of a dead stigmatic priest. The young woman receives the stigmata, speaks in foreign tongues, and leads an investigator from the Vatican on a wild goose chase to find a lost gospel that the Church was attempting to suppress. The “lost gospel” in Stigmata is none other than the Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. At one point in the movie, a priest describes it as “an Aramaic scroll from the 1st century, discovered near the cave of the dead sea scrolls outside Jerusalem. Alameida [the dead stigmatic priest] and I concluded that it is a gospel of Jesus Christ. In his own words: Aramaic.” At the end of the movie, the following text pops up: “In 1945 a scroll was discovered in Nag Hammadi, which is described as ‘the secret sayings of the living Jesus.’ This scroll, the Gospel of St. Thomas, has been claimed by scholars around the world to be the closest record we have of the words of the historical Jesus.”
In retrospect, it’s not a good movie, but my young mind was absolutely enthralled at the time. I remember talking with a friend of mine afterward about how something needs to be done about the Church’s attempts to suppress truth like this…we were both really concerned.
I chuckled to myself as I recalled this experience, as it truly is the first time I became aware that there were “gospels” outside of the New Testament. Like many uninformed viewers of the movie, I assumed in my ignorance that what Stigmata claimed about the Gospel of Thomas was true, and I continued to assume that it was true until I heard otherwise (and I seem to recall embarrassing myself in an undergraduate NT course). Of course, there is little truth in what Stigmata claims about Thomas: it is a codex, not a scroll; it is written in Coptic, not Aramaic; it is from the second century, not the first; it was not found near the Dead Sea (Nag Hammadi is over 200 miles removed); some scholars (you know who you are) consider it to be “the closest record we have of the words of the historical Jesus,” but they are a minority. What’s more, the Dead Sea Scrolls were not isolated to one cave, but were spread out among among eleven!
I suppose this memory is useful, if only to remind us about how much garbage there is floating around about the “lost gospels.”
Anyway, hope you enjoyed my rant for the day.