The Unforgivable Sin

I recently acquired a volume of Northrop Frye’s collected works (vol. 5 of the “Late Notebooks”: Architecture of the Spiritual World). Random, I know.

One of the entries addresses Mark 3:29 (“whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”). Here is what Frye has to say:

[441] I regret very much that the gospel reports Christ as saying that the sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable … The sin against the Holy Spirit is original sin itself. Perhaps it can’t be “forgiven,” but it must be annihilated, or the whole Christian structure, which depends on a love that forgives everything, is a lot of balls. That’s what I think now, anyway. An unpardonable sin means a stinker God, and I will never accept such a creature in the Christian set-up.

More to follow, I’m sure.

Walter Kasper on Demythologization

Bultmannians and anti-Bultmannians alike, take note!

“Whatever detailed criticism may have to be made of these attempts to demythologize faith in Christ, we must always remember that demythologization is not unjustifiable in its critical or in its positive aspects. There is a time and a place for demythologization. It is undeniable that in generally current ideas of Christianity, Jesus Christ is often thought of more or less as a god descending to earth whose humanity is basically only a kind of clothing behind which God himself speaks and acts. Extreme notions of that kind see God dressed as a Father Christmas, or slipping into human nature like someone putting on dungarees in order to repair the world after a breakdown. The biblical and church doctrine that Jesus was a true and complete man with a human intellect and human freedom, does not seem to prevail in the average Christian head. Therefore demythologization is not only permissible but necessary; precisely in order to disclose the authentic meaning of belief in Christ”

From Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ (New York: Paulist, 1976), 46.

Ulrich Luz on Jesus’ Burial Shroud

Ulrich Luz’ commentary on Matthew (Hermeneia) is wonderful for many reasons. Not least of these is his ability to be tastefully cavalier. Today I stumbled upon this gem, in which he comments on Jesus’ burial shroud (σινδών), with passing reference at the end to the famed Shroud of Turin:

Why is it that wrapping the corpse of Jesus is so important for the tradition? Although this question is easily answered for the Johannine portrayal, since the cloths lying in the tomb on Easter morning amaze Peter (John 20:5–7), for the Synoptic texts it is difficult to arrive at an answer. Is it to negate Jesus’ nakedness, which was regarded as shameful? I do not know.

The most famous “influence” of our passage (and of John 19:40, which speaks of “binding”) is the Shroud of Turin about which there is today an extensive scholarly literature; indeed, there is a separate scholarly discipline called “sindonology.” As an exegete I can only say, with great relief, that based on the New Testament I have nothing to contribute to this discipline. Here the experts in ancient textiles, chemists, psychologists of religion, and students of the history of piety may have their say.

Well said, Prof. Luz!

What Child is This?

Nativityb

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Nestled at the center of this hymn are several lines that are routinely excised from hymnals (check yours next time you’re in church): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you.” The image of an executed person, it would seem, is simply too much for us to bear at Christmas. We prefer the cleaner image of the sleeping baby.

The inclusion of the cross at the nativity is not unique to this hymn. Neither is it novel. One could argue, as Michael Goulder does, that Luke’s image of Mary wrapping her baby in strips of cloth prefigures her preparation of his body for burial. We might also note Simeon’s words to Mary as she presents the infant Jesus in the temple: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). From the moment of his birth, this Messiah is destined to suffer.

Today, as the Church celebrates God’s entrance into human history, let us remember that God did not arrive as a warlord, but as an infant, peaceful and innocent. As we contemplate the profundity of this image, let us also bear in mind that God did not take on human flesh out of boredom or curiosity; God took on human flesh in order to redeem it. Moreover, let us not forget that God does not redeem humanity by violence, but by becoming a victim.

In a world that continues to fall prey to the allure of violence, be it in the form of assault rifles, concealed handguns, racism, or apathy, let us remember that today God enters into our midst in order to offer and make possible a more excellent way: peace.

Super Spuds

I’ve always been slightly amused by funny looking words, especially funny looking foreign words.

This past week I was rifling through a tome that I’m fairly certain most have not heard of…Walter Bauer’s Das Leben Jesu im Zeitalter der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen…titillating, right?

Anyway, the fifth chapter of the second part of the book (confusing, I know) is entitled “Jesus als Wundertäter.” I will leave it up to you to Google Translate that, but in the meantime I leave you with a few images that are more or less what popped into my head when I first read that Jesus was a “Wundertäter.”

First, a group of “Wundertäters”:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second, one of my favorite “Wundertäters”:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, the ultimate “Wundertäter”

Unreading Narrative

Lately I have been asked by more than a few people to explain, in plain terms, what precisely my dissertation is about. The exercise is a good one, yet difficult.

The object of my study is the Protevangelium of James, an “infancy gospel” that was likely composed in the second half of the second century (150-200). It tells the story of Mary’s birth, her betrothal to Joseph and the birth of Christ, among other things. The text was banned in the West, presumably because certain aspects of it were deemed heretical (or something along those lines).

My approach to the text is one that examines its relationship to the New Testament. Many in the past have noted the ways in which the Protevangelium uses material from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke to tell its story. My interest in the text is in the ways that it changes one’s reading of the New Testament. This is where I end up having to explain myself.

At the heart of my project is the notion that it is difficult to “unread” something once you have read it. In the age of Gmail, “unreading” is simple enough. You read something, and then you click “unread.” This is not exactly what I have in mind, however. I’m certain that at some point in your life you have had someone perform the following “experiment” on you: you are told that, for the next minute, you may think of anything that you like, as long as you don’t think about an elephant. When faced with this exercise, most will have difficulty thinking of anything but an elephant. Even when you think of “not an elephant,” you are thinking of an elephant. Perhaps this is a strange example, but it is fitting nonetheless.

I first read the Protevangelium in the Spring of 2010. Like many, I was fascinated by the story. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of its simplicity, something about it stuck with me. Shortly after I had read the text, Ellen and I decided to start reading the Bible together a couple of times a week (cute, right?). We started with Luke, and we took turns reading the gospel aloud, one paragraph at a time. To her amusement dismay, I started saying things like, “Well you know, in this text I just read, this actually means that.” Or, “Hey, in this text I just read, there is a character named X and they do Y.” I remember thinking to myself how silly this was, as Luke was much older than the Protevangelium. What use could this newer text be to interpreting the older? The answer, of course, is complicated, and my dissertation is an attempt to answer it.

This example serves to illustrate the idea that it is difficult to unread that which you have read. Narratives have a way of sticking with us and altering the way that we perceive reality (and texts, for that matter). Even those narratives that we try to “unread” crop up from time to time when they are triggered by various elements we encounter. So, one who reads the canonical gospels after having read and internalized the Protevangelium will see certain things that the evangelists themselves  may not intended or foreseen. The goal of my dissertation is to articulate what such reading might look like.

Cheers.

Stigmata and Christian Apocryphal Literature

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.

Urban Dictionary Defines Christianity

I love Urban Dictionary for so many reasons. How could you not love an online dictionary that allows anyone with a computer to determine the meaning of language?

I sometimes find myself looking up random words for a good laugh. Today, I looked up “Christianity.” Here is what I found:

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

If you think about it, the definition is certainly snarky, but not completely off.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff

My interest in Christian Apocrypha has lately encouraged me to start reading more recent lives of Jesus. My most recent conquest has been Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Without revealing too much, here is a brief review.

This book came out shortly before I entered seminary in 2003, and I now regret not having read it sooner. In the beginning of the book, Biff, Jesus’ childhood friend and later disciple, is resurrected by an angel in order to write a new gospel. The majority of the plot centers around Jesus (called Joshua) and Biff as they wander about in the first-century. Jesus is aware from a young age that he is in fact the messiah, but he is not sure exactly what being a messiah entails. At the advice of his mother, Jesus and Biff head out on the road when they’re 12 or so to find the three men (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar) who came to visit Jesus at his birth. They make it all the way to China, and they spend several years learning various skills and arts from each magus. They return to Galilee when they’re about 30, and then Jesus begins his ministry.

Biff is really quite the character. Along with the rest of the disciples, he doesn’t really seem to “get” what sort of messiah Jesus is claiming to be. He provides much comic relief at various points in the book, and I suppose it is worth mentioning that those who offend easily may take issue with his occasional crude sexual comments and pursuits. He is in love with Jesus’ mother (as are others in the book), and at one point he claims to have invented the pencil. He spends a good part of the first half of the book tantalizing the angel that is watching over him. Consequently, the angel is also quite the character…he is stupid, watches soap operas, and refers to the Soap Opera Digest as “the prophecies.”

It is clear from this book that Moore has done his homework. He effectively weaves together material from the canonical gospels, fairly recent scholarship, other first century texts as well as his own imagination. There are certainly aspects of the plot that don’t fit with the first-century milieu, but Moore acknowledges as much in the Epilogue. Also, Moore does take up the whole “Jesus travelled to the East and learned everything he knew from Buddhists and Hindus” theme and runs with it. Some are persuaded by this thesis…I have always found it somewhat fishy…nevertheless, it provides for an excellent story in this case!

In my opinion, this book represents a nice balance between humor and reverence…often, it seems, authors feel as if they are forced to choose one over the other, especially when their topic is as sensitive as this. In Lamb, however, Moore is able to present a quite moving passion narrative, while at the same time allowing for his Jesus to say of his disciples, “Those are the dumbest sons of bitches on earth.”