Monday, January 8, 2007

Gospels of an uncommon vintage

I've long had an interest in things Biblical--to me, honestly, the Bible reads like a really long, convoluted fantasy novel (which probably explains why I got such a kick out of The Silmarillion) and I've always approached it from that literary perspective. I took some classes on it in college, and learned about the different authors and the mysterious "Q" document. The mythology of Christianity fascinates me as does Mayan or Norse or Chinese, the only difference being that this particular mythology defines and affects my worldview.

With the recent conclusion of the Christmas season with the Epiphany, I felt it apropos to share some recent revelations of a personal nature--nothing life-changing to be sure, but fascinating from my point of view. You see, during the recent holidays, I heard reference more than once to the Nativity taking place in a cave. Now I make no claims of being a Biblical scholar, but I've read the narratives of Matthew and Luke, and while Luke references the famous manger, neither of them mention a cave. But I've seen and heard occasional cave references for years, and it's always struck me as somewhat odd, in an out-of-left-field sort of way.

Another detail that struck me a curious came during mass a couple of weeks ago, during the priest's homily. Mentioning that Joseph and Jesus were carpenters by trade, the priest saw fit to go into detail to emphasize Jesus' humble origins. "Now they weren't carpenters who made fine cabinetry or nice furniture. They made plows and yokes for oxen--they were more like the equivalent of construction workers." Again, that came off as curiously out-of-left-field. That's not in the Bible. Where are these facts coming from?

Enter Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at North Carolina-Chapel Hill. My wife got me a copy of his book Misquoting Jesus a year or so back, and while I found it frustratingly superficial overall, I was also impressed with his concise analysis of Biblical scholarship--enough so that I recently picked up his book Lost Scriptures. The latter book contains a wide array of Gospels and letter and other assorted writings that did not make it into Biblical canon for one reason or another. Quite a few are Gnostic, which explains their omission from modern Christian Bibles, but while others are apparently "orthodox" they don't quite rise to the standards necessary for inclusion in the book. The situation evokes images of a divine anthology with various pope, patriarchs and bishops sifting through a theological slush pile, sending out various rejection letters:
Dear contributor,

Thank you for your recent submission of "The Apocalypse of Peter." Your evocative descriptions of Heaven and Hell are impressive, but this is the third "Apocalypse of Peter" we've received this week, alas. Best of luck with it elsewhere.

Many of these non-canon, orthodox and quasi-orthodox works were well-known in medieval times and treated as if they did have Biblical authority, or at least something approaching authority. Among those was the Gospel of James, supposedly written by Jesus' brother (and that's a theological debate for another time). This one's referred to as "The Proto-Gospel of James" because it doesn't deal much with Jesus at all, but rather concerns itself with the Virgin Mary up through the Nativity. It is quite interesting reading if you've never encountered it before. Mary goes into labor during the journey to Jerusalem, but does so in the wilderness before they actually reach Bethlehem. I have to say I sat up and took notice when I came to James 18:1, which reads:
He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.

So that's where all the cave references came from. Apparently, the Gospel of James was quite popular during the middle ages, and influenced a lot of traditions to come later. It's a pretty cool narrative at that--while Joseph is searching for the midwife, time stops at the moment of Christ's birth. That's a pretty cool special effect, any way you slice it.

But what of the carpenter reference I mentioned earlier? Is there a textual basis for that as well? I'd like to say I went looking for one and found it, but that wouldn't be true. I blundered into it while reading the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called "infancy gospels" that were also popular during the middle ages which dealt with Christ as a child. Here, the key passage comes at Thomas 13:1, when Jesus is eight years old:
Now his father was a carpenter, and at that time he used to make plows and yokes. He received an order from a certain rich man to make a bed. But when the measurement for one of the beautiful crossbeams came out too short, he did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to his father Joseph, "Place the two pieces of wood on the floor and line them up from the middle to one end."

Jesus then proceeds to stretch the shorter of the two beams to the proper length. Speaking as one who is currently enclosing the loft in our house to make a bedroom from my almost one-year-old son, having a kid around to fix my measuring mistakes would be quite convenient. The fact that Jesus in this gospel is pretty much a normal kid with super-powers and prone to killing his playmates when he's angry and only grudgingly resurrecting them... that's not really sweetening the deal. He's also a terror at school as well. I remember some teachers who got quite frustrated with me back in the day, to whom I now say, "You don't know how lucky you had it."

I've only read a handful of the texts collected thus far, but already it's been a fascinating experience. Lots of ideas floating around there. It seems a shame that there's not a Great Big Book of Christian Mythology out there, because golly gee wow, that's one cool reference book I'd love to have on my shelf.

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