SURVIVING GOSPELS

I recently argued that, contrary to our usual assumptions, many of the old Gnostic gospels remained accessible long after the Roman Empire accepted orthodox Christianity. However much church authorities might have wanted to eliminate them, they circulated quite widely.

One puzzling piece of evidence comes from Nicephorus, the ninth century Patriarch of Constantinople. Appended to one of his works is a Stichometry, a list of scriptures unapproved by the church. The fact that each is listed together with its length suggested that the author had access to a complete physical manuscript, presumably in a Constantinople library. If so, that is important, because it shows that the author could still lay hands on a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of the Hebrews, as well as many other writings now included among the Apostolic Fathers.

The problem is just when this section dates from. Some scholars believe that it was written earlier than Nicephorus’s time, perhaps in the seventh century, but whatever the actual date, the document shows that these “lost” gospels were still available long after they supposedly vanished from circulation. Perhaps they survived on library shelves right up to the sack of Constantinople in 1204, or even later.

Another odd story involves the so-called Revelation (Apocalypse) of Peter. A number of works circulated under this title, but the most notorious was the so-called Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter  that was discovered among the Nag Hammadi library. Its author believed that the Christ who appeared in Galilee was immaterial, to the point of depicting him laughing during the crucifixion: “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.” This bizarre depiction supplied the title for John Dart’s 1976 book about the Gnostic gospels, The Laughing Savior.

Clearly, according to the standards of the Catholic/Orthodox churches, that Peter taught monstrous heresy, and book had to be suppressed – hence the burial at Nag Hammadi, sometime in the late fourth century. And so it was completely lost until it was rediscovered in 1945….

Well, not exactly.

Fast forward now from the fourth century to the year 1045, when the Orthodox writer Euthymius of the Periblepton was denouncing the Dualist heresy of the Bogomils. This movement originated in Bulgaria and spread through the Byzantine world. Bogomils taught that the material world was evil, the creation of the Devil, while Christ was the son of the true God. Like the ancient Gnostics, they mocked the idea of a literal material crucifixion, and rejected all material signs of faith – relics, crucifixes, icons, and all aspects of priestly power.

According to Euthymius, Bogomils had a special initiation rite in which they read over candidates the words of the Revelation of Peter. Given the close harmony between their own views and the Gnostic text of that name, it is very likely that this is the work they are referring to – some seven hundred years after the last known copy of the work supposedly vanished into the Egyptian desert. Euthymius claimed that the text exercised an astonishing influence: “If the heretics get in first, reading this to a man, the devil makes his house in him and brings him to complete destruction. From then onwards, no arguments about knowledge of God enter his soul.” It was a “Satanic spell.” (Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton, eds., Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, 157).

How on earth – where on earth – had it survived over all that time? For what it’s worth, Euthymius implies that the Bogomils received the work from Armenia, which is actually quite plausible. You may remember what I said in an earlier post about the religious importance of frontier territories, which remain beyond the control of major empires and their ecclesiastical hierarchies. But what does that survival tell us about the underground channels through which ideas and texts were transmitted over long historical epochs, despite all the efforts of the mainstream churches?

And when, if ever, did the text really vanish from use?


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