Unless you are a specialist in early twentieth century American literature, you may never have never heard of the once-celebrated Presbyterian divine and Princeton academic Henry Van Dyke. A friend of Woodrow Wilson, he was famous and influential in his time, especially within his denomination, and he was a popular poet. His Christmas short story The Other Wise Man has often been reprinted. For my present purposes, though, I want to use Van Dyke to illustrate the knowledge that people a century or so back had of alternative Biblical texts and gospels. As early as 1900, Van Dyke was publishing poems using what he could not then have known to be the Gospel of Thomas, and quoting from that text. This was more than a generation before the finding of the complete version of that gospel in the 1940s.
Fragments of Thomas had been found in Egypt in the 1890s, and they caused a cultural sensation when they were published and translated. In 1900, Van Dyke published his The Toiling of Felix: A Legend On A New Saying Of Jesus, which is almost a hymn to the alternative gospels. (The poem is actually dated 1898). It begins with this explanatory note:
In the rubbish heaps of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, near the River Nile, a party of English explorers, in the winter of 1897, discovered a fragment of a papyrus book, written in the second or third century, and hitherto unknown. This single leaf contained parts of seven short sentences of Christ, each introduced by the words, “Jesus says.” It is to the fifth of these Sayings of Jesus that the following poem refers.
I will quote the first section of a lengthy poem:
Hear a word that Jesus spake
Nineteen hundred years ago,
Where the crimson lilies blow
Round the blue Tiberian lake:
There the bread of life He brake,
Through the fields of harvest walking
With His lowly comrades, talking
Of the secret thoughts that feed
Weary souls in time of need.
Art thou hungry? Come and take;
Hear the word that Jesus spake!
‘Tis the sacrament of labour, bread and wine divinely blest;
Friendship’s food and sweet refreshment, strength and courage, joy and rest.
But this word the Master said
Long ago and far away,
Silent and forgotten lay
Buried with the silent dead,
Where the sands of Egypt spread
Sea-like, tawny billows heapingOver ancient cities sleeping,
While the River Nile between
Rolls its summer flood of green
Rolls its autumn flood of red:
There the word the Master said,
Written on a frail papyrus, wrinkled, scorched by fire, and torn,
Hidden by God’s hand was waiting for its resurrection morn.
Now at last the buried word
By the delving spade is found,
Sleeping in the quiet ground.
Now the call of life is heard:
Rise again, and like a bird,
Fly abroad on wings of gladness
Through the darkness and the sadness,
Of the toiling age, and sing
Sweeter than the voice of Spring,
Till the hearts of men are stirred
By the music of the word,—
Gospel for the heavy-laden, answer to the labourer’s cry:
“Raise the stone, and thou shall find me; cleave the wood and there am I.”
The final verse quotes the Gospel of Thomas 77. The rest of the poem describes the quest of the Egyptian seeker Felix, who is initially disappointed to find that Jesus taught such seemingly trivial words. He eventually finds their true significance though, and realizes the mystical glories he has been ignoring:
“They who tread the path of labour follow where my feet have trod;
They who work without complaining do the holy will of God.
“Where the many toil together, there am I among my own;
Where the tired workman sleepeth, there am I with him alone.
“I, the peace that passeth knowledge, dwell amid the daily strife;
I, the bread of heaven, am broken in the sacrament of life.
“Every task, however simple, sets the soul that does it free;
Every deed of love and mercy, done to man, is done to me.
“Thou hast learned the open secret; thou hast come to me for rest;
With thy burden, in thy labour, thou art Felix, doubly blest.
“Nevermore thou needest seek me; I am with thee everywhere;
Raise the stone, and thou shall find me; cleave the wood, and I am there.”
Van Dyke’s popularity helped disseminate knowledge of the Oxyrhynchus fragment – of the Gospel of Thomas – which already before the First World War was very widely known in the US among quite ordinary readers.
Just how well known? I have even found the fragment quoted in full in a book called The Story of Jesus: A Manual for Religious Instruction in the Intermediate Grades, by Florence Buck (1917). It is introduced, plausibly enough, as “a bit of Bible long lost.”