Background/The Divine Council
Background/The Divine Council
The Gospel of Philip from the Nag Hammadi corpus contains some important passages about a kind of celestial marriage in the “bridal chamber.” It is not uncommon for Latter-day Saints to appeal to this text as evidence for a kind of parallel to Mormon notions of eternal marriage found in ancient Christianity. I hope to show that such a reading of this text is mistaken, and that appeals to the Gospel of Philip to butress Mormon apologetic aims are an example of the problem that much apologetic work faces, that of decontextualizing ancient material to produce systematic misreadings. Rather than an approval of a particular kind of ritual marriage that unites a mortal husband and wife together for eternity, the bridal chamber is best understood as BYU Prof. Gaye Strathern’s dissertation, “The Valentinian Bridal Chamber,” argues, “within the context of an ascetic lifestyle where the body and its passions were renounced in favor of a higher spiritual lifestyle” (i).
The “Vision of Gabriel,” (aka Hazon Gabriel) a newly discovered Hebrew text written in ink on stone out of the antiquities market, made a big splash in the media over the last few weeks, and received some amount of coverage in the bloggernacle as well. Paleojudaica has been keeping track of all the coverage. First discussed in 2007 among a small group of scholars, the text has recently hit the media in a big way. The announcement of this text seems to have caught many off-guard, so I have been waiting to see what kind of analysis could be given after the initial dust had cleared. The first translation was published in Cathedra in Hebrew, and created some small buzz among people who really care. An English translation has been posted by Israel Knohl. [Read more...]
One of the most interesting things about the small plates of Nephi is the first person narrative which recounts his own life. The text begins famously “I Nephi,” and gives a personal account of Nephi’s family history, personal reflections, and all this is done in the first person. This is extremely rare in ancient and classical literature. What are we to make of this?
In the first post I briefly introduced the idea that there exists a textual tradition of Enoch which lies outside of the Bible, a tradition that 1st century Christians had and accepted to one degree or another as true. I posed the question as to how these two traditions might relate and whether there existed the possibility that in this tradition we might be able to detect a restoration of lost ancient text by Joseph Smith in his JST account of Enoch in the Book of Moses. In this post we’ll look at some of that extra-biblical literature, when we think it was written and whom by. Be warned, this post is a bit dense.
One of the most unique characters revealed to us in the latter days through new revealed scripture is Enoch the Prophet. His vision of the heavens and earth is rivaled only by John’s, Nephi’s, Ezekiel’s, and the like. His power in teaching is described in unequaled terms, his overwhelming charisma brings about the most successful Zion community known to us in the history of the world, and he is witness to events not given to any other prophet that we know of (he sees God actually weep). Yet, he largely flies under the radar, undetected and under-appreciated. This is especially true in terms of what ancient literature has to say about him and how that image matches up with the one Joseph Smith gave us.
I know that it seems weird to identify “trends” on a document that has been out less than a year, so this post may seem a bit premature. At the same time, the fact is that two major schools have already developed regarding the Gospel of Judas. The first, following the initial release of the text, argued that Judas was the chosen disciple over all the others. The obvious shock-value of this revelation has propelled the popularity and interest in the text. The second, newer interpretation offered by Painchaud, DeConick, Emmel and Turner aims to out-shock the first in a set of new claims about what the “Gospel of Judas REALLY says.”
This new interpretation argues that Judas does not “surpass” the other apostles in greatness, but in wickedness! Basing itself on a different translation of this key Coptic phrase, these scholars argue that the initial readings of Gospel of Judas played too much into the hype. Judas is not a saint in this text, but the worst sinner of all of the disciples.
The problem is that this second reading makes no sense at all. For the record, the Coptic phrase in question can technically be translated both ways. However, if we follow the second interpretation, then the text becomes an extended vision of special cosmological knowledge given to Judas, only to find out that he understands even less than the other wicked apostles. In this reading, there are no heroes. No one is saved. One reads the text only to find out that no one can be trusted. No one. This reading strikes me as absurd for two reasons. First, this is afterall the Gospel of Judas, the title given to the text by the text. There is not a single parallel example of a “gospel” being attributed to the person who turns out to be the worst sinner in its story. For post-canonical Gospels, the disciple to whom the text is attributed is often the hero of the text. Second, it makes no sense that there are no heroes at all in the text. Why would anyone read this text? It has no solution for anyone to be saved since the rest of the disciples besides Judas are unambiguously ignorant.
This debate will continue to be played out, and will hopefully be dealt with in the upcoming Elaine Pagels and Karen King commentary (though how much time that had to respond to this new trend before their publication deadlines remains to be seen since it was really in October in Paris and November at the SBL that people started advocating this position). The easy path will be taken by those who choose to see Judas subversively for their own theological goals, and those who prefer to see Judas as the most wicked disciple for their own theological goals. No doubt the debate will continue to give scholars something to argue about, but to this reader, the second argument doesn’t have much interpretive weight.
The Gospel of Thomas preserves a version of Jesus’s familiar saying about searching and finding, but with a twist: “Jesus said, ‘Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be disturbed. When one is disturbed, one will marvel, and will reign over all.” (Logion 3). The emphasis here is that the divine mysteries, the secrets of the Kingdom, are unexpected, troubling, even disturbing. As Latter-day Saints, is the divine fundamentally disturbing?
The injunction to search and find is foundational to Mormonism. The prophet Joseph’s reading of James 1:5 is essentially a version of this common theme. Joseph’s great visions were certainly “disturbing” both to him and to the world. This is often set into contrast with the radical teachings and practices of the early LDS church. Mormons today seem to see the divine as essentially benign, benevolent, and which confirms our basic values. The radical is something which is unthinkable, but in both early Christianity and early Mormonism, the radical was precisely what defined God.
Is there still room for being disturbed? Where the spiritual tradition of being distrubed remains a powerful force is actually in the study of LDS history or the study of Christian history in general. LDS seekers often find what is distrubing, though it is not God, but the church which disturbs. Can we revive this practice of being disturbed as a central aspect of spiritual practice? Can the process of doubt and disturbance not be seen as antitheses to faithful existence, but its very foundation?