The Sunday lesson

Is the First Amendment to our Constitution, the urge to secure speech and other expression against forcible suppression, a natural impulse? Or is it something that absolutely had to be put forth clearly in writing because the natural impulse was so obviously different? I’m afraid it’s the latter.

As we’ve seen from the recent demonstrations and rioting in so many parts of the world against cartoons lampooning Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, (in which people lost their lives) the natural impulse may be quite the other way around: free speech for me but not for thee. Actually, I think the natural impulse is to bring the full force of the law to bear against things you don’t agree with.

The natural consequence of a society in which all speech is protected is that there’s an enormous amount of poppycock out there. People are freely expressing views which are questionable and even demonstrably untrue and they’re quite free to do so.

There’s been an odd evolution in thought over the years. We’ve gone from the natural determination to suppress whatever’s not true—the reasonable corollary to which is that if it’s not suppressed then it must be true, to the free expression of ideas no matter how cockeyed while nonetheless retaining critical faculties, to the decidedly odd belief that so many people seem to have these days that if it is suppressed then it must be true. I have no idea how we’ve arrived here but the evidence that’s where we have arrived is all around us.

Which brings us to Bible stories. News stories about the Bible, that is. There have been several such stories in the news lately. The first is some character with stories about ice in the Sea of Galilee in the story about Jesus walking on the water from Matthew 14:22-33. Fortunately, being a Catholic, attempts to debunk the literal truth of Bible stories don’t impress me, challenge me, or even entertain me very much. In fact, I find the idea of ice in the Sea of Galilee (or a lake in Judea in the first century A. D.) quite as miraculous as walking on the water. I’m sure that there are people who are quite outraged by the very idea and, honestly, I feel sorry for them.

The other story is the re-discovery of the non-canonical Gospel of Judas after nearly 1,800 years. Don Sensing has a good primer on canonical and non-canonical works of the New Testament over at Winds of Change. He characterizes the standards that early Church fathers used for inclusion in the canon as

  • apostolic origin
  • true doctrine
  • widespread geographical usage

Now I don’t believe that the Church fathers in 325 A. D. had any better notion of which early Christian writings were actually written by the Twelve or Paul of Tarsus than we do (possibly somewhat less so). I don’t know of any demonstration of authoricity of the gospels other than, possibly, John. And textual analysis of the Synoptics and Luke IIRC have demonstrated that they were compiled from writings of diverse hands.

It might be helpful if, rather than characterizing non-canonical early Christian writings as “heretical” (which as I’ve suggested above grants them a certain cachet), we consdered them as “not authentically Christian” or, better yet, “nuts”.

We have heresies of our own around these days. For example, an awful lot of people seem to view the message of Christianity as a mandate to create social services agencies. Jesus certainly did encourage us to give to the poor but was the focus on the poor or on the formation and condition of heart of the giver of such charity?

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:27-37. The parable concludes:

35 “On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’

36 “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”

37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

Is the message of the story to pay innkeepers to take care of unfortunates? I think, rather, it’s to show loving kindness to everyone you encounter and to commit yourself personally to that end.

The Gospel of Judas was known to Irenaeus, was the work of the Cainite sect of Gnosticism, and even the other Gnostics considered them nuts. Why the work should gain in status 1,700 years after the sect’s last believer died I have no idea.

I find it odd that so many people who’ve never read the canonical New Testament are so excited by works of fiction like The Da Vinci Code and oddball stuff like the Gospel of Judas. I won’t begrudge anyone his or her path to salvation and perhaps some good can come of it. Just as the Harry Potter books may encourage children (and even adults) to read farther afield perhaps The Da Vinci Code and the Gospel of Judas may encourage reading the authentically Christian canonical works of the New Testament. They may find a lot to surprise them.

UPDATE: Mark Roberts has an excellent, excellent commentary on the kerfuffle and the Gospel of Judas itself with numerous relevant links including this one to the entire text of the work.

I also want to add one comment on Gnosticism. I’ve read quite some little number of Gnostic texts (in English, unfortunately, the Coptic—Egyptian language in Greek letters—of many of the originals is beyond me). It’s not hard to see why the Church fathers didn’t think much of Gnosticism. It’s a sort of synthesis of the classical mysteries with Christianity. It tends to divide Christians into two classes: the elect who are given the entire truth and the rest of us. I think the authentic teaching of Christianity is that “For we being many are one bread, one body for we are all partakers of that one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17)

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