Friday, December 18, 2009


The abundance of the Bible is such that no matter how well I think I know a passage, it is always possible for me to be surprised by an insight someone else has gleaned from it. That was the case earlier this week when I was thumbing through some materials, looking for an approach to January’s lesson on the Creation.

What I found had nothing to do with the topic I was considering, but instead was an interpretation of a well-known saying of Jesus. And it floored me.

The passage is Matthew 6:39-40, one of the six Antitheses that Jesus shares just after the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. We all know it well: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also.”

I have always viewed that passage, as I think most people do, as the ultimate call to nonviolence, as an injunction against the temptation to fight back and lower oneself to the level of one’s attackers. However admirable the sentiment, the problem with it as a piece of practical advice is that it seems to set us up for pain and suffering.

Well, here’s how Norman L. Bouchard, writing in the November 2009 issue of Science of Mind magazine, reinterpreted the passage:

“While I gave my presentation on Matthew’s Gospel, I asked the audience to place
a hand on their cheeks and turn them toward the right. When you do this, you no
longer have the same point of view. You not only see a different direction, but
you realize that you are asked to move in a new direction. The text did not say
go back and get the other one slapped, but, rather, head in a new direction.
This put us on a path of forgiveness and freedom.”

This simple, logical and yet stunning reading of this famous saying turns it into advice that we all can use, even those of us who otherwise would not be able to resist the urge to fight back. Don’t set yourself up for more pain, just turn in a new direction and get on with your life.

I love it. And that, in the form of a brief example, is the beauty of the Bible.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thinking About Joseph The Carpenter

Thinking about the Nativity has, I believe quite logically, gotten me to thinking about parenthood. And as a father, and in particular the father of an adopted child, my attention has turned to Joseph, the earthly and legal father – some would say foster father or stepfather -- of Jesus.

Who was this man? Compared to Mary, about whom, thanks to Luke and centuries of veneration in the Catholic church, we have a wealth of information, Joseph is a cipher. There are few data points about him; in a book as abundant as the Bible, it seems surprising that so little is said about such an important figure. We know more about Barack Obama’s father than we do about Jesus’.

If one looks to the canonical gospels for guidance, one sees a Joseph who is, quite literally, the strong, silent type.

In the canon, Joseph has no voice. Even in Matthew, where he is the conduit for the Annunciation, he receives messages and acts on them, but does not speak. He is present at the birth and circumcision of Jesus, and at his presentation to the priests in the Temple, but remains silent, although Matthew says that he named Jesus. In Luke, we learn that he was alive at least up until Jesus’ 12th year, but although he returns to Jerusalem to search for the missing child, it is only Mary who speaks to her son when they catch up with him. We can surmise that he was a man devoted to both God and family, but little else. Maybe that’s enough, but it leaves me curious.

In Matthew 13:55, the Nazareth townspeople refer to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son,” without using Joseph’s name. The comparable passage in Mark (3:15) refers to Jesus himself as “the carpenter” ; Mark, whose gospel does not include a birth narrative, nowhere mentions Joseph. Only Luke, who recounts the same story of Jesus’ sermon in the Nazareth synagogue in 4:22, has the townsfolk calling Jesus “Joseph’s son”. John does not name either Joseph or Mary, although the mother of Jesus is central to two important episodes unique to his gospel: The wedding in Cana and the handing over of the mother’s care to “the beloved disciple” at the cross.

Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus also had a brother named Joseph - or Joses or Yosef, depending on the translation you are reading - presumably named after his earthly father, although nowhere do we learn anything more about this sibling (or kinsman, if one subscribes to the view that these named brothers and unnamed sisters were actually cousins).

Because his occupation is given as carpenter, Joseph has become the patron saint of workers, in those churches that recognize patron saints. Due presumably to the flight to Egypt, he also has been recognized as patron saint of immigrants. And of course there are all sorts of St. Joseph institutions – and even a brand of aspirin – named for him.

In extra-Biblical texts such as the Infancy Gospel of James, Joseph gains a voice and some personality. In this story, from which we also get the nativity of Mary, Joseph is selected by the Temple priests to be Mary’s husband. Mary, according to James, has been raised in the Temple, to which her parents dedicated her at the age of three. When she reaches 12, marriageable age in those days, the priests begin to worry about the chances of keeping her pure and determine to find her a husband. The local widowers are asked each to bring a rod to the Temple, and whoever’s rod shows a sign will be chosen for Mary. Joseph’s rod sprouts a dove that settles on his head (my goodness, what Freud could do with that). Mary is given to him as a “ward.”

Joseph protests at first that if he takes in this young girl, he will become a laughingstock, but ultimately he takes her in then leaves her at home with his sons from his prior marriage while he goes off to build houses. When he returns, he finds Mary pregnant.

What follows is a very human account of Joseph’s anguish at this finding, an anguish that turns to acceptance of both the situation and of his charge to protect both the mother and her miraculous child. Joseph’s internal conflict is described in his words:

“With what sort of countenance shall I look to the Lord God? What shall I pray
concerning this maiden? For I received her a virgin from the Temple of the Lord
God, and I did not guard her. Who is he who has deceived me? Who did this evil
thing in my house and defiled her? Is not the story of Adam summed up in me? For
just as Adam was in the hour of his giving glory to God and the serpent came and
found Eve alone and deceived her, thus it has also come about for me … If I
should hide her sin, I will be found disputing the law of the Lord; if I show
her to the children of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her is angelic
and I shall be found delivering innocent blood to the judgment of death. What
therefore shall I do with her? Shall I put her away secretly from me?”

At this point, Joseph receives the angelic annunciation of his mission, a flash of insight that leads him to his decision to serve as protector, husband and father.

The story proceeds in a way we would all find recognizable. The Temple hierarchy finds out about Mary’s pregnancy, a great scandal ensues that has both Joseph and Mary branded as wanton, and the priests demand that Mary be returned to the Temple. What may not seem as familiar to us today is that Joseph and Mary are, separately, given some sort of drink and told to consume it out in the desert. Each miraculously returns healthy and intact, and that is seen as the necessary sign that they are telling the truth. The priests celebrate and all is well – at least until the next paragraph, when we begin the Lucan story of the census and the trip to Bethlehem.

Joseph also figures prominently in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where he is portrayed as a good father, taking his young son aside after he strikes a playmate dead to counsel him about his naughty behavior, to which the sassy young Jesus responds: “I know that these are not your words, but on account of you I will be silent. However, they shall bear their punishment.” Then he strikes the outraged villagers blind. Now that pisses Joseph right off; he tugs Jesus hard by the ear and again the mouthy child talks back again: “It is fitting for you to seek and not to find. You have acted very stupidly. Do you not know that I am yours? Do not vex me.” A local teacher, presumably one of those blinded, overhears this and, astonished to hear a child talking to his father this way, asks Joseph if he can instruct the boy. Jesus immediately exasperates the teacher with a display of wisdom beyond his years, to the point where he hands him back to Joseph and urges Joseph to “take him away” for safekeeping. The child Jesus is pleased as punch that he has outwitted the teacher, and after boasting about his powers, restores the villagers to good health. Oy.

Later in the story, a somewhat more mature Jesus saves his father from financial loss. Joseph is making a bed for a rich man and accidentally cuts on of the beams too short. Young Jesus stretches the beam out to proper length, prompting Joseph to marvel that, “I am blessed because God has given this child to me.” A typical proud father, I would say.

In these non-canonical accounts, Joseph comes across as a good dad and a good husband, loving and faithful to both God and family, but also as very human. As silly as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is, I like the way it depicts Joseph (especially that moment where he momentarily loses patience and pulls Jesus by the ear – I suspect every parent can relate to that).
As an adoptive father, I resent it whenever someone suggests that my daughter is not my own, or that my love for her might be different than the love a father has for a biological child. I know that the moment I laid eyes on her, in the hospital with her birth mother, every protective and loving instinct I had rushed to the forefront. She was and remains my child as fully as if my wife had given birth to her.

I suspect Joseph felt the same love toward Jesus. It’s part of the natural order, I think, that whether a child is born to us or given over to us, we give ourselves over to nurturing. The survival of our species depends on it. And love is love. It doesn’t know degrees or distinctions, it just is.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holy Terrors

The other day I described the child Jesus portrayed in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as a “holy terror.” That got me to thinking, as I often do, of another work ascribed to the apostle Thomas, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, and how that work – which is very, very different from the Infancy Gospel – might itself be described as a holy terror. A terror, at least, to those charged with preserving and promoting Orthodoxy within the Christian community.

I think the Gospel of Thomas is a work of extraordinary power and beauty. In a format much simpler than that of the four canonical gospels, 114 teachings of Jesus are presented. There is no plot, so to speak. A few of the teachings are in response to questions from Jesus’ disciples, but mostly it is just the words of Jesus. Many of these teachings are familiar to readers of the canon, but some are startlingly different. These sometimes enigmatic, sometimes penetratingly clear statements give us a Jesus who urges self-examination and depicts the kingdom of heaven as a state of integrity, inner peace. Consider the following, which is probably my favorite passage in Thomas:
“When you make the two into one,
And when you make the inner like the outer
And the outer like the inner
And the upper like the lower,
And when
you make male and female into a single being,
So that male will not be male
nor female be female,
When you make eyes in place of an eye,
A hand in
place of a hand,
A foot in place of a foot,
An image in place of an
Then you will enter the kingdom.”

Or this, from the opening passages:

“Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be
When you are troubled,
You will marvel and rule over all.

If your leaders tell you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’
Then the
birds of heaven will precede you.
If they tell you, ‘It is in the sea,’
Then fish will precede you.

But the kingdom is in you and outside
When you know yourselves, you will be known
And will understand
that you are children of the living father,
But if you do not know
You dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”

When I first taught about Thomas to my Bible study class last spring, the class latched on immediately to words like these, and wanted to know more. The teachings seemed so similar to those of Religious Science, which similarly urges its followers to look within ourselves for an understanding of God (we consider the universe to be the physical manifestation of God, and so God exists within each of us and each of us is a unique expression of God). I wound up devoting a class to the Gnostic Gospels, focusing on the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Truth and Mary Magdalene. Later in the year I focused a separate session on the Gospel of Judas.

I talked about these works in the midst of a series of lessons on the canonical gospels, and used them to provide context on differing views of Jesus in the early Christian communities. Much of what I know about the Gnostics comes from my reading of the Princeton scholar and author Elaine Pagels, whose work I was introduced to through the pages of The New York Review of Books back in the late 1970s. In books like The Gnostic Gospels, The Origins of Satan, Beyond Belief and Reading Judas (co-authored with Harvard scholar Karen King), Pagels has given us a portrait of the ancient world in which a multiplicity of interpretations of the life and works of Jesus competed, sometimes to the point of bloodshed. The Gnostics, with their focus on inner light and the individual search as opposed to church community and hierarchy, were branded heretical and their works suppressed. The Gospel of Thomas disappeared for more than 1500 years, until its accidental unearthing along with more than 50 other Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi.

In Pagels’ view, Gnosticism would likely not have led to a global Christian movement because of its focus on the individual quest for wisdom. Gnostics such as the unknown author of the Gospel of Judas argued passionately against the emerging Orthodoxy, particularly on issues such as the urging of martyrdom on the populace as well as the suppression of the individual search in favor of the following of authority in the form of church leaders.

I think Pagels is right. The establishment of a formal church organization is undoubtedly one of the reasons Christianity survived and spread. But the recovery and rediscovery of Gnostic writings has given us a treasury of alternative views about Jesus and an understanding of the debate that went on before the Orthodox view prevailed. One second-century Gnostic leader, Valentinus, the likely author of the Gospel of Truth, very nearly became pope, a development which likely would have led to a very different history for the church and the world.

One of the things that fascinates me about Thomas is that many scholars believe it to be the earliest Christian writing, completed before the canonical gospels and possibly even before the letters of Paul. If that is true (and there is another scholarly thread that believes it was written much later), then these words of Jesus may be the earliest recorded, maybe even the most accurate, having been written down less than a generation after the crucifixion.

In its structure as a “sayings gospel,” Thomas resembles the hypothetical Q document, which scholars believe was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke in their expansions and elaborations on the Gospel of Mark. It wouldn’t be Q, since it doesn’t contain all of the shared passages of Matthew and Luke that do not appear in Mark, but it may have the form. It’s logical that such a work would have been written early, as a gathering together of memories and individual sayings passed around the earliest Christian communities.

Pagels, in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, makes a convincing argument that Thomas would have to have been written before John, because John’s portrayal of the apostle Thomas as a dim-witted doubter of Jesus (he didn’t even believe in the resurrection until he put his finger into the wound in the resurrected Savior’s side) seems to be a withering criticism directed against communities of Thomas Christians that were probably emerging.

Earlier this year, a publishing event occurred that I think is a landmark: Willis Barnstone published a new translation of the New Testament (The Restored New Testament) that includes the Gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas (I have used Barnstone’s translation in my quotations from Thomas). Thomas has become the most widely read of the Gnostic documents, probably because it is so accessible. Many Gnostic documents, including Mary and Thomas, are dense with cosmology and thus difficult to read. They posit alternate views of the creation, including a view that the creator God is not the true God of Light but rather a flawed and vengeful offspring of the ultimate God and his partner, Wisdom (Sophia). Thomas doesn’t go there, sticking instead to the words of Jesus.

And those words are stunning. Here is a passage from Thomas that Barnstone compares to Walt Whitman:

“I am the light over all things.
I am all.
From me all things have come
And all things have reached me.
Split a piece of wood.
I am there.
Lift up the stone
And you will find me there.”

As we say in Religious Science, God is all there is.

The Gospel of Thomas is, among other things, a great moral work. That puts it in stark contrast to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which Barnstone describes as a work “without moral dimension” (see The Other Bible). It depicts a child Jesus working miracles, but more in the way of sometimes-malicious magic than of healing and life-giving. I view it as a portrait of a child-god not fully aware of how to use his powers, a view seemingly shared by Ann Rice, who borrows these childhood stories in her Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. But at best, the Infancy Gospel is a romantic story, a children’s fairy tale really, with a child magician at its center (Harry Potter fans may love it). Perhaps for that reason, it was never suppressed, although it also never made it into the canon. It remained a popular story from the second century through medieval times.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An Interesting Piece on Death

One of the topics that has interested me in the past several years is quantum physics, and implications that it may have on our "classical" concepts of the world. Relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, multiple universes, string theory, M theory, all are things that I certainly don't fully understand but seem to undermine basic concepts such as time, matter and location in space. I found this article in the Huffington Post interesting; it deals with the subject of death, and whether that is a certainty (no mention of taxes, however. I guess some things are not open to question). I have no idea at all whether it would bear up to scientific scrutiny. However, I enjoyed reading it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


In dealing with beginnings, it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin.
This week, I am preparing to teach about the Nativity. It's a subject with which most people are familiar, at least superficially. Everyone who is in my class Sunday will know about the virgin birth in Bethlehem, heralded by a wondrous star and choirs of angels who led the Magi and the shepherds to the mother and son.
Because they attended my classes earlier this year on the canonical gospels, most of the class may even remember that Nativity stories occur in only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that there are significant differences between those two accounts.
But as always when I lead these sessions, I want to both dig into the text and to look at the larger context.
There are some topics I know I will want to touch on:
  • The canonical accounts. People not overly familiar with the Bible are sometimes surprised to learn that the birth of Jesus is recounted only in Matthew and Luke. John's gospel links the origin of Jesus to the origin of the universe itself in the famous prologue ("In the beginning was the Word ..."). And Mark, generally considered the earliest of the canonical gospels (the gnostic gospel of Thomas may have preceded it) begins, as I often say, like a James Bond movie, with the reader plunged into the middle of the action at the river Jordan, followed rapid-fire by Jesus' desert fast and the early days of his ministry. In Matthew, the most Jewish of the canonical gospels, we begin with a genealogy leading from Abraham through David and down to Jesus, by way of Joseph. Neatly divided into three sets of 14 generations (14 being the numerological sign of David), the genealogy establishes Jesus' royal heritage, although interestingly it passes through his earthly, legal father, who most Christians believe was not his true father. The chronology also serves to position Matthew not as so much a New Testament as a continuation of the Old Testament, genealogy being the common device in the Old Testament to indicate the passage of long periods of time between stories, and Matthew being concerned throughout his gospel with establishing continuity between Jewish history and the story of the Messiah Jesus. Also from Matthew we get many of the familiar images of the Nativity, including the visitation of the Magi, Herod's massacre of the innocents and the holy family's flight to Egypt to avoid that massacre. Reading Matthew, one gets the sense that Mary and Joseph were residents of Bethlehem, not visitors, and that they settled in Nazareth only on their return from Egypt, when Joseph was warned in a vision to avoid Judea. Joseph is the primary vehicle for visions and angelic visits in Matthew's gospel: It is he who is visited by an angel to announce Mary's pregnancy, and he who is warned again to take his wife and her baby to Egypt to escape Herod's impending massacre of their country's children. In Luke, by contrast, Mary is privileged with angelic visitation and offers up the prayer of thanks for her unexpected pregnancy that we have come to know as the Magnificat. Also from Luke we get the story of John the Baptist's birth, the establishment of John as a relative of Jesus, the travel of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the Roman census, the birth of Jesus in a stable because there was no room at the inn, and the appearance of a host of angels to shepherds in the field. In Luke, there are no wise men, no massacre of the innocents, no flight to Egypt, an odd distinction given how important these episodes are in Matthew. The disparities between Matthew's and Luke's Nativity stories have led some to posit that Matthew is a recording of the Nativity as told by Joseph while Luke's account is taken from Mary's recollection. If that is the case, this couple seems not to have communicated much -- a typical marriage, one might say. Jesus' genealogy is recounted in Luke only at the end of the third chapter, where it is given in reverse order as compared to the Hebrew tradition, and takes the family line all the way back to Adam, "who was from God." Like Matthew's genealogy, it carefully takes Jesus' earthly lineage through David and Abraham, but otherwise it differse significantly from Matthew's. Oh, those gentiles, just can't get Jewish concepts right. Sort of like blueberry bagels ...
  • The place of virgin birth and the birth of divinities in the ancient world. While such stories have little to no place in ancient Jewish culture, they were quite a common theme in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Virgin birth, we learn from Marina Warner in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, was "a shorthand symbol, commonly used to designate a man's divinity." Moreover the concept of a child parented by a god and a human was well-known in the ancient world: the god Bacchus, the demigod Hercules and the all-too-human Helen of Troy are among the classical figures said to have been born of an earthly mother and the god Zeus.
  • The legend of Pantera. Evidently a common slander in the early days of Christianity was that Jesus was actually the son of a Roman solider, Pantera or Panthera, who had impregnated Mary before her marriage to Joseph. This story is attributed most famously to Celsus, a Greek philosopher whose work is preserved only in an attack on him by Origen, an early Christian leader. In the 19th century, a Roman tomb of a soldier Pantera, was unearthed in Germany; there is some speculation that this may be the same Pantera who is the subject of the legend, which has recently been revived by James Tabor in his book The Jesus Dynasty.
  • The Immaculate Conception, the feast of which is being celebrated today among Catholics around the world. While not considered canonical by any Christian sect of which I am aware, the Infancy Gospel of James tells a story of Mary's conception and birth that has had an enormous influence on Mariology, the study of Mary. In James' gospel, Mary's parents are identified as Joachim and Anna, a couple who had been married and childless for nearly 50 years. While Joachim, presented as a faithful Jew, is in the desert praying, Anna receives an angelic visitation to inform her that she will give birth. The birth, of course, comes to pass and the child is Mary, whom her parents dedicate to service in the Temple at the age of three. The story of Mary's conception and birth have been accepted in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, despite the fact that their source book has not. Among other things, it has led to the tradition in both churches that Mary was "ever virgin," a concept over which gymnastics have been turned to explain away the fact that in the canonical gospels, Jesus is said to have four brothers and at least two sisters. In the Catholic church, in particular, the tradition has been extended to posit that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, hence, the Immaculate Conception. In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be Catholic dogma, meaning that it is a mandatory belief for Catholics (it was this same pope who some 16 years later declared papal infallibility to be Catholic dogma).
  • The relationship of the story of Joachim and Anna to the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Sarah, and also to that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Hannah's giving over of Samuel after his weaning to service of the priest Eli (see I Samuel 2) is in fact very similar to Joachim and Anna's dedication of Mary to the Temple. The Lucan story of John the Baptist's birth to the aged Elizabeth and Zecharias is also obviously a close relative. Hey, if a story is good, why not re-use it?
  • The Islamic connection. I was not aware until yesterday, when I was doing some research, that the birth of Mary is related in highly respectful terms in Sura 3 of the Koran and thus may also be considered a source of the Immaculate Conception tradition.
  • The childhood of Jesus. This is referenced only glancingly in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and has been a matter of sometimes intense speculation in the ensuing centuries. Infancy gospels were a popular literary form in the early days of Christianity, and several of these are available to us today. In one of the most famous, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas mentioned above) the child Jesus is presented as something of a holy terror. He strikes his playmates dead and then raises them again, he fashions clay swallows and then animates them when a priest accuses him of working on the Sabbath. While never canonical, stories of Jesus' childhood remain popular down to our own day, as evidenced in the writings of Norman Mailer (The Gospel According to the Son) and Ann Rice (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which revives the "holy terror" stories from Thomas).

All of this is interesting, at least to me, but how do I shape it into a coherent lesson? I'll be working within my own context and that of Religious Science, which suggests looking within for the lessons. Essentially, I view the Nativity as a parable of the birth within each of us of the Christ Consciousness, the ability to see and understand our lives and experiences in a way that reflects the extraordinary insight and understanding handed down to us from the words of Jesus. I'll post more as these thoughts come together.