Thursday, 20 September 2012

It's Still the Core Even if it's Disagreed With...

Now someone has discovered a fragment of a Gnostic gospel that says Jesus had a wife. The dating is in the 300s with the language as Egyptian Coptic. To be his wife means also that she is good enough to be his disciple. As April DeConick points out, the Gospel of Philip also states Jesus had a wife. None of this is historical information, but rather represents the community's view of whether the representative of God would have had a sexual union in an eternal coupling. The historical debate has been whether a rabbi would ever be unmarried, in other words that your average, standard rabbi would be married. But there is no historical necessity for this either. So then the question is what Mary Magdalene represents: is she the cook and bottle washer, his girlfriend, a connection to some money to keep the band of brothers going? Well, no one has a clue. As April DeConick says, there is not the information to say he was or he was not married. We get the notion that he was one of the chaps organising the drinks at a big wedding, theologised to tell us what the Kingdom of God would be like. It might be his own wedding, but just as likely not. Would a chap who was believing he might have to suffer to nudge God into bringing in the final hours get himself married?

Bizarrely on the same day as I'm expressing my religious humanism, I'm stuck in a Facebook battle defending the centrality of the proto-orthodox stream with, I think, a Liberal Catholic. I can see that my first response was potentially misleading, but I am confident that the Roman Empire picked up what was the main stream of Christianity that had grown (in opposition) within the main empire whereas something different had developed outside it but still agreed with Nicea - and went off east. Here is the debate:

Jane Harper The underlying message of the apocryphal NT material is that there was no single dogmatic Christianity until Constantine made it the state religion and put muscle behind it... There was money and power attached to it at that time and so the in-group began drawing boundaries around itself to keep the goodies in.

Adrian Worsfold There was a pre-Roman empire proto-orthodoxy, the main channel for Rome to select and reinforce; to see a different Christianity you would have to go outside the Roman Empire and the Nicea but no further form that went from Persia and Afghanistan off to China, but it also died in China and the missionaries planted the Roman stream. Plus, Protestant religion is the Roman version revised

Jane Harper Adrian W., I'm afraid NT scholarship in the last 20-25 years doesn't agree with you. Within the Empire there were many kinds of Christianity next to proto-orthodoxy, in places like Syria and Egypt and Asia Minor.

Adrian Worsfold There's all sorts of Christianity around and about, but there was a main strand and it is represented by the three synoptic gospels. Thomas is a bit strange in its positive historical potential for some sayings. John might have not made it into the canon, but did because although the Gnostic is in there it is resisted. Ones that came later tended to be the other streams. The Jewish Christian faith was essentially lost. But the better, more 'historical' gospels, are the synoptics, and they formed with John the canon. Thus there was a proto-orthodox stream; after all, 1 Thesellonians came first of all and all these Mark onward gospels were Paul affected. And that was proto-orthodox too.

Jane Harper I'm sorry Adrian W., once again your views do not concur with mainstream NT scholarship, which finds no evidence of even proto-orthodoxy until the 4th century.

Adrian Worsfold Mainstream New Testament scholarship? So someone like Larry Hurtado, in Edinburgh, who points to rapid binitarian views, even amongst Jewish Christians, never mind Gentiles, is not advancing a view of proto-orthodoxy? Of course he is - he is saying that there is a stream, that is focused in the synoptics, and in what history is possible, that produced the central stream that became orthodox. This is not just a 'history written by winners' but the history that bends Jesus into a figure of salvation himself. This is not an issue of whether this strand is 'correct' because it is as myth-making as the rest, but whether it is the core and how early it is, nor does it dismiss the existence of other Christianities. The Gnostic stream was always more than Christian, and had its own existence that absorbed the Christian. But the first stream was Pauline, affecting the gospels, and why John was accepted rather than rejected. So what is the 'mainstream NT scholarship' that I am missing?

Adrian Worsfold If you take April DeConick, who writes on Gnostic materials, and says you cannot tell whether Jesus is married or not from the synoptics, she also will accept that these synoptics are the first core gospels - one probably from Rome (Mark) in rough Greek, one more of a Church (Matthew), one Gentile (Luke) and these are core - they are not trinitarian and could have been unitarian or arian compatible, John forcing arian or plus, but they do contain an 'economic' salvation view that makes the Trinity possible. But despite all that, they are the main gospels picked up by the central tradition. I cannot see what the argument is otherwise.

No doubt this debate will roll on, but if you take the books in order, the earliest gospels after the Pauline letters, which have his influence, are those of the main tradition, so despite the variety elsewhere, this was the one the main tradition picked up. Of course the Church reads the material its way, but nevertheless it is also bound by the material. It's not as if Christianity became Gnostic and then suddenly scholars are saying hang on there is earlier material about which we can do some secondary historical sifting. The earlier material about which there can be secondary historical sifting is the main tradition material!

Still, they are as mythological as the rest and we have a different world view now - our guiding narratives are utterly different about cause and effect in the world. Meanwhile I see that my debating opposite fancies having a cartoon with a female superhero that evangelicals would understand but I've said mine would be too sexy and vicious.

I rather fancy the idea myself of Yesha the superheroine cooking fish for 5000 in her frying pan.

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