May 04, 2006 06:55 PM
by Cass Silva
On the heels of all the hoopla about the Gospel of Judas, a Harvard scholar has quietly released one of the first modern studies of a 1,500-year-old document revealing the first comprehensive narrative of Christian theology, cosmology and salvation.
Apocryphon Johannis, ostensibly written by the Apostle John, gives us a glimpse into how early Christians struggled with theories about sin and redemption, the nature of God, and what would happen at the end of the world, says Karen L. King, author of The Secret Revelation of John, published by Harvard University Press.
More important, the apocryphon shows us how mankind has struggled for millenniums over the meaning of religious truth and scripture, and how changeable our answers have been, says Ms. King, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard's Divinity School.
For years, scholars knew of the earliest Christian writers only because later Christian polemicists denounced them as heretics.
Researchers had no means of assessing the writings for themselves as they had no originals.
A German scholar first found the Johannis papyrus in a Cairo antiquities market in 1896, but it was not translated into English until 1995. Meanwhile, three other copies of the manuscript were found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, where a peasant came across a trove of ancient writings later called the gnostic gospels.
It was a turning point in early Christian scholarship.
Although the apocryphon is attributed to John, modern scholars doubt he really wrote it. But then, none of the gospels in the Bible were likely written by the saints they are attributed to, including the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.
Ms. King says the apocryphon is a "richer, fuller text," than the Judas document. "It is the first piece of literature we have that puts together an entirely comprehensive Christian world view."
The apocryphon was most likely written in second-century Alexandria, Egypt, and used among students and religious followers in one of the many nascent groups calling themselves Christian.
They probably attributed it to John to place it in a context of his writings and authority rather than trying to claim him as the original author.
Modern Christians would recognize some of its tenets immediately, as it describes a perfect and transcendent God who loves us deeply and will save us from evil.
But the storyline is strange indeed. The 60-page narrative opens with John leaving the temple downhearted after a Pharisee taunts him that his god has abandoned him. John goes to a mountainous area to think things over when Christ appears to him and explains all.
John hears that a number of divine beings have emanated from the Father, including Pronoia-Barbelo, the mother. From her came Christ, the self-generated saviour, and from him came four divine lights, and from them, eternal aeons.
One of the aeons was Sophia, who wished to produce a likeness of herself, but did not ask the Father's permission. As a result, she produced an evil lion-faced serpent with eyes of fire. This creature is the creator god of Genesis, and is arrogant and ignorant.
The story continues in a tug of war between good and evil on earth, but Christ reveals that all who renounce sin will be saved.
The second-century Christian polemicist Irenaeus denounced the document as heresy, but for Ms. King, the Biblical accuracy of the document is not the point. She said in an online discussion at the Chronicle of Higher Education website yesterday: "It is about understanding the dynamics by which early Christian discourses of orthodoxy and heresy have shaped the master narrative of Christian origins and, by implication, contemporary Western discourses of religious identity.
"If we were to make a list of the issues most hotly debated by the early Christians, we would see that they are very much still the issues being debated today: the reality of the resurrection, the meaning of Jesus' death, the interpretation of his teachings, the roles of women and slaves, sexuality and the body, suffering and evil, relation to Judaism, unjust political power, and so forth. Christians have been grappling with these issues for centuries."
She said in an interview later: "Just the fact that there are these alternative voices allows people to understand the formation of Christianity as a process."
"We're already reading (the Bible) through interpretive lenses of Christian theology for the last 2,000 years."
It spurs people to ask their own questions. We may not accept the apocryphon's loutish god in Genesis, but we might wonder why the God of our Bible did not want us to know the difference between good and evil and whether the apple was a metaphor for a larger sin. Could He really have been that upset over a piece of fruit?
Ms. King said, "I think there is a desire to know the truth. People feel that they've been lied to, or at least they haven't got the story right. I was raised believing Magdalene was a prostitute. There is not a shred of evidence for that. It makes people wonder what else is true or not true."
She said that, in the early days of Christianity, "there was a lot of diversity but it was not a problem until somebody decided they were going to be in charge. Unity meant uniformity."
Today, there are still widespread claims that religious truth is fixed and unchanging, but she said: "History poses very serious challenges to those claiming that kind of authority. If people examine the new texts for themselves, they will see that Christianity has been as much about seeking as finding.
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